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Race Day Psychology

Round 4 of the Schwalbe UK National Cross Country Mountain Bike Series didn't come at the best time for me. My main focus recently has been base training to maintain condition for the latter half of the year and also preparing to race the Enduro World Series in the Tweed Valley next week. To be completely blunt, I wasn't motivated for a weekend away racing XC. But the National XC Series is a goal of mine and I want to compete for my best possible overall series finish.

On race day I was beginning to feel more motivated, but my mindset was still negative. My unconscious way of thinking was to see the bad rather than the good. I was struggling to get excited about the course, and I was anxious and nervous. The fastest riders were back racing after their trips to Europe for World Cup races, as well as returning fast riders lining up behind me on the grid in Phil Pearce and Chris McGlinchy. In round 3 my goal was the podium, but in this round, I would have to race smart and fight hard to finish in the top 10. With the fast, flat out nature of the course, any mistakes would be punished, and there was a lot of opportunity for errors in the tight and twisty singletrack.

I want to share two things that helped me switch from negative to positive.

The first was a conversation I had with Daniel Moore, an Expert category rider I used to race with when I was in the U16 category. We were talking about the race and how we would approach it, and he shared a conversation he had with his coach. They reflected on current professional racers' tactics from a recent XCO World Cup, and their places in the hierarchy.

In competition you have proven winners, and riders with podium potential. It is often the case that a nervous rider with podium potential can over-commit in the early stages of the race, and actually cause themselves to 'blow' and lose places as the race progresses, hindering their finishing position. Being able to accept that it's not your job to take the race on from the start can really help you focus on your own performance, and set your own race plan. We both reflected on our place in the heirarchy, and we're not proven winners at this level. This helped me set my mind on being relatively conservative in the first lap before pushing on in the second. It helped me focus on positive actions, controlling the controlables, and not worrying about things out of my control.

The second thing that really helped me was that while I prepared I listened to this podcast. The Blindboy Podcast is one of a few non-cycling podcasts I listen to, and in this one, Blindboy speaks with Irish Rugby Union star Keith Earls and Psychologist Dr Declan Aherne. They talk about the similarities of pressure in sports and art, imposter syndrome and insecurity, as well as common mental challenges faced in life. I found that listening to this while I prepared my bike and nutrition helped me stay calm and relaxed.

At one point, Blindboy and Keith Earls talked about the yips. The yips is a term used when skilled sports people can't perform simple techniques under pressure. For example, Earls talked about times when he has dropped the ball in a game yet he could have caught it in one hand in training. It can often be put down to a feeling of self-doubt, and not being in the present moment. It's really common, even among the best sportspeople around.

This season I've had a few bad starts - it's just taken me too long to clip into my pedal. It happened in rounds 1 and 3, and also when I was racing in Portugal. In round 3 it was so bad that I was in last place going into the first corner. The start at Cannock was important, as soon after we entered a long singletrack section without any overtaking opportunities. Given my starts this year I was feeling anxious, as a bad start would mean I'd lose ground on the top 10 riders and it would be a lot of work to move back up the field.

While I was listening to this part of the podcast I rode to a quiet area and practised my starts. My goal was to clip in on the first pedal stroke. My first attempt was bad. I wasn't moving my foot far enough forwards on the pedal and the cleat wasn't engaging. With this in mind, I did it again, and I was mindful that I needed to move my foot further forwards. I clipped in perfectly.

I did around 8 or 9 starts like this, only practising the first two pedal strokes with minimal effort, and starting with one foot on the ground as I would in a race. They weren't all perfect, but I was much more confident and felt like I was consistent. I also now knew what I had been doing wrong in the previous races. I went back to the van, finished the podcast and then went to warm up. When it came to lining up for the start of the race I had managed to steer my mindset from negative to positive. I had a game plan and I felt confident in my ability to execute it. My start was perfect and I entered the first turn in 10th place. The pace was fast and relentless and at the end of lap 1 I was in the front group with the leaders.

Halfway around lap 2 the splits started, with Charlie Aldridge, Cammy Mason, Cam Orr and Rory McGuire moving clear. I was close to my limit and followed in the group, saving some energy for the second half of the race. The remainder of the race was tactical and time gaps were tight. I was locked in a close race for 8th with Isaac Mundy and Chris McGlinchy of Spectra Wiggle p/b Vitus. We were chasing Joe Blackmore and Corran Carrick-Anderson only a handful of seconds ahead, while being chased by Phil Pearce, Ben Chilton and Grant Ferguson behind. With two laps to go, we had the added challenge of passing lapped riders and I had to close some gaps to Isaac. We were locked together until the finish when he outsprinted me for 8th place.

I finished that race in 9th, scoring more UCI points and feeling satisfied and spent. I raced smart and I think the result is something I can be happy with. There were times when I could have risked more, and pushed a little harder, but the risk v reward on a day when I was mentally fragile didn't add up.

Next up is the Tweed Valley EWS kicking off on Wednesday with the EWS-E practice day and I can't wait to get racing.

'til next time,



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