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Association of British Cycling Coaches

Module 5

Mind over Matter: The psychology behind successful cycling

Module 5 featured image

Cover image courtesy of Richard Owens

Module 5 Mind over Matter: The psychology behind successful cycling


The aim of this module is to highlight some key elements associated with the psychology of cycling for optimal performance.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this module you will be able to:

  1. Define the key concepts associated with sport psychology including: self-concept, anxiety and arousal, visualisation, competition strategy and mood words;
  2. Understand how the concepts can be applied in a cycling environment for a positive outcome;
  3. Understand the importance of the coach athlete relationship;
  4. Use goal-setting as tool for optimal performance;
  5. Clarify the role of the coach in preparing the athlete mentally for competition.

Module Content

“The spirit within nourishes, and mind instilled throughout the living parts activates the whole mass and mingles with the vast frame” – Virgil The role of the mind in sport is often so obvious that we take it for granted. Extensive work has been carried out into the physiology of the cyclist, and while this is no less valid we often seem to overlook our primary motivations. There are strong links between self-concept and physical ability. A proper understanding of self-concept and how it may be improved is vitally important in the coach-athlete relationship. We shall consider three aspects:

* Self-Concept: what it is, and the evidence for a link between self-concept and physical ability;
* Practical measures for overcoming self doubt
* The Coach-Athlete relationship

Self-Concept and its Link to Physical Ability

We all accept that how we think of ourselves will affect our behaviour, attitudes and performance. We know ourselves how, when criticised, it is difficult not to internalise what has been said of us, and how such comments affect our feelings of well-being. We may find it easy to discount another person’s opinion on a third party or event; but when we ourselves as individuals are the subject of a personal opinion, then we find it far more difficult to dismiss, and our mood can change alarmingly as a consequence. This is because initially one of our only ways of assessing our behaviour, our perception of our self-worth, our place in society – in short, our self-concept, is through how we think other people see us. That information which is so often given too freely is invaluable, and owing to its importance (and the added variable of the great significance of the coach athlete relationship) we must measure and evaluate before we as coaches give our views or opinions to those in our charge.

Self-concept is a person’s perception of him/herself (Shavelson, Hubner and Stanton 1976): ‘These perceptions are formed through experience with, and interpretations of, one’s environment. They are especially influenced by evaluations by significant others, reinforcements, and attributions for one’s own behaviour and accomplishments (e.g. whether a win is attributed to ability or luck). An example of reinforcement might be proof of an initial criticism, as when a person who is told ‘you’re clumsy’ then knocks over an expensive vase, reinforcing that person’s notion that he/she is indeed clumsy. Studies have shown a link between self-concept and physical ability. Marsh and Peart (1988) demonstrated that physical fitness was substantially related to Physical Ability self-concept, and modestly related to Physical Appearance self-concept. Using data from the Australian Health and Fitness Survey Marsh (1993) again found that physical self concept was significantly correlated to a variety of components of physical fitness. The studies all clearly show the essential contribution that self-concept has in the development and maintenance of physical ability. Marsh and Peart also demonstrated that young athletes who are ‘stars’ in their local divisions may experience a decline in their physical self-concept when they join a larger elite national team. This must be taken into consideration when we place athletes on the National Squad.

Section 1

Practical Measures for overcoming Self-Doubt

Self-doubt is very common among sportspersons. It is pervasive and debilitating and has negative effects on behaviour. There is a number of ways in which you can improve a person’s concept of him/ herself. Improving self-concept eradicates self-doubt automatically. The underlying message is the need for positive reaction and the futility of negative assessment by both coach and athlete.

Positive Feedback

Tell the athlete what other people or coaches have said about the him/her. Giving them the opinion of other people may make what you are saying seem more objective, taking away the danger that if the coach expresses his own opinion, then the athlete may respond by saying ‘you’re just saying that’. Belief is transmitted by your positive reaction. Confidence and patience, positive aspects, should be outlined especially when there is any need for constructive criticism. Share these positive statements with the athlete if you think they are an accurate assessment of the athlete. While recognising the great value of positive reinforcement it should be recognised that false flattery is counter-productive. Positive comments should be based on an accurate assessment of an athlete’s ability: any form of dishonesty could lead to a lack of trust.

Don’t ‘don’t’!

If you were to be told ‘Don’t think of an egg!’ the first thing you would do would be to think of an egg. So what happens when we say to an athlete ‘Don’t be anxious’? The athlete will immediately suppose there is something to be anxious about. It is of far greater benefit tell the athlete what it is you want them to achieve. Always try to express yourself in positive terms: instead of ‘don’t be anxious’, say ‘be calm, relax’. Ask them to visualise the words ‘calm’ and ‘relax’.


Try to transmit whatever message you are trying to convey in an appropriate manner. People are very skilful at sensing negative tone and inclination in the voice. As Terry Orlick says in Psyching for Sport: ‘The manner of transmitting the message is being carefully read. Speed of talk, tone of voice, and projection of excitation or worry are all important.’

Power Words

Try this simple technique with anyone who needs help in improving an aspect of their performance. We internalise opinions about ourselves in sentences, and how these sentences are phrased can determine the strength of these messages in terms of their ability to alter our self-concept. Our subconscious only believes what it hears, not what is true. The first step in the Power Word exercise is to ask the athlete to write down and finish the following sentences:

‘It’s difficult for me to . . .’
‘I hope that . . . ‘
‘If I . . ., then . . . ‘
‘I am going to try to . . . ‘
‘I can’t . . .’

Certain words are destructive, and some are empowering. Words that are destructive imply a feeling of no control, whereas empowering words put a situation into the realm of choice (‘I won’t’ instead of ‘I can’t’, for instance). Work with the athlete to change these sentences in order to realise a new way of looking at the problem and instilling a feeling of power over the situation by replacing the words above by a new set of words:


‘It’s difficult for me to
‘I hope that . . . ’
‘If I . . ., then . . . ’
‘I am going to try to . . . ’
‘I can’t . . .’


It’s a challenge for me to
‘I trust that . . .’
‘When I . . ., then . ..’
‘I’m going to . . .’
‘I won’t . . .’

Section 2

The setting of realistic goals

Often the discrepancy between realistic and desired goals can lead to a feeling of failure. Not living up to expectations can have a devastating effect upon a person’s self-concept. Therefore it is essential that any goals that are set are obtainable, and that any long-term goals are punctuated with short-term goals that act as steps towards an ultimate aim.

The Coach-Athlete Relationship

Chris Boardman and Peter Keen

Chris Boardman and Peter Keen

There is a number of similarities between the relationship between parent and child, and the relationship between coach and athlete. The coach has a very powerful influence over his/her charge. The young, dedicated cyclist will listen intently and believe totally the advice given by an experienced and respected coach in much the same way as parents are believed unconditionally by their children. Coopersmith looked at the characteristics displayed by parents of children who were rated as having high self-esteem. It can be instructive to apply to the close relationship between coach and athlete some of the following characteristics which Coopersmith found were common among the parents of children with high self-esteem:

  • an acceptance of the child’s autonomy
  • firm management (yet freedom within defined limits)
  • clear and firmly-enforced rules
  • predictable and structured social environment
  • display of behaviour seen to be fair and consistent
  • high expectations of children – but also provided sound role models for them, and gave consistent encouragement and support

It is not suggested that a coach’s influence on an athlete’s development is as great as that of a child’s parent, but we may be able to draw upon this re- search to look at the factors which contribute to high self-esteem.

Schutz formulated three types of behaviour which people have a need to express and receive in their relationship with others. These are Inclusion, Control and Affection. People react badly to feeling shut out. If a coach makes favourites, other members of the team or group will feel excluded. Control implies firm management, but freedom within clearly defined limits. And everyone wants to be liked. Regarding compatibility of needs and behaviour between people, compatibility may be said to exist if the behaviour expressed by one person is congruent with what the other person wants to receive. Carron and Bennett found that it was the degree of inclusion which is given by the coach which most commonly determined the degree of compatibility between a coach and an athlete.

Horne and Carron (1985) stress the importance of interaction as a main factor in the relationship between coach and athlete. The athlete should not be treated as a virtual non-participant in the relation-ship. The needs, involvements and contributions of both are essential. In their extensive study, in which athletes were asked to rate their coaches on a range of scales, Horne and Carron found that it was often the training and instruction behaviour which gave rise to the greatest amount of satisfaction. Athletes appreciated a greater level of instruction and responded positively when coaches made the decisions, as long as these were carried out in a fair manner.

Goal Setting

Athletes in all sports can now enjoy the same training programmes and diet. When, in terms of physiological responses, all athletes are equal, there will remain only one area in which the difference can be made: that of the mind. It’s not surprising therefore that sport psychology is a growth area. Nations are sending increasing numbers of sport psychologists to international meetings, and they are employed by most professional sports teams. Despite the rapid growth of Sport Psychology during the last 20 years only a very little of this huge area has been covered as yet, and many areas of interest remain virtually unexplored.

At the moment probably the most useful headings under which to begin looking at sport psychology are:

Goal setting
General Concentration
Positive thinking
Coping with anxiety
Why the mind affects the body
Preparation for competition

Section 3

The purpose of this article is to look at goal-setting

Goal-setting is probably the most researched and used technique in sports psychology. It is primarily a motivation tool, but may also be used as a technique for building self-confidence, enhancing technique, and managing time and other resources. Many coaches see goal-setting as the most important psychological technique for athletes to develop, but most would agree that few athletes make maximum use of it. The most common experience is that goals are not specific enough. A goal provides a focus, allowing the athlete to direct limited time and energy into the most productive activities. Without goals there is little point in training and preparation.

Why set goals?

Most of us have at some time or other made out a list of ‘things to do’, and we are therefore aware of how this list sharpens our focus, helps us to prioritise more and less important items, and enables us to work more efficiently.

Goals provide motivation. If you start the season with the intention of winning the sprint championship you are strongly motivated.

Goals provide direction. by helping us eliminate dis- tractions and focus on what is important. For instance, a rider who is a good pursuiter but an equally good road rider might decide to concentrate on the road because it provides a better chance of selection for the world championships.

Goals produce better results. There is abundant evidence that effective goal-setting can enhance performance. Goals can increase an athlete’s sense of control, raise self-esteem, and help them to focus on key elements under competitive conditions.

Principles of Goal Setting


The acronym SMART has gained currency as a useful way of remembering basic principles when evaluating goals. SMART closely fits the principles outlined above. Goals should be


Specific: identify the target area as precisely as possible

Goals must be specific. David Niven used to tell a story of the film director Michael Curtiz who repeatedly cut an apparently simple scene but without giving any instruction to the actors. When Niven finally asked, ‘But what do you want me to do?’ Curtiz replied, ‘Be better!’ For an athlete this kind of answer isn’t enough. A rider who sets as a goal, ‘This season I will improve’ is likely to achieve nothing.


Any goal you set should be capable of being measured in some way, preferably against objective criteria. Specific goals will be capable of measurement; vague goals are by definition difficult or impossible to measure. Good coaches regularly tell athletes how they are performing. This may include information from physiological (e.g. ramp or FTP) tests, comments on attitude, reports on competition performance, and so on. This is one of the most important aspects of coaching, and can only be properly effective if the goals are measurable in the first place.

Adjustable: be flexible

In the real world circumstances change constantly. As a result goals set (as they should be) well beforehand can become too easy or too difficult. Injury might make it inappropriate to achieve an intended goal by the deadline originally set. On the other hand, if the rider makes better progress than previously envisaged, the goal may be made more demanding. Goal-setting is a dynamic process: the coach must be ready to discuss alternative goals with the rider. Neither coach nor athlete should be afraid of doing this if circumstances change.

Realistic: challenging but achievable

Goals which are difficult or challenging lead to the best performance; if they are moderate or easy, then the outcomes are likely to be mediocre. On the other hand a goal must not be so challenging that it can never be achieved. It is difficult for the coach to find the balance between a target which the athlete thinks is easy, and one on which he/she gives up because it’s beyond the athlete’s perceived level of ability. It will depend to a great extent on the coach’s knowledge of the athletes’ confidence: goals might be made harder for the more confident, easier for the less confident. A general rule would be to set goals that are sufficiently beyond the athlete’s present ability in order to make him/ her work hard and persist in reaching the goal over the set period of time.

It is a bad principle to make a goal dependent on another athlete’s performance. A rider who sets out ‘to beat my nearest rival next season’ may set personal best times but still fail in the aim.

Time-based: set short-term goals with deadlines

Athletes are more likely to achieve long-term goals when they are divided or broken down into a series of short-term goals. Athletes can be encouraged to set major goals (making the top ten in the National Championship 25), and then shown how to set sub-goals which act as stepping stones.

Additional factor: Set goals together

When coaches and athletes set goals together, the athlete’s commitment towards the chosen goals is likely to be higher. An athlete who doesn’t agree with the targets set may not be strongly motivated towards achieving the goals.

Write goals down, and set priorities

The goal-setting process is made more effective by documenting the plan, deciding on priorities, and setting clear time frames. Making your goals public means you can’t hide from them. The athlete should be encouraged to record goals in a diary: this encourages regular progress monitoring.

Section 4

A goal-setting programme

In accordance with the principles outlined above, the coach and the athlete should work through the process together. Breaking this process down into a number of stages or steps is suggested:

  1. Develop a list of possible goals.
  2. Select priorities and time-lines.
  3. Assess the current position.
  4. Set sub-goals.
  5. Programme the goals.
  6. Create action.
  7. Monitor and modify the goals and behaviour.


Aim at developing a broad list of possible goals. The coach may need to encourage the athlete to expand his/her expectations about what might be possible. Questions which may be useful include:

What do you want most to achieve in your sport?

What do you enjoy most about taking part in your sport?

Looking back at the end of your career, what would you like to have achieved?

The aim is to give the athlete time to consider the full range of available options. It is therefore important to draw out key goals from other areas of his/her life. Athletes will most often select achievement-type goals. But it is also important to consider things like recognition, friendship and team relationships, enjoyment of the sport for its own sake because often it is these elements which keep athletes in the sport.

Selecting priorities and a time-scale

Work through the list rating each goal on the following system:
A — most important goals
B — important goals
C — fairly important goals
D — not important goals
E — goals of no interest

Assess current position

To achieve the most important goals it is likely that the athlete will need to improve in the areas of skill, psychology, and physiology. He/she therefore needs to establish his/her current level of capacity; this may be done, for instance, by drawing up together a list of key skills, psychological and physiological capacities required for the sport. The list might be drawn up under headings such as Skills, Physiological Capacity, Psychological Capacity. Where elements are measurable (VO2 max, body fat, endurance) it may be necessary to make tests, for instance on a turbo trainer or similar equipment. Other elements could be rated on a scale of 1 to 10, assuming that a score of ten is the level required to reach the current goal.

Set sub-goals

Athletes are often inclined to focus on the major goal, (selection for the Olympic Games) which may lead to disappointment and frustration. It is better to divide the approach into smaller, more manageable steps. Sub-goals provide a more immediate focus and can help athletes through some of the more difficult stages of training. Thus a particular part of training now may be only part of the process of achieving a major goal months or even years ahead.

Programme the goals

This means making them an integral part of the over-all training and competition programme, which will be goal-orientated. It’s the coach’s responsibility to set up the system, to review the goals, and to discuss progress regularly with the athlete.

Create action

Planning without action is a waste of time and energy. The coach should be aware that time spent on planning can ensure that the athlete is doing the right things, and doing things right. It is important not to fall into the trap of making the goal-setting process an intellectual exercise: the aim is to produce action in a certain direction. The coach can assist in this aim by encouraging the athlete to select up to three action plans to go with any selected goal (Figure 1).

Figure1: Goal with related action plans

Ride a 25-mile time-trial inside 55 minutes.
Immediate action plans.
Ride a 10-mile time-trial every Tuesday.
Do 40 minutes interval work every Thursday.
Practise visualisation every night this week.

Monitor and modify the goals and behaviour

Regular checks on progress are essential, and are best done as an integral part of the programme. Athletes should be encouraged to keep a diary or journal, as an aid to reviewing goals before and after training and competition. Don’t forget that it’s as important to review what happened not only when a goal was not achieved, but also when it was successfully attained. It’s a commonplace to tell sportsmen that ‘every time you lose you learn something’, but most sportsmen find that they learn far more the first time they win.

Section 5

Outcome or Process?

Many athletes and coaches still focus primarily on the goal ‘to win’, rather than on the performance processes which might allow this to be achieved. This is called an ‘outcome goal’. It is understandable that many coaches and athletes may have rigid views about how goals should be used – outcome goals are the basis on which they are selected and rewarded; but a problem with outcome goals is that they depend on the performance of others and are not wholly controlled by the athlete.

Process goals are generally within the athlete’s control. Aiming to beat your personal best, or a particular time, is a process goal. But process goals can positively enhance performance in competition. Such goals might include aspects of technique, applying certain strategies, and maintaining concentration. The skill of the coach is in helping athletes to focus on those aspects of their performance which are most likely to achieve the result they want. One way might be to ask them to identify two or three aspects of the performance which is in their control, and which will give them the best chance of winning (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Developing process goals, from an outcome goal

What is your goal for this criterium championship?
What do you think? To win of course. what are the two most important things for you to focus on to give yourself the best chance of winning?
Stay upfront in the first 10 places throughout the even and nor to lose time through the fast corners.

It may well be that the rider will perform at a consistently higher level by maintaining focus on the processes (which are under his/her control), rather than on winning, which depends very much on the performances of other riders. This is not to say, of course, that outcome goals should always be avoided.

Goals for training

For training sessions to be really effective athletes need to know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re doing. This is relatively easy for track coaches, very difficult for road coaches unless, as with professional teams, they can accompany the rider or squad on rides. However, coaches could consider asking the following sample questions:

What goals are you working towards in this session?
How are you doing at the moment?
How do you know?
What are you doing to improve?

The road coach is more likely to rely on the rider’s training diary. The chosen format should create a record of the rider’s experiences, and of goals set and achieved. Properly maintained such a diary can be an invaluable way of storing information on how a problem was solved, or a particular event prepared for. Goal setting is by no means new, but it has been shown that, properly applied, it can produce maximum results. Coaches need to work with athletes in developing a goal-setting programme in which targets should be both long-term and short-term, a challenging major target and a series of sub-goals, stepping-stones. Goals also need to be set for other areas of the athlete’s life, and priorities sorted out. To be effective goal-setting should be an integral part of the athlete’s total programme. It is likely that the most consistent competitive performances will take place when the athlete has developed the capacity to focus on the process rather than the outcome.

Arousal and Anxiety

There have been greater riders, but there has been no greater champion than Louison Bobet, winner of three consecutive Tours, of half-a-dozen classics, national championship, and a world title. From his first successes at a national level the French sporting public idolised him: the downside of being idolised, of course, is that your worshippers are never satisfied with anything less than perfection, and when Bobet failed to live up to his early promise the French press savaged him. In addition Bobet had an inordinately high level of self-esteem even for a Breton, and felt he always had to live up to the standards he had set for himself. He too was a perfectionist – someone who has trouble discriminating between realistic and idealised standards. Thus he not only had to cope with the normal external pressure that any sporting superstar may expect, he put tremendous pressure on himself. Like most perfectionists he was rarely satisfied with his performance, anticipated failure, and yet hated losing. He therefore tended to be highly anxious. Bobet was never along just for the ride, and lived constantly on his nerves. The days leading up to a race could be very unpleasant for those around him, and, presumably, for himself as well.

Later his brother Jean would recall: ‘Up until Thursday he was very difficult to live with; after Thursday he was impossible.’ Most of us would feel that this is no way to live: you have to tell yourself that you can’t win them all, that at times you have to be satisfied with a respectable performance rather than sheer brilliance. Nowadays the team sports psychologist might be called in to help Bobet with stress management, and to achieve a better balance.

Arousal and Anxiety

Sport psychologists used to distinguish between arousal and anxiety. Arousal is that necessary condition where we feel that we want to ride this event, are really looking forward to it, and that we’ll do the best we can. This necessary lift in intensity required for successful performance may also be referred to as ‘competitive anxiety’, and at its optimal level is seen as making a positive contribution. We have to feel some ‘edge’ in order to perform at our best – it’s no good being relaxed to the point of being comatose. We all know that the day we don’t feel butterflies is the day when we ride below our best.

In recent years arousal has been studied largely as a physiological response, ranging from sleep at one end to high excitement at the other. However, it has important effects on thought processes and emotions, some of them positive (excitement, happiness), and others negative (fear, embarrassment), though these may not correlate with physiological responses. It’s possible, for instance, that when arousal is high it influences the motor centre of the brain so that more muscle fibres are recruited, with the result that each individual fibre has less work to do and can obtain more of its energy from aerobic metabolism.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is generally regarded as a negative characteristic. It can get so high that our judgement is impaired, and our results are less than we could have hoped for. You’re over-conscious of your weaknesses, you worry excessively about the opposition, you bite everyone’s head off, your fingers are all thumbs when you’re assembling your bike, you just know that your teammates are going to sneer at you when you get shelled out, and you feel that the butterflies aren’t just flitting happily around in there, they’re wearing Doc Martens and kicking you in the groin.

It’s important to recognise that perfection is impossible, and that putting in your best effort is more important than winning; not to worry about letting other people down because their expectations of you are so high; and above all to recognise that you’re doing this because you enjoy it, this is sport (not war, for instance). Even if you know that your preparation is below its normal level, you’re going to get in a good training ride as part of your build-up for the weeks ahead, and you’ll be in the action as much as you can.

Athletes have hopes and dreams about how successful they will be. Successful competitors expect to be successful in future. These expectations can be a source of anxiety, especially if they are unrealistic. Athletes have different ways of coping with stressful situations: it was often apparent that John McEnroe’s coping strategies did not necessarily result in a poor performance, though responses which distract the competitor from the immediate demands of the task will normally impair performance. Generally, ignoring or discounting the stressful incident is more effective than attending to it by arguing or focusing on the error. This is an interesting area where more research is called for.

Some athletes have a natural tendency to become excessively anxious. They should not deny or ignore this tendency, but acknowledge it and take necessary precautions. Previous experiences of success or failure can trigger anxiety. Some people may prefer failure to success in order to avoid the consequences that success may bring. On the other hand many athletes fear failure; often this fear is tied to the person’s equation of sporting success with self-esteem. Those who derive their self-esteem mainly from success in sport are more likely to fear defeat.

What research there has been in the area tends to confirm that athletes with high self-confidence are less likely to become anxious than those with low self-confidence. Martin and Gill (1961) concluded that ‘low self-confidence, high anxiety, and ultimately, poor performances are often noted in athletes who hold unrealistic outcome goals. In contrast, athletes who are more concerned with performing well in their sport appear more self-confident and less anxious and may perform closer to their potential’. Confidence-building is therefore likely to reduce damaging anxiety.

Section 6

Coaching techniques for managing rider anxiety

The coach should be in a better position than most other people to help athletes manage their anxiety. Some, however, habitually use wrong strategies which only increase anxiety. These include: communicating unrealistic goals and expectations; teaching new skills or changing the game plan immediately before the contest; reminding the athlete about how important it is to win; inappropriate or poorly timed comments or sarcasm; criticising the rider personally, rather than the performance.

However, it is also sometimes necessary to increase anxiety. If the rider seems altogether too laid back, is taking the opposition too lightly, not following directions and instructions, then it may be appropriate to remind him/her that poor performance outcomes, both individual and team, may be the result. Athletes must feel some degree of danger or threat at the competition in order to achieve the optimal level of arousal. The coach’s role is not always to eliminate anxiety, but rather to help the athlete manage it.

Techniques for Coaches

Be realistic

Perceiving that others have very high expectations of their performance is one of the principal causes of athlete anxiety. It is one thing to encourage the athlete to expect success and to feel self-confident, but the athlete must feel that the coach is not demanding perfection and will accept his/her best effort: ‘All I can ask is that you do your best’.

Have fun

In the pre-race talk, reminding the riders to enjoy themselves is a very effective strategy, especially if the opposition is perceived as superior. Sport is (no, really!) supposed to be fun, and often athletes will respond by performing at their best.

Avoid the W-I-N word

Focusing on outcomes (‘We’re here to win’) does not help athletes to feel in control of the situation. Emphasising the importance of winning may induce anxiety and bring about the opposite effect. It’s better to put the stress on effort, remind the athletes of their excellent preparation and advantages.

Teach skills, provide feedback

Skill training has a relatively low priority in road-racing, but is more important in cyclo-cross and track racing. Improving skilled performance, and providing the athletes with regular feedback on their improvement, is fundamental to the work of the coach.

Use actual race simulations in training

This is relatively difficult for the road-racing coach, even though the riders themselves may habitually train in race style – the mid-week chain-gang, for instance. It’s easier for the track coach who can control things from the centre. Asking the riders to perform new skills/tactics/strategies that are completely unfamiliar is very anxiety-inducing.

Remember injured athletes

Injured athletes may feel guilt in letting down the team or disappointing people with high expectations of their performance. The coach should keep in regular touch with any athlete side-lined through illness or injury.

Keep things in perspective

Coaches need to remind competitors that winning is not the only indicator of success. They should emphasise instead the value of high effort and performance improvement. Coaches will help to reduce anxiety by making it clear that sport is an enjoyable and healthy activity, not a win-at-any-cost matter. Paradoxically, they are likely to find that this is often the way to improved performance as well.

Anxiety and self doubt

‘Up until Thursday he was difficult to live with: after Thursday he was impossible’: Louison Bobet’s morale was notoriously fragile, and throughout his career he was prone to self-doubt.

Section 7

Visualisation and Imagery

‘Imagery’ is a general term, embracing a range of forms of mental preparation. These may include ‘mental rehearsal’, ‘visualisation’, ‘imaginal practice’, and others. The problem is that some of these may exclude some approaches: ‘visualisation’, for instance, may convey the idea that only the sense of sight is involved. Imagery, on the other hand, is considered by psychologists, to include all the senses.

Imagery rehearsal is attractive as a form of sports preparation partly because we are familiar with day dreaming, and with mentally preparing ourselves for future action – how we will give someone bad news, for instance. Another appealing aspect of imagery rehearsal is that it is an extremely versatile technique that can be used in a wide range of situations.

Mental rehearsal is in essence a fairly simple method to understand and use. It has been described as ‘a programming of the mind’, and this is a reasonably accurate description. A time-triallist can mentally ride through the whole event (one reason why it’s important to know the course), feeling the effort, seeing the road and scenery, hearing sounds, smelling smells. The idea is to give the brain cells practice in following the neural pathways that they will follow in the actual competition. The more detail the rider can put into the visualisation the more the brain and body will learn. Visualisation can thus be a means of focusing, and of improving concentration.

Mental rehearsal as a preview of the event can be useful where the rider does not know exactly what the opponent will do, e.g. road and track racing, especially match sprinting.

Mental rehearsal is often a good technique for athletes who become involved in patterns of emotions, both negative and positive, before competitions. Mental rehearsal, well performed, often leads to positive emotions, especially confidence. Imagery can be used to learn or improve skills. Its uses are fairly obvious in sports like tennis, or cricket. While they are not so obvious in cycle sport, which is primarily athletic rather than skill-based, imagery for skill-learning may be useful for cyclo- cross or track riders. At the elite level, learning new skills is not needed often, but there are many occasions when practising skills is valuable in keeping them well tuned. One example might be during overseas trips, when many hours might be spent on a plane or coach, with no opportunity to practise. Another example would be when a performer is injured and cannot practise physically. Again, the uses in cycle sport are perhaps fairly limited.

Strategy learning. Teams develop new strategies to combat particular aspects of the play of specific opposition or just to keep opponents guessing. This might be particularly useful in stage racing.

Review. After performance, imagery can be used to ‘replay’ the whole performance or a part of it. Riders might ‘fast forward’ through the relatively uninteresting phases of a road race, and then examine critical parts (the point at which a key break went, a sprint finish) in slow motion, as if watching a video of the event. Review imagery should emphasise positive aspects of performance, but should also take into account negative aspects. Detecting weaknesses and errors should help future performance. Because positive and negative emotions are often aroused by performance and outcome, it is usually recommended that review be left until a few hours after the event, when a more objective assessment can be made.

Stress management. Imagining a relaxing scene can generate feelings of relaxation. Imagery of the scene would be practised at home first, then before training and, once the performer felt comfortable with it, before a competition. Where the anxiety is cognitive, not producing bodily reactions, but raising self-doubts about performance, imaging a scenario where the person is coping with the performance situation effectively might help reduce the anxiety.

Recovering from injury or heavy training. Imagery can be employed to facilitate physical recovery from injury, and the same process can be applied to the soreness associated with heavy training. Physically, greater blood flow to an injured area, as well as warmth in the locality of damaged tissue promote recovery. It has been shown that imagery of increased blood flow and warmth can lead to measurable increases in an area as specific as a finger (Blakeslee, 1980). After heavy training, with weights or on the track, a sprinter might use the same imagery but would systematically image every major muscle group for one minute or focus on the sorest muscles.

Use of imagery during recovery from injury is often valuable in more than one way. Not only can it facilitate recovery, it can also relieve some of the stress of being injured by giving the athlete something constructive to do. In the following illustration imagery not only occupies the rider and thus reduces the stress of being injured, but also rebuilds confidence after a crash involving no other riders or vehicles.

  • During rehabilitation, the rider imagines the conditions surrounding the crash: thoughts, emotions, environment, situation, and so on. With this heightened awareness, the rider may understand personal responsibility for the outcome, allowing the rider to learn how the crash situation should be avoided in the future.
  • The rider uses this information to image being on the bike again in the same situation, but at a slower speed and under greater control. As the rider becomes comfortable with this step, the rate of speed is systematically increased and so is the degree of difficulty associated with the situation. The important point here is that the rider must always feel in control of the bike and situation, even though his/her abilities are being tested. If the rider starts to feel that control is being lost, it is simply a matter of leaving the scene for a moment, and gaining control of thoughts and emotions before returning to the bike.
  • Once the rider is physically ready to return to the bike, the risk level must be systematically increased in proportion to confidence level. The rider must continue to use imagery at a slightly increased level of risk than is actually being taken in physical training on the bike. This will expedite the recovery time, because the imagery will prepare the rider for the next level while reducing the amount of anxiety associated with the memory of the crash.

This brief survey of imagery is by no means comprehensive; in fact the limits of uses of imagery are probably reflected in the limits of the imaginations of athetes, coaches and sport psychologists.

Section 8


Bernard Hinault

Bernard Hinault

Mood Words

Throughout a performance it is necessary to embellish the task-relevant thoughts to ensure that the kind of application that is being demonstrated by the athlete is appropriate for the performance. When an athlete is supposed to move fast, he/she should move fast. When an athlete is supposed to be powerful, he/she should move powerfully. The quality of an athlete’s performance can be modified and enhanced by the content of his/her thoughts in the performance (Meichenbaum 1975).

There is some convincing research evidence to support the assertion that ‘how you think is how you perform’ (Meichenbaum & Turk 1975). There are good researches that show that actions are speeded-up when an individual thinks of self commands that mean quick actions (e.g., ‘faster, faster’, ‘whip, whip, whip’). Thus, if an athlete wants to be fast in action then he/she should think fast words while performing. If an athlete wants to be strong then he/she should think strong words at the appropriate time. The type of movement words which are thought of during a performance affect the performance.

One can consider a performance to consist of a number of moods. A mood is a performance quality such as speed, strength, balance, stability, agility, persistence and power. In making a tackle, a football player needs to be agile to initiate a move, fast to the point of contact, and finally powerful to bring down the opponent. A possible set of thoughts to accompany the appropriate moods of a tackle would be: ‘dance, dance, whip, whip, lunge, crush’.

In the starting blocks for a sprint race the athlete should not be listening for the gun on the ‘set’ co mand but should be thinking power words, such as ‘explode’, ‘blast’, ‘rip’ and focusing on the initial movement action so that when the reflex action to the gun occurs the appropriate powerful movements are made. Suinn (1977) related the successful use of words suggesting stability with biathalon competitors during the target shooting aspect of that activity with the U.S.A. National Nordic Ski Team.

The table lists a variety of physical performance qualities and synonyms for those qualities. The list of like words is nowhere near exhaustive. Most individuals have their own language words which have special meanings with regard to different aspects of performance. This list is used to suggest words. When athletes ‘get the idea’ of what is required, they then select words and statements to use to control the mood of their actions in performance. They should develop their own meaningful statements for governing the quality of their performance.

The main point behind these statements is that they must have direct movement counterparts. The coach should scrutinise the performance strategy that is written by the athlete for mood statements and see that they use words which are primitive enough to cause a feeling of the movement when they are said. For example, ‘flick’ connotes movement speed more than does ‘rapid’ although both are synonyms for speed. ‘Crush’ is more movement suggestive for strength than is ‘vigorous.

In the development of a competition strategy there should now be a mix of task-relevant content and mood-appropriate content. Since task-relevant thoughts should occupy approximately two-thirds of the thought content, the mood thoughts should consume nearly all that remains. The strategy should mix these features to produce variety and frequency of changes that will keep the athlete concentrating on the content and its sequence. If there are not enough changes of content the athlete could lose the intensity of concentration that is required for a superior performance and experience a ‘dead spot’. A number of task thoughts, a mood statement or two, more task content, mood words, etc., is a probable integration. Since the strategy will be planned in detail, the structure of this integration can be monitored by the coach. It should be remembered that the thoughts are those of the athlete. Often what is written will appear to be meaningless to the uninitiated, but will be very meaningful to the athlete and coach.

Mood statements are the thought control mechanisms in the competition which maintain or develop the appropriate psychological state and they serve to arouse the athlete to the appropriate performance quality when required.

Sporting Activity Word List

Suggested Synonyms

crush, squash, violent, solid, intense, haul, bear-hug, crunch, might, muscle, force, powerful, strength

(force)  might, force, heave, impel, smash, snap, rip, blast, boom, bang, thump, thrust, explode, hoist, crumble

jump, fast, alert, explode, lunge, thrust, jab, rap, smack, brief, flick, whip, fling, pop, dash, quick

nimble, move, dance, prance, brisk, alert, quick, shuffle, agile

crowd, press, pressure, hustle, push, squeeze, smother, lean, worry, drive, strain, trouble, continue, drag

bold, great, going, on-plan, push, concentrate, feels good, comfortable, control, continue, fantastic, terrific, superb, beautiful, magnificent, tremendous

rock-hard, block, dead, solid, firm, rooted, anchored, set, rigid, hard

The role of the coach

The training schedule needs to include psychological content and training. Teaching athletes what to look for at competitions; suggesting and role-playing coping behaviours; learning the self-evaluation processes of performance; adopting pre-competition and competition strategy behaviours; developing a self-awareness of arousal, anxiety and confidence control; learning when and how to do mental rehearsal, positive imagery and relaxation; these are some of the areas which should be added to the content of the training programme. They may turn out to be more difficult than anticipated because psychological behaviours are more personal to the athete than are any other aspects of performance. This need places an extra load on the coach.

The first aspect of this extra requirement is to plan and document all the factors that have to be considered for psychological preparation. This needs to be done even before any programme is attempted with athletes. One way to approach this is to look at the list above and develop an application of each item for the sport in this case cycling. One result of this should be to focus the coach’s attention on the complexity of the competition situation. It attempts to highlight the problems and solutions of a sport to enable the athlete to achieve in and enjoy athletic competition.

In cycling the focus generally tends to be on the individual, and many cyclists will have their own coach. In this respect cycle sport has an advantage over team sports, because large discrepancies can occur in performance due to psychological factors. Psychological training programmes have to be individualised.

Ideally a psychological training programme needs to be planned in a manner similar to those produced for skill and conditioning programmes. There is no reason why the psychological features cannot be developed at the same time as skill and conditioning activities.

The production of predictable competition performances is involved and precise. The coach has to provide information, structure the environment to allow the learning of new behaviours, and develop an emphasis on the mental activity of the athlete to be able to achieve this desirable outcome.

The coach at competitions

Three major functions should be served by the coach when at serious competitions.

  1. To provide a model who is serious about the situation, positive about and capable of handling the circumstances, and consistent in emotional state. The behaviours of the coach should be of the same quality as those expected of the athletes. Complaints and negative appraisals of the competition and living facilities, the organisation, etc., should be non-existent. Problems which do arise should be handled in a coping manner which would be similar to that expected of athlete Emotional consistency must be displayed if the athletes are expected to maintain their singular focus of attention on the upcoming competition. The seriousness of the coach should generate the impression that it is the competition that is important and for that period of time all other considerations are of secondary importance.
  2. The facilitation of the execution of pre- competition and competition strategie The coach serves as a resource for problem solution, questions, and advice to be used by the athlete if needed. The effect of the coach in this function will be dependent upon the degree of communication and the relationship between the athlete and the coach that has been established prior to arriving at the competition. To help this function, the athlete should feel that the coach provides a fair, objective, and credible analysis of problems or questions that are raised.
  3. The symbol for carrying-out the planned, predictable behaviours of strategies. The coach’s presence and actions indicate to the athletes that the preparations that have been made will be enacted. Alternative modes of behaviour, doing what other athletes do, or switches in preparation approaches are not even considered. De- briefing sessions provide the opportunity for making adjustment to strategies and in that context is the only forum for making large changes to planned activities.

At the competition site the coach monitors the athletes during warm-ups and contest preparations. Watching the performance has a lower priority. The coach can use methods at the competition site to alter an athlete’s confidence and arousal levels if necessary. The recognition of problems is usually a last-minute event and so the solutions need to be enacted immediately. Each problem will require different interactions and features but some general approaches can suggest the ‘flavour’ of solutions. Some of these are indicated below.

Section 9

Loss of Confidence/Failure to Cope

Symptoms: motionless sitting; lack of action; lethargic movements; unhappy appearance; isolated and withdrawn from others; answers to questions do not contain much information; reluctant to talk to the coach or others; hides away from team; does as told but without enthusiasm; unusual amount of inactivity; sickly expression; lack of attention to equipment.

Coach actions: get athlete to admit problem; make the athlete walk or exercise; while doing the above demand the recitation of various parts of the competition strategy; simulate parts of skills requiring maximum efforts; engage in maximum effort skills; have the athlete justify why he/she should be confident of achieving each of the multiple goals; re-enact parts of the warm-up; require constant vigorous activity; get back to enacting pre-competition strategy; recite positive imagery.

Lack of Arousal, Symptoms: lethargic activity; lack of precision in skill attempts; absence of vigour in actions; attention to distractors; athlete’s admission that is ‘not up for it’; deviation from pre-competition strategy; flippant actions; socialising with other athletes or persons; watching other performers.

Coach actions: get athlete to admit problem; develop vigorous, maximum activity through bull wrestles, shoving contests, forced threatening reactions (activities that require increased arousal and have some threat); perform pump-up activities; develop irritation through demands; set higher than usual standards for the enactment of warm-up items; simulate skills for the sport and have greater than usual resistances; ‘pester’ the athlete to work harder and harder; get back on pre-competition strategy.

Too Much Arousal

Symptoms: uncontrolled activity; perpetual motion without purpose; eliminations excessive (urination, vomiting, bowel movements); scared appearance; not performing pre-competition strategy; random or unusual behaviour; stretching or warm-up activities not according to plan; periodic social and then isolated behaviours; ‘panic impression’.

Coach actions: get athlete to admit problem; walk or jog with the coach and no-one else; recite preparatory behaviours; recite initial competition strategy; do competition preparation behaviours under the coach’s supervision; mental rehearsal of initial and early segments; emphasise control in skill simulations; concentrate harder; perform continual activity while mentally rehearsing.

While these problems are being ‘treated’ the coach should provide his/her undivided attention. This is a rule-of-thumb at must be followed. When a last minute intervention is made, the coach should remain with that athlete until he/she comes under control of the officials. The purpose of any intervention is the recapturing of the focus of attention to the planned strategy and the attainment of the optimal arousal level. Last minute interventions can be difficult. When athletes are extremely aroused it can be difficult to reason with them. It is often necessary to first lower their arousal level before offering explanations or instructions, and then seeking the appropriate arousal level after the redirection has been accomplished.

Competition Strategy

Pre-Competition Routine

During 7 – 2 days before the event (Mon-Thurs)

  • Daily relaxation plus affirmation of ability to do well
  • Relive other good performances

During 48 – 24hrs before race (Friday)

  • Relaxation technique
  • Concentration on Competition Strategy
  • Affirmation of ability
  • Relaxation technique

During 24hrs before race (Saturday)

  • Concentration on how well other events were performed
  • Relaxation technique

Morning of race

Wakeup routine:

  1. Wake slowly
  2. Rehearse a number of positive self-statements, (eg: ‘I feel good’, ‘I am ready to go’, ‘This is going to be a great day’
  3. Slowly stretch your whole body in a manner similar to the muscular relaxation routine whilst continuing with the positive self-statements
  4. Terminate the wake-up routine when you feel awake but relaxed
  • Pre-race meal
  • Check arousal level and modify with mental training if needed.
  • Go to race venue


Allow 1½ hours for the pre-start routine.

  • General routine of getting ready prior to warm-up (15 – 20min)
  • Relaxation technique (15min)
  • Warm-up on the road; rehearse early part of Competition Strategy (15min)
  • Short relaxation technique plus concentra- tion on Competition Strategy (15min)
  • Warm-up on rollers plus concentration on evocative words (10min)
    Final equipment check, short ride to and around start area plus concentration on early part of Competition Strategy (5 -10min)
    Start; use Competition Strategy

A Competition Strategy for time-trials

Start and first mile

  • Easy, relaxed start … Mood Words
  • Concentrate on smoothness of style, etc.
  • Concentrate on powerful, relaxed muscles


First 5 miles

  • Concentrate on flowing style
  • Powerful, yet relaxed …Mood Words
  • Check for muscular tension and initiate relaxation technique if needed


Up to 25 miles

  • Maintaining pace whilst remaining relaxed
  • Concentrate on fast, smooth riding


Mood Words

  • Check for tension and initiate relaxation technique if required


Up to 40 miles

  • Gradually increasing pace whilst remaining relaxed
  • Concentrate on powerful, smooth riding


Mood Words

  • Check for tension and initiate relaxation technique if required


Up to 45 miles

  • Concentrate on gradually winding up the effort still more
  • Maintain powerful, flowing, relaxed style……………….Mood Words


Last 5 miles

  • Concentrate on all-out effort whilst maintain- ing good technique
  • Very powerful, yet totally relaxed and flowing………Mood Words


After Finish

  • Continue riding whilst concentrating on gradually relaxing all feelings of effort.
  • Concentrate on being very relaxed and calm……..Mood Words 

Some Affirmations

Write these out, (and any others you think of) and place them where you will see them frequently.

  • I do not under-rate my opponents, but I also recognise my own ability.
  • I can achieve anything within the scope of my imagination.
  • I must do well, because I have the ambition
  • I can do well, because I have the ability
  • I will do well, because I have the confidence.

Section 10

Further reading

It is not necessary to obtain or read the following books but after completing the course you may wish to continue your professional development. These books are used by ABCC Senior Coaches . Most should be available in libraries. If required any can be purchased from Amazon. See also the ABCC journal for appropriate reviews on journal articles.

The title and Authors are sufficient to identify the books.

Mastering Your Inner Game: David Kauss
Positive Thinking: Vera Peiffer
Born to Win: Muriel James
In Pursuit of Excellence: Terry Orlick
Pure Sport – Practical Sports Psychology: John Kremer & Aidan Moran

Reflective Questions:

What is the difference between anxiety and arousal and how are they linked ?

Define self-concept.

The principle of goal-setting has an acronym…what is it ?

Why should goals be realistic ?

Why should a coach be involved in the competition strategy ?

Example structure: Learner Notes – identify the key points from your reading.
Module number and title: 2: Strength and Conditioning for cycling
LO1 = Define the key concepts associated with sport psychology including: self-concept, anxiety and arousal, visualisation, competition strategy and mood words;
LO2 = Understand how the concepts can be applied in a cycling environment for a positive outcome;
LO3 = Understand the importance of the coach athlete relationship;
LO4 = Use goal-setting as tool for optimal performance;
LO5 = Clarify the role of the coach in preparing the athlete mentally for competition.
Application to cycling – key factors to consider… Insert notes…