Every year I encounter quite a lot of people wanting to get into racing. Whether they are mature riders or young teenagers, making a first step into racing mountain bikes isn’t always simple. Here are a few common questions we ask ourselves:
What’s the best way to go into a race in order to perform my best? What’s the trick to figuring it out fast? How do I figure out what works for me?
Seriously, this had to be my biggest personal struggle with racing: Figuring out how to mentally approach a race.
Riding and training is the easy part! We know how it’s done; there are certain guidelines, rules and lessons literally written on paper. You read it, you understand it, you do it. Easy. As for what goes in between your ears once you are in the start gate, no matter how much you read about this, you need to figure out what works best for you.
I remember my first tries at racing! I would show up at the race, meet with a girl friend and practice with her not really thinking or knowing what would happen on the sunday event. When it was time to race, I would be in the line up leading to the start gate wondering: “What am I doing here???” “This doesn’t feel so good, I’m super nervous!” So my first thought to go down the hill for my race run was to do what I had done all weekend. I literally imagined my friend being ahead of me as if I was riding with her again! hahaha! She actually started her race just ahead of me and so I was imagining that I was chasing her down like I did in practices… It didn’t take me too long to see it wasn’t a great approach. My thoughts were all over the place during my race run and not so much on the trail. That was my first trial and error.
At that point I realized I shouldn’t be thinking so hard when I’m racing. I started to race not really thinking of anything. I was still pretty nervous at my starts, didn’t really know why but I was! That gave me okay racing results but I would still make mistakes or take crashes that I didn’t quite understand… I knew what had made me fall but I didn’t understand why I had gotten to that point; why I wasn’t focused. That was an ongoing issue that I couldn’t quite figure out. Some races were good and some were bad. One time I had a pretty good race at my local hill, Bromont. The following year, Bromont hosted another race on the same race course. I thought: “Sweet! I did good at that race last year, I’m comfortable on that track.” A small mistake followed by an over-confident Vaea ended in a big injury where I broke my femur and pelvis. I was definitely going to come back from it but I really had to do some thinking and try to figure out how to race to be more consistent while still performing! Injuries suck. Period. And even though I really want to stay away from them by riding and racing smart, I still learned the most from them.
After that injury, 3 years ago, I started riding very conservatively. For the longest time I couldn’t perform my best, couldn’t commit to ride as fast in races as I did in practice. Every year after my injury, I posted better and better results. It wasn’t all mental. I trained better in the off-season, I learned a lot more riding skills and got more and more confortable on a dh bike… So mentally I was getting more confident too. I wasn’t fully satisfied and wanted to do something else to help myself.
I decided to pick up a book on mental preparation called “In Pursuit Of Excellence” (which I totally recommend to anyone wanting to act better on anything in their lives). It taught me how to find my best focus and how to keep it when racing. Key things to reflect on: When did I perform my best? Why did I perform my best there? How was my mindset at that race? In contrast to: When did I not perform my best? When did I loose focus? What made me loose focus? Did I gain my focus back? How did I gain focus back?
The main thing really is to find what brings you back into your best focus. We all loose focus at some point, I still make mistakes and think: “Oh damn I got completely off of my line there, I’ll tell my peeps when I get at the bottom!”. WHAT IS THAT!!? It’s so ridiculous that sometimes -still while racing- I’ll think to myself: “Vaea! Stop talking to yourself and focus on riding!” Funny isn’t it? Well, that whole chat going in my mind is exactly what not to do. It is at that exact moment that you make more mistakes. Slipping a pedal or missing a line is not that big of a deal. Not many people get perfect runs (maybe 1 racer per event gets an unbelievable fast and perfect race run!), but not recovering from an error right away and getting into more mistakes is what costs you time and possible injuries.
What works for me? “Braaap!” A very simple expression. Haha! As funny and stupid as it may sound, that is what I came up with to keep myself focused! I am a big fan of motocross racing and I love to see those guys shred the way they do while racing a super stressful event. That motor sound “Braaap!” makes me stoked on riding, simply. I ride my best when I’m enjoying it, when I’m confident in my riding and when the track is sweet! That friendly reminder pops in my head when I make a slight mistake and just tells me to get right back into it, keep my rhythm and keep shredding! It cuts all other thoughts and makes me focus only on what I am doing, racing.
That’s my personal trick and what works for me. You get the idea and I hope that you can figure out how to find your best focus too!
I think that a good preparation and mental readiness are key to perform your best. You learned your lines, you practiced well, had fun and hit what you wanted to hit, your bike is ready, you trained hard for this and you’re going to do your best. Because we can only do our best.
As for the start gate, I believe that an empty mind is the best you can give to yourself. You know your lines, you know you are ready, just do it. I feel like this part of our brain just functions better when you let it react freely. Just focus on racing, your lines memorization and riding skills should follow automatically.
2014 World Championships – Focused and smiling, ready to rip it!
This year was a big big step up in my racing performances. I won the National Championships, got solid results on world cups and finished 6th at the world championships. The season started with a set back when I lacerated my liver while training in May, but I somehow carried a great mindset into the start gate and performed so much better as soon as I was back racing. I feel like after years of races, crashes, injuries, frustration, motivation, progress, etc, I came to realize that it is not worth stressing too much. I mean if you’re like Greg Minnaar and you’re trying to be a World Champion 10 times in your career, that’s one thing. That guy gets really nervous about racing, and handles stress really well, and wins. For me, and I think of youngsters out there getting into racing and wanting to make it on the world cup circuit, I think that the best way to find your groove and perform your best on stressful events is not to worry so much about it. I was told once: “It’s only racing bikes Vaea, it shouldn’t be so hard.” Thanks to Duncan :) Whether it’s a local race or a world cup, you are racing on your bicycle in both situations. It shouldn’t be any different in order to perform. It means: enjoy it, embrace it, evolve with it and let it fulfill your life with happiness and radness! Worrying about the outcome of my race run would only make me nervous, ride a ragged run and make my racing journey not as enjoyable… So I just have fun with it and give it my best. And it works!
Working hard and getting stronger performances is the best feeling out there! I can’t let set backs make me so frustrated or nervous, because I perform my best when I’m enjoying riding. Take 2 riders: Gee Atherton and Josh Bryceland! See where I’m going? Gee is the super serious athlete, calculated and particular that won’t settle for less than winning. And then you got Bryceland, being rad, throwing crazy lines, having fun with it and looking like he’s playing with the race course while everyone else is struggling to hit some lines. For him having fun and not worrying is what works best. In both cases, one is World Champion and the other is World Cup Champion.
Different approaches work for different people. Find where you perform your best and don’t worry about the rest, because that works for you!