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Ben King Diary: The mental game

Editor’s note: Ben King is a second-year professional with RadioShack-Nissan. At 23, he is already a former U.S. professional road champion and is a frequent contributor to Velo magazine and VeloNews.com. Read Ben’s previous VeloNews diaries.

It’s odd that Brent Pye and I have never crossed paths cycling in my hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia. I was skeptical yet honored when I received a request from this stranger to write a prologue for his new book, “Your Brain on a Bike.” After scanning his thesis and outline, I decided that he raises some important questions for a select audience. Without necessarily knowing or endorsing his approach to mastering your mental game, I admitted that having a mental game is nearly as critical to performance as physical game. Since I might personally benefit from reading Brent’s book, I wrote the prologue to explain why I think it’s important.

I think the prologue that I wrote stands on its own without the book, and VeloNews agreed to run it here as an entry in my regular diary.

“Your Brain on a Bike” prologue

Every time an endurance athlete toes the starting line, they prepare to face themselves. At some point as they pursue a qualifying time, a result, or simply crossing the finish, they will see themselves plainly in a haze of endorphins. It’s a rare opportunity to find out what they are made of.

As I progressed in cycling to eventually win the U.S. professional national championship and sign with one of the top teams in the world, I experienced defeats that made me doubt my place in the sport. Doubt, regret, anxiety and even overconfidence are an athlete’s greatest enemies, but I’ve learned that how a competitor responds to these challenges can determine his future success.

Since I transitioned from domestic and under-23 racing to the WorldTour, the strongest international level, I compete every week with current grand tour winners, world champions, and Olympic medalists that can physically demolish me. According to science, I often don’t stand a chance against them yet. Rather than intimidation and fear, however, I try to find opportunities in the challenge and let that motivate me in training and racing.

The unique mentalities that have driven these riders to the top fascinate me. A field sprinter’s passion and fury dramatically contrast with a climber’s calculating doggedness. Some riders thrive under pressure while others are disabled by a real physical reaction to the stress that it creates. Depending on the situation, I vacillate between racing angry and calm.

When I feel overwhelmed by a race that I’m not prepared or motivated for, I ride angry and turn myself into a stress ball, squeezing everything out of myself. More often, I focus on my specific race duties. Trusting that I’ve done everything I’m capable of to be at my full physical potential, I never contemplate how I’m feeling. When the team leader tells me to start pulling at the front of the peloton, I pull until I can’t anymore. If I’m supposed to do a lead-out, or get bottles, or attack, I detach myself from the discomfort of burning lungs and searing legs and think only of what to do. I’m supposed to attack, so I will, unless I can’t, but I don’t wonder if I can before trying.

To get that sort of energy out of myself, it has to matter to me. For example, my relationship with my teammates is a higher purpose than prize money and podium kisses. If my teammate has a chance to win, I do it for him. If my teammates have worked all day for me, I want more than anything to repay them.

Racing well and overcoming trials require mental strength and focus. Each rider develops his own strategy to enslave his body to his mind, but the strongest, most fearsome riders have each mastered their conscience to approach their physical limits.

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