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Why the best riders sometimes fail

Pitfalls to be aware of, and how to best prepare for success.

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When I was on the U.S. national road team, the coaches periodically selected riders based on phenomenal lab results and wattage numbers. Then, when we raced in Europe with 140 aggressive riders on narrow roads, the lab phenoms often mentally collapsed, sometimes ending up dropped or lying in a ditch. While these individuals clearly had the physical talent, they lacked the mental capacity to contend with racing’s pressure, chaos, and unpredictability.

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Hitting big numbers in training does not guarantee a good race performance. To better understand why some athletes struggle to convert test results into race results, I spoke to Dr. Julie Emmerman, a clinical and sports psychologist for elite and professional athletes.

Dr. Emmerman said the disparity between talent and results is common and relatively easy to fix, and the solution involves replacing an athlete’s mental barriers with productive thoughts and knowledge. The reason why some athletes end up in a ditch while others win often comes down to anxiety, self-doubt, or fear.

“Testing and training are very controlled environments — you are in control,” Dr. Emmerman said. “There are so many more variables in racing, and the athlete has less control over all of these variables. The perception of less control and more race-day pressure are significant contributors to under-performing.”

In training, an athlete can direct her focus to hitting a number. She does not have to use mental energy to process a multitude of unknown variables, such as racing tactics, weather conditions, or road or trail conditions.

And there are often additional emotional or psychological factors weighing on athletes who practice better than they race. Athletes can often become consumed by narratives that they feed themselves. “This person is always stronger than me on climbs, I never race well in spring,” Emmerman said, giving examples of these narratives. “‘Always’ and ‘never’ are rarely 100 percent true. Looking at the ‘mental junk food’ one is consuming is important.”

So, what advice does Dr. Emmerman have for athletes that cannot replicate their training performances during a race? The first step, she said, is to investigate the emotions that may be holding you back.

“Why are you anxious, fearful, or feeling self-doubt? Most people have had private conversations with themselves and know these answers,” Dr. Emmerman said.

Once the athlete identifies the sources of fear, Dr. Emmerman helps them identify and dissect the feelings associated with those fears. Then, Dr. Emmerman gets the athlete to focus on overcoming those fears, rather than dwelling on them.

Man sprinting on a bike
Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images

Dr. Emmerman also helps the athlete investigate the narratives that reinforce and perpetuate the anxiety. Then, she works to reframe those fears into opportunities for the athlete.

“We start by rewriting the narratives the athlete is telling herself,” Dr. Emmerman said. “We also identify the athlete’s successful performances and investigate the circumstances around those performances to make distinctions from the perceived failed performances.”

So, what about training? I asked Dr. Emmerman if training sessions can be used to reduce performance anxiety and build confidence. As it turns out, training sessions are the opportunity for an athlete to focus on her revised narrative and the self-talk used to understand the new story.

“The more athletes hone into the details during training, the better prepared they will be,” she said. Dr. Emmerman added that training provides an opportunity to practice experiencing unexpected situations like the ones a rider will experience in her race. When deviations from the plan occur in training, an athlete focuses on devising solutions, rather than fixating on the problem.

A final way to alleviate the sense of pressure surrounding a race is to rethink the way we perceive competition in general. Our society places extreme weight on competition, and who wins versus who loses. Worries over defeat can trigger our sympathetic nervous system into a “fight or flight” response. Dr. Emmerman challenges her athletes to view competition through the Latin definition, which is to strive for a common goal together. Valuing your competitors, instead of fearing them, can flip how an athlete responds to a race.

“We need each other to get the best out of ourselves,” Dr. Emmerman said. “Our fellow competitors help us raise our game and to be better in every aspect of performance.”

One of the most valuable contributors to successful performance is a love of the process and competition. Successful racers love the competition and the experience of competing — they don’t hate it.

“They feel alive during a race and don’t dread it,” Dr. Emmerman said. “Getting to a place where you look forward to these opportunities is a game-changer.”

How good testers become good performers

  • Train in every kind of weather condition: wind, rain, heat, cold.
  • Chase Strava segments on long, short, climbing, flat, and rolling terrain with varying rest/recovery. During the efforts, work on your positive self-talk to reinforce your revised narrative.
  • Do regular fast-paced group rides, and use the rides to try different racing maneuvers: solo bridge, counterattack, sprinting.
  • Do different workouts (structured intensity, long-endurance, speed, and power) at various times of the day, so your body learns to perform at any time of the day.
  • Refine your goals, and use them as stepping stones that lead to results. Use training and racing to develop goals.