“Even amongst elite performers, certain athletes stand out as a cut above the rest. These athletes prove that raw athletic ability doesn’t necessarily translate to a superior on-field experience—it’s the mental game that matters most.” Jim Afremow, The Champion’s Mind
In this article, I’m going to shift my focus from physical performance and recovery to mental skills training. I’ll take you through a guided meditation and breathing technique that you can practice when you’re under pressure, to maximise your performance. I’ll show you how to focus your mind at the point when you’re most susceptible to distraction and self-doubt so that you can get the job done – whether that’s competing in a race, nailing a technical trick or clearing that gap for the first time.
If you’re as committed to training your mind as you are to working on your strength, fitness and technical skills, you’ll have a massive advantage over the competition and the chance to take your riding to the next level.
YOUR MIND UNDER PRESSURE
“Research is clear that pressure diminishes our cognitive abilities, our ability to think and make decisions, as well as our psychomotor abilities.” Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry, Performing Under Pressure
According to a study of over 12,000 athletes, no one performs better under pressure. Under analysis, even Michael Jordan performed statistically worse when the game was on the line.
So how do you get the edge over your competition? You make sure that you’re the best prepared, and that your performance is the least diminished by pressure. When the stakes are high, it’s natural to feel nervous. Doubts appear in your mind and it gets harder and harder to focus, as you recall previous crashes and become fixated with the inevitability of screwing up.
“An internal monologue of worries is one of the big contributing factors to choking under pressure.” Sian Beilock, Choke: The Secret To Performing Under Pressure
The first thing to acknowledge is that you don’t have to listen to your thoughts. They’re there to stop you doing something risky, to persuade you to escape a situation that your mind perceives as dangerous. It doesn’t care about you winning the race or landing that jump. It has only one objective – to keep you alive. And right now, you have bigger fish to fry.
The mental chatter and over-thinking make it almost impossible to concentrate and maintain your composure. You need to take control of your mind and override these impulses so that you can do what you need to do.
THE PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSE TO STRESS
As the mental noise escalates, your body responds by preparing to either fight or flee. You experience:
- A rush of adrenaline.
- Excessive muscle tension.
- An increase in heart rate.
- A short, shallow breathing pattern.
- Sweaty palms.
- A decrease in digestive activity.
This arousal response is healthy and adaptive. It’s there to energise you into action. However, if you don’t act immediately—say, because you still have a few hours before your race—your mind recognises the stress response and starts to get concerned for your safety. Your body picks up these anxious thoughts and sends signals for your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up even more. This sets up a vicious cycle between your body and your mind that can quickly escalate and cause you to get too amped up too early and burn out.
You need to take control of your mind and conserve your energy until it’s time to let rip.
FLOW: THE OPTIMAL STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
“Respond from the center of the hurricane, rather than reacting from the chaos of the storm.” George Mumford, The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance
To perform your best, you need to get into flow. In this state you’re calm, focused, confident, fearless, in the moment. Not distracted by thoughts of the past or worries about the future. You’re not thinking about what you have to do, you’re just doing it. Your decision-making is flawless. You’ve put in the training and now you can just let your skills flow through you.
Three mental strategies to maximise your performance
1. CALM YOUR BODY AND CLEAR YOUR MIND
“Whatever is going on inside your head has everything to do with how well you end up performing.” D.C. Gonzalez, The Art Of Mental Training
The guided meditation and breathing technique that I’m going to take you through work on both the body and the mind. They are what Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman, refers to as deep embodiment flow triggers. As you consciously slow down your breathing, your muscles respond by relaxing and your heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol drop. Focusing on your breath and the sensations in your body brings you back into the present moment and clears your mind of doubts and distraction. You’ll trigger a positive feedback loop between your body and mind that allows you to feel relaxed and loose, rather than tense and uptight.
What does ‘bringing you back into the present moment’ actually mean?
Anxious thoughts exist when your mind wanders to memories of past failures or anticipates future uncertainty. When you focus your attention on your breath and the sensations in your body, your mind goes quiet. These techniques function as a pattern interrupt. They distract you from the negative self-talk that’s determined to sabotage your performance. They quieten the voice of your internal critic and the perception, real or imagined, of how others will judge your performance.
When your mind drifts to an unhelpful thought, instead of following it as it spirals off into imagining the worst, just let it go and bring your attention back to your breath – again and again and again. With practice, you’ll become aware of these thoughts more quickly and get more skilful at bringing yourself back into a state of calm, composure and confidence.
2. SWITCH YOUR MINDSET FROM THREAT TO CHALLENGE
“Feeling challenged is an inherent performance steroid – your body releases more adrenaline than noradrenaline, which means you have more oxygenated blood going to the tissues that need it. Your body has more energy and your brain can think more clearly.” Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry, Performing Under Pressure
As you start to gain control of your mind and clear some mental headspace, you can step back and see the situation you’re facing as a challenge rather than as a threat, and start having some fun! If you imagine yourself screwing up, you’re more likely to do so. Instead, tell yourself, “you got this!” Don’t dwell on what you don’t want to happen, replace your doubts and anxious thoughts with positive self-talk. Recall your past successes and visualise what you want to achieve.
Through consistent practice of these meditation techniques, you’ll become better at ‘interoception’, the sense of knowing what’s going on inside your body. As soon as you become aware of your physiological response, instead of letting it spiral out of control, you’ll get more adept at making adjustments to your breathing and relaxing the tension in your muscles. Instead of resisting the nerves, let them flow through you and fuel your performance.
3. TRUST IN YOUR TRAINING
“He who sweats more in training, bleeds less in war.” Spartan Warrior Creed
The aim of mental training is to get out of your own way so that you can drop into flow. A crucial part of this is to have faith in your training so that you can confidently switch to autopilot when the pressure is on. You need to put in your 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, aggressively push the limits of your fitness and strength and scrutinise your past mistakes. If you don’t put in the training, you’re not giving yourself a chance to reach your full potential.
And, in the same way you practice your physical and technical skills, you need to be equally committed to honing your mental game and working out your own personal pre-race/pre-big, scary jump routine.
I recommend you meditate for at least a few minutes every morning to get better at controlling the impulses in your mind to drift off into unhelpful thought spirals. You’re training it to maintain laser-like focus on whatever it is you choose to focus on. Make your brain sweat! Put in the reps, so that you’re in control when the pressure is on. If you haven’t practiced the skill, how can you expect it to be there for you when you need it?
MEDITATION AND BREATHWORK
“A quiet mind is a powerful mind.” Jim Afremow, The Champion’s Mind
Here are a couple of techniques for you to integrate into your training program and to practice when the stakes are high. You can do the body scan meditation lying down and the breathing technique in any position. Experiment with both techniques, at different times of the day—in the morning, in stressful situations, when you’re stuck in traffic and before bed. These techniques will also help you to decompress after training to stay fresh and avoid burnout.
Mental training is highly individualised, so through trial and error, work out when each is most effective for you.
BODY SCAN MEDITATION
This technique is best practiced lying down. For a longer version, check out my new 15-minute Body Scan Meditation video.
I find this technique works best of you are seated with a straight spine.
I’d love to hear how you get on with these techniques and your own rituals and practices for creating focus, calm and clarity.