Updated 28th February 2019
In conversation about great cyclists what often comes to the fore is admiration of their mental and emotional abilities. Things like their aggression, willpower, determination. Their ability to focus for five to six hours of a race. To just keep going in adverse situations and conditions.
All of these are mental abilities. Yet there’s probably not always enough emphasis on mental fitness in Cycling. So I thought it could be interesting to get the view of an expert in what sports psychology is and how it can work.
So who better to ask than the head of performance psychology at the Sport Ireland Institute Dr Kate Kirby. Over a cup of coffee in the Sports campus we discussed some of the relevant questions. Note: Some of the questions came about through conversations with cyclists I coach.
Dr. Kate Kirby
Dr Kirby is the Head of Performance Psychology at the Sport Ireland Institute. She has worked at the highest level of sport for over a decade and has provided her expertise to numerous governing bodies, including the Irish Sailing Association, IRFU, Hockey Ireland, Tennis Ireland and numerous inter-county GAA teams.
She has attended both the London and Rio Olympic Games as a member of Team Ireland’s support staff, and her contribution to Annalise Murphy’s Olympic silver medal through their long-standing work together has been widely acknowledged.
Dr Kate Kirby Sports Psychology Consultant also has also has her own website where she provides individual and team Sports Psychology. She also provides athlete Lifestyle Support and speaking engagements.
Dr Kirby has also presented to parents of the cycling Ireland Development squads when I was head high performance development coach. When I was working with Lucan CC Dr Kirby presented a workshop on goal setting for their cyclists and coaches.
So what it is that Sports psychologist do and how can it help cyclists and their coaches?
Q 1: what’s the role of a sports psychologist?
A: Sport psychology involves applying psychological principles to help athletes consistently perform in the upper range of their capabilities and more thoroughly enjoy the sport performance process.
The work can be performed one to one with the athlete, but is more effective if it’s part of the multidisciplinary team around the athlete – so the sport psych is working in conjunction with the coach, medical and sport science team.
The sport psych will work on any range of performance issues – motivation, confidence, nerves, mental race strategies as well as issues away from sport like relationships, or career/education that have the potential to impact performance.
Q 2: What are the traits of the really elite performers like Tour De France Winners?
A: There is no personality type or specific mindset that predicts success at the highest level of sport. However, I have observed some common characteristics in the best athletes I’ve worked with across a range of sports:
- Absolute attention to detail – never just hoping things work out, but having a plan, and a back up plan!
- Ability to de-personalise & take action in response to negative feedback
- Learn from disappointments, compartmentalise & move on – don’t keep re-living your failures over and over
- Singlemindedness (selfishness?) – sometimes it’s necessary to put yourself ahead of others, missing important events or not spending time with family and friends. The better athletes are more comfortable with doing this.
- A love for the pursuit of their goals – not necessarily loving winning, or loving training every single session. But overall, loving the chance to test themselves and the opportunity to chase their dream.
Q 3: Can some of these traits be trained / improved by the ordinary club cyclist?
A: Yes, many of the characteristics above are behaviours that can be developed with the right attitude and having access to a sufficient level of expertise to guide training and approaches to racing. Ultimately, the secret to success in any sport and at any level is a willingness to work hard and pay attention to the right things at the right time.
Q 4: Some cyclists struggle with confidence after falls and crashes which make them very nervous in groups. How can they overcome this?
A: It really depends on the extend of the trauma. If it’s severe, then I’d recommend input from a counselling/clinical psychologist. If it’s a mild case of anxiety, then there are certain mental skills that a sport psychologist could help with, such as visualisation, or attentional and emotional control techniques
Q 5: Traditionally athletes try to reach peak physical condition for one or two periods per season. Is it possible that an athlete can also only peak mentally for one or two periods also or is it possible to maintain that high level of focus and desire to win.
A: I have always found it more effective when athletes select a few target events per year that they really want to perform at, and approach the other competitions around these as preparation events. The focus at these events would be on executing certain processes rather than worrying too much about finishing positions. I don’t believe it’s possible to maintain maximal focus week in, week out over the course of a long season if you don’t prioritise specific events
Q 6: is expecting nothing and doing better than you thought in a race better for you, or should you aim for first but then be sad you missed it?
A: This is related to the previous question around prioritizing certain events. I wouldn’t encourage athletes to set their goals as winning every race they enter. It’s unrealistic and creates unnecessary pressure. Neither would I encourage athletes to “expect nothing”. To perform consistently, you should be thinking of how you want to race, not where you want to finish. So set yourself two or three things that you want to execute in every race. That way, regardless of finishing position, you’ll have a meaningful way of assessing your performance afterwards and it will give you more valuable information on the priorities for you in your next block of training.
Thanks to Dr Kirby for her time and expertise. Hope readers find something in the blog that is very relevant to improving your performances. Follow Dr Kirby on twitter