A winning mentality might be the only thing separating you from top athletes.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “No pain, no gain.” These quotes about physical and mental toughness are so cliché, I couldn’t cite my sources if I tried.* We all love searching for the perfect quote to help us through long training efforts or encourage us through frustrating injuries. If we didn’t feel we were missing some sort of secret, there’d be no need for the inspirational sayings on Pinterest, Instagram and fitness blogs.
Moments of glory are difficult to come by. Even more so, the lonely days of injury, failure and status quo are enough to break even the strongest athlete. So what’s the secret to mental fortitude? How do you find your inner warrior? These are questions I ask myself daily.
The truth is that there is no secret. As a professional cyclist who’s medaled at the UCI Road World Championships, I’ve never considered myself a superhero in the mental toughness category. However, I choose to be a fierce competitor, and that makes me strong. To me, that’s the answer.
In 2010, my mental toughness was tested when my bike crashed during a race, and I sustained a traumatic brain injury and broken pelvis. Then, in 2011, I suffered a concussion. These injuries have taught me to cherish my brain and emotions more deeply and to recognize the value of each day. I often get asked why I continue racing after these life-altering events. Did I just get over it? Or do I always feel a pang of fear when riding?
There was a point when I couldn’t see any positives in the catastrophic crashes that wreaked havoc on my performance, results and eventually my personal life. But now I believe that if you let go of insecurity and doubt, and separate your identity from your performance, you find the moment where past and present results don’t really matter. You’re willing to go all in regardless of the results. You race boldly, train past your expectations and simply overcome. In that moment, you find greatness.
Rather than viewing my injuries and experiences as baggage, I’ve embraced them as parts of the package. I build on each experience, each hardship, each loss, and I become more mature. I add more weapons to my athletic arsenal and, ultimately, become a better person.
Here are my top tips for mental toughness. I hope these will motivate you through the inevitable moments of doubt that come with recovering from an injury, reaching a plateau and even deciding what type of peanut butter to buy at the grocery store. (Seriously, there are so many types of peanut butter available.)
I’ve found that these tips work for me, and maybe they’ll work for you too. If not, there’s always the internet.
1. Be bold.
Take a risk now and then, and go down with your guns blazing. Boldness wins races (and if it doesn’t, at least you have a great story). This also works in life outside of sports, like when you’re choosing that peanut butter.
2. Give ’em hell.
I’ve been through hell and back, and I’m still here. I’ve learned to give ’em hell when I’m racing. Only those of us who’ve been through it all know we have nothing to lose.
3. Take ownership.
You chose to be here, to compete, and no one is forcing you. Just because the conditions aren’t to your liking, or you don’t feel your best today, you are not the victim. Take ownership of your decision to race, run or exercise, whether or not you’re a competitive athlete, and don’t look for excuses.
4. Be the best you can be.
My Carmichael Training Systems coach, Dean Golich, gave me this gem, and it’s just perfect when I feel doubt start creeping in. Am I doing my best? I think so. If not, I’d better try harder so I’ll be proud of my efforts later.
5. Stay focused (sort of).
No one is focused 100 percent of the time. Just regroup and refocus more quickly than your competition. Find your mind wandering? Take a deep breath and gather yourself. Your competition’s focus is wandering too, but you can refocus faster than them. You are made of steel.
6. Find purpose.
For me, something is only worth doing if I know there’s a greater purpose. That’s why I love working with causes I’m passionate about, like growing my sport, getting more women on bikes, representing my team and working with nonprofits. If I can use my platform as an athlete to help others, it makes my sport more valuable. It isn’t all about me.
7. Remember: sports are a luxury.
Enjoy the time you spend competing and training. Even if you do it for a living, participating in a sport should be fun. It isn’t your right; it’s a luxury. Bikes always make me smile, even if I lose (well, I smile after the tears). It’s just bike racing after all.
*For the record … Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche first said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Jane Fonda is thought to have popularized “no pain, no gain” in her ’80s aerobic workout videos; however, variations of the phrase can be found in publications dating back to the second century.
PHOTOS BY Cylance Pro Cycling