By Heather Nielson
In part 1 of what to expect your first season, I went over the basic logistics of competing that if you don’t plan for, can cost you that big win! In this second part I go over some deeper, more mental and physical aspects of competition.
Expect to ‘lose’
Ok, I admit this is a negative headline, but I want to get across the reality of endurance sports competition. Whether you’re a runner, triathlete, mountain biker, recreational/century cyclist or bike racer, the odds of winning are not 50/50 like in a football or basketball game. I would strongly encourage you before you participate in your event, to write down some very specific goals. It can be one or it can be several (though I suggest limiting your list to three or less).
There are so many things to learn every time you compete that if you are only focused on winning and not on being present in every moment, you will miss out on so many opportunities to get better as an athlete and thereby vastly improving your chances of success in your next competition or even the one you’re in.
For example: let’s say you’re doing your first bike race and you know that you need to work on your bike and pack handling skills. Use that first race to practice moving your bike smoothly around and up in between the group, cornering properly and safely, communicating to those around you, adjusting your position smoothly instead of reacting when there’s a crash or a sudden move around you, getting comfortable riding closely next to and behind other riders, feathering instead of grabbing your brakes. Honestly those skills take years to become proficient at, so don’t get discouraged if you’re not the smoothest, most efficient rider your first race! I’m not saying don’t try to win; of course you want to win! Just remember, if you’re doing all of those things right, you’re setting yourself up for a better chance to win than if you only focused on winning at the end. Be in every moment of the race.
Expect to adjust your goals
The previous subject leads perfectly into this one: adjusting your goals. Learn to adjust your goals all the time; not just after the race! If you are truly being in the moment, recognizing other riders around you, their strengths and weaknesses, dealing with changing weather conditions, crashes, changes in terrain then you should be constantly changing your goal(s). You need to always be asking yourself “am I in the position I need to be in right now for my goal?” If you need to conserve energy, are you drafting in the pack or are you on the front? If you realize early on in a hilly race that there are other riders who may be better climbers, how are you going to position yourself going into that climb? If you realize that there are other riders who are better sprinters than you are, are you going to just give up in the final meters of the race or are you going to race your strengths to make sure you don’t have to sprint against them at the end? After your event I would still do a debrief of some sort. Refer back to your written goals and assess honestly whether you reached them or not, what you would do differently, what you would change and what you need to do for next time. Writing things down is a very powerful, yet I believe a vastly underutilized tool in helping to ‘re-wire’ neural pathways in learning, development and behavioral changes. Do more than just talk about it and do one written review with yourself after you’ve spoken to your coach/DS/team captain, do it within a few days after your event but not necessarily right away to allow for perspective and inflamed emotions to subside, then leave it….in the past. Onward.
Expect to be nervous
I remember my first season of bike racing I would be nervous the entire week before the event. Now I’m nervous….about one hour before; and I try to keep it at the optimum level of nervousness (yes there is such a thing). You don’t want to be too relaxed or over confident and you don’t want to be so nervous that your whole body is shaking on the start line. Looking back, I believe that the main reasons athletes get nervous is because of all the unknowns. I would suggest spending some time the week(s) before your event preparing yourself for what to expect. The more you know about what to expect the less nervous you’ll be, the more realistic you’ll be with your goals and expectations, the less reactive you’ll be in the middle of the race so you can make decisions clearly and at the right times and quite frankly the more you’ll actually enjoy participating! Research the details of the event: time, distance, location, number of participants, level of competition, course profile, when and where on the course are the main ‘feature’ such as climbs, turns, descents etc. Start thinking about how your strengths and weaknesses as an athlete match up to the course and the other competitors and how you need to compete in order to give yourself the best chance at getting a ‘result’. The ‘result’ that you want is again, up to you and a goal that you need to set before hand.
I hope both these posts help you stay positive and focused during your first season and remember, there is always something to learn, always someone faster and always another goal to reach. Learn to enjoy the journey without getting obsessed with the ‘end’ because competition in sports and life doesn’t end after the finish line, it ends when you quit.