The Psychology of Racing

When it comes to the day of the big event, there is nothing more you can do to improve your physical ability. Your level of fitness and physical potential is what it is. Your equipment and build-up to the event is in place. The only thing you can change now is how you think. How you think and how well prepared you are mentally will affect how you act and react to the environment and people around you between arriving at the event and crossing the finish line. The focus of your mind is actually the only variable. Barring bad luck, how you think and act will determine whether you reach your personal potential or fall short.

The Corinthian spirit, or the ideology that just taking part is the foremost important factor, is common among amateur sportspeople. This is a resolve-sapping malaise that primes the mind for under-performance, not just the thinking self but the subconscious mind that does not normally hold sporting success high up in the hierarchy of need. By that I mean food, shelter, social standing, sex, etc. The idea that it is OK not to reach your full potential is not a good thought to have when you are doing the ride and reaching within yourself for extra effort.

This ideology is not just an influence from others that passes viral-like from person to person. This spirit is part of us, as in most non-sporting activities, whether it be decorating, cleaning or whatever, even work-related things – we reach a point where we think the outcome is good enough and move on. What we don’t tend to do is openly question in our thinking minds whether it is the best we can do. When it is good enough we just move on to something else. This is normal and indeed healthy for general life in society. The alternative would be obsessive-compulsive disorder or something similar. This is our behavioural pattern, our lifestyle habit.

Clearly, then, the competitive event is an environment where we have to set aside our natural way in order to make the most of our potential. We need to be able to set aside the philosophy that serves us well in general life for the time that we are being competitive. We can train our ability to block out negative thought processes by the way we allow ourselves to think when we are in the sporting environment and when we are in the company of others. There is the matter of blocking out any negative or capitulatory ideology but also the need to build up an attitude that compels us to proactively make our best performance happen.

The first important thing to be dealt with is establishing prime motives. What is it that drives us to be competitive, to take part in events that test our ability and measure it against others? This level of self-analysis is rarely undertaken by the majority of riders, mainly because it is a mental exercise that we rarely undertake in normal life. There is also the deterrent that deep self-analysis is a difficult and sometimes painful task that requires honesty. This can take us out of a comfort zone where we drift along by force of habit and simple repetition of what we always did. We hope to reach into ourselves and ask: why do I ride to try to be better than other people, what is the emotional gain from doing so?


You could disappear into a corner right now and have a Zen moment of total self-understanding, but it is unlikely. Let me help you along the path by asking if you are actually competitive at all? A lot of people take part in competitive events and ‘compete’ because it makes them part of a peer group doing the same. That is not to say that they don’t turn up and ride at their best perceived effort. It just means that one of their major motivations for taking part will be satisfied with a good or average result. This is not wrong, since we are gregarious animals and this is high up in our hierarchy of need for general life. This also does not mean that you cannot be genuinely competitive by digging even deeper into motive and allowing yourself to be more in touch with more proactive driving forces. It also helps to make clear in your mind the points in time before and after the actual doing part of the competition as being a distinct, separate and completely different part of the competitive experience. Being part of the racing community and the social aspect of the competition is a good motive to hold on to, as long as it can be replaced by completely competitive motives at the point of action. The race itself is a time totally separate from the rest of life and needs a different set of motives and values if we are to bring out our best performances.



How you think can and will determine whether you ever get near your true and absolute potential. Real athletic confidence is built on a complicated foundation of training, diet and rest. The actions of the mind determine the winners from the rest.

•   Stay in the present – your performance is about today, not last week or last year
•    Meticulous attention to equipment choice and detail is vital to ensure your confidence is based upon event planning to complement your training programme
•    We all have an options menu; learn to challenge the option that says ‘I have
tried hard enough’ – there is always, regardless how small, some gas left in
the tank
•    Visualisation is of great value, learning how to put your mind in the
situation of a race day scenario

Extracted from The Obree Way: A Training Manual for Cyclists by Graeme Obree, available from Bloomsbury

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