To win at any sport takes a combination of natural ability and mental skills. Both of these attributes must be developed and honed. You may or may not be capable of winning at your sport; few people are, but you can learn from those that do win. There are key psychological characteristics a winning athlete must possess. These are just as important as natural ability and can be identified and worked on just as you would a physical limiter.
1. Grace under Pressure
The ability to focus under pressure is a key characteristic of a winner. A winning athlete will not get pulled off their game despite outside pressure or stimulus. They remain calm, cool, and collected. In endurance sports a winner has to objectively strategize in a race without getting emotional.
This means knowing when to attack and when to hold back. Races are fluid situations and strategy must be as well. Crashes, flats, or inclement weather can be a part of any race but a winner will overcome these and continue racing to their best ability. Never quit a race even if it is not going the way you planned. This is a bad habit to get into.
Most athletes tend to over pace and burn out, attempting to race beyond their ability. Have a deliberate strategy planned out. Know your pacing parameters, threshold, and ability, and race accordingly. Race your own race and do not get pulled off your game for any reason. Focus on the process of racing and what is going on in you and around you, not the outcome.
2. Learn From Mistakes
A bad race is only bad if you do not learn from it. Race data is some of the most relevant information you can gather: this is why it is important to never quit a race.
A winner examines race data carefully and adapts and modifies their training to rectify their weaknesses. They do not get discouraged but seek the right questions and answers. They do not make excuses.
Was your performance due to bad pacing lack of proper hydration or fueling? Or was it right on target? You should record your splits, speed, heart rate data (from a heart rate monitor), and if possible power and pacing data.
Sometimes your racing can be right on but your opponent is simply better than you. If that is the case all you can do is train harder and smarter for your next events.
Winners demand precision. This includes precise training, the best equipment, proper rest and recovery, and a nutrition plan to meet their specific demands. The more guess work you take out of these variables, the more performance you will gain. Use every angle to get yourself faster. The right pre-race meal, a new wheel set, a better timed recovery drink, a properly fitted bike, or the right amount of sleep will all help your performance improve. Do not leave anything to chance.
4. No Visions of Grandeur
I always ask potential athletes what they want to gain from their training. I once had a cyclist answer “to win.” On one level this is an admirable aspiration but very few athletes can actually achieve this goal. His experience was minimal and testing indicated he was genetically average, not gifted. He was so discouraged he gave his sport up.
It is important to set reasonable and attainable goals. The best are performance-based (I want to increase my next 5k pace by 5 seconds per mile); versus outcome-based (I want to win such and such race).
Remember that your training dictates your racing and do not expect a huge improvement in performance beyond your known abilities on race day. A winner knows his or her capabilities and seeks to develop them to their maximum potential. He or she does not have expectations beyond what is learned and earned.
5. Eat Pain
Pain threshold is individualized. Some people are able to sustain a high level of pain for long periods of time. Others do not have this ability. This is not a character flaw.
Hospitals now test patients for individual pain threshold and modify medications accordingly. What hurts for some will be discomfort for others. That being said, in order to be a successful athlete you have to develop a tolerance for discomfort and pain.
A developed sprint athlete will spend their entire race at, above, and slightly below their lactate threshold. This type of tolerance for pain takes a lot of focus and mental fortitude, not just in races but in training as well. A winner has the ability to consume this pain and persevere.
6. Get Technical
Random training produces random results whereas specific training produces specific results. Do not expect to be faster by simply putting the time in. Winners train with purpose and specificity.
They seek outside assistance and employ the latest methodologies. They use the best training technology; heart rate monitors, diet software, power meters, pace meters, and cycling computers. If you really want to get fast you need to define your limiters and come up with a corresponding training plan. Use performance tests to regularly assess training progress. Record and track all your work out data. Get a good coach to put this all together for you.
To me a winner is anyone who accepts the challenge of developing to their own true potential. This may mean a podium finish, an age group finish, or a new PR. A winners’ mentality does not just end with racing but extends to many areas of life. It is pride and confidence in utilizing your ability.