Focus, the hardest bit that makes everything easier
A lot of top bike trials riders (but also most other professional athletes) will tell you that beyond their level of fitness and technical expertise, what really distinguishes them from one another and what will make the biggest difference during a competition is their ability to focus and their state of mind on that day. Mental preparation can help you stay focused in challenging situations while visualization will greatly boost your confidence on most trials techniques.
In the mental zone
Even if you haven't been riding for long, you will have noticed that your abilities vary largely from one day to another. Some days your riding flows better, the moves feel more precise, easier to execute. Maybe only during some seconds, everything feels perfect and well controlled, as if your bike was just an extension of your body, like an extra limb you could control perfectly. On these occasions, you probably have unconsciously entered "the zone", reaching a state of mind that drives and coordinates completely all your moves, nearly instinctively as you could imagine them in a perfect flow. This is quite powerful stuff, nothing esoteric, and definitely worth a little bit of introspection.
Figure out the best line
and visualize it as a play-back movie.
A zen state of mind
To be in "the zone" is like reaching a zen state of mind that will give you the best sensations and control in bike trials. The idea behind mental preparation is to actively find ways to enter that very focused state of mind and stay in the zone for as long as possible. That may be for the duration of a competition, putting pressure completely aside and riding to your optimum performance, or simply in quest of that floating moment of perfection on a difficult line. By entering the zone, you will allow your sub-conscious to take over the coordination of the different skills and techniques you have already practised countless times. It frees your mind so you can focus completely on your line, your riding path, instead of consciously worrying about the techniques involved.
Focusing is about putting non-important information aside, eliminating from your mind anything that doesn't depend on you and that you can't influence, to concentrate only on what you can do to perform a move well. Its about concentrating all your attention on the present that counts towards reaching your goal. When focused, you only see what is important to successfully match your expectations.
You eliminate all distractions and are ready for a positive outcome. Now, that positive outcome is often something you have practiced countless times, a sequence of moves, a technique of which you have vivid visual memories. You can set these positive outcomes and your expectations (as high as possible) by preparing yourself mentally using visualization techniques, while off the bike.
Visualizing and feeling the perfect move
Visualization and mental imagery routines can truly boost your riding performance and consistency by offering you a model (a set of feelings and mental impressions) to match physically when you are out riding. Of course, this only works well if you have experienced the move or the technique before, as it is the main basis for your mental imagery while away from the bike.
Often, the key to a successful move is all concentrated in a split second, where the synchronization of a pedal kick, an extension, an acceleration, meets with a correct appreciation of the distance or the obstacle. When you have been practising successfully a particular technique, try to form a mental image of that split second, something imaginary that combines all the sequences and physical perceptions you went through when doing the move successfully. This can include a particular setting, and should definitely have a positive feeling to it.
Later, during a quiet time at home, imagine yourself doing the move you practised, observe yourself execute that perfect move and see again that split second image of the move. Mental imagery is unique to each person, but try to identify what images work for you, they are your keys to entering in the zone. Once you have a set of mental imagery that works, stick to it, this will help you enormously to execute the moves well.
By replaying mentally your known techniques in their best context (when you are most successful at them), you will somehow program your mind and body for the correct moves. Through your brain activity, this visualization reinforces your neuromuscular connections for these techniques, so you will be more connected, the moves become hardwired into your body. You will find that next time you ride, your physical trials session will be more effective, you feel readier.
You can use this mental rehearsal anywhere to review and correct your techniques, during a quiet relaxation time, or even just before falling asleep (talk about biking addiction). After sustaining an injury, mental imagery can help you maintain your skills or techniques and even accelerate recovery while keeping your motivation high. Focusing on the positive experiences will diminish the bad experiences too and clear your mind for the most challenging situations. Mental preparation can be used in any sport, not just for the techniques, but also to set yourself longer term goals, to see yourself in a positive light at competitions and augment your winning appetite.
Did you see that fish?
No, they are not checking out the pond.
Physically in tune with your mind
Now back to reality again, for example in a marked section. As you review the section on foot, try to figure out the best lines and what techniques you are going to use. Once you have identified the best rideable path, try to visualize it by running the techniques mentally (like playing-back a movie of all the transitions).
Try to run it in a perfect world, each transition seen as a perfect move. Try to decompose and see every phase of the entire move (for example a side-hop to front wheel) with the best outcome possible (landing the front wheel exactly where you would want and rolling smoothly) and also try to mentally feel how this would feel in the reality.
Because you probably have already done countless side-hops, you know you are physically fit to perform that technique, but the visualization of the perfect move will reinforce your neuronal connections and boost your confidence. In the section, while performing the actual side-hop, let your sub-conscious drive the action and commit to it. Effectively, you should match physically the sensations you were expecting to feel when you performed the perfect move mentally.
Reviewing the sections on foot help you establish a plan of action and focus on it once you are actually riding. Those who have ridden the section mentally can fully commit to their goal, they have conditioned themselves for a sequence of moves and won't be easily distracted. With no more thinking to do, they can stay focused during the entire course.
Removing mental blocks
I know this may sound strange, but talk to yourself! Let a little voice inside you give you some encouragement. Congratulate yourself when you have managed a difficult line, and take it as your next benchmark of things you know you can do. Try to remember how it felt, and in your next ride, set your goals just one small notch above that current benchmark.
Once ready, believe in yourself
Kenny Belaey (several times world champion and winner of many other European titles) admitted "It helps to tell yourself
"I'm the best and damn the rest", it's kind of rude I know but you've got to be if you want to beat the others".
He encourages riders to always believe in themselves. "But you've got to realize that you can only be that confident
if you know you have done everything to be ready for that specific competition or that specific section.
If you know you did, you can push yourself even more" he adds.
In other words, don't fool yourself into being overconfident, as confidence doesn't compensate for the lack of skills and techniques. It certainly boost your confidence when you have won so many titles as Kenny did, but the key message is to concentrate on yourself and what you can do to optimize your riding performance at the moment you ride.
When you come across some line that you find really difficult, try to think positively about it. What would be your angle, what would be the technique, the run-up distance etc... Don't let "mental blocks" stop you.
A mental block is just the opposite of the positive imagery discussed earlier. It is always visualizing the moves going wrong, when in fact you know the obstacle is within your reach, because you have trained successfully on similar sized obstacles or setups. It often comes associated with a crash you had, or past failures.
For example, if you constantly put a foot down when doing a side-hop, even when you know you jump high-enough, it is probably just because you are not convincing yourself enough that you don't need that foot support. Promise yourself to stick your feet on the pedals before you jump!
Work on changing your perception of the obstacle, look at it differently. Since that crash you have learned many lessons, you are more confident, you know your riding has improved a lot. It is always a small personal victory to come back to an obstacle, or a line that you once tried and couldn't master, and realize you can now ride it without hesitation.