By Dr. Patrick J. Cohn
On the start line, you were so confident that day, you believed no one could race with you. On the track, racing felt effortless and smooth. You were in the flow on every jump, bump, and turn. Your rhythm was perfect in the whoops. Every section of the track was executed just as you saw in your mind. Your mind was so immersed into racing each section--one at a time--that you were oblivious to other racers. Today you were not checking to see who was behind you. Your motorcycle responded with ease to every thought—it felt like an extension of you. The feeling of being in complete control of yourself and your emotions was awesome. It was so fun to race the track just as you have envisioned in your mind. Only after the moto did you realize that you raced the moto of your life and found an elusive state of peak performance called “the zone".
Nothing is more exciting for athletes than performing in the zone. The zone is a peak performance state in which the mental, physical, and strategic parts of racing come together at once. When racing in the zone and going fast with ease, motocross is fun, immensely satisfying, and feels second nature. To get into a zone state, you must be focused on the task, very self-confident, race with trust and composure, and be decisive with your race plan. In this article, I will discuss the mindset of racers when in the peak performance zone.
“You can have a good bike and have all the talent in the world, but if you don't believe in yourself and know that you can win, you will have a hard time at the races.” --Ricky Carmichael
Confidence is the first mental tool to entering the zone. You cannot race your best without a high level of self-confidence. You know the confident type—the James Stewarts of the Motocross world who have a total conviction and belief in their ability. Most racer’s confidence comes from success and winning, but how will you get onto the podium if you do not first believe you can win? Too many racers doubt their ability to race up front right at the wrong time. I teach racers to take responsibility for their confidence by fueling their confidence and teaching them how to battle those malicious doubts that pop into a racer’s mind at the wrong time.
“I try to visualize the entire race beforehand. As the actual races gets closer at hand, I start to focus more specifically on the start.” --Rick Johnson
The second mental tool to getting into the zone is your ability focus the mind in the present moment, the so-called here and now. Most racers can concentrate, but may not focus on the right areas. Racing the track one section at a time and not getting ahead of yourself is the foundation of a zone focus. You can’t make yourself get in the zone, but you can train your mind to focus on the right areas so you are dialed in when the gate drops. In addition, coping with distractions are part of racing. The racer who learns how to ignore the distractions and focus on the task will beat most racers who get distracted.
The third mental tool to entering the zone is a racer’s ability to get into a “flow” on race day. Ricky Carmichael has a great work ethic and trains hard, but to win he must be able to rely on his training and get into a rhythm on race day. Some racers ruin their rhythm by trying too hard or forcing it on race day. The ability to perform effortlessly and trust your instincts is the foundation for getting into a zone state. My motocross students call this feeling as being “in the flow,” “in a rhythm,” “just reacting,” or “automatic.” You must be able to trust your practice and ability on race day do you can “just do it” and react to the track.
“Don’t try to blast your way around the track. Find a nice pace and stay with it. Relax. When you are nervous, your arms tend to pump up.” –Jeremy McGrath
In pressure situations or in national events, the tendency is to tighten up, try too hard, and not trust you ability. Focusing too much on clutch release or body position for example upsets the natural rhythm and flow of riding because you are consciously forcing it and not letting it happen. This bogs down timing and throws off your natural rhythm. The purpose of practice is to make it feel reflexive when you perform on the track. When you race, let your instincts, built on a ton of practice, take over.
The fourth mental tool is composure. When performing in the zone, racers feel very much in control of themselves and thus their performance. Sports require a balanced emotional level. The key is to be excited to race but not over excited, intense but not too intense, ready to race, but not overanxious to race, and feel challenged but not anxious. Feeling pumped and excited can help you race better, but fear and anxiety ruin your mindset. I help my students find the balance between feeling excited and being over excited.
“Only race because you love it. Race because you can express yourself. Race because it's the most fun thing you can do!” --Rick Johnson
Lastly, you have to have fun with your racing to get into the zone. How could racing not be fun you ask? One way is if you put too much pressure on yourself to win or get on the podium. Another way is if you feel expectations from others such as your parents or manufacturers to win. These can cause fear, trying too hard, doubt, and tension, all mental breakdowns that will prevent you from entering the zone. Approach each moto like a fun game because you love the feeling of hitting that jump just right or hauling around a corner and you will be more likely to find your flow on race day.
Dr. Patrick J. Cohn is sports psychology expert and world-renowned mental game coach who works with athletes in all sports including national level Motocross racers, NASCAR drivers, and CART teams. For more information on his mental game coaching programs and developing a championship mindset, visit http://www.peaksports.com or call 888-742-7225.