‘Cramming races into a short space of time is going to intensify the pressure’: Sports psychologist on racing after lockdown

The peloton is back in action and the Tour de France is just a few weeks away, but how will riders cope? 

(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

The 2020 cycling season has already been an unpredictable affair. 

After a five-month lay off due to coronavirus, the pros are now taking on a completely redesigned calendar with all the major races slotted into a shortened season. 

But for many riders this will have been the longest time in their careers spent away from the peloton, while the jam-packed calendar has increased the pressures they face. 

To find out exactly  how the riders will be coping with the unsettling circumstances, Cycling Weekly has sought out the expertise of sports psychologist Peter Hudson.

With 25 years’ experience as a psychologist in private clinical practice, Hudson has since moved into elite sport and works closely with the CAMS-Tifosi women’s UCI team. 

“I think the riders who are well prepared mentally and physically will do well,” Hudson said.

“But I think for many others they will encounter difficulties they didn’t expect because they’re racing a lot in a short space of time. 

“It’s a psychologically stressful experience, cramming races into a short space of time is going to intensify the pressure on everyone so there may well be some surprises.’ 

Hudson said the mental pressure elite riders face are not so different from those of lower-level competitors - severe anxiety about competition, lack of confidence and negative thinking can all hamper a rider’s performance come race day. 

But fortunately there are plenty of techniques available to help deal with the demands of competition. 

Hudson said: “Obviously will spend lots of time on training, on nutrition, technical equipment and kit and all those kinds of things. And sometimes the mental preparation for racing is an area that's neglected so the the first job really of a sports psychologist is to emphasise the importance of mental preparation, alongside of all those others. 

“So the kinds of strategies that we encourage riders to adopt involve trying to maximise the positive flow of thinking in relation to the competition, so that they're emphasising their strengths, their successes. 

“They could point to the fact that they've been training hard and you know they're at the peak of fitness and trying to reduce the impact of any sort of negative thinking in terms of doubts, loss of confidence, 'the opposition are better than me' and that kind of thing.”

Since racing re-started, we’ve already caught a glimpse of who has come out of lockdown with their motivation in tact , with Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) two stand-out names who have dominated since racing returned. 

Van Vleuten has won all over her races so far this year, including a trio of Spanish stages races and Strade Bianche after the season restarted, while Van Aert took Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and won the opening stage of the Criterium du Dauphine.

Hudson said: “There's an ability to be highly motivated to come back to racing because that's their job. 

“The fact that the normal season of racing is compressed into three or four months, for the elite riders who are doing lots of racing in that period the issue of mental recovery between races will be crucial.”

But that domination of a select few riders could ebb as the season continues, with more and more riders finding their feet again within the bunch.

>>> Strava stats from Wout van Aert, Chris Froome and Tadej Pogačar reveal how tough day one of Critérium du Dauphiné was 

Hudson added: “It may take a little bit longer to get tuned in again to the aspects of competition. 

“And I think those who perhaps have done some of the online racing will probably be a little bit of an advantage in that respect because they will be slightly more mentally prepared if they've been using those Zwift races in that way.” 

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