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I think Henry Ford said it best: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t. You’re right.”

Self talk has a positive or negative effect on your mountain biking performance and your ability to handle technical aspects of a trail or race course. If you roll up to every obstacle on the trail and think, “Holy $&@# — I’m gonna crash,” guess what? You’re probably going to crash. Replacing these negative statements with positive self talk can go a long way toward helping you take your riding (and training) to the next level.

Photo: Jerry Hazard

Photo: Jerry Hazard

I’m not proposing that you should go launch off a 20-foot drop with a “I’m gonna land this thing perfect” statement unless, of course, you’ve had the training and progressions required to prepare you for that drop. Note: Positive self talk is not a replacement for skills training; it allows you to use your skill set effectively.

It is also a way to allow you to have more success and avoid self sabotage, or self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe in yourself (really, really believe), and trust the training and experience you’ve obtained to prepare you for this moment in your ride, you’ll have much higher odds of success.

Here are some other tips to help you get the best results when dealing with technical aspects of a trail.

1. Get in your ready position. Head up, knees out, off the saddle, etc. Feel strong, breath deep, look fierce. This will have a dramatic influence on your ability to handle the task at hand.

2. Use positive self talk. Get passionate about it–say it like you mean it! Saying things like, “I’m ready for this,” and “I can handle this” sends messages to your brain and body to get ready for success.

3. Visualize yourself doing the skills successfully. Before hitting that jump, get off your bike and look at the jump. Visualize your take off, time in the air, and smooth landing. Once you’ve got it in your head, go for it!

4. Think back to a time when you had previous success with the same or a similar skill. Embrace the feelings of success you felt in the past. Allow the feelings associated with your previous success to prepare you for the task or obstacle you’re about to tackle.

Photo: Jerry Hazard

Photo: Jerry Hazard

Replacing “I can’t” with “I’ve got this” does a lot for your confidence. When things get stressful, replace “F this, I hate my mountain bike,” with “Relax, breathe, ready position, let it roll.”

Positive self-talk isn’t just effective with technical aspects of the trail–it can also have a great effect on fitness performance. A recent study showed that positive self-talk can reduce time taken to complete a 10km time trial. This study is nicely summarized here by Yann Le Meur. Another study showed that positive self-talk can increase time to exhaustion, summarized again by Yann Le Meur here.

Photo: Derek Hermon

Photo: Derek Hermon

Rate of perceived exertion (RPE, how hard you think you’re working) is important in endurance sports. Reducing it through positive self-talk is a great way to improve performance. Swapping in a few phrases such as, “I’m killing it today,” “I feel powerful,” and “My legs feel great,” at key moments can be an easy way to add more miles and/or more watts.

Here’s a great example form Ian Sharman, winner of the 2013 Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run and holder of the fastest 100-mile trail time in the U.S. (12 hours, 44 minutes):

“If someone is on my heels or just ahead, then I keep repeating in my head, ‘Just keep pushing.’ It stops me from easing off even a little bit so that if I slow or if the terrain gets easier, I kick it up a notch. Having someone close in a race like that is the biggest motivator for me near the end of a race like Western States.

When I feel exhausted and there’s still so far to go, I remind myself that this is what all the hard training is for–to be able to close out races and not fade. I repeat to myself that this is where the memories will be made and that I can either look back on it and know I gave up or look back and know I gave it everything.”

I often use the statement, “bike is ready, I’m ready.” Other famous positive self talk statements you may have heard from accomplished athletes are “Be brave!” and “Shut up legs!” Before your next ride, sit down and think about 10 or so positive statements you can incorporate in your self talk. If you have one you really like, perhaps print it out and stick it to your handle bars, or write it on your hand before your event!

Your Turn: Do you have a personal self talk statement you want to share? Post it in the comments section below!

Richard La China is Professional XC MTB racer and a USA Cycling-certified coach who works with beginner to pro Xterra athletes and XC racers as well as non-competitive recreational riders. To get more riding and skills tips, subscribe to the free Ninja Mountain Bike Skills newsletter.

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# Comments

  • Michael Paul

    Great article…I was honestly skeptical with the title, but I am very glad I read this and feel like it is a helpful piece that can help any rider at any level. Thanks! Good choice of photos for the article too

  • Richard La China

    Michael, a little skepticism is always healthy. Glad you took the time to read it and got something out of it. And, I couldn’t agree more — Singletracks does an amazing job on the photos!

  • GTXC4

    “Doin’ it!” Have been for years. It’s safe to say, I’m known by this.

    • Richard La China

      That’s great, you should trademark that! #doin’it

  • Fitch

    Great article, and much needed by me! I always psyche myself out and get overly-concerned about things when on my own, but ride so much better with a group… I guess that’s the power of positive thinking!

    • Richard La China

      Very true! Riding in a group helps out a lot, especially if the group level is at, or slightly above, yours. It creates a “See one, do one” type of thing, where you see the riders in front of you do something you know you can do, but might be hesitant to do on your own, but then think, “Well they just did it, I can do it.” **Caveat: This attitude can sometimes get you in trouble if you’re using it for a skill that you’re not familiar with. Like I said above, positive self talk (and equating yourself with others), is not a substitute for proper skills progression training.

  • Scott Stephen

    I have always talked to myself when racing, mostly along the lines of “catch him, go on crank the tempo, catch him” ” now pass him” ” you’re fitter than him, use your training” and my mantra has always been “strength and honour”, it’s about having the strength to get out when the weathers bad and train, but also about being able to dig deep when it hurts and finish with nothing left in the tank, and about honouring yourself by giving it your all win or come last, and showing honour to the ones who’ve trained and ridden with me and to my loved ones who sacrifice time with me so I can go out and ride and train.

  • RobertD

    Thanks for the article. It does help to think positive thoughts out there. One caveat. Sometimes the mind says go and the body says no. I think it helps to know the difference. My .02

  • Brian K. Holder

    Re-reading this article. Some great take-aways. I love the third-person statement suggestion, as well as positive, rather than neutral statements. When to use positive self-speak is as important as how.
    My input is to keep it short. Things happen fast in MTBing. Don’t get caught saying, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important” before that next chunky berm or gap jump.
    “YES Brian!” before you hit the lip is great, though you first want to be proficient so that you need not concentrate on technical aspects.
    Beginning riders start off in their heads! “Yikes!” they say. Then they become very body conscious as they begin to learn balance and body position. Next they progress to “riding the bike,” where they think about shifting, which is the rear brake, etc. We then progress to “riding the trail” where we start looking ahead for the line, the exit of the turn…
    The best moments in mountain biking are when we are comfortable enough to observe and enjoy. Watch Nate Hills followcamfriday vids. Mostly he laughs, or cheers about what just happened. “Braaap” “Yes!” Nice” etc.He is in the moment when executing. The joy he has comes through in positive speak.

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