Building Psychological Resilience and Coping with the Pressures of Mountain Bike Racing

A multi-faceted framework for building a mindset that is resilient to the challenges of mountain bike competition.
Amaury Pierron. photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

Editor’s note: This content was originally prepared as part of a master’s thesis and has been edited.

The ability to perform at your best under pressurized conditions is without question one of the most important skills to develop for success in competition, however, it is incredibly hard to do so. One way that you can improve your ability to perform under competitive settings is building psychological resilience. This refers to the ability for an individual to utilize their mental processes and behaviors to withstand or adapt to environmental demands. To become more psychologically resilient, it is essential to develop your personal qualities, create a facilitative environment, and build a challenge mindset. 

Personal qualities

Personal qualities are viewed as the psychological factors that protect you from the potential negative effects of stress and pressure. Integrating psychological skills training into your training program is the best way to develop personal qualities. Psychological skills are strategies that enhance and optimize functioning. Three skills which I believe to be of greatest use for cyclists are: goal setting, imagery, and attention control.

Goal setting

Arguably the most important skill to achieving success. Here are three tips for goal setting.

1. Ensure you follow the SMART framework. Your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.
2. Develop short, medium, and long-term goals.
3. Use a combination of process (e.g. improving technique and strategy) and performance goals (e.g. obtaining a personal best).

Mental imagery

Imagery is one of the most applied psychological skills in sport due to its simplicity and effectiveness. Imagery helps to mentally prepare you for demanding situations which should hopefully lead to a higher degree of confidence when demanding situations occur. Two-time male Downhill World Champion Fabien Barel was well known for using this skill before race runs.

Attention control

The ability to control your attention, particularly in stressful situations is essential for sporting success, and is at the core of what resilience is all about. It is however easier to write about rather than apply in practice. When we perform under high pressures, the direction and the capacity of our attentional focus reduces which can lead to an excessive focus on external stimuli which can distract you from your own performance. 

If you focus on what you want to avoid before what you want to achieve, you have already lost.

Dr. Dave Alred MBE – Elite Performance Coach

A method for improving attentional control is through mindfulness. Mindfulness is achieved through focusing your attention on the present moment. A great example of mindfulness is breathing exercises. As simple as it sounds, focusing on the process of breathing in and out can help you to become more self-aware and conscious of your own performance before a race run.

Creating a facilitative environment

Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

It is essential to create a setting that fosters the development of psychological resilience. There are two components to create this environment: challenge and support. The balance of challenge and support is essential to get right, as too much of either effectively stunts development.


It’s important to never settle or be content with where you are. Times change. You have to keep improving.

Greg Minnaar, World Cup downhill racer

How you can create a challenge environment

  • Have high expectations of yourself and don’t settle for second best.
  • Set goals which challenge you and take you out your comfort zone.
  • Take accountability for your actions, particularly when you have made mistakes. If you can’t accept your own mistakes, how are you going to learn and grow from experiences?
  • Seek out all forms of feedback, both positive and negative. Utilize developmental feedback, and recognize areas for improvement in order to strengthen them.
  • Introduce pressure training into your program. Increase either the demands or increase the significance of the situation to invoke a stress response. The aim is that despite the pressure increasing, performance will be maintained. For example, timing yourself in training, imposing punishments and rewards for certain outcomes, practicing on courses which you don’t feel particularly comfortable on, or practicing in all-weather conditions.


Support is a valuable resource that helps to guide an athlete to a state of mental resilience. Here are a few tips to build support around you.

  • Surround yourself with those who support you. Whether you’re a grassroots performer or at the elite level, having a network of people who support your vision is essential.
  • Encourage motivational feedback. Focusing purely on critical feedback will become meaningless. A focus on what has been effective will help in developing resilience.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings with others. Holding in how you’re feeling is a maladaptive process. Having others around you who know how you’re feeling will help you tackle setbacks and adversity.

Developing a challenge mindset

Photo: Boris Beyer / Red Bull Content Pool

When you approach an evaluation or competition with a threat mindset, the demands of the situation are perceived to outweigh your personal ability and resources, and can result in poor performance under pressure. However, a challenge mindset is where you are able to positively evaluate pressure in challenging situations.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

William Shakespeare

Three ways to develop a challenge mindset

  • Acceptance – A challenge mindset doesn’t mean you won’t encounter any negative consequences from stressful situations. We are all human and negative thoughts are inevitable. However, the ability to accept these thoughts is key to sustaining a challenge mindset.
  • Confront your mind – Actively stop negative thoughts. When you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with negativity, take a step back, be assertive, and take control of your thoughts. If you can eliminate these negative thoughts, replace them with positive thoughts which are in your control and focus on the present moment.
  • Utilize psychological skills – Practice the above mentioned skills and you will promote self-confidence, which helps to create a challenge mindset when approaching high pressure situations.

Concluding remarks

When preparing for competitions, there should be as much focus on metal preparation as there is on the physical preparation. Incorporating these three areas into your training programs will ensure you are taking the right steps to prepare mentally for a competition. Putting your efforts into one area such as psychological skills does not equate to the development of psychological resilience. It is important to note that all three areas must be practiced in conjunction as they are designed to complement one another.