Pressure, process, positivity and focus. Winning the Tour de France is also in the mind, writes Kath Bicknell.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

It takes a complete rider to win the Tour. Someone who can climb, time trial and handle a bike.

It takes a well-drilled team to protect this rider and lay the groundwork that allows them to shine when the moment is right. Years of physical development are just as important, as are the technological innovations that channel what that physical effort can produce.

Every second counts out on that road. Winning is therefore part physiology, part teamwork, part equipment, part course design…and when you look at things like a rider's ability to handle pressure, respond to change, make decisions on the fly, winning the Tour is also in the mind.

The catch? Psychology tells us that people will often perform better if they avoid focusing on the win. It's better to focus on process instead.

So far, the biggest changes to the general classification have happened after Stage 5 (the cobbles), Stage 6 (Froome's abandonment) and Saturday's first significant climbing test on Stage 8.

After putting nearly two minutes into his main rivals on the crash-filled Stage 5 cobblefest, Astana's Vencenzo Nibali responded to baited questions about winning with: "…I'll keep my feet on the ground. I want to remain quiet. It's still a long way away with lots of mountains and everybody has seen today that crashes can happen."

Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) lost 2min 35sec on the general classification that day, but kept it in perspective as well: "I'd rather lose a minute more than have a crash and the Tour has only closed its first of many chapters," he said, keeping things focused on process and making in-the-moment decisions that calmly reflected a broader performance plan.

Riding purely for external gratification not only increases pressure, it can slow athletes down. They worry about protecting the win rather than keeping their awareness locked in the moment of competition. And that moment-to-moment awareness is crucial for the quick responses to action that come with being 'in the zone' or maintaining a sense of flow.

Following Chris Froome's withdrawal this week, Team Sky Manager Dave Brailsford also demonstrated the importance of a positive mindset when tackling a high-pressure situation.

"Resilience is a key part of this sport and the lads are resilient," said Brailsford. "But also optimistic."

"It's a new opportunity for us and it's something different," he added, speaking about the team riding in support of Australian, Richie Porte. "It brings a different kind of mentality to it. Now it's much more adventurous and very, very upbeat to be honest.

"The tables have turned, it's a different situation to be in and it's exciting."

What's also exciting is seeing the way these three favourites responded to the first big climb of the Tour on Saturday. Thinking positive won't get a rider to the top of a climb by itself, in the same way an aero helmet isn't the only ingredient in a good time trial result. But when every second counts, and consistency is key, mental strategies are an important part of the mix.

If Team Sky had dwelled on the negative aspects of Froome's departure they would have wasted precious energy that is necessary for working toward a bigger picture goal. Instead, the team shifted focus to the new opportunities and the personal development this situation brings. There's no mistaking that this response fits within what we know about the minutes gained by mental fitness as well.

Brailsford isn't dancing around saying Porte will win this tour, he's keeping things in perspective, one backed by optimistic realism. This in turn reduces the pressure on Porte, while favouring the conditions for success.

As you watch the next stages unfold, take a moment to think about the psychological aspects of the ways different riders respond. Do they react to the day's racing with anxiety and worry, or do they keep their reasoning focused on the most productive and positive ways forward, elements they can control?

Three weeks makes for a long race and resilience, adaptability, and cognitive flexibility are key. As we watch these riders on the road to Paris, we can learn a lot about how to tackle plans, goals and high-pressure situations in our own lives too.

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