• Performing well is also in the mind (Getty Images) (Getty Images Europe)
Riders at the Tour de France are under enormous pressure, not just to win, but to keep winning, to please their sponsors and, in some cases, secure their jobs for the season ahead. So how do they cope? And how can we apply these strategies to our own lives?
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22 Jul 2015 - 6:01 AM 

One rider who is under considerable pressure at this year’s Tour de France is Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep). While the "Manx Missile" has a reputation as a prolific stage winner, and showed that he still has the form to do so by winning the sprint on Stage 7, recent results have not gone in the direction he would have hoped.

Cavendish notched up 25 Tour de France stage wins between 2008 and 2013. He crashed out of the 2014 Tour on the opening stage. He had two near misses before the Stage 7 victory, a win that was one part celebration and one part relief after breaking a two-year Tour de France drought.

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While his team is doing exceptionally well, with Tony Martin, Zdeněk Štybar adding to the stage wins tally in the opening week, there have also been some unfortunate challenges.

Martin crashed out the same day Štybar took his victory. Ahead of Stage 15, one earmarked for Cavendish, the Briton suffered from stomach problems and was forced to dig deep just to finish inside the cut-off time.

This makes him an interesting case study for performance under pressure. Looking at Cav’s comments over the first two weeks of the Grand Boucle, there are tell-tale signs of anxiety and stress getting in the way of each attempt at results he has proved he is capable of in the past.

Cavendish admitted as much himself, and said in an interview after his Stage 7 victory.

"I've just been a bit over anxious the last two times and today was about not being impatient. I almost left it too long this time, I waited so long," he revealed.

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Curious to think this through further, I turned to my research colleague, Dr Wayne Christensen.

Christensen and I work together in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University. While my research is interested in the things that come together when performance goes well, one of Christensen’s (many) areas of expertise is what happens when exceptional athletes falter.

“Cavendish’s interview after Stage 7 had warning signs that he’s suffering from difficulties with performance pressure,” Christensen told me.

“Success for a sprinter depends on fraction-of-a-second decisions, and anxiety is going to disturb that decision-making process.”

The good news is that there are ways to get his winning edge back on track.

“One of the interesting things about all this is that some of the problems he’s having are predictable and could possibly be avoided, or at least reduced, with the right strategy,” Christensen said.

While Cavendish certainly has the physiological capacity to continue his winning ways, his recent performances under pressure point toward a phenomenon commonly referred to as "choking", defined as a significant or catastrophic decline in performance, at a critical moment, caused by a stress response.

This is not to say that Cav is choking in the catastrophic sense, but when every split second counts, it's a useful way to think about the impacts anxiety or negativity might be having on some elements of his performance. It also makes us think more carefully about how stress can affect us in certain situations, too.

Think, for instance, about how your computer skills might decline when someone is standing behind you, watching your every move. Or how you don’t always communicate the way you want to when you’re speaking in front of a crowd or to someone you want to impress.

“The background to this is research by sports psychologists, Denise Hill and colleagues in particular, that has identified some key differences between people who do well under pressure and those who have problems," Christensen explained.

“Choking tends to occur in situations of high significance, and one of the key differences between chokers and those who do well concerns the way they appraise situation: chokers tend to see the situation predominantly in terms of threat, while non-chokers see it in terms of opportunity.”

This is what makes a rider like Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) so interesting to watch. While the Tour is also his to lose, in his statements to the press after each stage, he consistently focuses on opportunities ahead and processes he can control.

Sky is another team which is extremely process focused, which I covered in a blog this time last year. 

“A key issue, then, is understanding what explains this difference,” said Christensen.

“Chokers tend to focus on the personal significance of the outcome, and some may be looking for self-validation; they have high expectations and look for big wins to boost their sense of self-worth.

“Chokers are also sensitive to the expectations of their circle and worry about being perceived as failing. Non-chokers are also highly motivated but they channel their focus on to the task, and they de-emphasise the significance of the outcome and the expectations of others.

“They don’t become highly self-critical in response to failures, they see it as just part of the deal, and focus on improving what they can control.”

The difficulty for a rider like Cavendish, is that having achieved so much already, it’s almost impossible to separate each win from the significance of the outcome, or how it relates to external pressures and rewards. But no one can stay that dominant forever and, as this Tour has demonstrated, other riders are always ready to pounce.

“One of the nasty things about choking is that it can have long-term effects,” said Christensen. “It damages self-confidence, which can make future high-stakes situations all the more threatening.”

Consequently, a downward spiral can quickly begin.

One further sign of Cav’s reponse to current performance pressures is the blog he wrote during the first rest day of this Tour. It not only provided further insights into the pressure he’s under, but it demonstrated that he’s not enjoying each stage as much as may have previously.

“In fact, in a strange way, I’m looking forward to the next mountainous half of the Tour de France to 'relax'. Not the legs of course, just the head. I’m looking forward to just suffering. No need to ride 200km with my fingers slightly contracted over my brake levers. No need to ride 200km with my elbow constantly touching someone's hip. No need to ride 200km with Brian Holm telling us to stay at the front after we’ve just passed a roundabout on the wrong side and lost 60 positions.” - Mark Cavendish

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Part of racing at the highest level is being hyper vigilant, but this comes across with more of a negative weight compared to the euphoric observations people report when they’re in a more pleasurable flow-type state.

Christensen points out that Australian track cyclist, Anna Meares, is an interesting comparison. She has also been dominant over a long career in the sport and has been threatened by younger challengers.

This article reported that she used carefully chosen techniques that de-emphasised outcomes and the expectations of others, and allowed her to focus on and enjoy the process. This enabled her to maintain the world-beating performance she is capable of. 

So, what are some of the things Cavendish could do to relieve any negative impacts of performance pressure he may be feeling, things we can call on in our own lives, too?

“The basic thing is you want to be positively rather than negatively focused,” Christensen said. “The situation needs to be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.”

 


Some techniques to avoid poor performance under pressure:

- Preparation. Non-chokers are extremely will prepared.

- Mental simulation of the pressure situation. Non-chokers imagine high-pressure situations in advance. This helps them cope when they get to the situation because they know what to expect and have more sense of control.

- Cognitive re-interpretation. Non-chokers reinterpret high pressure situations, limiting negative thoughts and focus positively on their performance process. They de-emphasise the significance of outcomes and don’t become excessively self-critical when failures happen. They accept chance and that some things are outside their control.

- Have realistic expectations and don’t over invest personal self-worth in particular outcomes. Do it because you enjoy it.

- Have strong performance routines. Non-chokers have robust performance routines that can carry them through difficult situations.


 

Personally, for the sake of an exciting finale to the Tour, and as a sign of even greater racing to come, I hope that after a tough three weeks on the road, the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées are seen as the biggest opportunity yet.