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How important is the mental approach to winning races? | The Question

How important is the mental approach to winning races? | The Question

Billy Thackray Billy Thackray

You’ve got the skills and the fitness but is the secret to winning races all in the mind?

Readers of Dirt Magazine will be familiar with this feature we call “The Question”. We thought it would be interesting to throw it out to you lot on the World Wide Web to hear your thoughts and views.

The race season has started, all the training has been done, but when it comes to the crunch just how important is the mental approach to winning?

So we posed the question, when it comes to winning World Cup downhill races how much is about the physical/skill side of the sport and how much is down to a rider’s mental approach?

Both are important, but how do you think the balance works for the top riders?


I sincerely believe that you need to be fully prepared to win a World Cup race. And for that, all parameters need to be well calculated and fully pushed to each limit. The limits are often not at the maximum but more where I would call the ‘optimum’. The optimum is the perfect compromise where skills and preparation meet fun on the bike.

Every top rider must have been facing the situation where fun has gone because there is too much pressure on results. This is where the mental side of riding will interfere with performance. We will develop our own philosophy to transform this situation into a force.

Every top athlete will have a different point of view but each of us will find the one that suit him the best to perform. I have seen many very skilful riders over the year and only very few will reach the top. It means one thing to me, that you have to be a good rider to reach World Cup level but you have to be mentally strong to win it.


Physical fitness is of course extremely important – strength, power and agility can help you in a run, but if you really want a fast time, be fast on the bike not fast in the gym. Conditioning simply enables you to cope with the demands of a season of racing World Cup DH rather than just the specific three–minutes of a run.

Stringing together a winning run for World Cup DH is more than fitness or skill, it’s mental acuity and toughness. There is no room for error and any mistake can cost you the win – that brings with it enormous performance pressure. It’s as singular and incisive as a 100m sprint. The one thing all the top riders have in common is the ability to absorb that pressure and to some extent use it, they’re not phased by it…at all. They use specific warm ups for the mind as well as ergogenic aids like caffeine.

In the world of elite athletes, mental acuity and toughness is king. World Cup DH is no different, our bodies are the instruments of our mind. I don’t care how fit, fast or strong you are, if you haven’t got the mental acuity and toughness to hold it together for a DH run at world level, the win will be out of reach.


Training for a World Cup downhill competition is a long and complicated process. Downhill is indeed a very demanding sport. You need amazing riding skills. You of course need to be able to develop high sprint power, but you also need to be fit in order to survive a whole day (sometimes three or four days) of training before entering he actual competition as fresh as possible. Last but not least you also need to have strong mental strength in order to ride at 100%, controlling fear, excitement, stress and pressure.

Whatever they say, all of the top 20 World Cup contenders train or at least try to train those different areas. Some of them seem to do it with better success than others, so what matters the most? The key to training is to base it on the individual. This means that a training program should be made for you based on your strengths and weaknesses, if your skills are your weakness, work on them…

But the psychological side of performance is definitely the most complicated and the hardest to measure, this is what will get you to use 100% of your full potential or not. What makes it so complicated and crucial is that psychology can change dramatically over a very short amount of time, based on any fact or situation that can affect confidence in a positive or negative way. Weather conditions, opponents, the way your training went, a few words exchanged with some people (mechanic, manager, coach), etc. You can go from 100% down to 75%, or from 90% up to 100%.

Nobody can really say fitness is X%, skills Y% and mental Z%, but what we all know is that mental strength can change a performance in no time, when typically the fitness and skills you have developed don’t really change in a couple of days.

At the end of the day when it comes to entering the top ten or not, getting on the podium or not, or ultimately winning or not, the psychological side will be what does make the difference.

So whatever the ratio between fitness, skills and mental strength are, when we are looking at small differences in performance mental strength is the factor that can have the biggest influence and most of all can change the result in a very short time.

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  1. Tom_

    Interesting points, although I think this only touches parts of it. At the very base of this, it is pretty clear that racing (and a lot of other sports) are completely against our genetic and social “coding”. It is simply is not natural for a usually risk-averse human to slam into a boulder field at breakneck speeds. In this sense, your conscious mind is constantly fighting your body to do something your “inner sense” tells you is rather stupid. I am sure everyone has experienced this p.ex. before a new jump.

    However, my observation is that in downhill there are different styles to this – some are more natural risk takers and are ready to pay the price (Missy Giove) while others are relying not only on their human capacity but also on “divine support” (Aaron Gwin) for things to go right. Minnaar is surely in a similar boat with his “one life” approach. So in this sense, Barel is right – every Athlete has its own philosophy to overcome this.

  2. one_T

    “At the very base of this, it is pretty clear that racing (and a lot of other sports) are completely against our genetic and social “coding” ”

    Speaking frankly, that is a load of bollocks. Firstly you assume that all humans share the same genetics and societal influences, and secondly that they all react in the same way to those influences. Humans make choices based on a huge amount of factors, many of which are on a ‘risk versus reward’ level. You’ve even illustrated this with your description of (presumably your own) emotions prior to attempting a new jump. To state that humans are naturally risk-averse is over-simplistic at best, and is out of context when the subject matter involves humans that are clearly willing to accept a high level of risk as the norm.

    Apologies for being a little off topic, but you needed calling out on the GCSE level analysis, although I agree with your observation that “there are different styles to this”. Way to go!

    But finally, I can never argue with Barel’s opinions. Who could?

  3. Doc Wat

    In my first ever enduro race (first ever race with a DH bias in fact) I binned it more times in a day than I had done in the previous year of riding.
    Why did I become a crash machine all of a sudden?
    The red mist of racing descended and I didn’t ride like myself.
    Experience is pretty important in these situations and I feel like I learned alot from that first race.
    It must be alot harder for the top guys and gals who do it for a living and you really have to respect them for their focus and ability to ride so well under pressure.

  4. billy

    My riding isn’t good at the best of times but when a clock comes out my head and riding ability go to jelly. That’s why I quite like running races, I’ve never fallen off a road yet.

    But if somebody could bottle the composure of a World Cup rider I’d buy it by the gallon.

  5. Ask Frank

    To become a world class racer you will need many attributes as mentioned above strength, power, stamina, skills, endurance etc etc. All these elements will begin to converge the higher up the level of racing. Before long the racers are looking for any edge they can take and quite often the mental game is the least worked on element but quite likely one of the most important for improvement.

    There are some interesting lines to take on this also, for example if you are mentally OK riding during practice* and then come race/seeding time you find yourself getting nervous or anxious, this will use energy in a detrimental way. Potentially losing you valuable seconds from fuzzy thinking, lack of confidence in your riding or even tight muscles.

    Barel makes the point that situations become “no fun” and he is right. This is because the racers will tend to inhibit emotions to reduce the tension, however this will also reduce the amount of fun and enjoyment they get from riding/racing.

    How many times have you nailed a corner/rock garden/rooty section at warp speed and had the wheel skit out and you have just saved it. How good did that feel at the bottom? Racers live by the sword and die by it also…..the key is not to be scared of the sword….lol.

    This is a vast topic and I think we all could a lot from how the mental approach translates other sports also.

    (* How many times have you heard someone in a Dirt or Vital vid/slideshow say how riders like Ben Reid, Needles and Fairclough etc are the quickest riders in practice??)

  6. stuart

    I agree with Billy I’m way faster riding with my mates than at a race purely because the mental pressure isn’t there other than chase the one in front!

  7. ronin

    aaron gwin’s article in the last decline supports Barel’s view. the tag line for gwin’s article was “i love riding my bike, ALWAYS HAVE, but I’ve never really loved racing”. Elite level racing is about one thing only, results because the obligations and commitments to those who pay you to deliver those results expect it. it’s a job.

  8. Eoin

    I always like Blenki’s quote which he uses fairly often “My first practice run felt like my race run, and I usually do well when that happens”. I know he is referring more to how much he likes the track, but I think it also comes down to putting him in a particular mindset of enjoying riding, rather than having to learn/session the track and worry about his result.
    With regards to Barel’s comments, I dont think anyone on here can truly put themselves in the shoes of someone who needs to get that top 10 to earn their living. As much as it is the dream for many, it must a huge amount of pressure, and the training required must make you pretty sick of bikes at times!
    Downhill: it’s got it all!!!

  9. Optimus Doddsy

    I think the mind is often overlooked, if your minds in gear your body will follow, for example, i was at a track the other day with a mate, ive only ridden this track 6 times and whilst there bumped into a local lad, right lil ripper, who lives a stones throw from said track and has been riding it for over 3 years, knows it like the back of his hand, wet and dry, so he leads me and my mate out on a run, and just disappeared infront of us, so quick, left us for dead. Now its important to mention this lad is 14 yrs old, im 27, my mate’s 36, so 2 things instantly sprang to mind, 1, pride, im not getting beaten by a kid, and 2, the mental battle with myself to let off the anchors a bit more in order to ride faster and catch this kid. Now i didnt catch the kid but i wasnt far behind. The point is, buy being mentally stimulated (mind) to beat this kid, i rode way faster (body), and better(body), then i would normally had. If your minds in gear, your body will follow….

  10. dirt dodger

    your racer head is very different from your practice head – plain n simple, some can, some can’t. being fit and strong is vital but if you are in a nervous state or cannot manage the emotions it’s always going to be made more difficult regardless of your physical attributes, im not the fittest by any stretch but i often beat guys who whip my arse on XC rides – why – because my heads in a different place and i am willing to take risks….plus we require a little luck to go along with our skills 😉


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