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

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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