Check Up From the Neck Up: Tapping into the ride changing power of your mind

Zen-Stones-300x223A centered, focused mind allows a man to exceed the sum of his psychological parts. – Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training

What is the point of having the best bike and training your butt off so you are in great shape if the most important part of the whole equation is lacking? In other words, until you can harness the power of your mind then why does anything else matter?

One of the more common questions I get from mountain bike riders, especially those that race, is how to focus and avoid “blowing it” when it counts. My first response is that if you ride not to “blow it” instead of to have fun or “kill it” then you’ve already lost – just like you don’t want to look at the rock you don’t want to hit you don’t want to focus your thoughts on what you don’t want to do.

However, this is easier said than done. Testing your skills and fitness against other riders or The Trail can be a nerve racking experience and cause your mind to go a million different directions. This is especially true when physical damage is a very real possibility, like when you are getting ready to drop in on a sketchy line or pedal into a big jump or drop. If your mind is not focused then your body can not perform and the odds of you screwing up and getting hurt increase dramatically.

One of the things that has allowed me to go from a new rider who wrecked trying to jump off a curb to someone who has ridden some pretty scary lines and launch some pretty big jumps is my ability to first calm and then focus my mind. This is one of the few things with riding that came naturally to me and, like most people who are naturally good at something, I did not understand why other riders struggled with it.

However, as a coach I knew I needed to understand the process so I could explain it better and over the years I have read a lot of books on getting yourself in to the mythical Zone – that place where you act on an almost unconscious level. Through several books and paying attention to what I do when confronted with my “monkey mind” (the Eastern term for the voice in your head that chatters away like a monkey) I have noticed that getting your mind focused requires two steps – Calming and Visualizing.


image from Runners World

image from Runners World

– The key to calming the mind is harnessing you breathing. Knowing how to breathe with the diaphragm is important for several reasons but especially for being able to calm the mind and getting ready to focus it on a specific task.

– A good diaphragmatic breath will start in the belly and expand the waistline before traveling into the lower and finally upper lungs. Reverse this procedure to exhale.

– Breath in and out only through your nose and try not to make a sound – much easier said than done for a society of mouth breathers!

– Focus on your breathing at this point and don’t let any other thoughts distract your focus. Aim for 10 uninterrupted breaths, letting any stray thoughts that pop into your head go before they “take root” and expand, pulling your attention away from your breathing. If this happens start over at 1 and work on achieving your 10 calming breathes.


– Now that you have your mind clear and your breathing under control it is time to turn that focus to the specific task at hand. The key to visualizing is to play a movie in your head that includes as much detail as possible.

– The more detail you can use the better – you have to see, feel, hear and touch the vision. Studies have shown that when vividly visualizing a task the involved muscles will fire in the same pattern as if they were actually doing the movements involved. In other words, your muscles don’t know it isn’t real and you get a chance to literally “practice” the movements in your mind. In fact, I will close my eyes, hold an imaginary handlebar and “ride” what I see in my head, complete with the body movements I will be using – I want to feel like I’ve ridden whatever I saw in my head before I actually drop in on it.

– During visualization there should be some sort of physical manifestation of your vision and it is not uncommon to feel an increased heart rate and even goose bumps if you do it right. You should finish your visualization feeling fired up, calm and focused.

– Be careful of outside distractions during this process since your carefully constructed images can be smashed to bits if someone or something interrupts you. Ever wonder why so many top riders are seen wearing headphones before a big race or run on their bike? Music (which is another powerful psyche up tool in itself) also helps keep the outside distractions to a minimum and allows them to really live in their head before it is time to ride.

– What you visualize will depend a lot on what you are psyching up for. If you are getting ready to drop in on a single jump line or section of trail then you can focus like a laser on that one thing. If you are getting ready to drop in on a DH race run then you will want to see the whole run you have planned out, paying particular attention to the sections of the track that will make or break your run. If you are getting ready to start a longer race – like a Super D or XC race – then you will want to visualize the important aspects of the race, which could be the start, a particular hill, a strong finish or whatever tends to make you anxious when you think about your overall race performance.

– Don’t overuse this powerful technique. Save Visualization for when you really need it, like race runs and dropping in on something brand new to you. If you find yourself having to get psyched up for you local group ride you may need to check out my article on Training, Playing and Working Out to gain some perspective.


Like most things this process will take practice and patience. You’ll also need to let go of your ego – closing your eyes to aid the process is important and you may look silly to someone who doesn’t understand the process. If you are more worried about how you look to other riders than how you ride then you’ll struggle to take advantage of this.

Eventually you will be able to go through a whole Calming and Visualization procedure without anyone even know what you just did. You may have a distant look in your eye but the need to close your eyes to focus your breathing and mind will no longer be there.

This process works just as well with anything that requires a calm, focused mind – working out, getting ready for an important interview or speech, preparing for a needed confrontation with someone or anything else that can easily be derailed by lack of control over your emotions and mental state. While I have presented it here in the context of riding the truth is that most successful people in business and life have learned to use this process on some level to help them perform when it matters the most.

I hope this article has sparked your interest in learning more about harnessing the power of you mind and given you some basic tools to start using today to do just that. I tell my new clients that true strength comes from the neck up first before you can tap into what you have from the neck down and learning to calm and focus the mind it as the heart of that process.

If you want to read more on this subject I highly recommend two books:

10 Minute Toughness by Jason Selk: This is one of the most practical books I have read on this subject. Jason does an excellent job of cutting through the BS and showing you exactly how to construct your own routine to help you calm and focus the mind when it matters most.

The Purposeful Primitive by Marty Gallagher: While this amazing training book covers all aspects of fitness and nutrition there is a great chapter on the mind. Marty is one of those guys who has forgotten more about training than most of us will ever learn and you’ll be amazed at the insights in this book, especially the mindset stuff.

– James Wilson –

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  1. BikeJames says:

    Do you have any tips that help you focus when it matters most? Any thoughts on the value of “training your brain”? post your thoughts, love to hear them!

    Reply • February 7 at 7:58 am
  2. Leith says:

    Great write up. I think you are right that this is something that needs to be talked about and often gets overlooked. I find that practicing staying present for the few days leading up to the race helps a lot. By that I mean actually not thinking to far into the future (about the race) at all and wasting needed energy on something that doesn’t exist yet. Focus on what you’re doing right now to help you prepare, whether than what you will do later. Before a race run or anything that is producing a nervous energy I also believe in the calming and visualizing process you talked about.

    Reply • February 7 at 9:53 am
  3. Heather says:

    I’ve used visualization for years as a coping mechanism for an anxiety disorder. I naturally applied this technique to my training and racing when I started mountain biking 2 years ago. I spent so much time visualizing staying on the wheel of the fastest women in our region, that when I found myself easily hanging with one, competing for first and second place–I could not pass her! I had created a mental block for myself. I had only ever visualized staying on someone’s back wheel. I never dreamed I could pass and take the lead. I’m still working on retraining my brain and visualizing taking that lead and creating a gap.

    Reply • February 7 at 10:38 am
  4. Peter says:

    Cheers James this is excellent. I found that yoga really helped me understand my breathing and the importance of the breath. It truely is the best thing to sharpen your focus and help you visualise the task in hand… For that reason alone not to mind its other benefits it was a massive help with calming and focusing my mind both for everyday life and racing..

    Reply • February 7 at 1:02 pm
  5. Bike Ninja says:

    Hi James,
    Let me throw in another technique for you to go with the visualisation work.

    When you are anxious the body tends to stiffen up and make executing smooth movements difficult.
    You see this with sparring or stress situations is when people literally forget to breathe and turn into stiff puppets.
    Best way to combat this in riding is to deliberately exhaust the tension mechanism before you hit a new feature like a drop or jump.
    At the top of the run in contract every muscle hard with an inhale, then exhale and relax.
    Do this three times and then drop in on the final exhale.
    Your body will have worked through a lot of the tension that the anticipation will have brought up.
    Found that this works for all riders at all levels.

    Oh and a caveat on the visualisation, run past the landing with it. I’ve worked on the visualisation and road gapped smoothly only to rag doll as I forgot to visualise the rapidly approaching next corner…

    Reply • February 8 at 4:20 am
  6. kyle says:

    Good article. I race dh, the best advice I’ve ever received/given is “smooth and flow”. Racing is a head game. The guy next to you might have have the best bike and gear out, but his skills were bought not built. You might be perfectly calm until the gate is at the last 5 seconds. The track is pretty much empty until the race runs, then its lined with people, which makes it look different. When im at the gate I wont put my hand on the grips till the last 2 seconds, up until that point I look away at scenery and take deep breaths and think of anything other than a race or riding. Always focus ahead, if your thinking about the mistake you made 2 corners ago, it will happen again. In reality the thing that seperates cat 2 riders from pros is confidence.

    Reply • February 8 at 7:22 am
  7. Jakub says:

    One of the best sentences that help me do a big jump I’ve heard (maybe at your site? can’t remember) is: “if you gonna do it, do it”. As simple as that – if I know that I’ll jump it sooner or later, there’s no sense in unnecessary waiting ’cause at the end of the day I’d be angry that I didn’t jump it earlier. Half of the uncertainties get swept away of my mind in that moment 😉

    Reply • February 9 at 2:35 pm
  8. Hi James, this is by far the most interesting thing I’ve read in a looonnnngg time and I’m definitely going to use this next summer at the DH races…thank you!!

    Reply • March 14 at 5:34 pm
  9. Jordan says:

    Great post, I came to it from today’s email newsletter. I used to suffer from this a lot, for me after visualization I need to turn off the brain and not think, just react. Hopefully my visualization of what I am about to do will take over as muscle memory. I have an overactive imagination if I don’t turn off the brain and go into reactive mode, I will over think the situation and the worst case outcome becomes the reality.

    Reply • November 11 at 1:26 pm
  10. DaveH says:

    I’m continually surprised to find I’m not applying techniques such as this to my biking when I do so in most other activities. Whether it’s golf or climbing, visualization and relaxation techniques help the body “flow” through the required movement increasing performance and satisfaction. If only all this snow would melt so I could try it out!

    Reply • February 12 at 7:15 am
  11. Brian says:

    Great article Coach. I feel that this may be one of the most important, most overlooked part of racing. As I reflect on past seasons of racing I can say with a great deal of certainty that the races were I am calm and collected, instead of a giant ball of nerves, I have preformed much better. It’s seems to me race performance is determined before the gate ever drops. I will second the use of yoga for this practice. I’ve added it to my training routine this off season and can all ready tell that it is going have a tremendous effect on my race season. Thanks again for the great training programs and advice.

    Reply • February 12 at 8:42 am
  12. Griff Wigley says:

    Glad to see this, James. Not a lot out there on the mental/inner game of mountain biking.

    Singletracks published a guest post of mine a month ago about riding a difficult skinny and I included some of what you talk about in this post, ie, breathing and visualizing:

    The best book I’ve ever read on the subject on the mental game is an oldie but it has specific exercises to practice that work for all sports:

    Sports Psyching: Playing Your Best Game All of the Time

    Reply • December 5 at 8:54 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the links. Like you said, good resources on the mental side of things are few and far between in the mountain biking world.

      Reply • December 5 at 10:16 am
  13. Riley says:

    Well put. Conscious breathing and visualization are very powerful tools to be utilized when training the brain. For me the best training method I have learned is from Kundalini Yoga. There is an eleven minute meditation, focused at your sixth chakra, to reprogram and strengthen your nervous system. The practice takes forty days to complete. Generally when you are anxious or nervous about a task, event, race, etc. it’s because your nervous system is weak/imbalanced. Balance your nervous system and you will develop an impenetrable focus as well as steel-like stamina. Check out the book “Meditation as Medicine,” by Dharma Singh Khalsa if you are interested in learning more about the practice. Thank you for sharing your article.

    Reply • March 22 at 10:59 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the suggestion and glad you liked the article.

      Reply • March 22 at 4:04 pm
  14. Dave Everson says:

    I’ve had success visualizing from two pint of views. My own, as if hammering smoothly with amazing flow, looking over the handlebars. But then I also imagine a spectators POV, standing behind the tape, ringing a cow bell and that fan’s view of my flying fast, smiling through, feeling and looking smooth and in control while others are suffering. Both POVs help broaden the big picture of positive thinking and success. It helps in racing. This past winter it got me up a frozen waterfall climb, yes ice climbing can make for cool cross training, that I thought only the greatest pros could do. I did it.

    Reply • March 22 at 4:24 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Great story and insights, Dave, thanks for sharing.

      Reply • March 27 at 2:48 pm

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