Is your Physical Confidence holding back your Mental Confidence?

Have you ever heard that little voice in the back of your head that told you that you should or shouldn’t go for something on your bike? You’re not sure exactly where it comes from but you get a gut feeling about your abilities, and often these hunches turn out to be true.

It is like the old saying goes – whether you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you’re right.

Now, if you have experienced this little voice then you’ve probably also experienced a funny thing – that voice can change what it tells you. For example, when you first started riding that voice was probably screaming at you a lot that you were going to die from either your heart exploding or flying over the handlebars in the wrong place.

But over time the voice stopped screaming so much and actually started to say “you got this” more and more often. And getting that little voice to stay positive is a huge part of mountain biking.

The word often given to this feeling is Confidence. The more of it you have the funner the trail gets and the more challenges you can take on. The less of it you have and the scarier the trail becomes and more challenges you shy away from.

In fact, improving Confidence is a top priority for most riders. Most of the time when a rider says they want to ride faster and further, what they really want is to improve their Confidence in their ability to ride faster and further.

But what most riders don’t realize is that Confidence has two parts and sometimes the best way to improve your Confidence isn’t how you’d think.

Mental Confidence is what most of us think about when we hear the word Confidence. This is the conscious level of confidence where we deal with negative or positive self-talk and literally think about things.

It is that little voice that we actually hear in our heads. We consciously take stock in what we know and then we use that info to decide if we can do something or not.

However, there is another level of confidence that goes deeper.

Called Physical Confidence, it deals with Confidence on a subconscious level.

You see, the brain is always monitoring things and taking stock of the situation. It knows your mobility, strength, cardio, and power levels as well as your injury status and uses this info to inform the conscious level of Confidence.

This means that we don’t know it is there but it is always talking with and affecting your Mental Confidence. In this way it can have either a positive or negative affect on your Mental Confidence.

And just like we can use mental training techniques to improve our Mental Confidence, we can use strength and mobility training to improve our Physical Confidence. When we do this we’ll also improve our Mental Confidence.

As your physical strength, mobility and cardio improves your brain recognized this and increases its Physical Confidence. This increased Physical Confidence is felt in your Mental Confidence by the little voice changing what it says when you assess a situation.

This is the reason that so many riders who follow one of my training programs report a sudden and unexpected increase in their confidence on the trail. They’ll be cruising along and all of a sudden realize that they just rode through a section or cleaned a climb that they had never made before.

All of a sudden the trail just looks different.

They can see possible lines they never saw before and are able to ride with more speed and control through other lines they used to struggle with. And along with this came an increase in how much fun they were having on the trail.

They were having fun before but they can now see levels of fun opened up to them that they never knew existed.

When their strength and mobility levels were poor their Physical Confidence was also poor, which directly affected their Mental Confidence and how they literally saw the trail. Now that those physical limitations were removed and their Physical Confidence improved they were riding harder lines with more Mental Confidence.

Improving your Physical Confidence through smart training is literally increasing the base for your Mental Confidence. While there are a lot of great ways to improve your Mental Confidence directly, the truth is that you simply can’t trick your brain into thinking it can do something that it knows on a subconscious level that you can’t.

Now, before I go on I also want to point out that a lot of riders eventually just go numb to this whole process.

They ride the same trails the same way and will jump off their bike at any sort of challenge and not think twice. They are also the first ones to tell you that they are fine with how they ride but for some of us being comfortably numb isn’t good enough.

We’re very aware of the process and embrace it. For us having a strategy to keep our Physical and Mental Confidence is important because it allows for us to continue to experience growth as riders.

And in my experience of working with hundreds of riders one of the fastest ways to improve your Mental Confidence is to improve your Physical Confidence through targeted strength and mobility training.

While you may think that just riding more or doing more cardio training would be the answer – and it is an important part – you can’t significantly improve your Physical Confidence if the weak link is strength and mobility, which is often the case for mountain bikers.

For example, when I talk about standing up to pedal more most riders immediately think that this is too “hard” for them to do. They think back to their experiences when they were forced to stand and how quickly they gassed and think I’m nuts. They also think about how they spin out on loose climbs when they stand and figure it is impossible anyways.

However, their Mental Confidence – that they think it sounds too “hard” – is directly affected by their underlying Physical Confidence, which knows they simply don’t have the core and hip strength or the hip mobility to get into an optimal standing pedaling position.

Once they improve those weak links then all of a sudden standing up to pedal doesn’t sound or feel nearly as hard.

They now have the core and hip strength to support their weight and power their pedal stroke and the hip mobility to sit their weight back without having to sit down on steep climbs. And their brain recognizes this and communicates it to their Mental Confidence.

Their Physical Confidence improved and that directly increased their Mental Confidence in their ability to stand up and pedal at will. But if all they did was ride and work on cardio they would never have been able to improve their real weak links in standing pedaling and their Physical and Mental Confidence in it.

There are countless examples of how improving your ability to move and stay strong can change how you think about riding and see the trail. All of a sudden things that never made sense start clicking and you realize that you now have the Mental and Physical Confidence to do them.

So if you want to improve your overall confidence make sure that you addressing both the conscious and subconscious levels. The little voice in your head will sound much different when it knows you can physically handle what you are doing.

If you have any thoughts or questions about this concept and how you can use it to help your riding please post a comment below. And if you liked this post please click one of the Like or Share buttons below to help spread the word.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson


90 Day MTB Skills & Fitness Program

90 Day MTB Skills & Fitness ProgramLearn how to permanently fix the bad movement habits that are really keeping you from improving your mountain bike skills. It isn’t “bad technique” that’s stopping you from improving your mountain bike skills. This program will fix the real cause - bad movement habits you don’t even realize are holding you back on the trail. Improve your performance and safety on the trail in just 90 days with the only workouts designed to integrate mobility, strength and skills drills.
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  1. carol says:


    I just want to let you know how much I appreciate a) all the super quality info & vids & perspectives you put out, b) the inspiring quantity you put out, and c) most deeply, how truly generous you are in you giving all this, ongoingly. I’m not religious at all, but bless you – you are good peeps!

    I can only imagine how freaking awesome your purchase programs must be, and I look forward to the day I invest in one of those. (I will only when I can commit to putting the time in it would deserve – not my current situation, sadly, but that will change)

    So, THANK YOU for your giving – it is consistently of superlative quality and really helping me recover strength and confidence in the little I can do now. I am certain I speak for many out here.


    Reply • November 12 at 7:53 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks Carol, I really appreciate that.

      Reply • November 13 at 9:26 am
  2. Jon says:

    Hi James,

    This post is almost perfect. The one thing I found that most improved my confidence this year was switching from clipless to flats, and your Manifesto helped give me the courage to make the switch. I’d also add that an important part of mental conditioning is visualization – if you watch someone clear that obstacle you used to hike-a-bike, it is easier to see yourself clearing that hurdle. All of a sudden, these obstacles are no longer detriments to the ride, but challenges that make it more enjoyable.

    Keep up the great work.


    Reply • November 13 at 2:08 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks Jon, glad to hear I’ve been able to help you have more fun on the trail.

      Reply • November 14 at 10:36 am
  3. Anne says:

    Hei James,
    thank your for this interesting article on confidence. But I’d like to share my experience on working with adolescents – actually they’re often the complete opposite to what you described. They can’t do 10 proper push ups and if you do a stretching program with them they moan all the time and are not able to touch their feet. But on the trail they master every challenge and leave you in the dust. So I think it’s not all about physical confidence/physical ability. In contrary to adults they don’t spend time on a road bike to do cardio training – Training for them means MTB. And MTB for them means FUN. So to me confidence on the trail is also created by spending as much training time on the MTB as possible … and espacially enjoying this time!

    Greetings from Germany!

    Reply • October 24 at 12:36 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback and I agree that the more time you spend riding the more confident you will be. However, for a lot of adults I’ve seen their movement and strength restrictions keep them from doing stuff on the trail. It isn’t all about your physical confidence but it does play a role – even those kids can come across things that they physically couldn’t do and it would feel “impossible” until they got stronger or more mobile.

      Reply • October 24 at 8:43 am
  4. Carl says:

    Hi James,

    Love your work. I signed up just last week for the 30 day training program and by doing this and reading your blog posts I’m already thinking about training and riding differently. It has been like a revelation and came along at the perfect time. I love how you develop with the whole rider, physical mental and skills.

    Reply • December 8 at 3:42 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks, glad you like my approach to becoming a better rider. It does take more than just a pair of lungs and legs to be a good trail rider, hope the free 30 day program helps you with that journey.

      Reply • December 9 at 8:40 am
  5. Brice says:

    Hi James ,
    I’m a new reader and just thought I would make a comment with reguardless to safety as it relates to increased confidence. When I feel confident enough on the trail to challenge myself, I know from experience that can lead to a painful lesson. I have had to train myself to remember, and even say out loud “ride in such a way as to come back tomorrow and ride again”. Confidence is key to improvement, it should be tempered with good common.

    Reply • January 20 at 10:30 pm
  6. bcampagnolo says:

    I have been spending more and more time in the gym doing the ‘big three’ (deadlifts, squats, benchpress) and some boxjumps – sorta self training. Just getting overall strength has improved my confidence. The first time I attempted a jump last minute on a new trail, I distinctly remember the thoughts formulating “I have done a box-jump this high”, and “I can deadlift more than my bike” (all in a split second) and I cleared it. (I got some serious sewing-machine leg on landing!!!). hahahah
    I have started to get more serious about my gym time, thanks to your site and started working on standing pedaling. I’m a recovering single speeder, but now ride a 170mm ‘enduro’ bike, so it’s not TOO painful. Currently, lifting and riding back to back days it taxing my trail fun, but I’ll get to the chapters on rest and recovery, and for sure improve!
    Thanks for the site.

    Reply • August 26 at 1:54 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback, glad that the site and the tips are helping you have more fun on the trail.

      Reply • August 27 at 10:24 am
  7. Michał says:

    I have it other way.I’m i alot better shape then i was (overall because strength wise i’m weaker) but i had 2 years ago quite awful crash where i fractured my spine,skull,ribs broke my left hand and right shoulder.I’m doing fine right now but after that crash i get mentaly held back (it’s not bike or that i’m too weak) because i’m afraid of another crash.I was able to ride at higher speed earlier and right now if i think way too much i will just break for no reason.

    Reply • October 15 at 7:22 am

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James Wilson