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The Mental Game of Motocross

by Dr. Patrick Cohn

Ryan Villopoto is one of the most focused, hardest working riders in the sport today.

It's race time and all the intense preparation is over. You have trained hard, have confident with your pre-moto practice, set up your bike for the track, and studied the track to find the fastest lines. You have done everything to prepare for the moto, but suddenly as you are sitting on the starting line waiting for your moto to begin, a little voice in your head starts to question your ability and causes you to think about the fast guys lined up next to you. You have trained your best and are prepared, but the one part of your game, the mental game, you left to chance. You are now uncertain, just at a time when you need to be focused, confident, and in control of your thoughts. As Ricky Carmichael says, you are in a mental rut before the gate even drops.

Once all the training, bike tweaking, and practice is complete, the most important part of racing is your mental attitude or mindset. This is the area that I teach racers: How to tune up the mind for racing. The more I work with racers, the more I realize that race teams and Motocross families neglect one of the most important parts of racing: mental toughness and a confident race attitude. The racers thoughts and feelings determine his or her ability to perform up to one's physical potential on race day.

I think Motocross racers should take heed. If you work on your mind as much as you work on your bike, you will get in the winner's circle more often or at the very least have results that are more consistent. The most challenging part is knowing what to work on to improve your mental toughness and attitude and how to apply it to racing.

Want to learn more on how to improve your mental game for motocross? Listen to what Jeff Emig and Ronnie Tichner have to say in these two interviews.

What are the important mental skills racers need to develop so they can boost their mental horsepower? Every racer I work with is unique with different challenges, but there are a few basic mental game skills that Motocross racers need to master to get to the top of their class.

The first and foremost is confidence. If you doubt your skills or ability at the wrong time, you are ready for a healthy dose of confidence. You know the confident type. The Ryan Villopotos of the Motocross world for example, have a total conviction and belief in ability. While it is true that confidence comes from success and winning, how do you get onto the podium if you don't first believe you can? I teach racers to take responsibility for their confidence by fueling their confidence in staging and teach them skills to battle those malicious doubts that pop into a racer's mind at the wrong time.

On race day, Ricky Carmichael always had the ability to focus like a Champion.

A close second to confidence is the ability to focus like a champion. Performing in the zone is what all athletes relish. You can't bottle the feelings you have when in the zone, but you can train your mind to develop a zone focus so you are dialed in when the gate drops. Distractions are a normal part of the sports world. The racer who learns how to refocus when distractions happen and maintain focus on what is important will beat most racers who are sidetracked by distractions.

The best athletes in the world strike a balance between two contrasting mindsets that are equally important for success in any sport. These are a practice mindset and a race mindset. In the practice mindset, you work on technique and improve your riding skills in corners, on the jumps, and on the bumps. The training mindset is necessary to improve your skills, work on drills, and train the body off the track to get stronger. The race-time mindset allows you to race your best and is necessary for peak performance. Riders like Ryan Villopoto, Chad Reed, and Trey Canard are the best in motocross today because of their work ethic and dedication to training. However, they are also "gamers" and have the race-time mindset down pat.

The ability to perform naturally and instinctively is critical to motocross success. The reason why you practice, go to racing schools, and work the same turn 100 times is so you can trust it when race time comes. When racing on instinct, my Motocross students call this state as being "in the flow," "in a rhythm," or "just reacting." All the practice you do must be put aside when you race so you can now "just do it" and put your brain on autopilot. I spend a lot of time with my students to help them trust and get into the race mindset.

Pros know the importance of confidence and relaxation during a race.

The fourth skill your must master is the ability to relax and try less when you want to win badly. Under pressure or at national events, the tendency for some riders is to tighten up and try harder. Trying too hard to go fast can cause you to lose your natural rhythm and flow on the track, which actually leads to small mistakes that slow you down. This messes up timing and throws off your natural rhythm and for some can cause arm pump. The goal is to be able to ride as fast in the race as you do with your buddies during practice. Stop trying to race the perfect, mistake-free moto.

Another sign of mentally tough racers is the ability to handle errors with composure and patience. Some of my students have a hard time letting go of errors early in a moto and thus are stuck in a mental rut. I teach racers how to let go of errors quickly and not over-analyze mistakes. Analyzing your faults or errors will only keep you stuck in the past. The goal is to let go of errors quickly and put them behind you so you can race the current section of the track with composure and focus.

Finally, your mental prep for a moto is just as important as your final bike prep. This again is where my expertise comes in. You have to tune up your mind to get your game face on so you can compete at your peak consistently. What things should you do in the final mental prep? Most importantly, you MUST commit to a race plan before you get to the line. This is not the time to be wishy-washy or indecisive! Commit to your race plan before you get to the line by using your practice and observation of other motos. Be confident in your plan for the start and what lines you will take on the turns, jumps, and bumps. This might change when you get out there, but at least you HAVE a plan for the first lap or two.

Don't forget to have fun with your racing. Pressure and expectation (parental on self-induced) will only cause you to tighten up and slow down. Remember why you started to ride in the first place; because you love the feeling of hitting that jump just right or hauling around a corner with ease.

About the Author: Dr. Patrick Cohn is a sports and race psychology authority. He excels at coaching athletes in auto racing, motorcycle racing, and motocross, including racing teams to help them reach their peak performance and perform in the zone. As an expert in mental training for racers and the psychology of racing, his driver education mental skills programs for racers and teams increase teamwork, concentration, composure, and confidence. His goal is to boost the mental horsepower of your team using race psychology instruction, which gives your team the mental advantage! Dr. Cohn works with individual racers as well as team members to develop a mindset for racing success. Get a free mental training ebook here.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    stephen mulvey January 17, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Dear Racer X
    I am writing to you in desperate need of a motocross programme. I joined my local gym at christmas time but when i go in i haven't a clue what machines or anything to be using. My aim for this year is to get better than the two people i constantly battle with. Thank You for taking the time to read this
    Yours gratefully
    Stephen mulvey

  2. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer January 18, 2013 at 7:46 am

    Stephen - At Virtual Trainer, we have the perfect solution for you. Join he Racer X Virtual Trainer Premium Training Community. It only cost $20 bucks and you will never have to guess what to do again. All programs are designed and written by Andrew Short's trainer Coach Seiji and are built specifically for motocross. The link to the premium training section is in the upper right side of the menu. First month is free so you really have nothing to lose.

  3. Gravatar
    Lauren Atkins June 02, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Is listening to music to pump you up before your race good? Or is there something that would work better?

  4. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer June 05, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    Anything that gets you ready to race is good.

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