Read - learn - apply. Come See the Mental Side of Trials By Mark Manniko After the 20 years I’ve been competing in trials, I have come to the conclusion that although trials takes a fair amount of muscle and physical finesse, trials is mostly a mental sport. I’m not talking about intelligence here. After all, how many brain surgeons do you see hitting the rocks every weekend? The mental side that I’m talking about is being able to ride at your best any time you want. Trials is uniquely challenging mentally because it requires razor-sharp focus an average of 45 times over a period of four to eight hours. To pay attention to the mental side of trials is to perform or ride as close to your absolute best on a consistent basis. I like to call this your performance state of mind, or PSM for short. As you can imagine, top athletes share several characteristics of PSM including a positive state of mind and being relaxed, focused, energetic and confident. I’d bet that most of you have had a brush with PSM -- when you cleaned a section that you thought was way out of your league and it seemed easy and relatively effortless. Even if you have not yet experienced PSM in your trials riding, you’ve likely experienced it somewhere else in your life. The most common characteristic of PSM is having a positive attitude. Actually, the process begins before your engine is even running – when you walk the section. If while you’re looking over the sections you think “I hope I don’t hit that tree,” there’s a good chance that’s exactly what you’re going to do. This is the case because we tend to do whatever is on our mind, which is perhaps the single most revealing aspect of the human psyche. On the other hand, there are many distractions that when not dealt with properly can lead to poor performance -- the weather, the sections, the observers and your competitors. In order to ride your best, you can’t let these distractions affect you. The most effective way to deal with these distractions is ask yourself “who is in control of my mind, the distractions or me?” If you answered “me,” you’re on the right track. Understand that controlling your thoughts is the first step towards achieving your PSM. There are some athletes who use anger or pain to help them focus, both of which present many problems. Anger releases toxic chemicals that are harmful too the body, while pain has obvious drawbacks that we’ve all felt. To use any negative motivation is much to harmful and it quickly takes the fun out of competing. The motivation needs to be positive. Before some of my best rides, while I was preparing to ride a difficult section, my thoughts were “I’m going to be the first one up that rock,” or “I’m going to show these guys how this section is supposed to be ridden.” There is a unique relationship between your mindset and your eyes. If you’ve been reading the articles about the eyes in this publication then you already have the background. The bottom line is that your state of mind changes your vision, which changes your timing and accuracy. Not all people are the same. Some need to be psyched up, while others need to relax in order to perform at their best. A quick test to find out what you need requires a 10ft piece of string and three beads or something similar that can be attached to the string . Tie one end of the string to something at eye level, place the first bead about 1ft from the end you will be holding , the next in the middle, the last almost at the end of the string. Hold the string to the center of your nose tight enough so that the string is almost a straight line to the attached end. First look at the bead closest to you, you should see two strings meeting at the bead, if you only see one string you are not using both eyes and depth perception will be inaccurate. For most people the strings will meet at the first bead. Move your eyes to the middle bead, again you should see two strings meeting at the bead. This is usually where some inconsistencies start showing up. If the strings meet before the bead you will need to relax to have your timing perfect. If the strings meet after the bead then you need to be psyched up to have your timing perfect. Try this with the last bead also, whichever tendency you have will be magnified. The majority of athletes need to be psyched-up to perform at their best. The problem for trials riders is that we must do this numerous times during the competition and overall focus must be maintained throughout the event. It’s impossible to remain focused for six to eight hours at the highest mental level. This demonstrates the importance of having an ability to turn your PSM on and off. Now that you’ve remembered a time when you were using your PSM, I’ll provide you with some techniques that will help you turn it on and off at will. The first technique is visualization. When used properly, visualization enables you to ride the section in your mind before you ever put your bike in the section. There are two methods of visualization. The first is to watch yourself riding perfectly through the section, as if you were watching a movie (third person). I believe the more effective visualization method is to actually feel yourself riding the section (in the first person), rather than taking the spectator’s view. While you’re visualizing, you should be as detailed as possible – watch your front wheel lift off the ground, feel your body moving, the more complete the better. You can practice this now by remembering a section from the last trial in which you competed. Ride this section in your mind until you have it right. Studies show that the body does not know the difference between the electrical impulses generated by the brain over actually doing the activity. Think of the advantages you’ll have once you’ve mastered this technique -- essentially, you get to ride the section perfectly before it counts. Of course this doesn’t take the place of actual practice but it’s amazing how much better you can become when you combine the two on a consistent basis. When you are riding the sections it is important to let your body do what you just accomplished in your visualization. If you are thinking and talking yourself through the section, you are slowing your body’s performance. When you are riding on auto pilot you are in what athletes call the “Zone”. When you are in the “Zone” you are completely in your PSM. Another powerful technique that helps to control your negative thinking and put you in your PSM is affirmations. The theory behind affirmations is that if you’ve told yourself you hate riding logs and have never been able to ride them, it becomes the truth. This commonly begins if you have a problem with certain techniques or terrain. Instead of deciding in advance that you can’t ride a certain obstacle just tell yourself that you do not know how yet and go about learning how. You can usually watch someone who is good at the technique, even a video, and use their ride as a guide for your visualization. Now you know how to ride it. Affirmations are similar to visualization in that your subconscious is unable to determine the difference between a lie and the truth. If you choose your weakest technique and create a positive statement such as ”I love slippery roots” and repeat it to yourself somewhere around fifty times a day, you’ll begin to notice that you actually start to enjoy riding slippery roots within a couple of weeks. What you’re doing is reprogramming your mind with thoughts that will help you, instead of what may be hindering you. Again, affirmations aren’t going to replace practice but they will help eliminate weaknesses. After you’ve ridden a section it’s important to analyze what did and didn’t work. Repeat your visualization of the perfect ride, so that it’s the last thing you remember about the section. Then clear your mind completely and move on to the next section. Use the time between sections to relax, both mentally and physically. You will not perform at your best if you carry mental baggage from section to section. Fear is a vital part of our psyche. The problem with fear occurs when we are unable to control it and it keeps us from performing at our best. Fear is so detrimental because it constricts the body and, for many people, generates thoughts of all of the bad things that could happen. Riders at all levels experience fear. The better riders have learned to control their fear and attack the obstacle with 100 percent confidence. As we learned earlier, we tend to do what is on our minds. I am not saying that you can point your bike at a 10-foot vertical wall and turn off your fear and make it, that’s stupidity. But, if something scares you that’s just above your comfort zone and you have the skills to attempt it, you have to turn your fear off and ride with 100 percent confidence. Trials riders often neglect nutrition. The most important thing mentally and physically before and during competition is to keep your blood sugar levels at a high, consistent level. The first organ to suffer when the blood sugar level drops is the brain. The ultra-endurance athletes have found that the first sign of low blood sugar is a lack of concentration, not feeling tired. Because trials is such an intense mental sport, it’s essential to put nutrition on top of your list to remain at your best over the entire event. There are many different theories about nutrition, but most athletes have found that it’s beneficial to have a diet that’s made up largely of complex carbohydrates. This also applies during the competition. If you just drink just water without consuming food, you’ll start running out of energy after about one hour. There are different ways of keeping your blood sugar level up. Some people prefer snacks of fruit or energy bars along with water. Other people use sport drinks with an occasional snack. It’s important to determine what works best for you. A note on sport drinks -- not many are designed for long duration sports like trials. It is worth the extra time to find one that will work for the whole day. In any case, it’s critical to keep yourself hydrated during the entire competition. Begin the event hydrated and drink about 8oz every 15-20 minutes throughout the event. This is the most the body can use during intense physical activity. If you wait until you’re thirsty, it’s too late. There is a wealth of knowledge about sports psychology and nutrition available in most bookstores. I have presented the techniques and methods I have found to work best for me, but everyone is different. I would encourage you to read up on this subject and supplement this with your own experimentation and research. Not only will you have a better time, you’ll begin to notice a significant improvement in your riding.