Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content

The controllable vs the uncontrollable: what you think matters

In any sport, and specifically a highly tactical, complex and unpredictable sport like cycling, there are many factors that culminate towards an outcome. Some factors play a bigger role than others, but all play a unique role in the eventual outcome, whether that be success or failure.   The way we interpret and think about the role these factors play is crucial to our performance in training as well as racing.

If you really look at it, success is not the result of one big thing done right, but many small things done right; and failure is not the result of one big thing done wrong, but many small things done wrong. To say we fail or succeed because of one factor is delusional, and even more so when so many of them are totally out of our control. We cannot predict a result because of one single factor either, for example hard work.   Yes – it is of paramount importance, but if success was the direct result of hard work, we may as well hand in our training diaries on race day and leave the race all together! We forget about tactics, equipment, opposition, mental preparation, nutrition, weather, etc. – it all comes together to form an outcome. In fact, the unpredictability of these factors and the result as a whole is what makes sport so beautiful!

Burton Witbooi training at the Bellville Velodrome with his Velodrome bag

We tend to get two types of riders who each interpret these factors very differently:

The one is focused on the things he can’t control and all the ways it can go wrong, and to what extent. For example, on a windy day – he’ll focus on the wind, if he get a puncture – he’ll focus on the puncture, and if the opposition breaks the record – he’ll focus on the opposition. They are easily distracted from their own performance, to the factors around them out of their control.

The other is focused on his own performance, what he has done (preparation), and how well he has done it. For example, on a windy day – he’ll focus on the fact that everybody has to ride in the same wind, if he gets a puncture – he’ll fix it and put it behind him, and if the opposition breaks the record – he’ll think rationally about it, i.e. the conditions must be conducive to breaking records.

Milan san Remo 2017 by Tim de Waele

Which one do you think wins?

Which of the two above riders won is not the point, as the factors involved in the outcome are far too many to mention, from experience, to luck, to simply who is the best on the day. The real issue is who will get the best out of themselves, and who will handle the outcome better regardless of what it is. The way the rider interprets and thinks of the factors involved is directly related to that.

Let’s discuss those two riders:

The first rider was focused on the uncontrollable factors. He was easily distracted, and this could be due to lack of mental skills, inexperience, pressure, etc. As soon as something from outside of himself played a role in some way, he shifted his attention to that. He took something small and insignificant and blew it out of proportion. These factors include the weather, officials, mechanical issues, the opposition, and even team mates. The scary part about this, it’s so easy to forget about ourselves and focus on them! We see it even in the world tour and Olympic Games!   Look at the mind games athletes’ play before a big competition, or when riders complain about the weather in a race. Yes, sure, these factors can play a big role in the eventual outcome, but if we can’t change it, why waste energy focusing on it? When we do, results become inconsistent, the true impact of training becomes less and often we start to lose focus of what really matters, our own performance relating to our own personal goals (the controllable factors).

The second rider was focused on the controllable factors, i.e. himself, his own preparation, his own metal space and his own personal goals. These factors include his equipment, nutrition, mental preparation, training, tapering and recovery, sleep, etc. The thought of the outside world did not cross his mind. He knew that he had absolutely no influence on it; at best he could play an influencing role (the market in business terms), but it’s so minimal that the effort to do so would be a waste. So he focused his attention on where it mattered, and where it could actually make a difference. Look at the marginal gains model of British Cycling and Team Sky, focus on what you have control on and get the most improvement there, the rest will sort itself out.

Steve Peters Chimp Paradox was built on this type of thinking. Focus on what matters and what can be changed, and think rationally about it – manage your inner chimp!

Helena Cesr by Fransis Mersiy

If the above makes sense, you’ll see that goals should always be process first, and then outcome based. By outcome I mean the end result, either win or lose, and by process I mean by the way you played the game.

Outcome goals should only serve as a means for direction and motivation, but for an individual race, it should be process, and doing what you do right, and the best you can.   As Grantland Rice once said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”.

A golfer has to learn to enjoy the process of striving to improve. That process, not the end result, enriches life.”  ― Bob Rotella

The result of all of the above mentioned: the outcome actually doesn’t matter! Or at least the way we tend to look at it – who won or lost. Rather, it’s the rider who did his best and came closest to their true potential, who improved the most from who he once was, and the one who can walk away in the same way he came in, regardless of the result. In humility and with satisfaction if they won, and without regret and disappointment (okay a little disappointment is fine if they played their best and worked hard, but it mustn’t take over their entire view of the race) if they lost.

Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful. – John Wooden

So after all this, I hope you can see the difference your thoughts make in a situation. How you think and what you think about, and to what extent you allow it to – can make you win or lose, by getting as close to your best as possible, but more than that – it can help you after that, in training, to the next race, and the one after that, and in life.

Matthew de Freitas

Posted in

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

I accept the Privacy Policy

Scroll to Top