Psychological Resilience and MTB Racing

William Tyne Msc Sport & Exercise Psychology, Loughborough University

Psychological resilience is an essential skill to develop for sporting success, here's how to get it!

Last year we witnessed one of the greatest finales to a Downhill World Cup season in history. Amaury Pierron and Loic Bruni had gone head-to-head all year and between them they had won 6 out of 7 rounds, resulting in the world cup title to be decided on the final day of the season. Their years’ work mounted upon a 3-minute run in Snowshoe, America. Amaury Pierron was the first rider down of the two, and of course, doing what he had done all year, he went into the hot seat. At this stage Loic had to finish in the top 4 in order secure the title. The cycling world had their eyes fixated upon him as to whether he could do it. Loic Bruni’s final words to himself that day were “Do it Loic, do what you know, do as you know27.” He went on to become the 2019 World Cup Champion that day.
Loic Bruni – 2019 Word Cup Champion @Bartek Wolinski

Just as Loic demonstrated, the ability to thrive under pressure is without question one of the most important skills to develop for sporting success. However, the ability to perform at your best under these conditions is incredibly hard to achieve. Reflecting upon your own performance, are you your own worst enemy when it comes to handling pressure? Do you let the demands and stress of the situation dictate your performance? Do you talk yourself out of success before you even race?

If the above applies to you, then this blog is for you! The following blog discusses the concept of psychological resilience which has been heavily studied in sport psychology as it aims to reveal why some individuals are able to withstand – or even thrive on – the pressure they experience20. Whether you’re a grass roots performer or on the world cup circuit the need to develop psychological resilience is indispensable. Fortunately, there are methods to becoming more psychologically resilient which when practiced over time can help to improve your performance!

Aims of the blog

  • Explain what psychological resilience is and the importance of developing it
  • Introduce mental fortitude training as a method for developing psychological resilience
  • Discuss the three components of mental fortitude training, and suggest ways of applying it into your training programme

What is psychological resilience?

Any athlete that participates in sport at a high level will experience a number of stressors, failures and adversity8. The ability for an athlete to bounce back and subsequently flourish following these setbacks are the foundations of what makes a resilient athlete9. Precisely, psychological resilience refers to the ability for an individual to utilise their mental processes and behaviours to withstand or adapt to environmental demands5.

The term resilience encapsulates two main features6.  

Robust Resilience – The protective quality that enables an athlete to deflect the stressors, adversities and negative environmental demands away, and as a result you’re able to maintain your well-being and performance under pressure

Rebound Resilience – The quality that enables an athlete to bounce-back after minor or temporary disruptions to their well-being and performance when under pressure

In order to improve psychological resilience both qualities must be catered for. Therefore, training programmes need to be proactive in order to build the protective quality, but also reactive so athletes can think on their feet and bounce back under pressure6. An example of proactive resilience from cycling, as strange as it might seem, is ‘preparing mentally’ for the recovery of an injury. Getting injured is an inevitable part of riding downhill mountain biking. While gym-based training can improve strength and mobility which help to minimise injury, athletes are not superhuman and inevitably they will crash and injure themselves while searching for the limits of the sport. The quicker you can accept the circumstances, the quicker a plan of action can be made for recovery.

“recovering from an injury takes time, and you must prepare for this mentally in order to bounce back and reach prior performance27.”

Myriam Nicole – 2019 Female Downhill Mountain Bike World Champion

How can YOU develop psychological resilience?

A method in which aims to develop the core resilient qualities is mental fortitude training. This training focuses on three main areas to enhance your ability to withstand pressure: personal qualities, facilitative environment and developing a challenge mindset.

Personal qualities

Personal qualities are at the heart of mental fortitude training and can be viewed as the psychological factors that protect you from the potential negative effects of stress and pressure6. There are two main building blocks which make up your personal qualities, your personality and psychological skills.

  • Personality reflects a stable, consistent pattern of thinking, feeling and acting14.
  • Psychological skills are the strategies used by an individual to enhance and optimize their functioning, such as: goal setting, imagery, self-talk and relaxation11. These strategies are more malleable and can be trained in comparison to the stable features of personality.

Acknowledging the features of personal qualities, when developing psychological resilience there is a focus on psychological skills as these can be trained, and in turn compliment your personality. Here are 3 psychological skills that promote psychological resilience.

  • Goal setting – Arguably the most important skill to achieving success! A central theme to being resilient is that it requires an individual to be motivated to overcome adversity19. Goal setting, specifically setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time based), provides an individual with direction and a source of motivation to overcome set-backs and adversity 12. Like with any new skill, starting off small is essential, here are 3 TOP TIPS for goal setting…
    • Ensure you follow the SMART framework.
    • There should be an emphasis on short-, medium-, and long-term goals.
    • Use a combination of process (e.g. improving technique and strategy) and performance goals (e.g. obtaining a personal best)12.

Mental imagery – Imagery is one of the most applied psychological skills in sport due to its simplicity and effectiveness. It refers to any experience that mimics sensory or perceptual experiences, whereby the individual is aware of their imagery10. Imagery helps to mentally prepare you for demanding situations which should hopefully lead to a higher degree of confidence when demanding situations occur.

2x Male Downhill World Champion Fabien Barel, was known for his mental imagery before his race runs. Take a look at him putting it into practice27.

Fabien Barel preparing for his race run @WTS-The Coaching Company

“I worked closely with Steve Peters, the British Cycling team’s psychologist, and we came up with a strategy of dealing with the pressure. It basically involved displacing the negative thoughts with visualisation. Not a complicated technique, but very effective if done properly. I just kept running through the race in my head over and over so that I wouldn’t let the distractions around me put me off.”

Sir Chris Hoy6x Olympic Gold Medalist

Attentional Control – The ability to control your attention, particularly in stressful situations is essential for sporting success, and is at the core of what resilience is all about21. It is certainly, however, easier to write about rather than apply in practice! When we perform under high pressures, the direction and the capacity of our attentional focus reduces which can lead to an excessive focus on external stimuli which can distract you from your own performance17. When you reflect upon your own performance, when you’re in the start hut, where is your attention placed? Is it focused on the task at hand? Or has your attention shifted towards unwanted stimuli such as focusing on what the other competitors are doing and not your own performance?

“If you focus on what you want to avoid before what you want to achieve, you have already lost.”

Dr. Dave Alred MBE Elite Performance Coach

A method in which you can improve your attentional control is through MINDFULNESS. Mindfulness is achieved through focusing your attention on the present moment2. There are numerous exercises which are said to achieve a state of mindfulness, most applicable to cycling I feel are breathing exercises. As simple as it sounds, simply focusing on the process of breathing in and out can help you to become more self-aware and conscious of your own performance before a race run4.

  To practice, set aside 5 / 10 minutes of your day and focus all your attention on the process of your breathing. Let your body relax and take control of the situation. The more you practice the better you become! Implement this technique on competition day and gain control of your attention.

Although personal qualities are acknowledged as an important aspect of resilience, the social and environmental context in which you perform in will have a large influence upon your execution of psychological skills8. Therefore, like any new skill, practice makes perfect. Implement these psychological skills into your training programme. The more practiced and automated they become the more effective they are!

Creating a facilitative environment

Psychological resilience is not purely a focus on the individual rather it is the skill that develops over time in the context of person-environment interactions23. As such, mental fortitude training aims at developing psychological resilience on a holistic level, and looks beyond the personal qualities to the wider environment.

So, what is meant by a facilitative environment?

It is essentially creating a setting or context that fosters the development of psychological resilience6. There are two components to create this environment they are CHALLENGE and SUPPORT. The balance of challenge and support is essential to get right, as too much of either effectively stunts development24. For example, too much support and too little challenge will create a comfortable environment resulting in a maladaptive environment for performance growth. Conversely, too little support and too much challenge will create an unrelenting environment which will have a severe effect upon one’s wellbeing potentially resulting in burnout. Too little of either would simply create a stagnant environment5. Therefore, a facilitative environment is developed through providing a challenging but supportive environment.


You should be challenged regularly in order to avoid settling into stagnant comfort zones, with training being goal-directed and performed with a purpose3.

“It’s important to never settle or be content with where you are. Times change. You have to keep improving18.”

Greg Minnaar – Arguably the greatest of all time Male rider.

How can YOU create a challenge environment

Have high expectations of yourself. Don’t settle for second best!

Set goals which challenge you and take you out your comfort zone.

Take accountability for your actions, particularly when you have made mistakes. If you can’t accept your own mistakes, how are you going to learn and grow from experiences?

Don’t seek out solely positive feedback! Utilise developmental feedback, recognise areas for improvement in order to strengthen them6.

Introduce pressure training into your programme.

Pressure training is one of the best ways to practically introduce challenge into your environment. Training with a purpose and an acceptance that you will experience unwanted emotions and pressures, rather than striving to suppress them can yield a host of benefits21. Such as, reducing performance anxiety, improving attentional focus and can have an overall effect of enhancing performance22.

Pressure inurement training – Involves manipulating the environment to increase either the demands or increase the significance of the situation to invoke a stress response. The aim is despite the pressure increasing, performance will be maintained. For example, timing yourself in training, imposing punishments and rewards for certain outcomes, practicing on courses which you don’t feel particularly comfortable on, practicing in ALL weather conditions!


As stated, there is a danger of focusing on a solely challenging environment which will create an unrelenting environment. Challenge must be offset with support in order to make it sustainable. There is often a misconception when identifying an athlete as ‘mentally tough or ‘psychologically resilient’ as it believed they don’t need much support as they are independent and adept at tasking personal responsibility. However, it is quite the opposite. Support is a valuable resource that guides an athlete to a state of mental toughness3.

How can YOU create a supportive environment

Surround yourself with those that support you! Whether you’re a grass roots performer or at the elite level, having a network of people that support your vision is essential.

Encourage motivational feedback, focusing purely on critical feedback will become meaningless, a focus on what has been effective will help in developing resilience.

Share your thoughts and feelings with others. Holding in how you’re feeling is a maladaptive process particularly in the development of resilience. Having others around you who know how you’re feeling will help you tackle setbacks and adversity.

Acknowledge the support around you! Individuals with a higher perception of support availability tend to believe they have the resources to cope and overcome difficult situations7.

Creating a facilitative environment prevents YOU from going through the motions and falling into a stagnant comfort zone3.

Developing a challenge mindset

The final pillar and arguably the most pivotal to developing psychological resilience is creating a challenge mindset. A simple way at looking at this idea is through the lens of William Shakespeare.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

William Shakespeare

The idea here is that pressure, stress, anxiety etc are neither good or bad until you evaluate them as so. When you approach an evaluation with a THREAT mindset the demands of the situation are perceived to outweigh your personal ability / resources resulting in you choking under the pressure25. However, a CHALLENGE mindset is where you are able to positively evaluate and interpret pressure and challenging situations6. The application of a challenge mindset to sport can lead to higher self-confidence, betting coping skills and reduced performance anxiety13.

3 ways YOU can develop a challenge mindset

Accepting – A challenge mindset is not to say you won’t encounter any negative consequences from stressful situations. We are ALL human, Negative thoughts are inevitable! However, the ability to be accepting and non-judgemental of these thoughts is what is key to sustain a challenge mindset6. One poor race run should not define you as a failure. Use it to your advantage, understand what went wrong and how you can improve.

Confront your mind – Actively STOP negative thoughts! When you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with negativity, take a step back, be assertive and tell yourself “don’t go there”, “take control.” If you can eliminate these negative thoughts, REPLACE them with positive thoughts which are in your control and focus on the present moment6.

Utilise your psychological skills – Putting into practice the psychological skills outlined above will promote self-confidence which helps to create a challenge mindset when approaching pressurised situations !

Having covered all 3 components of mental fortitude training it is important to note that they must be used in conjunction with each other. Focusing on one element does not mean you’re developing psychological resilience!

Concluding remarks…

As stated, psychological resilience is an essential skill to develop in order for sustained success. This blog has taking you on a journey through mental fortitude training, an effective method for developing psychological resilience. As beneficial as this training is, it should NOT be pursued on its own accord. Most importantly your well being should not be substituted for enhancing performance 6. Ensure you are also working towards ethical awareness, performance intelligence and most crucially emotional intelligence. This will allow you to become self-aware and discriminate between certain emotions and label them as healthy or unhealthy to your overall well-being15.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog! It would be greatly appreciated if you leave a comment with your thoughts and check out my infographic for a visual summary down below.


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