Pendleton’s psychological battles to attain the kind of mental fortitude needed to become a great champion are well documented and, along with Steve Peters, the British Cycling psychiatrist (note: not psychologist) she has overcome these sufficiently to hold British, Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic sprint titles all at the same time. She is an incredible champion and her achievements are unrivalled. Equally importantly she has been a role model for many aspiring riders and given track cycling a profile it would never have achieved without her involvement.
Her pending retirement from the sport was trailed long before the Olympics. She knew precisely when it was coming i.e. immediately the Olympic sprint competition was over. Contrast this with another great British cyclist, Roger Hammond, a former world junior cyclo-cross champion and road professional during the years preceding the arrival of Cavendish, Wiggins and the rest. I heard Hammond speak about his career and retirement this year at the British Cycling coaching conference – he was direct, eloquent, entertaining and slightly emotional. He said he could not allow himself to thing about retirement whilst riding because, as soon as he did, he would lose the edge. He’d start thinking about what was coming next rather than focusing on the training and racing at hand and as a consequence, he would not be as well prepared as he could be.
I’m not a sports psychologist – my coaching has only scratched the surface of a deep and complex subject but watching Pendleton yesterday in the sprint final must have been a sports psychologists dream. I suspect it will be repeated 1000’s of times to students of sport – if it isn’t, it really should be as it was a perfect demonstration of what Hammond was talking about.
In the final of the matched sprints, Pendleton won the first heat by 0.001 of a second – a tiny margin even in track sprinting. A few minutes later she was relegated for coming out of the sprinters line after being bumped by Anna Mears meaning she would have to win the next two heats to get the gold medal. It was a harsh but ultimately correct decision and sitting on the rollers when she heard the announcement she mouthed the word ‘farce’. Victoria Pendleton mentally retired at that moment. The next round Mears dominated the sprint (it was brilliant on her part) and won the gold medal despite Pendleton being in the best physical shape of her career. Pendleton didn’t capitulate, but as soon as Mears got in front of her it looked like she didn’t have the heart to contest it. It was one of the best demonstrations of the importance an athlete’s mental strength I’ve ever seen.
As a big Pendleton fan it was an incredible (if rather difficult) mental and physical battle to watch. Pendleton had the proven speed to physically win the sprint and Mears the mental fortitude to even up the battle. She coped with a partisan crowd (the noise was unbelievable) and beat the fastest female sprinter in the world with an amazing display of mental dominance as well as athletic ability. Of course, Pendleton congratulated Mears on her win. Consummate professionals both.
If you want to explore the impact of your mental approach to your riding I would recommend you speak to Pete Hudson at Cyclotheraphy. www.cyclotherapy.org Pete helps the GB Transplant Team and specialises in overcoming performance blocks and optimising your mental approach to riding.
…Rich Smith is the author of ReCycled a funny book about cycling and less important things like life and death. You can get it through the Cycling Weekly Bookshop