Taming voices in my head offers reason for cheer

Rob Atkins is taking on a 205-mile cycling challenge for AGSD-UK
Rob Atkins is taking on a 205-mile cycling challenge for AGSD-UK
Kirsty McSeveney, second left. Picture: Habibur Rahman (171049-37)

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Those of you who read this page last week will know my first century left me questioning whether I stood a chance of completing my 205-mile charity cycling challenge on Sunday, June 8.

One look at the route – a circumnavigation of the South Downs, starting and finishing in Petersfield and passing through Winchester, Portsmouth, Chichester, Bognor, Brighton, Eastbourne, Burgess Hill and Midhurst – only served to heighten those fears.

So what better time to put a call in to sports psychologist Chris Wagstaff at the University of Portsmouth!

And fortunately for me and the future of my challenge, organised by the Droxford-based Association for Glycogen Storage Disease (AGSD-UK) and backed by bike giants Raleigh, he answered my cry for help.

Self-doubt is nothing new to me. It is something which has blighted my own modest cricket career, strangling any semblance of talent I once had.

So the task for Chris was to turn me – a self-confessed mental weakling – into a battle-ready and bullish endurance athlete ahead of my biggest-ever challenge on two wheels.

Okay, so that might be a bit too much to ask, even for someone who has plenty of experience working with elite performers across numerous sports, including football, cricket and rugby.

But he has given me some weapons to go to war with.

And while some critics may suggest the science can often be riddled with clichés, few can argue with the importance of mental strength in sport.

Chris immediately set to work on rebranding any bad memories I had from my maiden ton.

He said: ‘A little bit of adversity is good. It helps you recalibrate what is tough.’

So it’s time to redefine the hurt. I’m up for that!

I recently read an interview with three-time world time trial champion Tony Martin where he talked about the pain and suffering he endures when racing against the clock.

The German’s definition of pain is clearly very different to mine. And 99 per cent of the world’s population, I’d wager.

But my own threshold has certainly shifted since my first, eye-watering ascent of Portsdown Hill in the autumn of 2012.

And Chris insists more tough experiences in the saddle are crucial to understanding just how far I can push myself on the big day.

However, he did stress that underpinning everything will be my ability to manage my self-talk.

Elite athletes are brilliant at keeping the voices in their heads under control and even making them work to their advantage.

It can mean the difference between making it to the summit and snapping your feet out of the pedals half way up.

Sadly, there is no magic cure to banish negative thoughts. Chris has a raft of different tactics to launch counter-attacks, though.

Whether it be tackling fatigue, discomfort or even boredom – of which there will be plenty during my anticipated 15 hours in the saddle – there are strategies to fight back.

Imagining a stop sign in front of me when I recognise a negative thought or emotion brewing is one of the simplest.

This is called thought stopping.

Distraction strategies are also helpful.

These can be linked to the activity – maybe focusing on my breathing or cadence on climbs rather than the pain flooding through my legs.

Or they can be disassociated – replaying a movie in your mind to alleviate long periods of boredom, for example.

Now this would be music to the ears of my sports desk colleague Steve Wilson – a walking, talking encyclopaedia of film.

I reckon he could complete back-to-back London Marathons while reliving the entire Star Wars series or Police Academy box set.

‘It is amazing how you can lose 20 or 30 minutes just by doing that,’ Chris explained.

‘The worst thing you can do is focus on how bad you feel.’

Fixating on my soaring heart rate during the toughest sections of my maiden century was not the smartest move then?

Note to self... remove the bpm read out from Garmin display screen!

Coupled with these counter-attacks are simple, preventative techniques.

There is nothing worse than the sudden realisation – seconds before kick-off or the start of play – that you have forgotten a crucial piece of kit.

We’ve all been there. But organisation and pre-planning are crucial to avoiding that panic and sense of impending doom.

Chris admitted: ‘Some of it is so minor, it is hardly advice. It is just consideration.

‘But cycling is a great one for those “marginal gains” and if you add all these things up they can become really important.

‘It is all about giving you that sense of comfort, confidence and familiarity.’

And the positives, Chris insists, should not be in short supply as the challenge looms large.

Many riders suffer from a multitude of aches and pain during long days in the saddle.

Fortunately, I have yet to suffer from similar ailments.

I reckon this is thanks, in no small part, to the professional bike fit I received from David Alexander at Specialized UK when I took up the sport.

Then there is my climbing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Chris Froome or Nairo Quintana.

But my slight, 69kg frame lends itself well to going uphill and – despite my reservations about the hilly South Downs terrain we will tackle next month – it will no doubt be a plus.

Chris added: ‘It can be a super strength.

‘If the toughest bit of this is the climbs in the second half, remind yourself that it is your strong point.

‘Where you’re strong is where it is going to be tough.’

So there are reasons for cheer ahead of this epic challenge – in honour of legendary endurance cyclist Tommy Godwin – after all.

What a difference a week makes!