The Mental Side with Sean Poitras-Building Pillars

How mental is motocross? For many, this is a very personal question pertaining to the intricate and complex non-physical skills developed over time. Many sports, including motocross, can be broken down into four pillars of both training and competition. Those pillars include the physical, technical, tactical and mental aspects of any performance. We train in the gym and eat healthy to ensure our body is physically ready to compete. We practice our technical skills starting at a very young age with the fundamentals of the sport. We later master the tactical strategies that allow us to compete with our opponents.

Now, if you could put a percentage on the mental skills required to be successful when competing in motocross, what would it be? 50%? 75-85%? Maybe even more? Consider your answer and then consider the amount of time you spend training, developing and mastering those mental skills that you know are necessary to be successful. Consider a time or moment where all other skills were irrelevant and it was just you and your thoughts trying desperately to take control of the situation. Perhaps it’s on the start line before a big race when expectations are high and the sudden shred of doubt enters your thoughts. Or maybe it is during a race when one small mistake leaves you behind the pack, and you are forced with the decision to give up hope or to be persistent and up the effort.

If we can agree that the mental pillar of our sport is a load barring aspect of our performance, why is it that it receives the least amount of attention when it comes to training, development and coaching? Your mental skill sets can be the difference between a good performance and a great performance. Under stress you will find that you can compete significantly better or worse depending on how you interpreted and utilized the stress.

I am a sport and performance psychology consultant, and I work with a very wide variety of athletes and performers of all ages and competitive backgrounds. I hold a specialized B.A. in Sport & Exercise Psychology, as well as a M.Ed. in Athletic Counseling Psychology. I have a competitive background as a college Div. III hockey player, and as a result I have specialized in working with college aged student athletes. However, I coach my clients on the cognitive aspects of their given sport. Each program being 100% customized to meet the needs of each individual athlete based on their experiences, personalities, attitudes, and strengths and weaknesses as a competitor.

Throughout the years I have been working in the field of sport psychology, I have come to realize that there are many common misconceptions of this type of training. My favourite encounter was with a gentleman who asked me about the line of work I was in. I told him, “I am a sport psychology consultant.” His face lit up as I saw him processing what I had told him. “That’s really cool, man! I actually just picked up a ticket earlier today,” he said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like two lottery tickets. Turns out his man thought I was a Sport Psychic, and that I could help him pick the winning teams for his Pro-Line ticket. The cognitive performance components that are commonly attended to in any given program may include, but are not limited to; strengthening performance under pressure, confidence/self efficacy development, motivation identification, overcoming failure/setbacks/injuries, resilience training (mental toughness), individual and team role identification, and the athletic identity when transitioning out of the sport. Another common misconception is that athletes only work on mental skills training when there is a problem with their performance. This is definitely not true. Just like with the physical, technical and tactical skills, they must be practiced and developed over time in preparation for high performance, not in the instance of poor performance.

How the programs are structured can vary with each individual. However, we typically start with an initial consultation where I can learn more about the history, tendencies and strengths and weaknesses of the individual(s) I am working with. It is also important for the client(s) to learn more about my background and history in the field. The primary goal of the consultation is to identify areas of personal strength, as well as areas in their performance where there is room for growth and development.

From there we begin developing strategies to identify and overcome the mental obstacles currently affecting performance. The goal throughout this step is to increase our knowledge and become more aware of the different thoughts, behaviours and attitudes that influence both good and poor performances. Different points of this process can be more difficult, as habits and routines may have been instilled in our mind and these patterns of behavior can be tough to change. My job throughout this process is to first hold my clients accountable for their effort, attitude and behavior, while at the same time providing support and guidance along the way.

The next question you may have is how can all of these techniques be applied to Motocross Racing? The answer will be unique to you. Consider all of the mental aspects that you had thought of earlier. Was it the race day anxiety, the anticipation of different weather or environmental conditions, past injuries, or perhaps a rivalry or goal you want to overcome? There is a mental strategy for any aspect of your game that you want to improve on. And just like the physical, technical and tactical skills, the mental training require time and practice to perfect.

Sean R. Poitras M.Ed. Sport Psychology Consultant Focus North Performance @FocusNperform