The Mental Side With Sean Poitras: Staying Focused

By Sean Poitras

Photos by James Lissimore

These past five months have tested the mental toughness and resilience of all people, some much more than others. As the world slowly begins to reopen and stabilize, many athletes are faced with the challenge of training and performing in rapid time following the biggest global pandemic of our generation. The physical fatigue, or rust, is one concern, but the mental fatigue and reboot is something that many athletes are looking to overcome as we return to the track. Our training/performance timeline is off. Riders would usually be in mid-season form by now with a handful of races under their belts. Flexibility and resilience are key for all performers in these times and the best way to strengthen these mental skills is by putting your entire focus towards your training and allowing yourself to trust in that training once that first race day arrives.

Given the circumstances, I welcomed the opportunity to hear some questions from readers this month to get a better idea of where our minds are at as we get back on the track.

Staying positive is very important. Photo by James Lissimore

With this Covid-19 Pandemic, it has been difficult to remain positive. Are there any mental exercises I can do or that I can have my kids do to help them stay positive? 

Positivity is a mindset that can wear many different masks and is custom fit for each one of us. What may help one person think positively may not work for someone else. The key to positivity is excitement, interest and anticipation. This can also be the recipe for good old-fashioned fun. To spark positive thinking in motocross, focus your attention on the things you enjoy about the sport without competing. For example, tune up or work on your bike, watch some MX videos and, my personal favorite, develop a MX-specific workout/training program for yourself with exercises that will specifically strengthen the muscle groups commonly used in MX. One last task that can spark a positive attitude is to reflect on what your core strengths are as a rider, and more importantly what are some skills you want to improve upon this season. Write them down or make a video journal and come up with ideas to develop and strengthen these skills and what it will feel like. Finally, the greatest way to spark a positive mindset is to practice gratitude. Express how grateful you are for all the things in your life on paper or in your video journal. This is a proven strategy that can improve mood and perspective, so give it a shot.

Michael Jordan was able to elevate his game in any situation.

I watched the Michael Jordan documentary on Netflix (The Last Dance) and it obviously showed what a fierce competitor he was. Is that something that you are born with or it something you can develop over time?

This question is one that psychologists, geneticists and philosophers have pondered for centuries. Are our personalities, our skills, our strengths, our weaknesses and our attitudes a product of nature or nurture? In this specific context the question looks at whether the mental performance skills needed to be a champion can be learned and developed over time or if they are something we are born with and occur naturally when needed. For those who have not seen the documentary on the 1990s Chicago Bulls, it highlights not only some of the greatest moments and matchups that led to their multiple NBA championships, but also goes behind the scenes to reveal the leadership and mental processes of their superstar player Michael Jordan. Michael is shown to be a fierce competitor who was able to self-regulate his performance based on opponent. He could create a vicious rivalry with another team or individual player all in his own head just to give himself a competitive advantage. He would set nearly unrealistic expectations for his team and teammates performance and push them tirelessly to achieve them, all while surpassing and exceeding those same expectations himself. So far, what scientific research has suggested is the question should not be nature vs. nurture, but rather nature and nurture that examines which components may be learned, and which may be naturally occurring. We know that mental components of performance like confidence, motivation and emotional control can come naturally to some people. However, we have also seen these skills practiced and developed over time and through different experiences, suggesting that they can be learned or nurtured as well.

Most times it’s better to just focus on riding the track. Photo by James Lissimore

When I line up on the starting line and there are a lot of riders, I sometimes feel intimidated. What type of things can I do to help me feel more confident in these types of situations?

Intimidation is a form of fear. Fear is often the result of uncertainty or self-doubt. These thoughts or feelings can be a result of our focus being placed on uncontrollable variables surrounding our performance. These could include things like equipment, officials, weather conditions and, more often, our opponents. The best way to overcome a sense of intimidation is to maintain your focus on factors you can control. Your training, your tactical plan, your goals, your attitude, your journey, and so on. These are all examples of factors of your performance that are both in your control and are productive focal points to help you be at your best.

There will be motos when you have to give it everything you have. Photo by James Lissimore

During the final laps of certain tough races I feel like I’m suffering. It’s the same when I do long bicycles rides or runs. I know suffering is part of any sport but what things can I tell myself during these challenging moments to help me get through them better?

In any endurance sport this type of late game ‘suffering’ is sometimes referred to as ‘hitting the wall’. I have worked with marathon runners and Iron Man competitors on overcoming this occurrence and the best strategy is to have a strategy. Preparation for this psychophysical phenomenon is key, whether that means pushing yourself in your training to the point of hitting the wall and becoming familiar with the feeling, or developing a game plan for when your body gets to that point to help you stay task-oriented to find that sixth gear overdrive to propel you to the finish. I have found that your perspective of the wall is something that can be altered to help overcome its nasty symptoms. If you can view the wall as a check point or a cue signaling the end of the race is near and now is the time to empty the tank and leave it all on the track, the idea of the wall is welcomed and not feared. These strategies should be custom fit to you and will take some investigation and self-reflection into how you both perceive and respond to the wall in training and in competition.

I really appreciate these great questions, and I hope we were able to highlight some points that may have been on your mind over these past few months. A great perspective I heard from an athlete regarding this Covid-19 lockdown is that we are responsible for our own attitudes towards this situation. You can get mad or frustrated or bored during downtime where you are not competing or training, or you can view it as a time to reflect and grow and renew your passion for the sport and eventually come back stronger and more motivated then you were before the lockdown began. You decide which attitude you want to adopt.