Mental skills for face punching and pedal mashing

Cage fights and gnarly trails are won in your head, says UFC fighter and Niner rider Durkin. Here’s how to focus on conquering your foe.

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Cage fighting skills for mountain bikers

The correlation between fighting and mountain biking isn’t an obvious one unless you’re pretty heavily involved in both. It just so happens that my life, as odd as it sounds, revolves primarily around these two activities. I can’t imagine that there are many of us out there, but who knows, cycle fighting could be the sport of the future.

Mountain bikers identify themselves as a bit different from the norm, a little eccentric, maybe even slightly crazy.
Fighters, point blank, are crazy. My full time job is to beat people up in a cage. My fellow colleagues who would try to dispute the fact that we are crazy are the ones to watch out for.

Just like that, these two unlikely groups have found some common ground. Let’s go deeper…

Mountain biking and fighting obviously share a sense of physicality. We both sweat and burn calories, deal with injuries, train our bodies outside of our discipline (ie: running, weight training etc.) and have moments where adrenaline is injected into our bloodstreams.

But what about the psychological side?

A lot of physical and mental preparation goes into a fight. I’d argue that the mental is more important. Sure, you can’t go into a fight looking like a prune, but at the same time, a person looking like a Greek god might not be able to perform when the lights are on and cameras are rolling. We’ve all heard the story of the pruney grandmother lifting up a 2-ton vehicle to save a young child trapped beneath it. So get your mind right!

Fights are usually booked around two or three months before the fight actually happens. Way before I start physically training for the fight, my brain instinctively begins to think of ways to win. Sport psychologists refer to this as visualisation.

1. Visualisation

This is basically the act of filling your brain full of images and clips of you succeeding. For a fight, this means I am imagining myself knocking out my opponent or choking them unconscious (told you, we’re crazy), but visualisation can also be much more specific. For example, in boxing, footwork is incredibly important. Where you put your feet can dramatically change a punch. As dramatic as going from throwing a punch that could knock your opponent out to throwing a punch that exposes you or makes you unbalanced which could easily be countered and end up knocking you out.

Mountain biking requires the same kind of visualisation and you’re probably doing it without even realising it. When I’m riding my favourite trail, I know what’s waiting for me ahead. When that challenging, technical climb is coming up I’m thinking about what line I’m going to take or when I’ll need to come out of my saddle and crank it to give myself that extra jolt of power. I can almost guarantee that your brain is doing this whether you know it or not. You’re preparing your mind and body with visualisation.

2. Relaxation

Another pre-fight mental exercise I use is called relaxation. I’m willing to bet most every mountain biker has used this technique before too. Sometimes the night before I wake up early to ride I’ll pack up the car and layout my clothes, so I’m not fumbling around in the morning. When I lay down for bed mountain biking is on my mind just before I fall asleep. Maybe I’m nervous because last time I did this particular ride I wrecked by mis-hitting a jump takeoff. When I’m laying in bed I’m flooding my mind with positive thoughts, reassuring myself that tomorrow I’ll time that jump perfectly. I’m relaxing myself with positive thoughts to block out any doubt or memory of the jump not going as planned. Sometimes I’ll decide to ride without really planning it so laying in bed and going through some relaxation techniques isn’t possible, but without even thinking about it, I’ll be doing the same thing in the car ride to the trails. This relaxation technique from a fighter’s perspective might be used before a sparring session. Maybe the week prior my training partner was constantly landing his leg kick on my lead leg and I couldn’t figure out how to counter it or defend against it. I’ll replay those instances in my head, but I’ll be blocking his strikes or landing my own when I see him throwing the leg kick and slowly I convince myself to relax in that situation and react. I’m turning a negative situation into something positive with my mind and the likelihood of correcting this later in training is much greater.

3. Real-time

All of these techniques so far have been for preparation, but what happens when you need to deal with something in real-time. In a fight, much like a mountain bike ride there are breaks in action. For me a break in action could be right after a long exchange or scramble on the ground or in between rounds. It’s more or less an active rest position. My body might not be doing much besides going through the motions, but my mind is working and constantly trying to get better. For a fighter, studying the environment is very important. Picking up on your opponent’s tendencies might mean being able to calm down after a hard strike lands squarely to your jaw. Being calm enough to analyse why you just got punched in the face and fix it by keeping it from happening again is definitely a mental skill and one that will serve you well to do quickly. This situation is very relatable to mountain biking. Sometimes on my bike I hit a rock garden and completely botch the first few obstacles. If I can stay in the moment and adjust while I’m still riding I can find that line again and pull it all back together without having to step off my bike. If I blow up and become upset, the moment to fix this mistake is lost and I can’t get it back so all that’s left to do is stomp angrily through the rock garden and let it get the better of you. Sometimes when you rescue a section of trail this way and manage to make it through that rock garden despite your mistakes it feels better than doing it perfectly. I find this to be true all of the time. Crazy maybe, but I’m the crazy guy that can manage my emotions when it really counts. Sounds like a dangerous combination on or off the bike.

4. Survival mode

The next mental technique is very similar to the last one, but requires just a little more intensity. Let’s say that hard punch not only lands flush on my chin, it sits me on my ass. Welcome to what we call “survival mode”. Somehow finding a way stop your eyeballs from rolling around in your head, catch your balance, and avoid that big strike that’s coming to finish you. Assessing the situation and finding the best way to do all these things at once while staying alive is the skill and I can tell you from experience it’s all mental. No matter what position you find yourself in, it’s about winning the tiny battles. Clear your head while dodging everything that comes your way and advance your position. If you’re flat on your back, work to recover your guard. If you’re on your butt in the middle of the canvas, you move a hip and try to work to your feet. Hope your legs have enough life in them to get some distance between you and your opponent without doing some strange involuntary dance move. I believe that no matter what happens I can always win. It’s a mindset. During fights I’ve broken bones, torn ligaments, had my face so swollen I could barely see, had huge gashes pouring blood into my eyes so everything is an eerie shade of yellow and I’ve never quit. People on the outside looking in call this heart. Heart, stupidity, craziness and determination are all houses in the same neighbourhood. You have to embrace them all to find that will to win.

5. Reflection

The last mental skill comes after the fight. It’s called reflection, but the term reflection has many meanings. In this instance it means dropping your ego, anger or elation (due to the outcome of the fight) to look back objectively at what just happened and pick out the pros and cons of it. Sometimes you win a fight and there is nothing you could have done better. I personally have never experienced that feeling, but the possibility of having that feeling is what I strive for. Someday…

Learning from a loss is a tough skill to achieve. I’ve lost a handful of fights and it’s one of the worst feelings you can imagine. No advice or well wishes can get you over it. You have to decide on your own to overcome it. Push down the anger, the sadness, the excuses, the urge to quit and pull yourself together. A loss is only truly a loss when you let it defeat you. If you don’t learn a valuable lesson and become better through the experience then you’re missing out on being the best possible version of yourself the next time around.

This translates to mountain biking pretty easily. I think everyone that rides a bike has a little bit of competitive nature embedded in their DNA. Whether it’s a race over the weekend or just a ride with your buddies, almost everyone wants to be their best. Reflecting after a ride can be done alone in a deliberate or intense way, like after a fight. Or it can be done over some beers with your crew in the parking lot. Part of being someone’s friend is giving them a hard time especially if they crash and burn on a steep switchback and get lost in a massive dust cloud for a few minutes, or wipe out in a swampy bog and need to be hosed down before anyone will let them in their car. Either way you decide to reflect on a ride or race is beneficial. The end result is the same because you’re thinking about what happened, good or bad and coming up with ways to get better from it.

Next time you hit the trails for fun, for a workout, to train or to race think about using some of these exercises for your mind and see if they help you in your quest for greatness or whatever your sights are set on. One thing is almost 100% certain, you won’t get choked unconscious or end up with a black eye.

Who is Durkin?

Patrick Durkin Cummins is an mixed martial artists and current UFC figher. When he’s not throwing punches though Durkin will be riding bikes as a brand ambassador for Niner.

“Mountain bikers identify themselves as a bit different from the norm, a little eccentric, maybe even slightly crazy. Fighters, point blank, are crazy. My full time job is to beat people up in a cage. My fellow colleagues who would try to dispute the fact that we are crazy are the ones to watch out for.”