Your Inner Athlete column: Achieve peak performance in your sport

What a treat to be in the crowd at the recent USA Pro Challenge. I, along with thousands of fellow sport enthusiasts, had a unique spectator opportunity to watch the fastest riders in the world pass by one-by-one during the time trial that started in Vail Village.

Although many people found their viewing spot along the course, I wanted an up-close look at the starting arena where I could observe how these professional athletes “get in the zone.”

Cyclists’ pre-competition routines start hours before their appearance in public in order to effectively warm up their bodies and achieve their IZOF (Ideal Zone of Optimal Functioning) — a term commonly used in sport psychology to describe athletes’ personal best levels of arousal for performance. However, the minute leading up to the actual race is just as vital to each athlete’s performance.

In an event such as a time trial, where each athlete has a turn in the spotlight while standing in the start, there are many distractions that, if not properly controlled for, could easily throw a cyclist off his IZOF. The crowd noise, cowbells, the big TV screen showing other cyclists, and the commentators reviewing your resume and updating us on current race results can negatively interfere with your pre-race process.

Sport psychology is called the “Science of Success” because it studies what successful athletes do to optimize their performance. Except for a handful of athletes that embraced the crowd with a wave and a smile (many of whom were locals offering appreciation to their fans), most of the professional cyclists I observed in the start performed three specific techniques to control their attention and ensure they were race-ready. These are the same techniques anyone can use in sport to stay focused and achieve their own IZOF.

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Technique No. 1: Focused breathing. The most common technique I observed among the professional cyclists was focused breathing. As soon as these men stepped on to the start platform, you could see a change in their breathing patterns. Their breathing became deliberate and controlled as a way of removing any tension and controlling their minds to stay focused on the race ahead.

Technique No. 2: Eyes forward. As a former alpine ski racer, I remember standing in the start and purposely looking straight at the gates on the race course. I used the gates as attentional cues to distract me away from the crowds and keep me focused on the course. These pro cyclists did the same thing — they looked directly ahead at the well outlined course as a means of staying tuned in to their race.

Technique No. 3: Clearing the mechanism. If you have ever seen the movie “For Love of the Game” with Kevin Costner, then you know what I mean by clearing the mechanism. In the movie, Costner’s character is a pitcher and, just before he pitched, he would stare into the catcher’s glove and say “clear the mechanism.” At that point, all the background noise and shenanigans from the crowd would be silenced (in his mind of course). His eyes become sniper-focused on the catcher’s signals. Although I couldn’t hear the cyclists, I did see their lips moving that leads me to believe they were using similar affirmations to tune out the distracting noise and visuals so they could stay focused on their performance.

Whether you’re a competitive cyclist, recreational cyclist or participate in any other sporting activity, these same techniques can be used to help control your attention and arousal/anxiety levels. The next time you find yourself distracted, experiment with one or all of the techniques and enjoy how they return you to your Ideal Zone of Optimal Functioning.

With a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology, Haley Perlus is a professor, three-time author, international speaker and Peak Performance consultant. For more free tips and videos, go to or call 303-459-4516.

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