From time to time in professional motocross and Supercross racing, we’ll see a rider who goes out week after week and consistently sets decent times in practice, but once the green flag waves, he or she doesn’t seem to have the ability to make critical passes or hold off other riders.
For years, the term “race craft” has been used to talk about the ability for a racer to make good decisions in those instantaneous moments in racing that happen at hyperspeed. Reading the track, reading riders around them, being able to capitalize on their riding strengths and take advantage of the weaknesses of their competitors.
While physical training is a given in the grueling sport and no rider — no matter how skilled in their race craft — will ever be successful without excellent fitness, one area that’s much less talked about is the mental game. It’s the concept of having a winning attitude or supreme confidence.
In some sports, it’s more obvious. LeBron James having the mental toughness to be the one to take the last shot when the game is on the line. Or Jordan Spieth having the calmness to sink that 15-foot putt. In motocross, it’s the stopwatch or results sheets that tells the tale.
The advent of mental training in motocross is a recent phenomenon, according to Dr. Patrick Cohn, who has worked in the sport as a mental conditioning coach for over a decade.
“I started in about 2004 with a guy named Matt Boni,” Cohn said. “At that time, not a lot of guys were doing mental training or mental coaching. I actually went and spoke at one of the nationals as well. I think it was pretty new. In terms of some of the racers, a lot of the guys that I worked with were like Boni, Justin Starling and Adam Cianciarulo, when he was really young. I worked with Cianciarulo when he was just on 80s (cc). Those are the type of guys that I worked with.”
According to Cohn, top riders often like to keep the types of training they are doing close to the vest. And some riders, even if they are working with a mental coach, don’t necessarily like to admit it.
“I did work with a big-name pro who did not give me permission to use his name. I’ve worked with NASCAR racers as well, open-wheel racers. I’m pretty familiar with the whole area,” Cohn said. “To me, mental training is an area that is kind of like the last frontier for them that they might be late to adopt. I don’t know what that mentality is, but certainly golfers and tennis players, baseball players, even hockey and football, have kind of adopted this type of training.”
With motocross and Supercross being such physical sports, most of the focus is on getting in physical condition, so the mental aspect often goes somewhat overlooked. But having the capacity to focus mentally and perform at your peak under the intense pressure of race day are the kinds of things that can be taught. Riders who work on it consistently can attain their mental fitness peak at the right time, but like anything else, it takes practice.
Cohn says it’s usually a deficiency in one area of riding that brings racers to him.
“Often what happens is guys will come to me because they have a specific problem,” he said. “It’s very rare in my work where they just say, ‘I want to learn how to get the mental edge.’
“So, what can the problems be? They feel more relaxed in their training and their practice, would be an example of that,” Cohn added. “Then they get out in competition and their lap times are slower or they feel tight or they have things like arm pump. Typically, they’re going to come to me because they have a specific challenge that they know they’re underperforming in competition. It’s rarely, like I said, they’re going to come and say, ‘I just want to get the mental edge. Can you tell me what you know about the mental game?’”