Motocross starts are the race within the race of motocross. In no other sport do you have 40 or so competitors hauling into the first turn with the engine throttle wide open to be the hole shot winner. To win the hole shot takes guts, courage, a confidence, and a fearless mindset.
Although grabbing the hole shot does not guarantee a moto win, it certainly helps you get one step closer to it. Rick Johnson said that there are two races in motocross – the start and the race to the finish line. “The first race is from the starting gate to the first turn, and then the second race is from the first turn to the finish line,” Johnson said.
I specialize working with my students on the mental game of motocross and this includes mental preparation for starts. You must get your game face on and be fully confident on the line so you can get the best possible start whatever your gate selection. What is the best way to prepare your mind for the start so you can give yourself the best chance to get clean air after the first turn? In this article, I advocate four essential mental preparation skills so you can get the best starts possible.
Get Psyched up, Not Psyched Out
The start can be an intimidating race for many riders, especially when they psych themselves out on the line by thinking about other fast racers. For this reason, it’s easy to become intimidated on the line when you compare yourself to other racers and think about, in the last moto, how a guy came over on you and gave you an elbow or two.
The first strategy is to focus on your gate preparation and not focus on other racers. You must focus only on your gate, preparing your gate, and how you will get a wheel in front of other racers. I ask my students to not attach a number or a name to the other racers on the line. In motocross, too many racers place themselves on the start line even before the race has started. How will you ever win the moto if you think you are good for a 3rd because of the other fast guys on the line? In this mindset, you probably will finish 3rd and no better unless someone takes a spill ahead of you.
Have a Race Plan
Before you even get on the start line, you need to have a plan or a race strategy. This should include a strategy for both the start and how you will grab the hole shot and also a plan for the first two laps. The biggest mistake you can make is to be wishy-washy or indecisive about your race plan. An indecisive mind is an uncommitted mind, which is a mind that lacks confidence.
“Before you go to the starting area, you need to have a ‘game plan’. I try to visualize the entire race beforehand. As the actual race gets closer at hand, I start to focus more specifically on the start.”
You should have a plan for both the start and the rest of the race before you even get to the start line. No matter if you have the first or the last gate pick, you should prepare your mind to get the best possible start position. You do this by thinking about your line to the first turn and where your shifts points are for example. I also suggest to my students to have a race strategy for the moto. This strategy includes the lines you will use on the first couple laps and the best sections you can make passes. I understand that the track conditions will change during the race, but you still want to be committed to a plan for the first lap and then be flexible with your lines as the track changes.
See and Feel a Good Start in Your Mind
The third strategy is to mentally rehearse your start a few times so you are prepared for any mishap or situation. Your mental imagery can also help you ingrain or imprint your plan prior to the start. Your mental rehearsal should include seeing or feeling the best possible start in your mind from a first-person perspective – just like you are on your bike.
Seeing and feeling a smooth start will allow you to just react to the gate drop and not over-think the start, which is another common error that racers make. We have a saying in sports psychology called: if you can see it, you can believe it. Confidence is a must for a good start. If you can see yourself out in front going into the first turn, this will help you relax and trust that you will get a good start.
Narrow your focus
A fourth mental tool in your mental preparation toolkit is the ability to narrow your focus when you get to the start line. You have to contend with many distractions on race weekend and these distractions can be carried over into the start of a moto. However, a racer must focus only on three important cues in order to get a good start, and focus on one cue at a time. Too many thoughts (an over active mind) or getting caught up in distractions will not allow you to focus on what important for a good start.
First, consider what is important and what is unimportant (or a distraction) on the line – know the difference. The last moto, where you will finish at the end of the moto, and what you think others think about your racing are examples of distractions. What is REALLY important to focus on 30 seconds before you the start? The starter, reacting to the gate drop, and your line to the first turn are very important, one at a time. You could argue that your body position, smooth throttle control, and shifting are also relevant or important to a good start, but these are well-learned actions that you should do without any thought or conscious awareness.
Finally, all of the above mental strategies should be integrated into your prerace routine. You should strive to consistently execute a prerace routine that helps you become both mentally and physically prepared. Have a plan, visualize success, narrow your focus on the important cues, and get psyched up instead of psyched out by the other riders.
Editors Note: Dr. Patrick J. Cohn is sports psychology expert and world-renowned mental game coach who works with athletes in all sports including national level Motocross racers, NASCAR drivers, and CART teams. For more information on his mental game coaching programs and developing a championship mindset, visit www.racingpsychology.com or call 888-742-7225.