Virtual Trainer: Get Psyched for Starts

June 29, 2006 11:09am

Rick Johnson
In an effort to bring Racer X Online readers the best information available regarding MX fitness, postings on this website are open to anyone with a specific and proven expertise in the fitness field. Last month Dr. Patrick Cohn, a sports psychology expert and world-renowned mental-game coach from Orlando, FL, posted an article on the Mental Game of MX. This month, Dr. Cohn follows up with tips and techniques on how to prepare your mind for the all-important start.

Get Psyched for Starts: Four Mental Keys for Motocross Racers

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 throttle wide open to be the holeshot winner. To win the holeshot takes guts, courage, confidence, and a fearless mindset. Although grabbing the holeshot does not guarantee a moto win, it certainly helps you get one-step closer to it. Seven-time AMA National Motocross/Supercross Champion Rick Johnson believes there are two very important aspects to every race: “The first race is from the starting gate to the first turn, and the second race is from the first turn to the finish line.”

I specialize in working with students on the mental game of motocross, and this includes mental preparation for starts. Each rider must get his/her game face on and be fully confident on the line in order to get the best possible start whatever the 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 offer four essential mental preparation skills so you can get the best starts possible.

Skill #1: Get Psyched up, Not Psyched Out

Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart
The start of a race can be an intimidating aspect for many riders, especially when they psych themselves out on the line instead of psyching themselves up. It is easy to become intimidated when you compare yourself to other racers and think about things that happened in the last moto. Things like how the guy next to you came over and gave you an elbow or two while charging into the first turn, or mistakes that you made that you can’t do anything about now. Thoughts like this will psych you out, not up, while waiting for the gate to drop.

One strategy to psych yourself up is to focus on your gate preparation and not on the other racers. You must focus only on your gate, how to prepare your gate, and how you will get a wheel in front of the other riders once the gate drops. I ask my students to never attach a finishing position or a name to the other riders on the line. In motocross, too many guys defeat themselves before the gate even drops by having a preconceived notion of what place they and everyone else are going to finish. Unless you picture yourself in the number-one position, how will you ever win the moto if you think the best you can do is third because of the other fast guys on the line? In this mindset, you probably will finish third, and no better, unless someone takes a spill ahead of you.

Skill #2: Have a Race Plan

Barry Carsten grabs an early lead at Budds Creek
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 a plan for the first two laps. The biggest mistake a rider can make is to be wishy-washy or indecisive about his race plan. An indecisive mind is an uncommitted mind, which is a mind that lacks confidence. Rick Johnson says, “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 whether 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 shift points are, for example. I suggest having a race strategy for the moto. This strategy includes the lines you will use on the first couple of laps and the best sections you can make passes. It is understandable 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.

Skill #3: 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. 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.

Ryan Villopoto
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: If you can see it, you can believe it. Confidence is necessary 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.

Skill #4: 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 being caught up in distractions will not allow you to focus on what is important for a good start.

First, consider what is important and what is unimportant (or a distraction) on the line and know the difference. Thoughts about the last moto, where you will finish at the end of this moto, and what you think others think about your racing are examples of distractions. What are the most important things to focus on 30 seconds before 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 should done without any thought or conscious awareness.

Finally, all of the above mental strategies should be integrated into your pre-race routine. You should strive to consistently execute a pre-race 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.

That’s it from Dr. Cohn for now, but look for more articles on how to mentally prepare for MX in the near future. Until then, be sure and check out his website at or call him at 888-742-7225. Good luck with your training and as always, VT can be reached anytime at In addition, be sure to check out the Racer X archives section, your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. Archives before November 2005 can be found here.