Exhaust: Does Mental Matter?

Exhaust Does Mental Matter?

January 19, 2017 11:25am

There are two types of sports analysts. I’ll show you the differences in a mock breakdown of a football game.

Analysis 1: “They needed to be in attack mode. They were back on their heels. The pressure got to them. The other team got in their head. They weren’t confident.”

Analysis 2: “They were running a cover-2 scheme, but the linebackers couldn’t get good separation, so they had to bring a safety down. Once the offensive line picked up the blitz, it left them vulnerable over the top.”

The first set of things we think happened. The second set? The real analysts know happened.

By the way I’m not sure that second football analysis made any sense, I just threw a bunch of football terms on the board. I’m not a certified football expert. So for me, if I wanted to break a game down, it’s easy to talk about confidence and “attack mode.” Saying that requires zero inside info from coaches, it doesn’t require any time in the film room, and it’s impossible to prove if it really happened or not, so I can just unleash it on Monday morning and no one can prove I’m absolutely wrong.

Plus, confidence is something we all understand. It’s something we’ve all felt. However, I always wonder if the true insiders, as in, the players on the teams, or the coaches, shake their heads when they hear it. Is all of that really happening?

We actually talk this way in motocross more than any other sport. We talk about confidence. Confidence, confidence, confidence. We talk about the mental side a lot, because this game, at the highest level, is said to be all mental. All that separates the top riders is what’s between their ears.

Subscribe for as low as $9.98 for a chance to win two tickets with all-day pit access to hang out with Jason Weigandt and Steve Matthes at Monster Energy Supercross.
Subscribe for as low as $9.98 for a chance to win two tickets with all-day pit access to hang out with Jason Weigandt and Steve Matthes at Monster Energy Supercross.

Well, I’m calling bullshit on that. Sorry. This is an athletic sport like any other and that means, like every other, some riders have more talent than others, or they work harder than others. Some riders are more skilled than other riders. Some riders are smarter than others. Some bikes work better than others. Add up these factors, and some riders ride better than others.

Also, some riders are healthier than others and get better starts than others, but those are the two factors we actually do talk about. Bad starts and injuries are easy things to admit, because they appear to be random in nature. To admit you’re not as fast as someone is to remove all excuses and say someone else was just better. To say injuries or bad starts are a factor is fine, because that falls into the bad luck category.

We rate the confidence thing very high in motocross. We do it for three reasons. First, well, it is very important. I don’t want to claim that the mental side isn’t a big factor; it just isn’t the only factor. Second, it insulates riders from insult. It’s nice to say: “You’re just as good as the other guy, he just has more confidence right now.” You know what? Saying it that way helps preserve the rider’s confidence!

The third, and real reason, to go there, is because it’s very hard, in this sport, to find the real things that happen. The “linebackers couldn’t get separation” real, in-the-trenches, in-the-film-room analysis. You can watch stick-and-ball sports and compare the size, speed, and skill of the players and make some rudimentary guesses about real things that happened beyond the mental side.

Motocross? Man, that’s hard. A rider’s height and weight rarely mean anything. It’s difficult to compare specific skills as well. In baseball, pitchers are literally known for the exact type of pitches they throw, and hitters are known for the exact types of pitches they can hit. In this sport we maybe know one rider has good corner speed or good whoop speed, but these are tiny differences and they’re hard to prove.

At least from the outside.

Meanwhile, there’s much more going on than we know. This week, Steve Matthes, Jason Thomas, and myself debated on both our Fly Racing Racer X Podcast and the 3 on 3 feature about “Who really won in San Diego: Roczen or Dungey?” This was a debate over the mental side. Did Dungey gain confidence by running Kenny’s pace? Or did Kenny gain confidence by passing and beating Ryan? Confidence, confidence, confidence. It makes for a great debate and everyone has an opinion, and none of them can be proven completely wrong. That’s cool.

Who gained more confidence last weekend?
Who gained more confidence last weekend? Jeff Kardas

I would bet good money that Roczen and his people, and Dungey and his people, haven’t said the word confidence once this week. They’re both confident enough already. Kenny knows he can win races; Ryan knows he can run with anyone. This is a wash. So now they’re on to other topics.

What Ryan did get from San Diego was 20 minutes of watching Kenny, figuring out where he is fast. He will put that knowledge to work. He could change his bike setup or lines based on it. Kenny, also, knows where Ryan gained and where he didn’t. Plus, they have many tools at their disposal, from video cameras in the stands to LitPro GPS devices, Dartfish video analysis, downloadable engine data, and more. No doubt, this week, both riders and their teams studied the data and figured out where they need to go faster.

The next step is two-fold: figuring out how to get better in those areas, and then actually executing it when it counts.

That’s what it really comes down to. But it’s still fun to debate the other stuff, isn’t it?