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Self Handicapping, Externalisation and Internalisation


Previously I have written (here and here) of the importance of the mental skills for riders and their contribution to success in cycling.  This article is a follow up post to these topics and it’s perhaps one of the most important articles I have written on this site as it touches at the very heart a riders subconscious motivation when racing and training – which in turn affects overall performance and results.

The terms in the title refer to two important topics in sports psychology.  Self-handicapping is the conscious or sub-conscious practise of placing oneself in a situation where the lack of results will not negatively impact self image. It also includes creating or claiming obstacles prevented results. There are many examples of this in cycling.  One of the most common (and obvious) is race grades.  A ride will often race a grade above their ability so that when they fail to finish they can always save face by saying they were beaten by better riders – after all its better to get dropped and DNF from A grade than B grade, right (?).  Another is poor food intake or hydration where riders conveniently ‘forget’ to eat sufficient food or drink sufficiently fluids thus robbing themselves of a chance at success.

Externalisation and Internalisation are the two ways that we look at the ‘cause and effect’ relationship within the performance paradigm.   Riders who tend towards externalisation always look to blame someone or something else for their poor results and as such deprive themselves of a learning opportunity (see ‘should have, would have, could have’ for examples).  Riders who internalise tend towards analysing their own actions to determine whether they could have done something differently to change the result and as such they are always providing a path to improving their results.

The remainder of this article will look at these concepts in a little more detail, with an emphasis on helping you identify whether you are guilty of self-handicapping and whether you tend towards externalisation or internalisation.


There are a wide variety of ways that people self-handicap their performance.   The quickest and best way to identify whether you are doing this is to conduct a post event review.  During this review look at everything as critically as possible and identify all of the things that negatively impacted your performance.  Then ask yourself whether this was something in your control or not.  For example, if you ran out of food or drink, ask yourself whether you consciously thought about exactly how much food/drink you would need.  If you answered ‘NO’ then this is likely to be self-handicapping.   The exception to this is the first time it happens, in which case its just lack of knowledge or experience and you should learn from this event.  This then highlights that making repeated mistakes of the same type (e.g. always forgetting to eat properly during a race) is also an example of self-handicapping.  The next step is then to ask yourself if have you made any of the same mistakes before?  If the answer to this question is ‘YES’ again it’s likely to be self-handicapping.

One of the classic self-handicapping actions in cycling comes in the form of the repeated (as in every race) early breakaway attempt.   Just about everyone knows that such tactics seldom result in success, however it looks fantastic and is sure to get you noticed at any race as you zoom off the front at warp speed.  To understand further, lets have a closer look at what’s happening here.  First and foremost the rider doesn’t want to ‘lose face’ within the race group or their peers so going on the attack is a great way to be noticed. It’s also a daring move that has long odds of success and if pulled off the rider attains a certain ‘hero’ status.   This means the attack looks to be a positive move, however if the rider doesn’t have the ability to stay away then the attack becomes self-defeating and ultimately the rider doesn’t achieve the best possible result.   This then begs the question, why undertake any action that will negatively affect the result?

Fear.  Lack of self confidence or belief.  Peer pressure, i.e. wanting to fit in or not be left out. These are all highly personal and ‘deep’ motivations that drive our everyday behaviour, including our cycling.   In it’s most simplistic terms it means that you need to think like a winner to be a winner, and winners seldom doubt their own ability.   

As self-handicapping is closely linked with ones own self image it can be quite difficult to identify let alone eliminate - even though it may be obvious to external parties, like a friend or coach.  The key requirement is that the individual rider must be open to the fact that they are sub-consciously sabotaging their own results and they must be willing to proactively tackle the problem.  This requires a strong will and/or desire to succeed and often also requires external assistance (e.g. a coach or sports psychologist).   One of the most effective ways of dealing with self-handicapping is conducting a detailed post race review and then using the information to develop or update a race-day plan.   What this does is then highlight the areas that need addressing (such as having sufficient food/drink) and puts plans in pace to ensure it is not a problem in the future. Over time this should lead to the development of a fool-proof race day plan that becomes second nature and then the backbone for a successful race performance.

It’s also worth noting that NOT conducting a post race review or having a race day plan is also self-handicapping!

Externalisation vs. Internalisation

While externalisation and internalisation are different to self-handicapping they drive the effectiveness of the review and learning process described above.  A rider who externalises a problem is unlikely to identify self-handicapping and as a result become stuck in a cycle of sub-optimal results, which then supports the riders own image of their abilities, leading to further sub-conscious self-handicapping. 

Riders prone to externalisation usually need assistance from an external party when reviewing their performances.  Unfortunately friends and family members are not the best choices for this as they usually form part of the riders peer group.   This is where a good coach is invaluable, as their job is to look at all aspects of a rider’s performance and determine the things that influence it, both positive and negative.  There are a variety of ways that a coach does this but for me it involves a combination of approaches, which usually starts by asking lots of questions to see whether the rider can self identify the problem and to also indicate whether the rider is externalising or internalising the factors affecting the results.  From here the role of the coach is to develop strategies with the rider to eliminate the negative factors.  

So how do you know whether you tend towards externalisation or internalisation?   Once again the key is conducting a critical analysis of a race performance and identifying all factors that influenced the results.  In doing this it is important that you also consider the actions of other riders in influencing the results.  Once you have done this go through the list and for each factor list whether it was in your control or not.   For each of the factors that you have listed as out of your control, ask yourself whether there was anything you could have done differently (anything at all) to change the outcome.  If so, then you have initially externalised the factor/issue/problem. This is the point where a coach or other external party is valuable to have on board as they can provide a ‘reality check’ of your assessment and perhaps provide alternatives which will sway things back into your control.

Where you identify a factor as being within your control you have internalised it, in which case the next step is to determine what you would do differently next time and then either include this in your race day plan or if it’s a tactical decision, add it in your tactics repertoire. 


Incorporating this knowledge into your daily training and racing

First and foremost you must get into the habit of critically reviewing your performance, especially after every race you do – whether it be a club training race or a major event.   If necessary reach out and ask for input from other people including your coach, other riders, friends, family, race officials, etc.   The more honestly you appraise your own performance and the more openly you accept the input of other the better this process will be.   From here identify all areas that are in your control and develop strategies so that these are addressed in your next race.   Developing your own race day plan is a great way of doing this as after each race you can add in the new things identified.  Overall, the review and planning process is at the very heart of a persons development as a cyclist and ultimately it impacts on whether they will meet their goals or not.  

It is worth noting that some riders have the physical abilities to meet their goals but they never achieve success as they never develop the necessary mental skills to enable them to achieve them.  The opposite is also true with riders with seemingly poorer physical attributes often beating ‘better’ riders due to their superior mental attributes. At the top of the sport, world champions get where they are because they have exceptional physical capabilities and they have also learnt from their previous mistakes.  Sure they get exceptional levels of support but overall this just helps them implement their race plans to maximise their potential to achieve the best results.  It’s important to remember that the same principles apply for club riders, juniors and aspiring champions alike (after all the world champions started out here too).   So, learn from your mistakes and continue to develop as a rider.  The more proactively and ‘honestly’ that you approach this process the better the outcomes.

Jason Mahoney Thursday 19 September 2013 at 08:44 am | | Tips

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