A Male Cyclist Reviewing Data In The Trainingpeaks App On His Mobile Phone After A Ride.

How to Use Data to Boost Psychological Readiness to Perform

BY David Van Orsdel

Discover how top athletes leverage mental preparation alongside objective metrics to unlock their full potential.

Science vs. Psychology

When it comes to performance, what matters more, psychology and state of mind or science, data and numbers? Many of cycling’s brightest sports scientists, data analysts, and psychologists have the tendency to refer solely to their field of specialty. When you ask physicist and inventor of the power meter Uli Schoberer, his answer may surprise you: You have to look at both. 

Speaking with Schoberer, his stance is clear that you cannot look only at the numbers to determine performance, but instead look at the athlete as a whole. “A long time ago, I recommended an athlete based on power numbers alone. On paper, he was the strongest, but he was too young, nervous, and wasn’t mentally prepared for [the Olympic pursuit]. He was shaking from the stress. He was dropped after two laps.” 

In this case, the athlete, though strong (he would later go on to win an Olympic gold medal four years later), was not mentally ready for the extreme stress of the Olympic games and, as a result, underperformed.

Is the Proof of Performance in the Data?

Today’s sporting landscape is increasingly data-driven. From the NBA Finals to the Tour de France, athlete potential is more and more frequently reduced to the numbers they produce. The prevalent thinking is that if you push more watts, you go faster, and then you win more races. Simple, right? While having a higher power output will increase an athlete’s odds of a good performance relative to his or her competitors, it is far from the only factor at play. 

With the plethora of tools and metrics at coaches’ disposal, collecting data has never been easier. Breaking down an athlete’s power numbers and biometric feedback is an essential tool for coaches to understand how an athlete is progressing and their potential at upcoming events.

However, if performance could be summed up nicely by your watts per kilogram at FTP or fitness by your current CTL, there would be no need for races. Looking at data points as a litmus test leaves out a huge part of the potential — psychological preparation.

While power numbers and other metrics are great indicators of an athlete’s ability to perform, we, as coaches, often lean on metrics in a way that doesn’t benefit our athletes. Sometimes, we fall to the temptation of thinking of power numbers as black and white, missing out on an important component of an athlete’s ability to compete — psychological preparedness. We can use metrics to our advantage not only for a physiological gain but also a psychological edge. Schoberer points out that power numbers can also be used to boost confidence going into races.

“If you can build confidence in training, the athlete can gain confidence in racing. If you can show an athlete they can do the power in training, then they know they can do it in a race,” Schoberer says. By mentally preparing an athlete via confidence building sessions and subsequent education and correct interpretation of cold, hard data, a coach can set the stage psychologically for athletes’ best performances and perhaps their best power numbers. 

Athlete Confidence is King

Great power numbers, personal records, and outstanding performances start with confidence. Instilling confidence in an athlete is one of coaches’ most important tasks. When an athlete has a strong belief in his or her abilities, performance is increased across the board. Confidence and psychological readiness are key factors in performance, particularly at the elite end of the sport’s spectrum, where physical abilities are very evenly matched. Studies have shown a very strong correlation between self-esteem and performance.

A recent study on psychological readiness of soccer players demonstrated that not only did self esteem have a direct impact on performance, but also that low self-esteem manifested itself in physiological factors such as muscle tightness and ability to recover. The study also found that self-esteem started having an impact on performance, ability and potential early on in athletes’ preparation, as goal setting was shown to be significantly impacted by players’ belief in self. According to the findings of the study, coaches can very directly remove self-imposed limits by instilling confidence and belief. This is particularly important as athletes set goals, so as to not sell themselves short from the early stages of preparation. Belief is a major part of success throughout the whole process, from goal setting to race day performance. As the old adage goes, “Whether you believe you can, or you believe you can’t, you’re right.”

In psychological terms, this saying refers to our self-concept, which is what we believe to be true about ourselves. Our self-concept is formed by our self-worth, self-esteem and self-efficacy based on our experiences with the world around us and how we interpret it, and in turn, believe to be true about ourselves. While athletes can occasionally outperform (or underperform) their physiological tests, an athlete cannot outperform his or her self-concept. What an athlete believes to be true about him or herself is a hard-line limiting factor in performance. Everything we can do as coaches to help improve the belief in one’s ability will increase an athlete’s potential, no matter what the numbers say. Likewise, numbers that are off the charts mean nothing if the athlete does not believe in him or herself.

Prioritize the Ultimate Goal

Coaches must remember to put performance optimization as the number one priority. Too often, we can fall into the trap of looking solely at the numbers. While pushing an athlete’s CTL gradually higher often leads to better performance due to increased workload and subsequent physiological adaptation, no one metric can predict with 100% accuracy an athlete’s ability to perform on the big day. The metrics must be taken into account as a whole to serve as a guide to optimal performance. Done right, these metrics can be used to foster confidence and bolster athlete performance.  

In a world with so much information about marginal gains and the best possible performance hacks out there, athletes can quickly start to get overwhelmed by what they should or should not be doing. Of course, not all the advice out there is equally valid, and in any case, must fit into a well-thought-out training plan. It is our job as coaches to educate our athletes to inspire belief in their training.

When an athlete knows why certain types of workouts are prescribed, he or she is far more likely to buy into the training and believe in the efficacy of the workout and overall plan, thus further fostering an environment of belief in the training and, therefore, in his or her abilities. Ideas around optimal preparation are constantly changing, but confidence and high self-esteem are always correlated with more successful performance outcomes. As long as training plans are designed with sound physiological principles, believing in what one does is ultimately more important than the specific workouts or protocols. 

Putting it all Together

Rather than looking solely at FTP, 5 min power or a TSS as sorts of pass-fail tests for athletes, try looking at all the numbers as a whole and look to positive trends in training to boost athlete confidence. Educate your athlete on the finer points of what those data points really mean to ease their anxieties. For example, CTL is weighted in favor of volume meaning that it is easier to have a high CTL in the base and build periods of preparation. As soon as intensity goes up and volume comes down as the peak race season approaches, it is common to see CTL plateau, which can be the source of anxiety in many athletes. By leaning on other data points, such as Intensity Factor across many different workouts and cross-referencing it with similar workouts before good performances or during the performances themselves, coaches can not only ease athlete anxieties but also increase confidence and improve race day performance. 

As coaches continue to focus more and more on the mental preparedness of their athletes, they may actually notice key metrics improving due to several psychological and knock-on factors. One of the biggest factors in performance is mental preparedness, so coaches must never ignore this component. In a review, 17 of 23 published studies reported positive performance effects after sports psychology interventions across many competitive sports. In addition to working with an athlete to see his or her performance and training in a positive manner, we can also employ highly effective techniques such as visualization. Once an athlete is educated on the why of a given workout, these techniques become even more effective.

For example, if an over/under workout is aimed at improving climbing performance in a race, coaches can urge the athlete to not just hit the power numbers but to visualize themselves in a competitive setting while performing the training. Training the mental aspect alongside the physiological side during workouts can help demonstrate to an athlete in concrete terms that he or she can produce the power and performance necessary to reach their goals on race day. Seeing themselves doing while actually performing the task in training fosters a belief in self and increased confidence to perform during competition. Further, this combined training will go beyond mental preparation, also helping during the workout itself, serving as additional motivation to dig just that little bit deeper. 

As with almost everything in life, outcomes can never boil down to one sole factor. In our data-driven world, where objective power numbers are king, subjective psychological feedback can often play second fiddle. It is imperative that we take a step back and consider what the objective metrics mean and use them to our advantage when helping our athletes mentally prepare for big events.

While it would be nice if we could predict performance based on power files alone, the research shows us that a confident, mentally prepared athlete is far more likely to reach his or her potential and that we must consider the many factors, both objective and subjective, that go into great performances. While the numbers never lie, they often serve as self-fulfilling prophecies toward good or bad outcomes. What is vital is that we interpret those numbers and guide our athletes toward their best performances by creating an environment that fosters belief.  


  1. Interview, Uli Schoberer 16 April, 2024
  2. Kaplánová A.(2024, March). Psychological readiness of football players for the match and its connection with self-esteem and competitive anxiety. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38496851/
  3. Rijken, N. et al. (2016, October 19) Increasing Performance of Professional Soccer Players and Elite Track and Field Athletes with Peak Performance Training and Biofeedback: A Pilot Study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5122600/
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David Van Orsdel
About David Van Orsdel

David Van Orsdel is a coach at Ignition Coach Co. Additionally, he works with Junior, U23 and development riders from his base in Italy and France. After finishing a professional career as an MTB rider in Italy, he went back to school to study Exercise Physiology to boost the knowledge gained in the European peloton. In addition to coaching a wide range of athletes from the USA and Europe, he currently races gravel professionally, representing the USA at the 2022 and 2023 Elite World Championships. You can follow and get in contact with him on Instagram at @dvanorsdel

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