Sport’s Psychology: Choosing your partner

If you’ve ever entered a stage race requiring you to compete as a pair, you’ll know that choosing the right riding partner is essential. After hearing a few horror stories and with the Epic firmly in mind (though it’s too late to ditch your riding buddy now…) Full Sus roped in the expertise of sport’s psychologist Clinton Gahwiler to provide his expert knowledge on this tricky choice.

Celebrate you’re team’s success!
Celebrate you’re team’s success!

Many factors go into building a successful MTB stage race team, but broadly we might divide them into: fitness and strength, nutrition, technical skills, knowledge and strategy, equipment and the mind. Good preparation implies doing all one can across all six levels, yet typically it is the last of these – the mind – that is left to chance. While we all acknowledge the important role that it plays in multi-stage events, only very few ever fully exploit that factor by purposefully developing it like they do the other five areas. This is why the mind, in a sense, is the final frontier of sports science, and potentially offers athletes the greatest opportunity for ‘going where they’ve never gone before’.

In team-based stage events, there are in fact two minds to consider, and the dynamic between these two presents yet another element to factor into your preparations. Typically we just muddle through this randomly however, hoping that we’ve picked someone who we’ll get on okay with and who will respond okay to the inevitable crises that arise.

You’ll need to put in the hard yards both physically and mentally to complete the Epic.
You’ll need to put in the hard yards both physically and mentally to complete the Epic.

But that’s not how you chose your bike. And if you did choose a bike that’s not functioning optimally, you keep working on it. Your partnership should be no different. Ensuring an optimally functioning partnership should be considered just as much a part of routine preparation as ensuring that your bike and fitness levels are up to scratch. After all, it is the mind – and in partnerships also the interaction between the two minds – that determines whether or not everything that you’ve trained at is accessible during the event, when it matters most.

Many problems in mountain-biking partnerships can be prevented by making sure that both parties are on the same page well in advance of the event. Unfortunately we don’t like to rock the boat, and so we often avoid dealing with this crucial aspect until there is a crisis. And then we muddle through that too.

Work together not against one another
Work together not against one another

To ensure optimal output from a relationship, you need to be prepared to rock the boat, albeit in a respectful manner, and in advance of the actual event. This is crucial to achieving a solid, stable and trusting partnership for when it is needed most. There are many factors that partners need to get on the same page about, but here are a few key ones. If the two of you agree in advance on the following six points, then I believe the partnership will be off to a great start:

The what:What are your goals? Be clear about what you want to achieve. If you are not both in agreement with this right up front, it can result in subtle differences in attitude and approaches to decisions and circumstances, which ultimately result in very un-subtle and unnecessary conflict.

The how: What are your values? Why are you doing this? How much are you prepared to sacrifice? What kinds of risks are you prepared to take? Each individual needs to think about these things and discuss them openly and honestly upfront. This gives the partnership a chance to either address any significant discrepancies, to accept them, or in fact to choose not to partner up.

Appreciate when your team mate is suffering, tomorrow it might be your turn.
Appreciate when your team mate is suffering, tomorrow it might be your turn.

Troubleshoot: This point is not strictly speaking about relationships, but is worth including as all teams should consider it a part of their preparation. People think that preparation is about developing a perfect plan for how you want things to go. In reality, however, perfect preparation is also about planning for what could go wrong. Once you’ve done all the obvious things, then the final stage of preparation is to brainstorm what you haven’t thought about yet – what could go wrong, and how you plan to respond to each of these scenarios. For example, what if one partner is struggling, what if we experience equipment failure, etc. Also, what could go right, and how will you respond to that. I have seen plenty of cases in which people panicked and started doing things differently because things were suddenly going much better than expected.

Plan regular de-briefs: I cannot over-emphasize the importance of feedback. Feedback is gathering information around what is working and what is not working, on the physical, technical, strategic, equipment, interpersonal or emotional levels. Don’t wait for a crisis to discuss the above. Rather schedule brief but regular (eg daily) times during which you pose yourself certain useful questions – absolutely routinely. That way you are more likely to prevent a crisis. Questions should include: What’s working? What isn’t? How am I doing? Any concerns? This debrief structure needs to be clarified and practiced in advance.


If she says yes, it couldn’t have gone that badly…
If she says yes, it couldn’t have gone that badly…

Value feedback:This is worthy of elaboration as a point in and of itself. You get two types of feedback – positive and negative. Positive feedback is when you tell me to keep doing something as it’s working. Negative feedback is when you tell me to stop doing something as it’s not working. Both are crucial to your partnership achieving its goals. As soon as you do not give useful information for fear of rocking the boat, you are compromising the partnership’s success. Note that negative feedback is different from criticism. While the former is useful and important, the latter is simply a label given by the receiver of a communication, which seldom serves any useful purpose. If feedback is not useful, just let it go – don’t waste time and energy interpreting anything as a criticism.

Value difference: Any partnership that does not respect difference as an absolutely core value, is doomed to frustration and unnecessary in-fighting. Personality is a classic example. Extroverts get energized by engaging socially on a chit-chat level, but this can become very draining for introverts. They are energized by either having quiet time by themselves, or by engaging more in-depth one-on-one. The latter is on the other hand more likely to be experienced as quite intense and draining by extroverts. Another example is a person’s quirks and routines off the bike, (eg preparing for each day’s riding.) Just remember that the greater the difference in a partnership, the more the potential for conflict. However, if you respect this difference and manage it well, you have more options, a greater source of ideas and ultimately a stronger team.

Humour and perspective:Two important things to keep with you at all time! You have a life outside of this race – regardless of what happens – and as my brother-in-law says; “don’t sweat the small stuff” – cracking a sly joke when things are hurting can be the difference between tears or cheers.

Finally, remember that when you chose a partner in mountain-biking – as in life – you are choosing a total package, with strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons. Too many relationships are unnecessarily destroyed by supposedly choosing a total package, yet not in reality accepting the cons that go with it. In such cases you are fooling yourself, being less than honest with your partner and potentially setting the relationship up to fail. This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to improve ourselves, but it only really works when the person makes that decision for themselves.

Clinton Gahwiler

So, in conclusion, do have the courage to discuss the above, and make sure that you do so well in advance of your event. It’s not always comfortable, but then again if you were all about comfort, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.

Clinton Gahwiler runs the psychology practice at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. Since 1995 he has worked with many of South Africa’s top individual athletes and teams. For further information, and for an e-mail based mental skills training programme, see

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