By Marvin Zauderer
In last month’s Sport Psychology column, we continued our series on the effects of relationships on sport performance by looking at the support you may need for your riding. Mostly, we examined the support you may need from others; this month, we identify support you may need from yourself.
This past week, I saw Paul McCartney in concert. To my surprise, I was reminded that performers in the arts and performers in sport have quite a bit in common.
The Guinness Book of World Records calls McCartney the most successful songwriter in the history of popular music. His ride, however, has not always been smooth. His mother, Mary, died when he was 14. His onetime creative partner and friend, with whom he’ll forever be linked, was murdered. He was widowed after 29 years of marriage to a woman from whom he spent only seven nights apart (thanks to his week in a Tokyo jail). He’s lived through a painful divorce. So although he’s had unparalleled success, he’s also taken some hard knocks. But, at the age of 68, he’s still up there on stage doing it, and doing it well – 35 songs, the night we saw him.
As Paul (we’re all on a first-name basis with him, aren’t we?) sang Let it Be, I once again heard him describe the experience of finding something – or someone – within himself during “times of trouble.” Later, after feeling myself and many others affected so deeply by this song – even after hearing it for the thousandth time – I reflected on the truth of this experience for us as athletes. With all the support you may have from others, so often your experience during critical moments in sport may come down to your relationship with yourself: How thoroughly are you supporting yourself? How fully do you believe in yourself? During challenging times – the intervals you don’t feel like doing, the descent you’re afraid of, the sprint you’re contesting, the distance you’ve never ridden – what do you find within yourself?
As I noted in last month’s column, sometimes challenging yourself isn’t the (most) difficult part; supporting yourself is. Let’s look at what “supporting yourself” means, and how – and when – you need to do it in your riding.
What Gets in the Way?
Time and time again, when I work with amateur and professional athletes from any sport, they cite self-confidence as the Force that sets similarly-trained competitors apart from each other. How can working on your mental fitness help? One way to look at mental skills in sport is as tools to:
• compensate, when necessary, for fleeting or longer-lasting deficits in self-confidence;
• increase self-confidence as you use the skills successfully, and
• as a result, remove obstacles to the more effortless integration of your body and mind. More integration gets you closer to, if not all the way to, the elusive “in the zone” phenomenon: experiences of reaching your full potential.
In sport, however, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what we mean by “self-confidence.” It’s related to, but not the same as, qualities such as self-esteem, self-regard, and self-worth. And as I pointed out in the column on self-confidence, in sport we often define self-confidence as self-efficacy: your belief that you can achieve your goals. That sounds a little dry, doesn’t it? A belief is more than a thought. Self-confidence certainly has a thinking/cognitive component, but it also has a feeling/emotional component.
Let’s define self-confidence in sport this way: self-efficacy with heart (or soul, if you will). It’s believing that you can achieve your goals – big and small, present and future – and it’s a belief with deep roots. It’s a belief that you not only think but feel. It shows itself above ground in your mind, but it reaches down into your gut. It can be completely absent and completely present, and anywhere in between.
Take a minute to think (and feel?) about this: Assuming your goals are actually achievable (you’ve given yourself a fighting chance by using the core mental skill of Goal-Setting, right?), what can get in the way of that deep-rooted belief for you?
Here are some typical, often-interrelated obstacles to truly believing in yourself:
• Self-awareness. You don’t yet know yourself well enough to know, and address, whatever is in the way.
• Anxiety or any of its siblings: fear, tension, pressure, nerves, and worry. Why should you believe in yourself if believing in yourself moves you closer to something that makes you feel uncomfortable? Your brain is going to try to protect you, unless you override it.
• Habit. You’ve not believed in yourself so many times before…
• Trauma. Bad/painful experiences on or off the bike have convinced your brain to at least be ambivalent, if not downright sure, that you’d be crazy to believe in yourself.
• Inexperience. Your brain wants proof, and it doesn’t have enough yet.
• Giving your power away. Someone else doesn’t believe in you, and you give their opinion more power over you than you have over yourself.
In cycling, when are you most likely to need to use your mental skills and support yourself? Proactively, when you’re on a self-confident roll and you know you need to stay active to keep it going. And reactively, when you start to feel anxious and your anxiety distances you from your self-confidence.
Let’s look at some skills that can help.
Tools for the Job
Take another minute to take inventory: What does “supporting yourself” actually mean, for you? What does it look like, sound like, feel like when you do it? (If you do it!) Does it have words? Is it (just) emotional, or physical? All of the above? Supporting yourself starts with knowing whether you do it and if so, how. And you need even more self-awareness to know what gets in the way and why.
Your self-talk – how you talk to yourself, about yourself, in your own mind – is a very powerful tool for strengthening or weakening the support you give yourself. The fundamental question is this: What kind of coach do you need to be for yourself? As noted in Part 1 and Part 2 of the column on getting the most from a coach, different athletes have different needs. Some place a priority on motivation, or information, or advice, or confrontation, or emotional support. Are you the kind of coach for yourself that you’d expect of a coach you’d hire? It’s important that the things you say to yourself sustain and improve your performance, not detract from it. Words of wisdom, we might say. (Or at least words that work.)
The topic of negative self-talk brings us back to our old nemesis, anxiety, which is both fuel for and a result of negative thoughts. Managing anxiety, via skills such as managing self-talk, is clearly an important skill; if anxiety gets the better of you, you may be hosed. But I was reminded recently that a more aikido-like approach (“going with, rather than going against”) is sometimes the best strategy for dealing with anxiety.
Thanks to my friend Abner, I listened to NPR’s Terry Gross interview psychologist Dan Gottlieb on her Fresh Air radio program. Some years ago, Dan was driving alone on the highway, when suddenly the wheel (not the tire, the entire wheel) of an oncoming 18-wheeler detached from the truck, flew through the air, and landed on his car, crushing the car and him. He survived, but as a quadriplegic. To give you an idea of the kind of person Dan is, here’s what he now says about the accident:
“When my neck broke, my soul began to breathe. I became the person I always dreamt I could be, and never would have been if I didn’t break my neck. Each time I faced death, I became more of who I am, and less worried about what others might think of me.”
In his book, “Learning from the Heart,” he writes of his struggles before and after the accident. He first says, “maybe all of life is about how we manage our anxiety,” but then questions himself:
“People who are accused of being controllers do so because they have anxiety about being out of control. People who are compulsive about work, cleaning, alcohol, drugs, achievement, or anything else are exhibiting a form of an anxiety disorder. Insecurity is a form of anxiety; so is shyness. Marital arguments, road rage, interrupting people while they are speaking are all about anxiety….I believe true security happens when we are no longer afraid of our own minds. If you feel anxiety, simply feel it.
True security. That sounds like something at least related to self-confidence and supporting yourself, doesn’t it? This may seem like heresy, coming from someone who works with athletes on mental skills, but consider this: perhaps at least some of the time when you feel anxious, or nervous, or scared, or worried, supporting yourself means not trying to fix it. (I think I could guess Dan’s favorite Beatles song.)
We can spend so much time trying to manage, control, and change our discomfort. Sometimes the quickest way to move through it is just to feel it. What might that mean in your riding? Some possibilities:
• You stop and listen to yourself, rather than trying to overcome what’s troubling you so quickly, and you hear something new: Don’t go any faster down this descent. Don’t push any harder up this climb. Ride within yourself. Or don’t do this group ride/century/race at all. Maybe this time, you just need to let go.
• You don’t let your discomfort throw you.. Ride anyway. Race anyway. Feel what you feel, have the experience you have, and move on to the next one. Sometimes supporting yourself is being OK with not feeling confident. Gottlieb says, “My body is broken, my mind is neurotic, but my soul is at peace…today.”
• Not instead of, but while you’re feeling anxious, or uncertain, or not confident, you…have faith. In yourself, in a higher power, in life…that there will be an answer. Says Gottlieb:
“I’ve developed faith (for now) in my resilience. I also have faith that at the deepest levels, when suffering returns, as it surely will, I will be okay. Certainly, that faith does not make my anxiety go away…my anxiety and I still spend lots of time together. I no longer try to control it. And, paradoxically, my anxiety has less control over me.”
Telling someone you trust can also be a powerful way to support yourself. Giving voice to what you’re feeling can clarify, release, or shift what you’re going through even before the other person says or does anything. And the courage it takes to reveal yourself can add to your self-confidence.
Finally, supporting yourself can simply be feeling grateful – and even proud – to ride. You’re alive, your body works, you get to ride or race…sure, you also have some challenges. But you have much to feel good about. Ed Cray, in his biography of another of our greatest songwriters, Woody Guthrie, quoted Woody saying this:
“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”
Take pride in yourself and in your riding – your “work” as an athlete. It’s an important part of who you are. Don’t let your “bad luck or hard traveling” change that.
See you out there!
Marvin Zauderer, in his sport performance coaching practice, works with amateur and professional athletes from all sports on the mental skills needed for peak performance. He works in person, by phone, and by Skype, and speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marvin leads the Mental Skills Training program at Whole Athlete, a performance center in Marin County, California that provides a comprehensive set of coaching, testing, fitting, and consulting services to athletes. Having had a 20-year career in high technology previously, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. He is a licensed psychotherapist, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. Marvin welcomes comments, suggestions, and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.marvinz.com.