By Marvin Zauderer
Last month in this Sport Psychology column, we heard from some unusually gifted teen cyclists about the mental side of their game. This month, we explore the critical moment in a ride or race, and what it takes for you to seize – rather than freeze – that moment.
Think back to important points in your races. Ever hesitate? Think too much? Tell yourself it’s the wrong time, or that you’re not strong enough, or plain give up? Let’s be clear: Sometimes you just don’t have enough left, and you’re not going to be able to get it done that day. But what about those other times, when you look back on your race and you think, “I did have what I needed in me. Why didn’t I use it?”
Those moments are moments of truth. Sometimes the truth is: you’re done. But sometimes the truth is something different. And that’s what you may need to discover in order to reach the next level of mental toughness and performance. But how?
To begin, we turn to what may be a surprising source of wisdom on this topic. (No, not Star Trek or the Big Lebowski.) A couple of thousand years ago, the Jewish sage Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Each of these questions points to tools that can help you seize an important moment in a race.
Question 1: Do you believe?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
“If I am not for myself.” What does that mean? Think for a minute: What does it mean for you to be “for yourself?” Here’s one way to look at it: being “for yourself” means believing in yourself. But what does that mean? Some possibilities:
• Believing you can win.
• Believing you can achieve your goals.
• Believing you have what it takes to try.
• Believing you can bring everything you have within you to a moment that requires it.
Let’s take a closer look at that third one. On the one hand, if there’s something about even trying (to attack, win the sprint, hang on, etc.) that’s holding you back, believing that you can try may be exactly what you need.
On the other hand, let’s remember what Yoda said to Luke: “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try.’” Luke didn’t believe that the Force could raise his sunken starfighter from the swamp, and he also didn’t believe he had access to the Force. Yoda knew that Luke had to have an unshakable belief in order to succeed, and that for Luke, “trying” wasn’t fueled by that kind of rock-solid belief. So by telling Luke to “do,” he was getting Luke to discover a belief that Luke didn’t know he could have.
What about the “who will be for me?” part? If you’re not there for yourself, if you don’t believe in yourself, having someone else around may be comforting, but it’s not going to get the job done. You gotta believe! And if you don’t (fully) believe yet, that’s OK. Just like Luke, you may have to unlearn some views you have of yourself. Here are some tools that can help you get there:
• Effective Self-Talk. When one of my daughters was 7, we went to a family camp. She wanted to do the “ropes course,” and so I watched nervously as she began to ascend a 30-foot vertical climbing wall. (Actually, I had one eye on her, and the other on the guy who was belaying her.) About two-thirds of the way up, she stopped. She looked down. I could tell she was afraid. A minute passed. Then two. I saw her take a deep breath, set her jaw, look upward, and start climbing – at first tentatively, and then with growing confidence. A few moments later, she rang the bell – triumphantly – at the top of the wall.
I’m convinced that was a huge moment in her development. (And it was huge for mine as well!) All alone and high in the air, she conquered her fear. Over the years in scary situations, I’d hear her murmur a line to herself that she learned from the “Madeline” series of children’s stories: I can do anything. I can do anything. That’s self-talk, and it’s self-talk that works for her.
There are several different kinds of self-talk that can be helpful, so I suggest you reflect on those and experiment with some words or phrases that might be helpful to you. Clearly, during a race you’ll often not have the kind of time my daughter had to strengthen yourself. But you do have time beforehand. What’s a word or short phrase that you could put on a Post-It on your bathroom mirror, or in your gear bag, or on your power meter, that would help strengthen your self-belief before a race? How about “Go for it!” or “Attack!” or “I am ready.” Or even (dare I invoke the Bad Guy from The Karate Kid?), “No mercy!” And after the race, what’s your self-talk going to sound like? Too harsh? Too soft? Just right?
• Mental rehearsal. You might be surprised by how many successful amateur and professional athletes simulate competitions, or key parts of competitions, in their minds before they compete. Imagining yourself succeeding can help you succeed.
The most common form of mental rehearsal is visualization, but keep in mind that you have other senses you can use instead of, or in addition to, your visual sense. As you reflect on the key moment(s) in an upcoming race, and imagine yourself going for it in exactly the way you’d like, you may want to ask yourself:
- How will it feel to really go for it? What sensations will you feel in your body, and where? What emotions, if any, will you feel? Anger? Excitement?
- What thoughts, if any, do you imagine having just before and/or during your experience?
- What will it sound like? Do you imagine yelling? Grunting? Taking a deep breath? Will you hear the click-click-click of your upshift/downshift?
Leading up to a race, choose a strategy for rehearsing the critical moments, such as three times per day each of three days during the week, and one more time the night before your race. It takes very little time, and can pay off in a big way.
• Goal-setting. Alas, I do need to come back to Star Trek. In the Star Trek 2 movie, Lt. Saavik takes the “Kobayashi Maru” test, a simulation that’s designed to test how officers deal with a no-win scenario. Later, we learn that Captain Kirk (that rascal) surreptitiously reprogrammed the simulator before his own third try as a young cadet, so that he could beat the simulation and win. Although he was cited for cheating, he received a commendation for “original thinking.”
I’m not advocating cheating; I’m advocating thinking out of the box. If at a critical moment in a race, you define success only as “I ultimately won the race,” or “I made the break” or “My attack stuck,” you might be limiting yourself. It can be too easy for your self-belief to shrink from those goals, with subsequent negative self-talk such as “I’ll never win, so I’m not going to go for it now.” What if you also had a goal such as:
• “I’m going to get to the end of this race knowing I went for it with everything I had at the critical moments.”
• “I’m going to have at least one moment in this race where – whether it was right or wrong, whether it works out or not – I’m gonna go for it.”
• “I’m going to attack – intelligently – at least once in this race.”
• “I’m going to cross the finish line knowing that I did everything I could to ‘make the race’ rather than just dealing with things that my competitors did.”
• “Whatever group I end up in, I’m going to win the sprint at the end.”
With a goal like one of those, your belief in yourself may have just what it needs to expand rather than contract. What we’re talking about here is redefining success. It’s not spin; it’s asking yourself whether there are goals beyond the obvious ones that can help you improve, increase your self-confidence, and have more fun. Goal-setting is a core skill for the mentally fit athlete. And changing what you apply your self-belief to can change the power of your self-belief.
Question 2: Is it all about you?
And if I am only for myself, what am I?
Sometimes not only being “for yourself” but also “for others” – working for a teammate, modeling maximum effort for your child, forming an alliance on the road – can be a source of strength at an important point in a race.
On the other hand, as explained in the article on Comparing Yourself With Others, focusing too much on others can be destructive to your self-confidence and your performance. Take care to use comparisons for motivation and insight rather than unnecessary pressure and lowered self-esteem.
Also, it may help you to remember, as noted in the article on Choosing to Compete, that the Latin root of the word “compete” means “to seek together.” Our competitors help us reach our potential, and we help them reach theirs. In that sense, none of us are only for ourselves. You can use competition – and your competitors – to expand the boundaries of your experience and your potential.
Question 3: Why not now?”
And if not now, when?
Crucial moment in a race? If not now, maybe never. Here are some things that might help you get yourself over the hump:
• What do you have to lose? Well, yes, the hope that you won’t be disappointed or frustrated. If you fall short, you will feel at least a little bit bad. But you can handle that. And it’s temporary. As the Buddhists say, everything arises and passes away. Handling some suffering, as we cyclists know, is the price of fully exploring your potential. You’ll feel much more alive than if you play it safe.
• Why now? It’s not just that seizing the moment is going to make it more likely you’ll achieve your goals for the race. It’s that going for it will help you reach your goals as a cyclist. So it may be helpful to you, before you race, to remind yourself why you’re racing. All the training, expense, traveling…why are you doing this? What are you trying to get from this sport? If you’re having trouble getting clear on that, the articles on Choosing to Compete and The Power of Cyclotherapy have ideas.
• Not now? OK. Then when? If you struggle with seizing these moments, you’re not alone. And it can take awhile to master this skill. What’s important is that you set your intention to get on top of this. Commit to trying…sorry, doing. Get coaching or other support if that might help. Debrief yourself about your efforts, learning, and progress after races. Be a warrior out there: a warrior who is fighting the battle within.
Hillel, as you might guess, was a man who was admirably concise. About the entirety of the Torah, the foundational writings of Judaism, he said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary.” So in sport, although the “commentary” can certainly be helpful, perhaps this is the Golden Rule: Find out what you’re really made of. Release the views of yourself that obstruct your journey. Strive to discover who you are and who you can be. You can tolerate the disappointment, the frustration, and everything else that’s difficult about falling short of your goals. By sticking with the journey, you win.
Marvin Zauderer, in his sport psychology practice, coaches amateur and professional athletes from all sports on the mental skills needed for success. He works in person, by phone, and by Skype, and speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marvin leads the Mental 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. He is a licensed psychotherapist, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters racer for Taleo Racing. Having had a 20-year career in high technology, he also coaches executives on improving their performance at work. Marvin welcomes comments, suggestions, and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.marvinz.com.