By Marvin Zauderer
Last month in this Sport Psychology column, we concluded a two-part series on Moving Forward by Letting Go. With the help of some insightful ex-pros, we looked at ways you can let go – when the time is right – of goals that no longer serve you. This month we look at the other side of the spectrum (or is it?): how to take on more challenge in cycling when you’re feeling a particular kind of reluctance.
As I started to write this column, I searched my experiences for a catchy example – a movie scene, an author’s vignette, a song lyric – that would engagingly illustrate what I’ll be covering here. I was anxious about the possibility of losing readers’ interest, and I figured I’d better start with something compelling. Nothing fit quite right, and before I knew it, a couple of hours went by. Suddenly I wondered: why am I depending so completely on someone else’s words to engage your attention?
There are always new frontiers for us, as cyclists and as human beings, to cross – if we dare to try. For example:
• Racing for the first time
• Doing a race, or type of race, that you’ve never done
• Seizing an opportunity in a race
• Upgrading to race at the next level
• Taking on a leadership role on your team
• Beginning an organized training program, with or without hiring a coach
• Riding a longer distance – a metric century, a century, a double – for the first time
• Joining a group ride that’s thus far been too intimidating to join
Think for a minute or two. Have you had any of these experiences? Did you have any hesitation before diving in? Why? What are the next frontiers for you in your riding?
Often what gets in our way in these moments is a voice – heard or unheard – that tells us that we’re not good enough. But as my wise friend Lloyd reminded me this week, good enough for what? To win? To succeed? To have fun? To avoid embarrassment? To avoid having it be scary while you attempt it? As you think about the next challenges that you could take on in your riding, ask yourself these questions about each challenge:
• If I take on the challenge, what do I want to have happen?
• Do I have the feeling that I need to have something happen? Why?
• What am I afraid will happen?
If, as you answer these questions, you feel – or at least suspect – that you’re either grasping too urgently for a particular outcome, or are unduly afraid of something happening, there are several steps you can take to shift things for yourself.
Preparing for the Climb
Let’s start by looking at your fears. As you think about a challenge you could take on, do you have any of these thoughts?
• I’m not sure I can do it.
• I might get dropped.
• I will get dropped.
• I’ll finish DFL. (that’s Dead %^$&in’ Last)
• I might not finish at all.
• My teammates will be angry with me.
• I’d let my teammates down.
• I’d let myself down.
• Everyone (or too many) will be stronger/faster/fitter than me.
• I’ll lose.
Or perhaps you don’t have any negative thoughts. If you’re (much) more of a feeling-type person, even considering a new challenge might trigger a very unpleasant feeling – enough so even the mere hint of it might trigger an equal and opposite reaction: backing away. You might even back away before your mind has a chance to generate any thoughts. And your reaction may be so fast – and so habitual – that you may never even feel anything. Any guesses about what the unpleasant feeling might be? Ah yes, our old nemesis, anxiety. And when anxiety comes up, it’s usually a sign that you’re coming up against something deeper. But what?
Let’s go back to the thoughts above. Why does the prospect of getting dropped, or finishing last, or disappointing your teammates have so much power over you? Clearly all those things would be bad if they happened, and yes, you might feel bad, but how bad? I’d like to suggest two possibilities:
1. You wouldn’t feel as bad as you fear you would. In which case, why is your fear so strong and, if this happens often, so consistently disproportionate to reality?
2. You would feel as bad as you fear you would. In which case, why are those experiences so awful for you?
Whether you’re aware of negative thoughts, anxiety, both, or neither, backing away from challenges can have an insidious source: a powerful part of you that asserts: I’m not good enough. That part might show itself as “I’m not good enough to do this,” or as “I can’t handle the feeling I’ll have if things don’t go well (or perfectly).” Or, it might show up as fueling a particularly crushing experience of what you define as failure. It’s a part of you that may actually be broadcasting its unfortunate and inaccurate programming, most likely put in place long ago and through no fault of yours. The programming of that part of you may be: I’m not good.
John Bradshaw, author of the bestseller, “Healing the Shame that Binds You,” says,
“Shame is a natural feeling that, when allowed to function well, monitors a person’s sense of excitement or pleasure. But when the feeling of shame is violated by a coercive and perfectionistic religion and culture – especially by shame-based source figures who mediate religion and culture – it becomes an all-embracing identity. A person with internalized shame believes he is inherently flawed, inferior, and defective. Such a feeling is so painful that defending scripts (or strategies) are developed to cover it up.”
There’s an old saying about the difference between guilt and shame: Guilt is “I did something bad,” shame is “I am something bad.” Even for many of us for whom shame is not an “all-embracing identity,” we still have parts of our selves that assert – sometimes with huge impact – that we are “defective.” And that’s a lot different from honestly, accurately, and compassionately acknowledging and addressing our imperfections. When our mind convinces us we’re defective, it’s excruciatingly painful; that’s an experience we definitely do not want to have. So what do we do? We brace and defend against it. But how is this part of the self born?
The words “narcissism” and “narcissist” are making their way into the vernacular these days. Unfortunately, like “addiction,” “ADD (attention-deficit disorder),” “OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) “and “subprime lending,” they are frequently misunderstood and misused.
In Ovid’s version of the Greek myth, Narcissus was a man who was punished by the gods for not paying attention to the nymph Echo. His punishment: falling in love with his own reflection, and dying from the inability to tear himself away. Elan Golomb, in her book, “Trapped in the Mirror,” describes Narcissus’ fate:
“Each time Narcissus reached for his adored image mirrored in a pool of still water, it would dissolve into numberless ripples. The narcissist, who is constantly trying to repair her injured self-esteem by adorning and admiring her gilded self, is also haunted by the terror of psychological fragmentation should she become aware that this self is not all she claims it to be.”
Narcissus is said to have transformed into the flower that bears his name – a name that has come to be associated with both healthy and unhealthy self-love; and thus, self-respect, self-esteem, and self-confidence.
I strongly believe that most people get their self-esteem “injured” somewhere along the way in life – usually early on, some more than others, and some many more times than once. It is these unfortunate and unjustified “narcissistic wounds” that leave shame in their wake and create the powerful parts of ourselves that claim we are bad.
So if there’s a part of you that’s saying you can’t take on a new challenge, or if you know that part of you is going to create excruciating pain if you do take on the challenge but fall short, how can you put the healthy and solid parts of yourself back in the driver’s seat, rather than giving your power away to your injuries? The answer: By shifting up, we might say, to take on what’s getting in the way.
Into the Big Ring
Here are four tools you can use to climb up and over the next frontiers in your riding:
1. Take the sting out of your negative thoughts. Be wary of any “certainties” – “I’m going to get dropped,” “I’ll finish DFL,” “My teammates will be angry with me” – and challenge them. Notice any feared (but realistic) possibilities – “I’m not sure I can do it,” “I might get dropped,” “I might not finish at all,” – and plan for how you’ll handle those feared outcomes; you may then not fear them as much. Check out the articles on Effective Self-Talk and Handling Pressure for more ideas here.
Negative thoughts feel powerful, especially the “certainties,” but it’s a superficial power, not a deep power. Superficial power can look like an effective way to combat your anxiety. It’s not.
2. Find additional ways to manage and reduce your anxiety. The less fear and anxiety you feel, the more likely you are to go for it in your riding. Effective self-talk will help a great deal, and may be all you need. However, you may benefit from understanding your anxiety – on and off the bike – more clearly, using breathing techniques, and better integrating your body and mind.
3. See and be seen. Reflect on everything in this article. If there’s a part of you that’s been hidden and yet running the show at times, seeing it will help you. Check out the article on self-awareness for more ideas here.
Having others you trust see these parts of you may help as well. Physician Rachel Naomi Remen, in her wonderful book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” tells the story of attending a day-long master class with the great psychologist Carl Rogers. He said to the group, about his counseling practice,
“Before every session I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it.”
After watching Rogers conduct a session, Remen was stunned. She remembers:
“I had always worked hard at being good enough; it was the golden standard by which I decided what to read, what to wear, how to spend time, where to live, and even what to say. Even ‘good enough’ was not really good enough for me. I had spent a lifetime trying to make myself perfect. But if what Rogers was saying was true, perfection was the booby prize. What was needed was simply to be human. I was human. All my life I had feared being found out.”
4. Trust the power of experience. As I noted in The Power of Cyclotherapy, experiences on the bike offer you opportunities not only for fun and success but also growth and transformation. Yes, you could be right at times: Feared outcomes will make you feel every bit as bad as you fear you will feel. But not only will you survive those experiences, you may need them for your freedom: you may need them in order to reduce and eliminate the hold your anxiety and injuries have on you. There very well may be no way out but through.
In “I’ll Be There,” Michael Jackson sang:
I’ll reach out my hand to you
I’ll have faith in all you do
Just call my name and I’ll be there
Your family, your friends, your spiritual practice – there are many to whom you can extend your hand, and many who can extend their hands to you. As you strive and struggle to experience more of your potential as an athlete, please remember: extending your hand is also something you can do for yourself.
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 and by phone, and frequently 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 amateur and professional athletes. He is a licensed psychotherapist, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. Having had a 20-year career in high-technology R&D, sales & marketing, and management, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. Marvin welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.marvinz.com.