Beginner’s Mind, Part 1

High school cycling is exploding. Perhaps you have – or will have – a child who’s riding or competing. Or perhaps you’re (thinking of) helping out with the local juniors or school team. Coaching core mental skills with teens can be very helpful to them on and off the bike. And strange as it may seem, teens can also help you improve your own mental fitness.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month in this Sport Psychology column, in Choosing to Compete, we explored what might be holding you back from racing. This month, we begin a two-part series on mental skills guidance that you can offer to – and receive from – a unique group of athletes: teens.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, known as Suzuki-roshi, came to the United States in 1958. As one of the key carriers of Zen Buddhism to the West, and as one of Zen’s most venerated teachers (“Roshi” is a term of respect that means “elder master”), his book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” has influenced many readers since its release in 1970. In it, he writes,

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few…. This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.”

“Ready for anything.” Body and mind working together in harmony. That’s one definition of mental fitness, isn’t it? But all too often the mind creates obstacles to that kind of effortless integration. And that’s a time to bust out the mental skills: to use the mind on the mind. Most young kids, though, don’t have to face those obstacles in sport. They’re fully present, fully engaged, fully immersed when they’re at play. They have beginner’s mind.

Twelve years ago, math teacher Matt Fritzinger started a cycling club at Berkeley High School in California. And from there, in 2001, he and a group of dedicated volunteers launched the nonprofit NorCal High School MTB Racing League. Participation, sponsorship, and volunteering have grown enormously: this year, the League will have over 40 teams and over 500 riders. Last year, the SoCal Interscholastic Racing League was added to the family, with 14 teams and over 100 riders. And last month, at Interbike, Matt announced the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which will encompass not only the NorCal and SoCal leagues, but a newly-forming league in Colorado – with Tom Danielson, Alison Dunlap, Dave Wiens, and Ned Overend helping to lead the way – and more leagues thereafter.

Both on dirt and on the road, teen cycling is taking off. And that creates an opportunity for you: Coaching teens is a powerful, fun, and inspiring way to give back to the sport and make a difference in young riders’ lives.

Why work with teens specifically on mental skills? Helping teens with the physical aspects of training and competition is challenging enough, what with their busy schedules, rampaging hormones, and occasional – shall we say – attitude. When it comes to the mental side of sport, though, teens are a unique group: poised precariously between childhood and young adulthood, they still have vestiges, at least, of beginner’s mind. And they’re also developing the strength, and the obstacles, of the adult identity. Cultivating beginner’s mind and using mental skills to return to it: At all levels of sport, and for all ages, it is so often mental fitness that sets athletes apart.

Most importantly, the mental skills young men and women can learn in cycling – including the core skills of Goal-Setting, Communication, Concentration, Effective Self-Talk, and Managing Emotions – are skills they can use throughout their lives. As coaches of teen athletes, we can help equip them for success not only in cycling, but also in their journey through adolescence to adulthood and beyond. And for you, teaching can be a good way to deepen your self-awareness and improve your own mental skills. Remember the Latin proverb: “By learning you will teach; by teaching you will learn.”

Let’s begin by exploring some factors that can affect teens and thus your approach to working with them on mental skills. (Next month, you’ll hear from some amazing teen cyclists about how they’ve developed their mental fitness.)

Factors Affecting Teens and Coaching
The central developmental task for adolescents is creating identity. Rather than being defined by what’s been done to them and for them, teens are moving to define themselves by what they do. They want to take charge of themselves and their lives.

In the midst of this process, feeling understood is very important. One reason: creating an identity is nerve-wracking. Psychologically, the tectonic plates are shifting, and that, by definition, can be a shaky experience. As they build their sense of self, teens literally aren’t consistent in who they are from year to year, and sometimes even from day to day. That can make it harder for us to understand who they are: what they’re feeling, thinking, doing, and so on. And, it can be hard for them to feel that we “get it” – whatever the “it” is at any point in time – about anything. Yet demonstrating to them that we truly “get it” is one way teens feel less shaky about themselves: who they are, at that moment, is confirmed for them, and there’s strength in that. Not coincidentally, they may also feel more that you’re “with them”: company has a way of making things a little less scary.

The more you show that you do indeed “get it,” the more likely you’ll be able to create and sustain a relationship of mutual trust. And that makes it more likely that what you offer them will be attuned to who they are, and also more likely they’ll be receptive to what you have to offer.

On the one hand, adolescence is a time when boys and girls are learning to take charge of their own development. If they’re motivated enough – for example, by wanting to have fun, improve, and succeed in cycling – teens can be eager learners. However, when teens take on an issue, they often begin wrestling with it from a position of idealism: how things ought to be. Teens have usually not yet had the life experience to see things as they actually are (or to have their idealistic spirit crushed, depending on your viewpoint). It’s important to have empathy for their position and not get impatient when teaching, working and negotiating with them.

It’s also very important to know why your teen athletes are cycling. Ask them! If you know what’s driving them, you’ll be better able to connect the value of mental skills with what your athletes care about the most. Weinberg and Gould, in their book “Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology,” cite research that shows that the top five reasons boys participate in sports are: (1) to have fun, (2) to improve skills, (3) for the excitement of competition, (4) to do something they’re good at, and (5) to stay in shape. Winning is reason #8. For girls, it’s (1) to have fun, (2) to stay in shape, (3) to get exercise, (4) to improve skills, and (5) to do something they’re good at. Winning isn’t in the top 10. Note that all of these are intrinsic motivators – they motivate from within. They’re about how the athlete thinks and feels about him/herself, precisely at the time when that’s their central focus. That’s not to suggest that winning isn’t important; it is. But it does suggest that in order to be most effective with teen athletes, it’s important to see the key characteristics that each teen brings to their sport.

Speaking of which, here’s a quick tour of some other factors that can affect teens’ cycling and their receptivity to your help:

1. Their family system. This includes parent(s), siblings, and at times extended family as well. Key questions to consider include:

• What’s the parents’ style with the teen? Authoritarian? Authoritative? Being a “buddy”? Hands-off? Absent? Parents’ styles can affect how teens expect you to relate to them.

• What’s the parents’ stance toward the teen’s athletic life? Supportive? Overinvolved? Judgmental? This can create more – or fewer – mental obstacles for the teen in cycling.

• To what degree is there harmony or conflict/stress within the family? This, too, may directly affect a teen’s state and struggles on the bike.

• How’s the parents’ relationship with you? Are you a team, at odds, or neither?

2. Their physical health and development. Cycling can contribute positively to a teen’s growing self-esteem, but an overdependence on cycling for sense of self can lead to overtraining, depression, injury and burnout. Also, using the body in sport can raise thoughts and feelings about body image, so stay alert for signs of how teens are regarding and treating their bodies. Get help if you’re wondering about the possibility of eating disorders or other unhealthy patterns.

3. Other sources of (un)usual mental/emotional distress. For example:

Academics and Social Life. Note that it’s not just how things appear to be going for teens in these areas; it’s how teens feel and believe things are going. And, their friends’ stress can be as hard to bear as their own.

Loss. Divorce, having a pet die, having a friend move away – losses can throw teens for a loop.

Depression. There’s a difference between normal teen moodiness and something more serious. And loss is one of the most frequent triggers.

Anything you learn from teen cyclists about these things can be helpful in improving your working relationship with them and in “tuning” how you coach their mental skills. Teens’ school counselor might also be an invaluable collaborator in helping you to assess – in the parlance of our times – what’s up with them.

Coaching The Five Core Mental Skills
Research shows that if you believe in yourself – if you have high self-efficacy – you’re more likely to engage in a task, persist, and be successful. Not rocket science, I know. But teens may not even have a solid self – yet – to believe in. What affects the teen athlete’s belief in herself, and how can you make a positive contribution to that? One of the most powerful tools you have is helping your athletes effectively set, manage themselves to, and reset their goals. If a teen has the wrong goals – or the wrong kinds of goals – she can be set up for frustration, demotivation, undue stress, overtraining, and even burnout. Effective goal-setting and goal-management, in contrast, can lead to increased experiences of success, fun, and perhaps most importantly for the teen’s development, perceived competence. How teens evaluate their attempts at mastery can have a huge effect on their self-esteem and motivation. Check out the article on Goal-Setting for suggestions.

Communication is a skill that can have a significant impact on teens’ performance and experience in cycling. They may need to work with teammates during a race, reassure parents about time spent on the bike, or disagree with your recommendations. Good communication begins with good listening and empathy. So, when they’re talking to you, model that. Listen carefully and show them that you “get it.” (And if you don’t, stand corrected.) Encourage them to be assertive – to speak up, respectfully, about what they feel is true. Teens are often hesitant to speak up when they’re concerned that a relationship could be harmed, or that they’ll just plain feel bad. Show them that they can speak up to you and that you’ll respond to them skillfully. Encourage them to speak to their teammates – about things that are going well, as well as things they’re concerned about – in team meetings, on training rides, and in races. And finally, help them manage conflict by teaching them to manage their stress and reactivity. Being emotional is fine, to a point. But the most common conflict-management problem I see is rushing: rushing to avoid, rushing to interrupt, rushing to resolve the conflict, rushing right past understanding each other. Ineffectively-managed stress fuels a feeling of urgency, and urgency fuels rushing.

Concentration is not the easiest skill to teach a teen who may have a limited attention span. However, it’s certainly a skill that plays a big role in cycling. The closer any cyclist is to “being in the zone,” the more of themselves they’re able to bring to each moment, the more likely they’ll respond well to (or initiate) an opportunity, and the more likely they’ll be able to avoid crashes. Yet losing focus is going to happen, so the skill is in not only maintaining concentration and shifting it (eg. from tempo to an attack) but also in regaining it quickly. Help your athletes understand what it feels like to be focused. What’s their focus style: when they’re focused, are they focused more inside themselves or outside themselves, and is their focus narrow or broad? Consider giving them “concentration intervals” in training, where they practice maintaining race-level focus. Have them tell you about the experience or make a few notes in their training log about it. Help them identify their top recurring distractors – such as pain, fatigue, riders who are too close, or that boy/girl they have a crush on – and help them develop a refocusing plan for each one. And consider having them develop a pre-race focusing routine that gets them to the start line already “in the zone.”

Think back to people who have coached, taught, mentored, and guided you. How did they talk to you? Who do you sound like when you talk to yourself about your performance? That’s your self-talk. How you talk to teens may have a significant impact on how they talk to themselves about their cycling performance. Watch for signs of negative self-talk (eg. “I suck.”) Help them have an accurate, rather than distorted, view of how they perform. Coach them to stop negative self-talk, to question it if that helps, to replace it with (believable) positive self-talk, and to practice calming themselves when they notice it. Why this last technique? Because stress, anxiety, nerves, fear, tension, worry, pressure – I call it the Stress Family Robinson – it’s the major fuel for negative self-talk, which itself fuels more stress. Not the kind of cycling we want for teens.

That brings us to the fifth core mental skill: managing emotions, particularly the stress family. Stress and its siblings contribute not only to negative self-talk, but to unpleasant sensations and images, distraction, errors, avoidance, and energy loss. Help teens manage stress on the bike through breathing techniques, visualization, positive self-talk, smiling, talking to teammates – whatever calms them. Talk with them about how they’re managing stress off the bike, and give them ideas if they want them. And that pre-race focusing routine mentioned above? Help them start races off on the right… pedal: motivated, calm, and focused.

While the stress family is by far the main set of emotions that will tend to affect teens’ cycling performance, there are other emotions that come up at times as well. Sadness is certainly a normal part of life, but be on the lookout for sadness that’s prolonged or seemingly serious; it could be one of the many signs of depression. Get consultation from a counselor if need be. Anger is another emotion that’s to be expected, to a point. If the athlete is having trouble containing anger – for example, directing it inappropriately toward you, teammates, competitors, or himself – see if you can work with him to channel the anger into energy that can be managed and used effectively on the bike. Again, get consultation if need be.

The eminent religious scholar Huston Smith, in his preface to the paperback edition of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” quotes a tribute to Suzuki-roshi from Mary Farkas:

“His non-ego attitude left us no eccentricities to embroider upon. Though he made no waves and left no traces as a personality in the worldly sense, the impress of his footsteps in the invisible world of history lead straight on.”

Suzuki-roshi was a man who let go of ego. Teens are right in the middle of creating one. And that’s a good time to reach them. In working with trusted adults to develop the mental side of riding, training, and racing, teens learn skills that help them not only on the bike but off the bike as well. And in working with teens, you, too, might learn.

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