Choosing to Compete

You’ve been wondering what it would be like to race. Or, you’re thinking of getting back to racing after crashing, burnout, or too much disappointment. But you feel reluctant. How – and when – do you choose to compete? The mentally fit cyclist has the skills to sort through all the factors, change what is changeable, and make the decision.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month in this Sport Psychology column, in How Bad Do You Need to Be?, we looked at a very powerful source of energy – your “dark” side – that’s available to you on the bike, and explored how you can use it. This month, we delve into a very common challenge for athletes: beginning – or re-entering – competition.

As it always is at this time of year, the U.S. Open tennis tournament is underway in New York City. Like many longtime tennis fans, I’m reminded each year during the Open – in the inimitable words of tennis aficionado Bud Collins – of “the brash basher from Belleville (Illinois)”: Jimmy Connors. Winner on three different surfaces, maestro – at age 39 – of an unforgettable semifinal run in 1991, darling of the New York fans, Connors owned the Open in his day. In Joel Drucker’s terrific book, “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life,” respected analyst Mary Carillo says of Connors, “He changed the way the game was played by the pros, perceived by the fans, and produced by the television networks…He made tennis matter.” Love him or hate him, Connors absolutely radiated competitiveness.

What is competitiveness? And what about your competitiveness? What affects it? Is there something getting in its way? If you’re thinking about getting into racing, or getting back to racing, but you feel hesitant, unsure, or ambivalent, exploring these questions can help you get unstuck.

According to Robert Weinberg and Daniel Gould, in their book, “Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology,” research on competition goes back to 1898 and the work of Norman Triplett. (Triplett chose cycling as his test case, and showed for the first time that competition enhances performance.) However, it wasn’t until Rainer Martens’ work in 1975 that a conceptual framework guided research in this area. To Martens, competition is a linked, four-stage process:

1. The “objective competitive situation.” Central to Martens’ definition is the social component of the experience. There’s not only a standard for comparison, such as your most recent performance or your competitor’s best performance, but also at least one other person who is in a position to evaluate the performance. So even if you’re out alone trying to beat your best time on your benchmark climb, and you tell someone you’re doing it, that’s an objective competitive situation.

2. The “subjective competitive situation.” This is how you perceive, evaluate, and accept the situation. For example, you’ve probably heard the old saying, “when there’s two riders, it’s a race.” Is that always true for you when you’re out for a ride with a friend? Never true? Sometimes? When you’re considering racing, part of the subjective experience for you is the feelings you have about it. You might feel dread, excitement, or a host of other emotions which can affect your appraisal of the situation. Your competitiveness will play a significant role here, as will other factors (your fitness, the course, the weather, and so on.)

3. Your response. After you assess the situation, you’re either going to approach it or avoid it. If you approach it, there will not only be a behavioral component to your response (eg. deciding which race is a good starting point for you), but also likely physiological (eg. elevated heart rate) and psychological (eg. anxiety, motivation, self-confidence) components as well.

4. Consequences. If you then race, what’s that experience like? Exciting, fun, stressful, tiring? And afterwards, how do you view the experience? For example, if you got dropped by the main pack, do you see the race as a failure? Or, because you outsprinted all the riders in your group for 44th place, do you see it as a success? And what about the social aspect of the experience? For example, how are you affected by what other people (eg. teammates, competitors, friends, family, coach) say about your race? The thoughts, sensations and emotions you have during – and about – your race define the consequences.

To work with yourself on your reluctance to race, you need – as a professor of mine used to say – to get in between the “S” and the “R”: the stimulus (or situation, in this case) and your response. Notice that when you’re thinking about getting into – or back to – racing, you’re assessing the situation. That’s in between the “S” and the “R.” And your assessment is going to have a profound impact on your response. But what affects your assessment?

Evaluating Racing

Let’s first look at your competitiveness. According to Weinberg and Gould, the research of D.L. Gill and T.E. Deeter identifies three types of competitive orientations:

• A competitive person simply loves the experience of competition. This person doesn’t have a particular focus on competitive outcomes; rather, s/he just enjoys the process of competing and striving for success.

• A person with a win orientation focuses on interpersonal comparison and winning in competition. For this person, it’s more important to beat competitors than to improve on personal standards.

• A person with a goal orientation focuses on personal performance standards. The goal is improvement, not winning.

Which orientation is yours? How does it affect your view of racing? Your competitive orientation can be a great strength, but it may also be a source – although not necessarily a cause – of any reluctance that you feel. For example, an athlete with a competitive orientation may think, “I’m just not having fun competing, so why do it?” An athlete with a win orientation may think, “I can’t race, because I’m not strong enough to win.” An athlete with a goal orientation may think, “I can’t get any better on the climbs, so I’m not going to bother with racing.” Of course, sometimes your reluctance may indeed mean, “don’t race now,” or even “never race again.” But that’s a subject for another article. What we’re focusing on here are the times when you figure out that it’s right for you to try to overcome your resistance and choose to compete.

Notice that your self-talk – what you say to yourself about competing – is very important here. If your self-talk is unduly and inaccurately negative, your mind may inappropriately convince you that racing is not for you. If you’re coaching yourself well, though, you’re much more likely to see the situation clearly and overcome any resistance that it is your destiny (imagine Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice here) to overcome.

One powerful subject for your self-talk, a subject that can help you choose to compete, is having a solid, truthful, and motivating answer to this question: Why race? Exploring the effects of your competitive orientation is just one example of the meaning you make of competing. I think it was the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl who famously said, “we can do almost any ‘what’ if we have a ‘why’.” So: why race? Here are some (interrelated) possibilities; see which, if any, are true for you:

• You would, or might, have fun.

• Competing would add goals and structure to your life in a way that tends to work well for you.

• By competing, and perhaps by being on a team (although that’s not required), you’d add relationships – with teammates, competitors, coaches, and others – that would bring more richness to your life. What could be more meaningful than relationships? (OK, dark chocolate gelato, but what else?)

• You might enhance, add, or even reclaim a part of your identity: the part of you that can say, with confidence: I’m an athlete.

• Racing would be a catalyst for your growth: as an athlete, and perhaps as a human being as well. That’s the power of “cyclotherapy”: riding and racing can help you to overcome your fears, integrate your experiences, and explore the limits of your potential. It’s what the great psychiatrist C.G. Jung called individuation.

• But what is it about racing that can fuel your growth? It might be the passion and aliveness that you feel when you do it, the intensity you can experience in so many moments during competition. James Hollis, in his wonderful (and wonderfully slim) book, “The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife,” writes, “Finding and following our passion, that which touches us so deeply that it both hurts and feels right, serves individuation by pulling our potential from the depths…the ego is not in charge; it can only run away or give assent.”

Hmmm. You certainly can choose to “run away,” can’t you? But from what? Once again, you’re being visited by our eternal foes: anxiety and its siblings – fear, stress, tension, nerves, pressure, and worry. Albert Ellis, in his classic book, “How to Get Control of Your Anxiety Before it Gets Control of You,” differentiates between being self-protective and being over-protective. Yes, sometimes you may be anxious, stressed, or fearful and it is best for you to honor those feelings: it’s not (yet) right for you to compete. That’s being self-protective. It’s any over-protectiveness that you need to smoke out and catch.

So if the anxiety family is getting in the way of racing for you, two useful questions to ask yourself are: What are you worried about, stressed by, or afraid of? And what can you do about it? Some possibilities:

• The unknown. If you’ve never raced before, it’s natural to have some anxiety. If your anxiety is about having a new experience, then getting help might be the key to managing it: information is power. Talk to friends about their racing experiences and get tips on how to approach competition. Read any of the racing-related PezCyclingNews Toolbox articles that catch your eye by my colleagues Stephen Cheung, Bruce Hendler, Josh Horowitz, and Matt McNamara. Assess your mental fitness for racing. Check out books that give you racing basics (one of my favorites is Kendra Wenzel, Rene Wenzel, and Scott Saifer’s “Bike Racing 101.”) All of these things will also help with, among other things, your choices (of challenge level, course, date, and so on) for initial races.

• Disappointment, embarrassment, and/or shame. Your anxiety might not be about having a new experience. It’s common for athletes (and psychology types) to talk about “fear of failure,” but what’s that really about? Usually it’s about an athlete’s specific experience – thoughts, feelings, sensations – of failure, or at least what the athlete believes/fears that experience will be like. Falling short is frequently disappointing, and that doesn’t feel good. Embarrassment and shame are usually even worse. But it might be good for you to not be “held prisoner” by your fear of feeling disappointed. Or maybe there’s a different way for you to approach the race – including how you talk to yourself about it afterwards – that would generate less of these painful feelings even if you do fall short of your goals. And speaking of goals, make sure they’re clear and realistic; that will reduce the chances of unnecessary disappointment. Lastly, consider whether you’re comparing yourself with others more than you need to; that can be destructive.

• Crashing. It’s common to have some anxiety about getting hurt, and crashes certainly happen in races, although more in some (and under certain conditions) than in others. Plus, if you’ve crashed before or are trying to come back after a crash (or seeing one), that can be difficult, particularly if your experience was traumatic and you’ve not yet metabolized the trauma. The articles on Recovering from Injury and Recovering from Crashes – Part 1 and Part 2 – may be helpful to you here.

• Suffering. Yep, it’s gonna hurt. Learning to increase your tolerance for performance pain is an important part of being a competitive cyclist.

• Lack of support. You’ll feel less anxious and more self-confident if you know you have the right team supporting you. That might be a racing team, the full support of your significant other(s) for what you’re doing, or a support team that’s going to carry you through a race or the entire season. Relationships affect performance in sport; get the right people in place.

In a somewhat spooky coincidence, I’m reminded of a brilliant, Oscar-nominated, animated film. In it, a lonely young boy, Champion (!), is adopted by his grandmother. Seeing how happy he is on the bike she gave him, she decides to train him to compete. Over the years, he becomes the very definition of competitiveness; he lives to ride and race. He enters the Tour de France but is kidnapped during the race, and his grandmother sets out to find him, with the help of three singing sisters. The title of the film? “The Triplets of Belleville.” Somewhere, I’ll bet, Norman Triplett and the Brash Basher from Belleville are smiling.


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