Being tough. Being aggressive. Getting angry. When is it exactly what you need to do to succeed? Does something prevent you from going there? And when is it over the line? The mentally fit cyclist knows how bad(ass) to be: how – and when – to use the energy from the dark side of the self.
By Marv Zauderer
Last month in this Sport Psychology column, we covered a common challenge for athletes: an inner voice that claims, “I’m not good enough.” In “How Good Do You Need to Be?”, we looked at some origins and consequences of this belief, along with ways that you can override and silence it. This month, we examine a very powerful source of energy – your “dark” side – that’s available to you on the bike, and help you explore how to use it.
Imagine yourself in these situations:
• You’re on the next-to-last lap of a criterium, and riders are trying to get the best possible position in the pack. You’re slightly ahead of the rider on your right, and there’s a gap to the wheel of the rider ahead. You want that wheel. So does your competitor. You both begin to go for it. You’re still ahead, and you sense that you can grab it, but it would likely mean bumping your competitor, and perhaps triggering a crash.
• You’re doing your first century ride, and you’re 85 miles into it. It’s cold, raining, windy, and you’re starting to cramp and shiver. You’re also starting to feel lightheaded. The next 10 miles are all uphill, followed by a very fast descent. Just then, a rider cuts you off in a corner.
• You’re on a team where friendship among team members is highly valued. You’ve been working for others in races, especially for one teammate who has a long history of victories. However, you’ve also been training hard, and that has paid off: your fitness, skills and ability have surpassed most of your teammates’ for some time now. No one, including your team’s director, has offered you the opportunity to be a team leader at a race.
• You’re in a stage race, and your teammate is second on GC. The rider who is first on GC, although in the pack with you, has no chance to win the race. You have a friend on a competing team, and he’s done a lot for you over the years. It’s an early stage, and he’s in a breakaway. If he gets enough time on the main field during this stage, he’ll take the leader’s jersey, and you know he’d love that. Although no one in the break is a serious threat to win the GC, you also know that if the break gets an unusual amount of time, there would be a significant risk to your teammate’s – and thus your team’s – position. And yet if you and your team help drive the field too close to your friend, you risk ending his jersey dreams, and you risk his anger – and perhaps the friendship – as well.
Is your decision in any of these situations quick and easy? In all of them? None of them?
What’s tough, and what’s foolish? What’s aggressive, and what’s dishonorable? What’s justifiable and useful anger, and what’s poor self-regulation? What’s reaching within yourself for something strong, and what’s settling for something weak?
What you may need in situations like these is access to a hard edge within you, the judgment to know when to use it, and the inner strength to keep it under control.
The Dark Side is Not All Bad
In their book, “Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature,” Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams cite the poet Robert Frost, who wrote:
Something we were withholding made us weak,
Until we found it was ourselves.
Many of us deny and hide feelings and behaviors that we define – and usually, that others defined for us long ago – as taboo, wrong, bad. And yet, skillfully accepted and managed, there is great strength in that which we withhold.
What’s your dark side? What lives there? Anger? Rage? Jealousy? Greed?
(Aside for the interested reader: In the original Star Wars trilogy, did Luke Skywalker always see the Dark Side of the Force as completely bad?)
Michael Clarkson, for his book “Competitive Fire,” conducted interviews with over 1,000 athletes, coaches, psychologists, and researchers over ten years. A key conclusion: “…many superstar athletes reach peak performance more often than their opponents, and stay at the top longer during their careers, because they provoke and then control their stress emotions as an additive to performance both over the short term and the long haul.”
Clarkson also studied over 50 of the “all-time peak performances” by athletes, and found that anger was one of the key drivers in most of them. Let’s look at anger as a “way in” to your dark side.
Remember Lance Armstrong in the 2003 Tour de France? He was on the ropes, looking fatigued, seemingly vulnerable, when suddenly his handlebar hooked a spectator’s musette. He went down hard. He later said he decided the crash was his fault – he “took a corner too tight, got too close to the public” – and got fiercely angry. Suddenly he sprang to life, channeling his anger into adrenaline, into intense focus, and into a blistering attack (hmmm, that’s an interesting word) that left everyone in his wake. He won the stage and, of course, the Tour.
Think about this for a moment: How friendly are you with your anger? Do you always feel it fully? Does it ever boil over? Do you stuff it (ie. push it away)? How effectively do you manage and convey it? Here are some of the factors that may keep you from feeling, expressing, and using your anger:
• Painful experiences. It can hurt terribly when someone gets angry at you, and also when you get angry at someone else. You can feel ashamed, guilty, frightened, embarrassed – and if this happens enough, an equation may start to be carved in your neurons: Anger=Bad.
• Insufficient management skills. One of the reasons why it can be painful when you get angry is that you’re not managing your anger effectively. Depending on your definition of “effectively” – and, if there’s another person involved, that person’s definition as well – signs might include blaming, shaming, accusing, judging, name-calling, yelling, being too physical, having a sense of “losing it,” and being (accurately) called out about it.
• Overwhelm. Being around enough anger – above your threshold, we might say – might overload your circuits and your skills. In other words, you might have a sensation of feeling physically overwhelmed, and if so, typical responses include (a) fight, and (b) flight. Either one may keep you from being solidly present with anger.
• Bad Habits. As a way of coping with any or all of the above, you might develop strategies to defend against feeling and metabolizing your anger. These might include smiling, laughing, joking, ignoring/avoiding it, trying to fix what seems to be triggering your anger, and so on. (To make things even trickier, sometimes all of these can be healthy responses to anger as well.)
• Fear of losing relationships. As a result of your history, anger can become strongly linked in your mind with conflict, and conflict can raise the specter of loss. The threat of loss, separation, abandonment, the end of a friendship – all of these could have a great deal of leverage with you. Reflect for a moment: how does this operate for you – with friends, teammates, competitors, your coach?
Speaking of relationships, sometimes there are gender differences in how – and whether – athletes use the “hard edge” they may need. Kathleen DeBoer, in “Gender and Competition: How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently,” writes:
“Males define contests as self-contained events during which normal rules of decorum may be momentarily suspended. Females define contests as just another activity and expect all the usual rules of decorum. This male ability to separate life into interactions that count and those that don’t is ideally suited to their ‘life is a contest’ mentality.
Contests have a defined beginning and ending and, within them, males tolerate what would otherwise be aberrant behavior. Since winning is the shared goal of the males competing in the contest, this ‘whatever it takes’ attitude is often glorified, idealized, and mimicked. Females do not easily compartmentalize life into contests and ‘the rest.’ For women, relationships are ongoing and primary. Relationship standards supersede contest standards, meaning everything counts. The stresses associated with competing are no excuses for abandoning civil behavior.”
She continues: “The challenge for males is to combat the incessant message of the hierarchical world that winning is everything, and therefore any edge is a legitimate edge. The challenge for females is to recognize the debilitating message that winning is tainted, and honorable losing always more virtuous. Pragmatic righteousness is somewhere in the middle.”
Clearly, we all know men and women who defy these generalizations. Yet it still may be useful for you to consider whether your beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about being a man or woman – about what kind of man or woman you have wanted to be – are enhancing or detracting from your ability to use your dark side on the bike.
Tapping into all of your dark energy takes self-awareness, motivation, the courage to confront yourself, and the willingness to experiment. It may take some skill-building – for example, learning to manage and channel your emotions more effectively. Ultimately, by integrating the darker sides of yourself, you create a larger source of what you need to succeed as an athlete, and you become a more complete person both on and off the bike.
For some final words on this topic, I turn to an important source of wisdom on everything in life: Star Trek. In the episode entitled “The Enemy Within,” Captain Kirk is accidentally split by a transporter malfunction into twins. One Kirk is the good/light one: kind, highly sensitive, compassionate. The other Kirk is the bad/dark one: angry, menacing, violent. Dark Kirk, when he’s not attacking women, immediately moves forcibly to take control of the Starship Enterprise. The crew looks to Light Kirk to save them from this threat. Light Kirk feels the crew’s fear, and desperately wants to help. But he can’t. He is too afraid. And little by little, he feels his life ebbing. He is dying. And somehow he knows that Dark Kirk is dying, too.
Luckily, Light Kirk has his friends: Spock, the unemotional Vulcan, and Bones, a man very friendly with his own anger. With their help, Light Kirk learns the truth. He learns that although his dark side terrifies him, it is also a necessary source of his power – power that he lost in the transporter malfunction. Without this power, he cannot act on his sensitivity and compassion. And to make things worse, without this power he will die. He appeals to Dark Kirk to join with him: to go through the now-fixed transporter (thanks, Scotty) with the hope that they can become one self again. But Dark Kirk refuses; he is consumed by his rage and his desire for power and control.
Light Kirk persists, reaching out even as Dark Kirk threatens to kill him. Light Kirk is not afraid, because he knows his dark side cannot live without him. Finally, Dark Kirk’s defenses give way; in tears, he admits that he, too, knows they must be rejoined. The transporter experiment works (you’re going to get shore leave for this, Scotty), and Kirk is whole again.
If you keep your dark side at all hidden, split off, or obscured, you get double-whammied: you don’t have access to all the energy it can provide, and it takes energy to keep it imprisoned. You can use your desire for success and fun on the bike as fuel for your efforts to fully liberate your dark side.
Here’s to your freedom. Live long and prosper!