The thrill of beating a competitor to the finish line. The satisfaction of leaving it all out there. The fulfillment of helping a teammate. All are welcome rewards of competing. But what can the heat of competition transform within you? The mentally fit cyclist uses competition to grow not only as an athlete but as a human being – to develop the self-awareness, emotional skills, and authenticity that translates directly into better experiences on and off the bike.
By Marv Zauderer
A year ago in this Sport Psychology column, in Choosing to Compete, we looked at some factors that could influence you to enter – or re-enter – competition, along with the obstacles that might be in your way. Now, it’s time to go a bit deeper: we continue our series on the effects of relationships on sport performance by exploring how a specific aspect of competition can change you – for the better.
New York: The City That Never Sleeps. Whenever I’m there, I feel a unique crackle in the air; a vital energy between people. Inevitably, I feel more alive (especially during cab rides), and a recent visit was no exception. I had an unforgettably uncomfortable evening sitting in the front row of a performance by an African-American comedian, whose bitterness and anger seemed to echo throughout generations of his family and his people. For the first time in my life, I visited Ellis Island: passing in front of the Statue of Liberty on the ferry and imagining how immigrants felt upon seeing her, re-living traumas some of them experienced, finding the passenger list from the ship my father arrived on. And I saw the thrilling Broadway show “Fela!,” about the gifted Nigerian musician who pioneered Afrobeat, used it to rally his countrymen against their corrupt military regime, and paid for his courage with beatings, jail time, and finding his mother was thrown to her death from his window.
And then I returned home, to the Jewish New Year, a time when the story of Isaac and Ishmael is told. As my wise wife reflected on how much sadness and pain has arisen from the split between these two brothers of the same father, I flashed on the long history of hate and war in the Middle East, on my recent cab ride past the open wound that is the World Trade Center site, and on the controversy over building a Muslim community center near there.
All of these experiences brought me face-to-face with those who are seen and treated too often as a threat; with what psychology, philosophy, and social science have often called The Other. I reflected on who I see as The Other in my life, and how I could reduce the distance between us. I also wondered: What does “Otherness” have to teach us, in all aspects of our lives, including sport? And what does “Otherness” really mean?
In sport, the obvious place for The Other is in his/her role as your competitor. Every competitor is a threat, because you both want the same thing, and only one of you can have it. And that struggle is the core of competition. (Or is it? We’ll get back to that.) What happens when you see others as a threat? You get defensive. You protect yourself. You play your cards close to the vest. You withhold rather than reveal. You attack. Those all sound like great strategies if you want to win a race, right?
Yep, they do. But let’s look at what else happens in a race. You lay it all out there in a break or in a sprint. You spray bodily fluids and groan in pain as you fight to stay in contact up the climb one last time. You come up against your pain threshold, your fear, the limits of your capability on that day. You show yourself at your best and at your worst. For all that you’re hiding, you may be showing a lot, too. Could it be worthwhile to show more? Yes. For example:
• As noted in the column on Self-Interest and Cooperation, it may be necessary to risk revealing your thinking, feelings and/or condition in order to form an alliance on the road – a common tactic for increasing success in races.
• If you’re destructively comparing yourself with other athletes, being more open with them and getting to know them better could actually help you stop the comparing. And who knows, you might be teammates someday.
The dynamic tension of defensiveness and openness between competitors was most poignantly illustrated, for me, by the rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Even as they were so brutally defending and attacking – in and out of the ring – both gave the impression of knowing each other unusually well for competitors who had no relationship to speak of outside of the sport. After the third Ali-Frazier fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali famously said:
“I always bring out the best in men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him.”
Bringing out the best (and worst) in each other. Perhaps that is the essence of competition.
Now, take a minute and think: Who (else) is your “Other” in cycling?
If you have a coach or Team Director, you may not be as relaxed and open with him/her as you could be. Recall how in Part 1 of the Get the Most from a Coach columns, mutual openness was an important part of the COMPASS model for effective coach-athlete relationships. Ask yourself if you’re withholding any information – thoughts, ideas, fears, irritation, anger, confusion, feedback, needs, requests – and if you are, why you’re withholding. (We’ll get back to that question in a moment.)
What about your teammates? You may see some of them as more of a threat than you need to. Some may indeed be competing with you for a spot on next season’s team or for the podium in the next race. You may be highly concerned about what they think of you. You may find some of them annoying. There are many factors that can trigger you to be more tense, defensive, or closed than is best for you – as an individual athlete and as a teammate.
So, what gets in the way of treating people in cycling less as Other and more as Partner? Let’s take a look.
Beyond Defending and Attacking
To begin with, to know that you’re contributing to unwanted distance between you and an important person in your racing, you have to have self-awareness. That may seem obvious, but we human beings aren’t always aware that there’s distance, and even when we’re aware of that, we’re sometimes not aware that (and how) we’re contributing to the distance.
Uncomfortable and unwanted feelings can get in the way of opening more to others. If you find that an important person in your competitive life triggers irritation, suspicion, anger, worry, fear, or other emotions that are difficult for you to handle, it can be a natural (and unconscious) reaction to tighten up, close down, or move away from that person. Solves the problem of feeling the uncomfortable feelings, doesn’t it?
Going a bit deeper, it can be wise to de-personalize such experiences. That is, rather than making it about the other person, get curious about your internal experience. Do you have difficulty with any of those emotions generally? If so, that could be part or all of the problem – you may need to learn to handle those emotions more effectively so that you no longer “handle” them by tightening up. Speaking of tightening up, what’s your history – in your family of origin and in your adult life – of being open with people? Anything painful or traumatic happen along the way that could be influencing you now? Our brains tend to have long memories when it comes to painful experiences, and it’s instinctive for our brain to try to avoid pain if it thinks it’s coming.
Going deeper still, what significant experiences in your life do you have with truly being seen, being understood, being “gotten?” How about the opposite – being misunderstood, dismissed, ignored? When you think about opening up more, how do you feel about what you’d be revealing? Confident? Worried? Embarrassed? Why?
Noticing, exploring, and learning how to manage these feelings are all significant components of what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence.” In his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,” Goleman articulates a model that has four main components: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness (which includes having empathy for others), and relationship management. The intense relationships in competition – with teammates, coaches, competitors, and even yourself – can give you great opportunities to improve your skills in each of these areas.
And what if you do? Current research shows that improving these skills can improve your performance on the bike. But, research aside, let’s look at a fundamental truth: Knowing yourself better, managing your emotions effectively, having the empathy and skill to connect strongly with others – all of these help you to move toward being fully yourself in as many moments as possible. Performing your best on the bike, ultimately, is about bringing to each moment every ounce, every cell, every iota of your potential that you’ve worked so hard to develop. That kind of authenticity is something that competition can deepen. It’s the Holy Grail of mental fitness.
Isaac and Ishmael were brothers and yet Others. In cycling, The Other may be someone with whom you’re competing, or someone else who poses what you believe – at least initially – is a threat. But ultimately The Other is not someone to be feared. Although indeed there may be something at risk for you, there is much to be gained. Competing creates the opportunity for you to discover, confront, and transform things within yourself that can make you a better rider and put you in touch with your full potential. It’s a race where winning means narrowing, not increasing, the distance between you and others.