Increasing Your Tolerance for Suffering

Your legs are burning. Your lungs are burning. Thoughts of flaming out, backing off, or giving up are dancing in your tortured mind. What will you do next? The mentally fit cyclist is highly skilled in responding to suffering, and thus has a distinct advantage over many competitors.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, I explored Communication, the fifth of the five core skills of mentally fit cyclists. This month I begin a series of articles on Responding to Adversity.

Last week I rode with a recently-crowned national champion. (Let me correct that. She rode, and I hung on for dear life.) I asked her about the race. She said, “the weather and the course negated any physical advantages that I might have had; I won because I could suffer more than the others.” How can we strengthen this aspect of our mental fitness?

When we cyclists use the word “suffering,” we’re usually referring to two all-too-frequent – and often interrelated – experiences that we have on the bike: pain and fatigue. In a word, we hurt. Not from injury, but from the sheer demands of riding. Clearly, at times pain and fatigue are sending us a warning that should be heeded. But for many cyclists, learning to respond differently to suffering is the biggest obstacle to increased performance. It can be the juiciest opportunity to grow as an athlete, and perhaps, as a person.

What’s happening when we hurt? The unpleasant sensation is obvious. What may not be obvious is what our minds are doing with that sensation. What meaning are we making of the pain? What thoughts are being triggered, influenced or fueled by the pain? Which behaviors – be they impulse-level reactions or conscious choices – are consequences of the pain? Which emotions – anxiety, anger, embarrassment – follow the pain? Pain is pain; when riding brings it on, it would seem that we don’t have much control over it (but I’ll come back to that). Yet we do have significant control over what our minds add to our pain.

So: It’s time, once again, to use your mind on your mind. If you can stop it from adding to your pain, you have a much greater chance of keeping your total suffering below threshold. To develop the advanced skill of managing your suffering effectively, you can likely use some or all of the five core skills.

Using the 5 Core Skills to Manage Suffering

Viktor Frankl’s classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, describes his experience as a Nazi concentration camp inmate. He observed, in the most extreme of circumstances, how human beings can use even the tiniest shreds of meaning to cling to a reason to continue living.

Although suffering on the bike is not anywhere close to suffering in a concentration camp, it is often cycling’s most intense, threatening, and difficult experience. So when you’re suffering, it can be very useful to have a positive, pro-performance answer to this question: Why am I doing this? If your suffering is in service of specific goals, if your suffering has meaning that supports your performance, your tolerance for the suffering is likely to increase.

As I noted in the article on goal-setting, outcome goals, such as “I’m going for a spot on the podium,” are the most prevalent in cycling. However, suffering tolerance can often be increased by effective use of process goals as well. For example: “Even if I’m hurting or getting dropped, my goal is to maintain good form and rhythm on all of the climbs,” or “before I back off and reduce my suffering at any time during this ride, I’m going to hang in there at least two minutes longer than last time when I feel myself reaching my limit.”

Suffering, particularly when we approach our tolerance threshold, tends to generate anxiety. And you know from the article on self-talk that anxiety can fuel negative self-talk, which fuels anxiety. Not the kind of cycling we prefer. So if you’re suffering and you hear a voice in your head saying things like “I’m a lousy climber,” or “I can’t hang on any longer” or “Look at her, she’s so strong and I’m such a wimp,” that’s the time to confront yourself and question those assertions. Your anxiety may be distorting your perception and your judgment.

I’m not suggesting that you do your best Pollyanna impersonation and tell yourself, “this doesn’t hurt at all, I’m feeling great!” At the very least, though, question the voice you hear and stop any negative thoughts. As you’ll recall, you may also benefit from replacing the negative thoughts with positive (or, at least non-negative) thoughts, such as:

• Reminding yourself of your pre-ride/race outcome and process goals, such as “One of my key goals is to climb Mt. Diablo in under an hour this year; hanging on longer right now is going to help me accomplish that.”

• Believable counterstatements, such as “All things considered, I’m actually
climbing well today,” or “I’m going to hang on up to that 17% grade sign” and “Now that I’ve done that, I’m going to hang on up to that next 17% grade sign.”

• Affirmations, such as “I’ve trained hard and I am strong today.”

• Cue words that have proven to be effective for you, such as “calm and focused” or “hang in there” or “Belgian beer at the finish.”

• Behaviors – which may also be goal-reminders – such as, “I need to focus on maintaining good form now.”

Now back to anxiety, perhaps the biggest dragon to be slayed (slain? OK, subdued) by the mentally fit cyclist.

Recall that I (somewhat flippantly) said above, “pain is pain”; turns out not to be true. Research has shown that improving how our minds respond to pain can decrease the pain. In other words, not only can we avoid making things (mentally) worse, but we can actually make things (physically) better at times. For example, when pain makes us anxious, we often respond to the anxiety by tensing around the painful area, which can make the pain worse. If you can notice that’s happening, you can use relaxation techniques – such as breathing into the area, concentrating on releasing as many of the muscles around the area as possible, and reducing your overall anxiety – that may reduce the pain. The article on managing emotions gives you many additional ways to reduce your anxiety.

Speaking of emotions, you might consider experimenting with using anger – within yourself, not directed at others – as a counterbalance to suffering. Remember Lance Armstrong in Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour de France? Less than 10km from the finish at Luz-Ardiden, suffering mightily and on the ropes in the Tour for the first time ever, his handlebar hooked a fan’s bag and he went down. When he got up, he was clearly angry. He used his anger to generate “a huge rush of adrenaline” and immediately said to himself, “if you want to win the Tour de France, do it today.” He won the stage and, for all practical purposes, the race.

Besides the hottie in the feed zone, suffering is the strongest enemy of concentration for many cyclists. Knowing your focus style and how to return to that mode, as I discussed in the article on concentration, may be one of your most effective tools when you feel suffering starting to dominate your attention.

And lastly, don’t forget communication: Keeping your struggles with suffering to yourself may not serve you. For example, you might ask for help – for example, pacing you up a climb – from a friend or teammate during a ride or race. Don’t let any feelings of guilt or embarrassment derail you; if it helps, remind yourself that you’re likely to be in a position to return the favor someday. Also, if you have a coach or mentor who’s helping you with your cycling, they’ll benefit from anything you can tell them about your experiences with suffering during each ride and race. The more they know, the more likely they’ll be able to give you useful suggestions.

Beyond the Five Core Skills

Any or all of the above may be enough for you to increase your tolerance for suffering. But if not, here are some additional steps you can take:

1. Experiment with avoidance. On the one hand, I’m encouraging you to confront your suffering, to not be afraid of it, to manage the anxiety that comes up around it and deal with it. On the other hand, sometimes it’s fine to use defense mechanisms like avoidance and denial. It’s not always a cop-out to act like King Arthur and his knights in Monty Python and The Holy Grail and “Run away! Run away!” If you distract yourself from your suffering for too long, however, it may return with a much louder voice later. It usually does. So experiment with visualization, singing the Mister Rogers theme, doing sudoku in your head, whatever distracts you from the pain, and come to some judgment about when – if ever – to use distraction as a tool for managing suffering.

2. Create “suffering intervals.” Just as with concentration, your tolerance for suffering can increase if you create specific periods of time in training for your experiments and practice. Note in your training log what you’re discovering about yourself and what’s working. Factor your knowledge into your pre-ride/pre-race plans.

3. Understand your pain profile. Speaking of self-discovery, your strategies for managing suffering may be influenced by what you know about your personality, your history, and your patterns. How sensitive are you to pain? What experiences, particularly traumatic ones, have you had with pain in your lifetime? How did you respond? Are there any notable patterns to the ways you respond to adversity of all kinds in your life? All of these things, and more, may influence the specific experience you have in suffering on the bike.

In addition to your self-awareness, your thoughts and your breath are your strongest allies when you’re suffering. Turn toward the pain and use it. Like most anything in life, the more you turn toward it, the faster you’ll improve your relationship to it and the faster your growth as a cyclist will be fueled by it. Let suffering be the fiery crucible where your mental fitness is formed.


Sustaining Motivation

It’s the time of year when, after a long season, you may be dragging. Have you been overtraining? Down about your results? Or are you just plain worn out? The mentally fit cyclist notices signs of demotivation early, interprets and responds to the signs effectively, and avoids descending into exhaustion, burnout, or depression.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, continuing our series on Responding to Adversity, I discussed how you can manage and, at times, accelerate your recovery from injury. This month, I explore Sustaining Motivation, the third advanced skill of the mentally fit cyclist.

Motivation has a direction – toward achieving a goal – and an intensity. It’s the fuel for everything you do. If things are going well, it’s naturally sustained and replenished; you have as much as you need. If forces within and outside you start to drain it, it may be time for you to intervene.

As a cyclist and athlete, you have many possible goals at which to aim your motivation. You might want to climb that mountain in under an hour, improve your endurance, win a race, launch a teammate, complete your first century, or finally beat that guy to the city limit sign.

Of course, the intensity of your motivation will vary. There may be times when you get yourself too “hyped up” for a ride or race. Other times, your intensity may wane too much, and you find yourself without enough of your usual drive. You might then question your goals or training program, skip a workout (or five), or pull out of a race. Sometimes – dare I say it? – you may not want to get on the bike at all. And if you start to force yourself to run on motivational fumes, you can grind yourself into the ground.

To be fair, life has its ebbs and flows, and you’re not always going to be able to be as motivated as you’d like. Sometimes you just have to push through. But the more you’re able to sustain a level of motivation that’s sufficient and healthy for you, and the more skill you have at adjusting the direction and intensity of your motivation when one or both are out of whack, the more likely you are to get the most from yourself, enjoy your cycling, and achieve your cycling goals.

One of the many views on motivation, influenced by the work of Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, is that the interaction of your personality, behavior, and environment affects your motivation, rather than any one factor dominating. So, let’s first briefly address personality.

Speculating on your personality’s impact on motivation is certainly beyond the scope of this article (and also impossible to do without us establishing some sort of Vulcan mind-meld. Is Vulcan on the Web yet?). But it may be useful for you to hypothesize how your personality can affect your motivation. The better you know yourself, the better you’ll be at managing and sustaining your motivation.

For example, you’ll recall from Psych 101 that motivation can be intrinsic and extrinsic. Does your motivation seem to come more from within? Do you seem to be more (or overly?) dependent on external factors (eg. winning)? Or, does neither stand out? Some additional questions that may be helpful are:

• Why do you ride, train, compete?

• Is your focus on the pride you feel in competing, improving, winning (“playing
to win”) or is your focus on how bad you (may) feel if you “fail” (“playing not to lose”)?

• Do you attribute success and failure to factors within or outside of your control?
How has that affected your motivation this season?

Personality self-tests such as the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs may help as well. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it: How does your “wiring” affect your motivation?

Now, let’s look at some potential demotivators in your behavior (including your thinking) and your environment, and some ways you can interpret and respond to them.

Managing Internal Demotivators
Let’s start with fatigue. It’s certainly harder to do anything physical, and to want to do anything physical, when you’re tired. But why are you tired? What meaning are you going to make of your fatigue? How you interpret your fatigue – accurately or inaccurately – can have an enormous impact on your motivation and your next moves.

Are you telling yourself that you’ll never be strong enough? That if you miss your next workout it’s a disaster? That you’re a wimp? Negative self-talk, as I’ve discussed in a previous article, is one of the most common demotivators. That article has many suggestions for how you can turn negative self-talk around. Here’s another: think of a good coach, mentor, parent, boss, or leader you’ve had. Now try to coach yourself the way s/he did. Be careful how you interpret potential demotivators, give yourself recognition for your progress and accomplishments, and truly take in all the “good stuff” in your cycling. (The new book Focus on the Good Stuff, , by former athlete Mike Robbins, has excellent guidance on transforming negative self-talk.)

So, if you simply need some (normal) rest, the way you talk to yourself about your fatigue doesn’t have to be demotivating. Exercise physiologist George Brooks of UC Berkeley points out that you become stronger in training because you apply the overload principle: habitually overloading your system causes it to respond and adapt. Resting, he shows, is a necessary part of training because adaptations occur during recovery. So, your fatigue may be telling you that you can accelerate your training by resting!

However, if along with decreased motivation you’re experiencing such symptoms as longer-term fatigue, higher or lower heart rate than normal for particular workouts, slower recovery than usual, significant changes in sleep patterns, decreased appetite, and unusual irritability, you might be overtraining. This can hasten the onset of depression, suppress your immune system, and invite physical illness.

In recovering from overtraining, it’s important to investigate what happened. Were you too dependent on training for your sense of accomplishment, self-confidence, or self-esteem? Is your perfectionism or harsh self-coaching running rampant? Did you choose and manage your goals effectively? (Poor goal-setting is another common demotivator, even if it doesn’t result in overtraining.) Did you disagree with your coach’s program? Or perhaps the rest of life had you so worn down that the “right” training program was really too much for you. Whatever it was, sorting it out – along with keeping your eye out for the early warning sings – is the key to prevention.

Taking a break from cycling is sometimes just what the doctor ordered; you come back ready to rock. But at other times, illness, injury, vacation, or competing priorities (eg. a peak time at work) leads to reduced motivation. Why? Well, how harshly do you judge your fitness when you resume riding? Research shows that detraining begins within a few weeks for the endurance athlete. How afraid are you of relapse or reinjury? (We’ll get to anxiety in a moment.) So again, your attitude toward the break — and toward your return — can have a profound effect on your motivation.

Back to our old nemesis anxiety and its siblings: stress, tension, worry, fear, and pressure. It’s usually the fuel for negative self-talk. And if you dread training or racing, worry about how you’ll be evaluated by yourself or others, fear tricky descents, get overmotivated (“hyped”) and don’t manage these and other anxiety-producing experiences effectively, you’ll likely be much less interested in cycling. Chronic anxiety is also draining, and so not only can contribute to fatigue, but burnout as well.

Managing External Demotivators
What about the environment? Well, let’s first take that literally: the weather can lead to drastically lower motivation for many cyclists. Using the trainer, using videos, changing the workouts you’re doing, changing workout partners, cross-training in the gym, and possibly readjusting your goals can all help to modulate the sometimes crushing reality of constant, cycling-unfriendly weather.

Speaking of the environment, you’ve heard of toxic waste. What about toxic people? Is there a coach, competitor, teammate, family member, or “friend” who seems to be taking the wind out of your sails? If so, you can likely do something about it. You may be able to suspend or end the relationship, take what they’re saying (or doing) less personally, use positive self-talk to counteract what they’re saying, and surround yourself more frequently with people who are supportive. Your skill with communication will help you here.

So for you Princess Bride fans, a veritable Fireswamp of potential demotivators to keep you on your toes (although luckily, no “rodents of unusual size.”). Draw on all of your five core mental skills – Goal-Setting, Positive Self-Talk, Managing Emotions, Concentration, and Communication – to see the dangers early, handle them skilfully, and sustain your motivation.

Mark Epstein, in his book Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life, points to a “middle way” of managing motivation: a place somewhere between grasping too frantically for what we desire, and denying ourselves the opportunity to reach. So perhaps sustaining our motivation for cycling comes in part from skillfully managing the free will we’ve been given: our will to grow and improve, our will to enjoy and be grateful for this part of our lives, our will to finish, our will to win. Which brings to mind some words from the wise Walter Sobchak, the trusted friend and bowling teammate of The Dude in The Big Lebowski. As The Dude completes his frame in an important league game, Walter tells him – quoting Theodor Herzl, as he faithfully points out – “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Beating the Winter Blues

You’re dragging. You’re cranky. And the weather may be blocking you from a key contributor to your usual mental health: riding. You may be suffering from the cyclist’s winter blues, or perhaps something worse. The mentally fit cyclist chooses from a diverse array of tactics to battle the blues successfully and regain a strong sense of well-being.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, continuing our series on Responding to Adversity, I discussed how you can handle pressure in your cycling more effectively. This month, I explore how to beat the “cyclist’s winter blues,” the fifth advanced skill of the mentally fit cyclist.

The onset of winter weather can wreak havoc on your cycling. Shorter days might make it harder to fit daytime rides into your schedule. Snow and rain may derail rides completely. And, after enough days peeking outside and then trudging into your garage, the sight of your trainer may turn you into a snarling mass of protoplasm.

And yet, if you’re like many of us, your cycling is ordinarily a major player in your physical and emotional health, a regular part of what you do to maintain a healthy balance in your life. If your cycling takes a big hit during the winter, that balance can be shattered. Plus, even if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where winter has less of an effect on riding (hello, San Diego!), winter may still bring with it feelings of lethargy, irritability, and gloom. Whether you’re cycling as much as usual or not, you may have the cyclist’s winter blues.

The first step in overcoming the cyclist’s winter blues is to be sure that’s all it is. It’s one thing to have a bit less energy than usual, a bit more crankiness than usual, and eye-rolling when you confront your trainer; we’ll talk about what to do about all that shortly. It may be another thing, though, if you’re feeling significantly lethargic, down, or anxious, if you’re oversleeping or overeating (especially craving carbs), or if you’re having trouble concentrating. If this has happened during more than one winter, you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). First researched and named by Dr. Normal Rosenthal, SAD can be treated effectively with regular exposure to bright light, medication, and/or psychotherapy.

If you have any of the above symptoms, and are also feeling a profound sense of hopelessness, have little interest or pleasure in doing things, or are feeling bad about yourself, you may have a more serious case of clinical depression. (Actually, even without any of these additional symptoms, you may have a more serious case of clinical depression.) To check that out, you might take the National Mental Health Association’s confidential online screening test, find a professional in your area (unfortunately U.S.-only, at the moment) who conducts free, confidential, year-round depression screenings, or have an evaluation session with a licensed psychotherapist. John Preston’s book, You Can Beat Depression, is an excellent resource. You may benefit from speaking with your personal physician about your symptoms, as they can also be caused by physical ailments (eg. hypothyroidism).

Breaking Away from the Blues

So let’s assume you have the cyclist’s blues, or will have them someday. Any form of depression, including the cyclist’s blues, tends to act like quicksand on the mind and the body: it will try to convince you that contracting, withdrawing, and shutting down are the right things to do. But here’s where you, once again, can use your mind on your mind. Are you going to sit in or attack? Attack! There are a variety of things you can do, including using your five core skills, to break away from the hold the cyclist’s blues has on you.

1. Use your trainer, or if you don’t have one, get one. I know, I know, you start to go stir-crazy when you’re spinning for the umpteenth time. Here are some things you can do to spice things up:

• Set up an inexpensive TV/DVD combo near your trainer. Rent a TV series on DVD and watch all the episodes in order. Watch old Tour or Giro or Classics races. Rent those movies you’ve been meaning to watch. (Check out Séamus King’s list of cycling-related movies.)

• Don’t just spin. Do some intervals that you or your coach feel are appropriate
for winter training. Although spinning, particularly if it bores you to tears, may provide a great opportunity for you to practice your concentration skills.

Download some podcasts and explore subjects that interest you.

• Invite a cycling buddy or two over, and ask them to bring their trainers. No need to worry about a group ride messing with your workout! C’mon, misery loves company.

• Speaking of which, don’t view it as misery. As you know from the articles on
self-talk and managing emotions, your thoughts affect your feelings. So, look at being on the trainer in a positive way. I’m not suggesting that you try to delude yourself into believing you’ll get the same pleasure as you do on a ride around Lake Como (although perhaps you could get a Lombardy DVD to simulate that), but I am suggesting you not view trainer time as a death march. So don’t do the Eric Clapton thing and think, “give me one more day, please” as you look up mournfully into yet another stormy sky. Do the Bob Dylan thing as you look at your bike and think, “we’ll meet again someday on the avenue.” (OK, Clapton and Dylan were talking about women, but who’s checking?)

2. Hunt around for any toxic beliefs. As long as you’re examining your beliefs about riding on the trainer, look around in the dark recesses of your mind for any other distorted beliefs that might be sustaining your blues. For example: “If I don’t train on the road now exactly as much as I’m supposed to, my upcoming season will be a complete bust. After all, Lance said the Tour is won in November, December, and January.” David Burns’ books are good resources here.

3. Be wary of comparisons. Particularly if you race, but even if you don’t, comparisons are everywhere. To begin with, they’re how we measure the outcomes of competition. And they play a big role – sometimes, too big – in how we evaluate our progress and performance. Are you stronger, faster, mentally tougher than that guy? Is that woman training harder than you? Would you be a better teammate than someone else? If you’re comparing yourself with others too much, your well-being may be at their mercy. If you bring your comparisons back below threshold, you’ll be generating more of your well-being from within: a powerful antidote to the cyclist’s blues.

4. Re-evaluate your cycling goals. As noted in the article on goal-setting and goal-management, goals often need to be reset after significant time off the bike. Detraining, for example, often has a significant effect on goals. If you’ve been off the bike and your goals aren’t reset, they’re likely to be less achievable, which will tend to create underlying, unproductive anxiety. You’re less likely to want to get on the bike if you’re pursuing the wrong goals. And that can perpetuate the cyclist’s winter blues.

5. Evaluate your diet and exercise routine. When we’re feeling down, something has changed in our brain chemistry. What you eat and drink, along with the nature, frequency, and duration of your physical exercise, can move your brain chemistry back towards balance. Joel Robertson’s book, Natural Prozac, is a good reference on this topic. Yoga and indoor sports might be good, occasional alternatives for you whenever outdoor cycling is impossible.

6. Increase your tolerance for discomfort. Often we do need to do something about the cyclist’s blues. But as Sylvia Boorstein says, sometimes a good mantra is “Don’t just do something, sit there!” When you learn to sit longer with your distress, and don’t rush to “fix” it, you may find that like all things it arises and passes away. Or you may find something surprising beneath it. As I mentioned in the article on suffering, there are a number of ways in which you can increase your ability to not be thrown off-center by any kind of distress, including the kind you find on a tough climb.

7. Ensure you have cycling in its proper place in your life. As I explained in the article on recovering from injury, if cycling is providing too much of your well-being, identity, and/or self-worth, you may be out of balance. Check in with yourself on this one.

8. Be grateful. Increasingly, research is proving that gratitude can contribute profoundly to happiness and well-being. You can choose to be angry about what you don’t have, or grateful for what you do have. Pay it forward.

9. Express yourself. Whether it’s talking with someone or expressing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations on your own – through journaling, songwriting, painting, and the like – “metabolizing” the blues through some kind of expression may be the fastest way to be rid of them. The article on Communication gives some suggestions on how to remove obstacles and communicate more freely.

As blues legend John Lee Hooker sang in The Healer, “Blues a healer/all over the world/It healed me, it can heal you.”

Managing Your Will to Succeed

In cycling, you’re constantly confronted with a choice of whether or not – and how much – to apply your will. When do you attack, and when do you let the race come to you? When do you push (too) hard in a workout, and when do you skip it? The mentally fit cyclist strives for the right combination of exerting control and letting go.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, I continued our series on Integral Elements, the building blocks of the mentally fit cyclist’s five core skills, by describing how increasing your Self-Awareness can help you improve your mental fitness. This month, I explore how your cycling can improve when you effectively manage your will to succeed.

For the article The Mind of a Mentally Fit Pro, I asked pro cyclist Ben Jacques-Maynes about experiences that have improved his mental fitness. Coming off his best season ever – he finished 2nd in the overall NRC standings for 2007 – Ben reflected on a fundamental change he’s made in his approach to cycling:

“Another factor is my view on doping in sport. I’ve had money taken from me and results taken from me by people who have later tested positive. So that, too, has reduced my ‘win at all costs’ mentality that I might have had. It has lessened my drive to ‘win, win, win’ and made it more about ‘what can I do.’ My overall satisfaction is tied more to what comes from me, and the satisfaction has increased because I know it’s coming from me. When all the mental struggle and striving comes through, it helps the confidence that I have in the next race and the next. It’s going to help me be there for my kids after I retire.”

Of course, Ben hasn’t completely let go of his will to win. He’s just no longer letting it dominate him. Using an aspect of cycling that he couldn’t control – doping by competitors – as a catalyst, Ben redirected some of his will toward something over which he has much more control: his own preparation, effort, and definition of satisfaction. Rather than trying so hard to control the outcome, he’s focusing more on the process. And the outcome’s getting better. In examining how to work with your will, let’s first investigate what it is. Is it intention? Desire? Power? Control? The desire for power and control?

This week, my eldest daughter told me that she’s getting into Nietzsche in a big way. (She’s a college student, so I guess I ought to expect her to fall for a philosopher.) Nietzsche. Now there’s a guy who was very clear on the concept of will. In his book Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote, “life simply is will to power.” To Nietzsche, the need to express our will underlies all of human behavior. As he saw it, acting on one’s will is the motivation for – and goal of – life itself.

Well, I guess that makes the oft-heard phrase “s/he has control issues” a bit less derogatory.

In any case, moving more to the left (or is it the right?) of Nietzsche, consider the view of the eminent psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers defined “the good life” as “a process, not a state of being,” in which a person constantly strives to achieve his/her full potential, fueled by an inner “actualizing tendency.” To Rogers, all of us have that natural force within us that propels us toward growth. And as we move closer to reaching our potential, we’re more able to be in each moment of our experience rather than working too hard to make it be something different.

Hmmm. “Working too hard to make it be something different.” We’ll get back to that shortly. Let’s look at how managing and directing your will – to succeed, to grow, to improve – is an integral element of the mentally fit cyclist’s five core skills: Goal-Setting, Concentration, Communication, Effective Self-Talk, and Managing Emotions.

Will and The 5 Core Skills
(Note: I’m assuming that you have all the will you need. If you don’t, you can check out the article on sustaining motivation.)

1. Goal-Setting. Setting and managing goals effectively, as I’ve explained in another article, can contribute profoundly to your cycling performance, enjoyment, and satisfaction. But too much of a focus on (future-oriented) outcome goals – winning this, finishing faster than that – can take your attention too far away from what’s going on right now. Take care not to grasp your outcome goals too tightly, and use process goals (e.g., “whenever I get dropped on a climb, I’m going to focus on riding within myself and maintaining good form”) to redirect and channel your will.

It’s also important to evaluate – and change, if necessary – your overall definitions of satisfaction and success. Ben didn’t eliminate winning from his definition, he just broadened the definition to include his effort and improvement. Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch, in their book “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind” say this about winning:

“…the outcome of any event is important, but not as an end in itself. Keeping score enables you to measure your performance level throughout the event and get an indication of how you are progressing over a period of time. And it’s fun to win. But being free of the need to win results in greater personal power and performance. Let the possibility of winning keep you alert and sharp. If you win, terrific; if not, feel the joy and satisfaction of having participated. Focus on how well you are mastering specific skills. Notice how the event provided you with an opportunity to display your skills against challenging competition. Win or lose, you have to dig down inside and discover other aspects of your essence. Prizes and victories are transitory, while outstanding performances, regardless of the outcome, are tremendously rewarding.”

2. Concentration. As I noted in the article on this skill, there are many ways to increase your ability to focus. But what about being overfocused? When you’re applying too much of your will to concentration, you could be mesmerized by the wheel in front of you, have a death grip on the bars, or could be applying so much force to your calming mantra (ironic, isn’t it?) that you miss a chance to join a break. Be present, not overbearing. Use breathing techniques and effective self-talk to keep yourself centered: unaffected by potential distractions, and with no need to use an increase in willfulness to create an illusion of solidity.

3. Communication. When communication doesn’t go well, or when we think it’s not going to go well, we tend to revisit our old friends in the anxiety family: we get anxious, stressed, worried, afraid, or tense. And what tends to follow closely on the heels of the anxiety family? Control. We withdraw, interrupt, accuse, blame, judge, yell; all these are examples of overexerting our will. And that makes it harder to communicate. If you manage your discomfort well enough, though, you’ll tend to rein in your will and communicate more effectively, whether it’s with your teammates, coach, competitors, family, or friends. And improved communication often leads to improved performance.

4. Effective Self-Talk. Recall from the article on self-talk the kind of cycling that we don’t like: the anxiety family fuels negative self-talk (“I’m a lousy climber,” “I’m not going to finish in the front group, so it’s not worth finishing at all,” “I suck!”), which creates more anxiety, which fuels more negative self-talk. As Bart Simpson would say, Ay caramba!

Take another look at those examples of negative self-talk. Very powerful statements, right? There it is again: responding to anxiety by exerting (too much) control. There are better uses for your will than beating yourself up. Aim it at stopping or replacing the negative self-talk, and at the additional tools you have for reducing on- and off-the-bike stress.

5. Managing Emotions. Back to Carl Rogers. Why might we be “working too hard” to make our moment-to-moment experience different? You guessed it: the anxiety family again. Or perhaps emotions like anger, frustration, guilt, and sadness. When we feel troubled, we tend to want to fix it, and in the first way that our brain thinks of to try (even if we don’t notice what it’s thinking). Sometimes that works well. But at other times we’re too quick to apply our considerable will. You can be emotional; you’re not expected to be a robot. But if you tolerate and manage your emotions on the bike effectively, you won’t need to overcompensate with willfulness.

I was talking with my wise friend, Lloyd, this week on our regular Wednesday group ride. We started talking about our recent races, and the conversation shifted (as it so often does) to what we’re learning about ourselves in those races. As countless off-the-bike philosophers have observed, managing our will is not always easy. After all, we depend on it, and it serves us so well at times. But as we discussed the issues of will, control, and letting go, that old Buddhist saying came to mind: “Our greatest strength is our greatest weakness.”

As you develop more self-awareness – one of the other Integral Elements of the five core skills – you’ll be better able to sort out what’s going on with your will, and to detect opportunities to rein it in and redirect it. It’s about knowing when to make things happen… and when to let things happen. It’s about when to act from a place of confidence… and when to let go from that very same place.

Setting and Challenging Limits

We discover our potential – as athletes and as human beings – by challenging (what appear to be) our limits. Yet sometimes we’re hesitant to challenge ourselves. And at other times, we’re not hesitant enough. The skill of setting, knowing, and effectively challenging limits is an improvable, integral element of every cyclist’s mental fitness.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, I continued our series on Integral Elements, the building blocks of the mentally fit cyclist’s five core skills, by identifying ways you can build your self-confidence as a cyclist. This month, I explore Setting and Challenging Limits, an important part of every athlete’s mental fitness.

What comes to mind when you think about limits? Your maximum steady state power? That 21% climb that you can’t yet master? The amount of time you can be on the bike before your significant other starts to complain? (Or, is it your high school pre-calculus class, your radar detector, and Maxwell Smart’s Cone of Silence?

When you think about your limits as a cyclist, how do you feel? Stressed? Defeated? Motivated?

Some athletes don’t push on their limits nearly as hard as they could. They are content – or sad – to stay at a certain level of comfort. That might be exactly the right decision, or they might be missing an opportunity, or both. Think about this for a minute. What’s true for you?

There are also those who push too hard on limits: their own, or others’. Sometimes, it’s an honest mistake, made from what one might call a “strong place”: with the genuine intention to grow as an athlete and with no undue risk to self and others. (As poet T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”) But at other times, pushing too hard on limits might come from a weak place: from a desire to shore something up in oneself, from being blinded by an out-of-control desire for success, or from a desire to have power over others.

The experience of challenging and redefining your limits – to see how much your body and mind can do, to see how much you can achieve, to see what your potential is – can be exhilarating, terrifying, depressing, and just plain fun. How you think and feel about your limits – and about testing them – might be influenced by a number of interrelated factors, including:

• Modeling and messages. Reflect on this: What messages have you received – growing up in your family, through watching sports, from coaches, from significant others – about limits? Was effective limit-setting and risk-taking modeled well for you? What kinds of boundaries did your parent(s) and siblings have with you? Were you able to do anything you wanted, so that you had little or no experience with boundaries? Were you completely micromanaged, so that your experience with boundaries was utterly oppressive? (and probably depressive, as well) Were your personal boundaries ever violated in any way? Were you told that other people’s needs were more important than yours? Any of these things – and more – might have resulted in you not having had enough experience with healthy and effective limit-setting.

• Your personal experiences with risk-taking. What has been the impact of your own experiences with risk-taking, in sport and in other aspects of your life? Have those experiences given your more confidence? Less? When you come face-to-face with a risk in cycling, what’s triggered in you? Excitement? Determination? Anxiety?

• Anxiety. Ah yes, speak of the devil, our old friend Anxiety and its siblings: stress, tension, worry, pressure, and fear. When you confront a limit, does your anxiety stay below threshold? Or, does it inspire avoidance in you? Does any fear of pain, injury, failure, success, or disappointment get in the way of you challenging your limits, or setting them in the first place? If so, are you responding to your anxiety appropriately, or is it holding you hostage?

• Your inner coach/critic. How do you talk to yourself about your limits? Are you encouraging? Demeaning? Supportive? Pessimistic?

• Self-confidence, core beliefs, and self-worth. How much self-knowledge and inner strength do you bring to limit-setting and risk-taking? What beliefs about your self affect your reactions to limits?

Knowing what your limits are, knowing which ones are negotiable, setting limits with yourself and others, challenging your limits: these are some of the skills that you may need to work on in order to build mental fitness. But how?

Limits and Three of the Core Skills

Let’s look at ways you can strengthen your skill with setting, knowing and challenging limits by seeing how these skills contribute to three of the five core skills of mentally fit cyclists.

1. Goal-setting. In the article on goal-setting, I described management guru Peter Drucker’s concept of SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound. If you don’t know your limits, or at least have a well-informed guess, you may not be using your goals to challenge yourself enough. Or, you may set a goal that’s far too difficult. And that may be a recipe for overtraining, burnout, or worse. And why set a maniacal goal? What’s driving that? Remember Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” the story of a tragic ascent of Mt. Everest? That’s an extreme example. Krakauer writes of the ascent’s last stage:

Predetermined turn-around times were egregiously and willfully ignored. The latter may have been influenced to some degree by the rivalry between Fischer and Hall. Fischer had a charismatic personality, and that charisma had been brilliantly marketed. Fischer was trying very hard to eat Hall’s lunch, and Hall knew it. In a certain sense, they may have been playing chicken up there, each guide plowing ahead with one eye on the clock, waiting to see who was going to blink first and turn around.

Rather than keeping what might have been their #1 goal in mind (“Do not die”), something – ego, rivalry, “playing chicken,” or, to be fair, oxygen deprivation – influenced the climbers to make literally fatal mistakes. I realize fatal mistakes are rare in cycling. But compensating for something inside yourself by pushing too hard: that’s common. So remember to:

• Stick with SMART goals and re-evaluate them regularly;
• Reset your goals when necessary (illness, injury, unplanned vacation, learning something new about yourself);
• Use process goals as well as outcome goals; and
• Avoid toughening your goal the second you finish a ride or race (“goal-creep”).

Finally, your goal-setting in cycling directly affects cycling’s role in your life. Having the right boundaries around the time and energy you put into cycling – and if you have the wrong boundaries, investigating the reasons – is going to help you bring your “best self” to your cycling. Practicing this kind of balance will likely translate into better skill with limits elsewhere, too.

2. Communication There are many ways in which setting and respecting limits comes up in communication. In cycling, you may find yourself communicating with someone – a coach, a race official, a competitor – who presents you with an opportunity to examine, and perhaps assert, your limits. For example, if your coach is condescending, controlling, or shaming when you disagree with him/her, you have a choice: will his/her reaction have leverage with you? (Note: People who grow up without boundaries or with complete barriers to close family often have a deep sensitivity to what they perceive as rejection; that could be what’s happening with him/her.) Or are you going to stand up for yourself? Sometimes the most difficult part of asking for respect is dealing with the disappointment when you don’t – or won’t – get it. If you ever have these kinds of experiences with people in your cycling world, Patricia Evans’ classic book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, might be helpful to you.

Another way in which limits come up in communication is in helping others. Are you offering to help your training partners or teammates too much, on and off the bike? If you don’t limit your helping, you may fall into what
Dale Larson calls “the helper’s pit”: overinvolvement with others, and underinvolvement with yourself. And that often leads to fatigue, resentment, and burnout.

The article on balancing self-interest and cooperation notes that you may also wrestle with limits in deciding whether to cooperate with other cyclists during a race. And, the article on Communication gives further steps you can take to work with limits.

3. Effective Self-Talk What kind of coach are you for yourself? Do you encourage yourself to take prudent risks and push your limits in cycling? Are you harsh with yourself when you don’t take risks, or when you do and “fail”? How you talk to yourself about your limits needs to have its own limits on negativity. Peter Drucker – whose daughter, as it happens, is a cyclist – said, “People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.” That could be something that the self-coach in you can use.

On the other hand, maybe you tell yourself that you’re like Walter (Gib) Gibson, played by John Cusack, in the movie The Sure Thing: you’re a person “who likes to live on the edge.” Risks are your best friends. Or are they? What meaning do you make of limits? Does it serve you to be so “fearless”? If so, great! But if not, perhaps you could benefit from examining exactly what the attraction of limit-busting is for you; it may be wise to ratchet things down a bit at times. To go deeper on that topic, you may want to check out the article on Handling Pressure, where I write about examining your expectations of yourself and the possible role of perfectionism – often fed by anxiety – in your cycling.

Well, that was a quick ride through a very important topic. (Note to my editor: I’m respecting your limit.) Challenging limits is one of the most exciting aspects of cycling, fearing limits is one of the biggest obstacles, and extending limits is one of the most fulfilling experiences. I wish you strength in your work with limits. And…loving it.

The Power of Cyclotherapy

We’re so often looking for ways to improve ourselves so that our performance and enjoyment in cycling will improve. In addition to working so hard on your cycling, though, how about letting cycling work more deeply on you? Cycling, like all sports, can be a force for learning, change, and growth…which you can bring right back to the bike.

By Marv Zauderer

The focus in this Sport Psychology column, over the past couple of years, has been on ways you can improve the mental side of your game. The basic idea: with stronger mental skills, you’ll have better performance, less stress, and more fun on the bike. I hope the column has been useful to you, at least occasionally, thus far – feel free to tell me what you’ve liked/disliked, want more/less of, and your own experiences with any of the mental skills we’ve covered.

In last month’s column, on Integrating Body and Mind, we explored a number of ways you can improve the connection, communication, and balance that your mind has with your body. And, we looked at some examples of how this can improve your cycling performance.

This month, we’re going to stand Sport Psychology on its head. (Which is probably a good idea, since I just came back from a hard ride, and I’m feeling a bit light-headed.) Although the usual goal for us Sport Psychology types in our work with athletes is to improve sport performance, sometimes we use athletes’ experience in sport to help you grow, heal, change and apply all of that outside of sport. I think of it, for us cyclists, as cyclotherapy. And I imagine many of you can relate: how often have you found riding to be terrific therapy, for whatever you’re facing in yourself and in life?

As I pointed out in the article on Integrating Body and Mind, there can be transformative psychological power for you in physically active experiences, particularly if your mind and body are well-connected. And, of course, you’re going to bring any improvement in yourself and your life right back to the bike. So, rather than our usual mode of learning “how to use your mind on your mind,” let’s look at some ways that cycling can help your mind directly.

Riding The Climbs and Descents in Life
Stress happens, as does each of its siblings in the Anxiety Family: anxiety, nerves, fear, tension, worry, and pressure. But fortunately, you’re not shipwrecked on a desert island with the Stress Family Robinson – you have your riding.

Lazarus and Cohen, in the book Human Behavior and the Environment: Current Theory and Research, note that anxiety usually arises “in the face of demands that tax or exceed the resources of the system.” Now there’s a description of a significant percentage of life.

Most of us have had the experience of cycling reducing the surges of stress we experience in everyday life; that’s not news. But regular cycling can go deeper. Dr. George Brooks, one of the nation’s leading exercise physiologists, says in his book Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and its Applications, “Exercise has been shown to have both acute (state) and long-term (trait) effects on indices of mental health, such as trait anxiety…” When you look at yourself – and perhaps your parent(s), or siblings, or grandparents – do you see more than just surges of stress, perhaps a pattern of being more consistently “tightly wound,” more prone to stress by nature? If so, anxiety may be a trait rather than just an occasional state. But contrary to what some believe, people can change, and do. Regular cycling may not turn you into a Buddha, but it may chill you out a bit – permanently.

But let’s look deeper than the physical side of cycling. We’ve looked quite often in this column – for example, in the articles on Managing Emotions, Handling Pressure, and Breathing Techniques – at managing your bouts with anxiety on and off the bike. However, managing, reducing, and eliminating anxiety are not your only options: Anxiety always carries important information. It might be a message that you already understand clearly, like, “I’m anxious on descents because I crashed once before, and I’m afraid of crashing again.” Or, it may be a message that you haven’t yet heard clearly, such as “I’m afraid of how bad I’ll feel if I fall short of my goals,” or “I’m stressed about not being fully in control of what’s going to happen next,” or “I have an anxiety problem that goes far beyond cycling and I need to attend to it.” We confront ourselves and change when our motivation outmuscles our fear. If, because you’re motivated to have your performance and enjoyment of cycling increase, you sit with – and consciously work with – the stress that comes up for you in cycling, you may learn some very useful things about yourself. And you may find yourself applying that learning outside of cycling.

For better and for worse, stress is one of life’s most frequent experiences, and one of the most pervasive causes of stress is loss. Think of all the losses we can experience: losing cycling if we’re ill or injured, losing physical capabilities as we age, being laid off or fired from a job, going through separation and divorce, experiencing the death of a loved one or friend, and so many more. As author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others have pointed out, we tend to go through several stages in the experience of a significant loss, and some form of depression can often be one of those stages.

Physical exercise can have remarkably positive effects on depression, in part because of the positive effects it can have on three neurotransmitters proven to play a role in depression: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Of course, there are medications that also can have positive effects on these neurotransmitters, and sometimes medication is a necessary part of recovery. But James Blumenthal, one of the country’s leading researchers on the impact of exercise on depression, says in the September 2007 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, “The efficacy of exercise in patients seems generally comparable with patients receiving antidepressant medication and both tend to be better than the placebo in patients with Major Depressive Disorder.” Cycling may help you not only with the stressful climbs but also the stressful descents in life.

The Long Road Back
Some time ago, the University of California at Berkeley proposed creating a “Student-Athlete High Performance Center” adjacent to the football stadium. The purpose of the center, according to the University, is to provide facilities for “over 400 student-athletes” who “currently train and work in dangerous, sub-standard conditions under the stadium’s stands.” Unfortunately, building the center requires removing a number of very old trees, and there is also significant concern – apparently, as yet unproven – that a Native American burial ground would be violated by the construction. For almost two years, protesters have lived in the trees in order to prevent them from being harmed.

Last week, a California Court of Appeal denied requests for additional delays in the project, a tree service began cutting trees, and the remaining four protesters were isolated in a single tree. According to the San Jose Mercury-News, one student observer said, “They’re these huge, 100-, 150-year-old trees. You hear them crack and creak and fall over, and it makes you sick, rips apart your stomach. And this is all so people can do sit-ups in air-conditioning.”

While I suspect there are many people, sadly, who don’t “get” the protesters’ pain over the harm being done to the Earth (and perhaps, to another culture) by the construction, I suspect there are also many who don’t fully “get” the potential value of sport. It’s not only about athletes’ fun, spectators’ entertainment, and the organizations’ revenue. It’s about sport – like marriage, career, parenting, spiritual practice, and so much else in life – being a crucible that can forge a better person, a person who can be a force for good on this planet. And at a time when we need that more than ever.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “there are no bad babies born in this world.” And yet, so many forces – such as poverty, trauma, parental judgment and disconnection, genetics – can leave kids with deficits in self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth. These deficits present opportunities for growth and healing for most, if not all, of life. I’m certain that at least some of those young men and women in the athletic program at UC Berkeley will be changed for the better by their experience in sport; they’re not just “doing sit-ups in air-conditioning.”

In a similar way, cycling can be a “long road back” from whatever has taken its toll on your sense of self over the years. The new skills, accomplishments, and meaning you get from cycling; the improvements in self-discipline and self-regulation you make; the coping strategies you discard and “reprogram” in yourself; the ways in which you improve your self-regard – any of these can contribute to more strength and solidity within you.

When Partying Becomes a Problem
Substance abuse is a big problem in this country. According to the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2007:

• 19.9 million Americans age 12 and older were illicit drug users
• More than 20% of Americans age 12 and older participated in binge drinking
• 22.3 million people were diagnosed with substance dependence or abuse

If you have a problem with drinking, prescription medication, or illicit drugs, your cycling can become an important part of your recovery: it can help you move from substance use having control over you to you having control of your use.

One commonly-held model of substance abuse treatment/recovery is the “brain disease” model. According to Dr. Arnold Washton and Dr. Joan Zweben, authors of Treating Alcohol and Drug Problems in Psychotherapy Practice, this model holds that addiction is “a complex brain disease.” In this case, the positive effects cycling can have on the neurotransmitters noted above, on endorphins, on the stress hormone cortisol, and on energy can all be great aids to reversing the disease process. Not to mention that cycling can be an effective distraction from depression, anxiety, boredom, or other common triggers for substance use.

Another popular model for treatment/recovery is the “self-medication” model, in which use, according to Washton and Zweben, is seen as addressing the self-regulation challenges that arise from deficits in one’s sense of self – deficits that frequently originate from a very young age. Cycling, as noted above, can strengthen one’s sense of self, and in turn, reduce any need for self-medication.

Whatever the explanation for substance (ab)use, cycling can play an important role in recovery. If you’re interested in this topic, you may enjoy Andy Dieden’s book, The Sports Lover’s Guide to Recovery: Strategies and Rules of the Game.

The Elusive “Zone”
Ah, the feeling of being “in the zone.” Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term “flow” to describe this state. It’s a feeling of deep satisfaction, tremendous efficacy, and complete immersion in every moment of experience. Our sense of self tends to fall away (sheesh, and after all of our work on our Self!). Time becomes something very different. And all of this is legal!

In cycling, flow is an experience of optimal performance. However, it can be exceedingly difficult to make flow happen. It’s more that you can create the conditions under which it’s more likely to happen. Concentration and focusing exercises, meditation and mindfulness practice, yoga, and martial arts seem to exercise this “muscle” within us and increase our ability to enter a state of flow. And of course, so does riding itself.

In all of your “cyclotherapy sessions,” I wish you safety, learning, fun, and everything else that you seek. See you out there!

Putting Failure in its Place

Failure: Are you defining and managing it effectively, or is it defining you? Wrestling successfully with the interpretation, role, and consequences of failure are common challenges for the mentally fit athlete. Consciously working with your experience of failure – rather than defaulting to one that is too habitual and narrow – can dramatically enrich your riding and your results.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, published during the Tour of California, we looked at More Minds of Mentally Fit Pros: what it takes, mentally, to succeed in a stage race. Just as in last year’s Tour of California column, we looked at how we mere mortals can learn and apply the pros’ mental skills in our own experiences on the bike.

Did you notice this quote from Tom Zirbel of Bissell Pro Cycling in last month’s column?

“The worst rejection is when you try your hardest and fail. Mentally, it’s easier to give in and fail. After feeling failure, it can be easy to say, ‘I don’t want to feel that again, I’m going to beat it to the punch.’”

That’s Tom’s view. What’s yours? How do you define failure as an athlete? What meaning do you make of it when it happens? What impact does it have on you?
Whether it’s attached to a race, a group ride, a century, a tough interval, or that hill you’ve been trying to conquer, your experiences and relationship with failure can affect you before, during, and after your ride. Have you put failure in its place? Let’s take a closer look.

How much does it hurt, and why?
In the movie The Princess Bride, the master swordsman Inigo Montoya duels with the mysterious Man in Black, who quickly puts Inigo in the shockingly unfamiliar position of second best. There is a pause in the duel.

Inigo (in awe): Who are you?
Man in Black: No one of consequence.
Inigo: I must know.
Man in Black: Get used to disappointment.
Inigo (nodding): Okay.

Disappointment. That’s a big part of failure, isn’t it? Most of us don’t handle disappointment as gracefully as Inigo. And some of the time, we shouldn’t: it hurts, and badly. However, a part of putting failure in its place, for you, may be increasing your tolerance for disappointment rather than giving it so much power over you. But how?

When you have a failure, how much does it hurt? How long do you feel it? What do you say to yourself about the failure, and about yourself? Do you treat yourself honestly yet compassionately, as an effective coach would – seeing where you need to improve and what you did well, what was within your control and what wasn’t? Or, like so many athletes, do you beat yourself up? How disappointment feels to you can help you discover how to reshape your relationship with failure. Clearly, not all failures are created equal. But over time, as you examine your experiences of failure, you’re likely to see patterns emerge. The key question: Given your personality, do you seem to have a proportionate, balanced reaction to falling short of a goal? Or is your reaction – your feelings, sensations, thoughts, behaviors – out of proportion to the importance of the goal? And if so, is the problem your reaction, the importance you placed on the goal, the goal itself, or all of the above?

Let’s look at an example of how your personality can inflate your experience of failure. From birth, your personality has been formed not only by your genetic/spiritual (let’s not get into that debate) inheritance and predisposition, but also by your experiences in life, particularly your experiences with people who have been very important to you. Strong voices tend to stay with us: if you’ve had an important relationship with a person who was sufficiently critical, relentlessly pushing you or pushing himself/herself, highly anxious/stressed, or all of those, you may have made that person’s inner voice your own. And if you have, your reactions to your failures are likely to be unduly harsh, or painful, or both.

If that’s happening, as I pointed out in the columns on Effective Self-Talk and Handling Pressure, you can work to override this “wiring,” these patterns of reactivity, that long ago set down roots in your brain. You can become a better coach for yourself. You can experience failures in a way that is influenced less by the past and more by what’s actually happening – and what you’re able to make happen – now. Increasing your tolerance for disappointment may ultimately be quite a bit like increasing your tolerance for suffering on the bike: relaxing into it rather than bracing so hard against it.

But managing the experience more effectively may only be part of the solution. What if you could make failure hurt less in the first place? (And without using any legal or illegal drugs.)

Taking some of the “sting” out of failure
There are many ways to set the stage for a more balanced experience of failure. It’s not about skirting the true pain of the experience, it’s about cleaning it up: shaving off the “edge” that you’re adding to the pain. That edge creates unnecessary suffering, and as all of us cyclists know, unnecessary suffering is the last thing we need. Here are some things you can do to give yourself a cleaner experience of failure:

1. Set the right goals for your cycling, and give those goals the right place in your life – and your heart. Effective goal-setting and goal-management, critically important skills for the mentally fit athlete, can lessen the pain of failure. For example, if you set the bar way too high for yourself, falling short may hurt far worse than necessary; you might have saved yourself some suffering by setting the right goal, even if you still fell short. Also, failure may hurt more than necessary if you have too much riding (no pun intended) on your goals. For example, if how you feel about yourself is too tied up in your performance, failing may feel like you are a failure. But you are much more than the outcome of your race or ride, and you may need to remind yourself of that. If you take falling short too personally, it’s going to sting more than it needs to.

2. If you’re setting the bar too high in your riding, or have too much at stake, you owe it to yourself to ask: Why? In my experience working with amateur and professional athletes, one quality has consistently stood out: drive. It’s the drive to improve, to persevere, to overcome adversity, to succeed. The eminent psychologist Carl Rogers believed that each of us has an innate drive to reach our potential, and nowhere is that more evident than in the world of sport. But there is an old Buddhist saying: “Our greatest strength is our greatest weakness.” Drive can have a dark side: perfectionism.

There are many views and theories of personality, and many tests that attempt to categorize, label, or otherwise explain it. I’m basically egalitarian (Unitarian? utilitarian?) about such things: whatever’s useful, I’ll use it. One such approach is the Enneagram, a system that describes nine personality types. In their book, The Essential Enneagram, Dr. David Daniels of Stanford Medical School and Dr. Virginia Price describe perfectionism as a coping strategy. In their interpretation, being driven by – and meeting – high internal standards is a way to cope with a long-held belief that “people are not accepted for who they are…. good behavior is expected and taken for granted… and bad behavior is judged negatively and punished.” As you may know, that’s the “inner critic”: an echo of those strong voices I mentioned earlier. The ultimate goal of personal development for the perfectionist, in Daniels’ and Price’s view? “To realize that we are all perfect as we are (complete and whole), that our worth and well-being are inherent and not dependent on our being right or wrong.” Or being the fastest, or strongest, or even….fast and strong enough.

3. Strive to let go of self-consciousness. Again, I’m not talking drug-aided here. (Let go of self-consciousness, not consciousness.) And, paradoxically, if we’re striving too hard to let go, that may be part of the problem. For many of us, it can be a lifelong struggle.

As noted by Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi in their terrific book, Flow in Sports, letting go of self-consciousness can include such things as:

Letting go of how others see you. You are who you are, and even though you have work to do on yourself, you’re good – regardless of others’ opinions. That doesn’t mean ignoring family, friends, teammates, and others whose views can impact your riding. It means extracting what’s true, useful, and important from what they’re saying, taking it to heart, and not letting it – or the rest – weaken your spirit.

Letting go of worrying whether you have what it takes. Just focus on bringing everything you’ve learned, every capability you’ve trained, everything you are to your riding, and be solid and confident about all of it. After all, what’s in you is all you have on the bike. Don’t let worry distract you from that. You’ll deal with the outcome when it happens.

Being consumed as much as possible by your moment-to-moment experience, and thus being less self-involved. Make your experience be you – be “in the flow” – rather than making it be about you. But beware: your ego is going to find it scary when you try to push it out of the driver’s seat. So relax. Relax into the experience, rather than clinging to whatever you cling to – pride, beating yourself up, worrying – all things that take you away from what’s actually happening.

You’ll be more likely to relax and let go of self-consciousness if you feel solid. Add to your solidity (and keep your ego appeased) by controlling the things in your riding (eg., preparation, effort, skills) that are controllable. Draw solidity from being more connected to your body – use breathing techniques and other tools to integrate your body and mind. And off the bike, choose from many practices – meditation, spirituality, religion, psychology, intimacy, parenting, and others – that have a long history of helping us human beings to hold less tightly to self-consciousness.

4. Define and see failure clearly. It’s important that you define failure carefully, and not default to an “automatic” definition. Sometimes, success and failure are black and white: you reach your goal or you don’t. But sometimes there are shades of gray – degrees of success and failure. So when you’re on the bike and you don’t reach your goal, see the whole experience. Consider anything else you accomplished, anything else you felt, anything else you improved. Instead of seeing an experience only as failure, you might be aware that you also finished, felt strong, felt stronger than you ever have, stayed with the group longer, took some corners much better than usual, learned more about your strengths and limiters, or were grateful that you could be out riding when others couldn’t. And sometimes, you may not need to define falling short of your goal as failure. Perhaps true failure, for you, is simply not giving it everything you’ve got.

Be careful; this is not about “spinning” failure to yourself so you don’t have to feel bad. It’s about seeing the whole experience clearly and telling yourself the (whole) truth.

5. Fail forward. Let’s bring our exploration of failure full circle. What is the role, the usefulness, the power of failure to help you reach your potential? Failure can be more than the disappointment of falling short. If you can tolerate the disappointment, and ultimately relax into any experience of failure, you can let in failure’s gifts. Failure can:

• Help you increase your tolerance for discomfort – from the disappointment, from friends’/teammates’ criticism, and so on – and to build resiliency in the face of adversity.

• Give you practice reducing/eliminating negative self-talk and thus becoming a better coach for yourself.

• Give you practice seeing your experience accurately and completely rather than being dominated by one aspect of it.

• Help you see what you need to work on, and increase your motivation to do so.

• Give you a dose of humility, if you need it.

• Put you in a position to ask for help, and, if need be, to become more comfortable with asking.
• Give you practice overcoming your fear of failure, by pushing you to work with the actual consequences of failure rather than how you imagine the consequences will be.

• Inspire you to question the attunement of your goals and expectations with your current capabilities and potential, and if there’s a misalignment, to dig for the reasons.

• Help you identify the role that your successes, failures, striving, and driving play in your self-concept, and whether or not you are defining yourself too much by what you do (or fail to do) and not enough by who you are.

• Create an opportunity for you to redeem yourself. (Inigo Montoya is all about that.)

In having the right goals, understanding yourself well, letting go of self-consciousness, defining failure carefully, and using failure to grow as an athlete, you put yourself in a more solid, confident place. And then, you can respond to failure, consciously, rather than reacting to it, impulsively and disproportionately. You can make failure into threshold training, where the limit you’re expanding will help you not only the bike, but off the bike as well.

Ultimately the greatest gift we have while we’re on this earth is that we can experience all the richness of life – exhilaration, connection, growth, disappointment, loss – and, if we can clear the obstacles our minds put in our way, we can experience life so much more deeply. Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi put it well:

“Whether you are a rank amateur or a world champion, the ultimate measure of success is not your performance stats but what you were able to feel while performing.”

Rather than letting fear, anxiety, and the ego’s defensiveness have power over us, we can all have what Carl Rogers called “the courage to be.” Then failure is not just disappointment; it is much, much more.