Self-Interest and Cooperation

There’s a tension, at times, in cycling. There’s the allure of individual progress, achievement, and glory, and the benefits of teamwork and contributing to other riders’ success. The mentally fit cyclist skillfully manages this tension, striking a balance between personal goals and those of the group, team, and sport.

By Marv Zauderer

In the previous installment of our Sport Psychology column, continuing our series on Responding to Adversity, I discussed how you can beat the cyclist’s “winter blues.” This month, I explore balancing self-interest and cooperation, the sixth – and perhaps most – advanced skill of the mentally fit cyclist.

It’s the last 5 miles of a race, and you’re off the front with another rider. The peloton is a ways behind, but closing. The rider urges you to work with him to stay away. You have no idea which of you is the stronger sprinter. What move do you make? Cooperate fully? Stay on his wheel, hope the peloton doesn’t catch you, and try to beat him in the sprint? But what if he tries to stay on your wheel?

This is an example of a problem called the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), first discovered by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher at the RAND Corporation in 1950, and later refined and named by Albert Tucker. Not surprisingly, given the times, their research was supported by the U.S. government’s interest in an optimal nuclear strategy. (I find myself suddenly grateful that they were thinking about whether, not just when, to “push the button.”)

In the hopes of avoiding a Pez-wide upsurge of painful brain spasms, here’s a simplification of the RAND formulation:

Two suspected accomplices are arrested by the police and held in separate sections of the jail. The police don’t have enough evidence to convict either suspect, so they approach each with a proposition: (1) If one testifies against the other and the other stays quiet, the betrayer goes free, and the other gets a 10-year sentence. (2) If both stay quiet, they both get 6 months in the slammer. (3) If each testifies against the other, they’ll both get 5-year sentences. Each must choose without knowing what the other will do, and each knows that the other is being offered an identical deal.

If we define the “dominant” strategy in this situation as the one which maximizes your personal gain no matter what your accomplice does, then clearly the dominant strategy is… betrayal. If you knew the other prisoner would stay silent, you go free by betraying. If you knew the other prisoner would betray you, you’d get a lighter sentence by betraying him, too. So logically, rationally, you’d choose betrayal, right? But you don’t know what your accomplice will do. And thus, the dilemma. Because if he uses the same reasoning, you’re both hosed: you’ll both betray, and you’ll both end up spending 5 years in San Quentin. Which we might call Mutually Assured Destruction, or being caught by the peloton, as the case may be. If only both of you had been irrational – or should I say, trusting? – and cooperated with each other. You’d be out in 6 months. Or on the podium.

It’s About Need, Not Greed

I first learned of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Doug Hofstadter’s terrific book, Metamagical Themas. He points out that dilemmas like the cycling example above are actually “iterated” PDs. In other words, our race situation is not a one-shot deal; there will be another race, and another, and another. Plus, in contrast to computer-based simulations, we can communicate with our opponents, fellow riders, and teammates and come to a shared decision about what to do. So, as opposed to what the U.S. government might have assumed about its opponent, post-Armageddon, you may find yourself off the front with the same opponent again. History may influence your next move, and your opponent’s. Will you cooperate, or will you “defect,” as Hofstadter puts it? Are you consumed by your own self-interest, or do you see a “common good” to work for?

Interestingly, many computer-based competitions have been held to determine the best iterated PD strategy. Time after time, as Robert Axelrod points out in The Evolution of Cooperation, the most successful strategy has continued to be the simplest: begin by cooperating, and thereafter do whatever your opponent did on his previous move. The strategy’s name: “Tit For Tat.” (I am not making this up.)

Stanford’s Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, advocates “double-goal” coaches for our country’s youth. In sharp contrast to the “win at all costs” model so frighteningly prevalent at times in our society, these are coaches who want to win, but who also use sports to teach life lessons and develop a young person’s character – benefits that last far beyond childhood. As athletes, we, too, can pursue, mix, and balance two equally important priorities: personal and collective success.

Now, I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about this. I realize there’s much that’s individual about cycling, and sometimes, as Oakland Raider owner Al Davis has said, you have to “just win, baby.” I’m suggesting, though, that you can hold your personal goals and collective (group, team, sport) goals not as #1 and #2, or even as #1 and #1a, but as co-#1 priorities. It’s about enlightened self-interest, interdependence, being of service, and teamwork. You’re still going after what you need the most, and you’re being supported in doing that. And, you’re doing the same for others. To ride that way, it’s important to have, find, and build your cycling integrity; it’s important to balance self-interest and cooperation. Here are some tips:

1. Commit to the rules – spoken and unspoken.

Diving into corners, ignoring the centerline rule, drafting off riders from other fields – it’s all defecting. You don’t need to get ahead that way, and it’s worth a lot less if you do. And all those banned substances: just say no. Your results may suffer in the short term, but you and your sport will ultimately win. Do your share to make the sport great.

2. Cooperate on and off the bike.

Use your goal-setting and goal-management skills to set and prioritize your personal goals for the ride, race, or season. Step forward and ask your riding partners or teammates to do the same. Then push hard for goal alignment: Find ways for the group to support as many of the top individual goals as possible. Strive for everyone to get at least some of their top needs met.

With all of this striving going on, pressure can be a natural consequence. There are many ways to handle pressure, not all of which are solo. Remember, reaching out to people tends to build connection. With better connections among people, on- and off-the-bike teamwork is more likely to be effective. And, when you talk with a fellow rider about your struggles, that might make it easier for him to do the same someday. Pay it forward.

In races/rides, propose alliances and confront past and current defections – perhaps by retaliating within the rules, or perhaps just with words. And if there’s goal-conflict within your group or team, respectfully confront riders who aren’t contributing enough to the common good. Your core mental skills of Communication and Managing Emotions will likely come in handy here.

3. Find motivation, satisfaction and fun in contributing to other cyclists’ success. And show that you’re into it.

The other day, I was riding through town, on my way to a group ride. A cyclist was stopped by the side of the road, talking with a pedestrian. As I rode by, the cyclist called after me. If I stopped, I might miss my rendezvous. I stopped. Turned out to be Roei Sadan, an inspiring adventurer who’s riding around the world. He just wanted to know how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge. Not only did I have the great pleasure of meeting him, but now I get all his extraordinary email updates from his 30,000-mile journey. So if you see a cyclist by the side of the road or trail, ask if they need help. If they need it and you can’t give it, try to send it.

Sustaining motivation can be hard at times in cycling, especially when too much of your motivation is riding on self-interest. Make it a priority to spend some of your energy serving other cyclists in your group, team, or region. For example, find a fellow rider with less experience than you, and if he’s looking for mentoring, offer it to him. He may be interested in what you know about riding, gear, routes, racing, teams, tactics, or perhaps the resources (eg. coaching, strength training) that you’ve used over the years to improve your cycling.

Finally, in leading cooperation in your group or team, you may need to help certain people differentiate among want, need, and greed. Some people may benefit, at times, from being a little less hungry for their own achievement and a little more into others’ (or the sport’s) success; hearing some straight talk from you may be just what’s needed. Still, telling them is one thing, and living it yourself – and liking it – is quite another. Do that lead-by-example thing.

Doing all this can strengthen your integrity, or it may take finding the integrity within yourself to do all this. But where do you look? Perhaps the answer lies in an old Yiddish folktale, which I first heard from the great storyteller Joel Ben-Izzy:

Jacob of Krakow has a dream. (No, not about a ladder.) In his dream, he sees a marvelous treasure hidden underneath a bridge in Prague. So he wakes up and treks (rides?) many miles to the bridge, where he sees a watchman standing guard over the spot. Jacob waits and waits. Finally, the watchman asks him his business there. Jacob tells him the truth. “That’s funny,” says the watchman, “I dreamed of a marvelous treasure last night, too, but this one was hidden under the oven of a man named Jacob of Krakow.” Wide-eyed, Jacob goes straight home, digs directly beneath his oven, finds the treasure, and becomes a very rich and charitable man.

My youngest daughter adds the postscript she heard from Joel Ben-Izzy: At the bottom of the treasure chest is a note that says, “Dig deeper!”

Our sport – and, I suspect, our planet – depends on all of us cooperating more and defecting less. A New Year’s resolution, perhaps?

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Comparing Yourself With Others

Whether you’re racing, thinking about your cycling, or just out for a ride, you’re likely comparing yourself with other cyclists at times. Is it increasing your motivation and insight? Or is it creating too much pressure and draining your self-confidence? The mentally fit cyclist knows how to use comparisons wisely and how to stop comparisons when they’re destructive.

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 discussing ways you can know, set, and challenge limits as a cyclist. This month, I explore the topic of comparing yourself with others, a tricky subject for many athletes and often a big contributor to mental fitness.

So many of us are striving to be better, stronger, and faster (cue the “Six Million Dollar Man” TV show theme) as cyclists. You finish higher or lower than a rival. You were stronger on the climbs today than a teammate. Someone wins, everyone else doesn’t. And then there’s the old saying, “If there are two cyclists, it’s a race.” So you’re on a training ride, and you say to yourself, “this time, I’ll beat my buddy to the city limit sign.” Or you’re riding a century, and you’re trying to drop someone in the last 10 miles. So let’s face it: comparison is at the heart of sport and competition.

Or is it?

You’re striving to be better, stronger, and faster…than whom? How much of your passion for cycling is fueled by the striving, and how much by your desire for a specific outcome?

As I noted in the article on sustaining motivation, motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. If you’re intrinsically motivated, you love what you do because you love the process. It comes from within. If you’re extrinsically (ie. externally) motivated, you’ll be fueled by outcomes and outcome goals: results, or others’ regard for you, or both. You’ll tend to compare your performance – if not yourself – with others’. And you’ll tend to be affected more by things you can’t fully control, such as competitors’ performance, mechanicals, and failure. Not good.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying external motivation is always a bad thing. The right amount of “I want to win” or “I want to be as skilled as he is” can be rocket fuel. (It does seem to help Speed Racer, who, as you may know, wants to be like his brother, Racer X.) But research – according to Weinberg and Gould’s Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology – shows that a mastery orientation, where your focus is on improving relative to past performances, tends to lead to optimal performance. “I want to climb Mt. Diablo in under an hour this year”, “I want to complete my first metric century this summer,” “I want to improve my Maximum Steady State power by 15 watts over the next 12 months” – those are coming from within. When you’re intrinsically motivated, you’re comparing yourself to…yourself.

But you’re not out of the woods yet. What if your standards for yourself are too high? In the words of Brandt, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the movie The Big Lebowski: This is our concern, dude. Your constant grasping for a “bar” that’s always out of reach may leave your self-confidence in tatters.

And finally, speaking of self-confidence, it can be an illusion if it’s fueled by comparisons with others. That hit home for me this week in New York City, where I was visiting for the first time since 9/11. My hotel room overlooked the World Trade Center site, which is just at the beginning of its rebuilding project. Every few minutes I’d hear an air horn sound, and then a minute later I’d see and hear a blast on the floor of the construction site. I was told that after each blast, the rubble is carted away, and the hole is filled in with something strong (cement?), so as to create a sufficiently strong foundation over time – a kind of “shoring up.” For us human beings, shoring ourselves up by comparing ourselves favorably to others can create a “house of cards” kind of self-confidence, which can be vulnerable to a strong wind. Lasting self-confidence comes from within.

Comparisons and The 5 Core Skills
Let’s look at how using and managing comparisons can be a building block for each of the five core skills of mentally fit cyclists.

1. Goal-setting. If you’re unduly influenced by what a competitor is achieving, if you habitually put too much pressure on yourself (ask yourself why!), or if you don’t know yourself well enough to make an effective comparison with your past performance, you’ll likely push too hard. Stick to the core principles of goal-setting: setting SMART goals, resetting them when necessary, avoiding goal-creep (that’s not a person), and using process goals.

Note that process goals (eg., “If I start to get dropped on a climb, I’m going to focus on maintaining good form”) can help you focus more on your own experience and things within your control, rather than getting distracted by unneeded comparisons with others. Pro cyclist Ben Jacques-Maynes of the Bissell Pro Cycling team, in the article The Mind of a Mentally Fit Pro, spoke eloquently about how doping by competitors – something beyond his control – had broadened his focus from “just win, baby” to factors (eg. his preparation, his effort) that were within his control.

2. Communication As I noted in the article on Communication and the article on Self-Interest and Cooperation, it may serve you to work with others at times, rather than getting distracted by comparing yourself to them.

Jerry Lynch and Warren Scott, in their book “Running Within,” suggest:

“When you trace the derivation of the verb ‘to compete,’ you discover that it comes from the Latin word competere,which means ‘to seek together’….See the advantage of having your opponents around: don’t seek to ‘kill’ them off. By so doing, you may perform at a higher level consistently….Perhaps we need to view…any competitive situation in life as a contest. The Latin word for contest is contestari, meaning ‘to call to witness.’ Your opponents are witnesses to what you do; in every race you take a pledge to do your best….You are both there to teach each other how to be your best.”

3. Concentration On the one hand, observing how a mentally fit competitor stays focused can be inspiring and enlightening. But comparing yourself with others can be just plain distracting.

In the Mind of a Mentally Fit Pro article, Katheryn Curi Mattis of the Webcor Builders team points out that she sometimes gets distracted by others while racing. Whether or not she’s managing comparisons in doing so, the ways she regains her focus may work for you:

“To improve, I’ve been paying more attention to my body – what’s going on in my body. Yoga breathing has been phenomenal – it’s helped me to center myself.”

Consciousness is not only located in the mind. Especially when your mind starts to dominate your experience, locating more of your consciousness in your body can get things under control – in this case, it can help you regain your focus. And for thousands of years, the breath has been seen by many traditions as the primary link between mind and body. Check out the article on Breathing Techniques for some ideas on using the breath to recover from distractions.

4. Effective Self-Talk If you’ve read the article on self-talk, you know what’s coming here. “I’ll never be as strong as him,” “She’s going to beat me again, I know it,” “He dropped me; I suck.” Comparisons, if you make them from a weak place in yourself – a place of shakiness, or fear, or not feeling good about yourself – can generate destructive self-talk. It can scare away the inner coach and unleash the inner critic.

On the other hand, if you make a comparison from a strong place – a place of self-confidence and self-acceptance – then you may be in a position to get inspiration, insight, or motivation from the comparison. You may say something to yourself like, “He’s so strong. I’m going to ask him about his training program afterwards and see if I can learn something that will help me,” or “She’s the best climber in the field, and I’m only 50 meters behind her on this long climb. I’m climbing well today.”

Continue to ask yourself the question: what kind of coach are you going to be for yourself?

5. Managing Emotions If you’ve read the articles on self-talk or managing emotions, you know that anxiety – and its siblings fear, stress, tension, worry, and pressure – creates cognitive distortions. In other words, anxiety causes your mind to view reality inaccurately (in any of 9 basic ways, as researcher Aaron Beck and his team showed in the 1960’s). You’re probably familiar with the distortion called maximizing, also knows as catastrophizing. That’s when you have a headache, you feel a burst of anxiety, and your mind says, “I have a brain tumor.” And that creates more anxiety. (See any movie with Woody Allen in it for details.)

Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning, in their classic book, “Self-Esteem,” say that cognitive distortions are “the weapons the [inner] critic brings to bear against your self-esteem.” Comparing yourself destructively with others is often a sign of the distortion called personalizing, where everything seems related to you in some way, and you have frequent certainty that you’re being evaluated. If your world revolves too much around yourself, you’re very likely to compare yourself with others just about every chance you get. People who go on and on about how great they (think they) are often get pegged as “all about you” types. Notice that “He’s so much stronger than me. I suck!” can be just as self-involved. Reducing your negative self-talk through thought-stopping (“Stop comparing!”), questioning (“What’s the proof?”), thought-replacement (“I can just be me, without comparing.”), along with other anxiety-reducing tactics such as breathwork and visualization can help here.

So comparing yourself with others can be helpful at times, but the wrong comparisons can move you away from being yourself, feeling solid, and discovering your true potential. Depending on your personality, upbringing, life experiences, and which side of the bed you woke up on, it can be very difficult to choose when, how, and with whom to compare yourself. For a final bit of guidance, I give you the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his “Letters to a Young Poet”:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves….And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Get the Most from a Coach, Part 1

Perhaps you already have a coach. Or, you may have one someday. How you manage your side of the relationship can have a huge impact on the progress, fun and results you have on the bike. The mentally fit cyclist knows which strategies to use to make the most of the coach-athlete relationship.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, we heard from three top North American cyclists – Andy Hampsten, Meredith Miller, and Amber Rais – about facing the mental and emotional challenges of living, training, and racing in Europe. This month, we explore the relationship between athlete and coach. Although it takes two to tango, there is much you can do to get the most from a coach.

Courtesy of my friend and teammate, Tim, I recently watched the DVD of Bicycle Dreams, an astonishing new documentary by Stephen Auerbach about RAAM: The Race Across America. As perhaps the pinnacle of endurance sport competition worldwide, RAAM begins on the west coast of the U.S. and ends on the east coast each June, touching 14 states and climbing 100,000 feet. Although there are also 2-, 4-, and 8-person teams, the race is legendary for its solo categories. The winning soloists finish in as few as 8 days and sleep as little as 12 hours. Total. And no drafting, no hotels, no rest days. It’s 30% longer than the Tour de France. Oh, and one other thing: the clock never stops. It’s a 3000-mile time trial. Now that’s a race of truth.

A central theme of the film is the profoundly inspiring strength of the individual human spirit in facing monumental challenge and tragedy. The film is a ride of many stark contrasts; when it ended, I felt both shattered and triumphant. I realized I was experiencing its genius: I had been given as close of an approximation to what a RAAM finisher feels as a movie-watcher can get.

But it was another theme that stuck with me long after the film ended: the crucial relationships between RAAM athletes and people who are literally and figuratively along for the ride. These relationships made – or broke – the experience of every rider.

As I’ve noted in such articles as Communication, Sustaining Motivation, and Self-Interest and Cooperation, relationships can have a profound effect on performance, at any level of sport. And sometimes – for better or for worse – an athlete’s relationship with a coach can have the biggest effect of all.

In the current issue of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Rhind and Jowett have an interesting article, “Relationship Maintenance Strategies in the Coach-Athlete Relationship: The Development of the COMPASS Model.” The authors first note, shockingly, that “no research…has yet investigated the use of maintenance strategies in the coach-athlete partnership.” In other words, nobody has published any research, before these folks, on what exactly makes the coach-athlete relationship work well. (Which suggests that there will soon be an onslaught of dissertations. I hope.) At any rate, the authors interviewed 12 coaches and athletes who had never worked with each other, and who had “experienced a range of different coach-athlete relationships.” From the interviews, the authors identified seven strategies that coaches and athletes use to “maintain the quality of their athletic relationships”:

• Conflict Management. This includes not only working through disagreements cooperatively, but also proactively clarifying expectations – and the consequences of unmet expectations – in order to avoid conflict.

• Openness. This is related to the coach and athlete disclosing their feelings, and includes (a) feeling comfortable discussing topics not having to do with sport, (b) having a sense that anything – sport-related or not – can be discussed, and (c) indicating awareness that the partner actually has feelings. (!)

• Motivation. This is the strategy that was most frequently mentioned. In short, “coaches need to show that they have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to help the athletes achieve their goals, and athletes need to show that they have the abilities to meet the expectations of the coaches.” Clearly, the relationship is more effective if both partners are sufficiently motivated to work with each other.

• Positivity. This isn’t about being upbeat. It’s about taking positive steps to deal with issues rather than allowing the issues to erode the relationship. Specific themes here include adapting to each other, being fair, and dealing effectively with pressures from outside of the sport.

• Advice. This is not only about giving opinions on problems, but also about giving and receiving praise and constructive feedback.

• Support. This took three forms: showing commitment, giving sport-specific support (eg. after poor performance), and giving support around personal issues (e.g. family stresses) that so often affect sport performance.

• Social Networks. Having social time together, both alone and with mutual friends, was also an important relationship-maintenance strategy cited by the coaches and athletes.

Are you cringing at a relationship being reduced to a set of “maintenance strategies,” or about strategies being concluded from interviews with only 12 people? Take a deep breath. If you have a coach now (or are a coach yourself), think for a minute about these themes. And if you don’t have a coach, think of the kind of relationship you’d want if you did. Do the themes fit? Is anything missing?

Overcoming Obstacles to an Effective Coach-Athlete Relationship
It’s not unusual for us mental skills types, in our work with amateur and professional athletes and coaches, to assist clients with difficulties they face in the coach-athlete relationship. For both athlete and coach, specific kinds of skill-building can often make a significant difference in the quality of the relationship. Let’s look at five typical obstacles implied by the COMPASS model, along with some skills you can practice and use to overcome those obstacles.

• Communicating needs and expectations. What do you need from a coach? Help with specific limiters? Responsiveness? A hands-on approach? A hands-off approach? Praise? Constructive feedback? To communicate your needs and expectations to a coach, you first have to know what they are. So, take inventory. And, if you’re having trouble, use the suggestions in the article on self-awareness to find your answers. Once you know what your needs and expectations are, let the coach know. Discuss. Ask for the coach’s needs and expectations. Maybe you’ll even change your mind a bit. Use your goal-setting skills. Whatever happens, it’s the beginning of creating something very clear between the two of you.

• Knowing the difference between feedback and criticism. Both in what you say to a coach and what you hear from a coach, it’s important to identify the often-subtle differences between feedback and criticism. There’s a classic picture that I use when I give workshops on conflict management: feedback is when I hand you the scissors with the handles facing you, and criticism is when I hand you the scissors with the sharp point facing you. But notice that feedback and criticism are also in the eye of the beholder; for example, what I intend as feedback, you may take as criticism. What’s really going on there? Beware of taking things too personally, and of your coach taking things too personally. At the same time, check yourself that you’re being honest and yet compassionate, rather than harsh, in the way you deliver feedback to a coach. And be prepared not only to discuss it, but perhaps to hear some feedback…back!

• Fearing conflict. Conflict turns up the heat. And we all have fear – some of us a little bit, some of us a lot – of getting burned: feeling hurt, or angry, or disappointed, or abandoned, and so on. But with heat something stronger can be forged. Or, a hidden truth can be forced to the surface. Either way, it’s going to help you. Tell the coach how things are going for you – with your cycling, and, if appropriate, with things outside of cycling that affect it – even if it might cause a conflict. Bring it on! Not only your communication skills but also your skill in managing anxiety may come in handy here.

• Ambivalence. For the coach-athlete relationship to be at its best, both of you need to have “both feet in.” If you’re feeling unsure about the coach, the training program, the cost, the time required, or your commitment to your goals, talk about it with someone you trust (ideally, the coach). If you sense – or worry – that the coach isn’t fully committed to you, bring that up. And be prepared to discuss what “fully committed” means to you.

• Idealizing. It’s not unusual for human beings to idealize parents, teachers, mentors, gurus, elders…and of course, coaches. Dr. Heinz Kohut, originator of the “self psychology” model of human development, held that we are born with the need to connect with idealized, admired figures whom we believe will make us feel safe and calm. If all goes well in development, our internal capacities for self-esteem and self-soothing increase as a result of minor failures by those figures, and our need for idealization decreases – but never ends – throughout our lifespan. (Think of it as inner strength training, so to speak.) Often, though, we experience major rather than minor failures, and we have a greater need for idealization over a longer period of time. And that brings us back to needs and expectations. If you’re putting your coach on (too high of) a pedestal, you might be asking for too much – or too little. On the other hand, maybe some idealizing is just what you need, for now. Give it some thought. And if you can’t sort it out, get some consultation. This one can be hard to see.

So much of Bicycle Dreams evokes a deep sense of interdependence: the fragile magnificence of the American landscape; competitors propelling each other to discover new heights of the human spirit; cyclists and support teams on the paradoxical edge of complete disintegration and transcendent unity. So, too, is there interdependence between athlete and coach, on the road to discover what both are made of.

Get the Most from a Coach, Part 2

As an athlete, your relationship with a coach – and your ability to evaluate the relationship – can make a big difference in your performance. With input from some successful coaches, we look further into some of the building blocks of effective coaching. The mentally fit cyclist has a clear picture of what good coaching is, and has the self-awareness and interpersonal skills to help the coach-athlete relationship thrive.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, we began to explore the relationship between athlete and coach. We examined a research study that defined the COMPASS model – Conflict Management, Openness, Motivation, Positivity, Advice, Support, and Social Networks – for strategies used by participants in the study to maintain an effective coach-athlete relationship. And, we looked at five typical obstacles that athletes face in working with a coach, along with how to overcome those obstacles. This month, we continue our investigation by delving more deeply into the coaching experience, and identifying components you can look for (and work on) in your relationship with a coach.

During a recent visit to Mexico, I was asked to join a group of young kids on the basketball court at the local community center. The volunteer instructor, a high school boy, separated us into two lines for a friendly but competitive drill. The child (or man) at the front of each line needed to dribble the length of the court, make a basket, dribble back to the front of the line, and pass the ball through his or her legs to the second person in line. That person would pass it similarly to the next person, and so on, until it reached the last person in line, who’d then take off dribbling downcourt, and the process would start all over again. (Little did I know that the game actually had no end and no winner.)

At one point, a young girl on our team was struggling mightily to make a basket. Over and over again she tried – as kid after kid from the other team ran up, made a basket, and ran back – but to no avail. Suddenly the kids on our team started a chant: Si se puede! Si se puede! Si se puede! (roughly translated: Yes you can!) And they erupted in cheers when she banked one in.

Although I might be underestimating the global influence of Barack Obama’s campaign slogans, I suspect the kids’ chant had a different origin. Si se puede was coined by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers labor union in 1972, and has been widely used by other labor unions and civil rights organizations, including – poignantly, given the recent events in Arizona – during the immigration reform protests of 2006.

Yes you can. Powerful words, in any culture, in any generation. They are words that many athletes of all ages need to hear. Sometimes, there is a voice within that speaks to them, and that is enough. At other times, it is the voice of a coach – the right coach – that makes the difference.

In her article,“For the Best of the Best, Determination Outweighs Nature and Nurture,” Alina Tugend of the New York Times questions a common assumption: that we don’t have much control over the talent we’re born with. In the article, psychology professor Angela Duckworth says:
“Most of us are far from our potential. The prevailing wisdom, for much of the last century, has been that talent is the most important determinant of achievement. Our focus in the next millennium is turning to all those things that unlock talent, including grit, self-discipline, and confidence.”

And where does “grit, self-discipline, and confidence” come from? Within? Without? Both? Tugend quotes David Shenk, author of “The Genius in All of Us,” who says, “I’d like to blow up the words nature and nurture as two distinct things. They are completely intertwined.” To Shenk, talent is “a process, rather than a thing we have or we don’t.” Good coaching (a type of nurture), an athlete’s unique personality (nature), and the interaction between them: a dynamic, mutually reinforcing system that can help the athlete build what’s needed within. But what are the building blocks of good coaching? What enables the magic between teacher and student, between mentor and mentee? (or, as Tracy Jordan on the TV show “30 Rock” says, “Mento” and “manatee.”)

For some coaches and cyclists, it’s very simple: coach delivers training plan (say, by email), cyclist executes training plan. If cyclist is happy with the results, cyclist feels the coaching is good, and coach feels the coaching is good. Other cyclists, though, are a bit more…complex. Rather than simply receiving instructions, the athlete wants something else, something more personal.

Four Building Blocks of Good Coaching
So: You have a coach. Or, you’re thinking of hiring one. What’s going to make the relationship work? Who’s going to be a good fit for you? Let’s assume that the coach has the basic building block of the necessary “technical” skill and information: how to design a training plan, what the key components of effective sprinting and cornering are, that kind of thing. How does the coach turn that into the kind of effective, interpersonal coaching reflected in the COMPASS model? Here are four components to look for:

• Empathy and attunement: A coach who gets it…and gets you.
To varying degrees, based on our nature and the influence of the interpersonal environment we’ve grown up in, we human beings have a fundamental need to feel understood, to feel seen, to feel that certain important people get us. As athletes, this comes up around our internal and external experiences with our sport. Says Coach Steve Weller of many athletes he coaches:
“They want to feel like you know what’s going on: where they are in their training plan, the race they have coming up on the weekend… feeling that you’re committed to their training and involved with it…They want someone in their corner, someone who understands what they’re going through, who can relate to what they have to sacrifice to get workouts done, or the trials and tribulations they might be having, or their successes and failures – somebody’s sharing in them, so it’s not just a solo mission.”

The coach needs to do more than have empathy: to think and feel (enough of) what the athlete thinks and feels. The coach also has to act on that empathy to create attunement: a “tuned-in” connection with the athlete that fits what the athlete needs and comes through loud and clear. The coach must not only get it, but also show that s/he gets it.

Says Coach Laurel Green:
“I get a feeling for each client. That’s something I didn’t have in the beginning [of my coaching career]. I’d just say, ‘Let’s look at what you did last week, and what you’re going to do next week’ – the brass tacks of the program, which I still look at – but now I can look at the actual client and ask [myself], ‘What’s their psychological picture? What’s their technical picture? How much information do they have about recovery [or whatever]? Can they do this?’”

Sometimes “having someone in your corner” is the most important part of the coach-athlete relationship.

• Self-awareness and self-disclosure: A coach who knows – and says – who s/he is…warts and all.
Coaches will be better able to help you uncover and reach your potential if they have worked hard to uncover and reach their own. Says Coach Laurel:
“Especially as I get more experience as a coach, I have a high expectation of my riders to share with me where it is that they need some work. This is my 17th season racing, and I’ve probably had 8 or 9 coaches. I’ve had experiences [as an athlete] where I’ve thought, ‘That coach is blah-blah-blah [not right for me].’ In reality, when I look back on it, the reason why that coach wasn’t good for me was that I wasn’t in a place where I could hear what they had to say…a lot of it was me. I gently help athletes wrap their brain around the idea that cycling is a very spiritual sport – it will ask you to go places in your mind that you have avoided for many years.”

Coach Steve stresses the importance, for him, of
“…being open and honest with athletes about [my] own capabilities, limitations, and strengths as a coach, saying things like, ‘I’m confident that this is the right preparation for you,’ or ‘I don’t know the answer but we’re going to figure it out.’ No coach knows all the answers.”

These qualities in a coach can help build the kind of mutual trust that characterizes the most successful coach-athlete relationships. And of course, they can inspire you to build and demonstrate those same qualities. Says Coach Steve:
“[It’s important for athletes to be] comfortable talking about all sorts of things, not just how your workout went….athletes underestimate the impact of a number of different stresses in their life – family, relationship, school, work, even little things like ‘I didn’t sleep very well last night.’ When it comes down to it, the basis of any successful coach-athlete relationship is open, transparent communication, and sometimes it’s challenging to get athletes to understand that. Two months after the fact, finding out that an athlete was going through a divorce…I would have made different decisions for their training if I had known that….It’s easier for a coach to feel more involved – and actually be more involved – the more information that [the athletes] share.”

• Self-confidence: A coach who can give you a push (back).
A coach needs to be solid enough to give you a Si se puede when you need it, and sometimes, a harder push than that.

Coach Dan Smith finds that what athletes tend to need the most is
“Reassurance. That they’re seeing progress, that the track they’re on is the right direction. They’ll get signals from their peers – ‘Joe over here is doing something completely different.’ Instilling confidence that they deserve to be where they are, that they belong. And, when things go off the skids for whatever reason – family, work, sickness, a bad result – being there to put it in perspective, and make sure they realize it’s not the end of the world. Of course they can be upset about it, but that they also need to move on – not letting them spiral into a dark place.”

A coach may see, though, that some athletes may at times rely too much on the coach for reassurance. We humans have both a drive to develop and a desire to depend, as noted by James Hollis in his terrific book, “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life”:
“Out of the separation of child from womb – consciousness, based always on splitting and opposites, is born. The birth of life is also the birth of neurosis, so to speak, because from that moment on we are in service to twin agendas – the biological and spiritual drive to develop, to move forward, and the archaic yearning to fall back into the cosmic sleep of instinctual subsistence. These two motives are at work within each of us always, whether we consciously attend them or not. (If you are the parent of a teenager, you see this titanic drama every morning. If you are mindful, you see it in yourself as well.)”

In other words, some athletes ask for more – at times – than is best for them. Says Coach Dan:
“Some athletes need you to take a harder line with them….it’s a subtle or not-so-subtle need for reinforcement.”

One of the situations in which Coach Laurel has to draw on her self-confidence is when an athlete blames her – perhaps accurately, perhaps not – for their disappointments:
“[It’s challenging:]Athletes putting things on me as if I’m [completely] responsible for their progress. When I first started experiencing that with riders, that was super difficult for me, because that’s where I struggled, as an athlete, in relationships with coaches. The most difficult thing has been to face [the fact] that riders’ issues or difficulties with my program are not necessarily mine. They may be, after we talk about it, but not necessarily. When I first started coaching, I’d think [in these situations], ‘Oh no, what did I do?’ I’d get nervous and wouldn’t be able to help them correct [the problem]. Now, I’ll say, ‘Tell me more. Tell me what you did for recovery that day. Tell me how much sleep you got. Tell me how things are going with your friends and family. Tell me how your job is going.’ Sometimes, lo and behold, we work it out that it is their difficulty [that is causing their dissatisfaction]. After I hear how their imbalance has occurred, then I can say, ‘Here’s how I’m going to modify the plan based on what you just told me.’ I have lost clients because they haven’t been willing to collaborate with me in that way.”

Particularly for an athlete who needs more self-confidence, sometimes one of the best moves is to partner with a coach who has enough to go around.

• Generosity: A coach who gives with an open hand.
Tugend’s New York Times article mentions tennis star Andre Agassi’s recent memoir, which depicts his father as choosing to “withhold love and affection and trade it for achievement” which produced “a highly accomplished yet very unhappy adult.” Agassi paints his father as extraordinarily self-involved: as giving to his son primarily to get something for himself, driven by some kind of deficit in himself, not to help his son grow and be happy.

It’s rare that an athlete would partner with a coach who is that selfish. And to be fair, any coach wants – and deserves – to get things from the coach-athlete relationship: a good living, a feeling of being successful and happy in a career, the joy of making a difference in athletes’ lives. It’s when the giving is tainted, when it has an edge, when the hand that gives is only partially open, that the athlete should question what’s happening and what to do about it.

On the NPR program “Fresh Air” I listened to Agassi talk with Terry Gross about his longtime relationship with his trainer, Gil. He described a man without any selfish agenda, a man who truly understood him, a man from whom he wanted to learn, a man he trusted. For an athlete who came from a place of being lost, of not knowing who he was, of doing his sport primarily for others, it sounded like redemption.

That’s the most powerful gift that the right coach can offer you: helping you create whatever you need within. Hearing Agassi talk with such depth and wisdom, I could only think to myself – in the words of Tracy Jordan – the manatee has become the Mento. May it be so for you, too!

The Importance of Being Supported

Relationships – with friends, family, coaches, health care practitioners, teammates, training partners, yourself, even competitors – affect sport performance. An important component in your web of relationships is the support for your riding: If you have the support you need, you’re more likely to have fun and achieve your goals. The mentally fit cyclist knows which types of support to look for, ask for and put in place.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, we completed our two-part exploration of the coach-athlete relationship, and identified ways you can organize and improve that relationship. This month, we look more generally at the support – and the types of support – you may need for your riding.

I’ve just returned from my first 545-mile, San Francisco-to-Los Angeles AIDS/Lifecycle ride. Now in its 17th year, the ride is the world’s largest fundraiser for HIV/AIDS education, prevention, and treatment. This year, 1900 cyclists and 500 “roadies” (volunteer workers) from 41 states and 8 countries raised $10 million.

For seven days, men and women of all ages, sexual orientations, and fitness levels lived and rode together as a unified, dedicated, interdependent community. Linked by the common bonds of challenge, a love for cycling, and a desire to make a difference, we encouraged each other and kept each other safe as we made our way from town to town. Having had friends participate in the annual Burning Man experimental community in Nevada, I took to calling the ride Grinning Man; wackiness and laughter were constant companions.

The ride was a kind of utopia: Everyone was housed, clothed, and fed; there was high-quality health care for all; we all felt what we were doing was important and meaningful; everyone was friendly and upbeat. And the support was everywhere: between riders, from roadies, from the Cannondale mechanics, from donors, from motos and volunteer cars passing on the roads, from townspeople cheering along the way. As I reflected on that support, and the support that we, in turn, were providing to those with HIV or AIDS – and to those we were helping avoid HIV/AIDS – a slogan for the ride arose in my mind: “AIDS/Lifecycle: You’re never alone.”

Yet with all the wonderful support, there were also poignant undercurrents – sometimes related to experiences with HIV and AIDS, sometimes not – that many of us brought to the ride: heavy hearts, a desire to grow or rebuild, and what my fellow rider Michael Owen called “brokenness.” The feeling of brokenness that comes from experiences of humiliating failure, pervasive stigmatizing, or painful loss.

This month also marks the passing of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, one of the most beloved coaches in all of sport. (In one of many touching moments, it was announced that Wooden’s grandson was on AIDS/Lifecycle with us.) Among many oft-repeated quotes, Wooden memorably said:

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

AIDS/Lifecycle (ALC) was full of riders getting the social support they needed to be, discover, and affirm what they really are. Gay and straight, men and women, HIV+ and HIV-. The mom whose 7-year-old daughter had stepped on a used hypodermic needle. The woman rebuilding after a divorce and supporting her HIV+ brother. The young man who met his dad’s request to ride in honor of the dad’s HIV+ brother. The young woman who had done the Boston-to-New York AIDS ride and was looking for her next challenge. The many people who had had friends and loved ones die of AIDS. And the many who had not been touched personally by HIV/AIDS but wanted to make a difference.

So much of what we athletes can experience, discover and achieve is possible because of social support. What kinds of social support are there, and what makes the biggest difference for you?

Types of Social Support for Athletes
In a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, authors Paul Freeman and Tim Rees investigated the impact of support on sport performance. In their article, “How Does Perceived Support Lead to Better Performance? An Examination of Potential Mechanisms,” they identified and assessed four kinds of support among a sample of 118 golfers:

Emotional. This is the kind of support that provides “…comfort and security, leading to a person feeling loved and cared for.” It includes what is commonly called “moral support.”

Esteem. This bolsters your sense of competence or self-esteem. Encouragement (e.g. “You can do this!”) is placed in this category.

Informational. Informational support is receiving advice or guidance from others.

Tangible. This is “concrete instrumental assistance,” such as helping you with to-dos so that you can be available to train.

Among their sample, the authors found that high levels of esteem support were associated with high levels of performance, and that “the beneficial effects of perceived support were primarily attributable to esteem support.” Specifically, high levels of esteem support were associated with appraising a competition as less of a threat, and with feeling in control in competition. (It would seem those are related, no?) Availability of the other kinds of support was of course perceived positively, but did not predict feeling in control nor was it predictive of high levels of performance.

The researchers measured the perceived effectiveness of support through its impact on the cognitive appraisal process: in other words, the process your brain goes through to decide (a) whether a situation is stressful, and (b) how stressful the situation is. The primary part of that process, for your brain, is deciding what’s at stake and whether the situation is stressful. In the secondary part of that process, your brain evaluates what you can do about the situation and the resources you have available to you.

Inevitably, we’ve returned to our old friend and nemesis, stress (and by implication, to its siblings: anxiety, nerves, fear, pressure, tension, and worry). As you strive to meet challenges, achieve goals, and discover your potential, a certain amount of stress can actually fuel you. However, if your stress goes above your threshold, your performance starts to degrade. (And, your enjoyment tends to go downhill as well.) As always, stress and control go together – sometimes in healthy ways, sometimes in unhealthy ways. Relationships, and the support we receive (or don’t receive) through them, can help with stress – and an internal sense of control – or make it worse.

Take a minute and ask yourself: What kinds of support do you need, and from whom? Are the key relationships in your life helping you with the stress of training, riding, competing? If not, what changes do you need to make? To make those changes, do your communication skills need some tuning first?

There was a point on ALC where I was among the earlier finishers on a 100-mile day. As a first-time ALC rider, I knew few of the customs on the ride, but fortunately, a veteran rider approached me as I cleaned up. “Especially on a 100-mile day,” he said, “it’s traditional for earlier finishers to go back out there and cheer people on. For many of these folks, today’s their first-ever century.” I hustled back out there and revved up my esteem support.

As I watched riders – some of whom took up cycling for the first time earlier this year – cross the line, I was struck by the enormity of the challenge for some. I’ve trained and raced hard for years, and the ride was not easy for me. Yet I watched people who were far less experienced or struggling with health and fitness ride 60-110 miles per day for 7 days. How did they do it?

Let’s go back to Coach Wooden’s words. He didn’t say be unconcerned with what others think you are; just to be more concerned with what you know you are. Beneath his advice to not care what others think of you is a gentle hint to listen – at the right time, and to the right people. In an ideal world, we’d all have perfect childhoods, perfect relationships with family and peers, and we’d all be healed and whole. But many of us – perhaps everyone – have had painful experiences in life that ultimately distorted how we see ourselves. These experiences can reduce our self-belief and our self-confidence, and obscure our knowledge of “what we really are.” So, at least for awhile, we sometimes need others to remind us (or convince us) of who we are and what we’re capable of. And we need the high-heat crucible of challenges that help us prove the truth to ourselves.

But no ALC rider relied on social support alone. I daresay that every rider contacted something deep within themselves, something that helped get them through; each rider found ways to support himself or herself. I asked a woman riding a fixed-gear bike what was getting her through the 545 miles. “Stubborness,” she said. When asked what they learned on the ride, riders said things like:

“I’ve learned you can get through anything.”

“I learned that I have a lot more capability than I thought.”

“For a long time, I really thought that I was always a failure….Doing this ride…gave me more self-confidence.”

“As I’m helping other people, I’m also helping myself.”

We athletes are often very hard on ourselves. Sometimes challenging yourself isn’t the difficult part; supporting yourself is.

On the final night of ALC, surrounded on a beach by concentric circles of 2400 riders and roadies with lit candles, my thoughts first gravitated to memories and suffering: The many deaths, illnesses, struggles and fears represented by the candles we all saw. Yet in the thousands of flickering lights I suddenly felt the presence of hope and belief and purpose: the many hours of training, the many challenges overcome, the millions of dollars raised, the strength of each individual human spirit, the power of the connectedness between us.

Being an athlete is a way to discover your potential, to discover “what you really are.” On this Coach Wooden said, “If you go as far as you can see, you will then see enough to go even farther.”

As I crossed the finish line and brought my bike to a stop, I put my head down on the bars, overcome by emotion. Just then, a roadie walked by and asked, “Rider, are you OK?” I was.

You’re never alone.

Supporting Yourself

Support for your riding comes not only from other people in your life. It also comes from you. Or does it? Giving yourself what you need – and not giving yourself what you don’t need – affects your performance, fun, and results on the bike. The mentally fit cyclist knows what kinds of self-support are most important, along with when – and how – to provide it.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, we continued our series on the effects of relationships on sport performance by looking at the support you may need for your riding. Mostly, we examined the support you may need from others; this month, we identify support you may need from yourself.

This past week, I saw Paul McCartney in concert. To my surprise, I was reminded that performers in the arts and performers in sport have quite a bit in common.

The Guinness Book of World Records calls McCartney the most successful songwriter in the history of popular music. His ride, however, has not always been smooth. His mother, Mary, died when he was 14. His onetime creative partner and friend, with whom he’ll forever be linked, was murdered. He was widowed after 29 years of marriage to a woman from whom he spent only seven nights apart (thanks to his week in a Tokyo jail). He’s lived through a painful divorce. So although he’s had unparalleled success, he’s also taken some hard knocks. But, at the age of 68, he’s still up there on stage doing it, and doing it well – 35 songs, the night we saw him.

As Paul (we’re all on a first-name basis with him, aren’t we?) sang Let it Be, I once again heard him describe the experience of finding something – or someone – within himself during “times of trouble.” Later, after feeling myself and many others affected so deeply by this song – even after hearing it for the thousandth time – I reflected on the truth of this experience for us as athletes. With all the support you may have from others, so often your experience during critical moments in sport may come down to your relationship with yourself: How thoroughly are you supporting yourself? How fully do you believe in yourself? During challenging times – the intervals you don’t feel like doing, the descent you’re afraid of, the sprint you’re contesting, the distance you’ve never ridden – what do you find within yourself?

As I noted in last month’s column, sometimes challenging yourself isn’t the (most) difficult part; supporting yourself is. Let’s look at what “supporting yourself” means, and how – and when – you need to do it in your riding.

What Gets in the Way?
Time and time again, when I work with amateur and professional athletes from any sport, they cite self-confidence as the Force that sets similarly-trained competitors apart from each other. How can working on your mental fitness help? One way to look at mental skills in sport is as tools to:

• compensate, when necessary, for fleeting or longer-lasting deficits in self-confidence;

• increase self-confidence as you use the skills successfully, and

• as a result, remove obstacles to the more effortless integration of your body and mind. More integration gets you closer to, if not all the way to, the elusive “in the zone” phenomenon: experiences of reaching your full potential.

In sport, however, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what we mean by “self-confidence.” It’s related to, but not the same as, qualities such as self-esteem, self-regard, and self-worth. And as I pointed out in the column on self-confidence, in sport we often define self-confidence as self-efficacy: your belief that you can achieve your goals. That sounds a little dry, doesn’t it? A belief is more than a thought. Self-confidence certainly has a thinking/cognitive component, but it also has a feeling/emotional component.

Let’s define self-confidence in sport this way: self-efficacy with heart (or soul, if you will). It’s believing that you can achieve your goals – big and small, present and future – and it’s a belief with deep roots. It’s a belief that you not only think but feel. It shows itself above ground in your mind, but it reaches down into your gut. It can be completely absent and completely present, and anywhere in between.

Take a minute to think (and feel?) about this: Assuming your goals are actually achievable (you’ve given yourself a fighting chance by using the core mental skill of Goal-Setting, right?), what can get in the way of that deep-rooted belief for you?

Here are some typical, often-interrelated obstacles to truly believing in yourself:

Self-awareness. You don’t yet know yourself well enough to know, and address, whatever is in the way.

Anxiety or any of its siblings: fear, tension, pressure, nerves, and worry. Why should you believe in yourself if believing in yourself moves you closer to something that makes you feel uncomfortable? Your brain is going to try to protect you, unless you override it.

Habit. You’ve not believed in yourself so many times before…

Trauma. Bad/painful experiences on or off the bike have convinced your brain to at least be ambivalent, if not downright sure, that you’d be crazy to believe in yourself.

Inexperience. Your brain wants proof, and it doesn’t have enough yet.

Giving your power away. Someone else doesn’t believe in you, and you give their opinion more power over you than you have over yourself.

In cycling, when are you most likely to need to use your mental skills and support yourself? Proactively, when you’re on a self-confident roll and you know you need to stay active to keep it going. And reactively, when you start to feel anxious and your anxiety distances you from your self-confidence.

Let’s look at some skills that can help.

Tools for the Job
Take another minute to take inventory: What does “supporting yourself” actually mean, for you? What does it look like, sound like, feel like when you do it? (If you do it!) Does it have words? Is it (just) emotional, or physical? All of the above? Supporting yourself starts with knowing whether you do it and if so, how. And you need even more self-awareness to know what gets in the way and why.

Your self-talk – how you talk to yourself, about yourself, in your own mind – is a very powerful tool for strengthening or weakening the support you give yourself. The fundamental question is this: What kind of coach do you need to be for yourself? As noted in Part 1 and Part 2 of the column on getting the most from a coach, different athletes have different needs. Some place a priority on motivation, or information, or advice, or confrontation, or emotional support. Are you the kind of coach for yourself that you’d expect of a coach you’d hire? It’s important that the things you say to yourself sustain and improve your performance, not detract from it. Words of wisdom, we might say. (Or at least words that work.)

The topic of negative self-talk brings us back to our old nemesis, anxiety, which is both fuel for and a result of negative thoughts. Managing anxiety, via skills such as managing self-talk, is clearly an important skill; if anxiety gets the better of you, you may be hosed. But I was reminded recently that a more aikido-like approach (“going with, rather than going against”) is sometimes the best strategy for dealing with anxiety.

Thanks to my friend Abner, I listened to NPR’s Terry Gross interview psychologist Dan Gottlieb on her Fresh Air radio program. Some years ago, Dan was driving alone on the highway, when suddenly the wheel (not the tire, the entire wheel) of an oncoming 18-wheeler detached from the truck, flew through the air, and landed on his car, crushing the car and him. He survived, but as a quadriplegic. To give you an idea of the kind of person Dan is, here’s what he now says about the accident:

“When my neck broke, my soul began to breathe. I became the person I always dreamt I could be, and never would have been if I didn’t break my neck. Each time I faced death, I became more of who I am, and less worried about what others might think of me.”

In his book, “Learning from the Heart,” he writes of his struggles before and after the accident. He first says, “maybe all of life is about how we manage our anxiety,” but then questions himself:

“People who are accused of being controllers do so because they have anxiety about being out of control. People who are compulsive about work, cleaning, alcohol, drugs, achievement, or anything else are exhibiting a form of an anxiety disorder. Insecurity is a form of anxiety; so is shyness. Marital arguments, road rage, interrupting people while they are speaking are all about anxiety….I believe true security happens when we are no longer afraid of our own minds. If you feel anxiety, simply feel it.

True security. That sounds like something at least related to self-confidence and supporting yourself, doesn’t it? This may seem like heresy, coming from someone who works with athletes on mental skills, but consider this: perhaps at least some of the time when you feel anxious, or nervous, or scared, or worried, supporting yourself means not trying to fix it. (I think I could guess Dan’s favorite Beatles song.)

We can spend so much time trying to manage, control, and change our discomfort. Sometimes the quickest way to move through it is just to feel it. What might that mean in your riding? Some possibilities:

• You stop and listen to yourself, rather than trying to overcome what’s troubling you so quickly, and you hear something new: Don’t go any faster down this descent. Don’t push any harder up this climb. Ride within yourself. Or don’t do this group ride/century/race at all. Maybe this time, you just need to let go.

• You don’t let your discomfort throw you.. Ride anyway. Race anyway. Feel what you feel, have the experience you have, and move on to the next one. Sometimes supporting yourself is being OK with not feeling confident. Gottlieb says, “My body is broken, my mind is neurotic, but my soul is at peace…today.”

• Not instead of, but while you’re feeling anxious, or uncertain, or not confident, you…have faith. In yourself, in a higher power, in life…that there will be an answer. Says Gottlieb:

“I’ve developed faith (for now) in my resilience. I also have faith that at the deepest levels, when suffering returns, as it surely will, I will be okay. Certainly, that faith does not make my anxiety go away…my anxiety and I still spend lots of time together. I no longer try to control it. And, paradoxically, my anxiety has less control over me.”

Telling someone you trust can also be a powerful way to support yourself. Giving voice to what you’re feeling can clarify, release, or shift what you’re going through even before the other person says or does anything. And the courage it takes to reveal yourself can add to your self-confidence.

Finally, supporting yourself can simply be feeling grateful – and even proud – to ride. You’re alive, your body works, you get to ride or race…sure, you also have some challenges. But you have much to feel good about. Ed Cray, in his biography of another of our greatest songwriters, Woody Guthrie, quoted Woody saying this:

“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”

Take pride in yourself and in your riding – your “work” as an athlete. It’s an important part of who you are. Don’t let your “bad luck or hard traveling” change that.

See you out there!

Leading and Following

Your teammates aren’t cooperating enough in races. A fellow rider is at risk – or is putting others at risk – but is unaware. The peloton needs organization to catch the breakaway. Both on and off the bike, you have many opportunities to influence other cyclists for their benefit, for yours, and for the good of the team/group. The mentally fit cyclist uses leadership skills to seize those opportunities and improve the cycling experience.

By Marv Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, we continued our series on the effects of relationships on sport performance. We took a look at your relationship with yourself: the support you need to give yourself in order to achieve your cycling goals, what gets in the way of supporting yourself fully, and how to rise above those difficulties. This month, we explore your opportunities to influence others who can have an effect on your – and your team’s or group’s – performance, fun, and results in cycling.

The TV show Glee follows the relationships, rehearsals, and singing/dancing competitions of a fictional high school glee club. Strangely enough (at least to me), I’ve become a big fan of the show. Besides the fact that I’ll watch anything with the actress Jane Lynch in it, I’ve been hooked by the poignant – albeit often cringe-worthy – illustrations of the mental/emotional obstacles that so many of us face in training and in competition.

While watching yet another episode recently, I heard one of the characters, Rachel, say to one of her teammates, “I don’t want to compete against you. I want to compete alongside you.” I immediately flashed on a friend’s story of a recent race. In recounting a lengthy list of frustrations with his teammates’ lack of teamwork, he finished by saying, ruefully, “and then, at the end, we were six guys sprinting against each other.”

Organizing a lead-out in a race, forming a paceline in a charity ride, creating an alliance with a competitor, rallying a chase group, stepping into a “protected rider” role on your team, even getting a training partner to do intervals with you: all are opportunities to improve cooperation and results. Yet inspiring, instructing, or directing fellow riders to work together in a race or ride is only one type of opportunity you may have to lead others. Whether you’re on or off the bike, you’re frequently interdependent with other cyclists, and thus you may have many opportunities to assert your leadership in our sport. Let’s look at some of the others.

First, you may decide or suspect that a fellow rider is at risk and that you’re in a position to speak up about it. This could include a rider who:

• Is overtrained, burned out, or depressed. Irritability, anxiety, lowered mood, over- or undersleeping, over- or undereating, substantial negative thoughts or feelings about him/herself, unexplained physical complaints, the “winter blues,” and losing interest in riding can all be at-risk signs. Fortunately, it’s reversible, and sometimes quickly so.

• Has, or may have, an eating disorder. Examples of signs include: Refusing to maintain a minimally normal weight, having intense fear of gaining weight or “becoming fat,” having a distorted view of one’s body or weight, denying the seriousness of low weight, undue influence of one’s weight or shape on self-evaluation, binge eating, and compensating inappropriately for binge eating. At least unhealthy, and perhaps dangerous.

• Continues over a significant period of time to be profoundly affected cognitively or emotionally by a traumatic event, such as experiencing or witnessing a crash. Some of the possible cognitive signs: Difficulties with memory or attention/concentration, headaches, slowness in thinking. Some of the possible emotional signs: Intense distress when presented with cues (eg. descending) that evoke the traumatic event, hypervigilance, flashbacks, avoiding talking or thinking about the event, and increased irritability or anger. Awful, but treatable.

• Is dependent on – or at least abusing – drugs or alcohol.

Secondly, you may see that a fellow rider puts you or others at physical risk. This might be a rider who:

• Has any of the cognitive or emotional symptoms above that cause difficulties with attention, concentration, and other aspects of safe (and sane) riding;
• Even without the symptoms above, rides unsafely (eg. looks continuously at adjacent riders while training, dives into corners in a criterium);
• Violates rules (e.g. crosses the centerline) in a race.

Third, you may notice a rider whose attitude threatens or hurts the team’s/group’s morale. For example, a rider who is:

• Whining (e.g. repeatedly raising problems without sufficiently contributing to solutions);
• Isolating himself/herself from the team/group;
• Being selfish (e.g. focusing the team’s/group’s attention disproportionately on his/her needs).

Finally, giving back to the sport may also be an opportunity for leadership. This might include:

• Helping to run your local racing district or cycling club;
• Contributing to bicycle advocacy through a national or local organization;
• Conducting a cycling skills clinic;
• Becoming a USA Cycling certified coach and coaching adult or junior cyclists;
• Volunteering for the national or local high school mountain bike league;
• Mentoring a beginning rider or racer.

Now that we’ve identified some opportunities for leadership on and off the bike, let’s look at some of the leadership skills that you’ll need.

Leadership in Action
Weinberg and Gould, in their book, Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, write that a manager “uses position, rank, and authority to get compliance…. [but] a leader uses influence to create the desire to follow the advice being given.” Paul Hersey’s classic book, The Situational Leader, defines a simple yet powerful model for creating that desire. The key points:

1. Leaders can use “task behavior” in leading others. Task behavior includes “telling people what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to do it, and who’s to do it.” It’s directive.

2. Leaders can use “relationship behavior” in leading others. That’s “two-way communication” that involves “listening, encouraging, facilitating, providing clarification, and giving socioemotional support.” It’s supportive.

3. Leaders apply a leadership style by combining low or high task behavior with low or high relationship behavior. Since there are four unique combinations of those ingredients, there are four styles:

Style 1: High task, Low relationship.
Style 2: High task, High relationship.
Style 3: High relationship, Low task.
Style 4: Low relationship, Low task.

[Think for a minute: Which style do you use the most? The least?]

4. There are many factors that affect a leader’s success. One important factor is the values of the organization: the patterns of behavior in the group, whether purposefully shaped or “organically” grown. The values of the organization can make it easier (e.g. situational leadership is encouraged) or harder (e.g. those that speak up are frequently shouted down) for an individual to attempt to lead.

5. Another important factor is follower readiness: the extent to which a follower has “the ability and willingness to accomplish a specific task.” There are four levels of follower readiness:

Readiness 1: Unable and Unwilling or Insecure
Readiness 2: Unable but Willing or Confident
Readiness 3: Able but Unwilling or Insecure
Readiness 4: Able and Willing or Confident

6. Leaders increase their likelihood of success if they’re effective at assessing follower readiness and at adapting their leadership style to match that readiness level:

• Style 1 (S1) matches Readiness 1 (R1): For a rider who is unable to do what you’d like and also either unwilling or lacking confidence, provide specific instructions and closely monitor performance.

• S2 matches R2: For a rider who is unable to do what you’d like but willing or confident, explain your decisions/recommendations and provide the opportunity to clarify.

• S3 matches R3: For a rider who is able to do what you’d like but is unwilling or lacking confidence, share ideas and involve/facilitate the rider in decision-making.

• S4 matches R4: For a rider who is able and either willing or confident (or both), delegate!

7. Although sometimes you may have position power – a club or team officer, a coach, the team leader on the road – quite often you are likely to have no more position power than any of the other riders. And yet you have personal power – regardless of “position, rank or authority” in the group – to influence others for the good of the group…if you can gain the confidence and trust of those you’re attempting to influence. You have a chance at that if all involved feel you’re working toward shared goals.

8. It is necessary, and at times very powerful, to have a basic, positive belief in the potential of the people you’re trying to lead. Expect and believe that they can get where you want them to go.

A simple and straightforward model, yet it has attracted millions of followers (!), and it can work for you. But what about the obstacles?

What Gets in the Way of Leading?
Many years ago, when I was a youngster in the corporate world, I was lucky to work for Scott, who was not only an effective manager but an effective leader as well. One day, I walked into his office with a(nother) business problem and asked him what to do about it. “Marvin,” he said, “I’m happy to help you with your problems, but from now on, don’t come in here with one unless you have three possible solutions that you’ve considered, and be ready to talk about them with me.”

Scott had position power to rely on – and a great deal more training and experience than I had – when he confronted me in that moment. However, he had also worked hard (and I was definitely a hard case) to develop his personal power with me; he had done many things privately and publicly to build my confidence and trust in him.

Scott was helping me become a leader by making me confront myself. But what was I to confront? Yep, our familiar nemesis, anxiety (and its siblings: fear, stress, tension, pressure, worry, and nerves). And also one of my habitual anxiety-handling strategies: running to Scott, not only to cope with the anxiety but to solve the problem (and thus quickly eliminate the anxiety) as well.

Anxiety and its siblings do frequently get in the way of leading. In a situation where you have an opportunity to assert leadership – in a race, on a ride, in a team meeting – what might you be anxious about? Think about that for a minute. Is it that you’ll end up feeling embarrassed, disappointed, or rejected if your attempt fails? That you’ll be wrong? That you’re entering into conflict? Is it about the possibility that someone will be upset with you, perhaps permanently? About being labelled as a whistle-blower, a pain-in-the-neck, or worse?

Making a leadership move can indeed be stressful; if the stress gets the better of you, you won’t make the move. Your challenge is to manage the stress in a way that serves your growth as a leader and enables you to take action effectively. The Toolbox articles on managing anxiety, handling pressure, self-awareness, building self-confidence, and supporting yourself all have specific recommendations on how to do that.

Another obstacle to leadership is excessive self-involvement. As the Toolbox article on self-interest and cooperation points out, there can be tension in cycling between the needs of the individual and the needs of the team or group. If you respond to that tension by being too focused on your own needs, you may not even see the possibility or benefit of being at all focused on others’ needs, and you may lose an opportunity to lead.

Speaking of others whom you may ride or race with, difficulties with empathy can also pose a significant barrier to effective leadership, particularly if you lack position power. As noted above, situational leadership requires flexing your leadership style based on the personality, needs, strengths, and weaknesses of the rider(s) you’re trying to lead. If “getting” others – or making the choice to “get” others – doesn’t come easily to you, you may need to push yourself to ask others more questions about themselves. And the more diversity in your group or team, the broader your empathic and assessment skills need to be.

Longtime Toolbox readers will recall Jerry Lynch and Warren Scott’s teaching from the Comparing Yourself with Others article:

“When you trace the derivation of the verb ‘to compete,’ you discover that it comes from the Latin word competere,which means ‘to seek together’…. You are both there to teach each other how to be your best.”

Both in competing against others and in competing alongside others, you have many opportunities to be an effective leader. As you seize those opportunities, you turn up the heat, and in that crucible something new – in you and in others – can be forged. Go for it!