Beginner’s Mind, Part 1

High school cycling is exploding. Perhaps you have – or will have – a child who’s riding or competing. Or perhaps you’re (thinking of) helping out with the local juniors or school team. Coaching core mental skills with teens can be very helpful to them on and off the bike. And strange as it may seem, teens can also help you improve your own mental fitness.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month in this Sport Psychology column, in Choosing to Compete, we explored what might be holding you back from racing. This month, we begin a two-part series on mental skills guidance that you can offer to – and receive from – a unique group of athletes: teens.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, known as Suzuki-roshi, came to the United States in 1958. As one of the key carriers of Zen Buddhism to the West, and as one of Zen’s most venerated teachers (“Roshi” is a term of respect that means “elder master”), his book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” has influenced many readers since its release in 1970. In it, he writes,

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few…. This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.”

“Ready for anything.” Body and mind working together in harmony. That’s one definition of mental fitness, isn’t it? But all too often the mind creates obstacles to that kind of effortless integration. And that’s a time to bust out the mental skills: to use the mind on the mind. Most young kids, though, don’t have to face those obstacles in sport. They’re fully present, fully engaged, fully immersed when they’re at play. They have beginner’s mind.

Twelve years ago, math teacher Matt Fritzinger started a cycling club at Berkeley High School in California. And from there, in 2001, he and a group of dedicated volunteers launched the nonprofit NorCal High School MTB Racing League. Participation, sponsorship, and volunteering have grown enormously: this year, the League will have over 40 teams and over 500 riders. Last year, the SoCal Interscholastic Racing League was added to the family, with 14 teams and over 100 riders. And last month, at Interbike, Matt announced the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which will encompass not only the NorCal and SoCal leagues, but a newly-forming league in Colorado – with Tom Danielson, Alison Dunlap, Dave Wiens, and Ned Overend helping to lead the way – and more leagues thereafter.

Both on dirt and on the road, teen cycling is taking off. And that creates an opportunity for you: Coaching teens is a powerful, fun, and inspiring way to give back to the sport and make a difference in young riders’ lives.

Why work with teens specifically on mental skills? Helping teens with the physical aspects of training and competition is challenging enough, what with their busy schedules, rampaging hormones, and occasional – shall we say – attitude. When it comes to the mental side of sport, though, teens are a unique group: poised precariously between childhood and young adulthood, they still have vestiges, at least, of beginner’s mind. And they’re also developing the strength, and the obstacles, of the adult identity. Cultivating beginner’s mind and using mental skills to return to it: At all levels of sport, and for all ages, it is so often mental fitness that sets athletes apart.

Most importantly, the mental skills young men and women can learn in cycling – including the core skills of Goal-Setting, Communication, Concentration, Effective Self-Talk, and Managing Emotions – are skills they can use throughout their lives. As coaches of teen athletes, we can help equip them for success not only in cycling, but also in their journey through adolescence to adulthood and beyond. And for you, teaching can be a good way to deepen your self-awareness and improve your own mental skills. Remember the Latin proverb: “By learning you will teach; by teaching you will learn.”

Let’s begin by exploring some factors that can affect teens and thus your approach to working with them on mental skills. (Next month, you’ll hear from some amazing teen cyclists about how they’ve developed their mental fitness.)

Factors Affecting Teens and Coaching
The central developmental task for adolescents is creating identity. Rather than being defined by what’s been done to them and for them, teens are moving to define themselves by what they do. They want to take charge of themselves and their lives.

In the midst of this process, feeling understood is very important. One reason: creating an identity is nerve-wracking. Psychologically, the tectonic plates are shifting, and that, by definition, can be a shaky experience. As they build their sense of self, teens literally aren’t consistent in who they are from year to year, and sometimes even from day to day. That can make it harder for us to understand who they are: what they’re feeling, thinking, doing, and so on. And, it can be hard for them to feel that we “get it” – whatever the “it” is at any point in time – about anything. Yet demonstrating to them that we truly “get it” is one way teens feel less shaky about themselves: who they are, at that moment, is confirmed for them, and there’s strength in that. Not coincidentally, they may also feel more that you’re “with them”: company has a way of making things a little less scary.

The more you show that you do indeed “get it,” the more likely you’ll be able to create and sustain a relationship of mutual trust. And that makes it more likely that what you offer them will be attuned to who they are, and also more likely they’ll be receptive to what you have to offer.

On the one hand, adolescence is a time when boys and girls are learning to take charge of their own development. If they’re motivated enough – for example, by wanting to have fun, improve, and succeed in cycling – teens can be eager learners. However, when teens take on an issue, they often begin wrestling with it from a position of idealism: how things ought to be. Teens have usually not yet had the life experience to see things as they actually are (or to have their idealistic spirit crushed, depending on your viewpoint). It’s important to have empathy for their position and not get impatient when teaching, working and negotiating with them.

It’s also very important to know why your teen athletes are cycling. Ask them! If you know what’s driving them, you’ll be better able to connect the value of mental skills with what your athletes care about the most. Weinberg and Gould, in their book “Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology,” cite research that shows that the top five reasons boys participate in sports are: (1) to have fun, (2) to improve skills, (3) for the excitement of competition, (4) to do something they’re good at, and (5) to stay in shape. Winning is reason #8. For girls, it’s (1) to have fun, (2) to stay in shape, (3) to get exercise, (4) to improve skills, and (5) to do something they’re good at. Winning isn’t in the top 10. Note that all of these are intrinsic motivators – they motivate from within. They’re about how the athlete thinks and feels about him/herself, precisely at the time when that’s their central focus. That’s not to suggest that winning isn’t important; it is. But it does suggest that in order to be most effective with teen athletes, it’s important to see the key characteristics that each teen brings to their sport.

Speaking of which, here’s a quick tour of some other factors that can affect teens’ cycling and their receptivity to your help:

1. Their family system. This includes parent(s), siblings, and at times extended family as well. Key questions to consider include:

• What’s the parents’ style with the teen? Authoritarian? Authoritative? Being a “buddy”? Hands-off? Absent? Parents’ styles can affect how teens expect you to relate to them.

• What’s the parents’ stance toward the teen’s athletic life? Supportive? Overinvolved? Judgmental? This can create more – or fewer – mental obstacles for the teen in cycling.

• To what degree is there harmony or conflict/stress within the family? This, too, may directly affect a teen’s state and struggles on the bike.

• How’s the parents’ relationship with you? Are you a team, at odds, or neither?

2. Their physical health and development. Cycling can contribute positively to a teen’s growing self-esteem, but an overdependence on cycling for sense of self can lead to overtraining, depression, injury and burnout. Also, using the body in sport can raise thoughts and feelings about body image, so stay alert for signs of how teens are regarding and treating their bodies. Get help if you’re wondering about the possibility of eating disorders or other unhealthy patterns.

3. Other sources of (un)usual mental/emotional distress. For example:

Academics and Social Life. Note that it’s not just how things appear to be going for teens in these areas; it’s how teens feel and believe things are going. And, their friends’ stress can be as hard to bear as their own.

Loss. Divorce, having a pet die, having a friend move away – losses can throw teens for a loop.

Depression. There’s a difference between normal teen moodiness and something more serious. And loss is one of the most frequent triggers.

Anything you learn from teen cyclists about these things can be helpful in improving your working relationship with them and in “tuning” how you coach their mental skills. Teens’ school counselor might also be an invaluable collaborator in helping you to assess – in the parlance of our times – what’s up with them.

Coaching The Five Core Mental Skills
Research shows that if you believe in yourself – if you have high self-efficacy – you’re more likely to engage in a task, persist, and be successful. Not rocket science, I know. But teens may not even have a solid self – yet – to believe in. What affects the teen athlete’s belief in herself, and how can you make a positive contribution to that? One of the most powerful tools you have is helping your athletes effectively set, manage themselves to, and reset their goals. If a teen has the wrong goals – or the wrong kinds of goals – she can be set up for frustration, demotivation, undue stress, overtraining, and even burnout. Effective goal-setting and goal-management, in contrast, can lead to increased experiences of success, fun, and perhaps most importantly for the teen’s development, perceived competence. How teens evaluate their attempts at mastery can have a huge effect on their self-esteem and motivation. Check out the article on Goal-Setting for suggestions.

Communication is a skill that can have a significant impact on teens’ performance and experience in cycling. They may need to work with teammates during a race, reassure parents about time spent on the bike, or disagree with your recommendations. Good communication begins with good listening and empathy. So, when they’re talking to you, model that. Listen carefully and show them that you “get it.” (And if you don’t, stand corrected.) Encourage them to be assertive – to speak up, respectfully, about what they feel is true. Teens are often hesitant to speak up when they’re concerned that a relationship could be harmed, or that they’ll just plain feel bad. Show them that they can speak up to you and that you’ll respond to them skillfully. Encourage them to speak to their teammates – about things that are going well, as well as things they’re concerned about – in team meetings, on training rides, and in races. And finally, help them manage conflict by teaching them to manage their stress and reactivity. Being emotional is fine, to a point. But the most common conflict-management problem I see is rushing: rushing to avoid, rushing to interrupt, rushing to resolve the conflict, rushing right past understanding each other. Ineffectively-managed stress fuels a feeling of urgency, and urgency fuels rushing.

Concentration is not the easiest skill to teach a teen who may have a limited attention span. However, it’s certainly a skill that plays a big role in cycling. The closer any cyclist is to “being in the zone,” the more of themselves they’re able to bring to each moment, the more likely they’ll respond well to (or initiate) an opportunity, and the more likely they’ll be able to avoid crashes. Yet losing focus is going to happen, so the skill is in not only maintaining concentration and shifting it (eg. from tempo to an attack) but also in regaining it quickly. Help your athletes understand what it feels like to be focused. What’s their focus style: when they’re focused, are they focused more inside themselves or outside themselves, and is their focus narrow or broad? Consider giving them “concentration intervals” in training, where they practice maintaining race-level focus. Have them tell you about the experience or make a few notes in their training log about it. Help them identify their top recurring distractors – such as pain, fatigue, riders who are too close, or that boy/girl they have a crush on – and help them develop a refocusing plan for each one. And consider having them develop a pre-race focusing routine that gets them to the start line already “in the zone.”

Think back to people who have coached, taught, mentored, and guided you. How did they talk to you? Who do you sound like when you talk to yourself about your performance? That’s your self-talk. How you talk to teens may have a significant impact on how they talk to themselves about their cycling performance. Watch for signs of negative self-talk (eg. “I suck.”) Help them have an accurate, rather than distorted, view of how they perform. Coach them to stop negative self-talk, to question it if that helps, to replace it with (believable) positive self-talk, and to practice calming themselves when they notice it. Why this last technique? Because stress, anxiety, nerves, fear, tension, worry, pressure – I call it the Stress Family Robinson – it’s the major fuel for negative self-talk, which itself fuels more stress. Not the kind of cycling we want for teens.

That brings us to the fifth core mental skill: managing emotions, particularly the stress family. Stress and its siblings contribute not only to negative self-talk, but to unpleasant sensations and images, distraction, errors, avoidance, and energy loss. Help teens manage stress on the bike through breathing techniques, visualization, positive self-talk, smiling, talking to teammates – whatever calms them. Talk with them about how they’re managing stress off the bike, and give them ideas if they want them. And that pre-race focusing routine mentioned above? Help them start races off on the right… pedal: motivated, calm, and focused.

While the stress family is by far the main set of emotions that will tend to affect teens’ cycling performance, there are other emotions that come up at times as well. Sadness is certainly a normal part of life, but be on the lookout for sadness that’s prolonged or seemingly serious; it could be one of the many signs of depression. Get consultation from a counselor if need be. Anger is another emotion that’s to be expected, to a point. If the athlete is having trouble containing anger – for example, directing it inappropriately toward you, teammates, competitors, or himself – see if you can work with him to channel the anger into energy that can be managed and used effectively on the bike. Again, get consultation if need be.

The eminent religious scholar Huston Smith, in his preface to the paperback edition of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” quotes a tribute to Suzuki-roshi from Mary Farkas:

“His non-ego attitude left us no eccentricities to embroider upon. Though he made no waves and left no traces as a personality in the worldly sense, the impress of his footsteps in the invisible world of history lead straight on.”

Suzuki-roshi was a man who let go of ego. Teens are right in the middle of creating one. And that’s a good time to reach them. In working with trusted adults to develop the mental side of riding, training, and racing, teens learn skills that help them not only on the bike but off the bike as well. And in working with teens, you, too, might learn.

Beginner’s Mind, Part 2

Zen masters let go of ego; teenagers are in the middle of creating one. That makes it a good time to coach mental skills with teens, and also a good time for you to learn. In that spirit, Pez talks with some unusually gifted young cyclists about the mental side of their game. Strange as it may seem, young people can help you improve your mental fitness on the bike.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month in this Sport Psychology column, in step with the founding of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, we explored how to give mental skills guidance to teen cyclists. Coaching teens is a powerful, fun, and inspiring way to give back to the sport and make a difference in young riders’ lives; sometimes, we can learn as much from them as they learn from us. This month, we talk to some unusually gifted teens about the mental side of their game:

Will Curtis, 17, is a senior at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California. He has competed in the NorCal High School Mountain Bike Racing League since his freshman year, finishing second in the Varsity race at the State Championships last season. He also races on the road and MTB for the Whole Athlete junior team. Last summer, he joined the USA Development Team for races in France, Germany, and Switzerland, and has twice attended the US Junior National Talent ID Camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Coryn Rivera, 17, is a junior at Pacific Coast High School in Tustin, California and races for the Proman Women’s Cycling team. She has won 24 national championships in road, track, and cyclocross racing. In 2009, she took her first win in an NRC race, the Cascade Classic Criterium, competing against elite professional road racers. She has just returned from the UCI Track World Cup races in Manchester, England, where she competed against the world’s top track stars.

Alex Stevenson, 17, is a senior at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California. The upcoming season will be his fourth on the school’s MTB team, and he aims to build on last year’s podium finish at the California State Championships. He has an interest in psychology and plans to have a career that is focused on helping others. He expects to take his cycling further after high school.

Pez: Which mental skills have been most important to you in training and racing?

Will: Self-talk, concentration, and visualization. In my sophomore year, I went through a stage where I analyzed myself a lot and was having trouble focusing. I was focusing on the bad parts of my riding.

When I was a year old, I had a benign tumor removed from my left leg. It also removed a lot of muscle. [When I was having trouble focusing] I worried that my left leg wasn’t going to produce enough power, and I was worrying about my pedal stroke. My problems became exaggerated. I realized it was my mind [doing that], but I didn’t know how to get out of that.

I started trying to focus on the big picture – on what I wanted to be. I put an image of [2004 and 2008 Olympic champion] Julien Absalon in my mind, and used that as a basis. He’s the smoothest bike rider who’s ever ridden. I also talked to my coach, and he helped me see that I had been developing negative pathways in my thinking – I would screw myself over in my head. So instead, I focused on keeping a good image in my head.

Pez: When you’d switch to focusing on that image, what would happen?

Will: My whole body relaxed and my riding got smoother.

Coryn: Discipline. In order to get the training done, know your competitors, etc. you have to stay focused and be disciplined. If there’s a party, but you have a race the next day, you can’t go. [I tell myself] “I know I have a race; I’m going to go to sleep and get ready for the race.”

Also, perseverance. Even if you don’t achieve your goal, you have to keep fighting. I really wanted to do well at the Junior World Championships in Moscow, but I didn’t do as well as I wanted – I didn’t reach my goal. At first I was pretty depressed, but then I talked to my coach and my parents – they’re really a big part of my cycling. Once I left Moscow, I realized I couldn’t leave my goal there.

Pez: How did you develop discipline and perseverance?

Coryn: I learned discipline from my dad – he always preached that. Perseverance? It’s something that’s in me. I don’t want to give up. I’m not going to stop until I get it.

Pez: That sounds like, “I’m not going to give up on myself.”

Coryn: Yes.

Alex: Positive self-talk and self-awareness. If I tell myself I can do something, I really can, like focusing on a goal while I’m racing. Last year at the state championships I got my best placing ever. I was focusing on my goal: getting on the podium. I had to push through intense pain, fatigue, dust…I remember at one point, I was bombing a hill and I hit a sign with my arm but kept going. You should be saying to yourself, “I’m succeeding, I’m going to do this.”

The way your brain works, you can say a word [to yourself] and your subconscious mind will have a lot of associations with it. So, the word “can’t” will have many negative associations. It’s important to use positive words when talking to yourself. My teacher, Robert McKnight, has taught me so much in our African-American Psychology class. Many people are still enslaved mentally – it’s destroying their self-worth and self-esteem.

Pez: So the negative self-talk is a type of enslavement?

Alex: The negative self-talk can perpetuate more negative self-talk – that’s the bondage you would feel. It takes a lot of concentration and focus to get yourself out of that. The positive self-talk is a kind of freedom – a way out.

Which mental skill is still challenging for you? How have you been trying to strengthen it?

Will: Managing my emotions. I’ve been stressed lately with homework, work, college applications, cycling…occasionally it’s hard to let all that stress go. When I’m stressed, it’s hard to focus on riding. For example, I’m in the middle of an interval and my mind starts to wander.

Pez: Then what do you do?

Will: I tell myself, “this is the time for biking, and you need to focus on that now.” I’ll focus on my heart-rate monitor, or I’ll put an image in my head and think, “that’s all I can focus on right now.” Also, I tell myself, “this is the best part of my day.” I should enjoy it. And when I get home, I’m not stressed any more.

Coryn: When I went to the UCI World Cup [in Manchester], that was all about [getting] experience. That was hard to understand at first. Usually, I want to win or help a teammate win. Manchester was laid back – I had to adapt.

Pez: So you had to have an unfamiliar goal.

Coryn: I had to change my mindset – how I came into the race. I didn’t have any experience with the women in the field. I was a little bit nervous – I’d never competed with that caliber of female cyclists.

Pez: So you were a little out of your comfort zone – you had to deal with nerves.

Coryn: Yes. This was the best of the best.

Pez: What helped you?

Coryn: Just realizing that there was no pressure coming into the race, it was all about experience and just soak it all in, that helped calm the nerves.

Alex: Goal-setting. I’m not consistently pushing myself to set new goals. Recently I’ve been training just by going on rides. I haven’t had a context to set goals. During the season with our team, we have time trials and other things that make it very clear what my goals are. It’s been good to have reference points – “I’ve going to shave off X number of seconds.” That’s worked.

Pez: So when you’re in the situation of generating goals on your own, rather than having an external situation define them for you, that’s been harder.
Alex: Yes. Mostly my goal has been “try to ride as much as possible.” Now I’m hoping to set up a program with a coach.

Pez: How have you been working on your goal-setting skills?

Alex: I’ve been more careful with my diet. Every morning I fill up a water bottle so I stay hydrated. I’m going to start doing some stretching. I started doing some drum lessons, but slacked off – now my teacher has been getting me to do drills 15 minutes per day. Also, I’ve been more focused on getting my homework done.

Pez: So you’re being more self-disciplined – not only setting specific goals but also holding yourself to them.

Alex: It’s a key aspect of cycling that you can apply to your life.

Pez: What’s an experience you’ve had that has contributed significantly to your mental fitness?

Will: At first I could only hold it [concentration and a positive mental image] for a little while. The first time I really got it right was at the Mt. Tam Hillclimb last year. I remember thinking, “I’m not going to mess up another race because of this.” After I was able to hold it all the way up that hill – then I knew I could hold it, and it became easier. Now, whenever I see something that can distract me from racing, I remember overcoming that.

Pez: What did you overcome?
Will: I think I overcame myself – fears of failing…the whole episode was self-inflicted. I overanalyzed everything because of insecurity over insecurity. I didn’t know how to make it better. Overcoming that has given me a lot of confidence.

Coryn: You have to lose to learn how to win. When I didn’t do well at Moscow, I had to take a step back. I learned how to cope with the situation. Usually, races go the way I want them to go. It was almost like I was put in my place.

Pez: What do you think you learned to cope with?

Coryn: Not getting what I wanted. I wanted to win the world championship and I didn’t. I was depressed for a little bit, but then I stepped back.

Pez: Sounds like you learned to handle disappointment.

Coryn: Yes. It really smacked me in the face.

Alex: After every race, I feel good and that I did my best. When I ride with my team’s coach, Austin, if he says something on a climb like, “you’re killing me,” that feels good. And when my teammates say, “you’re hella fast,” that makes me feel good, unless they’re feeling bad that they’re not as fast.

Pez: So it’s great to hear compliments from people but not when it’s at their expense.
Alex: Right. At the expense of their self-concept.

Pez: So now we’re back to enslavement.

Alex: Right. “I’m not going to be as good as that kid, so why bother?” It can be a negative thought process that leads to your destruction.

Building Your Mental Fitness
How can you use what these young cyclists have learned? Here are a few things to notice:

• Alex mentioned – and demonstrated – the critically important skill of self-awareness. To strengthen your mental skills, you need to be aware of what they are, where you’re strong, and where you want to improve.

• All three have worked to strengthen what is, arguably, the most important of the five core mental skills: Effective Self-Talk. You are your constant companion on the bike. What kind of coach are you for yourself?

• Coryn and Alex illustrated how two of the other core skills, Goal-Setting and Concentration/Focus, often go hand-in-hand. Setting goals effectively and holding yourself to them: a big part of mental fitness.

• Strong mental skills build self-confidence and vice versa. Will, Coryn, and Alex all demonstrated the power of cyclotherapy: how experiences on the bike can build your mental fitness.

Consider reading the Pez Toolbox articles – just click on the words in blue above – on these and related topics, evaluate whether you need to strengthen any of your mental skills, use the tips and links in the articles to integrate mental training into your physical training program, and get help if you need it. And, consider volunteering your time to help junior cyclists – through your local cycling club or junior team, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, or USA Cycling’s junior programs. You will receive much more than you give.