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Friday, November 26, 2010

Psychology for Competitive Cyclists part 2

Please read part 1 first.  Or last.  Or whatever.

Anxiety Control or Thought Control

Many people believe that we have complete control over our thoughts and thereby control our feelings and beliefs, which in turn help set our values and following behavior.  In short, we have free will and we are our own master.  The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions:  (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.

I do not believe that this is completely true for many reasons.  There are many factors such as: knowledge, attitude, beliefs or core values, perceptions, personality, etc. and many external factors such as:  environmental stressors, socio-cultural, economic, biological or physiology, etc. that largely determine not only thought, but also behavior.  In short, we may have some degree of free will some of the time, but not complete free will all of the time. 

How much free will?  I don't know.  If we accept the ramifications of Einstein's theory of relativity which suggests that time is an illusion such that there is no actual distinction between past, present and future (all things ARE) other than our human perception of it as an illusion, then free will must also an illusion. 

Let's ignore that argument and allow freewill to exist since it certainly feels like it exists.   Yet we must acknowledge that our freewill is variable, conditional and changing.   Here are just a few examples of what I'm talking about:    Your arm is lopped off.    Now think happy thoughts.  It's not going to happen in the present, but given time, perhaps in the future.    Or you are informed that your home and possessions have been destroyed in a fire.  Now think happy thoughts and conduct yourself according.  It would be impossible to think happy thoughts under these conditions initially.  It is also equally impossible for an individual with severe schizophrenia to "will" their thinking such that audio hallucinations disappear.  And the list goes on; are you free to do that which does not occur to you?  Of course not.

Now picture a giant elephant with long smooth ivory tusks facing you directly.  It's huge ears flapping repetitively so as to cool it's massive body.

Did you choose this image in your head or did I?

Our thoughts and behaviors are constantly being triggered or influenced by external sources in an endless stream of cause and effect.  Examples of internal and external factors that influence behavior (often determinately) are far too many for this post. What is important to understand in regards to freewill and the psychology of cycling and the human psyche in general, is that we do not always have complete control of our thoughts.  There is a window of freewill that opens and shuts conditionally and provisionally based on the many factors previously mentioned. 

The good news is that there are methods to increase one's self-control.  "Although we can certainly influence our minds and emotions, often we have little or no direct control over our thoughts or feelings, which are temporary and rise and pass like weather fronts.  We do however, have significantly more control over our behavior - despite what we are, or are not, thinking or feeling.  In fact, our behavior (how we move our arms, legs, and mouth) is the only thing we can directly control.  This is a great secret of success." - Dan Millam 1999

Interestingly, behavior can influence thought and feelings as much or more than the other way around (thoughts and feelings determine behavior).  In short, doing becomes being. It may be difficult to impossible to choose what we will choose to do, but we can typically or often do that which we choose.  This takes us back full circle to the topic of interest:  anxiety control or thought control.

I really like Nike's slogan, "Just Do It".  The slogan put into action is a simple and powerful method for altering our thoughts and feelings from "Just Do"ing a behavior.  We have all experienced this phenomenon where doing an activity completely changes our mood and thought patterns.  

Another variation of behavior determining thought and feelings is the phenomenon of "acting as if" .  An example would be to make yourself smile and/or laugh out loud. Soon you will find "as if" becomes "I am". 

Although we can certainly influence our minds and emotions, often we have little or no direct control over our thoughts or feelings, which are temporary and rise and pass like weather fronts.  We do however, have significantly more control over our behavior - despite what we are, or are not, thinking or feeling.  In fact, our behavior (how we move our arms, legs, and mouth) is the only thing we can directly control.  This is a great secret of success - Dan Millam 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen, I submit to you the power of ........ "Just Do It!"

So with this in mind, as an athlete we need to focus heavily on our behavior (which can determine our values, feelings, beliefs and thoughts).  Controlling one's thought should not be ignored, but (In my opinion) should be considered less reliable than controlling one's own behavior for determining our mindset. 

Now let's talk a little about how and what to think about briefly and return to ideal behaviors for competitive cyclists later.  It has been said that you get more of what you think about, and if you think you can do something, you may.  If you think you can't, you won't.  Henry Ford put it this way, "Those who believe they can and those who believe they can't are both right." (this is also known as self full-filling prophecy).

Here's what to think about as a competitive athlete:  In general it is best for an athlete to NOT THINK! (particularly during competition).  Yogi Berra put it this way, "Think!  How the hell are you going to think and hit at the same time?"

Ideally a competitive cyclist (or any athlete) should be so rehearsed and practiced that conscious thought is almost unnecessary for the activity.  Movements, actions and decisions are ideally instantaneous for optimized performance.  An elite athlete should be able to operate on a near instinctive level in order to perform at the highest level.  This is often referred to as being "in the zone".

For a cyclist to be able to get "in the zone" or race instinctively, they must practice cycling skills repetitively (both physically and through visualization) until they become instinctive.  They also should  learn a series or list of rules and responses to different scenarios and be able to automatically (or instinctively) react when these events occur.

Allow me to list just a few of my rules for racing that reduces my need for deep thought and thereby allows me to ride more "in the zone".  Keep in mind that there are occasionally exceptions to these rules, but again decisions are best to be made on instincts and rapidly in order to increase cycling performance.   

1. Never half wheel.  2. Stay very close to the wheel in front of me (stay in the draft).  3. Do the least amount of work as necessary to stay in the race (conservation).  4. Never chase down a teammate.  5. Never attack down hill or into a head-wind.  6. Attack or expect an attack up hills and with cross-winds and tail-winds.  7.  Expect the 1st lap of a crit to be hard and fast.  8.  When I am tired while "sitting in" (just drafting) alarm bells should be going off for me to get up near the front because a winning break could establish.  9.  Expect a break away after a "Prime" (prize lap).  10.  Expect a counter attack after a break is caught.  11.  Hold onto a wheel (draft) no matter how hard it becomes or how long it lasts.... it will let up eventually 12.  The inside line has the best survival rate during a crash in a corner.  13.  When the peloton slows/groups move up to the front and be weary of crashes.  14.  Bridge up immediately to break-a-ways that have the major teams represented.  15.  If a break is being caught by the peloton group that I am in...... sit in and prepare for  the counter attack.  16.  Try to be in all break-a-way attempts during the last half of a road race.  17.  Solo riders do not usually ride away.  Go in groups.  18.  Be up front during technical sections.  19.  Expect to produce a maximal effort and suffer at the end of a race.  20.  Break-a-ways survive best when out of sight.

The list goes on and on, but these are a few of my rules for racing, that I have adopted on a learned instinctive level.   I do not have to debate in my mind what to do when these scenarios present themselves to me during a race.  My best race performances are when I respond instantly and instinctively.

"Think!  How the hell are you going to think and race at the same time!" - David Henderson

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