What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Moving Forward by Letting Go

So often we increase our performance and enjoyment on the bike by taking action: training a limiter, improving a skill, taming the mind. But sometimes, it’s better to give in than to dig in. The mentally fit cyclist knows when letting go – rather than pushing harder, doing more, or hanging on – is the best way forward.

By Marvin Zauderer

Last weekend I was out for a pleasant ride in the countryside with my friends Matt and Diane. The sun was shining, the wild turkeys were squawking, and, even in the middle of racing season, I had little need to attend to the powermeter. Many cyclists were out on the roads. We passed some, others passed us.

As we approached the local roadhouse and prepared to make a pit stop, we saw a gathering of parked cars in the roadhouse’s lot. Expensive cars; mostly Corvettes, with the drivers standing around in groups, talking. Some kind of car club, we thought. Just then, a Porsche Carrera GT passed us. Long ponytail swaying to and fro in the wind, the driver pulled her $400,000+ machine into the lot. A male cyclist rode up to the car. The two began arguing, and the argument grew louder. Suddenly a battalion of male Corvette drivers made a beeline for the GT, intent on defending the woman. The cyclist peeled off.

I struck up a conversation with another cyclist. With full kits, helmets and sunglasses firmly in place, it took a moment for us to realize that we knew each other. I had met Bill – retired pastor, domestic violence educator, fellow LandShark owner – a few years back through the local cycling club, when he had been finishing up radiation treatments for cancer. At that time, we were both headed for the Ride for the Roses (now the Livestrong Challenge) later that year in Austin, Texas, to benefit the Lance Armstrong Foundation and its fine work with cancer survivors. At the roadhouse, we caught up a bit. He mentioned that he now had an artificial knee; we swapped stories about our common bike-fitter.

You’re driving and a cyclist does something that scares or angers you. You’re riding and a driver does something that scares or angers you. You have cancer. So often in life, you have a choice: you can fight, or you can let go. So much of our focus in life and in sport is on the fight, the struggle, the challenge, on what we can do to make things go better. How can the opposite – letting go – help us on the bike?

As we reflect on the many skills and topics we’ve covered in this Sport Psychology column, notice how letting go has played an important role. For example:

• An important aspect of goal-setting and goal-management is to jettison goals that no longer make sense, because of injury, illness, change of schedule, and so on. Some athletes hang on to the wrong goals for too long, increasing the risk of frustration, demotivation, burnout, and depression.

• In Handling Pressure, I point out ways to recognize and selectively let go of perfectionism, a great strength – and great weakness – of many athletes;

• Ben Jacques-Maynes of Bissell Pro Cycling, in The Mind of a Mentally Fit Pro, talks about letting go of his “‘win at all costs’ mentality” – making his satisfaction on the bike less about winning and more about effort;

• In Managing Your Will to Succeed, I note how you can let go of your need to succeed without letting go of your will to succeed;

• You saw – with a harrowing example from Bill Strickland – how letting go of embarrassment, guilt, and shame can be key to building your self-confidence on and off the bike;

• In an activity – sports – where comparisons are so often central, it can be exceedingly helpful to let go of any destructive comparisons with others;

• In Part 2 of Recovering from Crashes, you saw how letting go of self-blame can accelerate recovery; and

• In last month’s column, Putting Failure in its Place, we examined how you can most effectively define and manage failure. You saw how letting go of self-consciousness – letting go of how others see you, letting go of worrying whether you have what it takes, letting go of being overly self-involved – can take the “sting” out of failure.

Clearly, there are many helpful, day-to-day opportunities to practice “letting go” on the bike. But there’s still a proverbial elephant in the middle of the room. How else can letting go help with your experiences on the bike? (Sure, putting your hands in the air when you cross the line first, but besides that?) What about really letting go?

Going With vs. Going Against

When is it time to stop? To stop competing as a pro, to stop competing as an amateur, to stop training so hard, to stop striving for a dearly-wanted goal, or – dare I say it – to stop riding altogether?

In stopping any of these things you’d lose something, right? Something that you’d been using to create meaning, purpose, challenge, and fun for yourself. Here’s an understatement: we human beings really don’t like loss. It hurts, and we’ll go to great lengths to avoid it – if we can.

Much of what we know about loss originates in the research of the British psychiatrist John Bowlby and the Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Both studied the loss, and anticipated loss, of important people in one’s life. But since then, their discoveries have been shown to apply to many of the other losses we face – and fear.

One of Bowlby’s many contributions was showing how a healthy letting go involves not only an emotional divestment from what has been lost, but an emotional reinvestment elsewhere. That may sound straightforward, but often it’s anything but. And this is where Kubler-Ross comes in. She’s famous for the “stages” she identified that characterize living and healing through loss: denial (eg. “I’m still strong enough”), anger (“@$#%! This is so unfair!”), bargaining (“I’ll give up my job to train more, how about that?”), depression (“This sucks. Why even ride any more?”), and finally, acceptance (“This is how it is. It’s going to be OK.”)

Kubler-Ross herself pointed out that these stages are often not linear; one can move from any one of the first four to any other one of those four, and back again, long before one accepts the loss.

To me, the most accurate representation (or perhaps I should say re-presentation) of this process that I’ve seen was not a list but – strangely enough – a wheel. It showed loss triggering shock, protest, (inner) disorganization, reorganization and then….either around the wheel again to shock, or off the wheel to recovery, or off the wheel on a descent into deterioration.

Emotional reinvestment is part of reorganization. When it’s time for you to let go of something much more significant in your riding, you’ll need to invest that energy in something – or someone – else.

Speaking of which, the great triathlete Scott Tinley wrote a rollicking, engaging book a few years back about his experience with this kind of thing: “Racing the Sunset: An Athlete’s Quest for Life After Sport.” In it, he quotes the famous child psychologist D.W. Winnicott:

“It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

And Kubler-Ross, in an interview, said:

“In Switzerland I was educated in line with the basic premise, ‘Work, work, work. You are only a valuable human being if you work.’ This is utterly wrong. Half working, half dancing – that is the right mixture. I myself danced and played too little.”

For many of us, there’s nothing that says “play” – in childhood and right now – more than riding a bike. It can be very hard to give up any of it.

My friend Kevin once introduced me to his neighbor Mike. Mike rides his $10,000 Pinarello 25 miles three times each week. He’s 92 years old. And he doesn’t look a day over 72. So perhaps you’ll never have to stop riding. But it’s likely you’re going to have to give up something very important to you, someday, in your experiences with cycling. All of the day-to-day, ride-to-ride, race-to-race “letting go” that you practice now is also good practice for that day.

I’m not a student of aikido, the Japanese martial art. But as I understand it, it’s about redirecting the force of the opponent rather than meeting that force head-on. It’s about going with rather than going against. With all of the striving, struggling, and battling that we do on the bike, the way of aikido can sometimes be the best way forward.

About Marvin:

Marvin Zauderer, in his sport psychology practice, coaches athletes from all sports on the mental skills needed for success. He works in person and by phone, and frequently speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marvin leads the Mental Training program at Whole Athlete, a performance center in Marin County, California that provides a comprehensive set of coaching, testing, fitting, and consulting services to amateur and professional athletes. He is a licensed psychotherapist, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. Having had a 20-year career in high-technology R&D, sales & marketing, and management, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. Marvin welcomes email at [email protected] His website is www.marvinz.com.

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