Toolbox: 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 Marvin 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.
Marvin Zauderer, in his sport performance coaching practice, works with amateur and professional athletes from all sports on the mental skills needed for peak performance. He works in person, by phone, and by Skype, and speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marvin leads the Mental Skills 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 athletes. Having had a 20-year career in high technology previously, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. He is a licensed psychotherapist, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. Marvin welcomes comments, suggestions, and questions at [email protected] His website is www.marvinz.com.