The Self-Talk Confessional
6 March 2017
As part of getting Level 2 Coach certification from USA Cycling, I read a fair amount on sport psychology. Self-talk – those messages that circulate round our heads before, during and after we ride has been on my mind a lot lately. Those negative, “neutral” and positive memos we send ourselves that work to motivate, and perhaps de-motivate us too. Three days ago, I went for a hard training ride in east Mesa, a popular route that takes in part of the Bush Highway and Usery Pass Road. On this day, the wind was strong out of the north-northeast and this meant facing a wind on some pretty bumpy tarmac. Headwinds are demoralizing. They are the hill that you never reach the top of. Combine a rough surface and a chilly, indomitable wind and you have the recipe to start thinking, “I don’t think I can do another lap of this.” Self-defeating, self-talk.
When the pavement smooths at Usery Pass Road, the joy is brief as the road ascends about 700 feet in three-and-a-half miles. And when I find I’m reaching for that hoped for lower gear, thinking that I might only be in my 21, not my 23, but there is nothing there but a gear lever that won’t budge, self-talk starts anew and another lap of this 18 mile windy, bumpy loop seems a remote idea. Negative self-talk so single-minded that though the wind is at my back now, and the pavement is pool-table smooth, these gifts of nature and pavement do not mitigate my minds considerations. The powers of positive influences are pushed to the nether reaches of my mind. And then it happens.
A young buck rolls by, tapping out a cadence in a bigger gear that I could never match. My heart is 10 beats above my workout goal already and all I can do is gasp out a “Hey, man,” and watch him ride away, soon to be out of sight. Self-talk becomes incredulous wonder as I ponder how much younger is the man with the bushy blonde hair, who just happens to be wearing the same Two Wheel Jones jersey as me. Math, not my strong suit, becomes my team mate and I determine, surely – he’s a Cat 3, barely 35 and that makes me… umm, well, let’s see. Perhaps I should have assumed him 38, as the mid-ride math would be easier to figure in my head. My math is interrupted with the idea that Garmin should have a calculator function for just such incidences. Finally, I realize the progenitor of my new round of negative self-talk is 23 years my junior. But it’s small consolation as I glance at my Garmin and see my heart is reaching for redline at 160bpm.
As I clear the summit and begin the descent, there is an uptick in joy and my self-talk begins and asks, “Another lap? Well, maybe.” But lurking in the corners of my mind is that distant North wind and his evil twin, bumpy tarmac, and I doubt the possibility of a second lap. And that place – that burning spot above my hips on my lower back – begins to protest, chiming in with, “I don’t think it would be good to do another lap, mate. Feel this? Feel me? You’ll suffer. This will hurt.”
But the descent is long and wind-aided and some voice inside my head asks, “But what about those hard men?” Those men who inspire me with the stories of wind and rain and snow and crashes. Men who ride on, knowing the goal is not to finish this training ride, but to prepare for the race. And in response to less-labored breath and diminished heart rate, I answer that voice and remember, “Oh yeah, that’s why I’m doing this. I’m racing in a week.” The second lap is decided and I grit my teeth, settle myself onto saddle and bar and pedal, reach down, and gear up.
Self-talk – whether negative, positive, or merely neutral – and the resulting influence it has on willpower or motivation is purely contextual.
Two days later, I ride the same route and the wind has shifted to a headwind climb so the rough tarmac fights me alone. But this solitary attack of bump and crack and hot tar patchwork pavement is no match for my buoyant mood. I feel stronger today. And without the headwind here, I think of Friday’s ride and realize how my head foils me so. It’s overcast, but warm. The road is racing beneath me. There is that pungent aroma of road kill skunk and I realize – I rather like that scent. And I feel strong. And fast. Two laps for sure.
But a sweeping right turn and before me – a headwind climb – all it takes to start the self-talk machine singing the praises of “just one lap, bro.” And I agree. “I am racing in 4 days; I will keep up the intensity and cut my volume in preparation, right?” One lap, but hard. Yes. And then, there it is.
A rider on the horizon, a target in my sights and self-talk eggs me on. “C’mon, lad. You I can catch him.” Barely a dot up the road, the challenge is worthy and I imagine Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin debating for the TV audience if I can reel him in.
Head down, pace up and long before the summit, I pass this guy, and it’s official. This is not some dude in gym shorts and t-shirt. He shaves his legs and he rides proper equipment. And there is nary a gray hair on his head. A younger lad for sure. Redemption. I think I’ll do another lap.
Madness, all this external motivation and internal chatter. It has worked for, but mostly against me for years. The only difference is that now I know what’s at work. For years I’ve been giving in to my mind’s lobbying voice to “call it a day, turn back. Enough.” Now that I have read about and learned of the power to persuade and dissuade that is negative self-talk, I know that I can skip that track, change that channel and listen instead to the true voices of Paul and Phil as they cheer my strength, listen to the stories of the hard men, listen to the voice in my head that remembers all the hard, focused work I have done at the start of this season. There’s a podium step out there, calling to me. And the sweet scent of skunk in air.
Excellent writing. My heart rate went up, too. And I could smell the scent of skunk!
Whew! Thanks for the adventure.