The Price of Positivity

This past weekend I was laying on my couch, finding it hard to believe that it was already November! It seems like just a short time ago, I was getting ready for the impending cyclocross season, and now we're somewhere around the halfway point. Jeez!

I've really enjoyed my season up to this point, and I feel like I've already made progress from where I was last year. And that's what it's all about, right? Incremental improvements. Marginal gains. Each second of every day, steadily moving forward until you finally reach your goal (and then move on to the next one). One particular area of focus for me this season has been my mental game.

I wrote about this in an earlier post (^^click that link!), but there comes a time in most athletes' lives when the barrier to breaking through the next level is not a physical hurdle, but a psychological one. Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of physical and technical improvements to be made for me. But, in an effort to better my own mental fortitude, I started reading books and articles on mental toughness, and even started working with a sports psychologist to improve my focus and my mindset. If you're just dipping your toes into this realm, there are innumerable resources to tap into on mental focus and positivity in general. But for all of that great advice, no one really talks about the “cost” of maintaining such a positive outlook.

Case and point for me has been some of my races this season. For starters, I've had bad call-ups in seemingly EVERY race.

As a side note: the way cyclocross racers are called to the starting line at a professional race is first by UCI points (those with the most points to those with the least), then by random assignment. (See rule 5.1.043)

I know the draws are generated by a computer algorithm, but somewhere along the way I must have pissed someone off since I have been the last man to the grid in more races than I care to remember this year. But for all of those cards stacked against me week in and week out, I tried to keep my eye on the prize and constantly reminded myself that "Call up position is just for show."

And I genuinely believe that! You can still have a great ride from last place and even make it to the podium if you're smart and strong. At the same time, my lowly position on the start line puts me on the back foot before the gun even goes off. Rather than being with other racers of similar ability/ speed, I'm forced to navigate through crowds and slower riders, burning precious drops of energy to make it towards the front of the race. As a result, I hit a point where I have to recover and that has it's own repercussions (i.e. losing my spot in the race, missing the group, etc.).

You can probably tell where the slippery slope begins and how easy it can be to snowball from there. Rather than feeling a sense of satisfaction with my performance - I did just pass half the field after all!! - my mind is filled with doubt and feeling like I had not raced to my fullest potential. A couple races in a row of this cycle and the emotional exhaustion that comes with maintaining a positive outlook takes its toll. I started to get really negative. I started worrying about who was going to be at the race on the weekend and whether or not I would have a shot at being in the points. In other words, I was sliding backwards from all the progress I had made at the start of the season.

No matter how hard I try, it has been challenging to see those micro-improvements through the forest of "mistakes".

"Sure I rode that section cleaner and faster than anyone else, but I still got pulled with 2 laps to go"

This type of internal monologue, this negativity, this pessimism, is all too common. And it comes so easily after your feel like you've rammed your head into the wall time and time again. For me personally, I've always been prone to see my flaws and shortcomings. They distract me from the good things and the improvements that I've made. It's the path of least resistance, and rather than swim against the current, I turn and paddle with the flow.

So then Tyler, what have you done to change that? What can I do to not fall down that slope? 

To be honest, I don't have an exact answer. Changing your outlook and your mindset is not easy. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes intentional practice to put your best foot forward. It takes a commitment to The Process.

I don't think positivity is, nor will it ever be, something that I completely master. But what I can do is remind myself that each race, each challenge it a part of this path that I'm on. I'm not blazing trails here. I would bet most riders at the top had a stint where they faced the same challenges or some other adversity. And what makes those men and women at the top so special is their willingness to meet those challenges head on. 

I'm a firm believer that in order to be the best, you need to practice like the best. So while I am left to fight my way to the front of the bunch, I'll remind myself to see obstacles as a challenge to meet rather than a potential for defeat. To be consumed by the activity not the outcome. And to realize that the probability of achieving my goals increases exponentially when I let go of the need to have them.