As a psychologist I often advise athletes to trust their competence, not their confidence. Competence is about having the real skills to do something. Confidence, on the other hand, is unreliable and can get us in big trouble. If you know what you’re capable of, you can go out and do it. Confidence is mostly bullshit.
If you know what you’re capable of, you can go out and do it. Confidence is mostly bullshit.
So how do you increase your competence? The best place to start is to learn to gauge both your skills and your limits. I always suggest developing a realistic skills hierarchy and to use other riders as a gauge for determining where you sit. For example, for drops, a hierarchy might start with drops or rolls of ½ metre or less with an easy exit, moving up to drops (no rollout option) of up to a metre, then incrementing all the way up to 2+metres with difficult exits. Maybe give each increment a grade (e.g., 1A –really easy, to 5D – stupidly hard) and then determine where you are now and where you could realistically get to (with practice). It’s then pretty easy to rate a given trail based on its features and level of technicality, and to decide whether you can do some or all of it, and what you’d need to improve in order to ride the whole thing.
Knowing your skills and limits also means that it’s realistically easier to say “no” when you come across a feature that you know is beyond your current skills. It’s worth pointing out that just because other guys make it look easy, doesn’t mean that it is, or that you should even ride it. If riding is about fun, then figuring out the maximum grade of risk you’re prepared to accept, and then working your way up to that level systematically, will result in a lot more fun.
There’s no need to punish yourself or feel like an idiot because you don’t have the skills you want right now – instead of looking at a drop and giving yourself shit about not being able to ride it, use it as motivation to learn to be a better rider.
Most importantly, grading trails and features, and then figuring out your current skills and limits, helps you to be able to ride without letting your head screw it up for you. Once you accept that a feature is beyond your current skill level, it’s a lot easier to simply walk your bike around it, and then work on developing a training program to build your skills up so you’re able to clear that section later on. This is probably the best way to get around the whole “my head won’t let me” scenario that all of us have come across. There’s no need to punish yourself or feel like an idiot because you don’t have the skills you want right now – instead of looking at a drop and giving yourself shit about not being able to ride it, use it as motivation to learn to be a better rider.
Increased competence is by far the best way to increase your enjoyment out on the bike. In sport psychology the term “flow” is used to describe a feeling of total immersion with an activity, where everything goes right, and time disappears. It’s an amazing feeling, and one of the main reason I mountain bike. Flow certainly isn’t guaranteed though, and there are lots of things that get in the way.
So how do you get to have one of those rides where everything just works, and you finish up feeling totally buzzed? Here’s my recipe for riding a trail with flow.
1) Flow is much more likely to happen when you get the balance between your skills and the level of challenge just right. This means knowing your limits and your skill level and then matching it to the trail. A trail that keeps you on your toes, but doesn’t scare the crap out of you is a good match. Go for enough challenge so that you max out at about 80% of your skill threshold.
2) You can also increase the chances of flow by upping the challenge on easier trails (e.g., focusing on technique, like attempting to keep your hands off the brakes in corners, or getting your balance just right on a drop). Increasing skills levels also helps, because it means you can attempt increased challenges. See part 2 for an idea of how to do this.
When this happens, don’t just balls through it. Stop, take a breath, come back into the present moment.
There are two things that will always kill flow: too much challenge (resulting in fear and overthinking) and not enough skill. The kicker is that, when the challenge is too high and you get a fear response, you’ll probably go into fight or flight (see part 1) which means that you won’t be able to think clearly and your fine-motor control will reduce, meaning you’re more likely to stuff up. In other words, too much challenge gets in the way of skill.
When this happens, don’t just balls through it. Stop, take a breath, come back into the present moment (look at your bike and the trail and the trees), and then get on your bike and ride something that you know is within your ability (ramp down the challenge to match your skill). If your head starts giving you grief, take another breath, acknowledge that your head is giving you shit, focus on the trail, and remind yourself why you’re out there – you’re not there to go big or go home, you’re there to enjoy the ride as much as you possibly can.
About the author:
Dr. Jeremy Adams is a registered psychologist and director of Eclectic Consulting Ltd. He divides his time between mountain biking, working with athletes and other performers, executive coaching, and private practice.
In past lives, Jeremy has been a principal lecturer in sport and performance psychology at a university in London, a senior manager in a large consulting firm in Melbourne, a personal trainer in Paris, and a scuba instructor in Byron Bay. He’s also the author of a textbook on performance in organisational management, a large range of professional and popular articles, and a regular blog about how to be human (www.eclectic-moose.com).
Jeremy is based in Melbourne and can be contacted through his website (www.eclectic-consult.com).