You have them! I know you do, but there’s no reason to be ashamed or afraid. Silence the negative thoughts that stand between you and the best cyclist you can be!
Unintended consequences are a common theme of my writing on this blog. In the previous post on Stress and Mindfulness Training for Athletes, I mentioned that I have learned to think critically through research and writing to improve my mental game.
I am more inclined to jump into a rabbit hole of varied points of view than accept any at face value. Much less the unanticipated outcomes than the unexpected benefit.
My thought process has become increasingly logical and evidence generated. Every question has an answer. Every answer is reasonable, rational, and is validated.
However, in my attempt to explain the virtues of mindfulness for athletes, I coasted right past the big question. Why can’t this logical critical thinker stop the negative thoughts that require him to be mindful in the first place? The irrational and unrealistic defeatist inner beliefs interfere with the ability to perform at my best.
Therein lies the paradox. The first of many that have kept me trapped in my own mind.
All Competitive Athletes Have Them
It makes sense here to describe what those thoughts are. The internal monologue overwhelms my pre-race psyche with an unhelpful stream of the subconscious. I’m going to get dropped. I’m not as strong as those guys. I’m going to let my teammates down.
Some invoke a visceral association with pain. A sensation I feel every time I race and emerge at the finish line unscathed. An emotion I can shut off at any time just by not turning the pedals. I often relish and cite pushing myself past the limit as a reason for racing in the first place.
Then there is the most insidious and pervasive one of all. The thought that I will let myself down.
The Logical Explanation for My Irrational Thoughts
The challenge to overcome unpleasant thoughts has a significant impact on an athlete’s ability to perform. Energy is spent controlling or pushing them aside that should be focused elsewhere. The term used by researchers is “Unpleasant Repetitive Thoughts”, or URTs.
A 2020 study describes URTs as Perseverative cognition, otherwise known as intrusive, uncontrollable, repetitive thoughts. These negative affective experiences are accompanied by physiological arousal as if the individual were facing an external stressor.
Stay tuned! In Part Two of the “Virtually Trapped in My Own Mind” article series, I interview the Sports Psychologist for the USA Track and Field team on URTs and his athletes.
Where the Autonomic Nervous System Comes In
If our Central Nervous System must deal with our conscious control, our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) handles everything behind the scenes.
The ANS deftly thinks for us from telling our heart when to beat to our lungs when to breathe.
That is a very good thing, except when it isn’t.
The ANS has two branches. The parasympathetic nervous system is the chill side of us and controls rest, digestion, feeding, and breeding.
The sympathetic nervous system is far from it and is commonly known as fight or flight.
The disruptive thoughts get stronger each time we line up for a race, are rehearsed and etched into our intellect to become an obsessive pattern. The rational brain is defenseless because the sympathetic nervous system processes URTs as physical threats.
You are violently spinning the pedals, but you are going nowhere. Moreso, the persistent sympathetic state takes a toll by enhancing your systemic inflammatory trauma response.
The Paradox of My Irony
I have identified the issue and surfaced from the rabbit hole with a scientific explanation. Why is it still happening? Therein lies the irony.
A recent study of the paradoxical effects of thought suppression supports the psychological belief that when you attempt to repress thoughts and emotions they become more disruptive and dominant.
To take it one giant step further, when you try to think of something, it is harder to consciously. Your thoughtful intentions are sabotaged by your subconscious and steer your brain from achieving the goal. Unfortunately, the unconscious brain usually wins out. I’m doomed.
We heighten the effect when we try to control our thoughts despite being mentally exhausted. For the cyclist teetering on the edge of form, fitness, and overtraining, we ask more of our brains than they can deliver. I’m double doomed!!
To Regain Power You Have to be Willing to Give It Up
It is widely believed among psychologists that the “ironic effect” is rooted in the need for mental control. The attempt to control unwanted mental states plays a role in perpetuating them.
To overcome obsessive thought patterns, you must understand them and their purpose. By accepting them as a subconscious protective mechanism, you separate yourself. The reflex is not who you are or intend to be.
In addition, once you understand the problem and the mental energy you have wasted to address it, the more likely you are to put it behind you. You permit yourself to liberate your thoughts.
We may not be able to eliminate reflexive subconscious thought patterns, but we can separate from them. Unshackled of the binds to our subconscious and free to strengthen alternative circuitry.
Building connections in portions of our brain that are more equipped to cultivate and nurture them. Rewiring through training, mental training.
Practical Implications For This Not-So-Mindful Cyclist
I have accepted that I have these intrusive thoughts and realize that they are not me. The negative beliefs are unwelcome and involuntary.
The trick is to prevent them from becoming an obsession and getting in the way of enjoying my passion. I may not control them from entering my brain, but I can influence how I respond.
I have learned not to fight them. It is clear that the more I do that, the stronger the words become. I prefer to observe the thoughts rather than agonize over them and detach from the unpleasant feelings.
Instead, when I notice my inner dialogue has become negative, I focus on the mindfulness techniques I learned when writing Stress and Mindfulness Training for Athletes.
I have developed an association between certain negative words and mindful relaxation techniques with a bit of practice. The response has become conditioned and is now almost automatic or habitual.
I realized long ago that it is hard for me to think of more than one thing at a time. This perceived shortcoming (according to my supportive significant other) is a benefit in this situation.
By telling myself, “You got this” and “If you are hurting, then they are hurting more,” I can substitute the invasive thoughts with useful ones.
When all else fails, I ask myself, “What is the worse that could happen?” The answer, Nothing! If I come in last, my legs and lungs hurt ALOT, or I can’t make the move my teammates had tapped me for, it will not change who I am or how others look at me.
Conclusion - Keeping My Sports Psychology Couch Warm
I intend to continue striving to make myself a better athlete and share that knowledge with the readers of this blog. Even if that means looking deep into my reflection, I’m not fearful of what I will see.
I’m more fearful of the voices inside my head that tell me my words will go unread. Or worse, they will be read by someone who hides behind the shroud of social media to deafen their inner dialogue through critical deflection.
Nonetheless, I will put myself out there on the bike and at the desk. I am constantly trying to make myself better at both and practicing what I learn. There is nothing unintended about that!
Do you have unwelcome negative thoughts?
How do you cope and what strategies do you use to silence them? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
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Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!