Part One: Virtually Trapped in My Own Mind

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.

indoor cycling to stop negative thoughts

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.

 

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.

light shining in a jail cell

Where the Autonomic Nervous System Comes In

black and white image of blurred man's head

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.

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!!

a jail cell with bars on window

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.

indoor cycling man with negative thoughts in his head

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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Servio Medina
Servio Medina
3 months ago

I was hanging on every word (admitting this itself is not something I might’ve easily done not too long ago). Reading words that evoke similar feelings – and in public space – is itself…calming and empowering.

First negative cycling thoughts for me were 20 years ago. Dry-mouthed anxiety of letting others/myself down. Wound up racing a LOT (bc team/friends were)…2-3 races a weekend. Didn’t realize at the time that the sheer volume of racing alone would inadvertently offset the negative. Before one race, unintentionally dozed on the grass during earlier races, and started awake with less than an hour to my race…in which I raced WELL.

There were a couple others races for which the plan was to protect and lead out a teammate, i.e., no reason to be self-negative. Twice I was going to lead a teammate out – twice I wound up taking the win that almost felt easy.

Yes, I’m 55 and still have these thoughts now and then. And yes, gonna re-read this now and then.

Frank van Doorn
Frank van Doorn
3 months ago

In the ‘before time’ I used to be an international level track and field sprinter for Canada. For ten years of competition I found these same negative thoughts creeping in as I warmed up before races. And over time, and with, of course, experience I discovered it was a conversation between the ‘rational self’ on one shoulder and the ‘emotional self’ on the other. The rational mind was loudest during the warmup, but when it was time to line up and take sweats off it would suddenly fall silent as the emotional mind darkly took over. My competitors, some dear friends to this day, became my worst enemies. I would nearly growl, grit my teeth, eyes would get focused, mind on the task at hand. When the gun would go off I’d do my thing. There were days I said things to people beside me as we loaded ourselves into the blocks, mind games, that I have since regretted. I’ve been told long after I retired from sprinting that I was frightening, that they were afraid of me. I know that part of me exists, it in fact frightens me, too. I took up cycling some 30 years later and I find I’m still the same, full of doubt at the start. I avoid the monster as much as possible, I’m not as powerful as I once was certainly not in cycling. I now ride and race against myself, the two sides, the brain and the heart, warring with each other. It may sound counter intuitive, but each year my speed, climbing and power has increased. I’m not first anymore, but so far I’m happy with the results and I have more friends in cycling today than I ever did in the ‘before time’. I don’t know why I have fessed up like this … must be time.

Frank van Doorn
Frank van Doorn
3 months ago

Christopher Schwenker – just to be clear, I never was the household name in Canada, let alone the world, as some of my teammates were, some remembered positively and others ignominiously. My best international finish was fourth in both the Commonwealth Games and Pan-Ams, but at home I had 11 national titles, both individual and relays, and 9 national records. Simply want you to know I am not just talking out of my hat. That’s important to me as at 66 yoa in our youth culture us older folks struggle with growing irrelevance to our world.

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[…] put myself out there in Part One of this series.  I have negative cycling-related thoughts from time to time before A events and […]

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[…] my struggles with the negative race thoughts in my head and attempts to be more mindful check out Part One and Part Two of this personal sports psychology […]

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