Ageing isn’t all bad … I think I’ve acquired some wisdom, and at least the money is better. But, being an athlete, I find the inevitable decline of my body a bit hard to take, especially as I have a long history of judging my performance. Sometimes I begin to feel resigned to putting sport behind me … but then I catch myself and dig back in. It’s a constant struggle, and I’m having to talk myself down from negativity time and time again. This post explores the role of “self-talk” in how we see ourselves, and what it “sounds” like when this self-talk is put into action.
What is self-talk?
My cycling friend Mike Ceely, a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Ceely Sports, an athlete coaching company, describes self-talk on his blog, here. It’s a way that an inner voice responds to, and reinforces, a belief system. For example, he considers a gymnast who is a perfectionist: “Maybe her first coach taught her that mistakes were unacceptable. Because of this, her belief system is ‘people won't like me if I make mistakes.’”
Ceely goes on to explain, “The key to changing your beliefs is to listen to the language—often subconscious—that we use to evaluate ourselves.” I completely relate to this, as I beat down the nascent belief system that I’m too old to be an athlete. This comes into play regularly, when I try to keep up with the high school mountain bike racers whom I coach. My self-talk starts up when we’re five minutes into our ride and cranking up a 10% grade. This is the hardest part of the whole ride for me, as I really need to warm up but the kids clearly don’t. So I have this battle of voices: “I’m just not warmed up,” one says, and the other replies, “I’m making excuses. I’m just too old for this.”
Can self-talk be tamed?
What I experience going up that first hill is a fairly typical dialogue for those who don’t just give in and accept the unhelpful belief system. Ceely advises, “Stop using negative self-talk, and start using positive self-talk. This is the ‘outside-in’ approach. Tell yourself something long enough, and you start to believe it. Instead of saying ‘I’ll never get better’ say, ‘I want to get better.’”
Of course this doesn’t mean I should tell myself, “I will get younger.” Ceely points out that “positive self-talk must be realistic. Saying ‘I will win’ when you’re up against tough competition is not smart. Instead say something positive and unconditional like, ‘strong’ or ‘smooth.’”
The psychologist and author Benjamin Hardy, in this article, points out that past success can actually make it harder to stand up to negative self-talk. He notes, “Some of the most difficult negative thoughts will relate to your past. If you’ve been relatively successful in the past, your mind will always make you believe that you’re not as good as you used to be. Your mind will try to convince you that you’ve lost your touch.” In my experience, this seems like a very rational approach. After all, I have all this data—heart rate, average speed, stopwatch times up my favorite climbs—showing me that yes, my body is slowing down, my power output dwindling.
Hardy goes on, “The first step of silencing your mind is to not believe the negative and limiting thoughts that will relentlessly plague you if you’re growing and learning. See these thoughts for what they are—your subconscious wants certainty and predictability.” How true. So often I’ll be riding and will try to match the speed of a kid I used to drop, only to discover that my legs have checked out for the day. My body used to be pretty predictable … it performed pretty much the same, day after day. Now it’s like all the planets have to line up for me to feel “on.”
So what is to be done, when that negative voice comes over my mental PA system reminding me I’m in my 50s? Do I just ignore it? No, it’s more complicated than that. Hardy explains, “Simply trying to avoid negative thoughts is not enough. You must load-up on goal-directed stimuli, which include information, behaviors, environments, etc.”
Ceely describes the inner dialogue really well in this article, saying:
The inner critic is a natural psychological mechanism that all humans have. Its purpose is to problem-solve by pointing out your (real or imagined) errors and flaws. Historically, its purpose was to protect you. Pointing out your errors back in the caveman days was advantageous.
Because your brain uses language to represent ideas, it’s easy to confuse the messages of the inner critic as your own. Instead, think of the inner critic as a linguistic personification of a primal survival mechanism. It’s useful, but tends to overreact and be a bit hyperbolic… The key is to know that your inner critic is just one of many voices, or internal mechanisms, that try to communicate information to you. Think of your inner critic and other internal voices like members of a board of directors, where you are the Founder, CEO, and majority shareholder. You’re in charge. Your job is to listen to the board members, take their words into consideration, then make executive decisions.
Here’s the cool thing: you don’t have to believe everything “you” think. This means you can take the role of the higher self, the observer, the one who dis-identifies from the automatic narrative playing in the background.
How this plays out fascinates me.
Self-talk in action
All year I’ve been focusing on mountain biking, which for the Albany High team means trail rides of generally 2-3 hours, with lots of breaks along the way. This past weekend, one of the guys on my road team emailed the group suggesting a (road) ride up Mount Diablo, which would be over 80 miles—twice my longest ride of the year—with lots of climbing and very few breaks. As you might imagine, this would be a real stretch for me. But I cautiously accepted, replying, “Sounds good, if you don’t mind a mellow pace,” etc., which I knew would come across as a coded message that actually meant “I’m gonna try to rip your legs off,” because that’s just the typical bike racer ruse. But I meant it … I’ve ridden so little on the road, my road bike still feels weird to me, like the handlebars are way too narrow. I literally haven’t ridden with the team once this year.
As we headed over the Berkeley hills the little voice in my head popped up and said, “I wonder if there’ll be a sprint.” As I’ve described here, and as you’ve surely noticed yourself, one’s self-talk leverages his or her entire history and doesn’t have to spell everything out. The sprint in question is the inevitable race to a particular pedestrian crossing in Moraga, a challenge which virtually every group I’ve ridden with in the last 30 years has taken up, until a bridge washed out and disrupted the tradition. The last time I rode that route, the new bridge was still under construction and had just one lane with a traffic signal installed, so for the group to make it through without stopping would be a toss-up.
Now the voices in my head started bickering:
“If there’s a sprint I should sit it out. This is my first group ride in months.”
“That’s nonsense. I always sprint.”
“It’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder, slicing & dicing, I’m not ready.”
“I’m always ready. I know how to do this.”
“What if my chain breaks under full power?” [This notion arose because recently, pre-riding a mountain bike race course, my chain did break and I crashed.]
“Stop being ridiculous.”
The negative voice, you’ll notice, was just making excuses, the kind that would serve the “I’m too old” belief system (which Ceely rightly abbreviates BS, pun intended). My self-talk CEO didn’t explain his rationale because he wants to rule with an iron fist. The problem with that kind of leadership, of course, is getting real buy-in from everyone. My inner critic wouldn’t be silenced.
We made our way down Pinehurst Road and the speed ramped up. Over the painful little climb on Canyon Road, a couple of guys were drilling it on the front, clearly starting to set up their sprint.
Down the other side of the hill my inner critic worried about safety.
“I’ll probably get dropped right here and miss the sprint.”
“Pfff. No way. Start at the front, drift back, and work back up.”
“Missing the sprint would be kinda nice.”
“Missing the sprint is out of the question.”
“There’s a giant pothole somewhere. It destroyed your car tire last year.”
“It’s a paved descent. This is just not that complicated.”
As we headed toward the sprint, the pace ramped higher and higher. Suddenly D— launched a blistering early attack, starting at the back and flying by us on the left. Everyone dove for his wheel. I got gapped and shifted into my highest gear to chase.
“They’re gone. I missed it. I don’t have the jump I needed.”
“They’re right there. At this speed the slipstream is huge. I can latch on.”
“What am I even doing trying to mix it up with these guys? I never had a sprint to begin with! I’m not a fast-twitch guy! What am I doing here?”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
If you were starting to get bored, fear not … this is where things get interesting. As you may have noticed, my inner critic isn’t very sophisticated. As Ceely described, this critic operates mainly out of fear: fear of failure, fear of injury. It’s old messaging, like a broken record. But an upside of being old is that I have a wealth of experience in road racing bunch sprints, and the movements have become so ingrained, they become almost automatic. My neocortex loves the tactical complexity required, and finally the thrill of the hunt becomes irresistible. All the negative self-talk drops away … I’m like a cat going after a laser pointer. Now the self-talk is more focused and intelligent … it hones in on the “goal-directed stimuli” described in Hardy’s article.
“B— is on the back but he’s just getting going. He’s the fastest sprinter here. If I get his wheel I’m golden.”
“And there’s his attack! And I don’t need a jump—I’m already going faster than the group because I’ve been chasing! Getting dropped was a gift! I love this sport!”
“Nobody saw him jump—his wheel is wide open! Get it! Get it! Harder, harder, drill it, I’m almost there!”
“I’ve got the wheel! Hold that wheel! Hold it! Shit, I’m golden!”
In case you haven’t had the pleasure of a cycling bunch sprint, this was the part where I was putting out all the power I was capable of, but without the wind resistance I’d have fought if riding alone. It’s a bit like catching a wave, I suppose … this extraordinary rush of speed and the delicious sensation of doing something I’d be incapable of if not latched on to my teammate’s wheel. Meanwhile, I could tell from my peripheral vision, and from the decrease in sound, that the rest of the group was gone. We’d made the jump to light-speed.
“Can I get around B—? No. I’m topped out. Can’t do it.” [This isn’t technically negative self-talk … it’s just stating a fact.]
“God, what a rush.”
“Second place in Walking Man is not bad.”
“Holy shit, who the hell is that?!”
Another rider inexplicably came flying by right as we reached the pedestrian crossing. It was Y—, D—’s 14-year-old son and a rising star in both road and mountain bike racing in NorCal. He’s got the build of a climber, which should make such a phenomenal sprint impossible, except that he’s clearly hugely talented. He also played his cards almost perfectly … the only reason he didn’t beat B— in the end is that he chose my wheel, probably assuming I’d start to pass B— and then (and only then) he’d launch his own sprint and overtake both of us. But I didn’t go fast enough, and didn’t start to pass B—… I just kind of sat there. Y— probably won’t overestimate me again. He’ll be going directly for B—’s wheel next time.
Did my negative self-talk start up again after the sprint? No, I’m more realistic than that. What would be the point of faulting myself after the fact, especially when I’d done a good sprint? Besides, since Y— races against my Albany High team, I automatically considered his feat from the perspective of coach. (My result doesn’t matter, it’s just for kicks.) Besides, I had more on my mind anyway: we still had Mount Diablo to tackle.
Sure, there was a little more self-talk on the way up the mountain, as I tried to keep up with Y— for as long as possible while still having enough in the tank to make the summit, and then make it home. But the inner critic quiets down a fair bit when adrenaline and endorphins enter the picture and things are going well. I ended up climbing Diablo a shocking nine minutes faster than last time (which was all the way back in September, when I was still coasting on my fitness from my DIY Everest Challenge). On the way home, I kept waiting for my body to give out, but it never did, and I even clocked a decent time on Wildcat Canyon, the last climb. Next time my inner critic starts naysaying, my inner CEO will simply reply, “You know nothing. Remember that Diablo ride? I got this.”
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