How to Get Unstuck and Start Making Progress Again
By Syd Schulz, CTS Athlete and Pro MTB Racer
There I stood, again, at the top of the infamous Graveyard section at Angel Fire Bike Park for what felt like the 100th time.
Ol’ Graveyard and I go way back. The first time I rode it was in 2013, in my first ever enduro race. I took a wrong turn in my race run, failed to notice all the “extreme,” “experts only” and “FREERIDE” signs and bumbled halfway down it on my 120 mm cross-country bike. Then I walked/climbed down the rest of the way in tears because, “For f&cks sake, if this is enduro, COUNT ME OUT!”
Fast forward to 2015. I had a few things going for me on my second attempt — 1) it was on purpose, 2) I had just gotten a downhill bike and 3) I was wayyyyy better at riding bikes than I was in 2013. But still, no dice. While it was not nearly as traumatic as the first attempt, I did manage to tip over at zero miles per hour and scratch the stantions on my brand-new, sparkly DH bike, so… soooo much for that.
In 2016, I didn’t attempt Graveyard until the end of the season. I was mentally fried from the season and thought I needed the mental boost of riding a new section or accomplishing something – ANYTHING – so I went to Graveyard, and well, maybe you can see where this is going. I failed. Over and over again. I didn’t crash, but I would get to the same spot and just wouldn’t be able to commit to the last move. I was going too slow. My brain just refused to let me commit. Graveyard was my barometer, my measuring stick, the way I judged my progression — and by that gauge, I had failed. And because it meant so much to me, I saw it as more than a momentary failure; it was a statement about my lack of my progress and what that meant for the hopes and dreams for my athletic career.
That late-season ride on Graveyard was a harbinger of how my off-season would go that year — a lot of standing at the top of features and crying and saying, “I can’t.”
Reaching a Turning Point
A lot happened between that failed attempt in 2016 and October of 2017. A rough season filled with crashes and illness and other disappointments drove all thoughts of Graveyard from my mind. It came up a few times, like when a friend told me he would never ride it on a trail bike. Another friend (and a good rider) told me he thought it was a stupid and dangerous trail. Slowly, it started to occur to me that maybe I was giving Graveyard way too much influence. Maybe not riding the hardest trail on the mountain, the trail that almost nobody bothers to ride, wasn’t as big of a deal as I had thought.
When I finished the race season in the summer of 2017 I was even more mentally destroyed that I had been in 2016, but then I did something different. Instead of turning to the bike, and Graveyard, for confirmation I had made progress, that I was indeed good at riding bikes, that I wasn’t a failure, and that I had worth as a human being, I stopped looking for that confirmation at all. I took a month away from the bike and any sort of training. I radically altered my coaching program and my plans for the off-season. I started seeing a sports psychologist. I slept a lot. I read mystery novels and I went for hikes and, basically, I stopped giving any f&cks about that little 100-meter long trail called Graveyard.
In fact, I did such a good job not caring about Graveyard I forgot it even existed until our second-to-last lap on the last day the Angel Fire Bike Park would be open in 2017 when I thought, maybe I should go look at that trail again, because “Hey, why not?”
Rethinking What it Means to Make Progress
And that’s how I happened to find myself standing at the top of Graveyard for the 100th time, except this time I was thinking, “Why on earth was this ever difficult? It’s just a little pile of rocks.” Then I rode it perfectly a few times because, “Hey, why not?” and then I went on with my day.
I was not a dramatically better rider in October 2017 than I was a year before. I wasn’t able to ride Graveyard in 2017 because I acquired some new skill or did 100 push-ups in the gym. I had just stopped trying to force myself to progress. I stopped thinking that riding Graveyard meant anything more than riding another run-of-the-mill rock garden.
I had been thinking about progression all wrong. Progression is not overcoming fear. Progression is not forcing yourself to do things that scare you. Progression is not pushing yourself until you vomit in every interval session. Progression is not standing at the top of a trail feature and banging your head on the ground trying to get yourself to do it.
Progression is the opposite of all of those things. It is the absence of fear and the presence of confidence and calm. It is looking at a section that used to scare you and wondering, “What was the problem?” Progression is floating up that climb that used to make you vomit, and thinking, “Wow, that felt good.”
You can’t force this kind of progression. The harder you try to fight for it, the more elusive it becomes. It’s like the creative muse Stephen King wrote about in On Writing:
“[The muse is] a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering… Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon, or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.”
For athletes, progression is the muse. You have to put in the work. You have to show up. And then, you have to be patient.
You can’t force progress. You can’t order the muse to show up and make it easy for you. You just have to be there, and be open — without judgment, without expectation – just OPEN. And if you can’t do that right now, just give yourself some space until you can.
Syd Schulz is a professional mountain bike racer, focusing on enduro events. She is also a writer, blogger and lifestyle athlete. Currently based in Taos, NM, she grew up in Ohio and started riding bikes as a kid in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Over the past three years, she has raced her bike on four different continents and traveled all over the United States in a dirt-bag van (see the van profiled in Outside Magazine here!). Her blog focuses on inspirational content and stories of her own personal development. Her goal is to inspire others to tackle their biggest hurdles in life (and on the bike).
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The way you describe it, Syd, your loss of your fear was like alchemy. First you had it – big time – and then you didn’t. It appears that the only thing you did to change the equation was take time off – or using some kind of reverse psychology to trick yourself. FWIW I don’t think that’s “progression.”
For many – dare I say most – athletes “progression” can and often is the process of systematically overcoming fear by analyzing the problem and taking incremental steps (often including visualization) to address it. IMO, to suggest that fear can be overcome by putting it out of your mind for a while and then merely saying/thinking, “What’s the problem?” can end up being bad for your health.
For what it’s worth, I disagree, but athletes deal with fear in different ways. The techniques you suggest are great if the fear stems from “not knowing how to do an obstacle” but in my experience that’s rarely the problem. My fear usually comes from a lack of confidence in my own abilities and therefore a lack of commitment. Sometimes visualization works, sometimes it doesn’t. I know because I’ve spent hundreds of hours staring down features that scare me. There was no reverse psychology in this scenario (although perhaps the piece could have been clearer on the timeline), just space and time spent riding other similar (more difficult!) rock gardens where I didn’t have the same mental block, which then allowed me to approach the original obstacle without fear — which, to me, is the true indicator of progression — not bullishly pushing through fear to ride something anyway.
I’ve encountered fear most when – not surprisingly, perhaps – climbing. Experience and confronting things that cause me fear in incremental steps has been most helpful for me, and I have thankfully mostly been on the other side of the issue for a while. But when it rears itself the “in-the-moment” technique that has worked best for me is “centering” as described in this article: https://www.climbing.com/skills/the-mind-game-how-to-overcome-fear/.
I actually just went climbing outside for the first time this week so I totally get what that article is saying about real vs perceived danger (perceived danger = high because yikes 30 ft off ground, real danger = negligible because rope lol).
After reading your comments, I’ve re-read this piece and I can see it is a little misleading, in the sense that I don’t focus on the work that went into overcoming this section (i.e. an entire season of racing harder trails all over the world, recovering from a severe case of overtraining, etc.), but I do still hold to the concept that true progression is riding things that previously scared you without a fear response. And I think the strategy of stepping away from a section that is giving you a mental block and riding other similar (or more difficult) sections before coming back to it is solid (as it has worked for me many times). If you’re curious, here’s a piece I wrote for Bicycling about pushing through fear to ride a drop I hated: https://www.bicycling.com/training/tips/you-got-this-overcome-the-4-biggest-cycling-fears/slide/4
Syd, As I look back on your original article, and our discussion I’m left with this: what a great, self affirming feeling it is when you overcome fear, whatever the reason and however you do it.
Ride on/climb on.
See you out there.
Thank you, really nice article….Like the Law of detachment, “….This doesn’t mean we give up the intention to create our desire; we don’t give up the intention, and we don’t give up the desire. We give up our attachment to the outcome. The moment we combine one-pointed intention with detachment to the outcome, we will have that which we desire.” Quote Deepak Chopra
Nicely done, Syd – word up!