To Improve Your Training, Stop Saying These Four Things

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By Syd Schulz, CTS Sponsored Athlete

We all know negative self talk is bad, but how many of us are actually successful at stopping it? I know I often succumb to being my own worst critic, and just telling myself to “cut it out“ and “be positive” is rarely helpful. Ultimately, wrestling with your mind is just not productive — but there are some things you can do to set yourself up for success BEFORE you get bummed out. And they’re pretty darn simple. Even when it seems impossible to control the thoughts running through your brain, you CAN control what you do with them and what comes out of your mouth, and that’s a good start.

Here are four decisions I learned to make that have immeasurably improved my training and approach to sport. I’ve also included the things we say that keep us focused on the negative, and some examples of how you can reframe those responses. I’m leading with mountain biking lingo because that’s my sport, but the ideas apply to ultrarunning, road cycling, triathlon, and pretty much all endurance sports.

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1. Focus on what you want, not what you want to avoid 

What you say: “I don’t want to hit that rock,” “I just need to make sure I don’t put my front wheel in that hole,” “I have to avoid that slippery root.”

What you should say instead: “I’m going to take the inside line,” “I’m going to preload and manual over the hole,” “I’m going to hit this as a drop and clear the slippery root”

I am super guilty of this one. When a section challenges me, I will stop and analyze all the possible ways to go wrong and then set out to avoid those. Often this works fine, but in general, it’s a bad strategy. Why? Because the more brain power and energy you spend thinking about everything that could go wrong, the more you’re pulling yourself in that direction. Our thoughts influence outcomes. While it can be very hard to prevent yourself from noticing potential scary outcomes, you CAN control what you say out loud to your riding buddies. Steer the conversation away from worst case scenarios and towards what you want to happen. Talk about the line you plan to take. Talk about what you will do to execute that line (preloading, manual-ing, leaning into the corner, looking ahead etc.). Stop talking about what you want to avoid. This will help you stop THINKING about what you want to avoid, which in turn will help you visualize and then execute the section successfully.

2. Focus on how to improve, not what went wrong

What you say: “Wow, that was terrible cornering,” “That jump was really sketchy, I almost crashed.”

What you should say instead: “Next time, I’m going to look farther ahead,” “Next time, I’m going to pump more off the lip of the jump.”

This one is pretty self explanatory, yet it’s insidiously difficult to avoid. Ironically, the more motivated you are to improve, the worse these kind of comments get. I’m constantly analyzing my riding, which in general has led to some huge improvements, but can often feel like a relentless, merry-go-around of “not being as good as I think I should be.” And there’s really no point in hyper-analyzing a bad move or near crash (unless you ACTUALLY don’t know what went wrong, but realistically, you probably know exactly what the problem was). Instead focus your energy on doing the little things — looking ahead, body position, etc. — that usually result in good cornering and safe jumps. Stop worrying about that last jump, or that last corner, and move on. This isn’t to say you should move on to bigger jumps or sketchier features — if you get feedback that you’re not doing things entirely right, yes, you should listen to that, and maybe back it down a notch. But you don’t need to give a sermon about how bad it was to your riding buddies.

3. Focus on achievement, not avoidance of failure

What you say: “I just don’t want to be last.” or “I just don’t want to crash.”

What you should say instead: “I want to do the best that I can” or “I want to be top ten” or “I want to ride smoothly and cleanly.”

Your goals should inspire you, not give you anxiety. Voicing negative goals like “not crashing” or “not being last” just leaves you focusing on negative outcomes, instead of positive ones. And focusing on negative outcomes makes them more likely to happen. You may still be worried about being last or crashing, but expressing this in a different way (less focused on what you DON’T want to happen and more focused on what you DO want to happen — riding smoothly, having fun, doing your best) is the first step in letting go of these fears.

4. Say thank you instead of sorry

What you say: “Sorry I’m slow”

What you should say instead: “Thanks for waiting for me.”

When you apologize for being slow, you’re just affirming a negative (being slow), AND you’re making everyone feel awkward as they clamor over themselves to assure you that no-of-course-you’re-not slow-what-a-ridiculous-thing-to-say. It’s compliment-fishing plus negative self talk, and it sucks for everyone involved. By changing that apology to a genuine expression of gratitude, you change the dynamic. Your training partners feel good about themselves, and you aren’t putting yourself down. Win-win. I wrote a blog post about this last year, and it’s the most popular one on my personal blog. I think that’s because these subtle linguistic changes really do make a difference.

When I noticed how big a difference saying “thank you” and instead of “sorry” made, I started noticing other things I was saying that were hindering my experience on the bike (and life in general). The truth is, words matter and you have a choice — you can let your words sabotage your ride, or you can use them to your advantage.

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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Comments 11

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  2. One other handy hint which I first hear of via Sufferland is to refer to yourself in the third person when self talking, e.g. “You can make it up this section” rather than “I can …..”.

    Might seem strange but it can make a difference. I’d speculate it’s because it can help dissociate from pain + promote the feeling of riding in front of a crowd

  3. Syd, refreshing and fun read. Visualize the line…know it…flash it. Reminds me of the words I heard many moons ago…when we routinely earned our turns in the back country…at top of a very long tight steep pitch with a ton of tight trees and volkswagon sized boulders…the old salt in our group turned and said….ski the spaces not the trees!

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  5. The point about focusing on the line vs the obstacle is absolutely true. Look at the rock and you’ll have a better shot to hit it. Much of what you say here can be baked down to five words:

    Partial paralysis from over analysis.

    In other words, don’t over think it, see your line, and follow it.

    Could be good rules for success in life, also.

  6. Endurance racing is clearly a physical endeavor. Bot to be successful, you cannot neglect the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects as well. it’s pretty easy to have your attitude go negative at 3am during a 24-hour solo mountain bike race when it is cold and rainy and you start to rationalize 1,000 reasons you should quit.

    The same goes for training and prep work. Now that I’m a “Masters age” racer, I’ve gone from being one of the first riders to summit to being at the back. I always thank the other riders for letting me join their ride and allowing me to be their “anchor”.

    During hard training rides, I envision my next race and how my hard efforts now will reward me on race day. I set a goal and then ask myself what are the things I need to do today to make it happen. Do I need to improve descending, riding steep pitches, in hot conditions?

    Visualize winning. Then be realistic about the preparations to win.

    Henry Ford once said “I’m looking for a group of people who have an infinite ability to not know what cannot be done.” Stay positive!

  7. Thanks for this article Syd. I just did a 50 mile MTB race and I think I used all of these negative things 😊. I had a sub par performance but now that I look back at how I was setting myself up for the race with my mental prep it’s no wonder I didn’t do well. I like your suggestions especially the last one. Turning the negative into gratitude. Thanks for sharing!

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