The mental aspect of sport is often the determining factor between success and mediocrity. Great champions exude confidence, preparation and invincibility. With that in mind, it’s time to put on your game face and get ready for a season of racing.
I came across this video from one of boxing’s greats, Mike Tyson. It’s called A Lesson on Intimidation, and well worth a watch.
This clip resonated with me as it truly goes through all of the emotions that I experience before a race. The polarized fear and confidence play so strongly in one’s mind; it’s the most natural feeling for anyone, in any facet of life, at a high level. The way he speaks about fear is beautiful: he dreams of losing to the other person; he’s scared of losing to them. In cycling, it’s so easy to get caught up in how many watts so-and-so can put out for however long or how easily they won whatever random race. We build each other up in our minds and give excessive undue credit. In jest, mostly, my roommates and I like to say things like, “How’s it going to feel when you get to watch me win?” Clearly trying to show supremacy, but with a distinct note of fear and apprehension.
But the confidence is real. Every rider is far from pack-fill in their own mind. Whether or not we admit it, we think quite highly of ourselves. We all could be better, we have our excuses, but few people will acknowledge they have reached their pinnacle. Tyson speaks of supreme confidence and, justifiably or not, I know what he is saying. When I’m focused at a race, all I think about is how I’m going to win. I already feel victorious; I picture the win and it seems there is no other possible scenario. A substantial list of races I should have won plays like old game tape every time I look back on my seasons. I have every intention to fix those mere bobbles and have already planned my assault on bigger prizes.
Everything about this Tyson video perfectly portrays my feelings while watching it…till I take a step back and look at my surroundings. This is where the story becomes quite interesting. I’m watching the video on the computer of the very person whom I plan on piercing my figurative glove through. Another target of mine watches over our shoulders. Then I realize that within my world of domestic professional cycling, our fears and confidence have another layer: camaraderie, and even friendship. The casual reader should feel no different. How many friends have driven to a race, tried with all their might to destroy each other, and then driven home laughing about it? The majority of the time we are pals, but when the time comes, you want to inflict pain.
Cycling can be a very incestuous world. We like to mingle with others but very easily revert back into our cave. From a personal standpoint, I made my pilgrimage to Tucson to live with three other competitors. We live together. Can you imagine two boxers in that situation? The scale is far different, but regardless, we are in career competition. Two of the guys ride for different teams; every race I’m at this year my goal is to beat them and the other hundred or so guys who make up the parade of American cycling, most of whom I’m friendly with. Competition even exists between my teammate and I. We are both aiming for the same jersey to win the race, but both of us would like to be the designated rider inside that jersey. On a grander scale, we’re both getting slices from the limited salary budget, but even a cyclist will opt for the bigger slice of pie in this case.
So how does this duality thrive in elite cycling? Another example is in order, this one taken from the current book I’m reading chronicling the early astronauts. It was well before my time, but I imagine that the public viewed NASA in a similar way to how the average cyclist views the pro peloton: with a small amount of awe and admiration for the sense of dedication and drive, and maybe even a bit of envy.
The comparisons are quite simple to make between our lives and those of space-bound men of the sixties. Being on the fringe of general knowledge, both establishments thrive when a collective positive image is portrayed to the public. During official matters, cyclists and astronauts follow the same training of focusing on the good and avoiding the bad. What you don’t see is the frustrated teammate watching as others bask in the limelight. Nor did the astronauts speak about being passed on for a mission. In both cases, there are many workers standing behind the figureheads. Most everyone played a role, but few get the glory. A competitor might draw a good hand and win, everyone is told to smile on the podium, but that is no easy feat. Just as giving an interview as an astronaut must be difficult for someone with their first scheduled spaceflight nowhere in sight. Close, but no cigar.
The smiles may seem like a front, but that’s not true. People enter both institutions, cycling and NASA, from a sense of passion and want to build upon the foundation before them. The frustrations are in waiting for your opportunity, not in others having theirs. The competition is cutthroat no doubt, everyone wants to be the best and leave their mark, but losing a race to a friend must be similar to losing a seat on a rocket. Jealously will initially set in, but the bond that has formed over time allows one to transition into acceptance and even a state of contentment. Pleasure can be taken from the successes of others and that only drives the urge to better their feats.
We live together, train together, and enter the heat of battle against each other. It’s an odd mixture of feelings to have for a group of people; in my case, those feelings are both brotherhood, and contained animal-like rage against them. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out, intelligence can be defined as having the ability to hold two opposing ideas and still function. I like to think of cyclists as intelligent athletes.