Anxiety, overthinking, self-doubt, negative mindset, intrusive thoughts… all terms that have now become much more commonplace in conversations within the last few years with the rise in open communication about mental health. I’ve wrestled with them all in various ways, and in many situations been slammed down by them, KO’ed and left staring in the mirror wondering how I got so beaten up. The worst thing? It really never needed to be that way. I’ve learned some effective methods (mostly the hard way) of how to combat those negative, self-doubting voices creeping in and succeeding, and I hope they can help you too on your own journey.
These negative mindsets affect your capacity to make rational decisions and perform to your natural ability. I call them gremlins, or brain chimps. You can miss out on really amazing life opportunities and situations due to them, and you can’t get that time back. Put your hand up if at some point you’ve literally heard these inner fears manifest into horrible little chatty gremlins, telling you why you won’t be able to do something. Guessing you’ve all got your hands up. It sucks, is demoralising and can become increasingly exhausting and overwhelming to deal with regardless of whether you hear them in your day to day life, at work or during sport and exercise.
So how do we face them? Do a Sméagol and screech “Go away and never come back!”. Well, kinda, but using your inside voice, and not sat on a rock wearing only a rag round your middle which isn’t that socially acceptable in most places. (Apart from maybe Swindon.)
My story? 4 years ago I trained as a Personal Trainer, and also simultaneously learned how to ride a mountain bike, and it quite possibly saved my mental health. This is not a “go do something that scares you and you’re cured of all anxiety forever” type of article, but I’ll use my life experiences to show you why this methodology of dealing with those pesky brain chimps is genuinely effective. No one wants to not be able to seize life by the horns because of their own noisy brain, and you don’t have to.
Acknowledge the thoughts. Don’t suppress them.
Imagine the thoughts as a person. Then label that person an emotional state that is causing the things to be said. Fear, jealousy, self loathing. Once you have identified them, you have separated them from yourself. They are not you.
When I used to arrive at a bike park, I’d see a bunch of (seemingly) mega confident blokes all getting their bikes ready. I would instantly start the negative spiral of “what the hell are you doing here, you’re fairly slow and people are going to laugh at you”. So before I’d even got on my bike and faced the roots, I was already battling some obstacles. By identifying these voices as fear, and not my own voice, I could in a way feel like I could answer back and say “Not today mate I want to have fun, sod off”. It takes some time to get used to doing, but it does work.
Proper preparation, leads to proper performance.
Think back to the morning of your exams in school. The exams where you had actually been far more preoccupied with sport/seeing friends/bebo/myspace/puberty/gigs/msn, and knew you hadn’t put in as much work for possibly other more favoured subjects. Walking into the exam hall with sweaty palms and the feeling of impending doom. All down to poor preparation. This feeling feeds the gremlins, and makes their voices louder and harder to eradicate.
When I turn up to a race I undoubtedly get the gremlins on the brain radio, especially when I’m racing steeper, more technical tracks with jumps where there’s a bigger risk of injury. However, because I know I have prepared my bike and my kit, done my strength and conditioning in the gym to keep me strong and primed for what I physically need to do, there’s no extra doubt for me to feed the gremlins. When they start the usual narrative I can just stop it right then and there, knowing I’m physically capable to perform the task, and the rest will come down to talent (or lack thereof) and luck. So when I hear “what if you crash”, I can say, “There’s no reason why I can’t get down, I’m capable”. It’s the same principle if you’ve got a big scary meeting at work coming up, if you’ve prepared what you need to take in, have done your research and truly know the agenda, even an intimidating boardroom dragon can’t catch you out. Which brings me onto my next point.
There’s a difference between what you can affect, and what you can’t.
Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t change. And for what you can change, take steps to affect the variables that lead up to a situation where you know there’s a potential for you to doubt yourself and feel anxious. Subconsciously resigning yourself to what will be and what you can’t change, will help you take deeper breaths and lower your heart rate. This will relieve feelings of tension and anxiety, and distance yourself in your mind from harmful voices intending to block your rational thinking.
I can’t change whether the weather or conditions are going to be horrendous during a race, whether there are people out there naturally faster than me that can beat me, or whether I have been able to memorise tracks enough in the little practice time I’ve had to not crash (they mostly all become a blur anyway). So I’ve learnt to not obsess over these and let what will be, be. However, I can change into the right clothing and protective kit, change the psi in my tyres, my suspension settings, my attitude to the track and nutritional intake to help me perform all day. Acceptance of the things you can’t change also massively helps you have more FUN. Which is why we do these stupid, crazy dangerous sports in the first place right?
(…you can tell I was an ‘interesting’ child to raise, my poor poor mother.)
Write things down!
Don’t underestimate the power of putting pen to paper, or nowadays, thumbs to screen. I have an exercise for you that someone did with me years ago, and I’ve done, since, with college students I’ve given talks to about their future career options. It’s powerful, do it.
- Write down the main thing, or things, you want to achieve, as if this was future you and you HAVE achieved them. Imagine you have, feel the satisfaction of how proud and happy it would make you feel.
- Write next to each thing a reason why you feel you can’t or won’t achieve them. Be totally honest about your fears and reservations about yourself. Writing them out and seeing the words can sometimes be very surprising and almost painful, as it’s visualising the horrible brain chimps comments of self doubt. It’s not nice, and you see how ridiculous they can be which again reaffirms that those thoughts are separate from you as a being. You wouldn’t say these things to someone else, (unless you’re not particularly nice), so why let them be said to yourself.
- Write next to that reason whether you can change it or not. For those you can’t change, smile and wave the worries away. For what you can change, use it as an actions list to get cracking on and do what you need to do. Having imagined the feelings of achievement, imagining someone taking that feeling away from you is gutting. Don’t let your own mind be the reason that is taken away from you.
Congratulate yourself on your achievements!
No one likes a bragger, but truly don’t be afraid to give yourself a big pat on the back when you succeed. When I started riding mtb or lifting weights, the smallest thing would feel like such a huge win, let alone the bigger stuff like standing on a podium. When I was driving home I would have a think, or a debrief chat with my friends about how pleased I was when I finally cleared that bigger jump, or increased my squat PB by 5kg. They don’t have to be monumental, but keeping things in mind when you start to doubt yourself will give you more positive ammo to load up your gremlin cannon with. You’ve earned it, and your strength will continue to grow through your persistence of what you want to achieve.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
You are your own person, and circumstances for success will be different for everyone. Through following the above points, you’ll remind yourself of your own goals and recipes for good performance. It’s fine to use other people to aspire to and use for motivation. But, don’t measure your success directly in line with theirs. Also, remembering again your teenage years, everyone was so preoccupied with their own body concerns and embarrassments, that you barely noticed anyone else even existed. No one else truly cares about your failures, but you. Which finally brings me on to…
Failure is learning.
So you didn’t win against the gremlins this time, didn’t prepare enough or you failed due to external forces that you couldn’t change. Learn from it. Accept you are human, imperfectly beautiful, and that it is a journey. Acknowledge what you could have changed, and again use that as your motivation for next time. The times I’ve driven away from a bike park feeling horrendous because the fear got the best of me and I didn’t have the metaphorical ‘cajones’ to do something, I could count on more than my hands. Use this feeling as your comeback to the gremlins next time they give you a hard time – so what if you fail? You tried. Knowing you tried reinforces your strength in character and no one can take that away from you. Especially not the gremlins!