Should You Say “Go” or Should you say “No?”
I was trying not to make eye contact. I know from experience that if I roll up to the first move on a trail and then back away, the pattern is set. And I was itching for a good ride after the previous day’s poor showing.
This was the lens through which I viewed the first rock face of the second phase of PhD, just north of Whistler. It’s steep but not crazy steep, but it’s long, and losing traction for a fraction of a second could clearly spell disaster. So I didn’t even roll up to it. Everyone else rode it and there were a couple of non-fatal mishaps (tree strike by Ryan!), but I was okay to take the squid line, which wasn’t trivial either.
It’s always fascinated me; the process that makes athletes say yes or no in the face of dangerous moves. The way a drop or gap or rock face or even a skinny can make complete sense to us one day, before we even start to roll in, but look impossible the next.
Some riders don’t like to operate in this uncertain zone, and they are likely smarter than the rest of us (aversion to risk is in our DNA, which is one reason your ancestors survived to pass their genes on). These sensible riders frequent trails they can always clean so they lack this binary measure of success. And there is nothing wrong with that (I spend much more time riding like this than in the past), but some of us need that charge; that buzz from conquering a move when significant portions are our brain are screaming at us to back away.
How exactly do we process that decision? And how good at it are we? Some days we push through the fear and uncertainty and make it happen, successfully or not, and other days we put our tails between our legs and feel shame. And of course there are moves we know we’ll never conquer for reasons that keep our hearts beating.
The information that our brains and bodies collaborate to send to our pre-frontal cortex, where decision making happens, isn’t always reliable. And it’s not hard to see why. The amount of data being processed at a given time, for a specific move, is worthy of a chess grandmaster. To start there are three questions to answer with the help of hockey analogies:
- Save percentage (Odds of success)
- Penalty box size (possible immediate outcomes of failure)
- Time in the box – including possible suspension (Longer term outcomes of failure, like how am I going to get out of here with a broken tibia? What will 6 weeks off work do to my mortgage or my marriage? Am I covered for this? [if you are American or out of country]. This list is long and subject to change based on your unique situation.)
If we look at odds of success there is an almost infinite number of factors in the physical world. What are the current conditions? Is that patch icy or just wet? How’s the wind? Is the ground running too slow or too fast? Just how hard is that rock?
And then there is your bike. Will these mostly-shredded tires do the job? Should I be worried that my brake levers hit the bar? Have I ridden this bike enough to know what it’s going to do when faced with a slam into the bottom of this near vertical pitch?
And of course there is that person riding the bike. Is this something you’ve done before successfully? Or does it look a little like that hip that left you in a sling for July and August last year? One riding buddy rode around. He usually out-rides you. But another buddy made it look easy – and you usually school him. The leader of your pack did it while absent-mindedly suckling his camelbak nipple – and he says it’s all there. He always says that.
Our imaginations are relatively good at evaluating a few potential negative outcomes – but anyone who has ridden long enough knows that randomness has more in store for us than we could ever accurately calculate. If we could we’d just stay home.
Can we hack this process? Is there anything we can do to influence how we see the trail? One thing I’ve noticed is that my body position can make a huge difference to my confidence. When your chin is up by your stem something steep doesn’t look so bad, and you’re in better position to take action if something goes wrong. When I’m rolling into anything while shying away from the front of the bike, the stink of failure fills my nostrils.
Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy, in her Ted Talk that’s been viewed 26m times, tells us that science has long known non-verbal cues influence the way others see us. What is relatively new is the discovery that our body position can alter the way we see ourselves – and the way we act. In fact our body position can affect the hormones we produce in the face of a stressful situation. Standing in a traditionally dominant stance for just two minutes can increase our testosterone (making us feel more confident) and decrease our cortisol (making us less stress reactive). So maybe getting into an aggressive riding stance like Chris Kovarik can make us better riders?
The second rock face on this section of PhD is probably the worst on the trail. Not so much because of the length nor the angle, although both are formidable. The roll out is a trough you must hit, and a bike length after you’ve come to earth there’s a small drop, then a right-left chicane to avoid a tree. It’s like a jump with a great take-off but a terrible landing. Seb Kemp rode this one before any of us arrived but he’s too good to aid our calculations.
So the shot percentage looked low, and the rocks and trees made the penalty box deep and the potential sentence long. Pete rolled it like a boss, narrowly avoiding disaster by clicking out one foot and swinging it behind like a rudder. The rest of us skipped it, and I again avoided rolling up.
On lap two we explored upper PhD which continued the theme. The grip was good and I started to get the feel. By the time we got to the lower section I was entering the zone and I rode that troublesome first slab fine, while only soiling myself a little. The second one looked better this time around (I did make eye contact) but my pre-frontal cortex wasn’t having it. I was in no mood for a helicopter ride. Besting something that had taken me down earlier boosted my confidence for the rest of the ride though, and kept me pumped up long after the ride was done.
Conquering fears keeps us feeling alive. And while the bony and perilous world of mountain biking is far more dangerous than Tinder or a job interview, those produce more stress for most of us. Thankfully the things we learn on the trail can unquestionably steady our knees and calm our voices when we need what either of those services can provide.
Do you push through the fear, or listen to the sensible part of your grey matter?