Celebrate Your Small Wins

Celebrate your small wins.

This is a pretty well-trodden subject in the inspiration/self-care blog world. “Set big goals, but celebrate the small wins, like getting out of bed every day and brushing your hair and not being the sort of person who clubs baby seals for fun.” Like most self-help tropes, this one makes me roll my eyes. While I understand the importance of self-care on a theoretical level (you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others), the movement’s online manifestation often comes off as a justification for spending $100 on hair product and drinking green juice instead of, like, getting shit done.

And to be honest, beneath the heavy layer of inspirational fluff on this blog, I am a pretty cynical person. I believe that some things, like getting out of bed every day and getting shitty race results and writing bad blog posts, don’t deserve to be celebrated. A big part of supposed self-care is that “as long as you’re doing your best, it’s okay” or “if all you can do on a certain day is drag yourself out of bed and do five minutes of yoga, then you have done your best.”

And look, I get it. Some days you just don’t have it. And I do believe that, at least in the context of bike racing, if you honestly give it everything you have, and you do your very best, and you’re still last, then who the f$ck cares? Celebrate that shit. But I also think that, much of the time, we aren’t really doing our best. We aren’t even close to tapping our potential. Instead, we’re using “well, I did my best” as a cop-out.

To really, truly, do the best that you can, to perform at the best of your abilities, to not be sabotaged by your mind, to not be distracted by thoughts of what you’re going to have for dinner, to be fully present — that is probably the hardest thing in the world. I can think of maybe one or two bike races where I have honestly done my best. And probably about 1000 shitty races I have explained away by saying some variation of “well, that was all I could do.”

The point of this is not to start an argument about what “doing your best” really means (that’s another post blog post entirely), but rather to demonstrate that, at the end of the day, I am really hard on myself. There is a dark side to knowing what you’re capable of — a razor-sharp awareness of when you’re not living up to that standard.

I started racing bikes with what were, one might argue, unreasonable expectations. My perspective was warped because most of my friends were professional racers and so when I achieved things that were 1/10th of what they were capable of, I didn’t celebrate these wins, I just took them as par for the course, if I noticed them at all. I can think of very few times over the past four years that I have celebrated a small win, or even a large one.

To be honest, it’s difficult for me to think of any wins at all.

Clearly, they’ve happened. In four years I’ve progressed from popping off a curb (with difficulty) to doing eight foot drops. I’ve gone from someone who was usually the slowest person at the bike park (and constantly watching for people to catch me from behind), to someone who is routinely held up by others. I’ve gone from sliding down the steepest trails at Angel Fire on my ass, to cleaning all of them on my trail bike.

And yet, despite all that, I can think of maybe three times I have stepped out of my “trying to be better” bubble and thought, wow, it’s really cool that I rode that. One of them was a few weeks ago in Angel Fire. It was a cool moment. I rode a section flawlessly that used to make cry. It was so perfect I couldn’t even find anything to kvetch about, which is a rarity. Usually, I feel like my accomplishments are more of a “day late dollar short” variety. I hit the drop in Glorieta that scared me the day AFTER the race. I rode a lot of sketchy things in Northstar but everyone else rode them better. I finally learned how to corner properly. I cleared the medium line at Valmont but my form was sketchy.

(Regarding that last one, I remember explaining to my skills coach Lee why it could be better and him saying “when you’re in a session with me, only I get to tell you when something is bad, and I’m telling you that was good, so stop thinking and do it again.” This is why coaches are great.)

Two weeks ago, Macky and I took some local 16-year-old rippers out for an informal clinic to help them hit drops safely. They’re good kids with good bike skills plus all the bravery that comes from being 16. It was cool to see them progress from pretty sketchy to perfectly controlled with just a little bit of guidance (a trajectory that arguably took me like three years). We ended the session at one of the larger drops in the area — a drop that they were extremely excited to hit and that I kind of dreaded because I had been eyeing it for over a year. Possibly you can see where this is going, but all three boys sailed off the drop with varying degrees of control and then whooped and hollered and high-fived each other and ran up to do it again, and again, and again. I hit the drop and…

Well, nothing.

No excitement, no whooping, not even a single thought given to the fact that last fall I hadn’t even thought to attempt this feature. Just a laundry list of everything that could be better… too slow, not enough pop, too rear-wheel heavy. I did it three more times and the list just got longer. I never hit it well — I felt tense and sketchy and off. I knew I could do better, I knew my fear and insecurity was making me ride it poorly and that frustrated me. At some point it dawned on my that I was missing the point — that I had finally hit this drop, finally accomplished this goal that I had written down in my goal notebook, and yet there was no joy. The moment I committed to the drop and safely landed on the ground, I revised the goal from “hitting the drop” to “hitting the drop perfectly,” gliding over the mental victory that was getting myself to commit to it in the first place. You’d think, given the extent to which my mental game has been holding me back, this would have been worth celebrating in its own right, even if I had landed straight on my face. And yet, my habits of critiquing and striving for perfection kicked in and well, all I can say is, I kind of didn’t notice that I had just achieved a goal.

I have yet to decide whether my perfectionism is what has made me a good athlete — or if it’s what has prevented me from being a great one. At times like this, I suspect it’s a little bit of both.

Here’s what I’ve been trying to tell myself — it’s okay to celebrate small wins, even if they are not perfect. It’s okay to celebrate accomplishing a goal, even if it doesn’t go down exactly like you envisioned it. It doesn’t make you less driven and it won’t make you less likely to be successful. It might even make you better. Celebrating a work in progress won’t make you less likely to achieve the finished product. Celebrating a step forward does not have to be the same as settling for mediocrity.

So, from here on out, I’m going to be celebrating my small wins. I’m going to celebrate doing the things that are hard for me, even if other people make these things look easy. I’m going to celebrate the shit out of doing my best — and when my best is out of reach, I’m going to celebrate the fact that my “bad day riding” is still light years ahead of my best from three years ago and that is reason enough to crack out the champagne.

Syd Schulz

Pro mountain biker.

Average human.

I write about bikes and life and trying to get better at both.

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