Fear and Mountain Biking

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“How do you avoid thinking that you could slip right over the edge???? My problem right now is letting every possible scenario of death interfere with my rides :(”

Sad face, indeed.

Someone posted this question on my Instagram and it really gave me pause, largely because it articulated so well the reason my season went to shit after my crash in Sun Valley. I was, to quote, “letting every possible scenario of death” drag down my racing and my ability to ride anything technical and, perhaps most tragically, my ability to enjoy riding. It sucked.

So yeah, it seemed a little ironic that someone asked ME this, until I remembered that my Instagram feed does not give my followers a direct line into my inner monologue, which is, come to think of it, probably a very good thing and the only reason I have any followers whatsoever.

That said, I have a few strategies for dealing with fear while riding, some better than others.

Option One: Just don’t do the thing. This applies most to situations where a single feature is causing your mental duress. It kind of sounds like a cop out, but honestly, if you’re freaking out about something, you aren’t going to ride it well, anyway. You need to come back to the obstacle at another point, when you’re in a better mindset (or have more food in your system, as is usually the case for me)– or you need to continue to work on your skills and double back when you have an understanding of the skills necessary to execute the feature. My skills coach, Lee McCormack, describes this well in a piece he wrote for MTBProject, “4 Questions to Ask Yourself When Fear Takes Over.” This piece is pretty much essential reading for anyone who rides a bike (or does anything outside of their comfort zone).

That said, I think Lee’s advice primarily applies to situations where the fear is specific and (more likely than not) warranted. In these cases, you should listen to what the fear is telling you and not be an idiot.

But there is another type of fear, which I think is what the questioner was referencing, which is broader, less defined and stems from a general lack of trust in oneself to execute a task properly. This is the fear that consumes you after you’ve had a nasty crash. This is the fear that crops up and tells you not to ride a feature you’ve ridden 10,000 times before because it suddenly occurred to you that if you put your front wheel in such and such hole that you had never noticed before you will go over the bars and break your neck. This is the fear that makes you afraid to ride a slippery rock, because if you hit the brakes you would slide and fall off the edge — even if you know you could just ride the rock without hitting your brakes.

If you listen to this kind of fear, you run the risk of doing nothing, ever.

There will be people out there who will tell you that the solution to your problem is it simply not think about the bad thing that you are worrying about, or to simply not do the thing that could cause the bad thing to happen. After all, all of the above scenarios have very simple solutions — Don’t put your wheel in the hole. Just don’t use your brakes. And I cannot tell you how many circular conversations Macky and I have had where I say something like “but what if I ride off the edge” to which he says “just don’t ride off the edge then.” Which, if you’re like me, you will understand is 100% unhelpful and not the freaking point.

That said, the general premise of “don’t think about it” is correct. It’s just not that easy, at least not for me, because no matter how hard I try not to think about it when I lose control of my mind, like as I’m drifting off to sleep, it comes back and I imagine myself have all sorts of horrendous crashes. Now you have an idea of what my mental state has been like since June. And yeah, it explains a lot.

Here are my two theories for dealing with this kind of fear:

1. If you find yourself imagining “worst case scenarios” for every bit of the trail, force yourself to instead think in terms of most likely outcomes. If the most likely outcome is success, fear notwithstanding, then you should visualize yourself doing it successfully a few times (or follow the strategy in point two), take some deep breaths and give it a go. If the most likely outcome is either success or a minor tip over, same deal. I often find it really reassuring to step back and realize that sure, if something went wildly wrong I could crash and die, but most likely if I mess up I will skin my knee and acquire a bruise or two. It’s also helpful to remember that people die slipping and falling in the shower, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to be terrified of taking a shower.

2. Focus on what you want to happen, instead of what you fear might happen. And acknowledge that this takes effort. You might need to develop a mantra. This is the old “if you look at the tree you will hit the tree” nugget. If you’re thinking about going OTB or coming up short on a jump, you make it more likely to happen. So instead of focusing on negative outcomes, focus on what you need to do to create a positive outcome. For me those three things are maintaining an aggressive (hinged!) riding position, looking where I want to go and committing. Instead of thinking about every possible way things could go wrong, i just focus on the things I can control and shut out the rest. Uh, in theory, at least.

None of this is easy. Fear is real, and you shouldn’t think you’re a lost cause if you can’t just “block it out and go for it” like some of your friends might do. Remember, you aren’t privy to their inner monologues, either. I do think it’s important to distinguish between fear that is warranted and in line with your ability level (like, oh hey, this scares me because this is the biggest jump I’ve ever hit) and irrational fear (I am scared of a this thing that I have done a billion times before and I have no idea why) — but either way, fear is fear, and you need to acknowledge it and use practice, whether mental or physical, to overcome it.

If you have other questions that you want me to answer in a similarly rambling fashion, please submit them on the Ask Syd page!

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Syd Schulz

Pro mountain biker.

Average human.

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

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3 thoughts on “Fear and Mountain Biking

  1. Pingback: The Path to Reduced Suckage (and Other Wisdom from Lee Likes Bikes) | Syd Schulz

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