“If you aren’t falling you aren’t trying!” —Davis Phinney
I’m writing this column on January 1. Yesterday, New Year’s Eve, my wife, Carol, and I finished booking a three-week XC skiing holiday in Norway. Today, we went skiing — my 26th day this season — to build fitness to enjoy our holiday.
Clearly, I Was Having a Bad Day!
We skied trails that I’d skied three days ago. Coming down Master Blaster, a left turn is followed quickly by a right turn — a section that’s often given me trouble, although I skied it last Thursday with no issues.
Not today. I crashed at the bottom! Brushing the snow off and getting going again, we headed down Ute Trail. On the next corner my skis started sliding in different directions and I did a face plant. I hit so hard that I had a mild concussion. I jammed my glasses into my cheekbone so hard that I have a black eye. I lay on the snow for a few minutes and finally got up. Then, going down Sawmill, pow, I was down again. Clearly, I was having a bad day.
At the next junction I thought about taking Radcliffe back to the Nordic Center — it has no hills. Nope, we decided, let’s take Draw. Five years ago, I crashed so hard descending Draw that I irreparably tore my left MCL — I now wear a knee brace when I ski. But I’ve also skied Draw successfully many times since then.
The first descent today on Draw was okay. The next somewhat steeper one I skied down under control and made the turn that I’d missed five years ago. Yay! One more downhill and then we’d have flat skiing to the lodge. Pow! I was down again because I distracted rather than focused. Norway’s going to be terrible if this is the way I ski, I thought! Sore, depressed, feeling like a failure and shaken, I asked Carol to drive us back to the condo.
But a Few Hours Later I Was Feeling Good Again
Four hours later, I’m writing this column, feeling confident about my skiing and excited about Norway. What happened in the intervening time?
Nothing happened. I just consciously applied my mental skills to the situation at hand.
First, I took a nap. To relax so I could nap, I went through the same progressive relaxation that you learned in my last column in this series: On the Rivet II: The Importance of Progressive Relaxation.
After a short nap, I lay in bed with my eyes closed and visualized successfully skiing down Master Blaster like I had done on Thursday. The first couple of visualizations I started to crash and I immediately wiped away the visualization. The third time I skied with the control that I’m used to skiing.
Then I visualized skiing down Draw without falling, just like I’d done so many times. I reinforced the positive image of descending under control.
Don’t Like What Your Mind’s Telling You? Change the Channel
I’d fallen hard several times today, and I’d interpreted that to mean I’m a bad skier. Something factual happened — I fell hard. My mind then interpreted it, “I’m a failure.”
I’ve taught myself that how my mind interprets events is like watching TV — if I don’t like the negative channel (negative interpretation) then I change it to a positive channel.
I remembered what Davis Phinney had told my friend, Pat, when he was teaching her how to descend on cross-country skis. “If you aren’t falling, you aren’t trying!” I’d fallen because I was trying to ski challenging trails rather than just cruising on easy trails.
Phinney was a fearless sprinter when racing for the 7-Eleven team in the 1980s and early ’90s. He won 328 races, more than any other American. In 1993 Phinney, Greg LeMond and three other world- class cyclists formed a Nordic ski racing team. They applied the same fearlessness of road racing to XC ski racing. Falling was just part of the process.
My New Year’s Resolution: Keep Falling!
Are you making any New Year’s resolutions? Here’s mine: I’m going to keep falling! The only way I can continue to grow as an athlete is to keep trying … and failing … and trying … and failing.
Only about 10% of the Americans who make a New Year’s resolution are successful at keeping it. One of the reasons for their successes is that they keep failing … and trying again … and keep failing and trying until they reach their goal.
I have a client, Bob, who is trying to lose weight. One of his weaknesses is chocolate. I challenged him just to give up chocolate for December. That’s doable — it’s not overwhelming like deciding to lose 5 pounds by cutting 1,000 calories / day in December. Each week he reported on which of the 7 days, if any, he’d eaten chocolate. He’s still trying to give up chocolate, and he hasn’t had a perfect week yet. He keeps “failing,” and he keeps trying!
I encourage you to try something new and challenging in 2017 – and to keep failing. Don’t give up! Just get up again after you fail, and keep trying.
Additional Resources: See my 17-page eArticle Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling. It’s part of our New Winter Cycling Bundle as well.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
I get the idea of pushing through mental barriers and I also know that if things are always easy, you aren’t pushing your limits. However, I am troubled by the idea that a head injury is no big deal and you should just press on. You “hit so hard that I had a mild concussion” and then you kept skiing, deliberately choosing a more difficult route that in a previous season had seen you crash badly enough to tear your MCL. Over the last few years, we’ve heard from many athletes, from NFL to NHL to pro boarders, skiers, and cyclists, about the the lingering effects of TBI, whether from a single incidents or accumulated over many “mild concussions.” I think this account overemphasizes the macho approach of just getting back on the horse and riding versus being more conservative with the only brain you’ll ever have.
The idea that you if you aren’t falling then you aren’t trying is ridiculous. Bicycling Magazine’s former motto seemed to be the same; that if you aren’t scraped up you aren’t riding hard enough. Fortunately, they have had a new editor or two that has changed the editorial content to reflect that riding is the point. Get on the bike! Don’t be foolish and ride so recklessly that you fall but as Grant Peterson says, just ride. Time to stop this macho crap that you have to crash to prove something.
Give up chocolate? Not worth trying!
I can’t believe you would hit your head hard enough to think you had a concussion and not take it easy the rest of the way back to the Center. There is a time to push yourself and a time to protect yourself from further potential harm. Be smart about taking risks, and learn from past experiences. Mistakes are a great teacher, but the consequences can be long term and harsh.