There Is A Time And Place For Being Realistic, But Your Race Isn’t One Of Them

I started reading “Learned Optimism,” by Martin E.P. Seligman a couple weeks ago, and wanted to share some of the insights I’ve had since. After taking one of the optimism tests in the book, I discovered that, statistically, I’m a total pessimist. I honestly never would have guessed– yes, I have pessimistic thoughts fairly often, but I make an effort to “self-talk” them out my head as they arise. I started out in mountain bike racing as a pretty optimistic teenager. I believed that I was great at it, and would continue to be great at it no matter what.

Over time, as I struggled with body image, weight gain, and failure in big competitions when I should have done well, my optimism degenerated into self-protection. When I decided to do something, I would tell myself to “be realistic” about my expectations– basically meaning that I would never expect to succeed in the beginning of anything. This way, I couldn’t be crushed if I failed. Until now, I actually thought that that “being realistic” was fueling optimism– if I failed, I could easily brush off my shoulders and carry on. What I didn’t realize was that it also meant that I was doing less than my best.

I would go into a competition telling myself that I would just be realistic about my performance expectations: I’d only done an average of 11 miles per hour over similar terrain, so that’s the speed that I could realistically expect to average during the race. I couldn’t realistically expect to beat a girl who has been pro for several more years than me. If my heart rate goes over 180 bpm, I couldn’t realistically expect not to bonk during the race.

“Being realistic” does have a place. If you optimistically decide that you can train without recovery days, your performance is probably going to suffer. If you think that you can nail a 20-foot gap jump after only doing 3-foot ones, you should maybe take a reality check. And taking the time to look realistically at your performance after a race will certainly help you in the long run.

But during a race or competition, there should only be one thing on your mind: doing your absolute best. That means pushing through pain that might have slowed you down before, pushing your limit just a little bit more than you could in training, and focusing on the girl ahead and making a concerted effort to catch her, no matter how good she is.

Optimism and pessimism manifest themselves in very subtle ways, and it takes more than a meme or inspirational speech to change your whole mindset. But through research and concentrated effort, you can find ways to make your mindset healthier, thus improving both your training, racing, and quality of life.