Cycling Wed: An alternative mental strategy

“Be the bike.”

“Picture the win.”

“Visualize success.”

In maximizing one’s chance of success in sports (or any of life’s endeavors) such axioms are the conventional wisdom. At least, it is what I have read, been coached on, and overheard from those in the know.

But is such optimism the only path to success? Is there another viable mental strategy?

After reading this author’s account of her first experience with bike racing, I may have to consider an alternative to the usual dogma.  Rather than burning mental matches thinking positive, would it be better to employ the “power of negative thinking.” 


Defensive pessimism” is what the academicians call such thinking. Even Oprah is on this.

As explained by IU professor, Dr J Raglin,

“Defensive pessimism consists of downplaying your ability and expectations…That way, if you do poorly you are not crushed, and if you do better than you expected, you get this payoff.”

He is not alone in his thesis.

“It turns out that this kind of thinking is an effective strategy for managing anxiety, fear and worry,” says another professor, and author Dr Julie Norem.

Anxiety, fear and worry. Yes, that about sums up the sensations of the start line. For me, it’s a bike race, but it could be a running race, the starting blocks at the pool, a lectern or even a first date. You get the picture.  An effective strategy to deal with these visceral feelings would surely be cool.  And, beta-blockers just will not work on a start-line (nor would they be helpful on a date.)

The nay-sayer might think such ‘sad-sack-ness’ would be counter-productive–a loser’s attitude.  In reality this is not the case.

It turns out that those who employ defensive pessimism as a coping mechanism are not necessarily the half-empty personality types.  On the contrary, defensively pessimistic people tend to be highly successful.  Dr Raglin confirmed this idea in his studies on college track athletes.   Pessimistic thinking athletes performed identical to the optimists, in his studies.

So the next time you roll up to the start-line with those familiar sensations: jittery hands,  tightness in the mid-section and thumping of the heart, don’t be afraid to downplay your ability and expectations.

You may be the better for expecting less.  There are clearly many treasures, not just the first-place trophy dust collector, the bag-of-apples, the toaster or even the check for a hundred dollars. Visualizing realisms, like beating the guy with the expensive bike, or finishing a race as strong as you started, or perhaps reveling in the joy of the moment, may indeed be better strategies.

And of course, it is far more noble to be entangled in the tape than not in the race.  There is no tape in spin class, nor is there anyone to photograph imperfections.


1 comment

  1. John – interesting post. I heard the exact opposite from some researchers in a podcast (Radiolab) who claim that the athletes who psych them selves up, even to the point of lying to themselves ("I am the best bike racer here – bar none!") tend to do better. At the time I agreed with it. I think confidence goes a long way on the starting line.

    I blogged about it if you care to read:

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