Attitude is everything. It is entirely platitudinal, and so when someone says it out loud, I tend to cringe. But my reaction doesn’t make it any less true. In fact, the truth of it only increases as you get closer, really think about and weigh up your own behavior.
On a solo ride, especially in dire conditions, your ability to focus on the positive, to keep your inner bitch on lock down, is the difference between 10 miles and 30, or 30 and 60. It’s also the difference between being able to complete multiple bad weather, solo jaunts, and sitting on the couch, packing your face with gratuitous calories and diving directly into the cyclist’s shame spiral.
But that’s you wrestling with yourself.
On a group ride, or in a race, attitude becomes even more important. Other people are depending on you. The things you say to companions or teammates make a difference, not only in potential results, but in the willingness of your crew to hang out with you afterward.
And beyond how fast you go together, that latter part, that social element, is the most important, because it’s the one that has ramifications for every other aspect of your life.
Unless you’re the Unabomber, your life is a group ride. It’s got family, friends and co-workers on it. If your attitude sucks, and you get it all over everyone, chances are you’re not going to have a lot of those people, the most important people in your life, anxious to love and support you when you need it. You may be an island in your own mind, but there comes a time in everyone’s life when they need help. And help comes from people.
Positive mental attitude (PMA* ) is one of those things that has primary, secondary and tertiary benefits. When you’re alone, it makes everything you do easier. When you’re with a gro up, it makes things easier for the whole group and reflexively for you. Further, the example you set influences what people do in groups you may not even be a part of. The converse is also true. The more negative shit you put out into the world, the worse off you are, the worse off we all are.
But so what? All of this is self-ev ident. Whatever bits of human wisdom persist long enough to become platitudes in the first place are perhaps, if not tautologically true, at least theoretically proven through the sheer weight of experience.
Here’s the thing though. Here is where we go beyond platitude and talk about the real challenge. As it turns out, the human brain is not equipped with a ‘good attitude’ switch. We can’t toggle it on when we need it. In fact, often when we need it most it is least accessible. It is this cruel reality that, I think, leads me to cringe whenever I hear “attitude is everything.”
For me, bad attitude is often born of automatic thinking, my unconscious mind with all its anger, pettiness, fear and insecurity spewing negativity into the mental stream. Negativity is like that drunk who won’t leave your party. You want him out desperately, but he bats down every logical entreaty with a laugh and a request for more chips. Oh, and he peed on the toilet seat. That’s what negativity does.
If you’re still with me, I should confess right now, that I don’t have a solution to this problem. There are a lot of days when an accurate mood ring would shine black, betraying me as a cynic, a skeptic, a practitioner of sarcasm and pessimism, a not-all-that-awesome guy to be around. To be sure, since my kids came along and taught me that I’m not the center of the universe, I have a lot more good days than I used to, but attitude is still, for me, a constant struggle.
The good news is that I have learned SOME things from that struggle.
The first one is that there probably isn’t a ‘solution’ as such to this problem, just as there isn’t a one-time ‘solution’ for fitness. It’s a thing you’ve got to work at all the time. Consistency is king (as long as we’re working the platitudes). So, despite the random epiphanies I have along the way, I am never going to just have a good attitude now and forever more. I am always going to have to work at it.
The second thing I have learned is that, just as with fitness, it gets easier the more you work. You make your greatest gains at the beginning, when the thoughts in your head are as toxic as New Jersey landfill, but, resolved to be a better human, you tamp them all down, plaster a smile, however fake, across your face and say something nice to someone.
What shocked me, the first time I attempted this daring maneuver, was that the people in my immediate vicinity all adopted the smiley-faced niceness and in short order we were all in a good mood. This isn’t science. Your results may vary.
Of course, this approach also has a cutesy name, ‘fake it to make it.’ The idea is you adopt whatever attitude you’re trying to achieve by whatever means necessary, including simulation. You lie to yourself. As lies go, this is a good one, because if it works, it makes itself true.
Imagine yourself alone on the side of a hill in two feet of shoulder. It’s gray and rainy. The wind is blowing. You’re not in the red, but you’re pink as hell. Cars zip by, and even ten feet away their after draft leaves you feeling vulnerable. One approach might be to curse your luck, curse the weather, curse the paving crew who left you only this narrow sliver to toil away in, to curse all drivers everywhere for all time and the stupid jerk who invented the internal combustion engine.
I have ridden that scenario, felt those feelings, and arrived home enraged. It didn’t work out well for anyone involved.
In that same scenario, you might also try to see that, of all the people on that hill at that moment, you alone are on a bicycle, testing yourself against gravity and the weather, that you will arrive home glistening in well-earned sweat, that you are busy living there in those two feet of spare pavement while everyone else gets wrapped around the axle of their daily lives. You’re the lucky one. Smile, but keep your head down. There’s work to do.
Many of us are trying to push our limits on the bike. We try to go farther or faster or better. And doing that absolutely requires the right attitude. It’s the mental game that coaches play. It’s the things we tell ourselves to push on. I suppose it’s possible to shame yourself into doing a ‘personal best’ on a climb or on a regular route, but does that seem like a viable long term strategy?
Padraig and I talk about this all the time. What we come back to over and over is that what works on the bike, works off of it, and vice-versa. Being nice, positive, honest and hard working endears you to the people in your life who are the most important. It also carries you up the hardest climbs, down the sketchiest descents and makes the last ten miles of a century all the more tolerable, even pleasurable. It makes me wonder about my training. Am I thinking too much about legs and my lungs, and not enough about the soft stuff between my ears?
* When I’m struggling I try to stick the Bad Brains song “Attitude” from their 1982 debut album in my head. They coined the acronym PMA for “positive mental attidude” in that song, and it makes an excellent mantra when you’re in the red.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International