One of the many pleasures that I derive from working with Coach Dana on the Achieve PTC Blog is the opportunity to interview some amazing people: Fellow Achieve athletes such as James LaBerge, on of the cusp of making the jump to the pros and Matt Adams, who hopes to translate his success at running one the most successful bike stores in the country into success as a Masters road racer, just to name a few of the incredibly gifted and driven individuals that I have had the pleasure to meet.
To that list, I am going to add yet one more extraordinary individual to this list: Performance Psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor. Dr. Taylor, a recognized authority on the psychology of performance, has worked with a number of world-class sports organizations and businesses, and had been invited by Coach Dana to share his insight and experiences to the packed house of Achieve PTC athletes at Equator Coffee at Proof Lab in Mill Valley.
In the following phone interview Jim discusses how his early experiences in sports led to his decision to become a sports psychologist and offers some advice on how to recover during the off-season and finally, preparing for the next year.
ED: First of all, thank you for talking time to sit down and share your insights into sports psychology and performance.
JT: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.
ED: Before we begin, can you tell me about yourself and how you got involved in sports psychology?
JT: Well, they say that people become psychologists to figure themselves out. I suppose that I was no exception. I was an aspiring alpine ski racer in my youth. I was also what they refer to as a “head case”. Meaning that I tended to let my head get in the way of my skiing: I had very little confidence in myself, got nervous easily and generally had a hard time staying focused.
One summer I took a psychology class and took a quantum leap in my development and began to achieve in way that I had not been able before. Later on in college, I continued in my psychology studies and discovered that I had found my calling. During this time too, I became a second-degree black belt, and Iron Man triathlete. And I have been working with athletes and Fortune 500 companies ever since.
ED: Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to working with endurance athletes in general, and cyclists specifically?
JT: Endurance sports are very unique in a lot of ways: First, they last a long time, which requires an ability to maintain an effort over an extended period of time, and secondly, they are very painful.
A lot of the work I do ties in with motivation; putting in time on the bike, with confidence. (CONFIDENCE). You may have the physical ability to ride at a certain speed, but if you don’t have the belief that you can then you’ll never be able to ride at that speed. And then there is fear, as in the fear of crashing which is something that all cyclists experience.
My goal is to educate people on the psychological aspects of cycling to give them a way to wrap their arms around, and to understand how the physical and mental intertwine.
In some ways the physical part of performance is easier. For example, with a power meter you can see your wattage and speed. It’s very clear to see how your fitness is affected by how you train. With the mental side however, its not as simple. I try to make it real as real as I can in order to set a foundation.
Mental Toolbox and Pain versus Suffering
ED: Tell me about the “mental toolbox”
JT: Just like every cyclist has a toolbox for their bike, I try and give them a “mental toolbox” that they use to keep them motivated when, say its 5am and they have a ride to get in and don’t really want to get out of bed and on the road. Or when they are just in pain. Of course I can’t make them feel pain less, but I can give them the mental tools to manage their pain more affectively.
ED: Much has been made recently about cycling and suffering. In your Achieve talk you went out of your way to make a distinction between the perceptions of pain versus the more profound experience of suffering. Can you talk a little bit it?
JT: Sure. Well, this came from personal experience. I was on an 80 or 90-mile bike ride with some friends. At the end of the ride one of the guys said “Man, it was a suffer fest out there today.” And of course, having all survived this “suffer fest” we all felt very heroic.
But later on, I got to thinking about it and realized that what were experiencing out there wasn’t suffering – people with serious injury suffer. What we feel is not even pain for the simple fact that we can control it. For instance, if I am going to hard during a ride I can stop and rest. Technically speaking, what we feel is actually closer to physical discomfort. But, getting back to my story, if my friend had said “Man, that was a physical discomfort fest” well, that wouldn’t have been very inspiring. So let’s call its call it pain, but let’s really understand what we mean by that. Which is, that it’s physical discomfort that we have control over. And overcoming that pain (or discomfort) is why we ride. Put another way- if riding 100 miles was easy, no one would do it.
Research has shown that people associate the experience of pain with negative emotions. I try to get athletes to approach pain as a positive thing; as an indication of physical exertion that an athlete feels while on the path to achieving one’s goals. Riders can shift their experience of pain. That simple shift can make the difference.
ED: For most road cyclists, this time of year is the off-season, a time to relax and reflect on the past season before training starts again for the upcoming season. As a sports psychologist, how do you approach the off-season with your athletes?
JT: I am a firm believer that next season starts now. After a few weeks recovery its time to get back in the game. But it’s more than just going out a riding a whole bunch.
I like to begin with what I call a “forensic analysis”, which is a simple series of questions designed to get the athlete to think about the season. Questions such as: “Was it a successful season?” “Did you achieve all of your goals?” “What enabled you to be successful?” Or, if the athlete felt that they came up short, “What prevented you from achieving your goals. Having established a firm grasp on the season that was, I find that the cyclist is then that much freer to look towards the future and develop different strategies with the goal being that the rider is better prepared for the next season.
ED: Do you find that your athletes are generally more open about admitting or acknowledging their shortcomings, or do you feel that you have to really prod them to this sort of self-exploration?
JT: For the most part, I find that the experienced cyclist has a pretty good sense of what worked or what didn’t.
ED: How would you describe your approach to working with athletes during the off-season?
JT: I really try to emphasis cycling-life balance with my athletes, especially during the off-season. Cycling requires a lot time and sometimes your work; your relationships suffer as a result of racing and training. And it’s good to take a break from the bike during this time of year. Do something fun: take a cooking class or learn to paint. But whatever you do, try and avoid what I call the “too” zone?
ED: The “Too” zone?
JT: Yes. Of course, as a cyclist you want your bike riding to be important, but not “too” important. The risk is that a cyclist begins to attach too much of their identity into being a cyclist that they lose sight of the reason that they started riding in the first place. Put another way, cycling should be a part of your life not your life, itself.
ED: In a few words, what would you like a potential client to know about you and your services?
JT: My ultimate aim, and this is why I do what I do, is to help athletes achieve their own goals. But it is also to try and help them become healthier, more productive and more successful people. While cycling is, for some, both career and their life- for most people it’s just something they just love to do.