Losing your mojo happens to all of us at some point or another. Athletes get injured or shaken, musicians get paralyzed by the “sophomore album” syndrome, writers suffer from blocks that last for years, and people who get their hearts broken adopt cats and then spend their evenings feeding them wet food on their kitchen counters. Even if you’ve ever been afraid to speak up at a meeting, talk to the cute guy in the elevator, or send the sandwich back because you ordered it with no mayonnaise, you’re part of the club.
I believe confidence is everything. Especially when it comes to mountain biking. So ever since I lost mine last summer after a crash on Longhorn at Colorado’s White Ranch, I’ve been desperate to get it back.
Luckily for me, there’s an entire industry of sports psychology dedicated to this topic. And, just as I believe confidence in sports is transferable to other parts of your life, so, too, are the solutions. I reached out to Dr. Linda Sterling, certified mental performance consultant, professional counselor, and owner of Sterling Sport Mindset in Kansas City, and explained my situation.
I had ridden Longhorn countless times—it’s a violent torrent of rocks, roots, and drops where speed is your friend and hesitation not an option. Just before the last drop, I let my attention waver for a nanosecond, mentally high-fiving myself for getting down again unscathed. I don’t remember what happened, but I do remember the pile of jagged boulders I landed in. I was conscious only of trying to breathe and of the geography of every internal organ, the exact location of which was being broadcasted with sharp signals of pain. When my riding partner came around the bend behind me, I was wheezing like an accordion with my broken bike tangled underneath me.
After two limped miles, a bunch of stitches, and four weeks with frequent thoughts of my liver and kidney oozing like punctured balls of burrata, my body mostly recovered (save for a hip tendon that now sings like an untuned violin string). But my brain has been struggling ever since.
Every time I get back on the bike, my mind floods with fear. I can’t stop staring at the obstacles immediately in front of my wheel, and the circular thoughts of my high-deductible health insurance plan are interrupted only by the humiliating squeal of my brakes (which, incidentally, really need to be bled). If you were to express this phenomenon in an interpretive song, it would start out with the thrashing of Guns N Roses and end with a harpsichord version of some pop hit in which all the words are replaced by flute notes, like the brunch music they played at the Tex-Mex restaurant where I worked in high school.
After hearing me out, the first thing Sterling recommended is to replace the image in my head of the crash with a section I nailed instead, kind of like a mental channel-change. “The return to sport can be so tough because of that replay—your brain takes you back instantly,” she said. “If you can pair the moment of injury with an image of things going well, that can break the loop.” Essentially, she said, you’re building a different neural pathway in your brain, which will eventually just bypass thoughts of the crash altogether. (This might also mean you can train yourself to believe salad tastes better than cheese. But I digress.)
She also told me to initiate a physical psyche-up routine before I start, which will (theoretically) put me more in my body and less in my head. Even something as simple as adjusting your gloves or helmet or wiping your hands on your shorts can do the trick. And as I’m doing that, I should repeat a motivational phrase like, “You got this!” or “You are not a soft, old skin-sack with an unprotected abdomen!”
Ultimately, Sterling said, I have to recognize that fear is my body trying to be helpful. (Body: “Hey, lady, how many platelets do you think I have in here?”) Because you can’t eliminate the fear—it’s in your DNA for the very good reason of keeping you alive—the trick is to change your thoughts around it. She told me to assess the situation and decide whether that fear is rational or irrational. If it’s the latter, then I can file it in the mental category of “jitters,” which will (hopefully) help me push through the fear instead of becoming paralyzed by it.
“There’s a thoughts-feelings-actions-results chain. And if you can master this, it’s a skill you can apply everywhere, in any situation,” Sterling said. A situation, say, like trying to return the phone you dropped in the toilet to the Verizon Wireless store. Categorize your fear of the mysterious water-damage indicator as the jitters, and then just “confidence” your way into a new phone. (It would have worked if I just had more practice, I swear.)
However, when the fear is actually rational, it’s your body telling you that you may be in over your head. (Body: “Hey, lady, you actually are a soft, old skin-sack with an unprotected abdomen.”) She advised to listen to the fear when it reaches the intense anxiety level, because at that point, it will be counter-productive to your performance, therefore potentially increasing the likelihood that the outcome may, in fact, be what you’re so afraid of.
One more point Sterling made is that I should think about anything but the injury itself, because if I protect it, I might end up hurting something else. Pain, however, is a powerful reminder, which is where CBD comes in. I’ve never been much of a weed person (after a tiny nibble of my brother’s edible, I once spent my entire birthday party in the basement petting my own hair and saying, “It’s going be OK”). But I am a huge fan of CBD. I use tinctures and balms to get me through the season of my other gravity sport, skiing. It reduces the pain and inflammation in my arthritic Franken-knees and has no side effects, unlike the painkiller my doctor prescribed that made me throw up off the chairlift at Snowbird. I also think it helps ease my anxiety (read: thoughts of my high-deductible insurance plan) and increase focus (read: look 15 feet in front of you, not at your front tire).
So, as the snow melts and the trails beckon, I’m now (sort of) ready to get back on the proverbial horse. I’m (maybe) confident that I can overcome my fear, er jitters, and get my mojo back. (At least, as soon as the full-face helmet I ordered arrives.) Meanwhile, I’m going to try these tactics in everyday situations (meetings, elevators, sandwiches), and see how it goes. Mojo, after all, is totally in your head.
Sterling Sport Mindset helps athletes win the mental game of sports so they can succeed on and off the field, court, or trail. Founded by Dr. Linda Sterling, a former collegiate softball player and a doctorate in sports psychology, Sterling Sport Mindset is based in Kansas City and offers online coaching for all.