“Your self-talk is the channel of behavior change” – Gino Norris
After baseball, and after spending a few years in the depths of some dark, lowly lit gyms, I decided to take up cycling. I had a relatively good ability for suffering, and suffering seemed to suit cycling well. I wore suffering like a badge of honour, and in only a few years, found myself only a half-wheel behind some of Australia’s best riders. In fact, before I realised just how good I was, or rather, how good they were, I even beat a few of them. I remember winning my first top level race. I’d gone in with the intention to ‘make friends with agony.’ If you’re not familiar with the subcategory of criteriums in cycling, it’s a closed circuit that you repeat for fifty minutes, at which time you’re given a bell with two laps to go. Each lap takes approximately four minutes to complete.
About 40 minutes in, the peloton (group of cyclists), were stalling. No one was pushing, and it was keeping the group together. As you can imagine, the race wasn’t quite aligning with my intention to ‘make friends with agony.’ I made a decision to ride off the front. With fourteen minutes to go, that was considered a death sentence. There was no way I could ride by myself for fourteen minutes without getting caught. I justified it by reminding myself at least I was being congruent with my internal agreement.
Within a few minutes, my heart was in my mouth, pounding at around 190 BPM. That’s three beats a second. Somehow, I made it to two laps to go. I was in unbearable pain. I was also still ahead.
My cycling computer was spitting out data telling me to slow down. I didn’t. I’d made that decision to make friends with agony, and I wasn’t going to walk away from my new comrade now. I came around the corner with one lap to go, and I looked back to see my lead close to about forty metres. That’s not a good sign. I turned the final corner, and somehow found a way to get out of the saddle and attack the straight. You’ll have to imagine the agony because I can’t describe it.
I won by a bike length. The guy who came second is now the 38th in the world in cyclocross, and races professionally, travelling the world for half the year following the racing season. That day, I proved to myself that all things being equal, psychology beats physiology.
Having an internal agreement with yourself is better than going in blind and undefined. Yet, If I had to put sub-par performances down to one thing, it would be that. So many underperforming athletes enter competition without clear expectations of themselves, without a game plan they actually intend to follow, and without a sense of belief and desire to win.
Irrespective of your physical readiness, if your mental readiness is not dialed in, you’re leaving a big part of your game-day to chance. Unless you are willing to throw the dice on your performance, it’s time to decide on your internal agreements.
Your internal agreements are words, phrases or reminders that are deeply connected with your goals, standards of excellence, and strategy for action. Your internal agreements shouldn’t just encompass your pursuit as an athlete, but should encompass every facet of your life. Because of this, your internal agreements are made by you, for you and only you. They aren’t quotes that you’ve seen online, and they aren’t someone else’s ideas. They are for you, and you only.
These internal agreements are a powerful motivational force that will give you a compelling reason to fight against the struggle and challenge of competition. When these agreements are deeply intertwined with your own sense of identity, upholding these agreements is a necessity. When your mind tells you to slow down; when your legs tell you to give up; when the fire in your lungs ignites, your internal agreements will be there to fight for you.
Have you ever been taken to your absolute limit? It’s a humbling experience. Before, during and after the competition, you are in a constant state of mental and physical exhaustion. Hanging on by a thread, so to speak. It’s internal agreements that keep the thread together.
Remember the last time you were faced with physical exhaustion? Remember the ease at which that negative self-talk started to take hold?
This is too hard.
Stuff it I don’t want to win anyway.
This team is just too good
I’m not good enough
I know what that feels like, because I’ve been there. I’ve had those thoughts. I’ve faced those demons. But my strongest ally in times like that has been the internal agreements I’ve made. In the face of prosecution, it has been my defence. It has come to my aid when I have needed it most.
Make friends with agony.
The more I reminded myself of my agreement, the more it became an ally I could rely upon. I accomplished many things i’m proud of as a cyclist, and this agreement served me well. While my agreements have changed, as a leader and business owner, they still serve me well. Here is the strategy to set your own:
- Reflect on the key phrases of the previous exercise – think, feel act. These defining terms will be a guide for you.
- Now reflect on what scares you the most in that endeavour – it might be the fear of failure, the embarrassment, or the judgement. For me, it was the agony. The sheer pain of agony frightened me a little, so I made a decision shifted
- In the sport of cycling, I only needed one internal agreement. For you, it could be more – anywhere between one and three. Write these down.
- Regularly reflect on this, both in training and during the journaling process. Expose yourself to stimuli where these become a great asset. Face your demons so your internal agreements can stand up for you.
Slowly but surely, the internal agreements that you uphold during intense training and competition will be the internal agreements that permeate into your everyday. The resistance that you feel as you progress through the simple challenges in life will have to face an extra layer of defense – an impenetrable agreement to yourself for excellence.