The highlight of my sporting career was representing the Royal Air Force in an international world cup mountain biking competition. I would be totally out-classed by the professional racers there and I wasn’t expected to do well. It was hoped that I might just finish. The experience of riding at this level was what I was there for, the experience and the challenge.
This race was famous for having a downhill section called the Pipeline, that over a third of the riders in the race were likely to fall at. Half-way down was a tree that people joked was magnetic because so many riders crashed into it on their way down it. I was riding a cross-country bike, not a downhill one and I knew that my chances of being in that third was high. After all, I wasn’t one of the best in the world like some of the other competitors were. I was terrified of riding down the pipeline.
The race was set around a large loop, the female competitors completing three laps, the men doing five. Before each race, the riders got a change to pre-ride one lap of the course, to look at which lines to take and how to pace themselves. Part way along my pre-ride, my coach appeared at the side of the track. “There’s a bit of a descent just up there Zoe, with a lovely sweeping right hand turn at the bottom, you’ll love it” he said.
As he had told me, I soon came to a steep and rutted down-hill section. Looking down, I could see the sweep at the bottom. I sat my weight back, bent my knees and relaxed my body as my bike accelerated down the course. It was terrifying and at the same time, it was exhilarating. I knew I had the skill required to ride this hill. I had ridden worse, and the course was dry so I knew I could handle it.
At the end of my pre-ride I told my coach that I was disappointed that the course designers had taken the pipeline out of the ladies’ race. There was a bit of a descent, but it wasn’t the infamous pipeline that I had heard about. I hadn’t seen the magnetic tree that so many riders had crashed into half-way down it either. “That’s a shame, maybe it was too dangerous” he’s replied.
I raced my heart out in the race. I placed in the bottom half of the table, but I had the time of my life on the course, coming in a higher position than anyone could have imagined. After the race I shared my stories of the overtakes, the near-misses and the exciting turns with my team members. “I’ve got some great photos of you coming down the pipeline” my coach told me.
I was confused, they had taken the pipeline out of my race!
But they hadn’t. And my coach knew it. He knew that I had been terrified of riding the infamous hill. I had believed that I would crash and fall on such a difficult descent, that I didn’t have the skill to ride such a death-defying drop.
He knew though that I did have the skill, as long as I stayed relaxed and rode in the way that I had ridden down hundreds of hills in training. He knew if I believed that this was just some reasonably steep down-hill with a lovely sweep at the bottom, that I could commit to controlling my bike down the hill and ride it. I hadn’t noticed the magnetic tree because I was focussed on the bottom of the hill, at the sweeping turn.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t ride the hill. It was that the fear of riding the hill would prevent me from doing what he knew I could. The fear would have me tense up and fall. The fear would have me get off and walk my bike down. The fear would stop me doing something that I was capable of. My coach was a genius. He was able to dispel the fear in such a way that I didn’t need to believe that I could ride the pipeline. I could focus on what would come after, and move easily past it.
It was my fear and my belief that was getting in my way. I had successfully ridden the pipeline four times that day. It wasn’t a fluke. I did have the skill. All I needed was to believe in my ability. When I saw the hill, but didn’t believe that it was the thing I feared, I knew I could ride it successfully.
Sometimes the things we fear aren’t as bad as we believe they are going to be. If we are mentally ready and well prepared, we can surprise ourselves with what we can achieve. Sometimes we need a coach to help us through the process.
Fear and belief can hold us back from trying things and from realising our potential.
What is fear stopping you doing right now? What could you do if you believed that you could, and were able to contain your fear, or even better, turn it into excitement?
If you are facing a challenge in your life right now, what could you do to dispel the fear and turn it into an exhilarating ride instead?