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Life Lessons from the Trail #19 - Your Instinctive Reactions Aren't Always the Right Ones

I've coached Danielle a number of times over the years and she's grown to be a capable rider - at least, from a technical skills perspective. Improving her mountain biking instincts is something we've yet to really focus on.

Like all of the Life Lessons from the Trail posts I do, I've been meaning to write about this topic for a while. But if I'm being honest, this particular topic was actually one of the very first lessons I meant to write about. It's only because of a conversation over a cup of hot chocolate that I had with Danielle over the weekend that I've made a concerted effort to finally finish this particular post. The fact that this particular challenge affects so many people that I meet is another.

Over this cup of hot chocolate, we chatted about a challenge that Dan had been experiencing with her riding, one in which she described frustration due to finding that when riding on some days, she felt she could conquer the world. On other days, she found that she could be paralysed with fear. As a result of that fear, Dan would find that she would struggle to do things on her mountain bike that at other times she would find really easy to do. And in a worst case scenario, her body and mind's reaction would actually result in a crash.

Her question to me was a simple one - during my coaching of others, women specifically, was it something that I'd seen affect others. And the short answer is yes - not just to women but riders of all ages, from children to adults. It's even something that can affect me personally.

Mick performing a drop demonstration - a maneuver that he had only recently learnt and which required him to overcome his self-preservation instincts. He was still working on that when this photo was taken.

For the purposes of this particular discussion though, I'm going to focus on one particular topic - what I call the "Self-Preservation Instinct".

Self-preservation is something we all have within ourselves to a degree for obvious reasons - and some have it to a greater extent than others. It's an instinct that evolution has instilled into our DNA over thousands of years to prevent us from hurting ourselves... or worse. Also commonly known as your survival instinct or the "flight or fight response", it has a tendency to become stronger as you become older, as your brain accumulates a series of painful experiences and converts them into memories that cause you to feel fear.

Sometimes you don't even need to experience the painful situations personally - simply watching someone becoming hurt is sufficient to create a fearful memory that triggers your self-preservation instincts if you place yourself in a similar situation. And if you accumulate enough of these memories and experiences, you may find that you start feeling fear in situations where you think that there's actually nothing to be afraid of.

There's a whole piece around the interaction of the amygdala, hypothalamus, pituitary gland, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex along with a bunch of hormones that creates your body's survival response which can get quite complicated. But if you can understand what goes on in your body and brain even in a very basic way, you can teach yourself how to overcome this seemingly out of control response.

If Leah's self-preservation instincts thought she was in danger as she rode over this feature, the outcome might have been very different. But given that she's smiling, you can gather that Leah didn't feel like she was in any danger.

"Pain makes us make bad decisions. Fear of pain is almost as big a motivator." This is a quote from one of my favourite TV shows where the main character, living in chronic pain often makes questionable choices, especially when experiencing a lot of pain. And let's face it - when it comes to mountain biking, there are a lot of things that could cause you a fair amount of pain.

When it comes to pain, the vast majority of people are afraid of it. That's probably what most people would call a healthy response. Again, there's another discussion around whether pain is a good or bad thing that I'm going to leave that Life Lesson for another time. For the purposes of this discussion though, it's actually not pain that is the problem - because that's actually an outcome of something going wrong. It's the fear of pain that is the challenge.

I'm going to describe a generic scenario that I've seen happen quite often, both during my lessons and just when I've been riding with others. It starts with approaching a feature that immediately gets your heart racing. You begin to feel a sense of nervous anticipation as you approach it, adrenalin feeling like it's beginning to surge through your body as your brain subconsciously prepares to react to anything, to fight or fly, to survive. As you near the feature a seemingly endless stream of almost unintelligible chatter flows through your mind, about what you should do, what you shouldn't do, what might happen, what could go wrong. You reach the feature and you don't realise it but you're holding your breath, your heart racing as your brain decides that based on what it's feeling and sensing, you're now in danger.

Alyssa was more than capable of tackling this chute... but her self-preservation instincts kicked. She was lucky enough not to injure herself but suffice to say that the next photo in this series isn't with Alyssa on her bike!

Your brain acts, without you even realising. Somehow, subconsciously you're fingers have slammed on the brakes to prevent you from getting further into danger... except that your reaction is far too slow when you're on a mountain bike and you now find that your rear wheel is beginning to rise up, threatening to throw you over the handlebars. Again, your brain instinctively reacts without thought, tensing your muscles while simultaneously moving you back on your bike, further away from the danger - the ground. But now further away from the ground, your body is able to gather more speed before the impact, your body tense with your brain believing this is the best way to protect vital organs.

The feature doesn't really matter - the brain's response is very common amongst many riders that I've seen, pointing to an instinctive reaction that seems almost embedded into our DNA. And the outcome of the above scenario in a worst case scenario is pain, which then reinforces in our minds that what we attempted is dangerous to us and something to be avoided. But is the subconscious response really the right way of handling that situation, or can the instinctive reactions of our brains be wrong?

I often tell people that so many skills in mountain biking feel unnatural, completely wrong - until they don't. In the case of a feature, if you were able to do the exact opposite of what I described above, as you approached the obstacle, stayed calm, remained relaxed, kept a clear head and stayed in the present to allow your subconscious mind to respond as if it were in no danger, there's a very good chance that you'll handle the feature without incident.

An hour before the previous photo was taken - Alyssa negotiating an arguably more challenging feature without issue or incident.

So why do some people subconsciously and automatically end up reacting with their flight or fight instincts while others are able to throw a smile while they handle the same obstacle. Well, as human beings we're all unique, and so to are our experiences. The specifics of each answer tend to be different for individuals, from having a genetic disposition to not doing anything crazy to previously experiencing a trauma that has embedded itself into the memories of our hippocampus.

The thing is, because we're human we also have the ability to act beyond our primal instincts and reflect and rationalise on the specifics of a situation. Where we can get a bit tripped up though is placing an expectation on ourselves that we can overcome years (millennia if you want to consider the evolutionary aspect of this equation) of engrained and instinctive behaviour in a single step. In attempting to solve our fear based problem in one foul swoop, instead of flying to the solution we can end up falling short, creating a reinforcing loop of bad experiences into our memories that instead, makes it harder to overcome the fear challenge.

While there really isn't a definitive cure, the approach I use in mountain biking is always to push the envelope of capability just a little bit at a time. After all, if you were to go to the gym, you just don't go and and try to lift the heaviest weights that are there. Rather, you build up the strength of your muscles over time. And at the end of the day, your brain is really just another muscle in your body.

It took a few runs at the steps before Anna began to become more comfortable with the fact that nothing bad was going to happen to her when she rode down the stairs - as evidenced by her facial expression.

Within a controlled environment, where the chances of something can go wrong can be minimised relative to a person's journey of technical skill and mental fortitude, it is within the realms of possibility to create new memories. And the goal of this action isn't to jump to the final outcome of doing something that our brains won't believe is actually possible. Instead, it's simply to create experiences that challenge the status quo. To create the possibility in the mind that there is an alternative outcome to one that ends up in pain. That maybe, you as an individual have within you the ability to achieve a different outcome to what your instincts believe is the only possibility.

Just like increasing your strength at the gym, the exercise of strengthening your mental resilience isn't achieve by lifting the heaviest weight that you can put your hands on. Instead it comes from applying an amount of resistance that challenges your mind's instincts a little a bit at a time. Enough that you'll feel some discomfort about attempting a particular skill or features, but not so much that you become overwhelmed with fear, triggering your brain's survival instincts to kick in and take over your actions.

And like a physical workout, repetition helps to build your mental strength. In the case of an obstacle on a trail that makes you nervous, doing it over and over again successfully begins to replace the image of fear and pain with a memory achievement of success. With enough practice, this becomes your brain's new 'normal', something that it no longer fears because it's only association in your memories is with something that you can do.

When I first met Ben, he was a very nervous young rider. But over 6 months, Ben progressed through every class that I had to build up his not only his skills but mental fortitude over time to become a confident rider.

Work on a variety of these challenging but non-overwhelming situations and with time, your brain's concept of what is dangerous begins to change. You start shaping your instincts from seeing certain situations as dangerous to understanding that you have both the technical and mental skills to handle a scenario comfortably. This then allows you to increase the complexity of the challenges that you can undertake. Your perception of something that once seemed impossible shifts to being... well, just difficult. But difficult is doable. It's something you can overcome. It's something that you can retrain your instincts to accept that you can do.

While I've focused pretty much on the mountain biking aspects of his particular topic, this is still a Life Lesson from the Trails post and the process to retrain your instincts in the majority of situations is still the same. In any given scenario, a sense of discomfort, a resistance to attempt something, to change how you do things is often just your ingrained survival instincts attempting to protection from pain. But pain can be more than physical. It can be emotional pain and discomfort through fear of failure, the difficulty of something mentally new or even challenging the basis of your identity.

The trick in life is to recognise that this mental response, one that can be so subtle that you don't realise that it's taking over your actions, is actually there. And the great thing about being human is that you don't have to let your instincts define who you are how you do things. By recognising the response of your instincts, you can take action to challenge them, to redefine them and to move forward from where you currently are.

The joy you see in Anais's expression as she precariously balances on one wheel wasn't always there. Overtime she used mountain biking as a vehicle to build up her confidence and mental fortitude in herself - she's grown into an amazing young woman now.

Because your instincts aren't always right. They can hold you back and can even put you in a more dangerous situation. But learn to overcome them in the right way - by gradually building up your mental resilience over time. I'll elaborate on that in a future Life Lessons post.

Until next time!

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