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Life Lessons from the Trail #9: It's Hard to be Better if You're Comfortable Doing the Same Thing

Pin Strike - A Mountain Bike Parable

Once upon a time there was a group of mountain bike riders that would ride together every Saturday afternoon. Every week they would ride 20 to 25 kilometres and over a series of weeks would inevitably ride the same routes. From time to time they would explore a new trail, but often they would find it not to their liking and would return back to the trails they had always ridden.

Then one day, one of the riders who was actually the least experienced, announced that he wanted to change to flat pedals rather than continuing to ride clipped in to his existing pedals. "I've been doing some research which tells me that if I learn to ride with flat pedals I'll improve my connection to my bike and become a better rider," he reasoned.

One of the last photos taken of me before I switched to flat pedals. Being clipped in didn't stop me from crashing...

The rest of his riding group told

him he was crazy. "You won't be able to keep your feet on the pedals and crash because the terrain we ride is too rough," one of the other riders stated to explain his concern. "Jumping and getting over obstacles will be impossible for you because you won't be able to lift your bike up with your feet if you're not clipped in," another of the group declared. "You'll lose pedalling efficiency and won't be able to keep up with us," stated one of the fastest and fittest of the group. "You're likely to slip and end up with the pins of the pedals taking a gouge out of your shin," warned yet another of the group.

The lesser experienced rider considered the advice of his riding group. "Thank you for your words of wisdom," he responded. "However each week we do similar rides and I feel like I am no longer improving. If this is the pinnacle of my riding abilities, so be it. But I believe in my heart that something has to be better I need to do something differently."

So the rebel rider removed the pedals that allowed him to lock his shoes to them and replaced them with a larger pedal with spikey looking pins. And he began to ride.

For many rides he found that he could not keep his feet securely attached to the pedals and would crash. Without the ability to lift the bike up using the connection between his shoes and pedals he struggled to get his wheels off the ground to perform jumps and climb over technical features. He could no longer pedal the same way and found himself riding slower and becoming more fatigued. And as a final insult to injury, while attempting to lift his wheels off the ground, his feet slipped off the pedals and six of the metal pins gouged his shin.

The other riders of the group observed his progress, or lack thereof, their advice now validated by his personal experiences. But much to their disbelief, the rider continued to persist with the flat pedals despite the pin strike to his shins. Practicing everyday the rider worked on achieving the mythical connection to the bike via flat pedals.

Working on learning to jump without being clipped in is hard to do if that's how you've ridden over the span of 25 years. But it's possible!

And then something began to change - the rider began to feel the connection to the flat pedals. His feet stayed connected to the pedals throughout the roughest terrain. He began to utilise his body weight and feet position to get his wheels in the air and jump higher and further than ever before. He learned to alter the position of his feet and engage different muscles to pedal with greater strength and efficiency. And the pins of his pedals never struck his shins again.

His riding group watched his transformation in amazement. "How are you able to do that?" they would ask.

"It is nothing that you could not do if you but tried," the rebel rider replied simply. "You need just let go of how you do things now."

Everyone in the riding group shook their heads. "We cannot," they all disagreed. "This is how we ride. We cannot do what you do."

Try as he might, the rebel rider could not convince the other riders of his group to let go of the old ways they believed to be true. And so they began to part ways, the group continuing to ride as they had always done while the rebel rider explored new ways of riding in his never ending quest to discover what was truly possible.

Persistence and determination helped me to learn to ride in ways that I didn't know how previously. And it's something I pass in through my coaching (the shirt seems oddly appropriate).

A reluctance to let go

By now you might have guessed that their is a basis of fact to the slightly over dramatised mountain bike parable. The real version of that story happened almost five years ago when I decided that as part of becoming a mountain bike coach I would need to learn how to ride without being attached to a bike to help other riders do the same. Having been a rider that had been clipped into pedals for a good 25 years, the transition wasn't easy and everything that my riding group warned me about did actually happen - I still have more than a few scars of where my pedals left their marks on my shins and calves. But persistence overcame adversity and I learned how to be a better rider because of it. And it's actually been a long time since I've had a pin strike of any sort.

Over the years of coaching I've come across more than a few people that do actually want to be better riders, but they also won't let go of how they're doing things now. Be it a specific skill or technique such as how to corner or the adoption of a new technologies such as using a dropper post (yes, I know they're not really new but some people still believe there's no way they could ride with one), it isn't actually that people don't want to improve - in fact they'll out right tell you that they definitively want to. But actions speak louder than words, and it is simply not possible to be better if one persists in doing the same thing which happens to be the old "insanity" definition: "Doing the same thing and expecting a different result."

What is it that prevents people from letting go of what they know and changing what they do to something different, something that clearly has been demonstrated to be better? Well, I'm definitely not a psychologist, not even close to being clever. But overtime you do start seeing a pattern of behaviours in people. And what I've personally noticed is an emotional response (isn't it always?) that pertains to fear and being comfortable. The fear part I'll cover off in another life lesson sometime as I think that's a more expansive topic. In this particular post, I want to focus on the comfortable part of this discussion.

Welcome to the brain jungle

I've found that part of the challenge of letting go of a way of doing things is that we're usually comfortable with how we're doing a particular skill, task or process. Not only that, we've usually put an amount of effort into learning to do something a certain way, and history has validated that method as being correct. We become comfortable in the knowledge of understanding that if we do something in the way we've always done it, we know what the outcome will be. And because we know what that result is likely to be, it is much easier to continue doing something which yields a known outcome. Even if we acknowledge the possibility of better being on the other side of something new, in our minds there is equally the chance of worse. And for whatever reason, most of us focus on the negative outcome rather than the positive.

For reasons he didn't understand, Murray's brain struggled to let go of years of road riding habits and learn the specific mountain bike skills to improve his riding off-road. He persisted though and improved a lot over a series of three months through disciplined practice.

Personally I think there are a number of possible reasons for this, the first of which is the way our brains tend to work.... or at least in my very unscientific view of it in any case. Most of us will have heard of the concept of a neural pathway, created as our brains connect mysterious, magical things inside our head. And while I know there are very scientific explanations to how our neural pathways work, my simplistic mind translates it all into a very thick and dense forest.

Within this forest, over time we create these pathways, which become well trodden throughout the course of our life as these pathways are validated as being the correct way of getting to our mental destinations. Because these routes in our brain become well known to us and get us to where we think we want to be, it becomes difficult to consider a different route. Especially, if that route actually requires us to cut a path through a brand new, overgrown and untraveled part of our brain jungle. And let's not forget that this jungle is so dense that we actually don't know if cutting this new pathway will lead us to a better place.

Interestingly, when we're born cutting new paths in our brain jungle is actually all we do - mostly because there aren't any well worn paths to walk down, but also because we don't know any better. As we grow up, we become shaped by all of our experiences and pathways are cut into our brain jungle, becoming easier to travel down each time we do it until choosing a different path becomes almost unthinkable. The existing pathways become our definition of truth and efficiency, sometimes even becoming part of our identity through defining the way we do things.

The problem with comfortable

Getting off the beaten brain path isn't something that's necessarily easy to do, especially as you get older as those neural pathways really get bedded in the more that you use them. It's less of an issue when you're younger as your brain at this stage is just used to having to learn new things all of the time. That's often why kids are able to pick things up faster than adults - they don't have a preconceived notion of how something should be done. They're just used to learning new ways of doing things.

The joys of youth. Without having a pre-trained way of doing things kids are generally a lot more malleable in getting them to try different approaches and learning new ways of doing things. Imagine having that ability to learn as an adult!

As we progress through life though, we begin to fall into the trap of "the right way" of doing things. One particular term I really hate is the concept of "best practice", because the term implies there isn't actually a better way of doing something - which is something I just don't buy into. But these ways become well established in how we do things to the point of becoming a habit, that well worn neural pathway that is hard to deviate off. And in fact, our brains can even make it harder for us to change by hitting us with dopamine (which can even be addictive in nature) to reinforce said habit and making us feel like the way we're doing things is right, and that there's no need for us to change.

When we try and do something new, we rarely get the results we're after straight away (unless you happen to be naturally talented at something). And without a successful outcome, our brains don't give us a hit of happiness hormones or neurotransmitters to reinforce that new way. So we end up feeling like we failed at this new way, and we feel bad about it. But then you're brain looks over at that well worn neural pathway, that one you're already comfortable with, and so rather than persisting to adopt a new, possibly better way, you stay in your comfort zone.

Unless... you choose to try the new path again. But why would you do that? To leave your comfort zone of a known result and venture into the uncomfortable realm of not achieving the outcome you're after the first time, or even after many times. I mean, it's possible that a new path might not even lead to the end result you're after at all. The short answer is that people leave a well worn path because they're no longer happy with comfortable. They're looking for better.

The dropper post is (at least in my opinion) one of mountain biking's greatest inventions. It gets your seat out of the way so you can manoeuvre your bike more effectively. Yet I still know people who swear that they're a much better ride without it. Really, they've just never given it, or themselves a chance.

The long climb to new scenery

Have you ever started something new, found it really easy initially and then after a little while started struggling to continue? Maybe it was a diet to be a little bit healthier, an exercise program to become a little bit fitter, a new activity or hobby to learn new skills, or a new process or way of doing things to work better in your job. Sometimes it even happens in friendships and relationships.

The struggle to learn something new is a challenge that I'm sure pretty much everyone will have faced at some stage. Unless we're lucky or gifted at pursuing the new activity, at some point the new way becomes a struggle. And the allure of the old, comfortable way of doing things is often so very tempting to go back to, even if you know the new way might be better.

Like climbing up a long, steep hill, when it comes to learning a new, better way of doing something, you have a choice. Struggle, persevere and continue with disciplined effort, one small step at a time until you reach the top. Or give up, turn around and go back to where you started from. One choice will take you to somewhere new where you'll be able to see new possibilities. The other choice will return you to the view of what you already can see. And that's assuming you actually thought about changing the scenery and started to climb in the first place.

The view from Hiddenvale's 500 Above is spectacular. The ride back down to the bottom even more so. The last time I did this ride, there was a lot of swearing and groaning involved as we climbed up to the top - to the point that they even probably wanted to turn around. But they persevered and were well rewarded for their efforts by experiencing something they otherwise wouldn't have if they hadn't completed the climb.

Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable

To be fair, you might get to the top of a climb, accomplish that new way of doing things only to find that things aren't actually better. That your old way of doing things was just fine, maybe even better than the new way. But here's the kicker - it's not really about the destination.

The act of completing the journey to learn something new doesn't just create a pathway to that particular outcome. It begins to establish a mindset that makes you more comfortable as you learn attempt different ways of doing things. You stop worrying about not knowing what might happen as you focus on pushing through the challenging phase of doing something different.

In effect, you learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And if you learn that particular skill, working on being better won't just become easier for you. Being better will become something you find you have to do.

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