Positive Slope

Positive Slope

By Amber Pierce - 1492747200

For all of the countless hours we spend to prepare for each race, countless factors beyond our control can influence the result. This could be incredibly discouraging, but as a Fact of Life (true not only for sport but also for everything else), there's no sense in letting it deter you.

The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome divided life into three categories: things over which we have complete control, things over which we have some control, and things over which we have no control. To achieve tranquility, they advocated concerning oneself only with those things over which we have some or complete control. In sport, athletes refer to this as 'controlling your controllables.' In other words, do everything you can to set yourself up for success, and let go of everything else.

As another very wise person once said, sh** happens. If experience teaches anything, it's to expect chaos and setbacks, especially external ones we can't prevent. Yet we agonize over setbacks. We know to expect them, and still we struggle mightily to accept the nonlinearity of progress.

In bike racing, we race for results. It doesn't matter if you lead the whole race and get passed at the line. You win or you don't. The result is good or it is not. This mentality is good to the extent that it provides a target toward which to strive. I strive toward good results, yet a good result (especially in a bike race) requires a great deal of luck, which has little (in some cases nothing) to do with my own preparations or actions. Why then, would I spend so much time training and preparing and racing when my results can always be influenced by myriad factors beyond my control?

I can't speak for others, but the reason I strive to perform as an athlete is to improve myself as a person. I have my own flaws, weaknesses and demons, and I know that to become a better athlete, I have to face them and do the work to improve them. My battle is internal. It is not easy to face personal weakness, but doing so is within my control, and doing so betters me at my core: as an athlete and as a person.

We have precious little control over external circumstances. We do, however, have complete control over our internal response.

This idea is far from new.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning 

The order across the finish line is visible, external, concrete. But what will ultimately get us there is not visible: the internal strengthening we experience through our response to challenge, to circumstances beyond our control.

We control this response. We can become stronger internally with every challenge, whether it appears externally as a setback or victory. 

What is essential is invisible to the eye.

— Antoine Saint Exupery, The Little Prince

How I respond to external circumstances, to the ubiquitous factors beyond my control, reflects my characterIt is my response – not my circumstances – over which I have complete control, and for which I must take complete responsibility.

If my ultimate goal as an athlete is to improve myself (which it is), and if doing so requires addressing internal improvement (which it does), then all external circumstances – good or bad – constitute opportunities for improvement (they do).

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

— Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

I broke my pelvis year before last and was on bed rest for a long time. It was a huge setback in progressing toward my goals, but at the same time, constituted as much an opportunity to improve myself as a race would: both circumstances offer the opportunity to respond to challenge with strength and grace. I can use both circumstances to improve myself.

You have the freedom and ability to improve yourself regardless of what is happening around you.

Internal chaos also exists. There are plenty of times I respond to my circumstances less courageously than I’d care to admit. Nobody is perfect. So how can one build consistency and confidence when even internal growth isn’t linear?

I like to think of my internal responses to external circumstances as a scatter plot. Sometimes I respond well. Other times I don’t handle myself with as much grace as I’d like. It’s always my choice – and my responsibility – but if I were to get it right all of the time, there would be no learning, no progress, no growth.

A scatter plot is anything but perfect; there are points seemingly all over the place, reflecting the random nature of changing external circumstances (good luck and bad luck), as well as the variability in response to those circumstances (sometimes good, sometimes not so good).

If, however, you apply regression analysis to your scatter plot, you would find an average slope for that seemingly random cloud of data points. In other words, the average slope tells you the direction in which these random points are trending: upward (positive slope) or downward (negative slope).

This, to me, represents the whole point of sport. This is where character is built, where we cultivate courage and grace. In my humble opinion, the only thing really meaningful about all of what we do is that slope.

We collect all kinds of data – power output, heart rate variability, TSS, race results, volume, intensity, calories – from which we create all kinds of graphs and do all kinds of analyses. But ultimately what shapes us as people and athletes more than any other data, is what is represented by that slope: how do you respond to good luck or bad luck, good days or bad days, and is your response improving with time?

You have the freedom and ability to improve yourself regardless of what is happening around you.

When you accept and internalize that, you can disconnect from the emotional rollercoaster of external success and failure. You can focus instead on charting a positive slope of growing internal strength. You can plug into the peace and power of knowing you’re in control of that slope, independent of factors and events beyond your control.

Your attention is power; direct it away from external chaos, toward inner growth.

What might appear externally to others as a setback will in your internal reality be an opportunity to plot your next data point a little bit higher than the last one. With this focus, you can consistently improve, no matter what happens around you. What others see as setbacks or windfalls, you see only as opportunities to improve yourself, to plot a positive slope.

It doesn’t matter if you have bad days and don’t respond well from time to time. To aim for perfection is nonsense. To strive to improve is noble. In the big picture, what matters most is that your slope stays positive, that you’re plotting enough points in the right directions: onward and upward.