In light of the recent debate around Simone Biles and her sudden departure from the team competition in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I want to take a moment to give some general insights about mental health and mountain biking. Sure, most of us will never compete beyond the amateur level. But I think there are several lessons to be learned regarding the tension between performance and existence on the bike.
Can mountain biking help your mental health?
When I’m riding, I’m usually trying to balance enjoying myself and getting better. Sometimes these two goals can be accomplished at the same time. Often they can’t. Sometimes my rides are only about skill improvement and high physical intensity. I exist on the bike only to improve, either in fitness or skill. But one thing I’ve noticed about my training is that I gravitate towards constantly thinking about my results even when I’m trying to just enjoy myself. It’s like I have a Strava demon hanging on one of my shoulders saying, “Sure, you may be having fun, but how close are you to your PR?”
A friend of mine recently criticized Simone Biles for quitting because she was “losing.” He was skeptical that mental health was the actual reason behind her departure. He argued instead that if it was really about mental health, then she would have stopped competing when she was actually winning. Now I’m no expert in sport psychology, but I thought this argument was interesting to explore. I realized that there are many days on the bike when I’m a “quitter” and just fall short of trying that scary technical section or give up riding tempo up a tough climb. On other days I’m full of resilience, riding well out of my comfort zone and pushing myself to accomplish more and more. So which one am I really? A quitter or an achiever?
The truth is that I really don’t know, and I really don’t care either.
I love riding because I get to just BE; however, I am on the trail with no expectations or evaluations besides my own. The essence of mountain biking is to enjoy the intersection between your machine, body, and the natural environment. If you drop out on a climb with friends or wreck your bike on a descent, who cares? What matters is that you’re riding, and you’re present with your fitness, skill, and intention.
So much of our culture is built on performance and accomplishment, which is not entirely disregarded. But if every ride were about a constant state of linear growth, we would all probably end up in a stressed mental state, and mountain biking would cease to be fun.
So next time you head out to ride, check-in with your whole self: mind, body, and spirit. Then, reframe your expectations for the ride and enjoy just existing on your bike. Take the ride as it comes. Chances are, you’ll achieve that balance of deep enjoyment. You’ll also experience growth in performance and preserve your mental health in the process.
Matt Chisholm is a data analyst and freelance writer who has focused primarily on the environmental history of the Southern Smoky Mountain region of North Carolina. He won the 2017 McClung Award for the best research article of the 2016 edition of the Journal of East Tennessee History. He is also a contributor for an upcoming edited volume entitled Lost in Transition: Removing, Resettling, and Renewing Appalachia that will be published in the fall of 2021 by the University of Tennessee Press. When not writing, Matt enjoys road and mountain biking, hiking, trail running, and drinking beer around Concord, NC where he lives with his wife, daughter, and twin boys.
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