4 Questions to Ask Yourself When Fear Takes Over on the Trail

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Are you really in danger or are you just being a wimp?

When you’re Riding (yes, Riding with a capital “R”), you roll over most trail features without a care. You’re flowing in the moment, and your body is executing trained patterns in a fluid and, I might add, awesome way.

But sometimes you encounter a thing. That thing could be a drop, a jump—anything that makes you stop and have to decide whether or not to go for it. When my students or I run into one of these “things,” I ask these questions:

It took a while to step up to the Whale Tail at Valmont Bike Park in Boulder, CO. My fear finally went away when I stopped looking at the takeoff and instead looked through the slats to where I wanted to land. When I finally stepped up, it was perfect.

1. Do You Want to Do This Thing?

Do you want to roll off this ledge? Do you want to boost this gap jump?

If your answer is anything but an emphatic “yes”—if it’s a “maybe,” or an “I dunno,” or an “I’ll just try it”—don’t do the thing. Your lizard (the lower part of your brain that runs your body in the moments that matter most) knows exactly what you’re capable of. Lack of clarity often signals a lack of readiness.

Once you have that clear “yes,” ask yourself what kind of yes you have.

Are you saying yes for extrinsic reasons? These can include peer pressure (“Jim just did it!”) and ego-driven self-expectation (“I should be able to do this”). Your loud ego voice is not the real you. If you’re doing this thing for anyone else—anyone but your inner self—don’t do it. Come back another day.

Are you saying yes for intrinsic reasons? Is this move a natural expression of your ability? Are you creating something beautiful? Is it going to feel sweet? Those are the best reasons of all. If your quiet kung fu voice says it’s good, it truly is good. If you have this type of pristine yes, continue to question number two.

2. Do You Know How to do This Thing?

Have you mastered the techniques required to land this big jump or climb this exposed ledge? Even if you can’t write a book about it, do you understand, at your body’s level, how to do this thing?

If this seems like a new challenge, have you done something similar? Does this move use a combination of skills you already have? For example, jumping into a turn combines cornering and jumping. Can you see and feel yourself doing this thing?

If yes, continue to number three. Again, if your yes is half-hearted, save it for another ride.

3. Can You Do This Thing Right Now?

Right here, right now—this exact moment—can you do it? Maybe you’re tired, or you’re hungry, or you’re on a different bike, or your front tire has burped some air, or you’re worried about work, or your shoulders hurt.

It’s completely OK to say, “Not today.” Actually, that’s much better than getting hurt. If you can see and feel yourself doing this thing right now, continue to number four.

4. Are You Afraid?

If you’re afraid, your lizard will use your oldest and worst habits, and this will likely go wrong.

 

If you’re optimally aroused, however, your lizard will use your newest and best skills, and this is likely to be sweet. Imagine an arousal scale from one to ten, where one represents sleeping soundly and ten represents totally freaked out. In my experience, most riders perform their best somewhere around an eight on the arousal scale. You might feel nervousness in your chest, but you can see and feel yourself doing this thing, and you’re excited to do it. At 7.9, you feel a healthy sense of urgency, your whole body is active, and you can ride at the peak of your abilities.

This is the sweet spot for shred.

When your arousal level peaks above this magical threshold of eight, however, you step into fear. You might feel tension in your muscles, you might imagine yourself getting hurt, your mind might go blank, you might brake involuntarily, and—pay attention to this—you might feel a twinge in your stomach. Any sign in your tummy is a danger sign. At 8.1, you’ve spilled into fear and stupidity, and a crash is much more likely.

If you’re afraid, don’t do the thing. If you’re properly stoked, go for it!

Have fun out there,

Lee