MTB Mindset Part 1: Get smarter about when you're trying to 'Be Good'
Mindset can vary depending on the skill and the most recent experience
Why should you pay attention to your mindset when you’ve decided that you want to improve your mountain bike riding skills?
“Because the way we think about getting better at something new can change the way we do it.”
That's a quote by Trevor Ragan, the founder of The Learner Lab, "The website that helps you and your team get better at getting better." Trevor has an excellent overview of this mindset principle on his website -- two videos, a short survey, and a list of resources if you want to go deeper.
The ‘Be Good’ Fixed Mindset
Sometimes we operate from a fixed mindset in which we believe that talent is something you're born with, that you have particular natural abilities or you don't, and that you can't do much to change that.
You think, "I'm bad at that stuff, so there's no point in trying." Or you tend to think, "I'm good at that stuff, so I don't need to work too hard at it."
It's what philosopher Dean Yeong calls the 'Be Good' mindset. He's written an article titled, Be Good vs. Get Better, arguing that flaws aren’t part of the Be Good mental package, so we tend to have trouble dealing with setbacks and demanding challenges. And too much praise for our smarts or skilled performances can lead us to adopt a standard based on comparing ourselves to others.
When I was a freshman in high school, I discovered I was pretty good at math. I got A's in Geometry and Algebra 1. I remember my Algebra teacher, Father Gleason, exclaiming when I solved a problem before anyone else, "Mr. Wigley, you are a genius." It was all downhill from there.
As a sophomore and junior, I hit a wall with Algebra 2, which got bigger with more advanced math courses. After that, C's and D's were the norms for me. "I'm bad at math" became my mindset, and I never changed it.
In retrospect, I got tripped up by my assumptions about my perceived natural talent, that I was smart, so I didn't need to work hard or develop study habits. And then, when that failed me, I needed to avoid math because then, as an intelligent person—part of my Be Good identity—I would look bad.
The ‘Get Better’ Growth Mindset
Other times we operate from more of a growth or Get Better mindset in which we believe that we can improve and that our innate or natural talent doesn't matter all that much in the long run.
What matters is our belief in our ability to build skills, that with the right approach, we can get better at whatever we want, that if we're not improving, it's usually because we're not practicing right, and that there are ways to figure out what the right way is.
We have an attitude that says, "I don't know how to do that, and I might not have as much natural talent for it as others, but I'm confident I can get better at it."
In my final semester as a senior in college, I discovered I was a few credits short of what I needed to graduate. So a buddy told me I should take a pass/fail art course. "Just show up, and you'll pass, man," he said. And I'm thinking, "No way, I'm terrible at art."
But I was desperate and decided to take a pottery course. I knew I'd suck at it -- no natural art talent -- but I was determined to pass so I could graduate.
So from day 1, my mindset was different. I was ready to work hard. I put in extra practice time whenever I could. I asked for extra help from the art instructor. I didn't take his criticism personally.
When I saw something cool someone else did, I asked them to show me how they did it. And as I saw that I was getting better, my confidence grew. I passed the course, graduated, and promptly bought a pottery wheel. I had a new hobby. And then, well, more on this shortly.
For many subject areas, our mindsets are different. For example, I spent a day with a very advanced mountain biker a few years ago at an indoor skills park. He was excellent at jumping, pumping, cornering, drops, logs - just about everything the park had to offer.
When I suggested we ride some skinnies, he said, "I hate skinnies. I suck at them. Go ahead if you want." While he may have had a Get Better mindset as he improved all his other riding skills over the years, he had a Be Good mindset regarding skinnies.
That pottery hobby I mentioned earlier? A year after I bought the pottery wheel and was cranking out the same beginner-level pots month after month, I fell in love with a woman with excellent pottery skills. But, unfortunately, she made my stuff look like crap. I had plateaued and got caught in the Be Good trap. So I gave it up and sold my pottery wheel.
Back in August during Launch Week, I asked y’all:
I included my list:
Remembering people’s names. Telling jokes. Cooking. Drawing. Understanding photography. Basketball. Math. Art. Acting. Learning a foreign language. Throwing a Frisbee forehand. Wolf whistling. Cursive handwriting. Playing the harmonica. Fixing and building stuff with my hands (“I’m not mechanically inclined.”) Singing. Swimming, especially floating. Dancing.
A variation is to ask yourself what you seem naturally good at or what you have reached a level of proficiency for but have reached a plateau.
For example, I've always had good physical coordination. So when I started riding mototrials and then transitioned to mountain biking, I quickly learned to bunny hop, ride skinnnies, and get over logs and other obstacles.
But I plateaued at a low intermediate level for those skills. I only practiced what I already knew how to do. Plus, I was constantly comparing myself to others. I was more concerned with impressing others, so I avoided riding with those who were better than me. My mindset became "try to impress others" and "avoid looking less skilled than others." The effect: I never improved.
Another variation is a mindset that changes from one practice session to another or even within the same session.
Before I understood how practice strategies affected the development of my MTB skills, my mindset about learning a specific skill would frequently change. For example, after repeatedly experiencing some progress during a bunny hops practice session and then having that progress disappear a few days later, my mindset would shift to a frustrated "I'm never going to get better at this!"
It's an essential first step to identify your mindset for those topics and skills that interest you with an awareness of how it can change.
How do you change your mindset?
I’ll dig deeper into the answer to that in Part 2. But start by asking yourself:
"How does my mindset affect this activity, skill, or experience?"
Better yet, ask the question using your first name and second-person pronouns like 'you' and 'your.' For example:
"Hey Griff, how is your mindset about bunny hops affecting your ability to improve?"
(I’ll post more on the benefits of that type of self-talk (AKA self-distancing) but if you can’t wait, see the book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross.)
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