What I’ve learned from mountain biking

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Over the summer, a friend of mine, Billie Cleek, got me into mountain biking.  I haven’t been biking since I was a kid.  Little known fact about me: I was born in a little town near Pittsburgh, but moved away for elementary school, spending 1st through 6th grade in St. Louis, Missouri.

In St. Louis, we used to make little jumps out of dirt and stones and see who could get the most air on the jumps or go the fastest around the course.  The mountains in Portland, Oregon though, are much bigger and the course is world-class.

Here’s what I’ve learned from getting back into mountain biking this past summer:

  1. Intrinsic sports are awesome.  It’s been a long time since I’ve done a sport for its pure intrinsic value.  Most sports, from football to soccer, have an intrinsic element (it’s fun to play for the sake of playing) but they also carry a heavy conditional element – it’s more fun to win than it is to lose.  The play between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation has a central role in Life Coaching and is described in Daniel Pink’s outstanding book Drive.  For me, mountain biking is pure intrinsic bliss.
  2. Finding your passion is a big deal.  There is some debate about the merit of passion, as if finding a passion is like a matching game where if you do find the right fit, then everything else falls into place.  The debate here is between approaching the world and asking, “OK world, what can you offer me that fits my preferences?” versus asking “OK world, how can I contribute in a meaningful way?”  I think the magic spot is recognizing the importance of both, and making sure that you include both in your life.  I didn’t know that I had a passion for whizzing down dirt trails and hitting jumps in the middle of pine trees before last June.  In this case, finding mountain biking is a lot like being matched to a passion.  I think many teenagers face the same challenge and I think it’s one of the reasons why Life Coaching for teenagers can be so effective: it helps teenagers explore their world and take chances to find things they really love.
  3. I have to ride my ride.  When I first started, I fell.  A lot.  I would come home and one of the first questions asked was, “Did you get hurt?”  Lately, I’ve fallen with less frequency, coming home unscathed and triumphant.  I realized that I get myself in trouble when I try to keep up with Billie and ride as fast as he rides.  When I ride at my pace – when I ride my ride – and focus on my path, I don’t fall as much.
  4. Silence is surprising.  Most of the time while on the trail, I tune out the subtle clink of the chain and the gears.  It’s a subtle comforting sound, yet it’s easy to push to the background and focus on the trail.  One of my favorite parts of the trail are the jump lines, when I can catch some air for a few brief seconds.  While jumping – for those briefest of moments – what I find most surprising is the silence.  The chain and gears stop their constant gentle churning.  The forest seems more majestic.  The air seems fresher and carries a sense of peace.  It reminds me of my mind when coaching or writing.  There are moments when my mind settles and the constant hum of thoughts abates.  The silence is surprising and welcomed.
  5. Failure comes with success and vice versa.  I know that I’ve written about the virtues of failure.  Indeed, failure is another term that often sparks debate about its merits in educating teenagers.  And I want to make a distinction about permanent failure and brief failure.  For me while biking, failure really only becomes permanent once I stop trying to get better or stop trying to hit the trail.  Even a rejection letter from your dream college really only sets you back a year.  You can always apply next year.  You can always apply for a transfer or go there for graduate work.  The obstacles in our path are part of the fun. Mountain biking is only fun because there are tons of obstacles and you will fail and fall.  The real challenge is getting back up and doing it again.
  6. I’m thinking and performing better than I ever have.  I don’t know if I’m just getting older and thinking better.  Maybe my brain has finally {fully developed}…  I’m not sure, but when I bike, I think better.  Much better.  I haven’t tried to measure it yet, but I know that I have more ideas per week and I’m executing those ideas at a faster pace.  If I can come up with an easy way to measure the difference in my work, I will share it.  What I know for sure is that my brain is thinking better. I know it’s because I’m both getting older and with more experience I can tap into the joy of being 12 again.  It’s like being a big kid with lots of possibilities.
  7. Sometimes it’s easier just to go faster.  Two rides ago, I fell a section like the rock garden in the picture above.  It was a gnarly fall with my bike doing an end-over.  The best part was that I bailed out and landed on my feet as I watched my bike tumble.  The reason I fell: I was going too slow and didn’t have enough momentum.  When biking, it’s like we are a human gyroscope.  The more momentum and the faster the wheels are spinning, the better chances that you will stay upright.  During my most recent ride, I had the sublime experience of going really fast over some rocky trails and still feeling in control because I was going fast.  Sometimes life likes to be lived fast.

So here’s my challenge to you: find your intrinsic joy and make it a part of your week.  I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

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