I’m a professional mountain biker, my prowess on a bike resulted in a fifteen year career with earnings of close to two million and an unlimited supply of the finest bicycle equipment available. I performed thousands of stunt shows in front of millions all over the world, was featured in dozens of mountain bike films and media, a Cirque du Soliel show, and television commercials.
As a nicely packaged example of what our culture strives for, measurable results, I was celebrated and praised. This starlight was disorienting, my inner-sense of identity became elusive, leaving me in autopilot-mode—a muddled inner-experience juxtaposed by my smiling public-image.
In this article I want to expose and explore the rarely spoken about or even acknowledged interior worlds of pro-athletes.
In my attempt to more deeply understand the ‘pro’ lifestyle, I, equipped with heart-open curiosity, interviewed some 20 plus Professional and Olympic athletes–my perspective expanded almost as much as my compassion.
Though each athlete’s life circumstance is unique according to age and career-phase, the same themes of struggle emerged over and over. I want to take you through these themes, bring you into some of the complexities and challenge, and then conclude with a vision that will entice athletes, trainers, media, and spectators to value the inner-world experience as a key factor for assessing athletic success.
Sport can provide much needed solace and therapy from the strains of life. However, when used to avoid challenging “life-stuff”, it can become a form of escape. Athletes, like everyone I know, have many unaddressed issues; sport makes them go away temporarily, but if left unaddressed, over time they will make themselves known through distracting thoughts, tight and retracted bodies, and clouded judgment. This follows us into sport compromising our performance and enjoyment.
My riding regime was steady practice, smart diet, and plenty of sleep. When reality presented a hard challenge that I didn’t accept, I become more rigorous about my regime, it was the only way to escape the discomfort - I convinced myself that riding was more important, a convenient excuse. My escapes remained mild however compared to many I interviewed who resorted to alcoholism and drugs.
The escaped issues that yearn attention will continue to call even during a game or performance, so the typical sport psychology band-aid solution is to utilize mental techniques to trick our minds back into focus and away from what really matters. Yes, winning that title may not be what really matters; in fact, a title may further separate an athlete from the truth inside.
As my reputation grew, a tension grew between my passion for riding and that which I felt my reputation required of me. Eventually the reputation won and I desperately protected it; a ‘casual fun ride’ now felt like a test I had to pass in order to maintain my reputation, that reputation was who I knew myself to be, so the stakes were high.
Without a steady cultivation of their true self, it is no surprise that athletes begin to believe more in the image created by fans, sponsors, and media. Athletes routinely miss the joys of their sport and the life it affords during their “dream years” because they are so busy trying to sustain their public persona. When the attention stops, the lost soul becomes painfully present and not even memories of Olympic Gold can remedy this reality.
If power is defined as having control over the direction of one’s life, then my sense of power decreased the more my reputation grew. People admired me for doing what I love for work, this felt good to hear, so I wanted to reinforce this perception, which made me respond by consulting their expectations rather than my own inner wisdom.
As my body began complaining about the long-term damage from high impact bike tricks I began to feel trapped: all I had to offer the world were my tricks, but they brought me pain so I didn’t want to perform any longer. I felt more like a monkey than human being–jump Ryan, jump! However, psyching myself up to do something that deep down I knew was a bad idea was easier than facing the demise of “Ryan Leech the Pro Rider”–I didn’t know who “just Ryan Leech” was, as far as I was concerned he was a nobody and I didn’t want to go there.
Whereas escapism is using sport to avoid a certain feeling, dependence is using sport to seek a certain feeling.
As a pro, I had very quick access to that incredible high of being in the zone or in flow–all worries, fears, and judgments dropped and I felt as if I was the moment--bike, body, environment all became one with no separation, riding became easy even on the most difficult terrain. This high often stayed between riding sessions due to the constant movement of the “rock-star” life of travelling, partying, dining, and being catered to. One Olympian told me, “Nothing in my life will ever top the experience as a competitive athlete”.
I began expecting these standards. When I didn’t get in the zone, I became frustrated, when my every need wasn’t catered to I got mad, when someone else received attention instead of me I felt jealous and lonely.
Dependence can be bred from counting on old experiences to re-occur or from desired or imagined futures to arrive, both of which zaps the athlete out of the current moment which is the only place the “high” can be found. So the desperation with which athletes begin seeking these experiences is proportional to the elusiveness of them, this is often the beginning of a downward spiral preventing them from delivering the performance results necessary for the rock star lifestyle to continue-fueling their desperation.
As I unconsciously became dependent on this stimulus the ‘regular’ world became very humdrum.
Due to the long-term narrow but intense focus it takes to excel in sports from a young age, athletes, when successful, are considered role models. This status isn’t just reserved for their sporting precociousness however, but often and quite suddenly for their entire approach to life.
I bought into this assumption that sporting success equals life success. Why not? I was getting a ton of praise and appreciation and was succeeding in realms that are culturally put on a pedestal. I thought I had life figured out! So when interpersonal issues arose that I couldn’t solve despite my reputation and status, I got frustrated and confused. It was only until I began understanding the various developmental categories that humans develop through that I could begin making sense of things and take responsibility. The image below is a guess at what my psychograph might have looked like in my prime years as a pro.
Development in certain lines can get postponed during the years of intense training that it takes to become a professional; and just like athleticism, these lower capacities require time to develop and become necessary to handle the demands of stardom in an elegant way.
Professional athletes also bump up against this lack of development during retirement, often expecting that any new endeavors will match the success of their sporting life. For me it was a slap in the face when people didn’t line up to take my yoga class and when clients didn’t knock on my door to be coached.
I realized I had a very low ability to take on another person’s perspective, it was difficult for me to understand my emotions let alone those of others, and I felt vulnerable with other people interpersonally when the conversation didn’t revolve around the bike industry or my success. Development in these lines takes practice, just like in sports, it can’t be gained by just reading a book.
A nice side effect, whether conscious or not, of an athlete exposing themselves to dangerous situations is the silencing of relentless and often cruel internal dialogues. The risk also creates fear, and when conquered, there is a high. Similar to addictive drugs, this risk/fear process releases a flood of dopamine into the brain and diverts blood away from the brain compromising our judgement.
I repetitively put myself in risky situations knowing it was a bad idea but couldn’t say no. When I pulled off a line against all odds the high stayed with me for hours and could be relived by thinking about it. To get the next dopamine and endorphin rush I had to increase the dose of danger; this resulted in some incredible video segments receiving peer praise and attention. This human-to-human validation perpetuated my risky actions because I craved the attention.
Adrenaline junkies will burnout or become seriously injured, the number of friends I have in wheelchairs is unacceptable. Most of my friends, myself included, are already paying the physical price at a young age, but we’re lucky, you see, athletes are dying. These aren’t freak accidents. Peer praise and validation feels like love and humans will do anything to receive it; the tragic thing I’ve discovered is that when the tricks stop, so does this so-called love.
Have you ever felt strong pressure from friends to do something such that you couldn’t say no? For pro athletes, multiply this performance pressure by the number of fans watching and you can begin to get a picture of the power of spectator influence.
Watching a high-performance athlete can free us from our own mental pre-occupations and put us momentarily into the athlete’s inner experience of focus and poise. Spectators can vicariously become addicted to this thrill thus the thrill-hit becomes more important than the athlete’s well being.
I am often a guest rider with cycling groups when visiting a new town. When we are out riding the faces in those groups are lit up with excitement and anticipation of the magic they are about to witness from me. Before a performance I will often receive emails from excited fans saying they can’t wait to see me. I feel the pressure of this excitement and anticipation; then I appear in front of the audience and before I even do anything they are cheering enthusiastically based on my reputation and the pressure builds again. Now this can be a wonderful experience, however, many athletes are compelled to do things they’d rather not; NHL enforcers come to mind - they’re paid to start fights because they’re good at it, not because they want to. The inner turmoil this creates can be unbearable and lead to suicide as we saw three times in 2011.
A breathtaking discovery I have tuned into through my career is the alignment of audience enthusiasm with my authentic desires as an athlete. The audience feeds me such that I have access to a level of skill, precision, and focus that I know is possible but can’t manage to access on my own. The perquisite is that I have dreamt of these performances and practiced accordingly; then when the audience energy hits, it cycles through me, I feel unbound and without limit and am left shocked at what I have accomplished and feeling deeply nourished. This process I believe is a co-creation, and thus the results don’t belong solely to the athlete. Athletes can become very egocentric when claiming full credit for their performance, and thus vulnerable to audience pressures when they’re not tuned into their true athletic desires.
There is no doubt that the lifestyle of a professional athlete brings rich rewards and unique experiences, I wouldn't trade mine for anything. But as you’ve seen, there is an equal and opposite potential for struggle. For athletes to explore ego-shattering vulnerabilities takes courage and support, but the rewards from doing so can be life saving.
I realize now that whenever I overrode my inner-wisdom in a way that caused me pain, mentally or physically, I was sentencing the next generation to do the same. For the healthy evolution of sport, pros need to transmit not only their physical skills, but also their honest inner experiences; this will empower the athletes and require coaches, fans, and sponsors to respond from a similar level of depth and responsibility.
Athlete introspection and contemplation is desperately needed to navigate the superficial result driven orientation in sports today. Though many coaches and trainers consider this risky as it may lead athletes to quit, for others it will do the opposite, it will allow them to find greater meaning and thus direct the passion-within to drastically improve the results. Coach Phil Jackson (NBA Lakers) uses introspection and meditation with his teams and his career results show he’s on to something.
Another bonus about introspection is that athletes who know themselves beyond their public persona will be precise in their retirement decisions and coaches will no longer find themselves stuck dealing with washed-up pros who have nowhere else to go.
Emotional intelligence takes practice, athletes who can routinely witness their emotions such as fear or anger, and do so with trust, accuracy and honor will prevent the emotions from hijacking their performance. This ability requires athletes to address the seemingly unrelated messy and uncomfortable aspects of their life. This will not only optimize their athletic ability and enjoyment, but allow them to be better role models for their fans and better representatives for their country.
Athletes need to better understand the influence from spectators so they can untangle their own sense of self from their performance results. As an audience we can help too - our cheers, praise, and facebook ‘likes’ are votes, as we begin to develop our ability to step into the extended reality of another we will sense whether an athlete is performing inline with their purpose or is seeking validation in harmful ways.
Many people take up sport because they intuit that it offers something unique. The realization of this uniqueness is often hijacked by a blind and habituated striving for results and thus missed forever when athletes quit from burnout, injury, disappointment, or boredom.
This uniqueness is the feeling sensation and experience of the body and mind being in harmony while deeply embedded in the present moment. When it is experienced by chance it is described as “The Zone” or “Flow”, but when the whole human being is nurtured and grows in all her glorious dimensions, it can be entered into by choice and what a brilliantly sacred choice to have the capacity and freedom to make. Professional athletes who awaken to this rare potential have the influential power to gift this new way of engaging and being to the masses.