A Battle Of Wills

Now the cold, dark days are here again it can be difficult indeed to muster the willpower to carry on cycling. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said "Strength does not come from physical capacity It comes from an indomitable will", it seems that a common component among most professional cyclists is a strength of determination to keep cycling, no matter the conditions. The quality of will, however, is an elusive one and particularly difficult to enhance.

I certainly have a strong penchant for a log fire and warmed red wine at this time of the year, making going out in freezing temperatures that much harder However, there are a number of techniques that can be employed to not only strengthen your will but also to bend it according to your needs.

The notion of willpower was identified as being of great importance to mankind by a man called Roberto Assagioli, a psychotherapist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

He wrote a book called The Act of' Will in which he explained how will is an energy of thought - directive, determined and individual. The word willpower, however, often creates dread in us and conjures up images of Victorian self-control. Without will, though, the human race would not survive. Its correct use can enable internal change, personal growth and not least the exuberance of skidding through deep, muddy puddles in the depths of winter.

So what exactly is willpower? Generally speaking it is setting an intention and having enough energy to complete a goal. It is important to ensure, however, that the goal is realistic. Too easy and we are disinclined to bother, too hard and we struggle to complete it, therefore putting us off any further attempt no matter how easy. However, overcoming boredom in a task is also an act of willpower.

According to neuroscientists, having a lack of willpower isn't a character flaw, but could all be down to the physical make-up of the brain. However, it is now commonly understood that neural pathways are not set in stone but can be created and strengthened through continual use. So this is good news for those of us who believe that we are just too good at procrastinating on the sofa to muster up the willpower to confront the cold and wet. We can just practise strengthening our willpower instead.

There are a multitude of exercises we can start to do to develop strong willpower without even venturing outside. An easy one to begin with is to stand on a chair for 10 minutes, every day for a week. Another could be to eat a meal very slowly and purposefully. In fact Assagioli stated that every physical movement is an act of will'.

I myself have come across willpower through no physical movement whatsoever. A few years ago I undertook a 10-day Buddhist retreat. The purpose was to meditate intensively and silently for the entire duration. On my first day, I noticed on the schedule was something called 'a sitting of strong determination' - a somewhat scary notion. When the time came I discovered this entailed sitting cross-legged for one whole hour in the same position without moving a millimetre. This was to be done twice a day, for 10 days, with the rest of the day spent also meditating in comparative stillness. I can verify it was not an easy task, but really very revealing as to my levels of willpower, which I noticed changed continually according to my thought processes.

According to a recent study, another way to strengthen willpower is to clench your fist. Researchers said tensing muscles helps focus the mind and resist physical and emotional pain. They report that the mind and the body are so closely tied together that merely clenching muscles can also activate willpower. In the study, a group of volunteers were asked to hold a pen while plunging their hand into a bucket of cold water. The first group held the pen with their hand in a fist, the second group held the pen as if to write. Those with a clenched fist held the pen twice as long as those that did not. This, I suppose, has the same affect as the saying 'grit your teeth', or it could just mean the writing-grip group went numb sooner.

Another technique to strengthen resolve, Assagioli outlined, would be to think about and realise the value cycling has in your life. If you are currently sitting on your sofa and can't muster the enthusiasm to go outside, close your eyes and begin to think of all the ways in which you would be letting yourself down if you did not go. Picture as vividly as you can the loss you would experience physically and emotionally by not going out on your bike. You can make this image as extreme as possible, so perhaps imagine yourself trying to go out for a ride next summer and simply not being able to move the pedals. Really think about how upset you would be if you were this physically weak. Now in turn think about all the wonderful advantages going out riding would give you. Think of all the benefits and the satisfaction it would bring. Really focus on all the physical and emotional responses this brings and then perhaps even write them all down.

Assagioli outlines several types of will in his book. The first is strong will - we have already looked at that. The second is skilfbl will. Skilful will involves the capacity to adopt the most effective strategy for the particular task in hand, in this case cycling.

So a technique designed to use skilful will is the use of evocative words or images, to ensure bike and body synthesis. According to Assagioli certain laws come into effect when dealing with willpower. He states that every idea or image that comes to us tends to produce the state of mind, the physical state and also the acts that correspond to those ideas or images. Attention and repetition of these ideas will reinforce their effectiveness. So the first step is to choose a word or image that engenders an urge to get outside onto your bike. If you can't think of anything, you could pick from the following: exhilaration, exuberance, fun, health, freedom or happiness. Images of open fields, country lanes or wooded trails might also awaken an urge for you. Now while sitting down and relaxed observe the word or image for one or two minutes and then record any other words, feelings or impulses that emerge. You could also say the word aloud or write it down repeatedly.

Finally, reading about or watching others cycling in bad weather conditions may help you realise; if they can do it, why can't I? However, this last technique may simply ensure that another log is added to the fire as you sit back with a copy of Cycling Fitness for the afternoon, which is also not a bad way to spend a few hours.

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31-35, M
Oct 4, 2013