Racing and Deep Play

I’ve written a couple (here and here!) of blog posts already about giving up racing my bicycle and so in some senses, this is Part 3 of a journey. When I wrote those posts I was gradually coming to terms with giving up racing and generally felt a sense of relief. The pressure I put on myself, the high (and unrealistic) expectations and disappointments led me to decide that the net impact of racing was a negative one. 2017, my first year in six not spent racing, was instead spent exploring new sports, enjoying cycling as a hobby and coaching. On paper I felt better, less stressed out about my bike and my performance and even a bit more holistcally healthier but….I am starting to wonder if it is not actually all that simple. While I was less stressed on the bike, during the summer of 2017 I became considerably more stressed at work. As a result of it, I have spent a lot of time pondering my mental habits and also trying out new strategies for work and for self care. Along with lots of yoga and meditation I’ve been reading more about healthy work patterns which led me to an excellent book called Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Rest explores the relationship between work and rest and argues that the two are not mutually inclusive. With the right sort of rest, it argues, you will work better. It is an antidote to the modern obsession with busyness and the increasingly blurry lines between work and home life. I honestly can’t recommend it enough. The book journeys through different concepts including working less but in a more focussed way (four hours a day is optimal by all accounts), the power of sleep and naps (preaching to the converted here) and also the importance of taking regular time off and how you can make the very most of that time. But it is the chapter of Deep Play that made me think anew about my cycling, and specifically racing.

Deep Play happens when you are so wholly engrossed in an activity that it takes up your entire thinking brain. It is mentally absorbing, allows you to use skills you also use at work (like strategic thinking or creativity), provides a more immediate satisfaction than you may get from work and is also, in some way, linked to your past and things you did as a child:

“This combination of absorption, use of skills in new contexts, similar satisfactions through different means and personal connection makes deep play a powerful break from work, a respite from professional frustrations and a source of recovery”

Activities that can involve Deep Play include playing a musical instrument to a very high level, writing a novel, painting or sports that are intense both physically and mentally. The authot talks a great deal in this chapter about sailing and rock climbing which are two sports disproportionately popular with succesful people with demanding jobs that involve high levels of problem solving (scientists, designers or lawyers for example). Both sports involve physical exertion but beyond that they also involve intense mental concentration, problem solving and creativity. Physical exercise is great for both physical and mental health but often still allows space for mind wandering while Deep Play, although it may involve some of the same skills you use at work, provides a more profound break from it:

“You may think that rock climbing is like science, but you can’t work on equations while you’re hanging 30 feet from the ground. Unlike efforts to achieve work-life balance that end up smearing the two worlds together…deep play demands exclusive focus.”

This really resonated with me. I struggle to switch off. As my partner will confirm, I rarely sit still and I am always doing twelve things at once. When I am out on a bike ride in the lovely Kent lanes I can really only do that one thing otherwise I’d crash but my mind will still wander and I’ll still ruminate over work challenges and while I can come up with some great ideas or solutions it doesn’t really switch me off. On the other hand, I used to always say that racing or race training behind a derny pacer was the most mindful thing I did. That was when I completely and utterly focused on the activity at hand. And the more I think about it, the more I realise that it wasn’t just the race itself that constituted Deep Play, it was also all the surrounding thinking, planning and preparation. Climbing, sailing and cycling are united by the need to think deeply not only while you are doing the thing but also when you are planning for the thing. On race day, and sometimes even the night before, my mind would be entirely engrossed in the event ahead… What kit and shoes will I wear? What gearing do I need on my bike? Which wheels? What will the weather be like? What food and drink will I need? Who is racing? What do I know about them? Track cycling, like sailing and climbing, can be complicated and hard to grasp but once you’re in it, the complexity deepens the level of engagement. My mind is very active at work so it makes sense that sometimes (but not always) in order to switch off from work it needs to be very active doing a different thing.

And so Iwonder...while in many ways racing my bicycle had become a stressful thing no longe enjoyable in itself, did the Deep Play nature of it actually reduce stress in another part of my life? If I could approach bike racing with the patience, acceptance and self compassion I’ve been trying to nurture with meditation and yoga, could I benefit again from the complete immersion that the act of racing brings? Could I be content with being ‘okay’ at racing in return for the benefits that the act of racing can bring? Or do I need to find a new Deep Play hobby? When I was younger I found immersion in Amateur Dramatic Musicals! Maybe it’s time to get my tap shoes and jazz hands out again…

To be continued!