We've all experienced the feeling of frustration from being reeled in by the peloton after a breakaway, or when our legs fatigue with a mile until the summit of a climb. It's a horrible emotion that often brings about a cascade of negative thoughts and anxiety.
These feelings arise when the path toward your goal is blocked. And frustration can be more complex than just another bad emotion.
Frustration is hard wired into us and has tremendous adaptive value. Frustration starts as a good emotion. When we get frustrated, we're motivated to remove the obstacle that's blocking our path to our goals. We try harder and that extra effort can clear a path and help us continue to pursue our intended goal.
Negative Emotional ChainUnfortunately, if, despite our best efforts, we can't overcome those roadblocks, frustration can become a destructive emotion. In fact, if frustration isn't dealt with quickly and effectively, it can trigger what I call the "negative emotional chain" in which frustration leads to a descent of unhealthy emotions.
If frustration persists, it can morph into anger. Most cyclists believe that anger is a bad emotion, but, like frustration, it too has both positive and negative sides. Anger starts out as being helpful, because it too is motivating. When you're angry, you want to go after the thing that's causing your anger. For example, when you get blocked out early in a charge to the finish line, your anger turns into adrenaline and power that may propel you back into contention before the final sprint.
Unfortunately, anger can swiftly become a harmful emotion. Feelings of anger are like those of frustration, but with the volume turned up. Your body becomes tense, you start pedaling squares and you lose your rhythm and power. Your focus narrows so much that you miss important cues that are necessary to ride well. You fail to notice fast enough when another rider attempts to separate from the pack. Your thinking becomes clouded by the anger and you aren't able to think clearly or make good decisions about when to attack.
If you're not able to clear the obstacles from your path at this point, your emotions shift to the final stage of the negative emotional chain and you experience despair. You try and try but still can't remove the barriers, so the natural thing to do is quit. What's the point of continuing to try if nothing you do works?
For example, you make multiple attempts to break free from the peloton but can't. The unfortunate outcome of the negative emotional chain is failure. You will usually give up and either ride at the back of the peloton or give up.
It's been my experience that if you move from frustration to anger, continued efforts that day usually fail. And if you experience the negative emotional chain on a regular basis—sinking repeatedly into despair—you'll likely lose your motivation and be unwilling to make a sustained effort in the future. With each descent down the negative emotional chain, you come to believe that your actions have little effect. You'll progressively lose confidence in your ability to achieve your cycling goals.