What is Target Fixation?
On one of my first ever mountain bike rides, I fell in a wombat hole. Front wheel first. Slow speed. Out the front door. It was so ridiculous. The worst part? It wasn’t even on the trail; it was under a tree on rider’s left. But I saw it, and I became obsessed with its presence. There was no reason at all for me to be concerned with the obstacle. But I fell victim to that old mental trap: target fixation. For those of you playing at home who need clarification, target fixation is the term for us focusing, for better or worse, on a set point and either consciously or subconsciously ending up there. I didn’t want to end up front-wheel-first in that wombat hole, but because I was so concerned with it being there, we ended up hanging out. So perhaps that’s an instance of the “for worse” aspect of target fixation!
Where, then, does the “for better” come into it? To put it simply, as a tool for therapy. For a long time, my brain was a hive of severe anxiety and overwhelming negativity. And last year, that reached a pinnacle. I was unable to work, I was unable to play, I was unable to sit on the couch and watch TV with my husband. I was a hysterical mess. At this stage, I hadn’t done a huge amount of Mountain Bike riding, but what I had done I had loved. So, I found myself packing the car and hitting the trails, mainly to get me the hell out of the apartment and out of the headspace I was in. It wasn’t enough to be on just any bike, or just out of the house. I’d tried that; going out for casual single-speed spins with my husband, something that once brought great pleasure, was just not cutting it. It was too gentle, too simple, too repetitive, too quiet. It gave my brain too much room to stray, and I’d end up in tears again.
Cue gravity-fed MTB rides. Speed and risk and flow were the essential ingredients, because in the presence of these factors, my brain had only one choice: focus on the trail ahead. Focus on the trail ahead. Focus. Focus. Fixate. There was no space for any other thoughts to creep in, not when the internal monologue resembled something like this: “Get lower, more bend, focus, rocks ahead but you’ve got this, bit of brake but not much, okay now leeeeean into the corner YES THAT IS IT, heels down, bit of brake but not much, more rocks but trust the bike, okay now leeeeean into the corner nah that one wasn’t great, need more hips, ooh let’s hit the A-line jump bring the front wheel up YEWWW what a landing, pedal stretch, oh my god my arms are killing me…” You get the gist. The noise of focus and fixation in my head was pacifying in a way that nothing else was. Even on the climbs I was constantly running through technique, obstacle identification, and constructive self-criticism.
We often tend to fixate on the negative things in our worlds: troubles at work, bills at home, unfair body image concerns…the list is long and individual. But like the wombat hole, it’s important to acknowledge their presence and their reality, but not to obsess over them, lest you end up over the bars.