Imagine you’re on your bike, staring up a long, uber-steep climb — like the kind you’d find on Slickrock Trail in Moab, Utah for example — high dumptruck-abilty rating with a low forgiveness factor.
Looking up the rock face, you run the checklist of what you gotta do to make it to the top: proper gear selection, body positioning and so on. You’re also scheming your Plan B move in case Plan A doesn’t pan out. (By the way, your Plan B should account for the serious drop-off penalty to your right.)
Your buddy has just made it up and now it’s your turn. You’ve never made this climb before, but you’re feeling today is your day. You’re a bit nervous, but still game.
At this point, if you’re a healthy male, you’ve gotten a large rush of adrenaline to the bloodstream. This is going to amp you up for the challenge, goad the competitive inkling and increase your focus and clarity; all helping you feel ready to attack.
If you’re a healthy woman, well, maybe not so much. You’ve released the adrenaline, but it’s likely you just got an even larger dose of acetocholine. This happy little hormone makes you feel uncomfortable and nauseated with clouded thought.
And because of an added rush of oxcytocin, the “Tend-and-Befriend” hormone, you have an urge to connect with others and tend to the needs of the group. You’re not necessarily looking to discuss your feelings, just the same you could throw out a “How you doin?”
What looks on the surface to be nervous chatter, is actually a physical response to help calm the nerves.
Beth Davis, MS, and the executive director of The Women’s Wilderness Institute (TWWI) in Boulder, Colorado, filled me in on these physiological differences in stress responses between the sexes. TWWI teaches outdoor skills using methods based on these considerations and the learning styles more common to females. In addition to the above, there are many more gender differences in approach to challenge based on psychology and socialization.
To explain it all would take a college degree or two. Still, I think even just a few points from our conversation can go a fair ways in understanding how Eve rides different from Adam.
What’s Biking Got to Do with It?
To give an idea of how these differing responses may have developed, Beth offered the image of a group of early humans under attack. While the men grabbed weapons to ward off invaders, the women became group-focused and rounded up the children to move to safety. This division of labor was likely supported by instinct. As it aided with group survival, the patterns would be reinforced; camping these responses in our physiology.
Cool, but what does this mean when it comes to tearing up trail thousands of years later?
Beth explained that when faced with a daunting physical challenge, it helps many ladies to understand that wanting to throw up isn’t always a sign to give up. This can make for a better assessment of a situation. And knowing that connecting with the group can lend to success, a woman can find support for herself through a challenge.
Just Do It
However, if you’re the person helping with the support, remember that saying “Just do it” isn’t always as rallying as hoped. When adrenaline is pumping and the competitive impulse is super-charged, choice may not be a key ingredient to initiating action. But for most females, having options and an incremental approach when highly stressed is a step towards the desired goal.
“Just do it” doesn’t really give room for options or differences in learning styles. A woman might prefer, “Try this portion of the ride and see how you feel.”
This is a point I’ve heard from a lot of gals when explaining a frustrating biking experience with a coaching boyfriend. Though well intentioned, the beau wasn’t the best cheerleader employing the Nike-esque encouragement. When it comes to the ‘ol just do it, perhaps it’s best just to not say it.
Gingerly Approaching Gender
This is not to say that gals will invariably shy from a double-dog dare or be arrested by nausea at every turn. Enter the movie Women of Dirt with its stout cast of lady huckers. But even at a high level of competency in a sport, a woman may get that squeamish alarm from a high-stress maneuver.
Beth, a long-time mountain climber, was recently on a climb with a vertical roped rock-climbing section. On one particularly hairy pitch, she said she started feeling queasy and concerned about carrying on. Yet, instead of being paralyzed with fear, or thinking it was a sign she was out of her skill range, she recognized what was going on for her. She assessed her needs, supported herself through the task, and made it to the top.
Generally, I Don’t Make Generalizations
Of course, everyone is different, and life experience and ability will also affect the situation. And this is in no way to paint a picture that guys have none of these responses or are insensitive and not to be trusted giving biking help to the opposite sex.
Ultimately, this is to say, that at the bottom of that sketchy rock climb — physiologically speaking — females and fellas may not be experiencing the same trail. Hopefully, understanding this could help some gals progress further on the bike. And if it saves a relationship or two, well, that’d also be sweet.
After all, once you’ve made the climb, guy or gal, the smiles and hells yeah! are pretty much the same.
The Women’s Wilderness Institute teaches outdoor skills from biking to ice climbing to women and girls. To learn more, visit www.womenswilderness.org.
Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. In 2009 she represented the U.S. at the World Championships in Canberra, Australia. For 2010, she’ll be racing for Kenda/Felt Mountain Bike Team. Other sponsors for 2010 include TrailMaster Coaching, Hayes, Manitou, Voler Apparel, Pearl Izumi, WickWerks, KMC, SDG, Crank Brothers, Uvex, Pika Packworks, Smith Optics and Mighty Good Coffee.