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Champion cyclist Christine D’Ercole on the power of positive self-talk

The Peloton cycling instructor, masters world champion track cyclist and motivational coach on how you can coax back control of your inner monologue to start living the happier life you want
Christine D’Ercole
Christine D’Ercole

Christine D’Ercole is a masters world champion track cyclist, Peloton cycling instructor, motivational coach and public speaker. She lives in Pennsylvania. Follow her on X and Instagram. Visit christinedercole.com.

Christine, you’re a huge advocate of people talking to themselves in a kind and compassionate way. Why do you believe positive self-talk is so important and when did you come to that realisation?
At the end of the day, everything comes down to the conversation you’re having with yourself. With what you’re telling yourself. Everything. 
And I remember a couple of crystal clear moments where I realised that. In 2010, I went to my first elite national championships. It was at a velodrome in LA. And I had never raced on that track before. I don’t know if you know anything about velodrome racing but it’s an oval track and it’s banked on the sides. The one in LA is a 40-something degree bank. 
When you walk into the track as a spectator, you’re at the top. You’re at the steepest part of the bank looking down. And I walked in and I looked and I thought: “Oh my God, I want the building to fall apart in an earthquake right now so that I don’t have to do this.” 
So before the race I am talking to myself. I paid a lot of money to be here but in this moment I am scared. I’m scared I’m not strong enough. I’m scared I’m going to fall off the back. I’m scared I’m going to make a fool of myself. And then I realised, OK, I’m telling myself this one thing – you don’t want to be here – but actually I do want to be here. And I’m going back and forth in my head.
And it occurred to me. I am new here. So be new. Ask questions. Something clicked in my head that so long as I owned my newness, I had less to fear. It was about being honest with myself. That was one of those moments and then as I’m riding around the track, thinking, “My God, am I gonna fall?”. But I didn’t fall so then I am thinking, “OK, what if I’m not going to fall at all?”
Then I started to take charge of what I was saying in my head. I started to say to myself, “This is my track, I am going to be OK, I can do this. I will race my bike on this track.” It was like a mantra. I started to repeat this with every pedal stroke and it calmed me down and it redirected my thoughts. And that’s it. It seems, forgive me, but it’s so obvious once you come to that realisation. 
But I feel for so many people who are stuck in that mindset of “what if I fall?” instead of thinking “what if I fly?” because in that moment flying seems impossible.

What is your advice be for someone who maybe is suffering from that constant negative dialogue? How can they break that cycle? 
Practice with a ritual. With a system. I don’t know if you’re aware of my WordShops? That is the manifestation of my own process of managing my inner monologue and using the road map that is embedded in those eight words: “I am, I can, I will, I do.”
You need to give yourself the time – five to 10 minutes – to be really honest with yourself about where you are. Where am I? I’m scared, frustrated. OK. Then what can you do about it? What will you do about it? And that’s the part that’s hard to write down. Because once you do, that’s a promise. You become committed to doing something. 
But I always encourage people to take themselves off the hook. It doesn’t matter if you do it today or tomorrow, next year or in 10 years. Just write it down. 
There’s two things about your #IAmICanIWillIDo positive message that really resonates with me. The first is that it’s not just a positive incantation; there’s an intention in there, a decision to take action and actually do something. The other is that it’s a reminder to talk to yourself like you’d talk to someone else; in complete sentences, and not in abstract thoughts or words in isolation.
Exactly, and that’s why it’s so important to write your thoughts down. I feel writing it down is the only way to nail it down. For me personally, my head will stream with an ocean of clashing thoughts and it’s just chaos in there: until I get the pen on the paper and start to identify thoughts and feelings and turn them into sentences. 
And a pen and paper is so much more effective than typing on a computer or your phone. There’s something about using your hands and the mechanics of shaping each letter that make the sounds turn into words and then into sentences that make my thoughts and express the feelings so much more powerfully than tapping on a keyboard. 
It’s that act of writing and getting those thoughts out in complete sentences that helps you get control of it. I’ve kept journals my entire life. I remember once, at a very early age, in a very frustrated space, thinking that one day I want to look back on this journal entry and read it and everything has changed. And I thought about the relief I’d feel on that day in the future.

And I remember at certain points in my life going back over old journals and thinking, “Oh wow, nothing has changed! Oh my God, I’m still doing the same things. When am I going to learn?” And that’s when I started to learn some things.

Keeping a journal is so important, because some thoughts can be quite fleeting. But you can catch them by committing them to paper. And then look back and see where you’ve progressed or maybe where you haven’t quite. And in those moments of recognition you have the opportunity to change your chatter, change your trajectory.

You don’t have to be a writer to write what you’re thinking and I think that it is a stumbling block for many people. But as many people have experienced in my WordShops it’s not about being an eloquent writer. It’s about being honest with yourself and putting the words down that express that honesty. 
That is the the key to capturing change and seeing the progress. We all want to see progress. Like when we plant a seed. We want to see it sprout and grow and bloom. We want to know that what we have done is working. That it’s not futile. So we’re looking for signs and signals that mark progress and mark change and that’s where your writing can be so informative.
Do you structure your day so that writing down your thoughts and feelings comes as naturally as possible?
I don’t have a ritual in that I must write every single day or I have to do three pages per day. What I do is grant myself permission to write. Which means that if I’m in the middle of a conversation with someone, or I’m watching a movie, or I’m busy doing something but a stream of words comes into my head out of nowhere that has nothing to do with what I am doing, I give myself permission to stop what I’m doing and write it down. So it’s a very natural process.
It could be the lyrics of a song that keep repeating themselves, or a poetic string of words, or a really angry sentence regarding an argument with someone. It could be anything. I give myself permission and write it down. Whatever it is. Even the things that make absolutely no sense. Some people don’t want to write down these random thoughts because they don’t know why they thought them, but to me that means they are the exact things you should be writing down.
For many people the instinct when your inner voice starts talking is to quickly shut it down, because we are so used to that voice being critical. But you’re saying we should stop what we are doing and give that voice priority.
Yes, that’s it. Unwittingly, we listen to the garbage. We listen to it like we’re stuck on a radio station that we can’t change. And I think sometimes we become so used to it that we don’t even notice that we’re listening anymore. There’s just a constant stream of negative messaging. 
And it’s coming from the world too. It’s not just our own self-talk but comments or things other people have said to us that have really stung, and we’ve never pulled the stinger out. Or it’s something we’ve seen or read on Instagram, or on TV, or on billboards, about how we’re supposed to be, and look and act, in order to be lovable and successful. And if we don’t fit perfectly into those boxes, then we’re screwed. 
All of this information is coming at us constantly. And there’s so much of it we’re listening to it all the time, telling us how to live our lives. It’s like white noise and the negative messaging is always there and we’re not doing anything about it.
So how do we break that cycle?
The first step is that we need to give ourselves permission to hear it, to hear the negativity. Then write it down, even the things you don’t like that you’re hearing. Write it down, even if it doesn’t make sense. Whenever it comes into your head, catch it. 
For example, I painted my entire dining room in the past 48 hours, and so while I’m painting, which is this very Zen, methodical activity, lots of things came to my head. So I stopped, wiped down my hands, wrote everything in my head down, then went back to the painting. 
Same when I am on my indoor bike. I’ll get on the bike and I’m doing a long, steady endurance ride. I will stop my ride and write something down if it’s appeared in my head. I think it’s so important. Because when I go back and read through this collection of seemingly random thoughts and feelings, I start to see different pieces of the same puzzle.
And it gives me insight into some of the unresolved things in my head, almost like a dream. I think that’s what our dreams are; us working out a lot of visual poetry of unresolved matters. And my notes give me an insight into what’s really going on in my head. I can start to piece it all together. But without writing it down I’d be clutching at straws.
So grab a fresh notebook, a pen or pencil, and just start writing whenever anything strikes you. Good, bad, neutral. It doesn’t matter. Just start writing. That is the key. It’s a very, very powerful practice. 
What about if someone is caught up in a particular stressful social situation. How can they use positive self-talk in the heat of the moment to move quickly through their frustration or sadness?
Use my mantra – I Am, I Can, I Will, I Do – as the starting point in a conversation with yourself. If we could record our inner dialogue throughout the course of any given day, and then get a transcript of that conversation at the end of the day, and read through that transcript, we would find that many of our sentences start with the prompts of either I am, I can, I will, or I do, whether in a positive or negative light.

And these sentences are a roadmap about where we are: what we can or can’t do about it; what we will or won’t do about it; and what we do or don’t do about it. This work is about recognising that and discovering that we have a choice about the words we’re using to determine where we’re going.
Take this example. Imagine you’re at a very tense Thanksgiving dinner or any family dinner, and the conversation is starting to snowball in a bad place and you excuse yourself and go to the bathroom. You can always get out of anything by going to bathroom! Lock the door. If you don’t have your notebook, you’ve got your phone. Then write down I Am, I Can, I Will, I Do and start filling in the answers.
I am here and I am valued. What can I do? I can breathe deeply. Or I can speak my truth. Or I can let it go. Take that moment to redirect your thoughts so you can do whatever it is you need to get through. You must give yourself permission to excuse yourself from any situation, especially an increasingly frustrating one. Take a deep breathe, re-centre yourself and using the template of “I Am, I Can, I Will, I Do” use these prompts and answer them. Who are you? What can you do? What will you do? And then do it.

You can use that template in any situation and it will help you reposition your thoughts and gain clarity and control over the situation.

Can you talk about your fitness philosophy and how that’s shaped and influenced your passion for positive thinking and emotional endurance?
I never imagined myself in fitness, so it’s been a little bit of a surprise for me that I became a competitive cyclist! And now that I’ve taught cycling for 20 years, sometimes I’m still like, how did this happen? I grew up wanting to be a ballerina. I’m a mover. I’ve always loved movement, especially expressive movement. 
My desire to teach cycling has more to do with a broader definition of fitness. It’s more about emotional fitness and emotional endurance. Staying fit is obviously a part of it, but it’s so much bigger than just taking care of your body. You can’t have the body without the mind and the feelings and all of the other things.
So, for as much as climbing those hills is good for your heart and lungs, and your muscles and your bones, being very, very clear about your intention in this physical challenge and how you’re going to emotionally manage when it gets challenging is where my heart really is at.
You have the power to change your chatter away from “I can’t do it” or “I’m not going to be able to it”. Because it’s not about 60 minutes of exercise on a bike or 78 laps of a race. It’s about your emotional state. Yes, you’re building physical endurance for the future, but you’re building resilience for the rest of your day. 
After a really hard ride when I’ve had to grind it out, for a little while afterwards I feel like I’m almost walking an air because the hardest thing I am going to do today is now done. 
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I studied acting at Carnegie Mellon and was in the theatre programme and I had this teacher called Victoria Santa Cruz who taught rhythm. There was this one rhythm class were these Afro-Peruvian dances with jump rope, like a game you play as kids, with sticks to clap together. And I was like, what is this? 
She lined us all up, and we’ve each got two sticks in ours hands, about 20 students. Two kids are moving the jump rope and she wants the rest of us in turn to enter the rope, hit the sticks, jump, hit the floor, then get out so the next person could jump in. I’m waiting for my turn and it’s coming closer and as soon as I got in I’d hesitate and get the timing wrong and mess up the rhythm and mess up the game.
And I kept trying and kept screwing it up and finally she says, “Kid, you’re living in your head. You’re not living in the moment.” She told me I was “lukewarm” so I couldn’t commit. “Be hot or be cold, but never be lukewarm,” she told me.
And, my God, that has stuck with me ever since and inspired me profoundly to take risks. Living in the moment and taking a risk potentially allows something beautiful to happen. And equally, don’t get hung up if it doesn’t work. 
And what’s the piece of advice you give when asked?
A quote from Hamlet I have tattooed on my arm.
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Because when you are deeply true to yourself nothing can be wrong. You can’t be wrong. You’re not lying to anybody. You are being honest with yourself and honest with everyone else. And the more true you are to yourself, the sooner you will find your way and the faster you will find your people. 
If you could go back and give your younger self a message for life, what would it be?
We all go through those years wracked with doubts and other insecurities. I would go back and tell her that “you are so much bigger than a smaller pair of pants.” So much of the success that I strove for earlier in my life was tied to other people’s opinions of my body. Dancing and acting, in terms of casting and roles and types, is tied to someone else’s opinion.
And you’re always either too big or too small, or too short or too tall, or too old or too young. When I discovered bike racing, I discovered a space where I could win and be successful because of my body exactly as it is. And my decisions and my actions. You don’t win a bike race because of someone’s opinion of how you look
Which moment from your past gives you the most pride?
I’m proud of my gold medal from the World Championships. I’m proud that I recently raced with the elite nationals and I got third place in a race with an Olympian. At 51 years old I think, yes, I’m very proud of that. But that doesn’t happen without taking a risk. And that’s where my motivation comes from. I don’t want to sit forever and wonder “what it?”. That’s the greatest fear of all. Wonder whether you can or can’t do something? Go find out.

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