I am lucky enough to be able to coach an awesome group of cyclists. It’s a motley crew, with women and men ranging between junior to masters, I have a little bit of everything.
The needs of each different rider can be split into such broad categories (masters vs junior, mens vs women) but realistically, the individual differences between the rider are far greater than the difference between these constructed categories.
While one may be looking to complete an event, another may be hell-bent on a National’s journey; and that’s ok. We tailor coaching to both athletes.
The difficult part of it for me is to enable both these riders with confidence and a culture of success. Maybe it’s because I am not an innately confident person, it’s something that requires work for me!
Bike racing has always been 50-50 work and mental belief, and it’s in the 50% of mental belief that we can see the biggest leaps and bounds in terms of outcomes. I was having a chat to an athlete this morning and explaining differences in zones and their breakdown in max and threshold heart rate, and then how this is once again different to power-based zones. “but really, unless we are in a chamber doing a VO2 test with either gas exchange or lactate sampling, we are merely going off what is most likely numbers from the data from riding and testing you have done”.
The idea that coaching is anyway a precise science, especially for off-road events with the myriad of variables that are thrown at us, is a misnomer.
In so many ways, coaching is both an art and a science. We all understand the science, anyone who has successfully completed the Level 2 NCAS Coaching course has an understanding of anatomy and physiology in a way that a meaningful and successful training plan can be created. Sometimes I think I know too much; I head back through literature citing studies for whatever evidence I am looking for, when really the outcome would be no different!
The one thing, however, that makes the biggest difference to outcomes is motivation.
One athlete can follow a training program that is exactly the same as another athlete’s (BTW I never copy and paste programs…) and have wildly varying results.
Why is this? Well, there is a myriad of reasons. Genetic ability, social support, access to training sports and groups, previous training history, the ‘culture of success’, but I think the biggest one is motivation.
If you start training and the motivation is to complete a race, that’s very different to having a three-year plan to don the green and gold jersey. Neither of these is a poor motivation to take up coaching, but the passion with which you feel this, and the extent of vision and sacrifice you can make can lead to different outcomes.
For example, while I wrote a lot about ‘why do you ride’ in some of my earlier cycling documents for athletes new to coaching, it had always been a bit of an enigma when I asked myself that question.
I certainly didn’t set out to crush souls, that was never my intent, yet something pushed me to get up at ridiculous-o’clock every morning and train my guts out for years and years (ok intermittently for years and years between illness and kiddo’s but you know what I mean!) until one day the planets aligned and I got super speedy and had a whole bunch of great results.
Some say those in pursuit of endurance sports have a screw loose, and to be fair that’s more often than not true. Why else would people get up at 4am to train to the point of needing to vomit, for no financial or social reward (other than maybe a few Strava kudos and bragging rights)? It simply doesn’t make sense. Yet we still do it.
When I hear others talking about their motivation being ‘the feeling when i’m standing on the podium’ that really has a bit of a cognitive disconnect for me, just because it’s not been a driving force for me.
But that being said, I am not here to shame anyone who admits they have a desire to stand on the podium, if that’s a driving force then fantastic, we can definitely work with that! It is a competitive sport after all and we are trying to create the right environment (physically, mentally, socially) for success. It perhaps just requires a little deeper thinking in regards to what success means. Coaching is just not a one-size-fits-all approach, and I believe the process is more important than the outcome. You can have a successful race and not win, and a terrible race and take line honors.
I now understand that riding is important to me because it’s an area where I can set goals, achieve them, be rewarded for hard work, and literally see and feel strength and power. The reason I do it is not for the result but for the acquisition of mastery and a flow state. Thankfully, that in itself is linked to good performance, just a different way of getting compared to a tangible outcome-based motivation.
I am also old and maybe wise enough (well, or something) to know that in this sport there are many fish and many ponds, and being a big ol’ Salmon in a goldfish bowl doesn’t count for a lot in the big world; and that’s ok too!
Many sports institutes look for talent and quick results in a mechanised way, without thinking about the future or long term of an athlete. I would rather an athlete have a long happy life in the sport rather than go to hard (physically and mentally), blow up and turn away from it all.
So what’s your motivation?