Glory and clarity

Have you ever wondered about how a coach might assess mental toughness?

"Why can't I stop thinking about the soundtrack to 'Footloose'?"

Toguri Training manages and coaches a developmental Cat 1 Men’s racing team. 2012 will be the second year of this project. A more formal announcement of the team and its members will be made soon, but on paper at least, Team Medique p/b Silber Investments is notably stronger than last year. Last Sunday, as I took the team through a workout, I was thinking about the challenge of converting new-found fitness into performance. Like many coaches, I’ve worked with athletes who had the engine and skills to perform at a high level but did not achieve their potential for a variety of reasons. It is too easy to say they lacked the mindset to make it happen. As a coach, it is also too easy for me to say the athlete lacked the mental toughness to succeed, as if the onus was entirely on them to “get their head into the game.” That said, I am NOT a sports psychologist, and I don’t want to provide psychoanalysis for the people I train (!), but coaching riders of all levels involves communicating on a variety of wave lengths, and it certainly involves the desire to create scenarios for the experience of excellence. I believe fitness involves the thrill of being able to excel, so how do I try to coach to bring that about?

Graeme Obree, "The Flying Scotsman"

The fact is that some athletes handle stress better than others, and that the development of psychological and motivational tools are a key element of success. When I coach computraining classes, I begin by outlining where a workout fits in a macro plan. I then describe the workout in detail. Then I try to make clear the main goal of the workout and how riders should organize their psychological approach to each exercise. For example, if riders are performing a set of power intervals, I can demand that they maintain their target watts until they blow up, or I can require that they make quick adjustments to ensure they do not blow up and prioritize getting the reps in. These are two very different ways to do the same exercise. Clarity of purpose can produce confidence and focus.

"I told you: use hot water and everything will be fine! Now pull through!!"

Earlier this week, I had two clients riding way above their watts during the second of three drills. I told them to ride even harder, readjusting their targets on the spot so that they could see what they were capable of on the day. They were told to leave nothing for the third set because I felt they needed to see that they could ride above their targets for sustained periods of time, and they needed to feel the kind of repeated muscular contractions required to raise their fitness. In other words, I was not simply coaching people through an exercise, but also trying to instill confidence–a key component of mental toughness. I prioritized the need for confidence over the workout for the day. I tried to make my goals clear to the riders, by letting them know I believed they had to empty the tank mid-workout for their own sake. A breakthrough moment was at hand and if they grabbed it, their next task would be to carry that achievement forward into subsequent workouts. Those kind of challenges are great to take on because they are the challenge of achieving your goals.

Lots of coaches are good at motivating those around them. I think that fundamentally, you have to care about the individual needs of those you coach. You also have to respect that people have carved time out of their day to work with you, and you have to appreciate that commitment and desire for fitness through cycling. Caring about cyclists and cycling provides the base of what goes on. Above that, a coach has to be specific in their assessment of what an athlete needs. Broadly put, everyone who trains with me works hard but some are more “mentally tough” than others. In fact, most people are mentally tough in some ways, and need support in other ways. My job is to establish modes of communication with athletes that produce clarity with regards to their mental toughness. They have to know their strengths and limiters, in the same way they have to know they need more foot speed or they are excellent climbers.

Look at Clara Hughes. If you’ve ever seen her compete you would never question her mental toughness! She’s also someone who can keep the big picture, including the beauty of sport itself, front and centre while performing on an Olympic or local stage. After the 1996 Olympics, she suffered more than post-Olympic let-down and spiraled into what she describes as a deep depression and a “very dark place.” Now, she is a spokesperson for Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” campaign aiming to raise awareness and help those suffering from depression.

Clara Hughes can focus while having a broad perspective on sports and life

Mental toughness is only required because we experience a variety of stresses during physiological work. I often see clients get emotional during workouts. They don’t necessarily cry, but complexes of emotions flash across their faces. And we’ve all seen people achieve great things and then burst into tears… or space out completely while stating that can’t even begin to comprehend what just happened. Though I don’t know her, I sometimes think that people like Hughes–people who are able to physiologically and intellectually articulate the beauty of sport (they literally “embody” beauty)–require so much work to express themselves that they are always fighting forms of exhaustion. It is a burden of glory, which is more than just renown, honor, and great achievement. Glory also has to do with splendour, the majestic, beauty and bliss. The expression of glory is perhaps an act of pure giving, an offering that expects no return and does not even engage with an economy of getting something back. The glory of sport is thus exhausting. Sadness and fragility thrive on exhaustion. Hughes says she found herself crying every day, but luckily was offered help.

The expression of glory: going beyond limits and thus losing oneself in a gift of sporting excellence delivered to others

Mental toughness arrives through a variety of complexes. When I was coaching the Cat 1 racing team last Sunday, I was making notes on each rider, thinking about the different ways that they were mentally tough. It was a way for me to start to imagine roles riders will play, and whether the team as a whole can do anything with their improved fitness in the hyper-competitive world of Quebec racing. What psychological strengths needed to be instilled in the team in order for it to develop?

Then I remembered it wasn’t just up to me to develop their confidence, competitiveness and love of the sport. It was really more my responsibility to provide them a vocabulary for the kinds of traits required to consistently and repeatedly perform challenging tasks on a bike–and to excel. If they could more precisely identify those traits, they would have a better sense of themselves, their abilities, what they had to work on, and what was required by the sport in general. I want to establish clarity of purpose, not self-indulgent judgemental attitudes.

To start, I want to be more precise about “mental toughness.” Sport Psychologist, Gary Mack, defines seven characteristics associated with mental toughness, and I have modified them for cyclists:

Competitive: A competitive cyclist does whatever it takes to achieve their goals within the parameters of their sporting context and the rules. Competitive cyclists go the extra mile for a team. Most importantly, competitive cyclists continue to compete even when they don’t achieve their goals. It is as if they know that today’s competition is related to the next. That is, they compete while focusing on both short and long term goals. Failure to reach short term goals becomes an opportunity to get better at one aspect of cycling so they can continue to strive for long term goals.

Competitive cyclists compete with the big picture in mind. They therefore are good at adapting quickly on the spot. They also thrive on having to take their effort to the next level. Adaptation and elevation are hallmarks of the competitive cyclist’s tenacity. As a coach, I observe whether athletes readjust their effort levels to continue riding hard after failing to reach target watts while indoor, or failing to bridge/hang-on outdoor. Do they figure out ways to continue to compete, or do they “sit-up”?

Confident: A confident athlete believes she can’t be stopped. Confident cyclists believe in their abilities. They do not let self-defeating thoughts take over. Many cyclists are competitive, but lack confidence. Typically, these riders will attempt to do too much at the beginning of workouts, rides or races, and then fade/disappear at crucial moments. They lack confidence in their ability to gradually improve within a coached process so they blindly compete in the moment with unrealistic expectations. Their lack of confidence gets projected into their competitiveness, as they ride erratically or begin to ignore the basic goals of the day. Consciously or sub-consciously, they will spend time during workouts or events creating excuses, or they will be verbally or silently self-deprecating.

Control: Mentally tough cyclists have control of their emotions and behaviors. They won’t allow other riders or events at work or school to get into their head. They use the warm-up to focus, and their main desire is to execute their goals properly, as opposed to just hammering as hard as possible. For example, confident athletes who can control their behavior and emotions do not chase other cyclists while doing hill reps at prescribed training zones. In races, they exhibit patience, and try to make a race plan work, as opposed to simply following every attack.

Committed: A cyclist who is highly motivated, has the organizational skills to coordinate their personal calendar with school, work and training, and does not get distracted from their short or long term goals. Commitment involves repeated actions, consistency and an awareness of the goals of others. It is as much a skill as a personality trait and reveals itself the most when a person is capable of helping all of those around them both share and achieve their goals.

Composure: Cyclists who can deal with adversity–crashes, flats, schedule changes, injuries, equipment problems, criticism, set backs of any sort… and still stay focused under pressure. Often, the least composed cyclists have the least amount of confidence in their abilities.

Courage: Cyclists who readily step out of their comfort zone display a belief in their ability or the plan for the day. The desire to execute a workout or race plan outside of their comfort zone is called “courage.”

Consistency: Some riders continue to perform in the most adverse conditions. Again and again they rise to the occasion. They rarely miss workouts and perform in ways that others can depend on. Consistency provides the spine for any team or group project.

These traits weave into each other, but it is easy to imagine an athlete who is, for example, courageous but inconsistent. They seem so mentally tough during training or during an event, but are really limited by their inconsistency. After a point in time, their acts of courage seem more desperate or their attacks or monumental efforts seem pointless.

It is almost impossible to bring all these traits forward every day. But isn’t the realm of the impossible something that drives the glory of sport, or isn’t it at least part of its gift?


About Scott Toguri McFarlane

Scott Toguri McFarlane is a former Elite racer, and the founder of Toguri Training Services. For more than a decade, his approach to training has helped aspiring professional racers, provincial team members, and recreational cyclists of all ages and ability achieve their goals, including gold medals at National and Provincial Championships.

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