Editor’s note:: Longtime pros Colby Pearce and Scott Moninger are heading up the new Horizon Organics-Panache Development Team. Pearce will be filing reports throughout the year on the trials and tribulations — and hopefully, successes — of this regional squad of younger riders. This is his third entry.
What is the origin of optimal performance? I think the answer to the question is not as simple as one might initially think. Of course, steps are taken in order to properly prepare an athlete for an event. Power files and diet logs are analyzed in an attempt to optimize a rider’s chances at success and bring him or her to the line in the best possible condition. However, in my opinion, there are many factors that make a difference in an athlete’s level of actualization of the highest potential of his or her own performance. Two key components that are frequently overlooked in this equation are balance and confidence.
What really makes the difference between a rider having an average day and the best possible ride? There is an endless list of metrics which can negatively affect a rider’s performance on a given day if they are out of balance. Among them are sleep, hydration, calories, training, mental focus and equipment. Most of these need to be in just the right amount. Too much or too little will mess everything up (although for me personally, it’s almost impossible to overdo sleep). Too much training and a rider will be flat, choose too light of a tire and a rider may puncture at a critical moment, too much food and all the blood will be in the stomach instead of the legs; the result is the same in any case.
The key for these metrics is balance. I have noticed that cyclists tend to gravitate towards extremes, which usually does not result in improved performance. I think it must be because cycling is an extreme sport in many ways; the efforts a rider puts out during races are like having a root canal without Novocain. I have witnessed riders train 37 hours in one week, consume zero fat diets, make ridiculous equipment choices, and overanalyze themselves into inaction (in this later example, the set of “riders” includes a subset “me”). As a coach I am constantly attempting to bring riders back to midline: train a reasonable amount, not 950 miles in one week. Drink some water, but not gallons a day. Do not eat an entire hot dog 20 minutes before the start of a criterium.
Working with younger riders on the CU cycling team and on the Horizon Organic/ Panache Development Team has been a great opportunity to reinforce the fundamentals of balance within not only the rider’s training, but his entire lifestyle. Cycling is a sport that can easily dominate nearly every aspect of someone’s life; therefore, imparting the value of balance at an early stage of a rider’s development is paramount. Of course, younger athletes also feel the temptation of Xbox and Facebook, distractions I did not have to endure during my spritely years. Conversely, when I was a junior rider I did not have a power meter with an infinite number of ways to dissect and interpret data. Technology simultaneously makes our lives more productive and more complicated.
Balance is important for all cyclists, young and old, experienced or not, but this is not the only necessary component an athlete must possess in order to reach the highest level. A rider must also have an unspoken, ephemeral confidence in himself or herself. It is simply the belief that no matter what happens, the legs will come and things will unfold in a positive way, which means the rider can let go completely and ride a bike as fast as possible. While many things affect a rider’s result on a given day, ultimately this will have a large influence on the rider’s impact on an event. This confidence is a sublime, ethereal quality that no coach can add to a water bottle or write in a training program; it is not quantifiable or able to be manufactured, and bringing it out in a rider is a true challenge of coaching.
The trick as a coach is to find this state of mind in an athlete, draw his or her attention to it, cultivate it, and watch it grow. The coach’s role is not to plant the seed, because it is already there. We get to water it, make sure it has sunlight, and trim the dead or dying leaves. Eventually this plant grows into a mature tree, which is unshakable in the stormiest weather. The bigger and stronger these trees become, the more success they will have in the sport and the more actualized their athletic potential will be.
The simultaneous beauty and frustration is that even an athlete who is aware of this quality cannot necessarily obtain it. Putting too much emphasis on being determined to have confidence, making everything go perfectly, controlling too many variables, or attaining the ideal mindset before a race leads to an artificial state of overexertion and agitated effort. The optimal state for competitive cycling (or any elite sport) is the perfect blend of effort and non-effort, or of trying without trying. This may be counterintuitive, because of the perception that cycling is so extreme (see paragraph on extreme mentality, above). For sure, there are times when elite riders suffer and win, but the best days are a blend of flawless effort and pain.
The young riders on our team all have this innate confidence in themselves. Our job as mentors is to cultivate it, not only in the arena of cycling but for life in general. This is an integral part of the mission statement of our team, along with keeping them from becoming permanently welded to their Xboxes.