Do You NEED to Win?

A strong drive to win is a necessity for bike racing success. Something has to make one keep training, keep eating right and keep pedaling no matter what happens. Some riders have plenty of motivation, while drive is a limiter for others. As is the case with other limiters, the off-season is the time to work on correcting this deficiency. Strong motivation must be in place before racing starts.

Motivation is a highly individual and personal thing. Most racers can give a few reasons why they want to compete – They like the feeling of speed or of riding with other super-competent riders. They race to justify the training. They like the social scene or the competition or the challenge or need an outlet after sitting in an office all week. Many say they want to win. Fewer say they need to win, but those few include many regular winners. Many riders will say that they want to win, and yet not be particularly discouraged if they don’t. They want it, but don’t need it. Knowing the reason for the desire will not make a rider victorious, but it helps. Riders who need to win have a far better chance, though that need, if not balanced by some other drives, can cause problems of its own.

The training, dietary control, and lifestyle sacrifices required to make a bike rider into a racer are huge and daunting. All serious racers have made them. Each sacrifice must be taken to a higher level to make one a winner among serious racers. A rider who knows that he or she wants to win can justify the efforts. A rider who needs to win, will be a step ahead. It’s one thing to say, “I’m skipping this cookie and going out to ride in the rain because I want to win.” It’s something else entirely to know that you skip the cookie and go for the ride because it is your ticket away from the misery of a life like your parents, or to show those a–holes that you are as good as any of them, or so you can get a contract and ride for one more year before you have to get a boring job. For people with that sort of motivation, skipping the cookie and riding in the rain become the only possibilities. It’s no coincidence that many cycling heroes come from troubled homes or from the same sorts of backgrounds that people try to escape by getting educated or moving from the country to the city.

Those Who Want but Don’t Need

Some riders need to win. Some want to win. Some don’t really care but just enjoy riding. The first and last groups are lucky: The one’s who need to victory and dominance don’t even have to think about why.

Tim Olson, a MTB pro, recently told me he was driven to win. I asked why and he answered that if he’s not winning, the world simply is not right.

If the coach says riding six hours almost every day in a particular week is the way to turn pro and get a contract or to compete as a pro (I do) the rider with the need just does it. The ones who really don’t care if they win or not and can just enjoy racing for the speed and feeling of movement are lucky too. Those who want but don’t need to win are the unlucky ones. If one doesn’t need, quitting is an option when the race gets hard, or the weather is unpleasant for training, or when there is a box of cookies in the pantry. The ones with weak motivation have to deal with the consequences.

Motivation Building

It is possible to win bike races without knowing why one wants to win. The important thing is that the motivation is there, that a rider will do what needs to be done and not quit. Motivation, if it exists at all, can be developed. Like climbing or sprinting ability, motivation doesn’t need to be a training focus for riders who have plenty of it, at least, not until they reach a level of competition where the required sacrifices start to challenge the existing motivation. At that point, motivation building becomes a part of regular training, or performance stagnates. Riders who are genuinely pained when they don’t win, but are having trouble making the necessary sacrifices can benefit from motivation building.

Prescribing motivation building exercises is challenging because motivation is unique to the individual athlete. Professional teams employ sports psychologists to help, while most amateur riders go on their own. There are two sides to building motivation to do what must be done to win. The first part is learning what must be done and developing enough faith in the plan to see it as worthwhile. The rider who is making up his or her own plan and changing it after each training article or talk with another racer is at a disadvantage. How can one have faith in a plan that one already knows will be changing momentarily? I’m not talking here just about the training plan, but the whole training-eating-sleeping-tactics on and off the bike-social structure and lifestyle of the bike racer plan. For the highest-level racers, even their public persona is part of the strategy. Riders who work with good coaches are ahead in this area. They at least know exactly what they need to do on and off the bike to achieve their goals. When a rider knows and accepts the connections between particular behaviors and success or failure, doing or not doing those behaviors becomes natural. Knowing for certain that a habit of pedaling or eating is tied to winning makes it easier to find the motivation to adopt that habit.

The second part of strengthening motivation for those for whom it sometimes flags is to find and nourish its root. Anyone who has ever sat up in a sprint or on a climb only to wonder later if they could have gone on, or what they could have done had they not sat up, should consider the source of their motivation.

Sources of Motivation

People can overcome challenges for intellectual reasons or in pursuit of pleasure, but strong emotions are more effective motivators. Healthy people will walk a few blocks on a sunny day for a slice of fine pizza, but rare is the person who can continue despite agonizing pain, deep fatigue and overwhelming odds for intellectual reasons or for pleasure. Winning bike races requires that sort of perseverance, and that sort of perseverance has to grow from a powerful emotional root. The emotional roots of race-winning performance must grow deep in the psyche of the racer and be nourished if the tree is not to blow over in the squalls of suffering.

There are many possible emotional sources for a need to win. I know a masters racer who needs to win because his late father said he would never amount to anything and, thirty years later, this rider is still trying to prove his father wrong. I know a lot of riders who have to win because they need to justify to their families the money they’ve spent on fancy bikes and the time spent riding them. I know riders who have to win bike races because they were not good at sports as kids or in high-school. You might notice that none of these reasons really makes sense. None of these riders has done especially well.

On the other hand, I know a rider who really dreamed of riding the US Pro Championships, another who will be living in his car or his grandmother’s back room until he gets a better contract, and a rider who simply could not accept not winning without swearing to do better. These reasons don’t have to make sense. These riders have done what it takes to win events, upgrade repeatedly and get contracts.

The difference is not in whether the emotional source is “positive”. If Daniel Coyle (Lance Armstrong’s War, Harper Collins 2005) is to be believed, Lance needed to win for reasons arising from anger, dominance and revenge. He didn’t win much but he did what it took to cross a lot of finish lines first. The difference is in the depth of the need. Lance’s need was not something he had. Rather the need had him. It defined him and determined him. Some people have too much motivation to win. For many riders apparently the need to win is so strong that it blurs their ethical sense. They lose sight of the fact that coming to the line first after cheating is not winning, even if no one but the rider knows of the cheating. Strong motivation can come from “negative” emotions, but the expression has to be positive for the outcome to be good for the rider or the sport.

Building and Maintaining Motivation

What can a rider who doesn’t have the deep need do to build the necessary fire? There are many tricks for building motivation. One is to tell people what one is doing and what one is going to accomplish. Having fans to let down makes it much harder to quit. Another is to visualize winning and what it will mean, whether that is bragging rights, a District Medal to wear to the club banquet, a contract, or the right to sport World Champion stripes or national colors on the jersey for the rest of one’s life.

It’s much easier for an athlete to stay motivated if he or she believes in the path. The most successful athletes often have outlined a plan for their whole athletic careers, from day-one through the key performances and into retirement. They use coaches when they can. The plans include benchmarks, whether those are contracts, upgrades, wins in particular races, achieving particular time-trial times or power numbers, or just getting on the bike so many days in the next month. Seeing oneself reach early benchmarks makes it easier to believe that the more distant goals are also attainable.

Get to Work

Whatever the root of the motivation, whether it is strong or weak, it must be fed. The rider who rides to assuage past wrongs must remind him or herself of the wrongs. The rider who rides to achieve a dream must revisit the dream. The rider who needs to win for reasons of anger or dominance should be angry and dominant, now. Anyone can keep training or racing when everything is going well and is easy. Motivation is what keeps a rider going in times of the adversity that all riders face sooner or later. Only those who continue to do what must be done can have stellar careers. The stars do the trainer hours and rain rides; they skip the sweets and push through pain in seemingly hopeless race situations. Riders who have the deep need to win and always do what it takes can go do those things. Those who need to enhance motivation should make motivation part of their regular training routines. Motivation is extremely personal and individual and must be trained in ways that work for that individual. A rider who has a pretty good idea of what he or she needs to build or maintain motivation should just do it. Those who are uncertain need not ignore that area of development. They can get support from a coach or sports psychologist, just as they would for a sprinting or climbing problem. The first step is recognizing the need. The second is committing to do something about it.

This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine in early 2008