Most people are averse to change. That is, in part, why so many people knowingly continue unhealthy habits. Rare is the person who likes to hear that he or she is making self-defeating choices and needs to think or act differently. Change means confronting the unknown. It brings anxiety. Knowing that a coach will suggest changes is enough to stop some riders from even seeking coaching.
Very few cyclists train, eat, sleep, hydrate and handle their bikes optimally. Most know they could ride better if they changed something, but either don’t know what to change, or don’t make the changes they know they need to make.
Most competitive cyclists understand that success requires hard work and think of themselves as willing to do it, but many aren’t consciously aware that the hard work must be mental as well as physical. Riders must be willing to ride long hours, but also to face fears, change habits and do things that create anxiety.
A few riders develop and succeed in competition without a false step or setback. They get good advice about training and recovery habits, what to eat at home and on the bike, where to sit in the pack, how to corner and so on and just act on it without delay.
For most, getting all the details right requires changing habits or deeply held beliefs about training, nutrition, recovery or tactics. Some riders can receive information and proceed to apply it. Others do better with a push. People who need information or a push benefit from coaching, but simply paying to be able to say, “I have a coach,” is not enough. A coach needs to give the right information and pushes at the right times.
Many new clients come to me somewhat overtrained. Some need encouragement to ride harder; but those are rare. Most need to reduce intensity so that they can ride consistently without excessive fatigue. Many arrive quite committed to their historical pattern of “no pain-no gain” training. They say things like, “If I stay in zone 2, I don’t feel l like I’m really working.” For them, the transition to optimal training is mentally challenging.
Many riders are controlled by ignorance and fear: Fear of not doing enough makes them do too much. Fear of overtraining keeps them from training enough. Fear of crashing makes them corner slowly or draft inefficiently. Fear of bonking makes them eat too much. Fear of getting fat keeps them from fueling adequately. Fear of missing the winning break has them joining no-hope attacks until they are exhausted. Fear of appearing weak makes them waste energy leading the field.
Others riders are controlled by old habits: Habitually riding too large a gear keeps them from developing a spin. Habitually overeating sweets and starches keeps them overweight. Habitually braking for turns has kept them comfortable, but also kept them from learning to corner at speed.
The coach’s job includes continually assessing athletes’ performance, identifying deficiencies and helping to correct them. The job almost always includes providing information about needed changes. In many cases improving performance will require the rider to confront fears and change habits.
Reactions to Fear
There are several common reactions to being forced to confront a fear or told that you need to change a habit. One common response is denial: “I don’t need to change. I’m fine. You’re an idiot.” Maybe the rider thinks what the coach is asking is not possible, or that it’s too dangerous. Often riders think that they are special in some way so they can’t or don’t need to change. For example, I worked with a rider who had trained himself to use fat super efficiently by eating no starch at all. He was lean and he could ride centuries on water alone without bonking. He was proud of his accomplishment and stunned when I told him to start eating more carbohydrate daily and on rides. He wasn’t happy to admit it, but he also got a lot faster once he made the transition. People generally don’t know when they are making an error that holds them back. That’s part of what makes having an effective coach so important.
Another client had a phenomenal aerobic engine but no sprint. In hard road races he always made the final group, but finished at the back of that group. If there were three people left, he’d podium dependably. If there were six, he wouldn’t. We made an appointment so I could watch him sprint. I expected to see some error of form. Maybe he wouldn’t rock the bike or he’d choose too high or low a gear. He was in fact making some obvious errors, but even with those corrected, his sprint power was abysmal. Once we had his form mostly sorted out, I notice one more thing. As he came not-exactly-flying by, I yelled, “You don’t look like you’re even trying!”
At mid-sprint, he responded, “Screw you!” and, then proceeded to improve on his previous best power by ~ 200 Watts! He had been lying to himself and to me that he was sprinting as hard as he could. By accessing his anger, he was able to do much better. Once he knew that trick, his sprint power never went back down. If your coach is unwilling to make you uncomfortable once in a while, he or she is probably not doing an optimal job.
Fear is pretty simple: It’s the emotion you have when you think you might get hurt physically or emotionally. Anger is more complicated. There are many definitions. My favorite is that anger is what happens when you confront a fear-generating situation but, rightly or wrongly, feel you have the power to do something about it. Anger is prerequisite to action.
A good coach doesn’t just list the athlete’s deficiencies and tell them to get better. He or she helps clients identify needed changes and at the same time provides the tools to make the changes, producing a sense of power to do something about the deficiency. If knowledge of the needed change doesn’t evoke fear or denial, the rider can proceed. If there is resistance though, converting fear and resistance to productive anger is more of a challenge. Then the skills of the coach come into full play.
Different Coaches For Different Clients
Different riders respond to different coaching styles. Some riders just want to be told what to do, while others want to understand the how and why. Some coaches are more comfortable giving orders while others are more confident in their advice and happier to explain the reasoning behind particular suggestions.
The rider who is deeply committed to bad habits or in denial about needed changes may need a bit of “breaking” before the pieces can be put back together. Some coaches are like drill sergeants from movies about the Vietnam era. “Drop and give me 20, maggot!” “You are so awful, why do I waste my time with you?” That attitude works for the tearing down phase, but not the putting back together. Coaches who are in it for the ego, getting off on controlling or insulting others, looking for validation of their superiority rather than looking to help athletes succeed are only able to do half the job.
I’ve met many coaches who are on another sort of ego trip, constantly proving their superiority by dropping big science words, talking about their own racing experience or the important riders they’ve met. These jerks make themselves feel big by making riders feel small. They tend to want to control their clients, taking credit for successes but blaming the riders for failures. These folks don’t want to share all they know since that would eliminate their superiority. They seem to be talking in code and make you feel more confused rather than educated.
Yet other coaches are better at the putting back together part. They are nice and like to be more equal rather than superior to their clients. Some of these friendly coaches are afraid to make their clients uncomfortable. After all, the rider is paying for the service. You don’t want to cause offense and lose a customer. That style works for the very self-aware rider, but not for the one who is in denial or needs to get angry. Nice coaches will frustrate a rider who is looking for firm guidance.
Good coaches must be willing to offend –“you weigh too much to keep up on climbs no matter how fit you get”– and to challenge –“you don’t look like you are trying!”– but also know how to moderate that and keep a balance between challenging and guiding. They help the rider to confront the anxiety and also feel big enough to get past it.
Coaches can be superior or equal, teacher or partner. The good coach does all these as needed. The coach takes a superior, teaching position when challenging the rider to acknowledge deficiencies and offering corrective tools, but recognizes that the basis of the superiority is observational skills and knowledge so that the rider gradually becomes more of an equal if the coach does a good job. Depending on the clients, a good coach may need to make the rider angry or uncomfortable from time to time.
Some athletes are easy. A coach or mentor tells them a few things. They make the changes and get faster. Everyone is happy.
Other athletes are harder. The coach tells them what to do but they can’t stick to the plan, they don’t do the exercises. They don’t get faster. Then everyone is frustrated. It can be tempting to call these riders “uncoachable”, but that is usually not accurate.
A grad school instructor gave me a wonderful piece of wisdom, pointing out that teachers don’t open up students’ heads and pour in knowledge. What teachers do is structure environments so that learning will occur. It’s a simple but very powerful paradigm shift. Looking at it that way, if the student isn’t learning, the teacher has not properly structured the environment for that student. All riders are coachable, but the coach has to find the style that will work for each rider.
A very competitive recreational cyclist had a bad habit of letting life get out of control and then skipping training for a few weeks, or training too hard, getting an injury and then skipping training. Her identity was very wrapped up in being a hard exerciser and a cyclist. She wanted me to make her faster and leaner. All I could do was talk to her though. I couldn’t make her muscles work or stop her from pushing when she was already tired. I explained the importance of consistent training, and of not pushing when already tired. She kept screwing up month after month though. Finally I told her that while I was willing to keep being her coach, if she didn’t get more consistency in her training, she couldn’t call herself a “cyclist” any more. She blew up, cursed and then didn’t talk to me for a couple of weeks. I had enough clients; I wasn’t too worried about losing one. A few weeks later she did call back though, and then proceeded to train consistently and improve her fitness. My willingness to destroy her self-image turned out to be essential to helping her reach her goals.
One Style That Seems to Work
I am capable of being mean when necessary, but mostly my style is to tell athletes what I would do in their situation. “You’d climb better if you were leaner and if I wanted to be leaner, I’d change my diet this way.” “You’d win more if you developed your sprinting ability and if I wanted to improve my sprint, I’d do these particular drills.”
I’m not telling riders what they have to do, but what they need to do to reach desired results.
Coaching for me has three parts: Identifying deficiencies, helping or forcing the client to acknowledge them, and then providing the tools needed to correct the deficiencies. Most riders are pretty honest about their abilities and glad of any advice I give to improve weak areas, but some are afraid to do what they need to do or are deeply attached to their weaknesses and bad habits. In those cases I expect some anger or at least friction from time to time.
As is the case with friendships and romances, there are times early in many coaching relationships when the coach has to be willing to upset the client for the relationship to progress. That’s always an anxious period. Will the relationship survive? It might not, but if you’re not willing to take the risk, the relationship is going nowhere anyway.
Some coaching relationships progress fine without anger, but the coach who is unwilling ever to upset a client is not going to be a good coach for all riders. Since anger is a great motivator of change, a good coach, at least for some athletes, needs to be able to get the rider angry, and then help them productively channel that anger.
A good coach may make you angry occasionally. If your coach has you angry every time you interact, it’s probably time to get a new coach. If your coach constantly seems be skirting difficult issues, they may need some guidance from you. Tell them it’s okay to be direct when needed. Of course if you are self-coached, you’ll probably be angry from time to time. Make sure you channel that anger into improved training, eating, recovery and so on. If you’re not sure how to do that, get a coach and get ready to be angry in a productive way.