We miss this sometimes: or at least, speaking for myself, I do.
Winter in the UK can be a tough time for cyclists, particularly those who get their kicks from racing in the summer months. We all know if you want to be competitive you have to train consistently and with structure despite the shit nasty weather and dark nights.
Speaking for my own meagre performance levels as a rider, I know I need to train pretty hard just to be rubbish.
We do this because our fun, satisfaction, enjoyment, call it what you will, comes from applying effort and pushing ourselves a bit. As racing cyclists we thrive on the satisfaction that comes from working hard, sometimes against the elements. We know it’s going to pay off in the summer too.
But it’s easy to overdo it. We can lose sight of the fun element which is so often the reason we started riding a bike in the first place. Maybe we don’t ride unless we are strapped up with performance measuring gizmos and our session has a specific training goal.
Three things to remember perhaps
Stay sane and remember to have fun…!
A few recent experiences have prompted me to reflect on the importance of the use of language in coaching. Particularly the influence a coach can have when dealing with youngsters and therefore the position of responsibility he or she is in.
The example I’d like to give happened some years ago but is appalling and hilarious in equal measure. I witnessed it at first hand as it was a football match my 12 year old daughter was playing in for a local team. I should also emphasize that, as a lifelong Derby County fan, I know nothing, repeat nothing, about football. I like watching it and playing it, but wouldn't know where to start coaching it. It's testament only to my ability to keep my mouth shut and let qualified football coaches advise her that she now plays for Aston Villa and England u17s.
Ignoring the advice hurled from the touchline by parents during the match (anybody who watches their kids play sport this will know there’s a book waiting to be written on this topic alone) there was some instruction from the coach. Together with gesticulation and arm waving, this consisted of single words. Pressure! Closer! Tackle! Run! I didn’t understand it and neither did the players – it was non-specific, seemingly directed at the match in general rather than at a player or passage of play, unhelpful, confusing and for some of the players, upsetting. Whilst being all of these things, the one thing it wasn’t was unusual. The coach had form for this.
Soon enough, a ball was lofted high over the midfield and came down from some height directly towards to the left-back. She had time to look at the ball, glance at the coach and then look back at the ball as it continued its downward path. She was caught in two or possibly three minds about what to do and simply took a flying swipe at the ball with her left foot. To give her credit, despite having her eyes closed, she made contact with the ball, volleying it out to the touch line. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t the most graceful passage of play and maybe Ashley Cole would have dealt with it differently, but remember this was a 12 year old grass roots football player.
After a short pause, unable to control himself any longer, the coach shouted ‘WILL YOU EVER LEARN TO TAKE A FUCKING TOUCH!?’ (I’m not sure about the question mark as I think it may have been rhetorical). As you can imagine, silence fell then inevitably the tears and recriminations started.
Aside from the obvious, what had he, as a coach, done wrong? I guess for a start, he hadn’t taught his left-back how to deal with the high ball. Or maybe he had but she didn’t have the experience, skill or confidence to put the technique in to practice. Of course, that’s entirely secondary: techniques can be taught, skill levels developed with purposeful practice and, even then, mistakes can still be made.
For me, his most serious crime was use of ‘bad’ language. Not the profanity – that was unhelpful and inappropriate for the environment - but he failed, by the misuse of one of the most powerful tools at his disposal, to get the right message over in at least two fundamental ways.
Firstly, Touch, Closer, Pressure and the like are just words. They don’t mean anything out of context. If you want somebody to do something it needs to be explained, demonstrated, practiced and improved by clear feedback. In the match environment, he would not have been able to give that feedback but he should have taken it back to the training pitch and used it there.
I presume ‘take a fucking touch’ roughly translates to ‘bring the ball under control before dealing with it’. Something along those lines may have been more helpful?
Secondly and more importantly, the player was scared of her coach, scared of making mistakes, scared of being shouted at in front of her team mates. So were the rest of the players on the team. That’s not an environment you can learn in. Furthermore it undermines rather than supports confidence which in turn has a negative effect on performance and just makes the whole process unenjoyable. You’re unlikely to become a creative and daring athlete if the response from your coach to you trying something new is going to be ‘what the fuck do you think you’re playing at?’
Without dispassionate and timely feedback in an environment where mistakes are learned from rather than used as a basis for criticism, people will not progress: more likely they will walk away. In any sport, language should be at least supportive rather than harmfully critical. It’s the coach’s job to develop a healthy learning environment where athletes feel comfortable to ask questions and try new things – to make mistakes and learn from them without fear of criticism. This applies to adults just as much as it does to children.
On a final note, I’m not claiming to be a paragon of coaching virtue here – I get this wrong just like everybody else and the heat of competition gets to all of us – it’s just a plea to mind your f*%king language I guess…
Those of a certain age will remember He-Man (of Master of the Universe fame) issuing forth this cry when he metamorphosed from a normal cartoon geezer into to muscle bound man of bronze whilst his slightly crap pet cat changed in to a ridable ferocious battle beast.
‘All good’ I hear you say ‘but what the hell has this got to do with cycling?’ Fair question. Bear with me for a minute and I’ll contrive a link somewhere...
I’ll spare you too much of the history, but I first came across power meters in what is still one of my favourite cycling books, Chris Boardman’s Complete Book of Cycling back in 2000. Back then, an SRM power measurement unit would cost you £2500 and would only be of any use if you could fit, calibrate and maintain it whilst continuing your studies in particle physics to enable you to interpret the data. It worked pretty well for Chris and his influential coach Peter Keen though. He once knocked out a 10 mile TT on the Wrexham by-pass in 17.58 before even the best riders in this country were breaking 20 minutes.
Now, we all produce power when we ride. We push the pedals and, all being well, the bike moves forward but without a system of measurement we don’t know how much power we are generating. If we race, it’s important to understand how much power we produce so we can work on generating more of it to go faster. Power measurement has recently become more accessible to amateur riders although up until even a few years ago it was still very costly. More recently, more manufacturers entered the market and power measurement stopped being hard to access because of cost and became hard to access because it didn’t work. Well not accurately or reliably anyway.
Whilst it’s still not perfect, there are a number of real world workable and affordable power measurement solutions out there now. Stages, Garmin Vectors, SRM, Power Tap, Quark, the list goes on and continues to expand. I took the plunge at the beginning of last season and bought Stages cranks for my time trial and road race bike.
Why did I invest in power? Two reasons. First, as a rider I wanted to be sure I was using my limited time as effectively as possible. It is a (brutally) honest measurement of how strong you are. It removes the guess work from training and regular benchmark tests show if your hard work is paying off and you are getting faster.
Secondly, I needed to learn more using power measurement with the riders I coach. You can read about it (and the physics behind it) until you go blue in the face but personally I need to ‘feel’ it so I know what I’m asking my riders to do. Having said that, I did attend the British Cycling ‘Power: Understanding Cycling Performance’ course back in September. It was useful and gave me good theoretical knowledge to back up the practical application. They even gave me a certificate.
I’ll go in to some detail on the good, the bad and the indifferent on power and power measurement in future blogs (hey, it’s a long winter, right?) but as you put your Christmas lists together (it’s never too early) I would advise you start dropping ‘power meter’ related hints to the other half/parents/grandparents/guardians/Father Christmas/Bike shop as soon as possible.
Fundamentally – and I'm conscious you were promised a tenuous He-Man link – the rider who ‘has the power’ will be faster and training with power measurement is the most effective way to achieve this. Ouch, told you it was tenuous.
If you want to know more about training with power, how to go about getting it, what might suit you and, most importantly, how using it in conjunction with a coach can make you faster, drop me a line.
Thank you and, by the power of Greyskull, until next time, stay safe…
The ramblings of a cycling coach...