Do What Works To Win

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by Justin Coulson (School of Psychology, University of Wollongong)  You can also read his personal blog here.

Cycling Tips readers have enjoyed two top-notch interviews with PRO riders in recent weeks. The first was with Simon Gerrans, and the second was with Koen de Kort. A really interesting commonality appeared in each interview that I’d like to address from a psychological perspective.

Gerro stated:

“I wish that I focused more on what I was good at earlier on. As a young rider you try to be good at everything. You’re trying to be sprinter, a climber, in the breakaways…everything. It has taken me until the past couple of years to figure out what I’m going to be good at. It was eating at me that I was a jack of all trades but master of none. Then I realised that there’s a career in being a jack of all trades…and its in the breakaways. You have to be able to climb, sprint, and spend the day up the road. So basically find out what you’re good and you’ll develop as you get older.”

This was echoed by Koen:

“Focus on what you’re good at… Just choose one thing.”

Traditionally those who coach others to improve have often promoted a deficit-based approach. For example, a rider might say to his or her coach, “I’m no good on hills.” Then the coach will provide training to strengthen climbing ability.

While it is important to manage all aspects of our performance, Gerro and Koen are tapping into a different approach. Rather than focusing on improving weaknesses, they’re suggesting that building on strengths will make you a better rider.

The name of this process is “appreciative inquiry.” Appreciative inquiry links in neatly with goal setting to provide a powerful platform for positive outcomes in any aspect of life you want to make better. Originally developed for the benefit of business, appreciative inquiry is built on the idea that if you focus on what works, you are able to build and improve that rather than forever focusing on fixing what is not working. (As an aside, there is merit in addressing weaknesses. However constantly working on weaknesses can often be demotivating. Progress is often slow, and the work is laborious and rarely fun. Working on strengths tends to enliven, and lift).

There are four steps to effective appreciative inquiry, and they apply as much in cycling or personal life as they do to businesses and organisations.

1. Discover

The discovery phase of appreciative inquiry is where we identify what is working well. The sport of bike riding and racing makes our strengths readily visible and we can generally see quite clearly what is working and what is not. In Gerro’s case he saw that while he was not a true climber or sprinter, he was a handy rider at both, and with great endurance he is good at getting away in a break and staying out there. Talking honestly with other riders about your performance, and carefully considering it yourself, will give you perspective on what your strengths are while you’re on the bike.

2. Dream

The dream process is where you begin to think about what your strengths will allow you to do. I bet Gerro’s heart starts pounding whenever he merely thinks about riding away from a bunch only 5kms into a 180km stage. And Greipel or Cav would be forever envisioning the moment they dart off Renshaw’s wheel for the final 200m. When you dream, enjoy the feeling of being out in front on the climb, or riding hard for your team at the front of the bunch for kilometers on end (a la O’Grady). An important note: the dream phase must be specific. It has to be precisely what you want out of a given race, be it a particular placing or time, or some other result. No airy-fairy dreaming.

3. Design

This is the planning phase. Once we have identified what is working and worked out what the end goal is, we need a plan. Too many riders try to win every race. While that’s a great thing to be able to do, it’s really not feasible for most of us. Good coaches will encourage you to pick a handful of races that matter most to you, and then develop your strengths to enable you to succeed in those races. You’ll see the PRO riders do this all the time. Lance wasn’t sure about Geelong’s world championship circuit because he heard it was too flat (which he now knows is not the case). Cadel missed key races in 2009 to concentrate on getting his rainbow jersey. Riders deliberately target specific stages of a multi-stage race because of their strengths. A good plan can only be developed if we know a) what we’re good at, and b) what we want. So design specifically for what you are good at.

4. Deliver (or Destiny)

This is the stage of appreciative inquiry when you go and get what you planned for.

As Koen de Kort said:

“Now, even though I live close to the mountains in Spain I don’t train on the long ones because I’ll never be a climber. As long as I can survive the long ones I’ll keep in the race.  I’m better off spending my time in the short climbs where I can win races.

Koen still climbs, and he still undoubtedly has sprint work included in his training schedule. But like most PRO riders, Koen knows what works and he spends his time developing the specific strengths that will bring him the best results.

Where to from here?

Consider and discover your strengths. Have a look at your upcoming race calendar and choose a couple of events from the upcoming season that suit your strengths. Dream about your results. There should be a couple that you think you can win with the right plan. Design that plan by focusing on what you are good at. Do the work. Then go and take delivery of what you’ve worked for.

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