How Rohan Dennis won Worlds with the help of his psychological scientist

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Dr David Spindler is an Andorra-based psychological scientist who works almost exclusively with professional cyclists. In the first part in this two-part series, Spindler spoke about what it’s like to work with elite athletes, what makes pro cyclists stand out, and what he enjoys most about his role. In this second and final part, he talks about his relationship with world time trial champion Rohan Dennis.

Earlier this year Dennis dropped out of the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances. He had been scheduled to race the Vuelta a España but missed that, and didn’t race again until the Road World Championships in Yorkshire. There, the South Australian returned with a vengeance, taking his second-straight time trial world title.

In his post-race press conference, Dennis singled out Spindler for his invaluable help in the lead-up. In this interview, Spindler talks about the role he played in those weeks and months before Worlds and how that support helped Dennis rediscover his world-class ability. Spindler can’t say exactly why Rohan left the Tour de France back in July — it’s not his place to answer that — but as you’ll read below, he still has plenty of fascinating insight into the mindset of an elite athlete.

CyclingTips: One of the things that Rohan Dennis spoke about after his Worlds win was how much he drew on confidence. Looking at it from the outside, you look at someone like Rohan, as talented as he is, and you go: how could you not be confident? I wonder if you could talk a bit about the role that confidence plays even at this elite level?

Dr David Spindler: The issues that Rohan had in the six months prior to Worlds: it was all about him being shit, pretty much. Like how come he hasn’t won this, how come he hasn’t won that, why hasn’t he done this? And then he’s world champion.

So there’s an expectation not only from the general public, but also himself that he’s going to win. And as soon as that doesn’t happen, self-doubt — the same issues from when he was 16 trying to get to the national squad — are happening as a world champion at WorldTour level at 29 or whatever. Exactly the same thing.

Even the best in the world can doubt themselves sometimes.

So what we were thinking about at the time is: what are the actual determinants of a performance? So let’s break it down and go “Is it Rohan Dennis or is it something different? What is the actual issue?” And what we’ve done for the last three years is make sure that any performance decrements aren’t Rohan Dennis.

So we can actually calculate everything that we need to, to go “OK, what you did there is so much better than last year, what’s the reason why it didn’t happen?” So that’s what we did.

That’s the shift in mindset, especially in the lead up to the World Championships in Harrogate. “It was never about me. I was always good enough.” He was lighter at every stage this year than he was last year. His power profiles are always better this year than last year. His CdA and frontal area is always better. So we’re better this year than what we were last year.

He got second at the Tour de Suisse. Everyone’s going “Oh, it’s not the equipment.” It’s actually not the equipment. Maybe.

If you look at it cynically then you might say it was about the equipment — that BMC’s time trial bike is just better than Merida’s and once he was back on a BMC for Worlds, he was able to perform at his best again.

Well just as cynically you could say that he won a world championship because he was in an environment that supported him both mentally and physically.

Rohan Dennis is still a brilliant athlete. That doesn’t change. When you’re world class, you are world class — you’re born with world class. You just have to figure out how to bring that world class back.

Same as Mark Cavendish. Mark Cavendish hasn’t lost world class. At the moment, he’s missing the ability to produce it. So whatever it is that’s missing for him to produce that performance, it’s about taking away variables so you’re left with the bare minimum that you can actually then build from.

Rohan’s wife Mel (an Olympian on the track in her own right) and their son Oliver, on support duties at the Yorkshire Worlds.

Was it your idea for Rohan to delete his social media accounts after his Tour de France exit?

Yeah, 100%.

I picked him up from the Tour de France. So I drove from Andorra to Pau to pick him up [e.d. roughly four hours one way], met with the representative of the team to make sure they knew and accepted the reason for the abandonment, and then drove him home.

So on the way back we had some decent conversations about “What does this mean? What are we going to do?” And that had nothing to do with athletically at all. Because I couldn’t really give a shit about Rohan Dennis the athlete at that stage. He was done when it came to the Tour de France. He abandoned, that was it, finished, until literally his next race, wherever that was going to be. And that wasn’t going to be for another two weeks regardless.

“What does it mean for you personally? What are we going to do with Mel [his wife] and Oliver [his son]?” And then what does it mean when it comes to your public image and what are we going to do? Let’s just delete everything. Who gives a shit? Does the social media really matter? Let’s just have some fun.”

If you have a look on his social media now, or you have a look at his friends’ [social media] in Girona, there’ll be pictures of Rohan the human, the regular guy, having ice cream. I think he might have kept his Instagram. That wasn’t to throw anyone off the scent or anything. It was just like, “OK, let’s just have some fun. You need to have fun. Because everything else in your life is … everyone’s perceiving your life to be falling down around you. It’s actually not mate.

“Things are pretty good. You’ve got a beautiful little boy. You’ve got a great wife. You’ve got really good friends. That’s what you’ve got. And are they the only ones that really you need to give a shit about? Is some random dude, Peter365 on Twitter … are you going to worry about them when you’re 55 years old sitting in a rocking chair? No. So why worry about them now?”

Another one was “Let’s get some happiness back into your life.” This was the main reason he needed to remove himself from the negative space that had been created around the abandonment. What we tried to do, when he finished the Tour de France, was to increase his dopamine, and serotonin, and then minimise cortisol. Minimise stress, which was off social media, create happiness, everything else. “OK, let’s just have some fun”.

This was not because he didn’t care about the abandonment — he did very much — it was to get him back to a headspace that was conducive to being Rohan Dennis the person. The person who Mel, Oliver and the people who truly care about him knew him to be, not the person who people on social media were portraying him as. Those who had no idea of the issues at hand.

Can you tell me how you helped Rohan prepare for the Worlds time trial? Who would you say was in his support bubble for that project?

Neal Henderson from Apex Coaching and Wahoo who is his coach, Melissa his wife, Andrew McQuaid from Trinity Sports who is his agent, and his son Oliver. For this campaign I flew over to do an Australian cycling training camp for Rohan for the world championships. It was just me and him and started two weeks before.

Rohan didn’t get selected for the Vuelta and Cycling Australia through [national selector] Brad McGee asked how to prepare him as best as possible — so Neal and I went back and forth and asked “OK, how do we get him to a stage where he’s literally at his best physically and mentally at the world championships?” That was it. That’s not rocket science, really. “OK, we’re here. Here is the world championships. How do we fill this gap?”

Neal was pretty confident [Rohan] was in good-enough condition, all I had to do was prepare him to the best of my ability to produce the performance he was capable of on the day. That was pretty much it.

I was on a scooter beside him for two weeks. And as a profession — psychological scientists — we don’t do that. But I did it because I needed to see his face, I needed to see his eyes, he needed to see mine, and he needed a little bit of support before and after efforts. “Alright, what are we gonna do here? What are the fundamentals here for you to time-trial?”

Spindler (centre) and Neal Henderson (right) were invaluable in helping Dennis win his second world title. (Image: David Spindler)

So Neal had his stuff. I’d get a text message from Neal: “This is what we need out of this.” I’d then give Neal “This is what I’d like out of it” and then we’d work together. Rohan was in that [conversation] the whole time. It was a real performance bubble. And I was just on a scooter beside him the whole time. He needed to know that no matter what, he had a team of people who actually care for him personally.

I mean, I stayed at his house for the two weeks prior to Worlds to help in every way possible. That meant giving Mel a hand with their little boy Oliver when needed, it meant being the sounding board for frustrations regarding session completion. It also meant that we could really have time to talk through the issues in his time. Not just a “Can you call me at 3:15pm” and we will talk for an hour. It was more intensive than that. I more than likely overstayed my welcome at times though …

It seems like it worked out pretty well though.

It did, yeah, because it’s about support. And that’s where the best athletes in the world become the best athletes in the world. They don’t do it by themselves. That’s why people for a random Continental team that I know, Bennelong, have never won a world championship. Because support. You give them the right support, they go somewhere else and somewhere else then somewhere else.

So it’s actually Cycling Australia’s world championship, really, as much as they really don’t give him any real support financially. I mean, they pay me and they pay Neal sometimes for travel, but [Rohan’s] created a network around himself, by himself, to just go “OK, this is what we’re going to do.”

There were definitely times where he was doubting himself. The first few days of the camp were pretty rough — the 10 and 11th [of September] — he didn’t like me much those days. However we did a simulation on the 12th of September that changed everything.

He set off up towards the road where he did a similar test last year and we talked about the fundamentals of how his brain works under physiological load. We reaffirmed what was needed during the session, what he needed out of it. Once he finished the first portion of the set he just looked at me with this grin. I had the Wahoo on the scooter so I knew his numbers for the effort and I also knew. We did this weird fist bump/handshake thing we both messed up and talked about how he can win Worlds. It really was a watershed moment for him.

For me professionally it was really awesome to be a part of that. He went on to finish that session strongly and hit better numbers than last year so we were as confident as we could have been going into a sporting contest. From that moment, where he flashed that grin, he knew that if he produced the performance he would be very hard to beat.

After that session I rang Neal and had a debrief. [Rohan] came home and cuddled Mel and Oliver and we trucked on from there.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out part one of this series in which Spindler talks about the role of sports psychologist more generally.

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