What it’s like to be a psychological scientist working with pro cyclists

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Dr David Spindler is an Andorra-based psychological scientist who works almost exclusively with professional cyclists. You might recognise his name — Rohan Dennis publicly thanked Spindler after winning his second world time trial title back in September, after what was a tumultuous few months for the Aussie pro. In addition to working with individual pro cyclists, Spindler has also been the head of psychology for Dimension Data.

In this first part of a two-part interview series, Spindler talks about what it’s like to work with elite athletes, what makes pro cyclists stand out, and what he enjoys most about his role. Be sure to check out part two in which Spindler talks specifically about how he helped prepare Rohan Dennis for the Yorkshire world championships.

CyclingTips: How did you get into sport psychology in the first place?

Dr David Spindler: So I have bipolar disorder and I started an undergraduate psychology degree to try and figure myself out. I did a little bit of golf, but I was a golf caddy for a long time. Most of the older guys — so [Australians] above 30 in the WorldTour — all call me “Caddy” for that reason. It’s just one of those things.

I had some mental health issues and then had to come home and was in hospital for a while and I couldn’t continue my golf caddying journey. It just wasn’t right. And so psychology it was. And then a Masters, PhD and all the rest of the stuff.

How did you come to work with pro cyclists?

My dad was a pretty keen cyclist back in the day. My brother was handy and we’ve known the McGees and Kerstens and the Rogers’ as well – so our family knows them and they all know us. I did some Institute of Sport stuff a few years ago with Brad [McGee] and he literally lives 600 metres away from me. So Brad’s one of our best mates.

That’s not the reason [I started working with cyclists] but we’ve just been in cycling forever, even now that I’ve been in a different sport [golf].

What does working as a sport psych with Dimension Data involve?

That’s been a tough one, to be totally honest with you. I see that my role is to be for the athlete. And then my role in performance meetings is to then give that voice of the athlete and to make the best choices for the athlete. That might not be the best choices from a team’s perspective, because they actually don’t have a voice in this at all, and they never have.

It was really good for them to have a voice but then it also made it a struggle within performance meetings for me to go “Well hang on a minute. This athlete needs this, this, and this and if we actually push them to this one thing, that potentially will ruin their season. Are you okay with that?”

I got on really well with Rolf [Aldag, the team’s head of performance] and it was no secret that Rolf wanted a potential rider to go to the Tour de France. I agreed with Rolf, and still do on that one personally, however the team principal made a different decision there and once it was decided we all had to move forward as a team.

I really enjoyed my time there and wish everyone involved the best — the project is one that has a lot of potential.

What does the job of a sport psychologist look like on a day to day basis?

When I’m home, it’ll be weekly phone calls to athletes just to make sure they’re OK, see how their mental health is, how their external life is, just to make sure that they have a voice pretty much and they can vent to somebody that’s within a team environment but also doesn’t judge. They can say whatever they want to me and it just stays with us. It doesn’t matter if it’s about their wife, the children, about sports directors, about a race coming up, whatever — they can vent to me and then we find a solution of how to best move forward from that.

If there is a performance decrement within their mind, then we work through that. So if there’s performance anxiety stuff, we work through that performance anxiety, if it’s — I hate the word “motivation”, because it’s fleeting — if it’s a drive problem, then we’ll work out the reasons why that is, how that occurred in the first place, and then how we move forward from that.

So really what I do is provide the start of a conversation and them let them work out how to move forward. But I ask the right questions. I also worked very closely with the medical group to monitor the mental health and wellbeing of the athletes.

What percentage of the top teams in men’s and women’s cycling would have a sport psychologist on staff, right now?

As of next year, zero. I will still be in the WorldTour, not with any one team specifically. My services are being engaged by a company who have several top ranking teams within the male and female peloton.

That surprises me. I thought there would be a bunch of teams that would have such services available.

I know Dr. Steve Peters works with Ineos. I think he might be on retainer. But he’s not directly working for Ineos. I think EF might have someone. Gerard … I can’t think of his last name. They definitely did have it when they were Drapac — not sure now.

Do you think we’ll start to see more teams have psychology services available for their riders?

I think the best teams will have an arrangement with someone. I think the biggest issue with teams at the moment is a people management problem. Most of them are ex-cyclists and don’t know how to people-manage. If you just look at Ineos as a prime example and even Jumbo now, the reason why they are really good now is because they’ve got people who can actually talk to and organise people and they get the best out of people.

If you have a look at Matt [White] from GreenEdge or whatever it’s called now: really good people person. He’s got charisma. He actually cares about his athletes rather than going “I want you to do this. This is the way I would have done it.” [Mitchelton-Scott] has really good sports directors because all of them are really grounded and nice people that care about their athletes. They’re more worried about their athletes than their own job.

You’re finishing up with Dimension Data at the end of the year. Will you go to another team next year? Or will you just keep working with individuals like you do at the moment?

At the moment, I’m kind of weighing up a couple of different options. I had six world champions last year individually, on the track, the road, and off road, so I’ve got a really good small business and having a two-time world individual champion [Rohan Dennis], especially under the circumstances that it was this year, has influenced my business quite a bit.

So I kind of don’t really need that team stuff anymore. That’s the bit I don’t like talking about because it sounds really arrogant. People know who I am without me having to push myself onto people, which is a really nice position to be in. I think there wouldn’t be many teams that would be able to utilise my services as well as what they should.

What do you mean by that?

Well this year I had 27 athletes [through Dimension Data] plus my own external business, plus research, so I had a lot of shit on my plate. So I can’t service 27 athletes plus performance calls for 20 hours a week, which is a half-job — it just didn’t work.

I actually feel, rightly or wrongly, like I let some athletes down just due to a lack of available time, amongst other things. Just the acute situations that occur take up so much of the available time so you always go over [the time you’re paid for] and that is OK. I’d rather know the athlete is in a better place after our calls than they were before.

To be honest, teams place so much worth on performance stuff and very little on the psychological aspects of being a professional athlete. Teams control every physiological aspect, how much they eat, how many watts they do for how long, what time recovery massage is, but how many look at the mental strain all this is putting on the athlete?

No phone application can assess the mood, motivation and stress of an athlete. You need people who understand the concepts they are trying to capture. This does not happen by answering eight questions on a questionnaire every day. That is done by good old-fashioned communication and that takes time. It is very important to get good quality data first and foremost; it’s pointless gathering meaningless numbers on a screen.

How would you say the the psychology of an elite cyclist differs to that of the average cyclist?

An ability to suffer. The knowledge of themselves. That comes from it being their job. You have a look at even the age group athletes, the Masters, whatever you want to call them — they actually think that they’re professional bike riders even if they’re concreters or accountants. But the difference is that these guys [the pros]: it’s all they do.

So they’re in their own head, they can control their emotions — their self-regulation when it comes to their own bodies is really good. The fact that they know “Ok, I might get injured here” and then they’ll call their coach and go “This is what’s happening.” So they’re in tune with themselves a lot more and actually have a better engine. So the psychology is they’re better at self-regulation.

One of the other big things is a professional’s ability to recover from sessions. When it is your job you put all the emphasis on the quality of the session both on and off the bike — they don’t do 3×10 minutes at threshold then go spend all day on their feet pouring lattes. For the non-professional that allostatic load needs to be factored in. If you attend to your business after the session, how much of a toll is that taking and how much more recovery do you need before doing another quality session?

And how does the psychology of professional cyclists compare to that of elite athletes in other sports?

Their pain threshold is quite high. So this is a physiological thing. Their ability to withstand higher lactate tolerances is something we see with ultra marathoners as well — they’re also quite good at it — but it’s at a higher level [with pro cyclists] because ultra marathon running isn’t a multi-million dollar sport.

So what cyclists do really well is control their physiology with their psychology really well — they’re able to do that over and over and over and over again and consistently for nine months a year. And then they can do whatever they want and go and put on weight and let their hair down in their off-season, whatever.

But the pros also have exactly the same issues that every single other athlete has, psychologically. They still lack confidence, they have issues around body image, they’re worried about their hair. They’re still humans — they have all the issues that every other athlete has over time but it just gets exacerbated because it’s in the public eye. Social media’s made it worse.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job?

The happiness of athletes. That’s really simple, actually. But there is nothing better than that, seeing in an athlete’s eyes that they are truly happy.

So Cav [Mark Cavendish] had a really tough time this year. There’s been a lot of stuff in the news in regards to Mark and one of the best things this year, even though it sounds really weird, was his third place in Turkey. Because it was just sheer joy.

There was pure elation and joy and it had nothing to do with the result. It was the fact that he was racing his bike. He actually raced his bike like he was 16 again. Joy. Happiness. That’s the reason why you do this. That’s the reason why they do it for a job, because at some stage when they were 16, they were riding along and went “Holy shit, this is good, and I’m actually OK at it.” There is nothing better than an athlete calling you or seeing you at a finish and just going “Nailed it.” It has nothing to do with the result; everything to do with the performance. They can come 57th.

As another example: Jay Thompson. I was in Andorra, he gave me a call — I can’t remember the race — but he gave me a call just after he finished his race and just went “I nailed it. This was awesome. I had an awesome day.” He was actually on the front for 100 km. But he did his job. It’s not about results, it’s about performance.

So many elite athletes now get wrapped up in a result-based economy. But when you look at it, you have to produce the performance first. Results are a by-product of your chosen behaviours. There’s nothing better than them producing the performance and then coming back to you with sheer joy like a 16-year-old going back to their parents, you know what I mean? That is just the coolest thing ever.

What was my favourite moment of the year? It would be really easy to go “Rohan’s world championship”. But it’s not at all. One of the happiest things to me was seeing Pete Kennaugh at the Tour de France, because he’s happy.

For me personally I could not care less if they win the Tour de France or if they run 57th at Tour Down Under. As long as they’re happy that’s all I care about.

Be sure to check out the second and final part of this interview in which Dr David Spindler talks through his time working with Rohan Dennis in the lead-up to the latter’s second Worlds win.

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