Toolbox: Mentoring Juniors
More than ever with all the controversy in professional cycling the last few years, focusing on a proper environment for younger riders to develop, with strong support and mentorship and a process rather than result-driven philosophy is critical to the future of the sport.
Steady as she goes
A key characteristic of successful young riders is having a level head. They tend to have a personality that doesn’t seem to get too high when things go well and they don’t seem to get too low when the opposite occurs. As younger athletes, a lot of them haven’t really experienced much success in the sport of cycling. We want to make sure they understand there will always be good and bad days. Learn from the bad experiences and recognize the positive ones. Try never to make the same mistake twice and teach them the importance of the journey they are taking.
Without a doubt, cyclists are one of the most educated groups of athletes when it comes to training and tools available to them. Over the past few years, with the growing popularity of on-road power devices and physiological testing results (e.g. VO2 Max, Watts per kilo, etc.,) these numbers have been given so much attention and importance. All things being equal, producing higher numbers at any age is a good thing, but focusing solely on those numbers or using them to predict an athlete’s future, especially younger athletes is just not feasable. As noted in our last article:
“As another data point in relation to rider development rates, the late and great Dr. Aldo Sassi did a study (or review) on 304 Junior athletes to see how traditional physiological measures of aerobic fitness measured in the laboratory such as VO2PEAK, VO2 at RCP, VO2 at VT and the anthropometric characteristics predict whether those young riders will become professionals. Simple answer is no. It helped predict whether a rider was good at that age, but didn’t help predict whether they could carry that “talent” through the many steps to becoming a professional, which is a very important point for young athletes to understand. It takes a lot of things to become a professional, more than just your physiology and wattage readings when you are young.”
That is why we should sit down with each athlete, ideally young or old, and talk specifically about how they are doing NOW. Are they still enjoying the sport, the competition, the training? I recall a conversation I had a few years back with Stephen Leece, current US Elite road champion this year. We were having dinner on one of his visits and talking about his future. I asked him if he was enjoying the sport. Did he still want to become a professional?
He answered with a smile on his face and said simply, “I am having fun right now, not sure I will in a year from now.” That simple statement pretty much said it all. Right now, he is doing well, he will keep training hard, and we will ask him the same question next year. As you can see, Stephen is still having fun, as a national champion!
Balance in life
Just as important as being dedicated in training and racing, we expect our athletes to have balance in their lives. Younger athletes that have balance and are taught the value of having this balance are more motivated when it comes time to train and race. This in turn allows them to have more fun and become more successful adults.
It’s difficult to explain to them sometimes that we want them to do other activities and that they don’t have to dedicate 100% of their life to the bike. Burnout and a shift to another activity can occur very quickly with young athletes and without much notice. Being balanced can either prevent that or just open the world up to something they simply might like more!
Developing trust, networks, and relationships
At a young age, it’s important for young riders to develop a network around them. We are all aware that to be successful in anything, we need the right people supporting us in a way they specialize or know best. As an exercise have your athletes draw out a network around them and describe what each person represents to them. For example, they might add a specific teacher at school and how they support them. Another obvious resource would be the coach or a parent.
Coaches have to also realize that the relationship between them and younger athletes takes time to develop. Coaches are generally not their parents, and the time the athlete and coach spend together may be limited. Over time, expect the relationship to develop trust and understanding. As that happens, the coach-athlete relationship improves and strengthens.
Take a Lesson
What can we learn from these younger riders? I think the best way to answer that is to just take a break from your normal training routine or life events, gather a group of them together and go for a ride. You will be surprised as to how much fun you have and bring back that youthful enthusiasm we tend to lose as we get older!
As we pointed out in our last article we have a great opportunity to teach young riders many life improving skills and we should take advantage of this time to do so. As they develop, they can offer so much to us as coaches, older riders, and parents.
Ride safe, ride strong,
Bruce Hendler is a USA Cycling Coach and owner of AthletiCamps in Northern California. For the past 11 years, he and his experienced team have helped athletes of all levels achieve their goals in the great sport of bike racing thru cycling training camps, cycling coaching and performance testing. To contact AthletiCamps, visit their website at www.athleticamps.com or follow them on Twitter.