Psych It Up! The Team Game
Lots of teams, pro and amateur, look damned impressive with their shiny matching bikes and jerseys. However, beneath this faзade, most “teams” are that in name only and race completely ineffectively as a collection of individuals. How can a group of individuals gain the true benefits from being a team?
Most of us are drawn to the sport of cycling because of its individuality. Unlike team sports, there are no coaches making you run drills, no cliques between starters and benchwarmers. Better yet, there are no scheduled practice times or locations – we can ride/train wherever and whenever it suits us.
Individuality and Athlete Development
The individualism is definitely a major reason why I quit basketball cold turkey after high school and rode off on the bike. However, it’s also likely one of the major obstacles to athletes developing to their full potential. Think about it. Few of us actually work closely with coaches and spend most of our riding time riding how we feel. Then we get together on club rides that typically degenerate in the flames of ego into impromptu hammer-fests that neither maximizes club spirit or maintain enthusiasm in new riders.
Contrast this to swimming, a much more individual sport that cycling. In contrast to cycling, young swimmers are guided through nearly every single workout from their very first exposure to water by coaches. It’s almost unheard of for an elite swimmer to be self-coached, and swimming exists through strong club systems that emphasize progressive development through various age groups.
The same system of individuality coupled with egalitarianism is true with speedskating, my other favourite sport, where kids and their parents are training and sometimes competing together. Rather than age groups, most competitions are seeded based purely on ability, so that you’re always competing with people who are similar in ability regardless of gender or age group. Personally, I think that’s a great system for maintaining enthusiasm and also maximizing racing skills.
If clubs want to maximize athlete development, some suggestions:
1. Hold training time trials. These provide competition but permits members to compete with individual goals.
2. Develop a buddy system, where one experienced rider mentors a newer rider in learning the ropes about pack riding, training, bike maintenance, etc. For an added twist, you can also set up 2-up TTTs for friendly competition. Another possibility is to set up an incentive program for experienced riders to recruit new members and to mentor them.
3. Have dedicated skill camps or training sessions specifically for newcomers, women, juniors, etc. Nothing is more demoralizing than being a newcomer and being thrown into the deep end.
Individuality and the Team
Beyond athlete development, most teams are even worse when it comes to racing. Your club may have 10 riders at the start line, but just how often do you actually ride as a team? Probably the two most famous examples of a “team” in the truest sense of the word in the peloton today are CSC and Postal/Discovery. Both teams are famous for the individual devotion to team goals.
That’s all well and great. It may be your job if you’re a pro, but what is in it for most of us weekend warriors to spend loads of money and time training, wake up early, drive for hours, and then spend a race riding for somebody else to get the upgrade points and the little prize money available? Like it or not, this is absolutely a valid point and the big 800 kg gorilla trampling over most attempts at club building at the amateur level.
Some suggestions for increasing team cohesion in race settings:
1. Practice, practice, practice! Do your team members even know what a proper leadout entails? How on earth can you set up a proper leadout in a race if you’ve never done it as a group in training? Do this well in practice and you’ll see how much more effective it is than riding solo. More wins/podiums = more money and maybe even a chance to meet podium girls!
2. Have a plan! Don’t just go into a race and “see what happens.” Sit down as a team before the race and have an honest exchange of ideas. What is the best strategy for the race? Who is the strongest for the course? Who’s got good legs? Who can do what during the race? It sounds simple, but it becomes much easier to do even grunt work during races if you know there is a clear purpose behind it.
3. The bottom line. The winner of Le Tour always shares his prize winnings with the entire team and staff, and Armstrong is known to supplement it with an extra bonus from his own pocket. That certainly has a huge effect on team loyalty. How about developing an incentive program that if a certain rider achieves X goal (e.g., upgrades), s/he buys everybody dinner or a swanky pair of Pez socks?
4. Race for a cause. OK, at the end of the day, there is so little money to be won in amateur racing, why even bother fighting over it? Why not make a team decision that every cent of race winnings will be donated to a charity? That way, the entire group is working for a joint cause, a guaranteed way to build cohesion. You can even get really creative, and approach sponsors for an incentive prize to be shared by the entire team if the team garners so many races or a target prize winnings.
In the end, cycling may appear individual to an outsider, but it’s probably the most team of team sports around. So you can choose to continue being an individual, or else you can choose to become the CSC of your local circuit.
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and puts the team game into daily practice running a large research lab full of talented and ambitious students. Stephen’s company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at [email protected].