What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Leading and Following

Your teammates aren’t cooperating enough in races. A fellow rider is at risk – or is putting others at risk – but is unaware. The peloton needs organization to catch the breakaway. Both on and off the bike, you have many opportunities to influence other cyclists for their benefit, for yours, and for the good of the team/group. The mentally fit cyclist uses leadership skills to seize those opportunities and improve the cycling experience.

By Marvin Zauderer

In last month’s Sport Psychology column, we continued our series on the effects of relationships on sport performance. We took a look at your relationship with yourself: the support you need to give yourself in order to achieve your cycling goals, what gets in the way of supporting yourself fully, and how to rise above those difficulties. This month, we explore your opportunities to influence others who can have an effect on your – and your team’s or group’s – performance, fun, and results in cycling.

The TV show Glee follows the relationships, rehearsals, and singing/dancing competitions of a fictional high school glee club. Strangely enough (at least to me), I’ve become a big fan of the show. Besides the fact that I’ll watch anything with the actress Jane Lynch in it, I’ve been hooked by the poignant – albeit often cringe-worthy – illustrations of the mental/emotional obstacles that so many of us face in training and in competition.

While watching yet another episode recently, I heard one of the characters, Rachel, say to one of her teammates, “I don’t want to compete against you. I want to compete alongside you.” I immediately flashed on a friend’s story of a recent race. In recounting a lengthy list of frustrations with his teammates’ lack of teamwork, he finished by saying, ruefully, “and then, at the end, we were six guys sprinting against each other.”

Organizing a lead-out in a race, forming a paceline in a charity ride, creating an alliance with a competitor, rallying a chase group, stepping into a “protected rider” role on your team, even getting a training partner to do intervals with you: all are opportunities to improve cooperation and results. Yet inspiring, instructing, or directing fellow riders to work together in a race or ride is only one type of opportunity you may have to lead others. Whether you’re on or off the bike, you’re frequently interdependent with other cyclists, and thus you may have many opportunities to assert your leadership in our sport. Let’s look at some of the others.

First, you may decide or suspect that a fellow rider is at risk and that you’re in a position to speak up about it. This could include a rider who:

• Is overtrained, burned out, or depressed. Irritability, anxiety, lowered mood, over- or undersleeping, over- or undereating, substantial negative thoughts or feelings about him/herself, unexplained physical complaints, the “winter blues,” and losing interest in riding can all be at-risk signs. Fortunately, it’s reversible, and sometimes quickly so.

• Has, or may have, an eating disorder. Examples of signs include: Refusing to maintain a minimally normal weight, having intense fear of gaining weight or “becoming fat,” having a distorted view of one’s body or weight, denying the seriousness of low weight, undue influence of one’s weight or shape on self-evaluation, binge eating, and compensating inappropriately for binge eating. At least unhealthy, and perhaps dangerous.

• Continues over a significant period of time to be profoundly affected cognitively or emotionally by a traumatic event, such as experiencing or witnessing a crash. Some of the possible cognitive signs: Difficulties with memory or attention/concentration, headaches, slowness in thinking. Some of the possible emotional signs: Intense distress when presented with cues (eg. descending) that evoke the traumatic event, hypervigilance, flashbacks, avoiding talking or thinking about the event, and increased irritability or anger. Awful, but treatable.

• Is dependent on – or at least abusing – drugs or alcohol.

Secondly, you may see that a fellow rider puts you or others at physical risk. This might be a rider who:

• Has any of the cognitive or emotional symptoms above that cause difficulties with attention, concentration, and other aspects of safe (and sane) riding;
• Even without the symptoms above, rides unsafely (eg. looks continuously at adjacent riders while training, dives into corners in a criterium);
• Violates rules (e.g. crosses the centerline) in a race.

Third, you may notice a rider whose attitude threatens or hurts the team’s/group’s morale. For example, a rider who is:

• Whining (e.g. repeatedly raising problems without sufficiently contributing to solutions);
• Isolating himself/herself from the team/group;
• Being selfish (e.g. focusing the team’s/group’s attention disproportionately on his/her needs).

Finally, giving back to the sport may also be an opportunity for leadership. This might include:

• Helping to run your local racing district or cycling club;
• Contributing to bicycle advocacy through a national or local organization;
• Conducting a cycling skills clinic;
• Becoming a USA Cycling certified coach and coaching adult or junior cyclists;
• Volunteering for the national or local high school mountain bike league;
• Mentoring a beginning rider or racer.

Now that we’ve identified some opportunities for leadership on and off the bike, let’s look at some of the leadership skills that you’ll need.

Leadership in Action
Weinberg and Gould, in their book, Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, write that a manager “uses position, rank, and authority to get compliance…. [but] a leader uses influence to create the desire to follow the advice being given.” Paul Hersey’s classic book, The Situational Leader, defines a simple yet powerful model for creating that desire. The key points:

1. Leaders can use “task behavior” in leading others. Task behavior includes “telling people what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to do it, and who’s to do it.” It’s directive.

2. Leaders can use “relationship behavior” in leading others. That’s “two-way communication” that involves “listening, encouraging, facilitating, providing clarification, and giving socioemotional support.” It’s supportive.

3. Leaders apply a leadership style by combining low or high task behavior with low or high relationship behavior. Since there are four unique combinations of those ingredients, there are four styles:

Style 1: High task, Low relationship.
Style 2: High task, High relationship.
Style 3: High relationship, Low task.
Style 4: Low relationship, Low task.

[Think for a minute: Which style do you use the most? The least?]

4. There are many factors that affect a leader’s success. One important factor is the values of the organization: the patterns of behavior in the group, whether purposefully shaped or “organically” grown. The values of the organization can make it easier (e.g. situational leadership is encouraged) or harder (e.g. those that speak up are frequently shouted down) for an individual to attempt to lead.

5. Another important factor is follower readiness: the extent to which a follower has “the ability and willingness to accomplish a specific task.” There are four levels of follower readiness:

Readiness 1: Unable and Unwilling or Insecure
Readiness 2: Unable but Willing or Confident
Readiness 3: Able but Unwilling or Insecure
Readiness 4: Able and Willing or Confident

6. Leaders increase their likelihood of success if they’re effective at assessing follower readiness and at adapting their leadership style to match that readiness level:

• Style 1 (S1) matches Readiness 1 (R1): For a rider who is unable to do what you’d like and also either unwilling or lacking confidence, provide specific instructions and closely monitor performance.

• S2 matches R2: For a rider who is unable to do what you’d like but willing or confident, explain your decisions/recommendations and provide the opportunity to clarify.

• S3 matches R3: For a rider who is able to do what you’d like but is unwilling or lacking confidence, share ideas and involve/facilitate the rider in decision-making.

• S4 matches R4: For a rider who is able and either willing or confident (or both), delegate!

7. Although sometimes you may have position power – a club or team officer, a coach, the team leader on the road – quite often you are likely to have no more position power than any of the other riders. And yet you have personal power – regardless of “position, rank or authority” in the group – to influence others for the good of the group…if you can gain the confidence and trust of those you’re attempting to influence. You have a chance at that if all involved feel you’re working toward shared goals.

8. It is necessary, and at times very powerful, to have a basic, positive belief in the potential of the people you’re trying to lead. Expect and believe that they can get where you want them to go.

A simple and straightforward model, yet it has attracted millions of followers (!), and it can work for you. But what about the obstacles?

What Gets in the Way of Leading?
Many years ago, when I was a youngster in the corporate world, I was lucky to work for Scott, who was not only an effective manager but an effective leader as well. One day, I walked into his office with a(nother) business problem and asked him what to do about it. “Marvin,” he said, “I’m happy to help you with your problems, but from now on, don’t come in here with one unless you have three possible solutions that you’ve considered, and be ready to talk about them with me.”

Scott had position power to rely on – and a great deal more training and experience than I had – when he confronted me in that moment. However, he had also worked hard (and I was definitely a hard case) to develop his personal power with me; he had done many things privately and publicly to build my confidence and trust in him.

Scott was helping me become a leader by making me confront myself. But what was I to confront? Yep, our familiar nemesis, anxiety (and its siblings: fear, stress, tension, pressure, worry, and nerves). And also one of my habitual anxiety-handling strategies: running to Scott, not only to cope with the anxiety but to solve the problem (and thus quickly eliminate the anxiety) as well.

Anxiety and its siblings do frequently get in the way of leading. In a situation where you have an opportunity to assert leadership – in a race, on a ride, in a team meeting – what might you be anxious about? Think about that for a minute. Is it that you’ll end up feeling embarrassed, disappointed, or rejected if your attempt fails? That you’ll be wrong? That you’re entering into conflict? Is it about the possibility that someone will be upset with you, perhaps permanently? About being labelled as a whistle-blower, a pain-in-the-neck, or worse?

Making a leadership move can indeed be stressful; if the stress gets the better of you, you won’t make the move. Your challenge is to manage the stress in a way that serves your growth as a leader and enables you to take action effectively. The Toolbox articles on managing anxiety, handling pressure, self-awareness, building self-confidence, and supporting yourself all have specific recommendations on how to do that.

Another obstacle to leadership is excessive self-involvement. As the Toolbox article on self-interest and cooperation points out, there can be tension in cycling between the needs of the individual and the needs of the team or group. If you respond to that tension by being too focused on your own needs, you may not even see the possibility or benefit of being at all focused on others’ needs, and you may lose an opportunity to lead.

Speaking of others whom you may ride or race with, difficulties with empathy can also pose a significant barrier to effective leadership, particularly if you lack position power. As noted above, situational leadership requires flexing your leadership style based on the personality, needs, strengths, and weaknesses of the rider(s) you’re trying to lead. If “getting” others – or making the choice to “get” others – doesn’t come easily to you, you may need to push yourself to ask others more questions about themselves. And the more diversity in your group or team, the broader your empathic and assessment skills need to be.

Longtime Toolbox readers will recall Jerry Lynch and Warren Scott’s teaching from the Comparing Yourself with Others article:

“When you trace the derivation of the verb ‘to compete,’ you discover that it comes from the Latin word competere,which means ‘to seek together’…. You are both there to teach each other how to be your best.”

Both in competing against others and in competing alongside others, you have many opportunities to be an effective leader. As you seize those opportunities, you turn up the heat, and in that crucible something new – in you and in others – can be forged. Go for it!

About Marvin:

Marvin Zauderer, in his sport performance coaching practice, works with amateur and professional athletes from all sports on the mental skills needed for peak performance. He works in person, by phone, and by Skype, and speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marvin leads the Mental Skills Training program at Whole Athlete, a performance center in Marin County, California that provides a comprehensive set of coaching, testing, fitting, and consulting services to athletes. Having had a 20-year career in high technology previously, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. He is a licensed psychotherapist, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. Marvin would love to hear how you’ve handled situations like those mentioned in this article – you can email him at [email protected]. His website is www.marvinz.com.

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