What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: The Role Of Personality In Performance

Classics season is a showcase of talent. From Flanders to Liege we have a four week window into what it means to be the best in the World. In addition to the obvious physical gifts, there are individual and personality traits that have helped these riders reach such lofty heights. Let’s look at the role of personality in performance.

By Matt McNamara

Professional cycling doesn’t have the luxury of a draft. There is no annual combine to assess talent. Instead we speak of a riders threshold power or VO2max as the keys to success. Unfortunately, for cycling, there aren’t a lot of great stats that can be referenced in making those selections. There is no “on-podium” percentage, or relative-finishing-position across races that has any real statistical merit, so we are left to a mix of physiological measures and perception as guides. This isn’t the case in most other professional sports and perhaps that’s part of the allure of cycling – it really doesn’t operate like most other sports. Yet the quest to find top talent is terribly important to teams and coaches seeking the upper echelons. Teams cannot simply sign a rider on potential alone and invest years in developing that potential in the hopes that it may pay off eventually.

Certainly the physiological characteristics are essential, but there are a host of psychological and personality factors that come into play as well. While sports psychology is well recognized and oft discussed, the role of individual personality traits seems to be less considered at the outset. By and large personality traits, those intrinsic templates we use to view and interact with the World around us, are stable across ones lifetime. Let’s look at a few of the indicators that teams might consider, and that you might want to have a look at for your own development.

The Five Factor Model
Most research on personality references what are called the “Big Five Factors” of personality and their constituent traits:

Openness to experience – ranks the individual as inventive/ curious, appreciative of a variety of experiences versus being more consistent and cautious.

Conscientiousness – compares tendencies towards efficient/organized versus easy-going/careless. A tendency to show self discipline and aim for achievement; planned rather than spontaneous behavior

Extraversion – looks at predispositions towards being outgoing and energetic versus solitary and reserved.

Agreeableness – Ones tendency to be friendly/compassionate and cooperative rather than cold/unkind, suspicious or antagonistic towards others.

Neuroticism – compares nervousness and sensitivity (a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions like anger, anxiety or depression easily) versus someone who is more secure and confident.

By and large these traits are considered fixed and unchanging across time. Of these, conscientiousness is the trait most often affiliated with performance as it considers ones tendency towards self discipline and their drive for achievement against outside expectations and measures. Conscientious individuals are considered thorough, reliable, organized, industrious, and self-controlled, among other traits.

Conscientiousness is not without it’s limitations, however, namely that it relies on factor analysis of associated adjectives and in so doing eliminates those adjectives with few synonyms (and antonyms) from consideration. Another confound is that research has shown that the relative importance of the above qualities will likely vary depending on the type of achievement under consideration. Indeed it has been suggested, for example, that self-control, ones ability to resist temptation, is a poor predictor of very high level achievement, whereas achievement orientation was shown to better predict job proficiency and educational success than did dependability.(1)

Researchers seeking to further understand high achievement, and the traits of star performers, have come up with a novel assessment that, by name at least, seems a perfect measure for cycling – Grit!

Grit is defined as “perserverance and passion for long term goals.”
Tenacity, drive, and determination are related terms, with the key element being a long view towards goal attainment.

Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, is acknowledged as the primary force behind the development of the Grit model. Her primary paper cited six different studies they conducted, each aimed at validating the idea of grit as a predictor of future success.

Duckworth and colleagues developed a self-report scale that attempts to determine individual levels of grit. To establish a viable level of validity the scale had to meet four essential criteria: evidence of psychometric soundness, face validity for adolescents and adults pursuing goals in a variety of domains (e.g. not just work or school), low likelihood of ceiling effects in high achieving populations and a precise fit with the construct of grit.

Research Summary
The first study sought to validate the scale across an open spectrum of respondents and included questions that tapped into an individuals ability to sustain effort in the face of adversity (e.g. ““I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important
challenge,” “I finish whatever I begin”), consistency of interest over time (e.g. “My interests change from year to year” or “I have difficulty maintaining my
focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.”). Items are rated on a 5-point scale from 1 = not at all like me to 5 = very much like me.

Of particular note was the tendency for “grit” to become more ingrained as we age and with higher education levels. Older college graduates demonstrated a higher level of “grit” than younger or less educated ones.

Several of their other studies looked to explore the real world realities of the model. For example it was demonstrated that spelling bee participants who scored higher in grit survived longer in the competition. Grit also proved to be a valid predictor of first year success and retention at West Point Military Academy.

Of course all of this correlation and relevance has some counfounds,chief among them was that the model is built on self-report. For example the answer tracking of the questions on the test are fairly easy to extrapolate in context, which may lead people to answer “how they should” – the so-called social desirability effect.

The second confound is that respondents are asked to reflect on past actions, which are then extrapolated to future outcomes. Of course the fact that different respondents across different populations respond similarly. Finally, the research used select populations and didn’t offer insight into a relationship to other predictors of success like self efficacy and locust of control.

A Familiar Refrain?
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be that it tracks well with Malcolm Gladwell’s writings on expertise (if it’s not familiar, you have some reading to do!). Gladwell’s summary noted that expertise is derived from continuous effort and focus –
10, 000 hours of it! Indeed, Ericsson and Charness (1994) concluded that in chess, sports, music,and the visual arts, over 10 years of daily “deliberate practice” set apart expert performers from less proficient peers and that 20 years of dedicated practice was an even more reliable predictor of world-class achievement.

Performance is all too often ascribed to physical talents and physiological gifts alone. Certainly there are a vast array of psychological components that set the star rider apart as well. Into the mix steps the work of Angela Duckworth and the role of Grit. Grit is defined as perseverance and passion towards long term goals. Grit is a personality trait that has been shown to be a strong predictor of overall success. From spelling bees to West Point, individuals who score highly on the “grit scale” are more adept at the long game of deliberate practice that ultimately results in expertise and achievement.

1. Duckworth, Petersen, et al “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long Term Goals. Personality Process. 2007
2. “The Emotional Quarterback” – Jonah Lehner, Wired Magazine Online April 6, 2011

About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He spends inordinate amounts of time reading about cycling and science and not nearly enough time actually riding. You can find him on www.facebook.com.. Facebook.

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