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Heads First

It’s no secret that cycling, like all sports, has its issues and flaws. I have some suggestions that may be of benefit to cycling and its cyclists.

With Team Manitoba, we had access to a sport psychologist. During the long winter, we’d occasionally, maybe once or twice over the winter, have a group session where we discussed the importance of healthy minds. With new athletes every year though, the sessions would more or less be repeated. Nothing was discussed in-depth, as there were athletes of all levels and ages, and many parents present. I took one important lesson away from those seminars though, but I only learned the true meaning of it years later.

“What percentage of sport is mental?” We were asked. We yelled out our guesses, which were more or less “50 percent!”

“Sport is 100 percent mental. Without your mind, your body and its physical potential is nothing. You need to be there mentally to be there physically.”

Now, when I look back on this statement, I see its value. While I had agreed with it then, I didn’t realize that it meant that it might be more important to train and lead with your mind than with your body. The focus is so much on the physical that the mental might be running the risk of being neglected. I wonder if young athletes could be taught this more meaningfully and effectively.

I believe that from a young age, athletes in all sports need to have access to a counsellor with a background in their sport. Furthermore, young athletes need to be encouraged, and given regular and normalized, opportunities to discuss their mental health and whatever may be troubling them. A proper open team discussion during which athletes could voice their concerns would help to create an extremely healthy environment. We should be encouraged not only to push ourselves as hard and determined athletes, but also to let down our barriers and be humans, possibly kids.  Whether an athlete is frustrated with their team mates for not pulling through in a race, or they’re feeling burnt out or anything else, they should be encouraged to talk about it. In my opinion, this would help athletes to relate better with one another, and in turn become closer knit and better performing.

Despite having access to a sport psychologist, I didn’t really understand his role. For example, I didn’t know that I could have benefited from telling him that I was finding it hard to handle the pressure of defending my national cyclocross title. Perhaps he might have introduced me to strategies to better cope with the pressure that I put on myself. Or, he could have helped me reduce the pressure I put myself under. I could have reduced my level of stress and prevented my different stresses from compounding and ultimately becoming too great to handle. I had no idea that I didn’t have to do it all on my own.

 2015 Cyclocross Nationals. Photo by Alex Rougeau of  http://www.mostlyscrambles.com/

2015 Cyclocross Nationals. Photo by Alex Rougeau of http://www.mostlyscrambles.com/

And that’s the key, I think. From a young age, we need to be taught that we aren’t alone. I strongly believe that if I started speaking about what I felt internally before I really needed to, I may never have ‘really’ needed to. All ‘this’ might have been avoided.

Cycling holds many secrets. Many cyclists feel the need to be secretive about their salaries. Doping is also always a scary and secretive subject.  But one of the most profound and conceivably darkest secrets that I feel has been kept until relatively recently is that cycling is perhaps a sport with one of the highest rates of depression.

Since starting this blog, I’ve had countless cyclists of all ages confess that they’ve had similar struggles. There almost invariably comes a point when a passion becomes a job, or the hardships of cycling become too much to handle and we begin to question what else might be out there. Out of fear most people don’t talk to their coaches or peers about it. They’re afraid that it’s not normal to have doubts or feel sad. They don’t want to be seen as weak or be associated with the stigma that persists around mental health. Cyclists keeping secret the little issues they have in their lives, on and off the bike, run the risk of crashing into something major when much bigger secrets will have to come tumbling out.  

Mental health is a subject that remains largely taboo. Clara Hughes has done a lot of work towards ending the stigma attached to mental illness with Bell Let’s Talk Day. I believe more needs to be done on a smaller, more intimate scale, with a possibly preventative orientation. Teams and clubs need to provide resources to all athletes, especially young and highly competitive ones. We need to train our minds to keep ahead of our bodies.

 Last night was pretty so I figured I'd share this picture too!

Last night was pretty so I figured I'd share this picture too!