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Short-term thinking and athlete development

 

Cycling will forever remain a sport close to my heart. It has given me a great deal, but also taken away a lot. Although I no longer have as much direct contact with teams, cyclists, and managers, I still consult with some riders, stay in touch with others.

 

I'm in the loop about the sport's landscape, team dynamics, mindsets, demands, workloads, triumphs, and challenges.

 

In recent years, cycling has undergone significant changes. Advances in technology, training science, and nutrition have enabled riders to achieve greater levels of performance. But at what cost?

 

It's important to consider the long-term impact of these approaches on cyclists' careers, as well as their physical and mental well-being.

 

Picture this: waking up and immediately stepping on a scale, followed by a precisely measured breakfast based on the expected energy expenditure for the day's stage or training. After eating, it's back on a scale. Then, once more before the stage/training. During the race, nutrition is meticulously planned, with riders consuming 100-120g of carbohydrates. Post-stage, a pre-prepared, calorie-controlled meal awaits, along with another weigh-in. The scale makes a final appearance after dinner. All of this is important for performance, but where is the limit?

 

Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but more and more top-tier teams are going to great lengths to help their cyclists achieve optimal results. In recent years, training and nutrition have shifted towards a heavy emphasis on research, often prioritizing this over the athlete's individual needs, feelings and well-being. It's essential to consider when these measures become excessive, limiting the rider's autonomy to the point of negatively impacting their performance and health. The body holds the answers, if we're attuned to its signals.

 

Athletes are undeniably willing to make significant sacrifices in pursuit of success, demonstrating extraordinary willpower, perseverance, and even stubbornness.

 

However, when such rigid training, nutrition, and lifestyle regimens are imposed, the athlete is faced with unwanted feelings. They may crave ice cream but are forbidden from indulging, told they must resist temptation to succeed. While the results - lower weight, increased power, and improved race performance - are undeniable, the toll on the individual is often overlooked. In many cases, people working with athletes and the athletes themselves don't even realise they are on the wrong track.

 

In today's world, where instant gratification and short-term gains are prioritized, there's little room for a long-term, sustainable approach to athlete development. The focus is on achieving results as quickly as possible, even if it comes at the expense of the cyclist's overall health, happiness, and longevity in the sport. This narrow, hasty way of operating is more characteristic of the left brain hemisphere.

 

The left hemisphere thrives on positive feedback loops, meaning that behaviors (like strict diets and intense training) that yield success and pleasure are repeated with increasing frequency and intensity. More is always better, quickly leading to excess and exaggeration. The left brain is associated with analytical, logical thinking and language, math, reading, and writing skills - traits more typically aligned with masculine energy.

 

In contrast, the right brain hemisphere operates on negative feedback loops, slowing down processes, promoting caution, thoughtfulness, focus, and a holistic view. It sees the big picture and far into the future. The right hemisphere is linked to creativity, spatial awareness, facial recognition, music, art, and bodily sensations - qualities more often associated with feminine energy.

 

Men tend to fixate on goals, pursuing them without fully considering the long-term personal and environmental consequences. Technology and social media also operate on this masculine principle. Balance is key, requiring the engagement of both hemispheres to avoid either extreme of excess, or passivity. The greatest potential for progress lies in the partnership of masculine and feminine energies, working together to achieve equilibrium and optimal growth.

 

Problems arise when the right hemisphere, more attuned to physical sensations, is suppressed. Athletes learn to ignore or push through pain, hunger, cravings, and signals from the body to ease up. By chronically holding tension in the muscles, they weaken the power of these unwanted sensations, as muscle tension reduces the conductivity and permeability of the tissues through which these signals reach conscious awareness. This is called SMA-sensory motor amnesia. The athlete gradually loses touch with their innate sense of what, when, and how much to eat, train, increasingly relying on external cues, recommendations, and regimented plans. Sadly, in blocking out unpleasant sensations, they also diminish their capacity to feel positive ones. Chronic tension leads to rigidity in both body and mind, with the athlete falling into patterns of behavior that have repeatedly proven ineffective or harmful. Creativity, which requires relaxation and parasympathetic activation, is stifled. Misfortune, frequent illnesses, injuries and crashes, due to inflexibility become more and more common.

 

Technology and science are reducing the importance of the athlete's opinions, feelings, desires and needs. Everything can be measured, everything is objective. At least everything that is important for performance. What we don't realise is that the same way of doing things doesn't necessarily have the same effect on an athlete who lives in a healthy environment, with a loving family and relationships, as it does on an athlete who has problems with friends, a girlfriend or wife, a sick child. Feelings and emotions are increasingly less important, also because emotions and mental problems/illnesses are still a taboo subject in many sports. The second reason is that dealing with strong emotions takes time, which we don't have, if we want to get everything done. We are already taught at school to be diligent, sit still and follow the curriculum. Again, we can see that there is very little functioning of the right hemisphere of the brain, which is the home of emotions (except anger). With such functioning, progress would be slower and it would not be worth investing 5 years in a rider to reach the level we can reach in a year or two.

This mindset has far-reaching repercussions, as we risk turning athletes into robots who train and eat according to predetermined plans created by those with no access to their inner world - their emotions, sensations, fears, and doubts. 

 

To endure this, the athlete has to repress and suppress the feelings from the body, and in doing so, he cuts himself off from his essence, his personality, his authenticity, his reality, which is what the body is. Even when he achieves success, he does not get true satisfaction, pleasure, relaxation and the right to rest, because all this comes from the body, whose awareness he has cut off from consciousness. "But when I win this race, I will be happy, and the goal will be achieved", he says to himself. He sets himself higher and higher goals and chases the feeling of happiness, importance, respect, acceptance. But it doesn't come, and he keeps getting confirmation that he's not there yet, that he's not good enough.

 

When problems arise, he goes into even greater overdrive and tries to force the impossible out of his body. He finds it increasingly difficult to do so and falls again and again into the abyss of hopelessness, doubt, injury, illness and depression. This continues as long as the team is there for him, and when the team loses hope, he is left on his own.

 

We need to be aware that every action we take has both short-term and long-term consequences. No action is without consequences. That is why we need both hemispheres of the brain to be functional and to be connected to each other (horizontal connection) and to the body-mind connection (vertical connection). Only in this way can we better determine what is the right way to move forward in the long term, with minimal negative consequences for ourselves, our surroundings, our family, our children, our friends. The body, if we allow it, will give us answers, which are often unpleasant, unwanted and unacceptable, because they are not in harmony with the ego, which always wants more, faster, higher, stronger.

 

The way things are being done now, if nothing changes, will lead to disastrous consequences, and the biggest price will be paid by the athletes themselves and their families. It was 2006 when I took the same approach to nutrition and training, that most World Tour teams practice now. It is difficult or impossible to compare those times with 2024, but what has remained the same is the human body and the laws of physics, which work the same for everyone and do not look the other way, when we make mistakes.

 

Cyclists tell me how they feel, desperate because they do not see their families for weeks at a time, when they are assessed 5 times a day stepping on scales, being told how much food they can eat in a day and being taught what is best for them and their performance. Even when they are doing well in the races, they are empty, desperate, hollow, lifeless inside. 

 

What happened to the child who was content just to "be", to live with his spontaneity and freedom? When did he lose his "being" and grasped tightly to his "doing", because that is all he has left and so he seeks his place in this crazy world where we are all hungry for attention from others, for acceptance, for importance, for understanding and respect?

 


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