Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Improving Through "Failures"


Goal-setting is an important facet of cycling. We're all looking to improve, go faster, drop the competition on climbs. Documenting performance targets – whether it's holding a certain power level in training or getting a result in a specific event – is a great way to keep us focused on concrete outcomes.

Goals should be difficult, but possible, to attain – that's what gives value to any success. Along the way, we're inevitably going to run into our share of failures as well. None of us will will every race or, maybe we'll get sick right before the big event for which we were preparing so diligently.


The importance of mental toughness for an athlete can't be overestimated. Cyclists, who tend to be a Type-A+ lot, seem to beat themselves up more than most for bad results or miscues. But it's those who can keep performances in perspective, not get too down on themselves, and find the positives in any event experience are the ones who stick with the sport and come back better.

Cycling is a complicated sport with innumerable factors contributing to an outcome – it's pretty tough to get it all right. If you can learn from mistakes or poor performances, you'll improve. What could you have done better? Did you pace yourself appropriately and conserve energy when possible? Did you have mechanical issues? Could you have done better with nutrition? Is there a weakness that you can work on in your training?


I've certainly had more than my share of failures in this early season. I got dropped like a lead weight by the impressive Pro field in the San Dimas stage race. Then, things went from bad to much worse in Redlands when, while working my butt off to chase the receding peloton, my race came to an abrupt halt when I T-boned into a Prius which was crossing the course.


My next race was the four-stage Cherry Blossom Classic back in Oregon and I expected it to be a bit less sickeningly-fast. The fields weren't as stacked, but there were still several pros setting a rough pace. I struggled towards the end of the long climbs on the first road stage – and the fact that I was racing on my 'cross bike, since my road frame cracked in my crash, likely didn't help my cause. Coming into the stage three crit I was having serious doubts about my future as a bike racer. I had a great race, was really active, and made all the right moves to wind up on the podium in 3rd. It didn't make up for previous misfires, but I definitely felt somewhat revived and re-inspired.


When I say that it's important to find the positives in an experience that may be a “failure” - I'm not implying that these let-downs didn't get to me. I was really pissed not to have performed as I'd hoped. But I will say that the experiences served as a real wake-up call. I emerged from this stint of racing hungry to train harder and to make amends.


I could see that my endurance was very good and that my top-end was solid as well – but my power to weight was not where it needed to be and I hadn't done enough of the really sharp efforts with limited recovery before these throw-down events. Working on getting lean and hitting midweek training races will hopefully help to prepare me for my next big race block, culminating with the Tour of the Gila.


Sports psychologist Marvin Zauderer has written an excellent series of mental training articles for Pez Cycling News. His assessment of failure is no exception and is well worth the read.



Sometimes, success and failure are black and white: you reach your goal or you don't. But sometimes there are shades of gray – degrees of success and failure. So when you're on the bike and you don't reach your goal, see the whole experience. Consider anything else you accomplished, anything else you felt, anything else you improved. Instead of seeing an experience only as failure, you might be aware that you also finished, felt strong, felt stronger than you ever have, stayed with the group longer, took some corners much better than usual, learned more about your strengths and limiters, or were grateful that you could be out riding when others couldn't. And sometimes, you may not need to define falling short of your goal as failure. Perhaps true failure, for you, is simply not giving it everything you've got.

Be careful; this is not about “spinning” failure to yourself so you don't have to feel bad. It's about seeing the whole experience clearly and telling yourself the (whole) truth.

Photo via Oregon Cycling Action & flikr by ericfolz.

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