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The Young Rider

“It’s not how you start that matters, but how you end.”

While growing up racing on the track from an early age (just joking around really), there was always a mate and I against each other. We we’re similar in many ways such as background, upbringing, schooling, mind-set, etc. but also quite different. He was pushed by his parents, I wasn’t. He trained seriously hard, I didn’t. He made sure he had the best equipment, I didn’t. He was in teams, I wasn’t. He won many races, and I won few. Surprisingly though, after our junior days when we both left school, he stopped riding and racing altogether, but I continued. I always wondered why . . .

Even when I look back at my junior year, I went on a training camp for Junior World champs, it would’ve been in Moscow that year, and I really wanted to go. Unfortunately I didn’t make it.  I was really distraught about it, but with some encouragement from some of the senior sprinters and even the selectors (I’ll give them credit for that), I carried on. But when I look at who did make the team, only a few are left riding, and even fewer racing. How strange, and actually, how sad is that – all that talent down the drain, and the promise of a bright future in the sport gone.

If I look at those riders now, each has their own reasons for not racing anymore, and that’s okay. Not everyone wants it; others find it in something else, and some move on to other things like studies and work. I’m sure some couldn’t handle the failure of Junior World Champs (as they came last and 2nd last in pretty much everything), and some stopped shortly after entering the Elite/U23 category, probably for similar reasons.

Nate Koch and Max Levy by Drew Kaplan

One thing stands out about the above – is that in most of these cases, the rider was pushed by someone (parents, coaches/selectors, or even themselves – even I am guilty of the latter in my later years) to achieve results (and I’ll note that this can even be subconsciously), and after failure, they couldn’t handle it and gave up. So the issue to me is not so much that riders are pushed, as that is necessary at times and if done correctly can bring out the best in a rider (note that they are pushed, not others dreams lived through them) is that young riders are not taught to accept, work through and learn from their failures. They are pushed and when they fail, they are patted on the back and hurried on their merry way, instead of helping them understand it and learn from it, to make them a better athlete and person. I think this is the crucial aspect that is missing in youth sport today, and specifically a results driven sport like cycling – not so much a pressure free and results driven environment, as I think that it is necessary for high performance and getting the best out of athletes, but one in which riders are taught how to learn from failure and get the best out of this environment.

They need to be taught that even though they are under pressure to perform, and that is the desirable and favourable result of their hard work – that failure is okay, and even needed, and when it happens, should be supported and embraced. Not everyone can win, and not all of the time; the process of striving towards one’s goals should be embraced as much as the end result thereof.

I want to stress that I support the pressure and results driven environment, I believe it’s necessary to get the best out of an athlete, but also prepares them for life. We must be careful not to raise mentally weak people, as although some schools and institutions have removed the concept of winners and losers, and some with results all together, life certainly has not!

The question of why my mate gave up, while I continued – well I think many factors were in play that contributed to it. I think I’ve mentioned enough reasons as to what could’ve caused it, and the exact reasons are quite vague. An issue I’d rather like to bring up is that of how to raise young athletes to get the best out of them, while at the same time pushing them for results without breaking them physically and mentally, making them quit.

Daniel Grobbelaar

I think if I had to raise a young rider in cycling, or any sport for that matter; I’d do it something like this (note I’m no expert, just an opinion based on some observations and lessons learnt in my life):

Once a rider has taken off their training wheels and started racing, up until the age of 14 or 15, they should develop a love for the sport. So much so that they should be monitored not to do it too much! They should also have balance in between other sports and activities, a good 33% cycling, 34% school (teachers and mom’s smiling now) and 33% other activities. Love and balance far outweigh performance.

From around 15 – 18 years, a rider should be encouraged to choose their preferred discipline (road, track sprinter, etc.) or even another sport if it’s not cycling. From here they can be pushed to train hard and commit to goals like national championships, or even Junior World champs. During this time it is crucial to teach them how to accept, understand and learn from failure. They’ll also develop the characteristics of a champion, as well as others like discipline, commitment, dedication, humbleness, etc.

During this time you’ll also be able to see if they have what it takes to be a real champion (in the sense of going professional), and I mean if they have the mental will in that they actually personally want it. If so, it must be nurtured and developed over time to bring them to this potential.  If not, rather don’t push them for results, let them have fun and enjoy it, and find their own meaning in the sport. Find out their goals, and most importantly, help them to continue riding.

I think the main question that should be asked during these years should not be how many wins, or anything like that, but rather: am I better than I was yesterday – in sport and as a person?

Something else I’d like to note, although it has worked for some, I would encourage the separation of the coaching and parenting roles. One must be one or the other, the coach is about result sand pushing the athlete, getting the best out of them. The parent is there for guidance and comfort on a more human level.

I believe if this is done right, by the time a rider reaches 17-19 years old, they’ll have developed the love of the sport as well as their own personal goals, their own mental toughness and character, discipline, etc. and overall perspective of the sport and of life. They will also through right parenting and coaching have developed humility, genuineness, gratitude, generosity, respect and kindness. All the parents will have to do is play a role of support and guidance.  The coaches will sort out the performance and training aspects. Most importantly they’ll develop the ability to go forward in pursuit of their goals independently fuelled by their own desire.

The bottom line is early success means nothing, it’s soon after forgotten and leaves little to no legacy. I can’t think of any notable junior rider who achieved great success as a junior and stopped after that. But I can think for many who achieved some or no success as a junior but then had a long and successful career. Lifelong riding and love for the sport means everything. It will give memories and emotions comparable to nothing else.

Even if I look at myself, I achieved some half decent results as an elite rider and would not trade that for any results as a junior. Upon that, in one way it would’ve been nice if my parents pushed me more when I was younger, but in another way I’m glad they didn’t as I learnt a lot that way, and also how to get through failure and disappointment to become the best person I can be.

Results as an elite or even veteran and master for that matter mean more than a junior. Look at my previous blog on early success, it can have detrimental effects.  Nurture with patience the talent in your hands, and develop a complete athlete and human being, rather than a one hit wonder soon forgotten.

Sport is amazing and I believe every kid should try many sports, and if they can find one that gives them a break from ordinary life, how wonderful. In some cases it can even be a life saver, taking them away from bad influences. Maybe even a chance to be great, to leave a legacy and be an inspiration!

I hope this advice can be applicable to you and your young rider, and that they will develop into the best they can be, but more than that develop their love for the sport and for life long riding, because at the end of the day, their happiness in life should be the main priority.

Matthew de Freitas

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