There are so many 1%-ers, marginal gains, whatever we want to call them, that go into making a champion. It’s largely accepted that it’s not always the rider with the strongest legs that will get the win, and that sometimes victory may even be more a mental game than a physical one. Is it the case that if you win the battle in the mind you can win the battle on your bike? We caught up with Hayden Roulston who told us more.
RC: First of all how much of a rider’s success would you say comes down to mental strength?
Hayden: I think the mental side of things is equally as important as the physical if not more important – especially at the top. Some riders have it naturally, some need to constantly work on it. I believe that our upbringing and experiences shape our mental strength and I see it all the time with young riders – some are very strong mentally and some are not. When I think of myself back when I was riding it would really depend on the situation I was in.
Riding Wiggins in the final at the Rio Olympics I had no belief in myself, I wasn’t ready for that ride then . . . and I lost. On the other hand riding NZ road nationals in Christchurch the years I won I knew I was going to win, I was mentally ready and nothing was going to stop me. At the end of the day it’s the mindset around events that make the biggest difference. Big events just have brighter lights than the smaller ones but in fact the race and more often than not the riders are just the same. You either let those bright lights disrupt you, or in your mind you dim them down and treat it as another race. This is the difference with the big riders I have seen over the years.
RC: When you were riding as a professional who were the types of riders that exhibited particularly strong mental toughness on the bike within teams you were a part of or within the peloton? What was it that set them apart?
Hayden: Over the years I’ve been really fortunate to be in the same team as some of the world’s biggest riders. I rode in Discovery with Lance, Carlos Sastre and Thor Hushovd in Cervelo, Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel with HTC and then Fabian Cancellara and the Schleck brothers at Trek. Fabian is one rider that comes to mind when talking about mental toughness. I was in his team for the last 5 years of my career and roomed with Fabian for two of those years so I got to see first hand how he went about preparing for those big races. One thing that I noticed about him was his calmness, no matter what was going on around him, Fabian was always calm. He was calm off the bike, and was calm going 60km/hr into the Arenberg forest, or going full gas down to the Koppenberg in Tour of Flanders.
I saw the same with Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, Carlos and also Vincenzo Nibali. They all had this sense of calmness and although we are talking about mental toughness I do believe this is a form of it.
In terms of straight out toughness I would have to say Cavendish. He is tougher than nails, he is actually really soft on the inside though, but when the helmet goes on he is a fighter. Thor Hushovd was the same.
RC: How train-able is a good psychological approach to cycling, is there a certain amount of ‘you either have it or your don’t’?
Hayden: I believe everything is train-able, sure some things are harder to train than other things but I think the earlier you start with something the better. From a young age we form beliefs, some of which are limiting beliefs. As we grow older we either get our beliefs challenged or we change them. You see now that our young riders and athletes are having people work with them very early on in their careers to help with the mental side of things, and the sooner you start the better you become. There are still a lot of athletes/people that don’t believe in this sort of stuff, but trust me, when those big bright lights come on it is only the best that rise to the occasion.
RC: You had quite a strong involvement getting the ‘New Zealand Tour de France team’ ready for their challenge last year of riding the whole race one day ahead of the professionals. During the film you talk about how tough the challenge would be on the riders who by their own admission were not cycling specialists; they were just ‘ordinary people’. Aside from training the riders to be physically ready for the Tour, were you able to train them to be mentally ready and if so what went into that?
Hayden: This was a great challenge for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At the end of the day I was limited in what I could do for them from a mental side of things due to all of us living throughout NZ but when we were together I was often talking about how tough it would be for them. I was big on breaking each part of the stage into achievable goals, i.e. not setting off on the first climb thinking you’re a hero and then blowing up. For them to have got through it and overcome the challenges was an amazing feat – I can’t tell everyone enough about how hard this would be to do but they all did it.
RC: We hear about how a rider’s endurance improves with age, is a strong psychological approach to cycling also something that seems to grow over time?
Hayden: I’m not sure I agree with this as much anymore but over the years I have heard this line many times re age and a rider’s endurance. Of course as you get older your body does get stronger, but I think an older rider is just much smarter with their energy. They don’t waste it, they know when to replace it and they are just smarter. Nowadays young riders are also developing much earlier by training the way the pros do – of course not the same duration but they are exposed to similar training methods and are developing much quicker than the old days.
The psychological aspect won’t just naturally improve if you don’t work on it though. The mind is like the body and it needs training too. The best athletes in the world all have people that help them with this stuff, it is so important. I was lucky to really work hard on myself in my early 20’s – I did a lot of sub-conscious work to strengthen my mind and help remove the blocks and limiting beliefs. I wish I was led down this path earlier though, and I guess that is my role now with the athletes I am involved with.
RC: We’ve come through Elite Road Nationals and Track Nationals, some riders will have the results they were looking for and others will be disappointed. What are some of the keys to bouncing back from disappointment and how do you ensure that riders don’t just settle in their success but move forward and use success as a launchpad?
Hayden: In order to move forward both after success and bouncing back from disappointment you have to have realistic goals. You can go as far as you want with this but it is really important that when a rider reaches a goal or is close to reaching one a new goal is set – this is how you keep moving forward. Sometimes goals aren’t reached, that is life but at the same time you learn every step of the way. Sure, not reaching a goal can be disappointing but if you do all you can to reach a goal and fail then you really lose nothing.
In order to overcome disappointment though you’ve got to give yourself time and don’t be hard on yourself.
If you do all you can to achieve a goal and fail then you can be proud. Disappointment with me only came when I failed to do everything in my power to achieve my goal. I see it in young riders now thinking it’s just about the training and for a young athlete you can get away with that. But if you want to make it, and want to be the best then you’ve got to do all the little things right too. From nutrition, to mental training, stretching, maybe yoga, massage, whatever that can help your body be better.
I actually remember once before Milan-San Remo asking Hushovd if he was nervous – his reply to me was that he wasn’t nervous because he had done all he could to get there. He was lean, strong like a bull and had trained super well. He didn’t win that year and I can’t remember where he finished but he wasn’t disappointed after it because he did everything in his power to be in the shape he was in.