Henry Ford. Orson Welles. Thomas Edison. James Polk. George Patton. Steve Jobs. Walt Disney. Jeff Bezos. Sam Walton. Graeme Obree. Each of these men made many enemies. They were called "micro-managers" and "control freaks", but in the history books they are remembered mainly as innovators and game-changers. Each of them revolutionized their respective fields because they found ways to take control of factors that their peers took for granted as out of control. A look at the most successful entrepreneurs, politicians, scientists, artists, athletes, educators and leaders in nearly every field reveals that those at the top leave little to chance.
In the 1966, Julian Rotter, one of the country's leading psychologists, published an article in "Psychological Monographs ", which spelled out his theory of "Locus of Control". Rotter used a forced choice questionnaire to score people on a scale of empowerment. On one end of the scale are those that believe that life is what they make of it, they can get anything they want if they're willing to work for it, they're in control of our own destiny, etc. On the other end are those that believe that they are bound by luck, circumstance, genetics and fate and that they're own actions mean nothing. Most people of course, lie somewhere in between these two extremes.
Athletes usually tend to view life as a bit more under their control. The fact that they train would be the first piece of evidence of that. Athletes understand that they push themselves they should improve, and they are constantly looking for ways to push themselves harder and more appropriately in order to improve more quickly and in the right ways. At the same time, most agree that performance is not simply a matter of good training and "who wants it the most". To a large extent genetics determine how we respond to the training, and as much as we like to say "you make your own luck", the importance of luck or chance cannot be completely ignored.
One could make a convincing argument that we are all products of fate. This is to say that we are essentially sophisticated robots. The probability that we react to a situation in a given way is pre-determined by the computer program that is our genetic code. That code may be changed over time based on experience, but it still binds us to react a certain way to a given stimulus. If this is true, we have no more free will to make choices in our lives than we have free will to stop our hearts from beating.
I cannot prove this theory wrong, but I can say that personally I am unable to believe it. I believe that we do have choice, if only because it's what I need to believe in order for this universe to make sense to me. I also think that most of society agrees with me. After all, if they didn't, how could we punish people for crimes they commit? The justice, educational and economic framework of our civilization all depend on the one simple idea: free will.
At the same time, it can be dangerous to attempt to control too much. In bike racing and in life, there are some things that just can't be controlled. You can't control the weather, the course conditions, how strong your competitors are or what they decide to do. While it's important to be aware of all of these things, attempting to control them will only leave you frustrated. Too many athletes spend too much time worrying about the things they can't control while neglecting factors they can control. So let's start there...
Things I can control:
- What I do for training
- What I wear on rides
- What and when I eat and drink
- What equipment I use (tires, gearing, crank length, bar width, saddle choice, etc.)
- How much sleep I get
- How I communicate with my coach, teammates, family, partner, etc.
Now, some of you may already question these. "But my coach tells me what to do for training", you say. "I don't have enough clothing or equipment options", you protest. "I can't just choose to get more sleep... I have to __________ [fill in the blank: work, study, clean, make phone calls, spend time with my family/friends, watch TV]" you argue. These are the arguments of someone that refuses to take responsibility for their own life. With regard to a coach, a coach is an advisor but ultimately it is your responsibility to do your training or to communicate why you can't. The same principle is true if you hire a lawyer, accountant, interior decorator or wedding planner. You pay these people for their advice but at the end of the day it is your life.
As far as clothing and equipment, you always have choices. If you don't have the money to buy a new cassette, see if you can buy a used one at a bike swap. If you don't have the money to buy a new winter cycling jacket, see if you can buy or borrow one from a teammate that isn't using theirs. When there's a will there's a way. With sleep, I don't want to imply that you should try and get 9 hours sleep every night even if it means that you are late for work or school, don't feed your family or you don't spend any time relaxing at the end of the day. Just keep in mind that you always have a choice, it's just a matter of how you prioritize. Being 100% focused on training to the exclusion of everything else in your life will inevitably lead to burnout, but the vast majority of us can find ways to get enough sleep without feeling "off-balance" if we only plan ahead a little better.
I already mentioned some of the things that are firmly in the category of "Out of your control": the weather, who your competition is, course conditions, etc. The biggest category though is the factors that are partially, but not fully under your control...
Things I can partially control
- I can't control if I get a flat tire or not, but I can control which tires I use, when I replace them and what pressure I pump them to. I can also choose to take better lines, ride on "cleaner" parts of the road and improve my handling skills in order to avoid punctures and pinch flats.
- I can't control how I will feel at the beginning of a race, but I can give myself the best chance for success by eating a good breakfast, getting an appropriate warm-up and doing everything I can to put myself in a positive mindset.
- I can't control if someone crashes in front of me, but I can control who I ride behind, how closely I draft them, and I can try to give myself an "escape route" if they crash or do something unpredictable
- I can't control if I get sick, but I can get a flu shot every year, wash my hands and take emergen-C when I am exposed to a lot of germs. I can also choose to skip a workout or cut it short if I feel like I am getting sick.
- I can't control how fast/well I can recover, but I can try to drink my recovery drinks, eat a healthy diet, try to sleep well, wear compression tights, stretch and get massages when possible.
- I can't control how my body will respond to training, but I can pay attention to the signals that my body is giving me and make smart choices about when to push harder or ease up. I can also talk to my coach whenever I am unsure about whether I need to ease up or push harder.
- I can't control the workouts that my coach assigns me but I can choose to communicate with my coach better about how I feel and ask questions about things I don't understand. Ultimately, if I don't fully trust my coach I can get a different coach.
- I can't control whether I get nervous before or during a race, but I can work on managing that fear and anxiety better. I can work on meditation, breathing, and focus. I can also see a sports psychologist if this anxiety becomes paralyzing.
- I can't control how strong my competitors are and what they decide to do in a race, but I can learn to predict it better and I can choose how I react.
- I can't control how the field will react when I attack but I can be smart about when I choose to attack and I can choose to either fully commit or to back off.
My advice is this: sit down and take a good hard look at the things that hold you back. Be honest with yourself. Consider every possible angle: VO2 max, muscular strength, recovery, muscle composition, nutrition, anxiety, focus, finances, emotional support, equipment, motivation, illnesses, injuries, metabolism, or anything else you can think of. Sometimes these factors will be fully in your control, sometimes completely out of your control. Most likely though, there are some elements in your control that you can work to improve. Even if there are factors that are out of your control, you can at least understand them better so you can make sure they don't control you. Don't be a victim or a slave to circumstance. Empower yourself.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!