Guest Voice Nathalie Novembrini: Diminishing opportunities

Of the 22 teams taking part in the Tour, only a few have so far recorded stage wins or worn one of the jerseys. The second week brings more opportunities, but it is always difficult to win a stage in a grand tour. As a consequence, some riders are bound to feel frustrated that their plans have come to nought. In the third of her four-part Tour series, sports psychologist Nathalie Novembrini considers the effects on the riders. Here’s the issue in a nutshell.

Breakaways and frustration

This Tour de France hasn’t followed its traditional format of a large number of flat stages in week one, followed by some mid-mountains and summits in the second and third weeks. It’s in those mid-mountain stages that breaks often succeed while the GC contenders mark one another and the sprinters’ teams aren’t interested in giving chase.

Typically, riders try to escape as soon as the flag goes down, hoping to take a few others with them even though most of the time they aren’t so confident that they can make it to the end. However, as the time gap grows, confidence and motivation increase and give the riders strength. As the final kilometres approach, providing the breakaway still has a defensible lead, maybe – just maybe – they manage to stay clear.

But races can only have one winner. If the break is a quartet, three riders will end up disappointed. In psychological terms, there may be frustration, an emotional response arising from a perceived hindering to the fulfilment of a personal goal or desire: the greater the will, the greater the frustration. Obviously riders know their limits, so frustration is greatest for whoever comes second and has similar physical characteristics to the winner. For example, Alberto Contador would be more frustrated if he was runner-up to Cadel Evans on a summit finish than if he finished behind Andre Greipel in a bunch sprint.

The most important thing about frustration is not the disappointment itself, which is quite normal, but how a rider reacts to it after the finish. If he starts a process of rumination, he will go over and over in his mind the reasons why he failed. Should he have attacked earlier? Or maybe he could have waited longer before starting to sprint? This is a detrimental process that wastes mental energy and could lead to growing resentment and aggression directed toward himself or to others, depending on who or what he blames for his failure. Remember the unfortunate episode involving Tyler Farrar and Tom Veelers during stage five of last year’s Tour?

The best thing to do in cases of perceived failure is the most difficult to do. The rider has to calmly analyse what happened, which mistakes he might have made and why, and consider in what aspects the other riders were stronger than him. In addition, he also has to recognise what he did well – it is important to underline his own qualities and room for improvement. This kind of analysis is useful not just to lower one’s emotional response, but also to enhance future performance.

Dealing with pain

During a grand tour, crashes, fatigue and injuries are the norm and you often see riders pedalling with bandages, road rash, fractures and wounds that would prevent most other people from getting out of bed. But pain, or the tolerance of pain, is a complex area. It varies in strength and unpleasantness and it isn’t simply related to the nature and extent of tissue damage, but also to neurological and psychological aspects.

Riders have higher pain thresholds than most people who don’t practice sports at professional levels, largely because they are exposed to greater physical training and therefore have a much greater self-perception. They are used to ‘listening’ to their body. They always race at the limit, so they have to be able to understand how far they can take their physical effort before it becomes too dangerous for them. This clearly gives riders a familiarity with pain and an understanding of how to grin, bear and ride with it.

Despair and pain on stage one to emphatic victory on stage 11, Tony Martin (montage: Laura Meseguer)

Despair and pain on stage one to emphatic victory on stage 11, Tony Martin (Montage: Laura Meseguer)

The knowledge that they can tolerate pain gives riders the confidence to overcome it. In addition, there are others psychological aspects, such as expectations of healing quickly thanks to a team’s doctor’s treatment. Also a high level of self-motivation helps to keep the rider in the race. There are more practical motivations, for example related to economic reasons (contract renewal, sponsors’ pressure), but also the will to finish such an important race and to avoid the frustration of a withdrawal.

For example, during this year’s Giro Katusha’s Angel Vicioso crashed but got back on the bike despite three broken ribs, a broken wrist and a cracked shoulder-blade. Vicioso later said he finished the stage because he didn’t want to abandon the race for what might be simple bruising. In this year’s Tour we have seen individual time trial victor Tony Martin (OPQS) closely resemble a mummy after leaving most of his skin in Corsica and Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) continuing to ride with a broken wrist.

Today is another rest day for the riders and they can use this precious time to recover from those mental and physical strains. The Alps await. It won’t be easy for any of them. Sprinters have to deal with time limits, while GC riders are approaching the last showdown. Let the final battles begin.

2 thoughts on “Guest Voice Nathalie Novembrini: Diminishing opportunities

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