Youth development with Amber Pierce
Competing at the highest level of the sport is something few cyclists ever accomplish, but for those that do have the opportunity to race professionally, it’s a commitment of countless training hours and personal sacrifice. It also takes something else, something just as critical as any threshold or VO2 Max numbers: the mental component.
It’s the mental game that Mavic ambassador Amber Pierce says has allowed her to reach the Women’s World Tour and still remain competitive after more than a decade in the peloton. According to Pierce, mental and emotional resilience can easily be overlooked with young riders. “It’s natural to want to train and improve physical talents, yet sometimes the biggest gains can be made in working on the mental skills needed to overcome obstacles that are sure to arise.”
Just prior to claiming the Connecticut State Road Race Championship last month by soloing off the front of the field, Pierce spent a day with junior riders from the Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program (CCAP). “CCAP does so much for the young riders in Connecticut. Over the summer they put on multiple camps for juniors where they stay in the dorms at University of Connecticut. Their goal is to get more kids on bikes, and they've created several youth leagues across all disciplines of the sport,” she told us.
During the camp, Pierce joined a group of around a dozen juniors, boys and girls ranging from 12-14 years old, for their most challenging ride. “We wanted each of the kids to find his or her own limit on the day, rather than just trying to beat each other,” Pierce explained. “After 80 miles, CCAP Coach David Hoyle and I picked two climbs and ramped up the pace until the kids began dropping off our wheels. We waited at the top for everyone. The last kid to crest the hill was gasping for air, and pretty much fell over in the grass. The other kids saw him, looked at each other, and said, ‘Respect.’ He had clearly achieved the goal of digging as deep as he could! There were no egos involved; the whole group supported each other in finding new personal limits. It ended up being such a positive way for each of them to find a new data point of progress.”
After the ride, which tested the physical ability of the kids, Pierce talked about another major component of success, and not just on-the-bike success. She told the group, “It was a long time after I was in sport that I considered the mental side, and that I could train that component. I’ve found it’s the most important thing in sport and is translatable to anything you do in life.”
Pierce shared three key pieces that have allowed her to improve and train her mental game:
- Focus. A moment of distraction can make or break a race. When you’re not focused in a time trial, you slow down; in a road race, you lose position or miss the move. The great thing about focus is you can train it like a muscle. I was a swimmer in college, and our coach once asked us to swim just one lap of the pool with 100% focus. As soon as your mind wandered, you had to stop where you were and start over again. Not one of us could complete a single lap. That made me realize how much we have to work at focusing and bringing the mind back to the moment. One thing I work on when doing shorter intervals is to focus hard during each interval, such as counting your pedal strokes or rhythm of breathing. Then during the rest interval relax your mind as well. You’ll get better at noticing when your mind wanders. No one can focus 100% all of the time, but you can learn to more quickly bring your mind back, to minimize those inevitable episodes of distraction.
- Grit. When you’re in that moment and you feel yourself coming up on your limit, how much harder can you go? The mental strength to push a little more is when grit comes into play. What do you tell yourself in these moments? Is your mind helping you or limiting you? Grit is another mental skill you can train. Positive self talk is an important tool to quell the self doubt that can arise when you’re really pinned in a race or during a hard effort. I think about the positive words I would say to a friend if I were encouraging her in a similar moment. Finding a mantra that works for you can also be a great tool to help you quiet doubt and fear to face the challenge.
- Resilience. Recognize that you’re going to have challenges and setbacks, but that you can bounce back from them. Learning to “control your controllables” is a great tool to train resilience. First you must recognize what is and is not within your control. Let go of what you can’t control, and focus your energy and attention on what you can control. You can’t control the weather, but you can control equipment choice and wear the appropriate clothing. You might not be able to control the challenges and setbacks that befall you, but you always control how you respond. One of the best ways to remain resilient is by developing a positive support network with coaches, family, and friends around you -- people who have your best interests at heart and can be there for you through difficult times. A big part of becoming more resilient is learning how to ask for help when you need it!