Sport is great. It opens the door to new relationships, teaches you discipline, keeps you healthy, and (in general) is a very productive way to spend one’s time. But sometimes, sport can be tough (physically and mentally)—it can disrupt relationships, cost a lot of money, and cause you to become very “one dimensional” in your life.
I’ve participated in a few sports over the years, but my main hobby, passion, and competitive pursuit is cycling. When I started cycling I was a complete newbie, a Fred if you will. My family had no history of cycling, I didn’t know where to start, I was afraid to wear lycra, and I had no real guiding hand to show me what to do.
This blog post is a self-reflection or journey into the mistakes we make as we’re beginning, what they teach us, and how we can learn from them. Here are five things I wish I’d known when I started cycling (or any sport, really).
The importance of joining a club
The things you learn on your local group ride are vast and varied. These include how to ride in pacelines, how to handle your bike, how to fuel on the bike, what to wear, how to change a tube, etc. You’ll also go further and longer with a group due to saving energy in the slipstream and the friendly competitive environment.
I rolled up to my first group ride in shorts and a jersey when it was close to freezing outside! I was quickly told how to dress and was offered an old kit, and every week I went back I learned something new. Leave your ego at the door.
The dangers of developing a strong athletic identity
Athletic identity is the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role and looks to others for acknowledgement of that role . Are you basing your whole social circle, life, and general day-to-day activities around your chosen sport? Don’t get me wrong, this can be very indicative to success in sport if balanced in the right way, but when you go to the extreme it leads to isolation from friends and family, difficulty dealing with times when rest is required (injury), and a general sacrifice of more important things in your life.
Keep in touch with your non-cycling friends, take a break from racing and do things with them, and go to family events. This hit home when I was out injured for over three months and I had nowhere to turn—my whole social circle depended on me racing and training.
Sport is expensive, support your local shop
It’s the day before a race, you’ve broken a spoke, you have no spare, and you don’t know how to fix it yourself. Thankfully you’ve been supporting your local shop for the last four years and they’ll gladly dig you out of this hole. If you haven’t, well, tough luck! It’s also important to learn the basics—ask mechanics or experienced riders in your club how to do the small maintenance jobs, and this could save a race for you and even a few dollars.
Youth riders take note—you don’t need the best equipment to compete. A good frame that fits, a helmet, and a kit is all you need to race. Don’t look to the riders beside you with the best gear and think you’re already beaten. Look at it as a challenge and use your tactics and strength to compete—think of how grateful you’ll be when you save up for those wheels or get a Garmin! For now, they’re nice to haves not need to haves!
Mix up your disciplines and don’t specialize too early
Cycling is great because there are so many ways to do it—road, BMX, mountain bike, track, cyclocross, and variations of them all! We all benefit from mixing up disciplines. Changing it up helps us mentally, teaches us fundamental skills that transfer across to your favored disciplines, and is generally fun. This is even more important for kids.
Don’t commit to one sport from a young age, as research has extensively linked early specialization to burnout in youth sport. If you play football, love swimming, and love riding your bike, then keep them all up and vary your commitments throughout the year. Having a diverse sporting profile builds resilience, creates a more rounded athlete, and ultimately helps in retaining participation once a “favorite” sport has been chosen.
You need to like what you’re doing
Intrinsic motivation is the motivation that comes from within, and is an internally-driven process. We all love winning and competing against others, but your real reason for participating in the sport needs to be one of love, joy, and satisfaction. It doesn’t always have to be fun, but it sure does help.
We want to be in sport for life, and prevent quitting when results don’t go our way. Dropout is massive in certain transitions (such as junior to under-23), but having a love for your sport and understanding the rest of the points outlined here really does help to retain longevity!
Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., & Linder, D. E. (1993). Athletic identity: Hercules’ muscles or Achilles heel?. International journal of sport psychology.