Performance is a tricky thing. One moment you’re on top of the world, the next you’re questioning why you ever got involved with your chosen sport in the first place. Everyone experiences low points with their health and fitness, even professional athletes like Rally Cycling’s Emerson Oronte and Lily Williams.
In cycling, there’s this concept of ‘form’, the idea that a rider’s abilities ebb and flow, with lots of attention paid to reaching peak form at just the right moment. But of course, where there are peaks, there must also be troughs.
Oronte explains that these troughs, while natural, are far from enjoyable.
“It’s not fun, I guess that’s probably the most obvious thing to say. I think for me personally I always try to remind myself that ‘in the moment’ is not the best time to assess things. You never think clearly when things are going wrong.”
Williams, who is bidding for selection to Team USA at the Tokyo Olympic Games later this year, adds.
“It’s easy to focus on the bad sessions, especially when you’re tired, but there’s always a positive to look back on. If I’m nervous about a session, I think back to the 20 sessions I’ve done before where I did well. Or remember having completed a session when I felt bad.”
It’s helpful and healthy to get a little bit of distance before assessing what’s going wrong.
“The best time to take stock is a couple of days afterward,” says Oronte. “I’m usually back home in my own bed, I have some time to catch up on some lost sleep – I’m not this grumpy, moody person who is in a dark place.
“Once I can look at something more objectively, I can make a better judgment as to why it went wrong.”
Don’t use a t-shirt as a towel
Oronte emphasizes the importance of balance in one’s life if one is to perform athletically, or as he puts it, “you can’t fire a cannon off of a canoe”.
“Your life outside of your job needs to be grounded if you want to be good at what you do,” he goes on. “When I was in college, I used to sleep on an air mattress, and I would essentially couch surf from house to house. It wasn’t until I grew up and signed a lease and I bought a real bed that I had this ‘mysterious’ major boost in performance!”
It’s important to do things away from your sport to give yourself the best possible shot of performing at the highest level, says Oronte.
“I especially see this with younger guys who come over to Europe. They don’t want to spend money on nice sheets, they’re like ‘I can use a t shirt as a towel’, all the stupid things you do and say when you’re 19 and 20. But you should dress for the job you want – your life needs to be more in focus and stable if you want to be successful.”
Williams adds that so much of professional sport is wrapped up in identity, which makes balancing performance and real life especially hard.
“Any kind of failure can feel like you’re failing as a person. It’s taken me a really long time, and honestly, a lot of work with a sports psychologist to overcome that and realize that whatever I’m doing does not define me as a person.”
Williams considers herself lucky to have found a sports psychologist who she really jives with, and their work has been especially valuable during the pandemic and in the build-up to the Olympic Games.
“The things that she’s helped me with most this year are self-awareness and self-reflection. I tend to create a narrative about how I’m feeling – ‘I had a bad session so I’m not going to get selected for the Olympic team’ or ‘I’m not going to perform at the Games’ – just creating all of these ideas around a scenario that doesn’t even exist.
“So we’ve been working really hard to just take things as they come, reframe what’s happening into a positive, and take the focus away from anything negative.”
In a sport like cycling where athletes push themselves to the limit and beyond on a daily basis – often when their bodies are screaming at them to stop – self-doubt can be a major enemy. Oronte uses a simple trick to manage this.
“I try to remind myself that everyone else is suffering too. A great example of that is a race we did earlier this year in Belgium and it was so cold. It was absolutely freezing and I’m sitting in the pack just thinking, ‘this sucks so much, I should’ve played golf’.”
But taking a moment to look around, Oronte saw other riders suffering too.
“I saw a very successful bike racer – a guy who going into the day was a favorite – going back to his car and he was screaming into his mic ‘I need a rain jacket! I need a rain jacket!’ It dawned on me that this guy could win the race and he’s miserable, so you know, I guess I have a right to be miserable as well!”
For Williams, it was what might be considered failure that taught her one of the biggest lessons, proving that even the least comfortable experiences nearly always have a silver lining.
“The hardest times I’ve had as an athlete was when I was a runner and starting to experience the first stages of burnout before eventually quitting and starting cycling. So I think I started cycling from a pretty healthy place having already learned a lot of the lessons on how not to internalize bad performances.”
Don’t beat yourself up
Understanding that we can’t be at our peaks all the time is an important step to becoming better athletes and healthier humans. Self-doubt is natural and normal.
“What goes on between your ears is critically important,” Oronte explains. “To discuss the stresses in your life doesn’t make you weak. I think there’s a stigma that if you talk about things that aren’t going well in your life than somehow, you’re ‘less-than’, but I’ve never believed that to be true. I’m happy to see that as a society we’re starting to accept that more and more.”
It all comes back to that saying as old as time: control the controllable.
“Just take small steps to take care of yourself in whatever way you need in order to thrive,” says Williams. “I think a lot of us are hell-bent on achieving things under the strictest formula because we believe it will bring success, but it breaks people down. You’ve got to allow for a little bit of leeway, relax, and enjoy something outside of the context of success or failure.”