Feeling let down?

Ask MrsAB and it is an understatement to say I was disappointed on Saturday afternoon. A hard day’s work photographing a wedding and I receive a text with the news that Mark Cavendish had not won the Olympic road race. Not only that but the gold medalist is a cyclist who, despite his panache, is clouded by controversy. No, I was pretty dejected. But if I was, imagine being in the shoes of the five Team GB riders who put their all into that day’s racing. And then imagine being told that despite working so hard and against the spoiling tactics (for want of a better phrase) of your main opponents, you are labelled failures. And this, less than a week after one of those riders had won a certain French bike race, one had finished second and another had capped off 3 stage wins with his 4th in a row on a Parisian Boulevard. Fickle barely does this justice.

So let’s look at this from two perspectives of how to let down your nation.

The first is the way that teams rode the race. The British quintet rode with one thing in mind: getting Mark Cavendish to the line in a position to unleash his trademark sprint. They rode on the front of the race for most of the day and once the break had gone worked tirelessly to bring this back. In doing so they were helped little by others in the race. Put quite bluntly, some nations chose to lose the race themselves so that Cavendish didn’t win  either. If I was a fan from one of those nations rather than gleefully celebrating the disappointment of your opponent I would be feeling slightly let down by my team’s negative tactics. But that is bike racing, of which more in a moment.

The second persepctive is through the eyes of our own nation’s media. In the days leading up to the race Mark Cavendish had been portrayed as not just an odds-on favourite for the gold medal but a dead cert. How the press fuel the fires of confidence. Even the IOC President was reported as wanting Cavendish to win. No pressure there then.

Criticism of Mark Cavendish & Team GB

Voluminously negative headlines

So what happens when we “lose”. WalesOnline described Cavendish as a “flop”. The Sun’s well known cycling commentator Steven Howard claimed “the much-hyped home road race team miscalculated woefully to ruin our first big Golden dream”. The Daily Mail’s take: “In the morning they had already hung the gold medal around his neck. By the afternoon Mark Cavendish had sloped away from The Mall, his Olympic dreams in tatters.”  Build them up and throw them down.

Yet the BBC gets top marks for letting us down the most.  “Cavendish and co disappoint in road race” was the headline of the BBC Sports Editor’s blog piece. Cycling has consistenly delivered, he say, but “something clearly went wrong for the ‘Dream Team’ on the 250km circuit”. For us cyclists there was no one thing that went wrong, the race unfolded and the games within games within games unravelled. For those new to cycling it looked messy and that’s preceisley what a bike race is. But our journalists are more used to reporting on the success of our teams who play in more simple sports like football: two teams on a pitch defending one goal whilst attacking the other. Only cycling isn’t like that. Follow this analogy and you have upward of five or six teams and goals on the pitch, you know you have to strike at one and defend another but you aren’t sure which is which. And then they throw a few more balls at you to make life “interesting”. That’s cycle racing. Add in the weird alliances formed by differential team sizes and having your normal work colleagues riding for the other sides and it is clear to see the complexity of this “game”. I doubt David Bond has paid much attention to these complexities as they get in the way of a suitably critical and pithy piece.

Rather than report on the facts and provide measured and informed analysis, our press in large parts chose to drive heightened expectation and blame individuals rather than events when this failed to materialise. It seems some of our journalists have a lot to learn when it comes to sport, just as some of their colleagues have much to learn when it comes to everyday life. The success of the Olympics is measured in precious metal collections rather than effort, another colonial push, another expected right. A nation is left expectant and let down when it fails to deliver. Of course we want success but let’s savor that when it happens rather than before. And if it doesn’t instead of blaming our hard working athletes, the decision of officials, the course on which they ride or even the weather, let’s accept that this is sport, it is life, that we cannot plan its every turn.

The only people who have let us down are those sections of the press who build our athletes up and drop them when they fail to meet those expectations. Under a veneer of respectability they act like cyber trolls but get away with it unless we begin to ignore their callous calls. Whilst I feel disappointed by the result of this one race, I feel great pride in our riders. I just feel totally let down by our press and media – but what’s new with that?

Paul’s account of the way his mind works in relation to what others think of him is both scary and reassuring in its similarity to my experiences. Some sage advice which I’m going to revisit in this ongoing battle.

Dippyman

First published by Young Minds UK

When I was a small boy, my granddad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

“I want to be Paul Brook,” I answered firmly and decisively. It sounds a pretty easy ambition for someone called Paul Brook to achieve, doesn’t it? But only now that I am nearly 36 and have my own children, who are the same age as I was when I made that statement, do I realise how hard – and how important – it is just to be myself.

I’m slowly emerging from two-and-a-half years of depression, during which time I lost myself in a downward spiral of stress, worry, anger, self-loathing and negative thinking. This is the dark underside of my character ruled by Paul Brookes, my evil misspelt alter-ego. I’m blessed and cursed with a vivid imagination. The blessing is that I have a creative…

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Admission is more than half the battle

Dealing with the inner gremlins first requires self recognition, though preferably before the problems get too big.

On firing up the computer this morning I noticed this tweet from Adrian Timmis

Every athlete should read this, male as well as female RT @Hollie_Avil: I’ve decided to end my career as a triathlete.. http://t.co/OpFpzCdf

Out of curiosity I took a look. Although Adrian’s tweets are always informative and interesting I had my suspicions it would be about training, coaching or worst still saddle positions. So I was even more pleasantly surprised to read Hollie Avil’s story of how the pursuit of her sporting dreams led to misery. As she says herself

Don’t get me wrong. I have had some amazing experiences in triathlon. I leave the sport as an Olympian, a double world champion, a national champion and also someone who was once ranked world No 1.

But those great times do not outweigh the miserable times. I don’t want to risk my health again, not just my mental health, but my physical health.

I want to be happy.

For me this article is important for three reasons. The first is that, again, it highlights the role that expectations – and especially the expectations of others – play in shaping who were are and what we become. The second is the feelings of isolation that are brought on by both the cause of the problems (in this case the expectations of coaches as well as the feelings of lack of control) and . But the third, and for me the most poignant, is the role that self admission plays in finding a way out. Whatever the problem, without owning up to it yourself there are few ways to let others in who can help, especially when the problems are often locked inside your own head. But with alarming familiarity Avil admits that her cry for help cam, if not too late then at a point which made dealing with it harder.

In February 2011, I finally made a cry for help, admitting everything to Joce[Brooks]and my parents. This time I was too far gone and we had to work so hard to get me better.

Admission is much more than half the battle. By the time you’ve reached that point the problems feel ten, maybe a hundred times worse and the way out seems so hard. It can feel like you’re being attacked from all sides. But in admitting to these problems yourself you open up a world of possibilities even if they don’t seem so clear at the time. I know, I’ve been there and some of you have been with me on all or part of the journey. So here are some words of encouragement:

I believe life has chapters and this is the end of one of mine.

Although I am sad to be hanging up the race shoes, I’m proud of what I’ve overcome.

Failure, redemption, life at the top

Is it lady luck or the onlookers who are fickle?

Tom Boonen

Unsinkable Sports Idol?

This month’s Procycling magazine fanfares the return of Tom Boonen, or as they put it

The revival of Belgium’s unsinkable sports idol.

Quite some sub headline for a rider who in recent seasons has been dogged by poor form (both on and on the bike), injury and who the very same magazine and its sister website, amongst others, had seemingly written off. But like they say, this guy is unsinkable, right?

Sure, Boonen has had a stellar spring. He picked up his second Flanders-Roubaix double as well as a double in the E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. Merely riding both of these last two races together is little done today – a fact bemoaned by Roger De Vlaeminck in Daniel Friebe’s Eddy Merckx The Cannibal – let alone win them both. For a guy whose spring has been better than his last 2 seasons combined this is certainly a resurgence and one built on his strengths in the one day classics of the spring.

Yet Boonen’s purple spring is very similar to the rich vein of form shown by another Belgian last year. Remember a rider called Gilbert who won all four Ardennes races in the space of two weeks (10 days if you are really counting)? I am not the first to note the stark contrast in fortunes – the see-saw as one commentator has quite aptly put it – and I doubt I will be the last. But what made me stop and write this piece was a reflection on the reporting of Gilbert’s seemingly terminal decline or as they say “looking like a cycling god stripped of his powers”. These turns of phrase used to be reserved for the autumn years of cycling greats yet today are bandied around with ease at the slightest whiff of an off spell.

Philippe Gilbert

Our expectations?

If you were expecting insightful reportage then the more you read the more disappointing an article it becomes: is it Gilbert’s own excesses or the demands of the team – “the truth clearly lies somewhere in between”. Maybe the reason is fatigue? “I’ve learned that John Lelangue [Gilbert’s BMC Directeur Sportif] really put them all through it in Spain,” says a source in the article, “For Lelangue, only one date matters: 30 June and the Tour.” A little more insightful, possibly, except this source is “One member of Gilbert’s fan-club. It’s like asking a Brosette from Stourbridge where Matt and Luke Goss went wrong in 1990 and any chance of them reforming.

Perhaps what is most disappointing about the coverage of both Boonen and Gilbert is the level of expectation which creates the see-saw. As viewers we revel in the short terms domination of riders (though we seem to bemoan anything longer term). And the cycling media put on a papier-mache pedestal these new kings only for them to crumble under crocodile tears. But whose tears are they? If Procycling is to be believed, Gilbert is in the pits of despair. So how about looking at it another way: April 2011 was a uniquely fantastic spell of good form for Gilbert, April 2012 just didn’t quite go to plan. That’s all, he wasn’t quite there. But that’s bike racing.

So why is it an issue? Reflecting on this from personal perspective it is fair to say that  expectations drive life both from the inside looking out and the outside looking in. At times they create a perfect storm and the inside and outside are hard to distinguish. By this I mean our expectations, the expectations others have of us and the expectation we think they have of us can blend into one. And when one or more of these expectations is not met someone feels let down. In the case of Gilbert it is clear that the media and, possibly, some fans have not had their expectations met. Yet the flip side to this is to ask whether our expectations are realistic? In the case of Gilbert our expectations were artificially inflated by a superb yet extraordinary Ardennes campaign the previous year on top of which we all know how many variables can change in bike racing, its like cracking the Enigma code.

Rather than hailing the return of a dethroned emperor or over analysing the bad patch of another, over analysis fails to help, especially when it is misplaced. There will be another spring classics campaign next year and no doubt the see-saw will tip again. Therefore instead of rasing them, maybe we need to lower our expectations just slightly. It’s not just a lesson for watching cycle sport but one to heed in our everyday lives.

It all adds up

I thought I’d pick up one of the metaphors I used yesterday as there have been a few ideas that I’ve mulled over during the past few weeks.  In my mind they are becoming very closely linked. Realising this has been a difficult journey but I’m now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

For a long time in life I’ve been one of those high achievers. From early on in school I was at or near the top of the class. Though this had its benefits, some less obvious than you might at first think, it was where the seeds of the rat race were sown. From this point on there has been an almost constant “need” to perform driving me. I hasten to add that this need is something which I now recognise had taken over my mind with unhealthy abandon.  I felt I was expected to achieve to and by not achieving I was letting people down.  To some extent setting your sights on a level of achievement is helpful. Throughout education it helped me get the most out of my studies.  But heading into adult life the constant gnawing away began to take up precious energy. And without clear targets I set myself overly ambitious and possibly unrealistic targets.  It’s no wonder I got to where I did and it’s with little surprise that I had a huge fall waiting around the corner. You just can’t go on like that.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s post and the link I made to the margins. Those of you familiar with cycling and in particular the coaching philosophy of GB and Team Sky supremo David Brailsford will be familiar with the idea of “the aggregation of marginal gains”. If not, here is what he said about it to the Team Sky website:

“It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards. If a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely every single thing we do.”

What has this got to do with me, my problems and my outlook on life? At first glance not a lot as I’m never going to be a professional cyclist or Olympic medalist (I gave up pretensions of being Mario Cipollini in the mountains and Marco Pantani in the sprints). But even so life is for god or bad a challenge and its better to face it in a realistic way.  If we take the Brailsford way then we all have room for improvement, we all have something extra to give.  Yet in acknowledging this it is equally important to recognise that that extra bit has to be realistic and measured.  Let’s look at it this way, in his autobiography, Bradley Wiggins explains how Brailsford and Shane Sutton told the GB pursuit team at the Olympics that there was little point in smashing world records in qualifiers when they had to do enough to qualify yet qualify as the fastest team.  This is all about knowing your capacity and realising what the margin is.  In my case it has been realising that changing the world isn’t about a stellar academic input, a groundbreaking social enterprise or political recognition, it is about looking around me and realising what I can do.  In this respect I suppose I am the mechanic in Brailsford’s interview, but where would Tour champions be without these important yet unsung team members.  Whilst I am growing to recognise this importance (and subtle) difference in viewing my contribution, I have to keep reminding myself when things don’t go as well or reach the heights I’d at first anticipated. It gives a new perspective on doing enough rather than giving you’re all – it’s not laziness rather it is knowing what to give to which tasks so there is enough energy to go around in life.

All of which brings me to the bigger picture.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t embark on my original career choice thinking I could change the world.  Each opportunity to climb the pole was a chance to make a bigger name for myself in the belief I could make a difference.  The fact this didn’t materialise in the way I had envisaged was a major contributory factor for my breakdown.  Therefore I feel quite uneasy at the moment.  Without getting overtly political, there are a lot of issues that get me angry, make me (much to MrsAB’s chagrin) shout at the radio and initially feel I should do something about.  But at the same time I’ve recognised the fact that there are things you can change and things you can’t.  Much as I admire those who are taking the fight to the rulers of the accepted norms, I’m increasingly recognising this is high on energy but low on outcome.  And again this is where the aggregation of marginal gains comes in.  Politically yes I could try and take a stand though how often does that work. Alternatively I could do one thing to make a difference, for example ride my bike to the station rather than getting a lift, refusing to buy the products of certain companies instead of blockading their shops.  I’m not saying people should or shouldn’t do the alternative but for me it is where to place the energy.  Equally for the architects and proponents of some of the alternatives, there is to often a pre-occupation with purity and singularity of form of their chosen alternative rather than how best to make it work.  They seem to want to take over the world in the way the existing order did previously: two wrongs and all that. But here it is at the margins where change can take place.  You will never please all of the people all of the time, but there are those wavering at the edges who can be convinced of your approach who might be able to convince some of the others further along the line.  Sounds like you need a bit less energy doesn’t it?  And whilst it might not change things over night, its a step in the right direction. We know where great leaps forward left people in the past.

So these have been my preoccupying thoughts for the last few weeks.  Some might see it as giving in, others might view it as idleness, laziness or apathy.  But hopefully some of you will see, as I have, the importance of knowing when and what to give and how to avoid the next burn out.  At the end of the day, it all adds up and you might even achieve more than you first thought.