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Interview: Victoria Pendleton on motivating young riders

29 May 2014

Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton is simply one of the world’s most successful sprinters ever. She fought against convention during her career and she overcame tough challenges along the way, so she’s well placed to offer some advice to today’s keen young riders.

We asked her advice about how youth racing cyclists can overcome obstacles and pursue their cycling ambitions.

We also asked her how girls can avoid the common drop-off from sport in their teenage years, to help them continue with their cycle racing and be the best they can be.

You’ve written previously that you were told that you were unsuited to becoming a top sprinter. How did you respond to that and overcome it? What advice would you give to young racing cyclists who face challenges?

My Dad, mind you, always said that I was great! I think I’m very lucky that my Dad has always had a lot of self-belief, and winning against the odds is a quality which I would see in him and understand. I’ve always been very tenacious and, for me, that’s the biggest factor in me succeeding. It’s the tenacity. I really want to win.

I enjoy the challenge of proving people wrong and I really wanted to succeed. Fortunately, that desire and commitment to achieve my goals is marginally stronger than the self-doubt that other people had instilled in me with their own opinions or beliefs in what I was capable of. There were times, you know, when I thought “maybe they’re right?” – when you’re feeling weak and things aren’t going well, or you’re just really tired and not feeling very strong or capable. You have a weak moment. Of course, then it can be a struggle.

I know a lot of people around me say how hard it was to work with me when I was feeling down about myself – when I was really sucked into thinking that maybe I’m wasting everybody’s time, maybe they did make a mistake about me, maybe I don’t have it.

But I’ve always had people around me like my Dad. Some of the people that really know me historically have believed that I can do it.

I think in tough times you need to call upon those people to give you a boost. So, make use of the people around you. Fundamentally, that’s all I did in the last four years of my career anyway – really establish firm and very active conversational routes with people who support you 100%. So when you’re having a minor wobble you know exactly who to go to and what to ask for from them: “please can you reassure me?”; “what is the data from this?”; “what are the numbers like?”; “can we compare it to last year?”

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So everything is evidence-based then? It was how the data and facts were supporting your performance?

Well, of course my Dad would always tell me I was great no matter what! Obviously you’d expect that – that’s what Dads do, right?

But, yes, everything else was very much evidence-based. I needed to get hard evidence: numbers from other sources. So, for me, it was all about having those people in place, knowing who they are, knowing when you need them and why you use them.

You want it to be honest because if things aren’t going well the last thing you want is, “You’ll be fine, everything’s going to be OK”. For me, that alone means nothing. Instead, what you need is “OK, your power is down but let’s work out why that might be” or “you’re not feeling yourself today – have you had enough recovery this week? Is that something that could possibly be affecting your performance?”

For example, if you’re at school and you’ve had a particularly stressful exam week, you can’t expect to be flying on the bike that week or winning the race at the weekend, because exams take a lot out of you.

So it’s about understanding the constraints of your lifestyle and how it might impact or influence your performance. We’re talking about children’s racing and it’s important.

It’s science. You have to understand your performance in that way in order to really see it for what it is. It’s not opinion-based. Performance is mostly about numbers and facts.

Don’t just listen to people who generally run on emotion – those people who are naturally quite instinctive and emotional with you. They talk about feelings, and that’s not helpful.

You might have had a really bad night’s sleep, or maybe you’re coming down with an illness. Maybe you’ve got a bit of a cough or a cold coming on. These things can all have an effect. It might seem very small sometimes but it can have an effect on how you feel on the bike and what you’re capable of, and how much work you can really achieve.

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Knowing yourself, knowing your own body and how it responds is very important. Keep a diary of “feel-good factors”, things like this: maybe note down your quality of sleep, how well you think you slept. How well you feel, whether it a good sleep, a deep sleep, a long night’s sleep and if you were woken many times in the night. Use a “feel-good factor” to record how you felt physically on the day and use a ranking from one to ten. You could have had a really great day so you put a “10” in the diary, but if you feel weak and wobbly it might only have been a “3” day.

If you keep track of things like that in a training diary you can really look back and begin to understand yourself.

You can look back in your diary and think “I had a lot on that week”, if it was an emotionally draining week for maybe another reason, if it was exams or revision or stress. You can piece it together and make sense of it. That’s not emotion – that’s logical information and that’s the key. For me, that’s the key. My Dad always encouraged me to keep a training diary for that reason, right from an early age.

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There’s a big drop off in girls’ participation in sport, not just cycling, around the age of thirteen or fourteen. What advice do you have to help them continue with cycle racing, and to be the best they can be?

I think they have to see the wider benefits of what they do. Having a physically active lifestyle and participating in sport in a structured way helps you to really achieve fitness in a very easy way. It helps you to be fitter than your fellow classmates – just being fit and healthy.

Of course, you always tell kids at that age to follow their dreams, to believe in themselves, that everything will be alright, that these should be the best years of your life (that’s rubbish – personally I hated school!).

But I would go back and tell myself as a thirteen-year-old girl that everything will work out in the end.

I used to worry about a lot of stuff all the time but, for me, everyone should believe that if you follow your dreams and you commit to them who knows what can happen?

I think the worst thing you can do in life is to sit back and think “‘What if..?” You don’t want to be able to look back when you’re older and think “What if I had continued, what if an opportunity had come my way, what if someone had talent-spotted me?”. You can’t take that back. You can’t go back.

I mean, if something makes you truly unhappy don’t do it. But if the thing that’s stopping you cycling is social (such as wanting to fit in with people at school who don’t like cycling), or if you want to conform a bit more, well those things will seem so insignificant when you are twenty years old. They will feel even more insignificant when you are thirty, and when you’re forty you won’t even remember them!

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For me, standing on the podium listening to the National Anthem play at the Olympics, nothing I sacrificed would I not consider sacrificing a thousand times over. The birthday parties I missed, the cinema I didn’t go to at weekends, not being in the “in-crowd” (and all the rubbish that goes with that) are so insignificant.

Because for what I have now, I would sacrifice everything a thousand times over. A million times over.

At the time it’s important but, really, it’s not. It’s a tough one because, you know, it’s hard to talk to girls that age – they live in the moment.

There’s such a huge pressure to fit in at that age. I struggled with it. I’m not going to lie, I really struggled with wanting to be good at something that didn’t really fit in, but I wanted to fit in at the same time. For me, it was a real conflict.

Everything I am really lucky to have experienced is a consequence of me riding my bike. It was worth it, really worth it.

Our sincere thanks to Victoria for her time and to Halfords for their support.

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Interview: Victoria Pendleton on motivating young riders

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