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What can cycling learn from football?

10 November 2014

Great Britain has been a super-power of cycle racing for as long as most youth riders can remember. So surely our talent development process must already work perfectly then, taking kids from grass-roots all the way to the elite podium at world level?

Youth Cycle Sport’s Mark Wyer identifies important issues affecting your child’s development within the sport, and how their enjoyment of cycle racing might be affected.

England’s early exit from the football World Cup and the analysis that followed was perhaps more amusing than interesting for those of us that are immersed in cycling and used to our recent success. However some comments on the development of youth football got me thinking. Can we learn from the problems that football faces and the culture of sport development in this country?

Chris Waddle was one of the most vocal critics of the current grassroots football development system. He had some really interesting things to say that chimed with some of my observations of youth road racing this summer.

His view was that at grassroots level youth football there is a win-at-all costs mentality. Youth coaches are under pressure from parents to produce winning teams rather than develop players. Tall players are stereotyped as backs or centre-forwards while small players are put on the wing and that’s the only position they play in. Players are encouraged not to take any risks on the ball especially at the back but just to hoof it forward. The teams are always made up of the early developers who are the strongest and fastest rather than the most skilful, and there is very little rotation of players through positions.

Researchers have discovered that in 2009 57% of players in football academies were born between September and December. This is the start of the football youth year and those players have a head start in physical development over their peers. This tends to mean they are faster and stronger and therefore get more match time, noticed more, and therefore picked for better teams or for more quality training.

So how does that relate to cycling and road racing in particular? Surely youth road racing has never been stronger and more popular? Well, I believe there are a few problems that could hold us back from producing more top stars. Some of these issues may start to affect other disciplines but they currently stand out more on the road (i.e. in youth circuit racing).

There is a huge emphasis amongst some parents on winning being vital for the progress of their children in youth racing – even in the Under 10s and Under 12s categories. I think some parents place too much emphasis on physical training at these ages to the detriment of technical and tactical progress. I think the win-at-all-costs approach has contributed to the following issues:-

The Equipment arms race

Many of you will be aware of the increasing concern about the “arms race” within youth road racing, with more and more money being spent on expensive equipment. I think we need some rules to level the playing field. In her autobiography “The Breakaway” Nicole Cooke writes enthusiastically about the Dutch youth tour she competed in where riders were restricted to single-speed freewheel road bikes. Not necessarily something I would advocate for racing at Hog Hill (!) but food for thought.

Overemphasis on points

So many times this summer I’ve heard complaints about the way British Cycling ranking points are being allocated at races. I think that too many riders or parents are worrying about their ranking position which seldom reflects the real position or changes anything. The exception may be for Youth A (Under 16) boys who need ranking points for qualification for the national championships and to set their category for when they become Juniors. I would do away with ranking points altogether and just have a set of races to enable qualification for the national championships.

Fear of failure

I believe there’s a danger that youth riders who have loads of early success can become fearful of failing to win. They’re expected to win every race and people assume something is wrong if they don’t. If riders develop a fear of failure they don’t tend to try out different tactics in events but always ride in the same way instead. Once they do come up against tougher opposition at higher age categories then they can become disillusioned and quit the sport.

Racing rather than coaching

So often I find that riders say they can’t attend coaching sessions because there’s a race on. I know that racing is fun and can help develop a rider. However, time with a quality coach is a rare commodity and it should be grabbed and cherished. The best coaching sessions include coach-led racing which can be just as fun as the real thing, and it can allow riders multiple opportunities to learn in one session.

The allure of riding up a category

If a rider is dominating their races it can be beneficial for them to “ride up” a category to stretch themselves (e.g. a Youth C rider might take part in races for older Youth B riders). However, this is often seen as the only solution. Youth A riders often think riding with seniors is going to help them develop. However if they are riding with 3/4 Category riders they will be with slower and less skilful riders than most Youth As. Now that youth road racing fields, even at local level, are so much bigger it’s worth riders sticking with their own age category and trying different ways of winning.

So what’s the best way forward?

Coincidentally, around the same time that I began considering these problems, British Cycling started a review of youth cycle sport. I suspect that I wasn’t the only one starting to see problems arising. Almost as I finished writing this article, British Cycling’s Youth Workgroup published its proposals as part of a review of all aspects of youth cycling.

The proposals being put forward look excellent but there’s not much detail yet. So my view is that your view is important. Respond to this proposal and put some ideas forward that will enable your child to win at 18 years old rather than (or in addition to) 10, and we can really make a difference.

Mark Wyer has worked in Cycle Coaching and Development for over 15 years. He currently works for British Cycling as a Go-Ride Coach in the Eastern Region and is a Level 3 Road and Time Trial Coach as well as holding various Level 2 awards. He is also a Regional Cyclo-Cross Commissaire, judges at races and regularly organises cycling events.

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Photos copyright of Huw Williams.

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6 responses to:

What can cycling learn from football?

  1. Geoff Godschalk
    November 10, 2014

    Thoughtful and useful observations Mark. I agree and whilst I am all for helping the young riders perform to their best it is more important that they develop a well rounded love of cycling in as many disciplines as possible. No one can always win and it’s good to learn how to handle this. Over stretching and overtaxing their young bodies before they have finished their growing stage can be detrimental to their future. That said, it’s almost impossible to stop someone who is dead set on trying to win, so I guess it’s up to the parent and coach to be there with helpful advice and support to pick up the pieces (metaphorically) and help them get back on track in a sustainable way.
    I do worry that people think that british cycling’s development route is the only way to progress and would like to see a stronger emphasis on alternative routes to success in cycling. Not everyone can get picked for the fast track and many talented riders need to know that there are other successful routes to the top. See Yates twins for example. As you say Mark, some riders develop at a slower pace and may get overlooked in the flush of early success of their peers.

  2. Stewart Edmonds
    November 10, 2014

    Great piece mark ,you have addressed some minor issues,But football of all sports! fortunately cycling is not football and don’t really share any common ground in training or culture, it is an individual sport where suffering and pain is part of the very fabric of the winning process! it is even celebrated as much as the winning (like a 100km breakaway being caught 100m from the line) and as such it appeals to a certain personality that’s why it will always be a minority sport and never a game “your up the front or out the back” and as such you must train for it, prepare for it and deal with it ,it’s not jumpers for goal posts ,if you fall off you don’t get penalty it’s road rash and pain all the way ! your issues will affect the top end of this sport and that’s wrong, how would kids fare in Assen if they only trained at their clubs wore merino kit and had 15kg race bikes with steel wheel rims!
    there’s go race, sportives and club 10’s for the less competitive among us who like to ride bikes.

  3. Trevor Holmes
    November 10, 2014

    I’ve said it before and at the risk of being called a moaner like I have in the past, many of the problems comes down to money and location, location, location. If you live a couple of miles down the road from a closed floodlit circuit or track you are going to have a greater deal of opportunity to train and race. Unlike football were you pretty much need some grass and a football racing and training in a safe environment in all areas is something that really needs addressing before we can say we are a power house of cycling.
    Kid’s want to race and train, but if it’s only at a weekend with a long drive they will naturally get fed up and training on a turbo through the winter because are roads are not safe, will end up become boring unless they can meet up with others on purpose built facilities.

  4. Geoff Godschalk
    November 10, 2014

    Don’t think you are being fair Stewart. Mark is a coach and looking at the overall picture of progressive development. Some parents are over pushy and risk destroying that which they wish to encourage. It is a sensible point made to limit the amount of money on bikes and set a standard which all riders adhere to. It is more important they develop in a balanced way than that they be pushed to win at all costs. When they reach junior level then really go for it. I fully understand the drive competetive riders of all ages feel to try and win. This is a good thing to encourage but we don’t want to see the aggression on view at under 10/12 football matches and older ages. Some parents have been banned because of their behaviour. Kids learn by example. Even the playing field and conditions and then let them do their utmost to succeed . Support them whatever the result and help them improve, but always make them feel that cycling is first and foremost a FUN thing to do.

  5. Geoff Godschalk
    November 10, 2014

    Trevor, you are right as regards facilities. However, there is a relatively cheap option for all riders and clubs. Do what we did at CCASHWELL and set up a grass track facility. If you don’t have the land talk to a local school and get their co-operation. It’s fun, kids learn all the necessary skills. Racing is in a safe environment off the road and the kit is relatively inexpensive. Winter training is on even when roads are icy and cyclo-cross is a safe off road option in the winter months. If every club id this then we would have a wonderful resource and plenty of opportunities to race.

  6. Gordon Castle
    November 13, 2014

    Mark makes some excellent points, particularly about early developers focusing on the process rather than the results. There seems to be some confusion in BC’s consultation between enjoying riding and enjoying racing. They’re not the same thing. I don’t think trying to change the nature of racing (no points, prizes etc) is the answer. We need to lure sporty, competitive youngsters away from other sports by showing cycling is an enjoyable and exciting outlet for their competitive instincts. Children who are uncomfortable in the competitive environment shouldn’t be made to feel racing is the only way to enjoy riding a bike. Family rides and days out at trail centres are more appealing to most kids than flogging themselves for a plastic cup and we need to ensure they are better catered for. It seems odd to try and dilute the competitive experience for those who love to race, in order to try and accommodate those who don’t.

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