Olympic dreams: young talent and the Performance Pathway
19 December 2014
From also-ran to world domination
No-one under sixteen years of age will remember that not long ago Great Britain was an anonymous also-ran of elite cycling. Only a handful of outstanding riders achieved success at world level, and they were doing it mainly on their own terms.
How that has changed! British cyclists dominate the sport, winning rainbow jerseys and gold medals so regularly that today’s young riders can be forgiven for taking such extraordinary achievements for granted.
British Cycling’s Performance Pathway is the talent development process which enables a lot of that incredible success. And let’s not forget that winning Olympic medals funds the wider sport for the rest of us.
Youth riders and the Performance Pathway
The Pathway has become very well known by ambitious youth riders and their parents. They often target it as their route to the top, giving everything to be identified and selected for it by BC’s talent coaches.
For a while Youth Cycle Sport has been slightly uneasy about such single-minded focus from young riders and parents, because there are clearly other ways that talented riders can achieve success too. Also, late physical developers and those born during the tail-end of any calendar year may be less likely to impress, but they may have just as much potential as earlier developers or those born earlier in the year.
Demoralised riders sometimes leave the sport after unsuccessful attempts to join the Pathway’s programmes. And because there’s obviously only room for a handful of exceptional riders on the Olympic Podium Programme, it’s inevitable that even those riders who are accepted for the Pathway’s initial steps will ultimately leave it without reaching that top rung.
New opportunity: Olympic Development Apprentices
British Cycling is certainly never complacent though. It has made improvements to the Performance Pathway’s structure, and the most important change for youth riders is the introduction of the Olympic Development Apprentices (ODA) level to replace the previous Talent Team stage. You can see how the ODA fits in to the entire talent structure on BC’s website.
Is talent development working for young riders?
We interviewed Ian Yates, Performance Pathway Manager, about how well British Cycling’s talent identification and development process works for young riders. We particularly wanted to talk about the aims and expectations of the new ODA level. We asked Ian about what British Cycling is looking for in talented youth riders, how it develops them, and how it looks after them.
If you’re an ambitious youth rider yourself (or the parent of one) read the interview below and please give us your own views on British Cycling’s talent development. Tell us about your own experiences, or let us know what you hope to achieve.
On motivation and ambition…
Q. What do you see as the primary motivation for young riders aiming to join the Performance Pathway’s initial stages?
A. I genuinely think it’s down to two simple things: the enjoyment of riding a bike; and wanting to race and win. Enjoyment gets them into cycling. Some are in it because they absolutely love riding, and some desperately want to win races.
The balance depends on the particular individual, and it changes as a rider moves up the pathway.
Q. Football has a reputation for its young players having a clear ambition for the fame and wealth that players can achieve at the highest level. Are talented youth cyclists motivated by those things?
A. I started my career in football and, contrary to this perception, I don’t actually recognise that in the game. When you get to 16 or 18 years old in football those aspects start coming in, but I think the motivations are the same across every sport: the starting point is a genuine love of the game. Further into your career you do start picking up on those opportunities but unless you enjoy it and you desperately want to get better at it, you’re not going to go the distance.
On rider qualities…
Q. What are the qualities that you’re looking for in younger riders? Are you looking at physiology and performance in lab tests? Technical skills that riders already have? Maturity? Parental support?
A. Yes, it’s a complicated mix of a number of areas. We could categorise them into five criteria: discipline-specific on-bike skills; physical attributes (for example speed and power); race performances (an ability to win or contribute to winning); good, strong, positive attitude; and an aptitude to learn.
Right the way through our Pathway from entry as Apprentices through membership of the Academy and progression on to the Podium Programme those are five things we’d consider.
Q. Looking at the Apprentice stage of the Pathway, some youth riders are much more physically developed than others who might have the same talent but are developing a little later. How do you take that into account?
A. Some of those criteria are more important at certain stages. At Apprentice level we’re looking for skilful bike riders who like to race. We will always have an openness to the impact and effect of maturation. Skills are probably our priority but it’s not all about one thing.
On multiple disciplines…
Q. How discipline-specific are you working at Apprentice level? For example, are you looking at someone who might have come to your attention as a mountain biker but you’re thinking “this rider could be a great sprinter”?
A. We’re pretty open. If you look at most of our very successful riders at youth level (although I’ll discount BMX from this statement) they’re doing three or four disciplines – all contributing towards their overall development. We know that for success later that multi-disciplinary experience is beneficial.
One of the features of our Apprentice programme is that we do expect riders to take part in other disciplines. We would encourage someone coming in as a XC mountain biker, for example, to take part in cyclocross in the winter and to ride on the road too.
We also accept that riders themselves have a part to play in that too. Some won’t want to do certain aspects and, although we’ll encourage and we’ll guide, if a kid doesn’t enjoy it we’re not going to force them.
At youth level sometimes riders come in with a perception of where they want to go, and that’s healthy, but they don’t understand the journey to get there, and by doing two or three disciplines it might help them.
You’ve only got to look at someone like Sir Brad who combined track and road work throughout his career – and we know the success he has gone on to have. Look at Lucy Garner who was successful on the road, track and in cyclocross as a junior. You could keep listing the names of riders that have come through our pathway with similar journeys.
Q. At the age of youth rider Apprentices, would you extend that multi-disciplinary approach to taking part in different sports still? Or are the demands of time and focus so big that you expect kids would no longer be swimming or running for their county, for example?
A. There’s a lot of evidence of the benefits of a multi-sport background at youth age. We know from our elite riders that it’s often not until they start to move from youth to junior category that cycling becomes the main focus and other things tend to get dropped, and that’s because of the time requirements.
Across all sports there has been an openness and an understanding of how doing other things can contribute towards where you want to get to. But there’s a point later on when the demands of your sport require you to sacrifice other things, but we know that’s not until the age of 15 to 16.
On performance and results…
Q. Do you think that grass roots racing is the best way to identify young riders who might come through to join Regional Schools of Racing and then the Apprentice scheme?
A. Racing is an important component but it wouldn’t be the only aspect. One of the reasons for the current youth cycling review is that the demands of racing are starting to become excessive:
Racing offers young riders the development opportunity to deliver a complete performance. It has its place but the sport has boomed so much over the last ten years that now is the right time to look at whether the current system is right. We’ve gone from 1,300 young riders in 2002 to 13,000 plus today. The system wasn’t necessarily designed for such a large number of competitors so it’s a good opportunity to look at whether it needs changing.
Racing is important and people want to win, but we need to consider whether the kid that wins might be on a £6k bike versus an equally physical and skilful rider on an ordinary five year old bike. Performance at a young age is about putting people on an equal footing to see where they’re at.
Q. How do you take account of the effect of when a youth rider’s birthday falls? A rider born on the last day in December will find themselves racing in an older age category to someone born a day later, of course.
A. Yes, that’s important to consider. Whenever we review potential riders for our programmes we take their “back story” into consideration – that they might be physically immature or that they might be at the lower end of the age category, or they might have only been doing the sport for three months, not even be in a club, or they might not have a good quality bike. It’s more complicated than simply first past the post equals best.
Q. How do you view the difference between performance and results? Children often only view success as whether they won or not. They worry that they will get overlooked if they don’t win, so they tend to play it safe by sticking to a single tactic rather than developing themselves by experimenting with different approaches. Can you reassure children and parents that they should take a wider view instead of just focusing on standing on the podium?
A. For me performance is delivery of a process, delivery of a specific tactic, achievement of a target such as a flying 200m time – things which are in your control and you have the capability to deliver. A result is different: it’s out of your control. On a given day there could be five better bike riders there, or your bike might have a mechanical problem during the race.
So we take more interest in the performance than the actual result. It’s hard telling that to an athlete and you want athletes to win, but even when we take our GB juniors to a world or European event we talk more about delivering a performance rather than a result – not getting caught up in things happening around you that are out of your control.
I don’t think you’re ever going to get a young bike rider to truly understand that (and I don’t think I’d want to make the switch completely because the desire to win is an important characteristic) but this is somewhere parents can play a part – by helping a youth rider to focus on the process and the performance, not whether they came away with a striped jersey.
Q. How can parents best support youth riders? What kinds of good practice and bad practice do you see?
A. We definitely want parents who will encourage their kids. We want parents to praise effort and not just race results – not the talent but the hard work that was put into it.
We want them to question their kids – to cause them to think about the process, and to reflect on what they did rather than on their parents’ opinion.
Parents should also help their kids manage their time. Kids will want to ride their bikes, to race, to go to everything. Rest and recovery sometimes can get put to the side.
So for me good practice is a healthy balance of encouragement, questioning and guidance.
We want to avoid situations when those things aren’t done: a parent who constantly gives their opinions of what happened; who throws their child into every race and training session; or who gets upset about performances on behalf of their child.
On school and education…
Q. Cycling is very demanding of youth riders’ time, not just for racing & training but travel & preparations, and so on. What are British Cycling’s views on the conflict between the demands of the sport and important other demands on time such as education and social activities?
A. Education is a priority at youth level, remembering that these guys are still kids. There are so many good athletes at that level and we know that only a very small minority are going to make it to the highest level. Education and well-being have to be priorities, and cycling has to fit around it at Apprentice level.
Q. Would the coaches on the Apprentice scheme have an awareness of the educational activities and performance of their riders? Would they say “that’s the other half of your life and you manage that, but tell us if you have a problem”? Or would they take a direct interest in whether a rider is keeping up with their homework and on target for GCSEs? What degree of awareness do the staff and coaches have?
A. They’ll be aware, but we will still encourage riders to identify hot-spots or particular issues and priorities themselves. Coaches will ask questions but at the age of 15 or 16 as riders move into Juniors they should adopt that rider-led approach. The coaches have a good relationship with riders and parents and they’ll know when things need to be reeled in a bit. It’s a two way process. They’re kids and everyone understands how much kids have got going on.
Q. We all know that in sport everything can be going very well but performance can drop off unexpectedly. What happens within the Pathway when a rider’s performance does fall away – not just for a weekend but over a longer period?
A. If a rider’s performance starts to plateau, or they aren’t able to do the things we need them to do, or if they’re not making the right rate of progression, the coach will try to understand why that’s happening. They’ll work with the rider to try to get it back on track.
If they’re no longer able to do that then unfortunately that’s the nature of a performance programme, and riders will ultimately be removed from the “programme”. If riders do come out then we’ve got to manage that appropriately.
We’re always open and honest that everyone won’t make it. In fact the communication around the Apprentice activity is very much about the opportunity – it’s actually a reason why we haven’t called it a “programme” as such, because we know at youth age people progress at different rates. Its job is simply to make them a better bike rider. If they go off then they leave a better rider. Or if they go up then they graduate as a better bike rider.
But the nature of the sport and the nature of a Performance Pathway is that if you’re unable to keep on top and make the progress that’s required then you’re no longer going to be included. It’s important to manage that and not shy away from it.
Q. What kind of expectations do riders typically have when they come into the Pathway? Do they have a feeling that they’ve made it once they’ve been accepted?
A. That’s one of the reasons for the changes to the Pathway. We didn’t want 15 or 16 year olds coming in, getting a load of kit, and thinking “I’m on for a year now.” Right the way through the pathway at all layers we review rider progress every three to six months. We think of it as a continued inclusion – not that you’re selected onto a programme and we’ll review it in a year. We’ve been very clear now that we’re looking for progress every three to six months. If you keep making progress we’ll keep working with you. If you stop making progress we’ll look at why that is and we’ll try to fix it, but if you can no longer catch up then you’re unfortunately removed.
The Apprentices’ only job is to graduate to the Olympic Development Programme, whose only job is to graduate to the Academy. It’s a continual review process that takes into account the age of the riders at different stages.
Q. When you’re doing those rider reviews what are you taking into account?
A. Everything. Progression in skills, tactical awareness, physical qualities, personal attributes, race results, performance benchmarks. It’s an extensive piece of work. When a rider comes in we’ll identify their individual areas of development as well as the general programme that everyone needs to go through.
Q. Taking road racing as an example, are you looking just at those who might win stages or overall stage races, or are you also looking at those who might develop to become fantastic domestiques and team riders who can enable team mates to win?
A. We would be looking at a rider’s performance on the road, irrespective of whether they won a one-day, a stage race or supported a team mate. Given the requirements of each race are so different (for example terrain, length, environment, etc.) we are just as interested in riders that can pull away during climbs as those that cross the line first.
It is however worth adding that at a youth and junior level we are not looking to develop domestiques – and we try not to pigeon-hole someone into this as a role. At the end of the day, even pros who fulfil a role as a domestique later in their career will have been exceptional all-round bike riders and capable of winning races in various situations earlier in their career. Our job is to ensure they get this grounding.
On leaving and re-joining…
Q. What happens to young riders when they leave the Pathway? How do you make sure that cycling still offers something for them and that they’ll continue to enjoy the sport? And can they get back in again once they’ve improved?
A. Absolutely. We’ve always had a complete open door policy. We know people develop at different rates. There are plenty of examples of riders who were on programmes, then came off programmes, and came back onto programmes again. Dani King is a prime example: she was on as a Junior but didn’t make the Academy, but then came back on as a Senior, and won an Olympic gold medal. There’s definitely openness to that happening.
At an Apprentice level riders are still in their clubs and our activities are essentially a top-up to what they are already doing. When they are no longer Apprentices they are still in their club environment – we haven’t removed them from that.
Again, we always talk about the Apprentice stage being an opportunity. You might stay, you might go on to the next stage of the ladder, you might go on to win a medal. When you’ve got the opportunity just make the best use of it. It’s important that our message about that is right, and we can help that exit process.