The power of psychology at the Tour de France

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More and more professional cyclists are making use of psychological help. But some criticize the team-internal psychologists.

Cycling is discovering psychology more and more for itself. As early as 2014, the British sports psychologist Andy Lane published a study in which he attributed 20 percent of the success of a top athlete to psychological factors. And now motivation books like “The hidden engine” by Martijn Veldkamp are conquering the market. The racing teams in professional cycling are happy to take up such suggestions. To free a “hidden engine” and profit from its drive is quite attractive for them. Especially at the moment, when it comes to the success of the biggest and most important Tour de France.

“We’re lucky to have been working with psychologist Steve Peters since 2002,” says David Brailsford, who led the British to great success. “He had an immense influence on all of us and on our view of how the mental side of the human being works. Peters and Brailsford first worked together at British Cycling, then at Team Sky and now at Team Ineos. Peters has been a permanent employee for a long time and now works part-time.
His approach is to divide the human psyche into a rational part – he calls it the “human side” – and an irrational, emotional part – in his style the “chimpanzee side”. The “chimpanzee side”, i.e. feelings such as fear, malaise, but also moments of joy and strength, should therefore be tamed and transformed into an impulse. “Peters had a great influence on how the atmosphere in the team and the environment should be. It was about whether to instruct and control or rather communicate and negotiate,” Brailsford says. However, if one believes the complaints about bullying and macho behaviour of individual trainers, especially in the women’s department of British Cycling, the influence of Peters could not have been as great as Brailsford represents it.
But at least the Boss’s understanding of the mental side has grown. And he goes far beyond simple motivational questions. “Motivation is only the surface of the ocean, it’s more about discovering the depth of the ocean below. This is important in order to find the individual drive,” says Brailsford.
Other teams don’t seem to be so far along in development yet. “A sports psychologist introduced himself to us at the training camp. But he didn’t come from the team. You could work with him privately if you wanted to,” says Emanuel Buchmann. The professional from Bora hansgrohe obviously didn’t take up the offer. “I can cope quite well with the pressure myself, that’s also a type question,” he said when he was asked about the depressions of his former teammate and round trip captain predecessor Dominik Nerz.

Conflicts of interest

But Buchmann also points out the conflict of interest that a psychologist paid by the racing team can be involved in. To whom is he first obliged, the athlete or the team? “I think it’s better if you don’t do the mental supervision over the team. These can be problems that you may not want to share with the team,” says Buchmann. Tour newcomer Lennard Kämna also went his own way. “Last season I had a lot to do with health problems, ran from doctor to doctor,” says Kämna. “At some point the moment came when I told myself I needed a break and had to reset my head, be really fresh and then be able to attack again. As a professional sportsman, I went to a sports psychologist in Bremen on my own initiative.” His racing stable Sunweb agreed with the racing and training break of the round trip talent. “They stood by me and I will never forget that,” he says today.
Kämna, 22 years young, is the representative of a generation for whom mental support is not a sign of weakness. The sport of hard, enduring and resistant men is undergoing a process of change. “You have to create an atmosphere in which it goes without saying to talk about the ups and downs that a person goes through. You shouldn’t just put it away and say: I am a tough boy. That’s one of the biggest dangers,” says Brailsford. “When everyone makes their contribution, it will come back one day when you go through tough times yourself. Then you know the team is capable of helping you.”
That still sounds very much like improved exploitation of natural resources. After all, the entire athlete personality is taken seriously. Peters also reports that he spends half of his time with the athletes, but the other half with sensitizing the coaching staff. An interesting approach.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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