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Psychological skills, coaching, and performance of cyclo-cross athletes

Cyclo-cross is one of the most unique cycling disciplines there are. It could be muddy, snowy, sandy, hilly, rocky, and potentially all within the same race. Also common is the need to traverse parts of the course on foot, bike in hand. The overall look, feel, and ambiance of a cross race seem to leave the racers and spectators alike, thinking there must be something more to this than just being in great shape. Like many races before, my first cross race was no different when I truthfully stated, “That was the hardest thing I have ever done”.  Given the unique demands of cross, I wanted to know more about what it takes to excel at cross. Specifically, what makes a cyclo-cross athlete successful and how do psychological skills, experience, and coaching influence performance. These questions led me to conduct a study that compared the psychological skills, elements of experience, and coaching, to the performance of athletes competing in the 2013 cyclo-cross national championships.
As psychological skills are not a physiological or performance measure, they are much harder to quantify. However, there is no doubt that psychological skills for better or worse, contribute to performance. Mental preparation, anxiety coping, confidence, concentration, motivation, goal setting, and relaxation are all psychological skills we may have or use. Previously, no research had investigated the comparison of psychological skills of cyclo-cross athletes or had examined the relationship between psychological skills, performance, and coaching of cyclo-cross athletes.
Photo: Grant Harrison
In gauging psychological skills, a brief survey known as the Athletic Coping Skills Inventory-28 (ASCI-28) was used to measure psychological skills on the sub-scales of coachability, concentration, confidence & motivation, coping with adversity, freedom from worry, goal setting & mental preparation, and peaking under pressure. In this study, coaching was measured by whether or not an athlete currently had a coach or had a coach in the past, and then by how long they have worked with a coach. Many other variables such as frequency of communication with a coach, and commitment to the discipline of cyclo-cross were also asked of each participant. These psychological skills, experience in the sport, and involvement with coaching were all compared along with each participating athletes performance in their highest priority race.
One of the many ways that coaches may help athletes is in helping athletes set appropriate goals and objectives. A preliminary analysis of the results found a correlation between being coached and goal-setting. Additionally, coached and goal-setting were both positive predictors of performance. So not only did coaching help athletes set more goals, but they performed better! Correlated with goal-setting, were confidence & motivation and concentration, however other sub-scales did not show to be correlated with goal-setting.  Although coaching demonstrated to be a positive predictor of goal-setting, coaching was negatively associated with freedom from worry. In other words, athletes who were coached reported to set more goals, but also worried more about their performance. Consequently the same athletes who had coaches, and performed better, also reported a higher commitment to the sport, which seems a likely explanation for the higher levels of worry. Among the other psychological sub-scales, surprisingly no other variables were significant predictors of performance.  Among other variables measured performance was predicted by years experience as expected, and of the coached athletes, frequency of communication with a coach also predicted performance.
So what do these findings tell us in terms of psychology? First of all, working with a coach should help athletes more clearly define their goals as supported by the study. Beyond goal-setting, there is an apparent need for coaches to strengthen athletes’ mental skills in addition to physical ability. This might involve role-playing, use of imagery, or other techniques that influence how an athlete responds to certain situations. Clearly, being race ready and seeing results will be motivating and help instill confidence, but it may be just as important to strengthen the mental skills that help an athlete overcome adversity or defeat.  As supported by this study, more successful athletes are in continual communication with a coach. In this case the word “communication” may be interchangeable with “reinforcement”.  With every experience that an athlete goes through, there is an opportunity to be influenced by its’ outcome, as coaching may be an excellent way to help an athlete identify what should be taken out of each experience. Ultimately, the findings of the study support that the highest performers in cyclo-cross, have experience and seem to possess stronger psychological skills that may be influenced by the presence of a coach.
Editor note: This article is written as a reference to Mr. Harrison’s master’s thesis.  His thesis will be posted to the Source Endurance website soon so stay tuned.