“Under pressure, one of the most important things I have to remember to do is breathe”.
Curtis Strange – Golfer
It may seem a bit odd to be quoting a US Open Golf champion from the 1980’s in my cycling blog, but when I had an idea to write this month, I browsed the web for inspiration and it was being, ‘under pressure’, that was at the forefront of my mind; this quotation from Curtis Strange really struck me as pertinent to my situation over the last month. On reflection there were times that I wished I had read this at the start of May and not the end.
Pressure is around us permanently. Personally, it is the pressure to succeed in sport and the pressure to achieve at school. For me it is self-generated pressure. I want to win, and I want to do the very best I can in each and every training session and race that I take part in. At school I want to achieve the best results and answer every question to the full. It is who I am.
Thankfully I don’t have the pressure from my friends or my family, from them I can just be me. I have no pressure to be something or someone from them. But for me, my own generated pressure over the past two months, the pressure to fulfil both these objectives was certainly in the spotlight.
It began in May with the ramp up to exams. “These are the most important exams of your life”, “These matter”, “Only 17 days to go”. Yes I know! I didn’t need every teacher telling me every lesson, every day. I had worked hard for the last five years, I was ready and I just needed to get on with it. But I also had to get on with training and the upcoming racing. Starting with Pembrey …
May 7th – Pembrey. My first visit to the circuit in South Wales. 100 eager, fast U16’s on a tight, sketchy circuit. What could go wrong?
The prologue didn’t start well. A bad held start meant I had a close encounter with a barrier. I got up to speed a little slower than I would have liked, costing me valuable seconds in a race where milliseconds mattered. A lap later, I came across the line 15th overall, about 10 seconds off the leader. Not how I would have liked my weekend to start.
Next up was an hour of carnage, also known as the first stage. Attacks went and were pulled back, the only difference was how long they were away for. The run in to the finish was the sketchiest I’d experienced, a downhill hairpin followed by another hairpin before a tight 250m to the finish line. I came round these corners further back than I wanted, but still upright, which at this point felt the most important thing for me.
The second stage was a 20-minute sprint race, pure chaos from the get-go. We made it a lap, before the race had to be stopped and restarted due to a major crash. Once the first-aid car had exited the circuit, we got going for another high-paced stage. I had good positioning coming into the final turn, but I had to react quickly to avoid a rider sliding out in front of me. I came across the line in the mix, but much better off than some. I was still upright. This was insane. I had 10 days before my first exam. (I knew this as my teachers had told me!!). I was under pressure and I had to breathe …
We sat by the van and Ethan came over. At times like this it is great to have a mate like Ethan, he somehow takes the sting out of the race. We smiled, we laughed and then we got ready for the last stage.
You’d have thought that the final race would be a pretty slow affair, as everyone would be tired after a long weekend of racing. And if you thought this then you’d be wrong. Our final race was our fastest one, the average speed at 43kph. And if you thought it’d be carnage, then you’d be correct, most youth racing is. My race involved some time off the front with Ahron from ERC, before we got reeled back in a few laps later. With 2 laps to go, I saw my teammate Tom moving up the outside of the bunch, so I thought: ‘Let’s follow him to the front’. He got out the saddle, so I carried on following him. We found ourselves with a small gap with one-and-a-half laps to go. No words were said, but we both understood what to do. Unfortunately, we were caught with half a lap to go, though we both stayed near the front, and I bagged tenth on the stage, leaving me 15th overall, further proof that prologues matter!
So I managed to stay upright, I survived. Home with Audio book revision in the van and back to school.
I do get pressure and stress are important. I am studying Physical Education and have looked at how performance is affected by pressure. One of the best models that I have seen for explaining this is Yerkes and Dodson’s Inverted U theory.
“According to Yerkes and Dodson, peak performance is achieved when the level of pressure we experience is appropriate for the work we’re doing. When we’re under too much or too little pressure, performance declines, sometimes severely”. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/inverted-u.htm
Looking at the graph above the left hand side is showing a situation where I would not be challenged, the race may not matter, although this is rare for me, It may be that the school work is not challenging enough. If this is the case one may approach the race or the task in an unmotivated way and, therefore, not achieve. The opposite of this is on the right hand side. This occurs when the pressure to achieve is too great, you try too hard, panic ensues and disaster is around the corner. Attacking too early, crashing, clipping the corner. Not reading the question, missing the point, just blurting out anything on the exam paper.
It is the middle that is being aimed for, motivated to win, but not overly pressured to achieve. Recognising the race for what it is and enjoying the preparedness coming to fruition. Feeling the legs strong, hands relaxed, focussed and in the zone. In the exam, clearly seeing the question, knowing the content, interpreting the context and writing fluently. Flowing and breathing.
I was aiming for the centre of the graph but it was not easy with the conflicting demands of racing and upcoming exams.
May 17th Biology Paper 1 – My first exam. I met my mates at the start, we laughed and joked, nervously … We went into the room, my sister in front of me, my mate behind me, familiarity. I had covered the course, revised to and from races. I was ready. The exam came and went. It was OK! 1 hr and 45 minutes and nothing that phased me, (although I don’t know my result!) It was underway and now the routine. I had revised well it was just a case of focus and thankfully there was no hairpin corners with a 100 under 16’s trying to get the best line. It was just me versus me.
So I was now into the flow of exams, but another race coming up to add into the mix.
“Pressure pushin’ down on me
Pressin’ down on you”,
Queen and David Bowie
June 4th – Loughborough National. A fast race that involved 90 riders bombing round a very small crit course on the University Campus. What could possibly go wrong? Spoiler alert, thankfully nothing for me. As we set out for the sighting lap, it started to rain. Rain and crits, not a good combo. Quite a few riders went down on turn four.
We lined up, ready to race, the rain got harder. Many people let some air out of their tyres, some letting so much out that they had to stop mid-race and pump them back up. I left mine how they were. I stayed at the front for the first few laps, as it’s one of the safest places to be.
About 15 minutes into the race, the bunch eased up slightly and I went. This was for tactical reasons as well as pragmatic ones. If you are off the front by yourself, you have the whole road to play with. You can take whatever line you want, at whatever speed you want, and not have to worry about the guy who divebombs into every corner. This also meant that when I was caught I was able to hang on to the front group. An incredible solo ride from Seb Grindley left the rest of us fighting for second place, a position I didn’t have the legs to finish in, after my earlier exploits. I finished near the back of the group in 9th, giving me my first proper top 10 national finish and a buzz that lasted quite a while, before going back to exams. Once again I was upright and I could breathe again.
June 24th – My final exam.
FSMQ. My favourite subject Maths. 2 hours of hard Maths and then I was done. I think it went well. The long month and a half was over and now it was just training and racing before September when A Levels kick off and it all starts again.
So what have I learnt and where was I on the curve?
A good question.
At no point over the last month have I been at the left of the graph. I have been super-motivated and all of this mattered. At times I was to the right and I suspect my performance suffered due to the conflicting demands of racing and exams. At Loughborough I think I was able to get closer to the middle, although probably not to the optimum. Experience of the course had allowed me to refocus and reframe what happened. Loughborough’s familiarity, that was gained from the 2021 race, enabled me to shift me on the curve. My Mock exams that I did in December allowed me to know the questions, feel the room and be familiar with the expectation. This rehearsal allowed me to shift on the curve.
I breathed; the inhale: I know this, I can do this, I have been here before, I have trained hard, I have revised and worked hard, I can do this, and exhale.
Being “Under Pressure’, will happen again. Certainly, in two years’ time and then possibly again. It is through remembering this experience and coming back to these reflections that will shift me on the curve, hit the peak and allow me to succeed.
Oh! and I also need to remember to breathe!