Under pressure: What great expectations mean to young stars

On the shoulders of a young, talented rider, expectation hangs like a thick cloak, leading to a cascade of physical and mental stresses

Photo: BrakeThrough Media

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Velo magazine.

Talent is a gift, a lovely box with a pretty ribbon. Expectation is a leaden cloak upon thin shoulders.

There is a pressure to perform in sport, just as there is in life, but it’s magnified in such a complex arena like cycling. Small mistakes are extrapolated into patterns of failure, a tome of publicly perceived underachievement.

Just ask Tejay van Garderen — the next great thing for now, and maybe the next great underperformer thereafter.

“It happens really fast. You go from a young rider to an underachiever — so fast. A few years ago, 2010, my neo-pro year. I was third at the [Critérium du] Dauphiné. Everyone was like, ‘Oh!’ All praise,” van Garderen said early in the 2014 season. “I was still young. And, then, all of a sudden, after a couple years of getting what I thought were really good results, it was like it just shifted into being, ‘Well, when’s he actually going to do something meaningful?’”

“Meaningful” is in the eye of the beholder. Van Garderen, 25, finished fifth in the 2012 Tour de France en route to claiming the white jersey, so it was clear early on that he was no slouch. Such a result would seem enough to keep the wolves at bay, though he said on countless occasions leading to the 2014 Tour that he was out to prove that performance wasn’t a “fluke.”

In 2013, he lost nearly four minutes on his GC rivals in stage 8 of the Tour, the first day in the Pyrenees. Upon the bell-curve of expectation, where results and age drive pressure upward, he is still climbing. Until he reaches the top, he will be the subject of speculation: Can he ever live up to potential set by others?

In 2014, he finished fifth again, a confirmation of his 2012 result, taking an eraser to the tepid 2013 campaign. In his first Tour as an outright leader, he battled hard and stayed afloat.

“I’m absolutely happy with it. I’m thrilled with it,” he said. “The result is secondary to the journey we took on this Tour, because of all the adversity we faced with the four crashes — I did two rounds of antibiotics with the crashes — I had a bonk, and even back to [the Tour du] Romandie when I had a fractured hip. We were just facing an uphill headwind the entire time. But the team never lost faith. … We fought every day. And that’s a damn good result, I think.”

The public and press, though, are always antsy.

“Sometimes I think the public maybe gets a little impatient. They think, ‘Okay, we know you’re good. But it’s time.’ You’ve got to just kind of ignore it a little bit — you know, let things happen on your time rather than theirs,” he said.

Van Garderen is far from alone, and in a way he’s fortunate there are expectations upon him at all. Still, it’s easy to let the burden to perform become personal.

“It’s hard not to,” van Garderen said. “But at the same time, if you spend too much energy on it … I’m the one out there doing it. And I can only do my best.”

Managing expectations

So, what does it all do to an athlete, a young athlete, in particular, to be digested by the hype-machine, toasted, torn down? Stress, is the simple answer.

“Stress is physical and mental,” said Kristin Keim, a clinical psychologist with a focus on health psychology, neuropsychology, and clinical sport psychology. Keim also runs a performance consulting business. “Athletes are already putting themselves in a lot of physical [stress], because you’re basically going out there, you’re ripping your body apart. I mean, that’s what athletes do. So you’re under a high demand of cortisol from the physical component. On top of being an athlete and racing, it is mentally stressful. I don’t care who you are — you race a bike, you’re stressed out.”

Is the pressure to win for an athlete the same as, say, the pressure to hold down a job, or feed a family, for an average person? It may start that way, but physical activity can bend the arc of stress in different ways.

Across the board, the reaction to stress starts the same. After perceiving a stressor, the hypothalamus sends a chemical message to the pituitary gland, and then another message is sent via the blood to the adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones. Those glands, atop the kidneys, secrete cortisol, which then binds to receptors and jolts the body into action to handle the stressor.

Cortisol is a reliable biomarker of stress, generally speaking. For example, higher cortisol levels are an indicator of lower socio-economic status, according to studies. But not all of this reaction is detrimental to one’s physical capabilities, as stress is something the body needs to respond, according to Keim.

In endurance athletes, cortisol levels are higher than in most other athletes, Keim said, as spikes in the hormone are released during prolonged exercise. Bike racers, then, are an inherently vulnerable niche of a larger population that puts an emphasis on progression and achievement.

“I would have fourth-graders stressed out about SATs, and where they’re going to college. So, obviously, in our society, kids today have an enormous amount of pressure that I didn’t have when I was growing up,” Keim said of her psychology work. In cyclists, and in those from ages 19 to 23 in particular, she notes an overload. “The stress that I see is not only the expectation of their performance. The stress on the bike is the last thing. It’s trying to go to school, or figuring out, ‘Do I need to go to school?’” she said.

Metabolic and hormonal changes influence stressors broadly, and performance, or lack thereof, can have a cyclical effect on mental states and, in turn, performance.

According to clinical studies, underperforming will cause an athlete to increase his or her training, and overtraining can then lead to a depressive-like state. In a medical paper entitled “Trainability of Young Athletes and Overtraining,” published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, authors Nuno Matos and Richard J. Winsley write that “the frustration due to the lack of performance typically drives the athlete to further increase the amount of training that he/she is doing, which just exacerbates the situation by increasing physical and emotional fatigue, with a consequent worsening in performance.”

That sequence of events can result in changes in mood, sleep disruption, and losses in hunger and weight. That, the paper noted, can ultimately lead to depression.

“Overtraining and clinical major depression share many similarities; therefore, overtraining should be studied by acknowledging this perspective,” the authors wrote.

That sentiment is crystalized in Keim’s clinical experience, notably with developing riders.

“Often that is the time where people get this mentality that more is better. And they still have the idea they’re invincible, because they’re teenagers, so they push the limit,” she said.

And young or older, riders are prone to falling down a rabbit hole of doubt, specifically in the case of injuries.

“One injury, an injury that may only be minor, can turn to just a dark place easily. Because you’re overseas, you’re away from your family, you’re away from your friends,” Keim said. “It makes me feel kind of claustrophobic just saying that. Again, we see from the outside, or the normal person sees, ‘Oh, it’s a dream job, you’re racing the Tour de France.’ They’re miserable half the time!”

Media hype and exposure contribute to the cycle. Consider the case of Taylor Phinney. The BMC Racing rider has been on the cover of Velo magazine four times — the same number of professional road wins to his credit. Phinney knows that with such coverage come expectations.

“I’m lucky to have the head that I have. Because, for sure, every year there’s sort of added pressure. And people from the outside, they want things from you now. They don’t want to go through the process of personal growth in sport, because when you get a lot of attention you then have a lot of expectations,” Phinney said. “Every athlete’s canned answer is that the pressure that that athlete feels is only from himself and not from anybody else. But, for sure, there’s outside pressure. And, I’ve always — one of the best things I’ve always done — is compared my career trajectory in this sport to some other guys who I look up to the most, who I’m currently racing with.”

For Phinney, those are riders like Fabian Cancellara, Tony Martin, and Tom Boonen — icons now, certainly, though it wasn’t always the case.

“When they were my age, they were in a similar position. Maybe Tom was the guy with the most attention. But Cancellara, Tony Martin, they were just kind of scratching at the surface,” Phinney said.

This confluence of ability, promise, and results is a precarious merger. And there are outliers that complicate the calculation of age and expectation. Like Peter Sagan.

“Keeping all that in mind is made even more difficult by a guy like Peter Sagan who shows up at my age or even two, three years ago, and just starts rocking the peloton from a super young age,” Phinney said. “And then people from the outside are like, ‘Wait, Taylor’s that age, and why isn’t he doing that?’ For sure, in my mind, I’ve thought that as well, because we raced together as juniors.”

Sagan, though, has his own battles to fight. Those green jerseys come with an interest rate. He won the points competition again, easily, in 2014, but he didn’t win a stage in spite of finishing in the top five on seven occasions in the first seven stages. Even with such success, the Cannondale star — headed to Tinkoff-Saxo next season — was none too pleased with the negative racing against him, and the media’s constant needling.

“Why do you always ask the same questions?” Sagan snapped at one TV journalist after a stage in the Tour’s second week. “You need to do your homework.”

One day in Oman early this season, a cluster of recorders picked up the words the 24-year-old was saying, but they couldn’t see his face, or see his shoulders shrugging. This was a different Sagan than the playful one the sport was used to seeing and hearing.

A longing press and public often misunderstand him, his boyishness lost in translation, from his native Slovakian to an English that comes out broadside before it hits recorders. It’s hard to tell, in written words, if he’s in good spirits or not. Most of the time, he grins when answering questions.

But on this day, he came across subdued. He batted away questions about his looming, inevitable excellence in one-day races.

“I am still young, 24 years. I don’t have anything to lose. I said this three years ago,” Sagan said. “When I’m just riding the bike and thinking about my life or something, it’s easy. But outside, it’s a little bit … I don’t know. Too many people they stop me, they just want to speak about the classics, about the race, ‘How [do] you feel?’ and I don’t like it. The bike and cycling is one thing that I do, and in my life there are other things, no?”

No, and yes. The hype beast will bite. It’s up to the riders who win to keep winning, and those who’ve yet to win to keep striving. That pretty package of talent, once opened, can feel very heavy.

Look no further than the youthful Sagan. Asked point blank if this was all still fun, he just shrugged.

“Yeah,” he said. “But [to have] fun I must win something.”

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