The Coach(ed) Corner: Training the brain

In a loving but very matter-of-fact tone my girlfriend said to me the other day, “Babe, I think you’re kind of accident prone.” Sadly, she’s right.

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By Jason Sumner

Coach(ed): Loveland Pass

Coach(ed): Loveland Pass


In a loving but very matter-of-fact tone my girlfriend said to me the other day, “Babe, I think you’re kind of accident prone.”

Sadly, she’s right.

This year anyway, I seem to be bouncing along from one injury, ailment, bump, scrape and/or bruise to the next. The latest incident occurred a few days ago during a morning reconnaissance ride of the Boulder Roubaix race course. Loosely mimicking famed Paris-Roubaix, the Boulder edition takes place on a mix of paved and dirt roads around the city reservoir. My buddy KP and I had headed out there to scope things out ahead of the amateur/pro circuit-race event slated for the following weekend.

But before any real recon had even begun, I over-cooked a sharp, dirt road left-hander, washed out my front wheel, and went down hard in a plume of dust, dirt and skin-scraping pebbles. The end result was a six-point, left-side road rash extravaganza — ankle, knee, hip, elbow, palm and shoulder (I definitely stuck the landing). The good news is that outside of some aesthetic damage to a shifter, my bike escaped unscathed.

Anyway, the long-term prognosis is good, but in the short-term (after finally healing up from a litany of BC Bike Race maladies) I’m again ambling around like a head-to-toe arthritic, cringing when my aforementioned significant-other accidentally brushes up against my left side. I think what she really meant to say is, “Will you take up golf already, so I can stop worrying every time you pull on the Lycra?”

Of course that’s not going to happen (I’m far too impatient for golf). But there is the question of lingering mental effect. Every time I stack it, there’s a little scar left behind on the back of the brain.

Coach(ed): Dr. Emmerman

Coach(ed): Dr. Emmerman

Photo: Courtesy Jason Sumner

As luck would have it, I had the good fortune to head out a day later on a lunch spin with my friend, Dr. Julie Emmerman. Besides being an ex-NORBA-level pro mountain biker, Emmerman has a doctorate in clinical psychology and works here in Boulder as a psychotherapist specializing in athletes. She consults with a wide range of pros and amateurs in discipline varying from cycling and triathlon to mixed martial arts. Last November Garmin-Chipotle hired her to work with its riders.

Emmerman’s first professional encounter with Garmin was at a pre-season training camp in Silver City, New Mexico. She worked with them again during the lead up to the Tour of California, and even made a trip to the team’s European base in Girona, Spain, in the weeks before this year’s Tour de France.

“It started out as a trial run,” explained Emmerman. “The team doctor — Prentice Steffen — thought it would be a good idea. So I went to Silver City not really knowing what to expect, but the whole team was really welcoming and I ended up doing a ton of one-on-one meetings. I was busy the whole time I was there.”

Issues addressed ranged from riders trying to get insight on how to “get that extra edge,” to trying to break the habit of “making mistakes during crunch time,” to having previously having a bad crash and “never quite being the same.” There were also cases of former career-domestiques finally getting the chance to be leaders, but “not being sure how to go about it.”

Coach(ed): The VeloNews team at the races.

Coach(ed): The VeloNews team at the races.


“And of course there were more traditional issues,” she added. “Maybe a rider was going through a hard time in a relationship or just dealing with everyday stress.”

According to Emmerman, many of the Garmin riders were keen to pursue some brain training to accompany their bike training, and she stayed busy throughout the season via a combination of face-to-face sessions, phone calls, e-mail and Skype.

“So often athletes are put on a pedestal and looked at as beyond the realm of human suffering,” she said. “But just because you are privileged athletically doesn’t mean you are removed from the trauma of life. And even if you don’t have any hardships going on, you’ll still want to know how to improve as an athlete.

“In general I think cyclists are people who take responsibility for themselves, so seeing a psychotherapist is an extension of that. You take care of your training and diet, and this is just one more part of that.”

So what do you (read: I) do after crashing for the umpteenth time, and subsequently start thinking about hitting the deck again? And how do you manage past experience so that it doesn’t negatively impact future endeavors?

“The biggest thing is that you want to use your head in a way that is for you, not against you,” Emmerman explained. “After a crash, don’t think about crashing again. Instead remember how many times you’ve ridden and didn’t crash.”

This same power-of-positive-thinking ethos applies to the lead up to and act of racing. During our post-ride coffee chat, Emmerman pointed out that I was setting myself up for a letdown even though the outcome was far from decided.

“When we were riding today you were saying things about pain, and commenting about future riding being affected by your crash,” she accurately noted. “Well if you were racing Saturday, we’d want to work on how to separate the experience of pain from the idea of making an automatic conclusion about how you are going to feel on Saturday. The experience of pain is one thing, but how you associate with it is what makes a lot of difference.

“It’s one thing to say this hurts, but another to say it’s limited hurt and I’m not dieing and I can deal with it. But instead a lot of people make if-then statements: If I am experiencing this pain, then I am going to race poorly. There’s a whole ripple effect of negative self talk. The key is that you have to leave room to surprise yourself. If you say I’m tired so I won’t be good today, then you probably won’t.

Coach(ed): A rubberband about to snap.

Coach(ed): A rubberband about to snap.


“But how many times have you woken up and felt bad, then gone out and had a great training day. The more you realize that the better. You need to make it the best ride you can, and not focus only on the one bad time and get tunnel vision on that one time.”

Generally this line of negative thinking fell under what Emmerman called self sabotage. The key for any athlete — cyclist or otherwise — is to instead take ownership of the situation, and then compartmentalize and separate things that aren’t directly connected (say a crash on Wednesday morning and a race the ensuing Saturday).

“You shouldn’t ignore or neglect the fact that you’re sore and feel more vulnerable, but at the same time you don’t want to let it color your entire performance,” she explained. “No one who excels gets to that level without facing hurdles — anticipated and unanticipated. It’s how you choose to work with those challenges that can make a big difference in your experience, longevity and enjoyment of your sport.

“A lot of it is about being comfortable with your talent and strengths. In order to be good at anything you have to make an accurate assessment of where you are at, feel good about your strengths, and recognize what the weaknesses you need to improve.”

With that all in my mind, I’m now firmly on the fence about racing this weekend. The body is still pretty scraped and sore, and I cringe at the possibility of another dirt-road get off (race day weather forecast is calling for rain). At the same time, I figure a few pre-race ibuprofen and the requisite injection of race-day adrenalin would make the pain go away, and help me leave plenty of room for surprise.

Stay tuned …

Real quick just an update regarding the Triple Bypass ride mentioned in my last entry. Along with some friends from Pactimo Custom Cycling Apparel, I took on a 120-mile westerly grind from Evergreen to Avon that included trips over Squaw Pass (summit 11,140 feet), Loveland Pass (11,990) and Vail Pass (10,560).

Needless to it was a very long day in the saddle (my PowerTap recorded 9 hours, 19 minutes of ride data, 4166 kilojoules of expended energy, and it confirmed the 120-mile distance). But with the aid of a sag wagon and some great company, about eight of us slogged through it, even enduring a torrential rainstorm during the last half hour of riding.

If you’re looking to do an epic road ride — and are or will be in Colorado anytime soon — this is certainly one worth putting on the life list.

Lastly, I pinned a number on for the first time in a while last weekend, taking on the Boulder Road Race. I’m going to skip the intimate details, and leave it at: I got popped and finished 27th.

The coach is at the Olympics with Taylor Phinney, so no Q&A until he gets back. But if you’d like to ask Neal Henderson a question, please send e-mail to, and he’ll tackle it when he gets back home to Boulder. Please include your name and hometown. Questions may be edited for content and clarity.

Editor’s Note: Jason Sumner is a 37-year-old, 170-pound freelance writer and Cat. 4 bike racer who is working with a cycling coach — and training with power — for the first time in his life. Sumner underwent a full battery of lab tests at the beginning of the season, producing a 250-watt lactate threshold, a 3.2 watts per kilogram score and a VO2 max of 51.5. His 2008 goals include improving on his usual mid-pack finishes, not getting dropped on the weekend group rides, and learning something along the way. He is documenting his experiences for is this twice-monthly column.

His coach, Neal Henderson, is sports science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and a well-regarded elite-level coach. Henderson’s clients include Garmin-Chipotle’s Taylor Phinney, Jelly Belly’s Scott Tietzel and Trish Downing, a nationally ranked paraplegic athlete. Henderson is also the winter triathlon coach for the U.S. national triathlon team, and this year was named USA Cycling National Development Coach of the Year. Right now he’s at the Beijing Olympics with Phinney, helping the young phenom chase his gold medal dreams. Henderson is working with Jason Sumner on a pro bono basis

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