Monday, July 21, 2014

Lessons from the TV

Many people are surprised to learn how much time and attention I devote to watching televised bike racing and reality shows. At this time of year it can add up to about 25 hours a week, between the Tour de France, So You Think You Can Dance and Amazing Race Canada. I am always multi-tasking (knitting, grooming dogs) but that doesn't really mitigate the investment of time, at least from the point of view of my friends and family. My response is that I am better entertained and learn more from the real drama that unfolds on the screen then I ever would from the manufactured dross of shows like a Game of Thrones. I see people at their best and their worst, I see them develop coping skills, I see the effect of community and I see excellent coaches at work. All of that is learning which I can both pass along and use in my own life.

The Tour de France has been particularly eventful this year, filled with unique challenges, crashes and the withdrawal of several of the favourites. But one event stood out - the determination of Garmin-Sharp rider Andrew Talansky to complete stage 11. His struggle did not go unnoticed - the TV coverage was actually extended to show him cross the finish line and the crowds stayed to cheer him on. You can see snippets of video here (footage from the road), here (post-race interview) and here (analysis) and read about it here and here (interview with Talansky).

The opportunity to watch Talansky and his coaches was both inspiring and instructive. It was even more helpful to get their perspectives after the event. When I construct a training plan for people who are going to ride the Cabot Trail - a multi-day trip with some exceptionally difficult climbs - I try to build in moments of despair which lengthen to minutes and then hours. That sounds cruel but how else will both my riders and I know that they have the tools to deal with what they will experience on the trip? They need to be able to tap into the experience of prevailing over doubt and weakness. As Frankie Andreu says in the third video clip, they have to have pushed the negative thoughts away and installed some useful ones. The depth of their pain, exhaustion and anguish will never compare with Andrew Talansky's - or will it? It is never far from my mind that lessons learned on the bike will have applications to every aspect of their lives.

Now watch this video of dog owner/trainer Kris Osojnicki and her dog Tori. Keep track of what you are thinking and feeling throughout the six minutes of the video. (For context, the dog in the video comes from the breeder of my last Bernese Mountain Dog and I was once very involved in canine performance activities.)

I was tickled when a friend sent me a copy of a post that linked Andrew Talansky's decision to continue with Kris and Tori's persistence and eventual achievement. The author, Ruth Nielsen (no relation), could see and explain the parallels between the two events and draw out a valuable message. Her time watching the Tour de France paid off if she was able to alter just one person's definition of success. Here is what she wrote, reproduced with her permission.
One of the things that came to my mind as I watched the video of Kris and Tori’s journey to MACH 3 is how easy it can be to negatively "judge" other competitors or trainers when we see a team struggling for success. Comments – even in jest – suggesting that someone’s dog is "blowing them off" – or questioning why someone is bothering to compete with (or train) a dog that is having problems are often heard, and those comments can be hurtful and discouraging. Watching Tori turn from a tentative and reluctant competitor to a teammate at the top of her sport is pretty compelling evidence that a dog who appears to be struggling can ultimately become a super star. I’ve judged teams in draft that had what I would call a train wreck of a performance come back and be picture perfect – and I’m always thrilled when I see that happen.

Everyone deserves support in their journey – and I believe that support can be a factor in the progress the team ultimately makes. It’s a lot easier to give up when things aren’t going well than it is to keep trying and maintain your goals and positive attitude and take the long view towards success.

I watched an internationally televised example of perseverance in the face of struggle and challenge today when I was watching the Tour de France coverage. (I admit I’m a fan of this event!) Andrew Talansky, one of the American bike riders who finished in the top ten of the Tour last year came to this year’s race with hope of getting a top five finish – something well within his capabilities. But a series of disastrous falls took their toll on him and after being in the top ten in the early days of the race, he lost a significant amount of time and was well out of the running for a top spot. On today’s stage of the race he was obviously riding in a lot of pain, and at one point pulled over on the side of the road and stopped. He had a long conversation with his coach that lasted about 4 minutes. This is pretty significant in a race where time is everything, and everyone assumed that this meant he would be quitting the race. The two top favorites already had to drop out of the race with serious injuries, so it would not be a surprise if he quit. But what was a surprise was that Andrew got back on his bike and started riding again – completely alone and well behind everyone else in the race. This is huge in a big bike race because the riders all prefer to have the support of other riders around them who will make the ride easier as they take turns drafting off each other. Riding alone is much more difficult, and riding alone when you are way behind everyone else has got to be psychologically devastating, especially when you had goals of being one of the top contenders. There is a time limit each day based on how far you are behind the winner – and if you don’t make it to the finish line within the time cutoff, then you are dropped from the race. This meant that Andrew had to race against the clock since having chosen to keep riding, he would be dropped from the race if he didn’t cross the finish line in time. There is a big difference between quitting and "being dropped" – and no one wants to leave the race because they couldn’t make the time cutoff. The tv cameras that normally just cover the winners crossing the finish line chose to film this solo journey in last place as Andrew rode alone against the clock, struggling just to finish so he could say that he made the time cutoff. The announcers speculated about whether he would make it, and you could see he was reaching deep in spite of obvious pain just to make the time. Even though the winners had crossed the finish line half an hour before he got there, the spectators stayed to cheer Andrew across the finish as he managed to make the time cutoff. Instead of treating this as the unimportant event of the last person across the finish line, the media and the spectators applauded a competitor’s choice to keep trying, even though his goals had changed and "success" on this day meant something vastly different than it did when he started the race.

I tell the story of Andrew Talansky because it’s another example to me of the journey that is illustrated by the video of Kris and Tori. We don’t always know the struggles that are behind someone’s success, and by the same token, when we see someone struggling, we have no idea how successful they can become if they keep trying. Talansky’s teammates talked about the long term goal of having Talansky win the Tour de France – but that isn’t this year, it’s in the next 3 – 5 years. Not giving up today was part of that journey. Watching some of Tori’s early runs was not an indication that this dog would have three MACH’s (and likely more) in her future. We can all applaud the journey and support those who are trying – no matter what their struggle may look like. The guy who was in last place today may be standing on the podium in Paris in a few years. And all those runs where Kris and Tori didn’t Q were just part of the journey to MACH 3 and beyond.

I applaud Kris and Tori not just for their ultimate success, but for the courage to keep on trying. Some days the goal is just to finish. I’m going to keep that journey in mind when I see someone who is not successful now – and remember that their success may be down the road for them. I’ll be cheering for all of you on your journey – whatever it may be. "Success" is what you define it by where you are in your journey with your dog - and I wish everyone the greatest success!
That's just one of the many ways in which what we see unfold in the crucible which is bike racing or dancing for your life or travelling with a loved one can inform and educate our 'real' lives. For that reason I will keep watching TV and telling the stories and attempting to articulate what I have learned. You'll know where to find me every May for the Giro, July for the Tour de France and September for the Vuelta. Please keep your eye rolling to yourself.

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