We spoke with a sports psychologist about the impact Sky riders may have felt from listening to boos and jeers on the roads of France.
First it was Chris Froome who received the brunt of fans’ ire at this year’s Tour de France. Presumably, this was a direct reflection of how some fans felt about him racing the Tour after his drawn-out case for an Adverse Analytical Finding for salbutamol at last year’s Vuelta a España, despite being cleared to race days prior to the Tour start.
Eventually, teammates and staff members at Team Sky also suffered through days of taunts, jeers, and fierce opposition to their presence at the Tour. The roadside boos became a constant.
Despite the abuse, Team Sky managed to collect yet another grand tour title, this time under Geraint Thomas, with Chris Froome finishing third. Did the taunts have any effect? Did they add stress to the riders and staff? Did they have the opposite effect, and bring about emotions that propelled the British team to its fourth grand tour title in a row? We may never know the extent of the impact, but it’s interesting to understand the nuances of negativity on athletic performance.
We spoke with Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach, an executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology to help us understand how roadside boos impact world-class athletes.
VeloNews: How do the jeers and taunts that Team Sky was subjected to affect performance, generally? In some cases, in some people, might it actually improve short-term performance, due to the adrenaline surge it elicits, albeit short-lived?
Kristen Dieffenbach: Response will always be individual. The impact and response from each rider will vary, given when it occurs. With regards to the short-term impact, in the last kilometer of a race or last few kilometers, crowd noise is crowd noise. The energy of the crowd certainly helps boost the adrenaline of competitors. With athletes of this caliber, they are used to large and loud crowds at the end of the race and from my experience working with athletes, they are so focused on the task at that point that the noise is just noise, and it is all fuel.
However, there is also the element of the constant nature of the crowd negativity across the course, the individual voices that can be heard on climbs where crowds are more spread out, the reception of those at the finish line, the reporters’ comments and questions. The negativity can feel more individual and targeted in these settings and, as a result, can become quite cumulative.
Some athletes will be able to ignore it completely, while for others it can be very disruptive to performance, focus, concentration, and to their ability to rest and recover post-race. The situation could be compared with home-team advantage with regards to the fans’ support element. It is an “away” event for everyone on the Tour, but the huge negative from the crowds is like playing an away game. While these are not novice pro athletes — they have raced in front of large crowds throughout their pro careers — everything about the Tour is unusual: the length, the physical drain, and the sizes of the crowds, day after day. The negative culture and environment can add to the drain, particularly as the deep fatigue of grueling endurance efforts set in physically. It can take a toll mentally, depending on the support and resources that each individual has.
The other thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t just a “vilifying the opponent” reaction from the crowd. The crowds are responding to something in particular, something that they feel is unjust. The riders know this, and they know they are on a team that is being perceived very poorly. They are, at the moment, “that team.” They are also, according to the rule books, playing by the rules at the moment. Nothing has been proven and their team was allowed to make the choices it has made. For some athletes, the public response may be demoralizing and for others it can inspire them to prove everyone wrong. It depends on how they perceive the situation and the support they have.
If I were working with a team, one of my concerns would be the impact on a rider’s ability to rest and recover daily as needed, because whether they see it as a drain, a negative, they are indifferent, or they see it as a challenge, it is an extra emotional component that they need to contend with during what is arguably one of the most grueling endurance challenges.
VN: Is there any way to quantify the effect that emotions and psychological health play in performance, particularly over an extremely demanding three-week event like this?
KD: Simple answer, no. The academic answer? Quantifying emotions and psychological health in general are incredibly challenging. One of the essential measures of “when is it a problem,” is when it begins to interfere with normal activities and have a negative impact on one’s life or the lives of those around you. And this is highly subjective. There are scales for depression and worry and other negative emotions as well as measures of perceived stress, well-being, optimism, and hope. There are also bio-feedback tools.
But these are not infallible or perfect and are best used by a trained professional who can understand the results within the context that they were taken and supported by an individual’s history. None of the types of measures have been validated for use within an extremely physiologically grueling environment. Within the context of a sporting challenge, there really is no way to isolate out an individual straw in the haystack of elements that contribute to any given performance. There are personal and cultural factors, external and internal factors, psychological, social, emotional, and physiological factors. So many things contribute to performance in both positive and negative ways.
And our emotional experience — how we perceive things and how we respond — changes with fatigue. Think about how you know a toddler needs a nap, when he or she loses their little mind over something minor when they are overtired. Ideally, adults have a better grasp on their emotions, but extreme fatigue is extreme fatigue. In the ultra-endurance community, spontaneous tears, uncontrollable laughter, and emotional outbursts — say chucking one’s bike off a small cliff out of frustration — are considered just part of the experience as deep fatigue sets in and the brain just isn’t functioning the same, and that is without the outside stress of jeering crowds.
Keep in mind how much the brain’s ability to function changes with deep fatigue. We know that response time gets dulled, we know that our taste changes — what was fine becomes too sweet — our frustration fuse shortens. So, given the brain is the epicenter of emotion, and that all stress — good or bad, physical or emotional — is cumulative, it stands to reason that it will have an impact. But there is really no way to determine if it is a minor or major factor other than athlete self-report.
VN: What about the danger that the riders might feel? How does that affect performance?
KD: The human response to perceived stress and danger is heightened alertness and “fight or flight” readiness. One can be hyper-aware of this or it can be a more subtle, lower level response of being extra tense. It drains resources, contributing to fatigue. Depending on how aware the athlete is, it can be a minor or major distraction, which can be disastrous in a high-speed race causing a missed break or a crash. A tense cyclist is one who is more likely to respond poorly to bumps from the road and other riders — an athlete who is more likely to crash. It is also just draining, which of course takes a toll on the resources the athlete has for performance.
VN: What things can the riders do to combat the negativity that they are facing? How can they keep from allowing their emotions to get the best of them and reacting with negativity themselves?
KD: The riders have a job to do right now. That job is clearly defined. Their job on the bike is to execute the plan, and off the bike it is to recover and prepare. The more they are supported and able to stay focused, the better. Control the controllable. What the crowds are doing or saying is completely outside of their control. Nothing they do or say right now will change that. And any efforts to do so now are a distraction from the task at hand and will just suck energy.
Easy to put on paper, very hard to do when this is something very important to you and that you are so invested in. It is also incredibly hard to stay focused over the course of the entire month. Recovery needs from the emotional stress will be as individual as the perception of stress that is added.
Some things that might be useful: set strict parameters and create blackouts as needed, such as stay away from the news, don’t read blogs, email or social media — places that tend to fuel negativity. Ask someone to filter news and just fill you in on things you absolutely need to know if you have to stay up on things. Allowing themselves time to feel the emotions, they are there, acknowledge them and let them pass so you don’t dwell and they don’t fester. Journal, share them with someone supportive so that they can be released and you can refocus. Find healthy passive recovery activities — watching a movie, getting lost in a book, listening to music. Some athletes will feel rejuvenated through interaction with others and others will need solitude. Very hard in the moment, but knowing what you need and asking for it is essential. This is made even more difficult when they are on the road and travel and lodging is so out of their control.
VN: Besides the taunting, cycling as a sport has many inherent dangers. What are the ways that professional cyclists deal with the constant dangers in the sport?
KD: Danger is a matter of perception and preparation. Rock climbing is incredibly dangerous to the novice and unskilled. And it is dangerous to one who fears it. But to someone who is aware of the risks and has a healthy respect for them, who has developed the skills and knows the bounds of their competence, the danger is greatly reduced. This does not mean there is not risk involved, but the danger from those risks diminishes.
This equation follows for professional cyclists too. A rider who is aware of his or her own competence level and understands the nature of what he or she is doing knows the risks but does not assess it as danger in such a way that it becomes a detriment.
Professional athletes train to prepare, they ride not just to build physical fitness but also to hone corning skills, sprinting skills, descending skills. The good ones study these things and prepare for pushing the limits, much the same way that race car drivers do. They understand how they can push their bodies and their equipment. And they take calculated risks based on their knowledge. The level of risk someone is willing to take will be based on his or her perception of the situation, which is why some are more willing to take risks than others. It is still risk so they understand that factors beyond their control — another rider, an unseen bit of sand, a motorist, a gust of wind — may come into play, but they go into situations knowing they are in control of their controllable and are comfortable making decisions and choices based on this.