Photo credit: Natalie R. Starr
Photo credit: Natalie R. Starr

From Bicycling

Back at the beginning of the year, you might have declared 2020 your year. You had a goal race lined up for July, and you were in the early phases of your training plan. You were eating well, sleeping extra hours, and actually doing those physical therapy exercises you used to ignore.

And then … the world stopped.

Coronavirus forced the cancellation of thousands of events this year, and if you were signed up for almost any major race this summer, it likely was postponed, cancelled outright, or shifted to a virtual event.

From Olympic hopefuls to almost-first-time racers, the struggle to still feel like an athlete with nothing on the calendar is real. And for those still-untested racers who were planning to be on their first start line this summer, it can be even harder to maintain that feeling of “being an athlete.” After all, if you ride a gravel century and no one is around to take your photo or hand you a medal or T-shirt at the end, are you really a cyclist?

The answer? Definitely. But that doesn’t mean the feeling is easy to embrace. We spoke with a few experts, amateur cyclists, and Olympians for their tips on dealing with maintaining their identity as an athlete when you can’t train for anything right now.

Reframe Your Goal

A lot of people struggle with calling themselves cyclists or athletes because they think those phrases are reserved for only the top level of the sport, but that’s not the case, according to Traci Stanard, M.S., NSCA-CPT, sports psychology consultant and owner of Aspire Performance.

“An athlete is someone who’s out there fighting and pushing through tough moments on a ride—someone who has that mental stamina as well as physical stamina,” she said.

And you don’t need a race course to push through a hard ride.

“Rather than thinking about one single race, your goal can be reframed to, ‘[I] want to become a cyclist,’” Stanard said.

According to Haley Smith, a mountain biker and Olympic hopeful, the actual “competition” aspect of being an athlete is only one part of the picture. She’s staying focused on training for the future, whatever that may look like.

“I train every day, I focus on honing my body and mind to be its best, I remain focused on my future goals, and I aim to inspire others to be active in the outdoors. Those are all part of being an athlete, and they are all things that I’ve been consistently able to do during the pandemic,” she said. “Racing is one element of the job that I absolutely love, but I’m still me, and I’m still an athlete without it.”

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Dig into Your Definition of the Term “Athlete”

When you think about being an athlete or a cyclist, what comes to mind? You may have preconceived notions that are causing some mental blocks that keep you from embracing the fact that if you ride—any distance, at any time—you are a cyclist and an athlete.

“It could be that you were told something when you were younger about you not being an athlete, or that only certain types of people can be athletes,” Alison Pope-Rhodius, Ph.D., director of the sport and performance psychology program at Holy Names University, said. “We get a lot of messages in society and the media that if you don’t look a certain way, then you’re not an athlete. There are so many preconceived notions about what it is to be an athlete.”

To help redefine the term “athlete,” Pope-Rhodius suggests making a list of the qualities you believe athletes have. Then, make another list of the qualities, characteristics, and behaviors you have.

“How many of those overlap?” she asked. It’s likely more than you think.

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Embrace the Lack of Racing

Your day-to-day life makes you an athlete—not your singular race result. If you train regularly and are trying to generally live a healthy lifestyle that allows you to do the sport that you love, you are an athlete— no finisher’s medal required.

“For me, continuing to train and do rides that challenge and excite me are a huge factor in continuing to feel like an athlete,” pro cyclocross racer Ellen Noble said.“Racing is such a small percentage of what makes us athletes. Finding new routes and setting big training goals can help everyone feel like they’re having a personal win—which are also much easier to come by than an elusive race win as well.”

For amateur racers, this time off from racing may even show you that you feel more athletic and healthy when racing isn’t on the calendar.

“I’m actually loving it,” mountain biker and cyclocross masters racer Kat Macewan said. “Last year, our family had six weekends free. This is the first summer in a decade that I can just ride my bike or run without having to constantly disrupt everything with racing of some sort. I love racing and watching other people race, but it’s nice to be like a normal person for a bit and have a clean house and to work on the garden.”

Or Don’t Look At It As a “Lack of Racing”

For some athletes, pro and amateur alike, it might be easier to stop thinking of this time as a time when there’s “no racing,” and instead think of it as an extended off-season.

“This has been a super odd year. I had some low motivation moments, but I started thinking about my training as being my job on days I’m not feeling excited,” pro mountain biker and Olympic hopeful Peter Disera said. “I’ve realized it’s important for me to keep feeling like an athlete, regardless of what the race schedule looks like. It is my responsibility to keep training for the year ahead.”

Junior road racer Isabella Katherine agrees.

“I’m trying to adapt the mind frame that an athlete is someone who is training themselves to master their athletic craft, and in that, racing is only one component,” she said. “With that in mind, I have been using this impromptu off-season to prep myself for when racing does resume by improving my bike handling skills, nutrition, strength, and mobility. So far, I have found this to be really helpful in maintaining my identity as an athlete during COVID-19.”

If having a race scheduled to plan around would be helpful to you, mark your calendar for your goal race day in 2021 (estimate if official dates haven’t been published). You’re only a year away from your goal, and it’s time to get training!

Understand That People Contain Multitudes

You don’t have one singular identity, according to Pope-Rhodius. In other words, you’re not just an athlete.

“Maybe you’re a partner, maybe you have a job, maybe you have a weekend identity, maybe you have a social identity,” she said. “An athlete could be one component of you—it could be 50 percent of who you think you are, it could be 20 percent of who you think you are. What matters is if identifying as an athlete gives you some sense of satisfaction. Are you are you able to get out there and enjoy what you’re doing?”

But some of us do have a hard time letting go of that singular “athlete only” mentality. In fact, Smith was already struggling with her identity as an athlete before COVID-19 stopped the season in its tracks.

“You see and hear of a lot of athletes who have struggles related to their identity, whether it’s emotionally suffering as they retire or finding meaning in why they spend every day pushing themselves so hard physically,” she said.

It wasn’t until Smith started to think about who she was beyond “a bike racer” that she really started to shift her identity to something a bit more balanced.

“I gradually began to think of myself as a lot more—an athlete, a competitor, a friend, a partner, an advocate, a mentor. My concept of my own identity really expanded,” she said. “So I think I was relatively well-equipped to handle the identity issues that many might be facing due to a lack of racing. I haven’t thought about myself as only providing value through race results in quite a long time. I’m still training full-gas, full-time, but I’ve been able to satisfy my need for meaning by leaning more heavily on the other aspects of identity.”

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