In this series of interviews from Performance in Mind I chat to great athletes to understand which sports psychology techniques and strategies they use to help them maintain their exceptional performances. This month I spoke to Professional Cyclist Yanto Barker, leader of team ONE pro cycling. Yanto has been racing for 20 years, since the age of 15 and has been racing internationally for most of that time, starting with the Junior Road Race World Championships. As well as racing full time he also runs his own cycling clothing label, Le Col. In his career he has overcome many setbacks and I wanted to find out the strategies he uses to deal with these effectively.
Have you had a cycling setback where you came back stronger or learnt lots?
I have had many setbacks during a 20-year career; from recovering from injury to overcoming disappointment when I failed to achieve objectives when there was no obvious reason I didn’t achieve my goal. Sometimes those are the harder setbacks to come back from because you have nothing to assign your ‘failure’ to. In my view, to achieve great results you have to be strong, tough and dedicated amongst other things. All these characteristics are often easy to look like you are doing them while things are going well and you are in a ‘strong’ place but it’s when things don’t go well you see how connected to them you really are. Anyone can act tough when everything is going well. I’ve always looked at setbacks as an opportunity to actually be tough, for example. Until it gets tough you don’t need to ‘be’ tough so it’s just an image of yourself you maintain but can’t really say for sure if it’s real. When everything seems to have gone wrong and you are in a weak place then you have to assume all those characteristics that will get you back to a ‘strong’ place, whether it is recovery from injury or a psychologically strong and confident place to attempt another big goal.
What did you learn from those experiences?
The thing I’ve always learned from setbacks, and largely they are a similar experience in their essence, is; life is ‘reality’ and you just have to deal with it. The quicker one stops fighting that, the quicker and more focussed one can get on with the job of recovering and again it’s all about getting back to a ‘strong’ place mentally and physically. I’ve always been very practical in my approach, definitive and methodical about next steps and focussing completely on that next step so as not to get overawed by how many steps there might be if it’s going to be a long process.
Do you always approach setbacks in the same way?
I was lucky to have had a lot of psychological coaching from a young age and I was quite disciplined in adopting these mental practices. I’ve approached setbacks in this similar way for as long as I can remember. In the beginning I had a coach who would help remind me what I should be focussing on, but for a long time now I don’t need that input to stay focussed. I approach all setbacks in the way I describe above and have done for a long time now.
When do you learn more? When things go wrong or when things go right?
I think we always learn more when things go wrong because it requires us to first understand what went wrong and why (given we didn’t want it to go wrong) we have to understand what we did that created an outcome we were not looking for and then what we can do to make it better and also what we should not do again if we don’t want things to go wrong again. This requires an intellect to understand because ultimately I believe we create our own reality, however there are some things out of our control and some things within our control and it’s important to understand what happened and which category the elements that created the reality we are in should be filed into. Then you focus on the things in our control and make them better. We have to understand elements out of our control but not spend time trying to control them just knowing they are there and need to be factored into our analysis.
Having said all that I believe it is technically possible to learn as much from things going right as when they go wrong it’s just that we are more motivated by the pain of things going wrong to look a bit harder at why that happened. When things go well we tend to get distracted by success and not look so hard at what we did rather revel in our success. But people are often successful by accident and they couldn’t recreate it because they either didn’t know what they did to succeed or worse wrongly believe they know but are in fact mistaken. That’s a hard lesson because it’s got so many layers to it.
If a cyclist just starting out had a setback, how would you advise them?
My advice would be to first analyse what went wrong. Was it them or was it something else? Then identify what they can do about it and commit 100% to the practical steps they can take to correct or recover from the reality they are in and not to get distracted by the feelings of frustration and disappointment that they are in the situation they are in. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you feel, you still have to do what you have to do. It’s the difference between process and emotion. They should run parallel but not intertwine so as your emotion does not distort your process.
Do you take this approach in all your racing?
In my view that major goals and success are achieved with exactly this same approach. So the characteristics that help recover and get back to a ‘strong’ place (where real results are achieved from) are also the same characteristics needed to progress from strong to stronger. It’s actually ‘progress’ which is the measure, whether that’s from weak to strong or from strong to stronger.