Social networks, self-doubt, burn-out: the growing role of psychologists in professional cycling teams

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Keeping sponsors happy, optimizing social media feeds, staying competitive in an exponentially improving field.

The demands of modern professional cycling add additional layers of tension to a sport already determined by 24/7 sacrifice and suffering.

This is why high-level teams integrate psychologists into their team.

“Research and studies show that athletes have a higher percentage of mental illnesses, depression, anxiety, illnesses, eating disorders and compensatory binge eating, addictions than others,” said said Trek-Segafredo psychologist Dr. Elisabetta Borgia. BikeNews.

“And now the level is rising, the stress is rising and burnout is always around the corner. Racing bikes are about so much more than being physically strong now.

Read also :

Trek-Segafredo and Ineos Grenadiers are among WorldTour crews that have bought in-house psychologists to keep riders as mentally as physically fit.

Elisabetta Borgia worked with Paris-Roubaix champion Elisa Longo Borghini at Trek-Segafredo and in the national team. (Photo: Trek-Segafredo)

Borgia is a dialectical behavioral therapist working with male and female teams. She also has extensive experience working with the Italian national team.

His role has shifted from the periphery to the center of his teams’ orbits as the ever-increasing pressure leaves runners more tightly injured.

“The reason my role is growing, and I think it’s needed in every team, is because of the growth of the sport. Now if you’re a pro you have to watch so many details. All those details have to be positive, otherwise the rider starts to doubt. It’s become really difficult for riders to keep everything in one piece,” she said.

It was only this week that 24-year-old Pernille Mathiesen retired due to mental health issues. Tom Dumoulin has announced an early retirement after battling pressure and burnout earlier this month.

Career breaks or early retirements have become common for riders just starting out in professional life. Theo Nonnez, 21, and Lennard Kamna, then 24, both recently retired.

“The riders have to talk with the sponsors and play this game. They have to watch their position, they have to work their time trial bike. They have to maintain core stability, hydration, body weight,” Borgia said.

“There is so much integration and precision. There are so many variables that ultimately if you’re not well balanced, you crack.

“You need legs to win, but it’s not enough”

Rohan Dennis acknowledged that working with a psychologist was crucial to his success at the TT World Championships. (: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

The role of psychologists in top-level cycling is not new.

Team Sky and British Cycling worked with Dr Steve Peters to master their inner champion.

Rohan Dennis actively credited his psychologist, Dr David Spindler, for getting him back on track for his time trial triumph at the world championships in Harrogate.

“You have to be in good shape, you need legs to win, but that’s not enough. You can be the strongest physically but if something is wrong inside, it doesn’t work,” Borgia said.

Borgia, 34, helps cyclists on a daily basis with issues ranging from self-confidence and performance anxiety to more ‘common’ concerns about families or relationships.

“Physical preparation is key, but there’s more to it,” she said. “The mental part is really important now. On the plus side, I’m working on the cycling stuff like setting goals, but I also have to talk to them about mental health. There is a lot of stress in the race.

The perfectionist, relentless mindset that separates race winners from pack fillers can leave racers prone to a range of ailments.

“I worked for 10 years in a rehabilitation clinic as a clinical psychologist for people with addictions, drugs, alcohol and gambling. And I can tell you that I can see many, many things that are really common to runners,” Borgia said. “Top riders are personalities looking for thrills. Often this need can be a problem, especially when they retire and start needing something else.

Social media pressure

Riders have to navigate deep ups and downs – and much of it is happening on social media. (Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

Social media is almost a must for any modern high-flying pilot. An active stream is encouraged by many teams.

Smooth and regularly updated Instagram, Twitter and TikTok profiles thank their teammates and spice up life in the peloton. They also add another layer of anxiety.

“Social media is a big deal today. Runners are never off. They are constantly activated by so many elements. All professional sports are like that now. It’s much harder than 10 years ago when a good athlete had to win and that was enough,” Borgia said.

“There are races all over the world, the level is higher, and now you have to be an influencer. You have to pole your bikes, show that life is good, and also when it’s off season, you have to do something.

Read also : Jumbo-Visma driver Lennard Hofstede talks quitting social media

The pressure extends beyond the staff as ‘Stravanoia’ take over training schedules.

“Runners are on recovery day and all they have to do is do their training and follow the plan. Then they turn on their phone and see their competitors drive 200 km and get a KOM. Then they feel guilty,” Borgia said.

Mechanics, masseuses, caregivers, nutritionists… and psychologists

Despite a mechanical problem in the last quarter of the stage, Kuss rode well, finishing fourth for the day, and now finds himself eighth overall.
Riders like Kuss are currently facing pressure to do the 2022 Tour de France. (: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

How soon could we see psychologists in each professional team?

It could be very soon, as runners are certainly seeing the benefits.

“We don’t have a psychologist hired by the team, but I think on a case-by-case basis we have someone the team can refer us to,” said Jumbo-Visma driver Sepp Kuss. “I think it would be a good idea to have someone who would be readily available to speak with.”

Masseuses and nutritionists were once seen as a wild and wacky addition to a team bubble. A decade later, they’re a staple for outfits of all budgets and aspirations.

Staffers like Borgia could be the next to make the leap to the mainstream.

“We are an important part of professional cycling and culture. When I started 10 years ago, a lot of cyclists didn’t want to show that they were going to see a psychologist because they would feel like they were crazy,” she said.

“Integrating psychologists into the teams is certainly a big step forward. I think many riders on a WorldTour team have their own psychologist at home. It’s not mandatory but it’s really important – and I think it’s getting even more important.

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