Hi guys. Busy day so I thought that, instead of trying to come with something insightful to say, I'd just post my article on the role that fear plays among female riders. It appeared in the June issue of Pedal magazine. Hope you enjoy it.
Fear as a Factor
by Sara Best
Whether screaming down a descent, sprinting in a pack, or shredding up the trails, there is an exhilarating side to cycling that makes it addictive to those who love it. However, the often extreme nature of the sport means risk, and for many female riders, risk means fear.
There are women who have ridden their way to the very top of the sport. They have broken records, won medals, and done things on a bike that many men would never dream of attempting. But generally speaking, fear plays a bigger role among female riders – especially beginners – than it does among their male counterparts.
Danelle Kabush has competed professionally in cross-country mountain biking since 1999 and off-road triathlons since 2004. She recently finished 2nd at the 2006 World Xterra Championships. Kabush received a Doctorate in Social Psychology with an emphasis in Sport Psychology from the University of Ottawa and currently acts as a Mental Skills Coach with the Canadian Sports Centre. She says that, “There are always exceptions to the rule, but overcoming fear is usually one of the top issues that beginning female cyclists want to deal with."
Denise Kelly, former National team member for Canada and the new Provincial Coaching Director for the Ontario Cycling Association, agrees that fear is indeed a factor for female riders, “I would say that yes, fear does play a bigger factor with women on the technical side of the sport for sure. For example, descending, cornering at speeds, sitting close to a wheel, being pushed around – it’s a bigger deal for women.”
However, Kelly is quick to point out that fear is not something that only affects women. “In my experience, both young men and women have fear in different ways. For a guy it may be fear of pushing himself. ” And, while female riders may start off in the sport with fear, male riders can develop fear as a result of a bad crash or accident on the bike, a general lack of confidence, or lack of experience.
For women, Kabush says that this fear tends to manifest itself in a lack of confidence and hesitancy among female riders to take risks on the bike. The fear factor may also be one of the reasons why women tend come to the sport later in life than men. For young boys who fool around on skateboards and dirt bikes, there is a more natural progression into a world like cycling early on. They’ve learned basic skills and built up confidence in their abilities and are therefore able to achieve success in the sport at a younger age. "I think the learning curve is steeper [for women],” says Kelly. Women often need to spend some time in other sports such as downhill skiing, track or swimming before building up the confidence they need to tackle a sport like competitive cycling.
Why are women more afraid than men? Are women born afraid or is it taught? Is this a case of nature or nurture?
Kabush believes that the way young girls are raised plays a big part. “Girls aren’t socialized to be aggressive and competitive in the same way boys are. Little boys are encouraged to go out and rip around on their bikes, get dirty, get scraped up, and learn how to fix things. They are encouraged to always push their limits within their peer groups. Little girls are encouraged to play with their dolls, don't get hurt, don't play on the streets, don’t get dirty, be careful.”
Michelle Ward, founder and team manager of the Fly Gurlz women’s mountain biking team, points out that once those walls are built up in your mind over the years, it takes some work to bring them down. Fear can come simply from not knowing what you’re capable of. “Women almost always underestimate their abilities,” says Ward. "When we ask for their skill level at registration for our training camps, women will regularly list themselves as a beginner when they’re really an intermediate.”
Ward says that the fear factor is often easily surmounted with a gradual approach to teaching. “Some camps take riders right out onto the trails – we never do that. We spend the morning of the first day just working on basic skills such as shifting and braking. As the riders build up skill slowly, the fear falls away and sometimes by the afternoon that beginner group is riding right over the big log pile. They surprise themselves.”
Another source of confidence for female riders is seeing other women succeed. According to Kabush, female-only camps, rides, and training environments with female coaches are a great starting point to get past any initial fears and intimidation. Ward agrees. She believes that having female instructors teach the Fly Gurlz camps makes the riders more comfortable. “Our female instructors have felt the same feelings and can relate.”
Kelly says that for any rider dealing with fear she prescribes two things as a coach. The first is positive visualization. “Focus on what you want to happen, not what you don’t want to happen." And the second is thorough pre-race planning. “One of the biggest limiting factors in performance is lack of pre-race planning. Many athletes don’t even take the time to do a plan, and they end up freaking out on the line. I encourage them to do a plan, go through it and talk each step out logically.”
Kelly says that, ultimately, for any athlete, it comes down to the love of the sport. "They have to really, really love it to overcome that fear. And sometimes the fear masks that love and you have to talk them through it and get them to remember why they’re doing it. Over the years I’ve had to have a few of those conversations with myself!”