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Ambitious, Alone & Far From Home: Leading Top-Talents in a Global World

Moerman

“It is not because you did not win today that your day is lost. When you continue to make progress, the wins will come.” Bernard Moerman

Bernard Moerman is an executive coach and consultant in the field of organizational change and transformation. Prior to shifting his focus to the corporate sector, he spent more than two decades as a talent manager, coach, mentor and Team Director in the world of elite-level cycling.

But rather than channeling his energy into working directly with professional cycling teams, Bernard’s passion was supporting young riders from Asia-Pacific, the Americas, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Russia and the former Soviet Republics to train and race in Europe. As founder of The Cycling Center and later General Manager of Team3M he hosted more than 850 young riders at his base near to Brugge in Belgium.

In this interview Bernard talks about his experience in supporting young people to succeed, and the techniques that he learned to address their fears of failure, their setbacks and the very human feelings of isolation and loneliness when far from home. Bernard’s experience in supporting young people to succeed is universally relevant – not just for sporting coaches and mentors, but for any leader working with ambitious young people.

JAMIE: Can you explain what inspired your decision to dedicate a significant part of your life to supporting young people achieve their dreams?

BERNARD: As a young man my dream was to become a soccer player, and I progressed to the Belgian professional league. As part of that journey I came across young and talented foreign players, and I was intrigued by their courage of leaving home and travelling half-way around the world. After my football career I became a business entrepreneur, but still felt a strong connection with sport. This led to an interest in cycling, and I saw the struggle that many young foreign riders had in establishing themselves in Belgium. I thought that these young people were so brave, and that they needed support. So I decided to see what I might be able to do to help them and before too long it became not just a passion, but a calling and a full-time commitment.

JAMIE:Many of the young people that you hosted in Belgium over the years were top-talents in their own countries. But the level of cycling in Belgium is renowned to be incredibly high, so how did these young sports people find that transition from hometown hero to racing in Europe?

BERNARD:For all of them it felt like being hit by a truck. They often arrived with a lot of confidence and a track-record of good results in their home countries, but very soon they discovered that racing in Belgium was at a whole new level.   Soon these young riders discovered that “cycling-talent” was not the prime survival factor. They needed resilience, adaptability, agility and most definitely a reason for making the sacrifices they were making.

I soon discovered that many of these young people defined their goals in rather narrow terms – of winning this race or that, or “getting a contract.” But they rarely reflected on the wider purpose of whythey were doing what they were doing – like realizing their true potential as a human being or by competing in Europe as a way to inspire others in the countries and communities from which they came.

This lack of a deeper purpose meant that a lack of results in competition could discourage them greatly – they were unable to reflect upon the bigger journey that they were on. So an important objective was helping each and every rider to reflect upon some wider objectives for coming to race in Europe – to articulate their personal Why?

I always told them, “Make sure you go back to your country stepping on the plane with as few what ifs as possible. If I had only done this, If I had only done that.” This is where it always came back to the question of purpose. If a rider had been able to frame their experience in Belgium at a deeper level of meaning, then they rarely left Europe with regrets.

JAMIE:It must have been difficult for these high-achievers to be suddenly realizing their weaknesses and limitations. How did you support them to rebuild their confidence and to improve? What specific techniques or approaches did you use?

BERNARD: The first thing I said: Don’t do anything “half-ass” an expression I learned from the first Californian rider we had. Do the right things and do those things right and at 110%. This included not just training and eating right, but also resting and making time to reflect upon lessons learned.

Another important aspect was helping them to understand that only 1 out of 250 Belgian riders and 1 out of 400 foreign riders would make it to a pro contract. And making it to the top was as much a lottery of luck, crashes, injuries and sickness as it was about talent and hard work. So becoming pro could not be the only objective – it also needed to be about building strength of character and learning life skills. The “Why?” needed to come from a deeper level.

It was not unusual for foreign riders to perform very poorly in their first races in Belgium. The level was so high, the courses very technical and the style of racing quite different to what they were used to. So maybe they would finish just half of the race, or even less. It was necessary to have a strategy to prepare them for this, so we set “micro” goals such as staying at the front of the race for as long as possible. And in cases when they were dropped, there would be a clear post-race objective, like riding double of the remaining race time at training pace. This meant that no race was a “failure” but part of a wider development plan.

It was also important to encourage the riders to have a growth mindset. Training on the bike is very important, but that only takes maybe 2 to 6 hours each day. So athletes have a lot of down-time for rest and recovery. But rather than just watching TV or playing video games they could use this time to learn. They could explore technical topics like aerodynamics, or research latest developments in nutrition.

But more importantly I encouraged them to take a break from time to time to pursue their interests outside of cycling – whether it be other hobbies and passions or studying a distance-learning course. Doing so could help to avoid mental burnout and also lay the foundation for lifelong learning and a career after the bike – something that far few riders invest in during their years of competition.

JAMIE: Many of these riders were very far from home. How do you think that affected their performance? Was there a difference between these international riders and the local boys and girls living at home with Mum & Dad?

BERNARD: The difference was huge, and many of the local riders were pampered beyond imagination. I told all foreign riders at the Cycling Center that homesickness is nothing to be ashamed of as it means you are thankful of your family and your community. So homesickness is not a proof of failure or weakness, it’s proof of being human. Performing at the highest level, even though you miss home, makes you so much stronger as a person. It boosts your self-confidence and prepares you well for the ups-and-downs throughout life.

JAMIE: To what extent was there a role for you to support them on a personal level when they felt isolated or lonely? Were there other members of your team who took on this role?

BERNARD: My wife Ann and I understood the importance of supporting our riders emotionally, especially during times of difficulty. We had two “Golden Rules”: Ann was the “far-away-from home mom” and riders knew they could talk with her about anything. The deal between myself and my wife was that as long as “the issue” was not endangering the team or the cycling center, it was not necessary to tell me.  Secondly, if there was a rider in the hospital because of a crash, something that happened all too often, then he needed to see one of us as soon as he opened his eyes. We felt it essential that they all knew we would be there for support.

JAMIE:Only a small number of all of the riders that you worked with over the years managed to build a long-term career in the professional peloton. How do you think that the experience racing in Belgium impacted those riders who returned home to pursue other careers? What did they learn from their time at The Cycling Center?

BERNARD:In my introduction towards new riders I always told them that the Cycling Center was a place where they could learn to become a professional – not just in cycling, but in any field of endeavor. I said, “You all think about becoming pro-cyclists, but since very few of you will make it, I want to provide a program that insures that your investment in time and money will not be wasted. This experience will prepare you for life.”

We worked on understanding the value of team-spirit, collaboration, honest and straight forward communication, respect, resilience and discipline. We were always results-oriented not results driven. We worked out ambitious plans and broke those plans down into achievable steps. We always tailored to the needs of the individual but also encouraged the individual to be humble and generous to others.

Over a period of 25 years we hosted over 800 riders and about 10 made it to the “big-league” as successful professional cyclists. Great. But the biggest achievement to me has been the fact that very many of our riders thrived in their lives after cycling. They became lawyers, surgeons, physicians, engineers and entrepreneurs – we know of at least 150 that have started their own businesses.

JAMIE: And now that you work as an executive leadership coach, what do you think that leaders in the corporate world might learn from your experience in working with young talent?

BERNARD:  First, a leader needs to juggle the Why? of the organization, their own personal Why?and the Why?of the young talent.  These 3 Whysneed to be aligned – and need to be clear to all.

The leader also needs to help his or her young talents to build resilience as the journey to career success is rarely without setbacks. No matter how clear the Why, no matter how much talent there is, no matter how much preparation there is, real talent will be measured at critical moments – moments when things go wrong. Helping people to be open minded and humble at these times prepares them to cope in moments of crisis, and to learn from their mistakes. Good leadership celebrate resilience as a foundation for future high-performance.

Emotional engagement is also critical in today’s fast-moving and global working environment.  Leaders need to be there to back-up their high-performers, and to accept very human emotions such as loneliness and homesickness.  Humanity, honesty and integrity are the glue in stressful moments, when the resilience of the young talent and the empathy of the leader is tested.

Team 3M 2

 

 

 

 

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Living Like a Pro

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Training in the Basque Region, Spain

It is just one week to go until my first race of the season – The Tour of Good Hope, South Africa. The last half year has been amongst the most fulfilling time of my life, as I have embraced my commitment to prepare for the World Masters Cycling Championship in Albi France in August. In my last blog post I talked about my willingness to “live like a professional cyclist” and over the past six months I have done so. So what does “living like a pro” actually mean?

Since September I have been training under the mentorship of my coach and ex-professional cyclist Allan Davis, completing somewhere between 12 and 20 hours of training per week, split between time on my bike and workouts in the gym. Approximately half of my on-bike work is done indoor on my stationary trainer to allow me to completely control my efforts, and of course to deal with the Belgian winter weather.

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My Coach, Allan Davis

So how about balancing training, work and family? September through November was pretty steady with one or two days of work per week, typically a keynote talk or day of teaching. I did not take on any commitments involving long-haul travel at this time, so all of my work projects were in Europe avoiding long flights and jet lag. I tried to align my gym sessions with days that I needed to travel, as most hotels have decent gym facilities and/or a pool.

Four or five times a week I have started my day at 6.30am with an easy one-hour session on the indoor trainer, before joining the family for breakfast and doing the School commute. After the School drop-off I have headed out on my bike to complete my specific training activities, or gone to the gym or pool. This has typically been followed by shower and lunch, and then an afternoon of emailing, conference calls, writing and other work activities.

From December until end of February I have had very few work commitments in terms of keynotes and teaching – just one day a week or so. But this is typical as this time of year is always less busy, especially with regard to conferences and events. March and April has been almost completely blocked out in my agenda for racing – something which my speaking agent has been wonderfully understanding about.

After racing the Giro Sardinia at end of April, I plan to take it relatively easy in May and first half of June to allow time for my body to recover from a very intensive nine month period of training and racing. So I have told my speaking agent that I will be available in this period to ramp-up my speaking commitments – which also corresponds with the busiest time of the year for conferences and congresses.

My family have been very understanding – and I definitely have the most amazing wife in the world! Training at this level takes a huge amount of energy and focus, but I have been mindful about contributing to the household and spending quality time with Anne-Mie and the kids. There have been moments of frustration and annoyance, but I think that is normal in any relationship. But the family completely understands what I am working towards, and that makes a huge difference.

With regard to training, September through November involved a lot of time on developing muscular power and core strength, with three sessions per week of about an hour in the gym and a weekly swimming session. Training on the bike at this time involved three to four hour rides twice a week, interspersed with shorter sessions after the intensive gym workouts. December included a big training “block” in India where I participated in the Tour of Nilgiris, covering more than 1100kms in just eight days.

From start of January I shifted from gym sessions to on-bike power and intensity training, starting a number of new protocols introduced to me by Allan. The emphasis of these sessions has been on dramatically increasing my neuromuscular power, building on the weight training and core work done during my base building phase. The biggest shift for me was to introduce twice weekly efforts using lower cadence and higher power output through short interval work. These sessions resulted in a lot of fatigue, and were interspersed with easy “brew” rides to allow my muscles to recover.

On top of this, I have maintained two or three sessions per week of three to four hours on the bike, varying between easy riding and high intensity tempo riding. From middle of February we have included one or two Time Trial specific training sessions per week, very intensive but short efforts at high power using varying cadence to simulate race efforts over mixed terrain. And finally, I am just back from a four day block of training with Allan in the Basque region of Spain where we did climbing efforts and motor pacing at race speed.

In addition to the physical work, I have been focusing a lot on my diet, and Allan and I have introduced a regime of vitamin and mineral supplements to help my body cope with the intensive training load. I have provided a list of my supplements below, and it is identical to the regime used by a current World Tour professional team. I have a good diet, but it is difficult to meet all of the body’s requirements for branch chain amino acids, iron and other minerals – thus the supplements regime. I have found that my general feeling of health and wellness has improved with this approach, and I have not had any issue with colds, flu or illness over the winter months.

Although I have not focused on weight loss specifically, my weight has declined from 68.5 kilograms at start of September to 66kgs by end of February. I plan to lose another kilogram during March as I prepare for more mountainous race events in Cyprus and Italy, and this will involve dieting.

Figure 1 – Dietary Supplement Regime

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So what have been the results of “living like a pro” under the guidance of Allan Davis? I can objectively say that I am currently in the best condition of my life, purely on the performance metrics that I have been tracking over the past three years. I train with a heart rate monitor and power meter, and have been collecting and analysing my performance data since start of 2014. My current level of performance is somewhere between 5% and 10% better across the board than for my highest numbers in 2016 – for 5 minute, 10 minute, 20 minute, 30 minute and 60 minute functional threshold power.

Figure 2 – TrainingPeaks Performance Management Chart

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I have provided some of my data for the cycling nerds out there, and you can clearly see the steady progression of my fitness (blue line) in the above TrainingPeaks chart (Figure 2). I have also accrued a lot of fatigue (pink line), which I will now steadily reduce through tapering to see my race “form” (orange line) peak just in time for the Tour of Good Hope.

For the cycling novices, the main thing to appreciate is that my current performance numbers in terms of watts per kilogram of body weight (Figure 3) now equate to what is typically expected at the domestic professional level, also known as “Continental Professional” level here in Europe. So not too bad for an old guy.

Figure 3 – Peak Power Output

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Now it is all about converting this incredible feeling of fitness into some race results in South Africa in a little over a week’s time.

I can’t wait!

Am I good enough…?

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One of the realities for anyone who has big dreams is self doubt. That nagging feeling that big achievements are for other people, and that one doesn’t have what it takes to reach those bold horizons. But I think we also have another fear – that we will reach the end of our days and regret that we gave-up too soon, and that we did not fulfill the potential that we all have inside of us. That is something which really drives me – I would hate to come to the end of my life thinking that there was something left undone.

I had a great season this year – nine podiums in races in Belgium, South Africa and Italy. So now I am thinking about 2017, and I have a big goal – I plan to race the UCI World Masters Championships in Albi, France. The 150km road race will be held over an undulating and very tough course, peppered with steep climbs. But I have to ask myself – am I good enough? Am I really good enough to win a World Championship?

I would really love to get on the podium in Albi. But the first consideration in preparing for a race of this level is to take an objective look at the physiological requirements. So to do that I have spent time analysing the performance of some of the top Masters cyclists in the world.

In this endeavour I have been helped by the social media platform Strava. You see, many of my competitors upload their training and racing data to Strava so I can analyse the physical performance of these guys in a way that has never been possible before. Not only can I see how many kilometres of training they are doing – I can also see their physiological parameters, such as power output per kilogram of body weight over different time intervals.

And make no mistake – the performances of many of these middle-aged amateur cyclists compare to riders in the professional peloton. The reason for this is because these amateurs live like professional cyclists – many of them ride over 20,000 kilometres per year, averaging upwards of 20 hours a week on the bike. But I am okay with that – Albi is a big goal for me, so I will make time to do whatever training is needed. I can live like a pro for a year.

To help me on my journey towards competing in Albi I have enlisted the coaching support of Allan Davis, an Aussie former professional cyclist with an impressive palmares. As part of preparing a training plan, we have looked at the results of the 2016 Masters World Championships that were recently held in Perth, Australia. Some of the guys who finished on the podium for the M4 (45-50 yo) category in the road race in Perth have uploaded their race and training data to Strava.

I have shared my insights with Allan, and we have both come to the same conclusion – without some kind of chemical enhancement, I am very unlikely to be able to produce the kind of raw numbers on show. I am not suggesting that the guys who made the podium in Perth are dopers – I know the Aussie winner Sam Smith and I trust 100% that he races clean. It is just that physiologically many of the top Masters riders seem to be able to do stuff that I have not been able to do up until this point in my cycling career.

So what are my thoughts for Albi? In Perth, three very strong guys won with a long-range breakaway that was formed with more than 85km remaining. Could that tactic work again next year? Given that many of the same guys will race in France, I am hoping that the peloton will be more reactive in chasing down attacks. This would mean that a larger group of guys survive into the final stages of the race.

The average speed of the race will be somewhere around 40 kilometres per hour, so I will need to be able to sustain a high average power output for roughly four hours. The actual wattage number I have calculated is about ten percent less than the power produced by the gold medallist in Perth, but I am smaller and lighter than him and do not intend to lead a breakaway or drive the pace at the front of the pack. So training goal number one will be to train my body’s ability to hold that high average power for four hours.

ALBI WORLD MASTERS COURSE

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Training goal number two will be getting over those climbs. The hills in Albi are not especially long, and not especially high. But they are steep and there are lots of them – ranging between three and ten minutes duration at race speed. The biggest challenge will come at the 55km mark, and if I am unable to hang on to the strongest guys on that first major climb then my race will be over. So I will need to train my body to produce a lot of power for the ten minutes or so of that climb. To help me fight gravity I will also need to lose weight, and should be down at around 64kg by race day, about 2.5kg lighter than I am now.

Positioning will also be crucial on those climbs, and I will need to be near the front of the peloton at the foot of each ascent. This will allow me to conserve energy by dropping back as we ascend, while staying in touch with the leaders as the accordion of riders strings out. I will arrive in Albi at least two weeks before the race, and will ride the climbs and descents.

If I am still at the front end of the race with a group of riders in the final kilometres, then attacks will certainly come. The guys who cannot sprint will try to breakaway and whoever is left will have to follow. These attacks are violent, explosive efforts of half a minute to a minute just to hold on to the guys in front of you. So goal number three will be to work on those explosive high-lactate efforts. This will involve a mix of on the bike interval work, power training in the gym and of course Kermis racing here in Belgium.

For me, the ideal finale for the Albi race will be to come to the line with a small group of riders – anywhere from five to fifteen guys. I can produce a big burst of speed at the end of a long and hard race, and I can keep a clear head. So the final piece of the training puzzle will be sprint work, done mostly on the indoor velodrome in Gent.

A look at raw data suggests that I am not good enough to win in Albi – there are so many guys out in the cycling universe that are stronger than me. I’ve seen their numbers.

But a look at raw data would have suggested that I wasn’t good enough when I competed at the World Masters Games in Torino three years ago…And I came home with a bronze medal.

In 2012 Simon Gerrans won Milan San Remo. A fellow Aussie who is almost exactly my height and weight, Simon finished ahead of Fabian Cancellara, Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan. In his words: ““Without question Fabian was the strongest, I can’t deny him that…But it’s not always the strongest guy who wins the race. You have to play a little smart and be there.”

I am good enough to win in Albi. Because winning bike races is not just about numbers – it is about tactical nous and riding to your strengths. It is also about having a little bit of luck.

And most importantly it is about self belief.

Link to My TED Talk: Click Here

Big Hairy Ambitious Goals

I remember when I was working at London Business School back in the early 2000s, and I taught on a program for a big international telecom company based in the UK. The company used the acronym ‘BHAG’ or ‘Big Hairy Ambitious Goal’ to describe what they were trying to achieve in the business world. I adopted the term as part of my journey towards a medal in the mens road race at the World Masters Games in Torino.

My body is almost fully recovered after my accident back in April. Ten broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and a punctured lung don’t heal overnight, and my first few months back on the bike back in July and August were just awful. I had lost so much strength, that I was regularly passed by the lone retirees that you come across pedalling the roads of Flanders. And they were not riding electric bikes!

I can admit that the accident had not just hit me physically – I felt depressed, as the pain was pretty much constant for about three months. It was impossible to lie flat, so I slept in a ‘Grandpa’ chair for more than ten weeks. When I first got back on my indoor trainer at end of June, I was exhausted after just 30 or 40 minutes of pedalling. My body was using so much energy to fix itself, that any added exertion left me drained.

But bit by bit I have increased my training intensity over the past four months, and now I am starting to hit the performance numbers that I was doing back in April. One of the good things about the accident is that it has really taught me to sense my body – I don’t know if its real or imagined, but it is kind of like I can feel my muscles, joints and even respiration with a heightened sensitivity. So every day when I start my training session, I first spend some time just sensing my body. And then I compare the way I feel to the screen in front of me – power output, heart rate and cadence.

The other good thing about the accident is how motivated I am feeling about getting back to competition. The start of this year was quite stressful – our contractor had gone bankrupt in the middle of building our new house, throwing our moving plans into disarray and meaning that we had been stressed with getting the project back on track over the winter. The whole episode had really disrupted my training, so I came into the Spring behind where I would have liked to be. I had some good results in South Africa in March, but I felt distracted. Then the accident.

But now I feel incredibly motivated to make the 2016 season one of my best. For the past six weeks or so I have been waking at around 6am almost every morning, doing 60 to 90 minutes on the indoor trainer before Anne-Mie and the kids are out of bed. I am in my obsessive groove, where training gives me the kind of kick that I guess musicians and artists feel when they are in their flow. There is no boredom or loneliness, no mental distraction. I’ve even started to talk to Anne-Mie and the kids about my power curve and watts per kilo, and they are kind enough to feign interest.

Now its time to set some BHAGs !