Joe Friel Interview

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Joe Friel has trained highly successful endurance athletes since 1980. His clients range from amateur and professional road cyclists to mountain bikers, triathletes, duathletes, swimmers and runners from all corners of the globe, including American and foreign national champions, world championship competitors and an Olympian.
Friel holds a Master’s degree in exercise science and he is a U.S.A. Triathlon and U.S.A. Cycling certified coach and the founder and President of UltraFit Coaches Association. He is also a featured columnist for Inside Triathlon and Velo News and the author of eight books including the best selling training bible series: The Cyclist’s Training Bible, The Mountain Biker’s Training Bible, and The Triathlete’s Training Bible in addition to his newest book Going Long, Training for Iron Man Distance Triathlons.

Podium: What, in your opinion, are the top attributes of champion cyclists?

Joe Friel: The first thing I always look for is whether somebody has a direction, a focus or what you might call a mission. They have to have a purpose; something they really want to achieve. The best athletes I have worked with over the years have always had some clear focus about their journey and a strong desire to achieve. An athlete who really isn’t sure what they want to achieve in sport is somewhat of a challenge for me to coach, and I think it’s a challenge for them also.

Secondly, they really need some sort of support system. They need people around them that give them help. It’s very, very difficult to make it in cycling. It’s very demanding; takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. So, there are lots of people in a good athlete’s support system from spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, parents, coach, massage therapists, managers, sometimes an agent, team members, training partners and right down the line. All the people around the athlete need to be there to support them. If the athlete has those things working for them, they’ve taken a big step in the right direction for achieving their goals.

Finally, good athletes really don’t train aimlessly. They have a purpose and training plan and they know where they’re going. There’s some precision about the training. It’s not done haphazardly. So when I look at athletes, I’m looking for those three things. When I find something that’s missing, I know the athlete’s going to be challenged. If all three elements are there, then we go on to the next step which is to look at the athlete’s physical attributes.

Podium: The USOC did a study of why athletes succeed or fail, and the support system was a key factor. Why is it you think that’s so when all these athletes are really motivated?

Joe Friel: Almost everything I’ve learned about this sort of thing has come from working with athletes in the real world. Many years ago, I was coaching a gentleman whose goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. He had a fair amount of talent, but it was going to be a challenge because he was right on the edge of qualifying. One thing I discovered about him early in the process of getting to know him was that his wife didn’t support him doing all this running. She found it to be kind of silly and pointless and she ridiculed him for it. Consequently on weekends he would get up at four o’clock in the morning to do his long run, and get his workout in and be back home about the time she was getting out of bed. He could avoid the ridicule while he was getting dressed to go out to run and not feel guilty about what he was doing. Now, as you can probably guess, he had a really hard time training for the race and didn’t qualify. That was the first time I’d ever seen that happen. It just stood out so clearly to me that had she supported him, I think he would have made it. I think the talent was there.

Podium: An entire section of The Cyclists Training Bible is devoted to training with a purpose. You include in that a three-part assessment tool that sizes up a racer’s potential. Part 1 looks at proficiencies with regard to climbing, sprinting and time trials. Another part assesses a cyclist’s sense of their own strength, skills, and endurance. The most comprehensive part examines the cyclist’s mental skills. Our Podium cyclist survey this month features that mental skills assessment. Why is it you feel that’s so important?

Joe Friel: I’ve always believed that for an athlete to be successful at the highest level, they need to have everything in their life essentially pointed in the right direction. It’s very difficult to achieve high levels in sport if something is missing. I’ve seen that over and over again when I work with real athletes in the real world.

I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to help someone really achieve high goals we had to get the mental side right also. It is every bit as important, sometimes more important (than the physical). The higher the performance level of the athlete the more crucial mental skills become for success in sport.

It’s not to say they’re not important for people who are novices or fairly new, but at the highest levels they become critical. There is very little difference between athletes at the highest levels of competition when it comes to the physical attributes. In the top ten of a world class race, the attributes may not vary more than one percent in any particular area of physical ability. Often it comes down to mental ability. Who has the mental talent to actually get the job done on any given day is critical to success at the highest levels.

Podium: You break the mental skills down into five specific categories. Could you talk about that?

Joe Friel: Sure. The categories I look at are: 1) motivation; 2) confidence; 3) thought habits (basically, do they express themselves in a positive or a negative way); 4) focus (concentration during races, workouts and in other areas of their life); 5) visualization. I actually rank them in that hierarchy when I look at athletes.

The number one thing I’m looking for is motivation. If I find an athlete who comes to me asking for coaching and I discover their motivation is marginal, we’re likely to fight an uphill battle all the way. I’ve only had one pro athlete I coached who in my opinion had marginal motivation. He was good; extremely good. He had actually won a world championship once as a junior. He had raced in worlds a few times and in several national championships. He had done very well; top ten. He was a very good performer, but lacked this tiny little spark that would make him be the best possible athlete he could be, perhaps the best in the world. It was hard to detect, but as his coach for many years it became obvious to me that there was something missing and it was in the area of motivation. Everything else was there.

Podium: Could you see that in his workouts?

Joe Friel: Definitely. He would find excuses to change the workout, to modify it to make it easier. If the weather was bad he would see that as a good reason not to go outside, not do the workout. Some things were obvious. When somebody’s highly motivated, the weather is not a factor. They’ll figure out some way to do it. They’ll figure it out no matter what it takes. They’ll get the workout in. He wasn’t like that.

Podium: We sent your mental skills profile out to 100 cyclists that we know. Twenty-one responded. There were 30 questions in all, and we can’t go into all of them, but if you don’t mind I’d like to explore some of these items.

Joe Friel: Sure.

Podium: Item number three, “When things don’t go well in a race I remain positive”. The responses break down on a 6-point Likert scale: Never – Rarely – Sometimes – Frequently – Usually – Always. Thirty eight percent scored “Usually.” Talk a little bit about that and what you think this says about Joe Racer.

Joe Friel: Sure. The response that they gave is what I generally see across the board. When things don’t go well in a race, they’re going to remain positive and Joe Racer is that way.

Joe Racer didn’t say always; they said usually, which is good. It’s good to see because it tells me that if they remain positive, they’re continuing to think there is hope and there are ways to make it happen. Henry Ford said if you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right. That’s exactly right. If you believe it’s all over, it’s all over. If you believe there’s a chance, there’s a chance.

Podium: “Before races I’m able to erase self-doubt.” Joe Racer chose “sometimes”. How do you see that?

Joe Friel: Sometimes I’m able to erase self-doubt before races, but not always. There were several other categories above that sometimes. Could have said frequently; could have said usually or could have said always, but didn’t. They said sometimes. Again I think that’s indicative of someone who is just not quite sure of themselves, doesn’t have the focus to get ready for a race. If a person can erase their self-doubt, then I think that tells me that 1) they’re realistic. They know they doubt what’s going on, that they have some doubt in their mind. But 2) they’re able to cope with it and realize that they’ve got whatever it takes to get the job done. Again, that’s a very positive experience for the athlete to say that I realize there’s some doubt about my ability here, but I think I can get it done.

Podium: Do you have any techniques you use that might help Joe Racer develop better focus or acquire confidence?

Joe Friel: Actually, there are a lot of things. There are three things I’ve had athletes do over the years that I’ve learned work pretty well. I learned these from working with a pro cyclist back in the late 90’s who had a lot of ability, but was lacking in the area of confidence. I had her start working on these three things and she turned it entirely around that year. She went on to win the national championship and finish fifth in the world. Best finish by any American that year and completely changed her attitude about herself as an athlete. What I had her do were fairly basic things that I had learned from talking with sport psychologists over the years.

The first thing I asked her was to do an exercise every night when she went to bed, just after she turned out the lights. We all have this little period of time, which is about five or ten minutes before we fall asleep. I think it’s the most valuable time in the entire day. I asked her to go back during that time period every night and find one thing that she did in training that day she thought was good, was successful, and review it, re-play the tape if you will. Just go back and find the accomplishment. It may not be a big thing. Maybe she just climbed a hill that day and felt pretty good climbing that hill. Just go back and climb that hill a few more times before you go to sleep that night. Or maybe she finished her workout which was harder than she thought she could do, a rather big achievement. Go back and relive that.

I think what happens by doing that, by reliving these successes over and over and over, is you start looking for success instead of looking for your weaknesses. What am I doing that’s really good? Let’s define it for today. What did I do today? In fact, I think that works with any aspect of life. I don’t care what it is… Business, your relationships, or sports. Every day I think it’s good to find what you’re successful at. Where was my success today? So I had her do that every day.

The second thing I had her do was to take advantage of that stack of successes she was building up over time. Over the course of week she would have had seven successes she had found. Over the course of a month she would have had 30 successes. Over the course of a year, so forth and so on. She’d have all these successes she’s building up. She’s got a reservoir of success she can always go back to, which is very valuable because you need to call on these from time to time.

So, I told her that she was going to experience times, especially at races, when she would have self-one and self-two arguing with each other. Self-one is the real her, the real athlete. Self-two is this parental voice in our heads that is always telling us there’s something wrong with us. At the starting line we might hear we’re not as good as the other athletes. We’re not as fast. We’re not as strong. We don’t climb very well. Those people are better than me, etc., etc. We all have that self-two talking to us constantly, that little voice in the back of our head. Self-one has to overcome that.

So, what I told her to do was when she realized this was happening, when she was starting to have these self-doubts in her mind, when self-two was starting to victimize her, I taught her to go back and find the success, one of her big successes, that she had been building up in her reservoir of successful memories. Right then in that moment, she would be called upon to relive that success. Just find a big one and go relive it. I call those things anchors. Anchors are very successful events that have taken place in the athlete’s training or racing and when needed she could go back and find them. Instead of listening to self-two, she’d go back and find something successful about herself and relive that success. In other words, I teach athletes to never allow this self-two to get control. Always be in control of your own mind.

The third thing I told her to do actually came from a story she was telling me about. She had raced in big races like the women’s Tour de France, which most people don’t even know exists and she’d raced against some of the best racers in the world. For example, Jeannie Longo was in her prime when she raced overseas. So I asked my racer one day, “How does Jeannie Longo act and look before the race starts?” The answer was, “She looks as though she knows she’s going to win. She just has that kind of look about her. She knows it and everybody else does too.” “Well, how does she look when she’s riding a bike?” “Well, she rides a bike looking like she’s going to win. Like she’s confident and successful. She just has that look about her.” I said, “Okay. I want you to walk around before the race looking like you’re going to win. I want you to sit on your bike so you look like you’re going to win. In other words, I want you to act “as if” you’re the best athlete there that day, regardless of what’s going on between your ears. I want you to act as if you are the best. You act as if you are a tremendous talent. That you’re going to win and everybody better be paying attention to what you do on the bike.”

This discovery works for me too. When I assume a posture and a behavior which is associative of confidence, my brain follows along, my mind follows along and I become more confident. But if I do just the opposite, if I take a posture or behavior which is indicative of no success, my mind again follows along and I find myself belittling myself and not thinking of myself as successful.

I had her do these things or asked her to do these things. You never know if people really do them or not, but I told her to do them and we kept talking about these sorts of things and low and behold, she went on to have her best season ever. We didn’t really change anything at all about her training. It was mostly these “developing confidence” techniques that we spent most of our time on, and it really paid off for her big time. So I’ve done it with other athletes ever since then and have had pretty good success with it.

Podium: How do you coach someone with regard to focus? In the survey, Joe Racer has an interesting split across several responses on that item: “Staying focused during long races is easy for me.” Some do and some don’t. What do you think about that?

Joe Friel: It’s a critical skill for success, I think. Athletes of the highest level undoubtedly have to see it all the time. If you watch the Tour de France, you can’t miss it. You see the athletes with tremendous focus. The race may last five or six hours, but in the critical times, you can see the focus is just unbelievable. They’re entirely focused on what they’re doing to the exclusion of almost anything else around them. We all need that if we want to be successful at our highest level of potential. So what I look for is how we can build that ability to focus, that ability to really concentrate both our mind and our energy on the achievement of the moment: that moment’s purpose. The reason why I’m pedaling the bike right now is X. I’m focused entirely on X. My entire world right now is X. That’s one of the fun parts of sport, I think. Sports allow us to get out of the normal realm that we deal in, which is past and future, and think only about right now. When you’re suffering on that hill, there’s absolutely nothing else going on in the world.

If you’re totally focused on that moment, the athlete can do well. If they stay focused, they’ve got a chance of staying with the group, to stay with the effort that’s being put forward by however many riders that are left in that group. If they cannot stay focused on that moment, they’re going to lose it.

I work with athletes in different ways to achieve that. For example, I have athletes lift weights, and in the winter months they do some pretty grueling weight room routines. Some of these involve suffering. They push themselves pretty hard in the weight room during the winter months.

So, one of the things I tell them, for example, is when you’re doing that exercise and you’re getting to those last few reps where the suffering is evident, don’t let it be seen. Try to have the same calm demeanor with the last two repetitions as you had for the first two repetitions. In other words, don’t grimace, don’t show pain, don’t show agony, don’t moan, don’t show any signs of suffering. Allow yourself to remain relaxed and entirely focused on what you’re doing without allowing yourself to boil over and bubble into feeling sorry for yourself.

Then we take that on to the road. I do the very same thing in training. Learning to stay focused in spite of pain and agony and, in fact, trying to give the impression as if nothing is wrong whatsoever. “As if” I am totally fine even though down deep, I am suffering like a dog right now. I think that’s the start of where this focus comes from. It is that ability to stay inward, stay within ourselves as opposed to spilling out our suffering for the rest of the world to see.

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