Disappointment, sadness, loss and even grief are some of the words that Kasia Niewiadoma has pinpointed in her personal account of the “uncomfortable feelings” that she, and many professional cyclists, navigate either openly or privately after losing a bike race.
Despite her best efforts to start the season well-trained, it’s been a winless spring campaign for Niewiadoma, who had hoped to feel the thrill of victory and repay Canyon-SRAM for their support in her role as team leader.
For all of sports’ ability to create a sense of belonging, build self-esteem, and bring joy, triumph and opportunity, it can become a pressure-cooker of sometimes hidden mixed emotions for athletes. After all, and certainly in professional cycling, riders often lose more than they win and dealing with the inevitable post-race feelings can be a challenge.
In a reflective and personal in-depth discussion with Cycling News, Niewiadoma opens up about how she handles her post-race thoughts and emotions following the spring Classics. She also speaks of balancing expectations with outcomes, identifying and stopping negative circular thoughts, and her perspective on the meaning of success.
Looking more closely at her most recent spring palmares, many would agree that her season has mainly been a success. Even without a victory, she finished fourth at Strade Bianche, eighth at Tour of Flanders, fifth at Amstel Gold Race, second at Brabantse Pijl and ninth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Indeed, top-10 finishes in the biggest races in the world are nothing to sniff at, but Niewiadoma explained that she has, in many ways, outgrown such performances. She expects more of herself at this stage in her career. These heightened expectations, a common trait among athletes, can motivate and drive a rider to succeed or create feelings of failure when they underperform.
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“I get irritated with myself sometimes, knowing that I’m always there during the last couple of years. I’m always around the second, third, and fourth places, which drives me crazy. I don’t want those places anymore. I’d rather drop one race to win another one. But I always know I’m there, and I have to ask myself, ‘why am I not on the top step?'” Niewiadoma said.
Some races hold special meaning for an athlete and for Niewiadoma they are the ones that are either well-suited to her strengths – such as Amstel Gold Race which she won in 2019 – or because she holds them close to her heart – like Strade Bianche, which is a race she has finished on the podium of four times. According to her standards, underperforming at these races can lead to sadness, and even a sense of grief, over a lost opportunity in her career, that she recognises will not last forever.
Teams, including Canyon-SRAM, often hold post-race debriefs about their collective strengths, weaknesses and tactics or ask what went wrong and right? However, in addition to a team debrief, Niewiadoma says it’s essential to conduct a more personal reflection after wins and losses to gauge how they feel about their performance.
“There are some races that I would feel, not necessarily disappointed, but sad about my result. There are some races where I was stoked to make particular individual progress. There were also races where I couldn’t deliver the result that I wanted, but I was still OK with what happened during the race. Depending on the race, if it has a special place in my heart, that is how I judge failure or success afterwards.
“It’s a weird feeling that’s hard to describe, and I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s disappointment or sadness; it’s like a mix of different emotions and feelings that you go through at the same time after you lose a race. It’s like a feeling of loss or that an opportunity is gone. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling, and your self-esteem is very low because you feel like you’ve done something wrong.
“I think athletes can be very hard on themselves, and this is the battle that we have to go through on our own. It’s like a little grieving moment.
“Knowing you’ve messed up in a race, not because of your physical strength, but because of how you felt in your head. Also, how you planned the final, what was going on through your mind in the approach to the final, all defines whether I’m satisfied after a race or not.
“It’s also about knowing how I can perform at certain races. Maybe deep inside, it comes from carrying some obligation or the weight of knowing that it’s a race where I should be good. For the most part, I should perform well, and having to measure up to a previous performance, it’s something that sticks with me somewhere in my mind.
“I also carry emotions that are attached to certain races, like as you mentioned, Strade Bianche. It’s my favourite race, so I feel that with every passing year, ‘oh no, another opportunity is gone.’ I’m a realistic person, and I know that I will not be racing until I’m 40, and I don’t see myself doing this forever. I want to seize every chance and every opportunity right now.
“Many people around me are putting work and time for this one moment, and at the end of the day, it’s up to me and how I seize it and how I take it. Sometimes, I feel responsible for giving back, not being able to deliver in return for the support I have received – I want to give back. It’s always nice to feel the balance and to know that I get, but that I also give.”
Talking, crying, journaling
Niewiadoma believes that most athletes are overly hard on themselves and that they each may handle fear of failure or feelings after losing a race differently. Still, she says that personal reflections and feelings are rarely openly discussed, so it’s hard to know how most athletes handle their pre-and post-race emotions.
“We will never know the answer to that question. I don’t know how many athletes are open to discussing their feelings or want to make them public. I feel like it’s a very internal and private thing, and everyone lets it soak in or digest feelings at their own pace and in their own way,” she said.
She believes that feeling disappointed at one’s performance isn’t necessarily bad, either. It’s often a good sign that the event was important to an athlete.
“It’s good to feel bad or sad about [losing] a race because it means that you care. It means that you wanted to do well. Of course, after a loss, you have moments of uncomfortable feelings. You start to realise that you might feel this way because you care. If you had no emotions attached to a [loss], you might be less passionate about what you are doing.
“I always try to turn it into something positive, so if I felt uncomfortable [after a loss], it must mean that I really wanted it, and as long as I keep trying, then eventually something will go well.”
Niewiadoma says Canyon-SRAM has always provided a supportive and encouraging environment. She hasn’t felt external pressure from the team to perform, not even in her role as a team leader during the last few seasons. She also expressed gratitude to the staff who provide post-race analysis or results, physiotherapists, and those who offer a listening ear after a disappointing race.
“After Amstel Gold Race, for example, I spent a lot of time talking about my feelings, how to cope with disappointment and how to move on. It’s always nice to have someone to talk to straight after the race to regain confidence. Whenever I lose or don’t win, I feel like everyone is angry with me, even though I know that they aren’t, but instantly you feel that everyone is angry with you,” she said.
Cultivating a support network outside of the sports and team environment is also essential for Niewiadoma, who often turns to her family and her partner Taylor Phinney for a new perspective when a race hasn’t gone as well as she had hoped or expected.
“My partner helps me a lot because he was a pro cyclist, and he has dealt with similar feelings. He’s now removed from the sport, so he can look at my situation from a different perspective, and it’s nice to hear that the world will not end [after you lose a race] and nobody hates you, and nobody points a finger at you for not performing,” she said.
“I always need to vent a little, but I try not to do it as much within my team as I do in my private life. I know that my family and my partner give a different type of input.”
Niewiadoma also journals her thoughts after a race, looks to books, listens to podcasts, and searches for information to help gain a new perspective and confidence in how she perceives success and failure during the season.
“And then, of course, journaling always helps. I like writing things down; how I feel. I like to listen to different psychology episodes or podcasts or anything I can find to regain confidence,” said Niewiadoma.
“Yesterday, I listened to Kanye West and how he talks about himself, how he perceives his life, and how he turns fear into faith, which drives him and gives him power.
“Sometimes in our society, we always think that we are not good enough or could have done something better. We strive to go further and further, but rarely do we, as a persons, congratulate ourselves for what we are already accomplishing in our lives.”
Niewiadoma says she often looks to other riders, Elisa Longo Borghini and Lizzie Deignan, to help her find extra motivation and encouragement. She relates to these riders, who, like herself, are consistent performers and among the strongest in the world but do not win every race they start.
“I try to build myself up thinking about other riders. I appreciate and look up to Elisa and Lizzie, who is not racing this year, but all those female athletes who are not winning all the time, or not in the same way as riders like Anna van der Breggen or Annemiek van Vleuten, who had been winning all the time.”
Stop negative circular thoughts, make space for positivity
Many of us, not just athletes, can relate to suffering from negative circular thoughts that go through our minds every day. Recent research into the human brain suggests that the average person typically has more than 6,000 thoughts per day, some of which are repetitive, negative thoughts.
“Sometimes you need to think about [your disappointments] for a couple of hours after the race and try to let out some emotions by crying or just feeling it. The next morning you wake up, and it’s a new day. I like to find ways to think positively or not overthink it. If I find that if I go over and over a [disappointing] moment, I need to recognise it and stop it. Sometimes it takes me a couple of tries, but eventually, they go away,” Niewiadoma said.
“I learned that there are so many thoughts, and many of them are repetitive. So, whatever you were thinking yesterday, you are thinking about again today and tomorrow, until you stop it or create a space in your brain that allows you to create new thoughts.”
Niewiadoma has considered finding new ways to stop and replace negative circular thoughts that centre on distressing emotions and experiences with healthier inner dialogue patterns when training and racing.
“Maybe that’s how I should approach my training sessions. When I’m towards the end of my session or making hard efforts, I need to put those positive thoughts in my head that will help me, thoughts that come into my head automatically, like when you see a red light you brake, something that becomes a pattern or a habit,” she said.
“You allow yourself to feel free in your head and release that tension of wanting to do something perfectly. Sometimes in my head, I feel like to win something, everything has to go perfectly, which is not true. If you always think about not wanting to make a mistake, you are cautious whenever you try something new, and it doesn’t work.
“At this point, I need to go for it and see what happens. In the worst-case scenario, I get what I got from Amstel Gold Race [5th], and I survived.”
Celebrate your successes
The unfortunate truth is that athletes rarely celebrate their successes and victories to the same degree that they reflect on their losses.
Celebrations happen directly after crossing the finish line, spraying champagne on the podium, or a special toast at a post-race team dinner. However, athletes are often thrust toward the next primary goal of a busy racing calendar, leaving little time to reflect on positive outcomes.
“The winning part is also interesting. You win and you get all of these amazing feelings. You feel like you want to celebrate and cherish it all but the reality is that you wake up the next day and everyone has moved on. It’s not a thing that people continue to talk about; the game is over, sort of thing,” Niewiadoma says when asked how long she celebrated her victory after the 2019 Amstel Gold Race.
“Of course, you can’t celebrate in the middle of the Classics season because you need to take the time to recover for the next race. Sometimes, everything is spinning so fast.”
However, the silver lining of the hustle and bustle of a packed racing calendar is that there is always a new race ahead and a new opportunity for success on the horizon.
“Something that helps me move on after a [bad] race is knowing that all the races we do during the year are important goals. We have so many beautiful races on the calendar, and all of them are worth winning. If something goes wrong at a race, there are always many other great races and plenty of opportunities to still go for it.”