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The Importance of A Good Support Network

Rhodri Williams 2017, post Tour Series Asthma attack Northwich - my dad's hand on my shoulder

Following on (sort of) from where I left off: I stated the importance of reaching out to those around you to gain the support that you deserve which is something I’m very passionate about. At the start of your cycling journey I’m sure you were most likely given a whole range of ‘top tips’ whether they be from a friend or a vlogger.. One thing I’ve not often heard mentioned is, as the title suggests, the importance of having a good support network around you: no matter what level you are at in cycling this piece of advice is paramount.

If you are sat there wondering: “What do you mean a ‘support network’, what is she on about..?” I’m referring to anyone around you who is there for you to talk to about any cycling queries or issues affecting your cycling. Therefore it could be a fellow cycling buddy, teammates your partner, family, someone you follow on social media who rides, a coach, someone from your local club or even fellow cyclists you meet out on your jollies!

The reason that I feel this piece of advice is so important is because I really feel that sport (at any level) really can take you to some dark and lonely places. When you brake training down we basically push ourselves to our absolute limit regularly for fun. Are we meant to do this as humans or are we just a little crazy? I think a sprinkling of both - subsequently it can become difficult sometimes to get into the right frame of mind to both train and compete to your full potential and really sit above your pain threshold for some time. Equally, if you enjoy this feeling you are most likely of a competitive nature which if not channelled properly can leave you feeling at a loss.

For many riders you gain a lot during your first year or so of consistent training and then the gains train gradually slows down: everything from here on out is marginal in comparison. Continued improvements are very important still but just a lot harder to attain. This can leaves riders feeling at a loss and this is why a support network is very important. In situations like this you need to be able to communicate with your coach and also with people you can talk to. Don’t get me wrong a lot of people can get through this fine, but I’ve seen it time and time again when new talent struggles after their head falls off from the reduced amount of pb’s and gains experienced. At this point people can lose motivation as their once motivating and ego fulfilling instant gratification is no more.

I’ve personally found during times of slow progress in training that reaching out to those around me helped me out ten fold. Something I learnt was that it’s ok to seek validation from coaches and your support network, competitive sport is tough: you need to vent and talk about how you feel else I promise you that it will become a barrier for progression and success. Therefore it’s best to find people to confide in where you can comfortably leave your ego at the door and discuss your worries and problems.

Another time I’ve found my support network to be highly important is when stressed by team politics. I hate confrontation and it affects my anxiety very badly, to the point this exact topic has made me suffer multiple panic attacks over the years and at extremes left me bed ridden. It’s no lie that in the world of competitive sport people fall out, politics get involved and relationships within teams can become strained - not all of the time I hasten to add but over the years I’ve experienced it more than once. If you throw a bunch of motivated and competitive individuals into a stressful environment then it’s bound to happen. Sort of like big personalities on the TV show The Apprentice.. Someones bound to be the Lord Sugar figure, you just have to try and keep the Lord Sugar of the team happy and then you are usually fine. This in itself can be difficult and at times can cause a lot of stress. I’ve found over the years in these situations trying to keep the peace instead of speaking out has left me questioning ‘is it worth it’? - YES. It is. Inequality will always occur but you have to pick your battles - rivalry within a team is not something I engage in nor thankfully something I’ve experienced for a long time now. But I would never have come to this conclusion without the support of the people around me as well as crying down the phone, snotty hugs and of course the classic pros and cons list.

My support network always reminds me that in these situations you won’t get on with everyone, you won’t be everyones cup of tea and you don’t have to make sure that people who pick faults with you find a way to like you. It’s not your issue to resolve, though you need to make sure that you are still pleasant, do your part, be a team player, be a positive ambassador for sponsors and walk away from drama (quite literally, walk off). At the end of the day you are the one who decides what and who you give power to: don’t let these situations have a hold on you.This is something I’ve found to help a lot over the years and most of the time you make up with the people / person and then end up laughing about the situation anyway - if not then you really know somethings adrift. In this circumstance you have to just move on by default and feel bad for the negativity some people harbour. I always think you should wish people well and then move on gracefully. Happy people don’t hurt others.

Illness and injury is however the most important time for the vast majority of us to have a strong support network. Being unable to race/train is awful, to me (without sounding too dramatic) it makes my life feel a little pointless. I base my whole year, months and days around my cycling, be it racing or training so when I can’t for whatever reason do either it’s the worst feeling. Guilt often tends to set in and also the anxiety fulled questioning of ‘will I ever recover?’ and ‘will I be able to make it back to where I want to be?’. This is torturous, properly rock bottom feelings. At this point I find depression starts to set it, maybe weight gain / weight loss and of course a loss of fitness and strength. These negative feelings can occur when facing both physical or mental illness/injury as they both have an affect on one another.

At this point a great way to understand how you feel can be to journal - grab a notepad and write down your feelings, draw them if you find it easier. This way when you do talk to your support network you have some reference points: I personally find it hard to talk about how I’ve felt unless I’m experiencing that emotion in that exact moment. Afterwards I have the tendency to underplay how low I’ve been or how angry at the situation I’ve felt. This way it makes it easier for your support network to understand your feelings too, this will then help them to identify how you feel without you having to say: something I think is really important. I really feel everyone should be a little more aware of everyones changes in behaviour and mood, this is where mandatory mental health first aid training in schools would be really useful.

This all links very heavily to my own current situation, as some of you will know (if you follow me on Instagram) that I’ve tested positive for COVID-19 so I’ve had to take time off the bike to focus on my health. Right now I’m suffering pretty badly: previously constant vomiting and now with awful muscular aches and pains, joint pain, chest pain, coughing and lung pain, a lack of taste/smell, headaches and a lack of appetite. The muscle and joint pain is sheer agony and it’s making it hard for me to sleep even after taking Codeine/Paracetamol. This has therefore understandably played havoc with my anxiety as prior to my positive test results I was planning on getting stuck into a big week of training (I was set to be furloughed from work next week for the first time since lockdown back in March) so the missed opportunity is giving me serious FOMO. Equally as I have bad asthma my anxiety has been constantly toying with the idea of ‘what if’… what if it gets really bad and I’m hospitalised? What if I get back into work and training too fast and this turns into ‘long covid’? Just as I said previously a decline in your physical health will always impact your mental health too. You have to take care of both accordingly. Right now I can’t pretend that I’m not scared as I am, no ‘common cold’ or flu has ever made me feel anywhere near as awful as this. I feel weak. I am not feeling like Charlotte. Because of this I HAVE to take is easy right now, my physical and mental health comes first.

Luckily my immediate support network has been my boyfriend Matt (a professional road cyclist for Ribble Weldtite) who luckily tested negative for COVID-19. My team mates at AWOL O’Shea have also been amazing, phoning me, messaging me and sending me advice. Megan is also helping me to plan my training post covid to ensure that I do not prolong my illness nor allow it to manifest into post viral fatigue. I am also hugely grateful for all of the other professional cyclists and athletes who have reached out to me who’ve also suffered with COVID-19: just knowing that I too can be back on peak form soon is very promising and gives me hope. To each and every one of you - thank you: all of your kind words and well wishes are helping me stay afloat and focused on my recovery.

Calvin Cheung 2020, me and Matt training in the Peak District National Park

All in all, you need your support network there through it all: through the highs and lows and also through the wins and through the spat after 40km days. For personal issues such as break ups and bereavements, it’s also needed. When we are at our most fragile (which can be after failure or even success) we need people we trust around us - this is how we build lasting bonds with people. Without this I really don’t think anyone can truly reach the top of their game in anything, be it work, sport or even in personal relationships. We all have to bear all and fall apart in order to be built up stronger. I also think naturally athletes are highly self critical so it’s needed to have personal ‘cheerleaders’ as it were to build us up. Theres no shame in being ‘needy’ in this way. We all need one another at the end of the day.

Fingers crossed I’ll be back to full health soon, until next time.. Charlotte :)

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