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Astana: Common goals make happy souls

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Lance Armstrong rides with Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer

Lance Armstrong rides with Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer (Image credit: AFP)
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Lance Armstrong follows Contador on stage after the team won the TTT.

Lance Armstrong follows Contador on stage after the team won the TTT. (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Alberto Contador (Astana) adjusts his glasses prior to the start.

Alberto Contador (Astana) adjusts his glasses prior to the start. (Image credit: AFP)

Much has been made of the situation the Astana team faces in this year's Tour de France. Allocating roles to four star riders – Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer – isn't an easy task for Johan Bruyneel. Psychologist Matti Clement told Cyclingnews about the forces at play within the 'team to beat' and how to handle this potential for disharmony.

Based in Adelaide, Australia, Matti Clement is a psychologist who specialises in performance enhancement within sports. She works with the Australian Institute of Sport's elite cycling and beach volleyball programmes, in addition to many high-profile sporting teams in the South Australian capital. This includes players from the Adelaide United Football Club, Adelaide 36ers basketball squad, Adelaide Crows and Port Power AFL clubs and the state cricket team.

She operates the Mental Edge Consulting clinic and her experience in this role allows for a unique insight into the psyche of the sport's elite. A yellow jersey from the Tour de France, signed by Stuart O'Grady, is just one of the pieces of cycling memorabilia hanging on her office wall in addition to items from those in other sports who have benefited from her services.

She explains that her work includes helping athletes with performance anxiety, motivation after injury and sport-life balance. She also works with the dynamics of various teams; setting team goals and then setting individual goals that reflect those team goals. This is particularly pertinent in relation to the Astana squad.

Knowing the roles

There was discussion leading up to the Tour de France about the possibility that the forces at play within Astana's squad could result in a similar situation to that in which the former T-Mobile team found itself during the 2005 Tour. It had three star riders – Jan Ullrich, Alexander Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden – but missed out on a yellow jersey when the race reached Paris, a large part of which was blamed on personal ambitions within the group.

Clement said this is possibly the most important aspect of managing the dynamics within a team. "Every individual knows what their role is. There are always going to be roles which are more appealing to the general public, but the understanding that everyone within the team plays a role for that one rider to cross the line as number one. That rider didn't get there by himself; he got there with a team approach."

But what about the situation when two riders believe they could share the same role when that's not really feasible? "It happens in all sports – if it's between you and another person, why would you invest all your time focusing on that other person? If you invested that energy into what you needed to do, logically you're putting yourself in a better position."

This is exactly the approach Alberto Contador has adopted based on his comments to the media during this year's Tour de France. His statements from day one in Monaco have continually focused purely on what he is doing and what he has to do. He hasn't spoken about team leadership, the events of previous days or those too far beyond the next day's racing.

Contador is just below Lance Armstrong on general classification ahead of the race's first mountain stage.

Clement agrees that it's a smart tactic from the Spaniard. "Focus on controllables versus uncontrollables – I think sometimes people can get confused about what is controllable and what isn't. Your opponents are uncontrollable. Selection for a particular role is uncontrollable, outcome is uncontrollable, the past is uncontrollable as is the future," she said.

"If you spend time on the present, plus the processes, thought patterns, emotions and preparations... all the things you can achieve the 'one percenters' in, that's energy well-invested."

Although it may appear from the outside that Armstrong is trying to seize Contador's power and control his momentum in the race, the opposite may be occurring. Contador may be gaining a lot from the Armstrong's presence which will aid in achieving the team's goals.

"An experienced athlete who has been to multiple Olympics or the like has that knowledge. There's the physical experience of having been there and knowing what works and maybe knowing what doesn't work.

"I spend a lot of time around athletes developing self-awareness – if you don't have good self-awareness it's really difficult to implement any psychological strategies because you'll never know when to use them. Experienced athletes develop that skill through making mistakes, having success."

Clement added that young athletes who have exposure to experienced athletes with good self-awareness can develop those skills. This is the crucial aspect of the Armstrong-Contador relationship within Astana and possibly the rationale Johan Bruyneel has employed.

Contador may be the ultimate beneficiary of the exchange – he's forced to implement psychological strategies to overcome the apparent threat to his position. He is also learning from the seven-time Tour champion's decade of experience.

There is also German Andreas Klöden and USA's Levi Leipheimer, who have both been on the Tour podium in the past and are now riding as team helpers. Is the transition from team leader to helper that difficult?

"A good team leader or programme leader clearly delineates to the athlete: 'that was your role then, this is your role now and we value it just as much.' The athlete has to be invested in it," she said.

"If they're not invested in it and just told it's their role then they wouldn't buy into it. It's about having clear roles."

Ego

All four of Astana's riders have been successful and consequently they have the personality traits to match. Some would say this is "ego", although Clement warns of using that word. "'Ego' is a very misused word. Some people say ego is a good thing while other people say it's a bad thing... It's really important that people know where their heading and what they're invested in.

"In a team environment that needs to be everyone heading towards the one team goal. Everyone can have individual goals and they may differ, but it still needs to be within the bigger picture.

"In terms of ego, if one person's goal doesn't fit into the bigger scheme, then that's obviously going to be a problem. They're not actually fitting into those team behaviours and values. Those should always be established from the word go – not just in competition but as soon as the team's formed."
 

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