Of the types of riders that race cyclocross, those that mark every course with a quiet intensity and a methodical approach are the most successful. Michael van den Ham, the Cycle-Smart coach who has represented Canada five times at the World Championships and who earned his second elite national championship this season, exemplifies that mindset. Here’s where the athlete meets the coach in his role with Cycle-Smart:
Your chops as an athlete are well published: national champ, cyclocross hitter. Talk a bit about how your place as an elite athlete informs you as a coach and what it brings. (We've all heard tales of elite athletes that weren't good coaches and coaches without much of a racing pedigree.) How does being active as a racer inform your perspective?
One doesn't necessitate the other - to be a good coach, you don't need to have been a good athlete. That said, I do think that you need to understand the physical, mental, and logistical stress that an athlete experiences to be an effective coach. My years of racing really have given me a lot of insight into that side of the sport because, well, I have first hand experience in dealing with all of those things. I understand what it takes to compete at just about every level in this sport.
As an athlete I'm always trying to figure out ways to improve how I do sport. I believe that there are always new methods of training that need to be tested, always ways to improve my mental game through mindfulness and routine, and always types of training to improve technique. I think this directly benefits my athletes because, as a coach, I absolutely love being able to share what I have learned from my own training and from my fellow Cycle-Smart coaches.
If you have a coaching philosophy, how would you describe it? Who do you look to emulate as a coach?
Repeatability and balance lead to success. My coaching philosophy is centered around the idea that workouts on the bike or in the gym should fit into your life in a way that can be repeated day after day in a way that fits with all of your other commitments. Having one amazing day of training is fine, but dialing that back and being able repeat average days week after week is what leads to a successful season.
Outside of my fellow Cycle-Smart coaches who are all worth emulating, I'll jump to another sport entirely and say that Mike Babcock (Toronto Maple Leafs coach - I'm a Canadian, eh?) is someone who I admire a great deal. Regardless of what happened in the game, Babcock is looking forward and sees each game as a part of the process towards reaching a final goal. There are always areas both where the team was successful and also where improvement can be made. It serves to remind us that every race is opportunity for me and my clients learn something and apply it to the next event.
What would your athletes say about your coaching style?
That's a hard question! I hope they say that I'm someone who really cares about them both as athletes and as human beings. A sport like cycling attracts someone who is fairly intrinsically motivated, so I don't try to force my athletes to do workouts as much as I try to give them the tools they need to be successful and, if things aren't going well or they are having a hard time finding motivation, helping figure out what we can change in their day to day life and training to change that.
Recognizing that this is a partnership / relationship: Who is the ideal athlete for you to coach? What do you look for in a client?
I look for clients that are passionate about the sport and willing to learn. It doesn't matter to me what level you’re at, how many years you've raced, or how much talent you have, but what does matter to me is that you are genuinely excited going through the process of improving. There is nothing wrong with racers who just want to go to the races on the weekend to hang out with friends, drink beers, and have fun, but the clients I really connect with are the ones who are hungry to learn and improve throughout the season regardless of whether that means they have five hours a week to train or 20.
What are the most common mistakes you see from athletes you coach? Related, what are mistakes you've made from the past as a coach that have helped you grow?
They don't take rest and recovery seriously enough and underestimate how much stressful days at work, getting sick, or having a busy family life impact what your training should look like. As useful as tools like Training Peaks are, they don't adequately take into account the rest of your life - all that time you spend sleeping, eating, working, spending time with family, driving, etc. That’s what a good coach should do for you, and what I aim to do with my athletes.
Physical. Emotional. As a coach, how much do you tend to in your athletes? How do they interrelate? What insights do you have that you can share?
Cycling can be a messy sport. Even with the fitness or talent to reach your goals, there are so many things that can go wrong in a single race or season. Most cyclists can have a good day when everything else goes right, but the make of a great cyclist is being able to achieve their goals when nothing seems to be going right, and who reach a degree of consistency in their day to day routine. I believe that resiliency and consistency is brought about by having a flexible mental state - one that is searching for solutions rather than problems, thankful for what is going right rather than anxious about what isn't - and that this mentality can be trained through meditation, goal-setting, and mindfulness. “Happiness watts” is a theme Cycle-Smart has promoted since the beginning.
Science. Feel. Obviously sport science continues to grow and inform folks, what is your feeling about science and numbers vs. the type of instinctive rest vs. go questions that athletes need to learn?
There needs to be a blend between the two of them. Science and numbers have greatly changed the way that we, as coaches, are able to analyze our athletes training, they've changed the types of workouts that we know are effective, they've changed how the duration and intensity of how we prescribe that training. The advancement in the science around training and our ability to see real-time data about that training has made a degree of effective training possible that otherwise wouldn't be able to happen. However, I think it's a huge mistake to only focus on the numbers. It should go without saying, but people aren't robots. Inputting training and ignoring everything else does not mean you are going to get the same outputs every time. All that to say that the numbers are a very useful tool that we have at our disposal, but at the end of the day the most important thing when creating a plan is understanding how your body feels and allowing how you feel to override what the numbers and science say you should be doing.
If you were to give one piece of advice to a rider sight unseen, what would you tell them? What's the one thing folks need universally?
I've already mentioned this, but I have noticed among athletes is that most athletes don't take their rest and recovery nearly as seriously as they should. Training is great, but it only matters if you take the time to actually recovery properly from those efforts. Likewise, being tough and suffering is part of the sport, but it's just as important to know when to quit when you are sick, tried, or stressed.
Favorite tools as a coach? Favorite books? Favorite training venues real or digital?
I'm not even sure this counts as a training tool as much as it counts as an all-round life tool, but I'd have to say the Headspace meditation app. Of course things like Training Peaks, power meters, etc. are invaluable as a coach, but I think most of my athletes have some understanding of what those things do and how they can be useful. What I find is really undervalued, however, is spending 5-10 minutes in a mindfulness practice every day.
As far as favourite books go, I love learning about what makes and has made people in all disciplines successful. This includes a pretty wide range, but the "Talent Code" from Daniel Coyle, anything from Malcolm Gladwell and "The Happiness Advantage" by Shawn Achor have to top my personal list.