“ IF A RIDER STILL WANTS TO BE PART OF THE TEAM, THE DOOR IS OPEN’’ – NIGEL SMITH, HEAD COACH, SCOTT SPORTS INDIA

Nigel Smith (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Scott Sports India recently announced its first road bike team. This blog spoke to Nigel Smith, Head Coach, about how the team was selected, how many members the team may eventually have and what his expectations are.

Excerpts:

How was this team selected? What was the process involved?

First of all we put out on social media dates of the selection trials and where they will be held. We invited riders from all over the country to apply. Then based on the riders’ cycling CVs and the answers they gave us in that application process we were able to select approximately 20-25 riders to come for the selection day trials. We knew that within those 20-25 were some were very, very good national level cyclists. Then we subjected the best 20-25 riders to the day one of the trials. What we very quickly realised was – we weren’t going to be able to either pick the right riders or the strongest riders in one day of trials. There were so many, so close on performance that we found we had to have a second round. So we invited the ten best back for a second round. What we were looking for then – it wasn’t just physical performance; it was attitude. It was also about what they spoke about during the interview that we had with each of them after the trials.

What I was looking for from a physical point of view was – okay they have come back after round one, they know exactly what they are going to be doing. We tried to give them even more coaching, even more instructions. We tried to give them as much encouragement as we could so that they could better their previous performance. Some of them stepped up and improved across all the tests and others didn’t. So that immediately – as a coach – it is giving me information as to why a good rider is not as good as this time or has got better. And then you ask them questions during the interview. How did you prepare for this; how did you taper for this event? Some of them said…based on the trials we did earlier, this is what I went back and did; I know this is what I would be asked to do, so I went back and prepared. The ones that prepared showed improvement. The ones that didn’t either showed flat performance or reduced performance.

So we were looking for attitude, we were looking for awareness of what we were asking them to do. It is almost like – I was asking them an open ended question and then sitting back and letting them talk.

When you mentioned that you were looking for attitude does it mean that benchmark performance was secondary to attitude because given right attitude, you can always work with it and improve performance?

Yes. We have a general benchmark in terms of performance. So, there were various benchmarks set for tests that we asked them to do. So they did peak power test, 30 second-sprint and a four minute endurance effort. We had a very good idea of what a good athlete should be able to do. Some riders would hit two out of three but their attitude was such that they could tell us what their weakest of the three was. And they could tell us why they thought it was.  So, then immediately as a coach you have an engagement with those riders. Okay these riders have thought about what they did. They understood that, let’s say, the 30 second-effort wasn’t their strongest and then they give the potential reasons as to why. And then you realise that this guy is thinking about what he is really doing, he is not just following instructions. He is actually mentally digesting what he is trying to do. He has thought about it and is downloading and debriefing. That indicates the rider can be coached. You could have the strongest rider. But then he may just talk to you and everything I am suggesting he is not responding to; he is not willing to accept. He is trying to argue not just with me but other Scott team members. Then they can’t be team players.

You have unveiled three athletes for now. Is that the final number or will the team grow?

We wanted a team of five. The three we picked were based on merit, from the trials. As regards the remaining spots – it was close among 4-5 riders. We didn’t feel it was fair to pick two other riders because potentially we would get the decision wrong for want of performance. We are leaving it open. There is nothing to stop us from adding riders in the next three months. If a rider still wants to be part of the team the door is open. There are four or five we are looking at. We want to see who has taken the acceptance of not being on the team with a positive frame of mind and is going to go out and do something about it. And in the next race they do they make it very clear that we can’t not have them in the team. Others may go away and sulk about it. They may not want to be part of it. So, it is performance and attitude. And of the other riders we are looking at, one or two will hopefully outperform the others and it makes my decision easy.

Is there an ideal number you are looking at?

Originally we felt that it would be a team of five.

So we are potentially looking at another two.

The guys we now have are road racers as well as time trialists. They are strong in both the disciplines. Road racers are going to be strong time trialists and very strong time trialists are going to be good road racers. Now with the team at present we have got two small guys. Naturally their physical attributes lend themselves to be very good road racers for very hilly races. That’s where we expect to see results. But that’s not to say they can’t win flat races. There is no preconception about what the riders are right now or what we want them to focus on. They are strong riders; they will find their niche.

Going ahead what will be Scott India’s blueprint for training this team?

I have got a look at what they have been doing. I have got a very good idea of their current physical performance. I need to look at the work they have been doing and what we can change that gives us the best opportunity to improve further and then how we can maintain that. We will be looking at the number of hours of riding per week, number of kilometres a week,  number of hours riding at threshold, number of interval sessions, how many reps they do per session. I will be looking at all of that and then hopefully find the areas we think may give them better opportunity to improve further. But obviously we want them to improve throughout the year. So then into that – I have got to build tapering programs. Sometimes the riders won’t even be racing tired because it may be a designated B race. I have got to look at what they have been doing, what they want to do as well. We have got to take into account rider aspirations – this is what you told me you have done before, where is your focus now. And then I sit down and have a chat with the rider and together we understand what are the demands of the event you wish to focus on, how much work is it going to take. And the training programme will write itself, rather than me telling the rider what is to be done. You get the rider to think about it and then work it out for themselves. As a coach I just articulate it for them.

Nigel with the cyclists selected to be part of the Scott Racing Development road bike team (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Typically when one talks about team one thinks of it two ways – first, there is the opportunity to remain in the team based on your performance, second, the other is the contractual obligation; that you signed in for so long. In this case, how does it work?

I am not directly involved in the contractual process but I am aware of it. As per my understanding all contracts are for one year and they are renewable on an annual basis based on the factors you mentioned. There is a brand element; performance element, there is an element of how they have behaved off the bike and what they have done to improve themselves, so we look at the whole thing. At the end of the year we may have a scenario where a rider has not delivered any personal results but has been absolutely selfless in his help to his fellow teammates. And so, that shouldn’t go against a rider who has perhaps won two races and then done nothing for the rest of his teammates throughout the year. We understand all of that. A rider may be winning but off the bike he may not be living up to the social media requirements of the brand. Ultimately, this is Scott. They have an obligation to put out stuff on their Facebook page on their Instagram pages because they are representing a brand. The brand is investing in them. They have an obligation to help that brand.

You have been here for a couple of years. Now you are starting off your journey with a team in place. You have seen the basic raw material that you work with in other places. How good is this basic raw material that you have found in India now?

The physical attributes are certainly of very high standards. We know what the current best in India looks like. We know how that fares on an Asian and international platform. What this program is designed to do is to get as many riders as possible up to the best in India current standard and then see who can go on from there. There’s an expectation that we can maybe get a rider, not this year, may be in two years’ time, may be three years’ time to go out and be better than what we have seen an Indian perform before, outside this country.

And you would say that you are pretty happy with the basic raw material that you have?

Yes. The other thing is – the program is rolling. It is a competitive environment. Not all riders are going to get their contracts renewed year on year on year. When other riders see how good you need to be to get on the team they will train harder. And then we have an even higher standard of riders to select from. That improves the standard of the team and makes the team stronger so that riders have to perform even better. I am not naïve to think this isn’t going on in other parts of the country. More informally, there are going to be other teams training harder and everyone is trying to get better. So the standard will naturally, I think, get better and better.

(The interviewer, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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