Over the years I’ve had the privilege to observe a number of young elite bike racers from a friendship standpoint and during their performances. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to observe high school and collegiate racers as well and I find it interesting that a number of young athletes prefer to quit rather than complete a less than ideal performance. For instance, a type of mountain bike endurance race called short track, athletes race around a closed course, usually less than a mile for a set amount of time plus 2 or so laps. Once the leaders begin to catch the tail end of the field, those rides are pulled from the race. There is no good reason to stop racing unless a mechanical issue with the bicycle prevents the rider from continuing. Despite the effort required to go as hard as possible for the set amount of time, with the space constraint, those not near the front will be near the back of the race and consequently removed early.
I am beginning to think that expectations set by the individual or by their teams and the stress that places on the athlete during the race is too much for many younger athletes to handle. Rather than peruse a lackluster performance, they feel overwhelmed by the desire to do well and the impossibility of it after their race starts to disintegrate and simply remove themselves from the competition.
I believe that persistence is a lesson that is learned with experience and perhaps while the younger non-elite athletes are not as driven to perform well, the elite ones are so driven that even less than a top five placement will cause them to drop out or “sit up,” effectively removing themselves from the competition as well, rather than to try their hardest and fail to win.
Some years later as these elite athletes have progressed into their mid to upper twenties, they have not only stopped “DNFing” but progressed to winning significant elite competitions as well as excepting a not perfect finish. I am aware that at least one found a compatible sports psychologist who has aided in these changes. As for the collegiate amateur racers who simply quit, It is my hope that they will recognize that the only was to get faster is to race with people faster then you and that what is truly an impressive result is the quality of effort put forth.