Cycling And Dyspraxia – Connie’s Column

I am starting this blog post with a note to say I am in no way shape or form a medical expert, however since my dyspraxia diagnosis in 2017 I have undertaken a large amount of research in a bid to understand how my brain works and try to figure out ways to help myself . The point of this post is to be able to explain how it affects me in cycling and to just genuinely raise awareness of the condition. 

Dyspraxia. To a lot of people I sense that’s a word they have never heard or seen before. Dyspraxia is a form of developmental coordination disorder which is most known for effecting movement and coordination. However it affects much more than this, such as social and emotional behaviours, eye movements, memory, processing, learning and perception. Dyspraxia is traditionally more common in boys than in girls but research is starting to question whether this figure is only due to how it presents itself differently in girls. Dyspraxia appears slightly different in each person so people don’t have every sign of the condition.  

I was diagnosed dyspraxic just after my 17th birthday. I was tested for both this and dyslexia (which I also have) after going off the rails academically when the work picked up prior to my GCSEs. I had never found school work challenging until this point where I suddenly felt very exposed, it felt like we had all had a hurdle put in front of us and everyone else around me had cleared it. I was incredibly lucky that I had two teachers who raised the alarm that something wasn’t quite right. At this point it was very clear I was dyslexic but no one had raised the question about whether I could be dyspraxic so my diagnosis in 2017 came as quite a shock.

Now you’re probably all trying to work out how this links to cycling. In hindsight it really stood out and I think if there had been more awareness it could have been detected years ago, leading to better management of my problems. It took me years to learn to use rollers and even now I wouldn’t say I am particularly skilled on them. My cornering is strange, I am very good on a left hand turn but put me through a right hand bend and its never going to be as smooth.

I still can’t really ride no handed- I will never forget an RSR back as a youth when we were asked to take jackets off whilst riding and I got completely stuck and ended up on the grass. I was utterly mortified given that I was trying my absolute heart out but genuinely couldn’t balance whilst co-ordinate myself to get my jacket off. It is alarming that coaches can become qualified without any awareness or training on how to spot or deal with conditions such as dyspraxia. It alarms me that I am even having to write this in a bid to maybe just educate one person who may in turn help one child with suspected dyspraxia. 

A lot of people ask me how I have got relatively good at something that I should struggle with, the simple answer is a huge amount of will power and determination. I have a lot of people to thank who pushed my talents in a bid for me to not dwell on my weaknesses in sport. PE at school should have been something I hated due to my lack of ability in ball sports, yet I had teachers who really used my natural talent when it came to running, increasing my confidence which has been rock bottom on some occasions due to my difficulties.

In cycling, despite some horrific experiences in skills sessions, over the years I have had coaches around me who would highlight my talents instead 75% of the time. We need more people like this in the sport and we need more awareness. Governing bodies such as British cycling need to include neurodiversity awareness within their coaching courses. Even if I had had a diagnosis I feel like I shouldn’t need to be screaming it out just to be treated fairly. Given the amount of people who get diagnosed late and only get diagnosed as a result of seeking treatment for mental health problems society as a whole needs to change and become more educated. 

I want to end this piece with a note to say whether you’re diagnosed dyspraxic or suspect you could have dyspraxia it is far from a barrier to anything. I want to be seen as someone who has gone against the stigma; I am studying for a degree at a Russell group university whilst competing around Europe in a sport that people often say dyspraxics can not do. If you put your mind to anything with the right support you can go against the status quo.

Climbing the Isolation Mountain – How We Can Help Each Other Out

With the ongoing situation around the world still worsening, now is the time to express our views on how we can help each other out, at a time that will be hard for all.

For people suffering from mental health issues, this time could prove to be a huge test,  and we need to do our utmost to help each other out and keep pushing on.

Seeing Charlotte mention before how mental health issues can prominent amongst cyclists, it’s therefore vitally important for all of us to look out for each other, and here’s a few ways we can do it:

  • Drop your usual competitors a message – you may be rivals on raceday but you still socialise. Even if this is not a big deal under normal circumstances, it is now as everyone has lost all social interaction in person. Your message could keep someone going.

  • Make a new friend! – Go out and message someone new or someone you’ve briefly met a few times, you could put a smile on their face

  • If you’re not a racer, still message people – riders love to talk to fans and there’s no better time than now.

  • If you’re struggling, reach out to people – The Chain Gang will always reply on any social media and we’re happy to be there for those who need to talk, as will thousands of others online.

Let’s fight this battle together and make sure we make it out the other side as strong as we all can.

We can fight this adversity and make new friends in the process, message that cyclist you’ve followed for years.

On a personal note from me, I’ve never been a cyclist, yet now most of my best friends are cyclists, and I took the steps and have surrounded myself with a great web of support, now you can do the same.

Athletes and Mental Health – The Complexity of Being Human

By Charlotte Broughton

As some of you will know, in recent years I’ve become vocal on my own issues mentally and within the sport across my social media platforms, namely Instagram.  I do not claim to be a professional, no way! But it costs NOTHING to be kind and to listen. I’m tired of people jumping on the bandwagon but not living up to the ideals of just being a decent human being. 

Let’s get into the thick of it. 1 in 4 people will suffer with a mental health condition every year within the UK. Suicide is the biggest killer in the UK of men under 45. Therefore, why do we still hold such a stigma towards mental health, especially with athletes? 

Charlotte racing at the 2020 Track National Championships

After I opened up about my own struggles I had an influx of messages fill up my inbox. So many of you bravely confided in me expressing your relief that you weren’t alone in how you felt. I think it’s important to note that these messages were not just from cyclists and from a mixed demographic.

With regards to cyclists, I noticed more young males had messaged me, often expressing the shame they felt being the main barrier stopping them from telling others how they felt.  It seems that a lot of young men just do not discuss their mental state nor confide in one another. It appeared a lot of these young men were more fixated on not failing than achieving.  

What are we doing wrong within the sport? We simply put too much emphasis on cyclists being cyclists around the clock (judging what they eat, their weight, their form, their own idiosyncrasies, how they express themselves). It’s vital that we remember that cyclists/athletes are normal people too who also want to enjoy other aspects of life.  Let’s put it this way, imagine being told within your own time you could only concern yourself with matters regarding your job for the rest of your professional career. You simply wouldn’t have it, so don’t expect athletes to, it’s unrealistic! 

In this way we also take away an athlete’s own personal identity, potentially leaving them with an identity crisis on the horizon and vulnerable to self-sabotage, as well as acting recklessly in order to rebel against the labels we (unfairly) attach to them. This behaviour often then leads to self-isolation and a downward spiral.

I do believe it is important to note that as with any job/career that is results-based that you do need to apply a certain amount of pressure to achieve goals, however, we need to rethink what is acceptable treatment of athletes.  

It’s important to appreciate that athletes aren’t superhuman mentally; if anything they are often exposed to a greater amount of stress, pressure and criticism than the average person. Too much pressure means too much stress and too much stress has an AWFUL physical and mental effect on the human body, leading to inconsistent training and bad form.  No one wins in that situation, not the team or the rider. For me, too much emotional stress meant an inability to eat. This was highly problematic as not eating meant no energy, and so then I’d get very stressed about how rubbish I was doing in races and training – and so the vicious circle continued.

The general feeling is we need to see more support for the psychological side from a younger age given by national governing bodies and then following that support on through to the UCI teams to ensure consistency with regards to mental health treatment.  If support isn’t commonplace then the stigma will remain. We have to encourage young athletes and even parents to be more vigilant and understanding.

Unfortunately a lot of the people who contacted me sited their parents valuing them more on their ability as an athlete than a human (constantly comparing their child against other athletes who were having a better season or on better form) being a major source of stress and anxiety. This has to stop; your child is an individual, not a chess piece. I appreciate parents make sacrifices for their children to compete in cycling but it’s not an excuse to project your issues and insecurities out on them, most of the time young athletes are critical enough of themselves without that added criticism from the main people who are meant to support and nurture them physically and emotionally.

In conclusion, all people have different needs and abilities mentally; therefore looking forward this needs to be considered carefully and should include the wishes of the athletes when deciding how best to approach the issues of mental health in cycling. But as fellow athletes, fans, parents, coaches, friends and social media users, we do need to all be more active in helping aid positive progression. Be kind, check up on people, notice strange behaviours and encourage those around you to talk by creating a safe and non-judgmental environment to do so.

If you have been affected by any of the issues within this article and need help and support then please reach out to the following services: 

Mind –  http://www.mind.org.uk   – 0300 123 3393 (Mon – Fri, 9am to 6pm)

Samaritanshttp://www.samaritans .org.uk  – 116 123 (free phone 24 hour helpline) 

Rethink Mental Illnesswww.rethink.org – 0300 5000 927 (Mon – Fri, 9:30am to 4pm)