Teamship In Virtual Cycling

Teamship and tribalism are in our DNA. For cyclists Virtual Team Competitions are our modern day expression of millions of years of evolution. In a (recently) unprecedented time of physical restrictions and lack of typical sporting outlets are virtual platforms enough to satisfy our social desires? Thanks to Zwift and WTRL for giving us the chance to find out!

The Zwift Racing League is a team-based points competition with 5 hierarchical divisions; at the top is the Premier League and below A,B,C & D Divisions. At the end of the 10 week season the top teams in their respective divisions are promoted to the division above and the teams scoring the least points are relegated to the division below. Teams of 6 riders are formed from ZwiftPower clubs. Riders compete in "road race" style events where individuals score points based on place of finish and these points contribute to the overall team ranking. They also compete in team time trial events where the team races against the clock and their time is ranked against other teams.

Royal City Cycling registered two teams for the team time trial event on October 20th. The consensus after our first race from our 12 riders was unanimous:

  1. For e-sports racing, just as in real-life competition, there is a lot to learn from your first time. Of these lessons, team cohesion and communication was one of the top talking points in the post-race debrief.

  2. You ride a lot harder when the team is counting on you. We has at least 4 riders achieve lifetime bests for power output in the race.

Cycling is a team sport and as cyclist we have a shared experience of that special feeling when you're in the red-zone, approaching your own physical and mental limits, but find some extra motivation knowing what you're doing is about more than yourself. I knew it because I felt it during the race, having contemplated dropping off the back of our team's strongest riders in the last 3km, but I was impressed to hear everyone say they also found some extra resolve to push on for the team.

Sports journalist Matt Fitzgerald writes about the advantages of training and racing in a group in his book How Bad Do You Want It. Fitzgerald describes that underpinning these advantages is what psychologists call behavioral synchrony. Interestingly, research of behavioral synchrony conducted on athletes has shown that subjects are significantly less sensitive to pain following a group training session compare to the same training done alone. What could account for these differences? Fitzgerald writes that, "When people work together, their brains release greater amounts of mood-lifting, discomfort suppressing endorphins than they do when the same task is undertaken alone."

In cycling, what this means is that the effort to keep pushing, what coaches and sports psychologists call: perceived exertion, at a given power output actually feels less painful when you're teammates are there with you compared to racing the event on your own. And, simply put, If it feels less painful you keep going and achieve better performances. So, when a group of athletes come together and compete as a team each individual's performance is elevated because of the behavioral synchrony effect on their perceived exertion. This phenomenon, coined by sociologist John Bruhn, is known as the group effect.

Fitzgerald calls the group effect, "a force that all athletes can exploit to attain far greater heights together than they ever could alone." Maximizing this effect and performing at your best is a great reason to join the Zwift Racing League. However, finding a way to enjoy an activity with inherent suffering just a bit more by making those moments where you're struggling to hang on a little less painful and shifting the focus to the team instead of your aching legs is exactly why we're taking part in the Zwift Racing League. Maybe it was the lack of competition this summer, not having experienced it in far too long, but this feeling stuck with me and I can't wait to race again next Tuesday.

MORE FUN: Unlock Inspiration is part of a series of posts I will be publishing that provide insight into my training, racing & coaching philosophy.

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