How To Be A Good Cycling Parent Hero

Being a Good Cycling Parent

By: Mary Topping  January 30, 2020

Questions abound if you’re raising a child who races bikes. When is it okay to tackle a century? Should we hire a coach? If my child works with a coach, what’s my job?

Fortunately you’re not searching for answers in a vacuum. Experts with years of hands-on experience working with junior cyclists can address these questions as well as topics like motivational support, challenges girls face, pacing, and perhaps most importantly, how you can best help.

What’s my role?

When you’re waking up at 5 a.m. to bundle your kid off to local races every weekend and conversation revolves around cycling, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

“The bottom line is you’re not raising a bike racer; you’re raising a kid, someone who is going to be an adult,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, who has a Ph.D. in exercise science. Currently on the faculty at West Virginia University, she is also a consultant and coach who specializes in working with junior and espoir elite athletes.

“Ultimately, whether they stop at age 18 or 25 or 35 from a competitive career, at some point it will end. You want to think how being a bike racer is going to help a child be a better person, not just a better bike racer.”

Parents should use the sport to help pave the path to well-balanced adulthood. For example, learning how to accept a mistake and move forward serves a kid for decades whether or not he continues cycling.

Setting a budget for the season teaches discipline and money smarts. Ask the junior which events matter most; discuss what’s involved financially to attend them and procure equipment. When the athlete’s ready to gain his independence, the cost of the sport won’t come as an unmanageable shock.

Help a kid stay grounded in reality by maintaining expectations around family chores and other responsibilities instead of deferring them for single-minded focus on cycling. Dieffenbach points to swimmer Janet Evans who continued to take out the trash at home after she earned an Olympic gold medal at age 17. Evans became one of the greatest female swimmers the world’s ever seen.

How do I fit in?

In addition to supervising the overall well-being of young athletes, a parent’s job is to provide unconditional love and support. When your child works with a coach, Dieffenbach advises focusing conversation about racing and training on what she’s doing rather than giving your opinion or critiquing. That’s the coach’s job.

Generally a coach is tasked with driving performance by training the athlete to reach her highest potential and identifying areas for improvement. The role might vary somewhat based on the athlete’s and parent’s needs. Parents should participate in seasonal planning with the coach since they manage expenses.

Kids who belong to a team also receive direction from adults who are team managers and/or coaches. At Team Rokform, an Orange County, California club with one of the country’s strongest development programs for juniors age 9 to 18, a team manager guides 15 to 18 year-old riders in the elite program.

According to Jeff Shein, Rokform’s junior team coordinator, the team manager supplies race day strategy, education in racing tactics, and helps athletes learn how to work together to reach the podium. Parents should leave racing instruction to the team manager.

What’s motivational?

Shein believes parents best motivate younger to middle-age juniors by being present and positive. Get to races. Cheer without criticizing. “I can’t tell you the number of parents that yell as the kid goes by, ‘Move up!’ The kid knows that,” he says.

And if a race goes poorly? That’s bound to happen for newcomers; even if they out-pedal everyone on a group ride, they can’t be expected to win their first races. “Don’t belittle or say negative things. Try instead, ‘Hey that was a tough race,’ and think of something positive that happened.”

Shein likes to see the youngest cyclists’ parents actively involved in the club by participating in rides and helping at events. At this point fun should be the focus, he says. Ambitious plans are usually pre-mature.

“I saw it in little league baseball too. A lot of parents think their kid will be the next slugger in the major league. It’s nice to dream, but don’t keep so much pressure on your kid. I’ve seen parents push so hard and the kid ends up getting burned out on the sport and moves on to something else.”

Kids progress at different speeds. If a young junior jumps into the sport and then shows less interest, that could mean it’s time for a break or he’s done too much too soon. Dieffenbach notes that hyper-focus on becoming exceptional before a child is emotionally, physically, and mentally ready to advance actually causes a lot of kids who could become very good a few years later – maybe even elite – to drop out of cycling before age 18.

A parent who found cycling as an adult and is extremely passionate about it may forget that a widening teenage world opens up many new possibilities. “Keep cycling fun and enjoyable so that they can keep doing it, but give them enough autonomy to explore a little bit what it means to do some other things,” Dieffenbach suggests.

How do I help my daughter?

In their typically very small local fields, girls place well pretty quickly. So facing more competition can end in a disappointing reality check. Dieffenbach says preparing them to handle that doesn’t have to require frequent travel to bigger races.

She suggests girls pursue other interests and not specialize in cycling until their mid-teen years. Non-cycling activities will demonstrate what it takes to succeed in bigger pools of talent and highlight the smaller realm of competitive cycling. Then before going to national cycling championships, parent and daughter can discuss what racing there will entail.

Additionally, connecting girls with talented women racers can help them feel less isolated. Look for positive women that have healthy approaches to eating, racing, and life balance and understand their responsibility as role models.

For girls as well as boys, “It really comes down to making sure your child’s sense of who they are is bigger than their wins or their success in bike racing, that they take pride in and feel good about the other things that they accomplish, as well as the work they put in [on the bike] and training they do,” Dieffenbach says.

Is my child doing too much?

Dieffenbach cautions against adult level activity for children while they inhabit developing bodies. Junior gear restrictions, which apply to road and track events, are in place for a good reason that she says we often forget. “Developing knees, hips, bones, and legs shouldn’t push really heavy gears. It’s not good for them.”

Decisions about whether or not your child should attempt a century or that popular gravel race should account for training age, physical growth age, and emotional maturation age, Dieffenbach advises. “Chronological age doesn’t tell us much. It’s a complex picture which means you have to know them, get outside consulting help.”

Weigh the same factors when considering whether to enter kids into longer adult races. Shein hesitates with younger juniors, “unless they have the absolute skill levels and physical size to not be intimidated by a bunch of adults,” but encourages older juniors to consider it.

Of course a child’s input regarding his next step in cycling is important. But if he’s overstretching himself, a parent needs to set limits. For these types of decisions a parent can also seek advice one-on-one from a coach.

Is it time for a coach?

Deciding when to hire a coach is “a very individual thing,” Dieffenbach indicates. First, outline what you need from this expert. Initially you might hire a coach if a younger rider has outgrown pedaling with you and needs a safe riding partner.

A more seasoned athlete could benefit from a coach if he wants one, is intensifying training or racing, and possesses the maturity and discipline to work directly with an advisor and follow a plan. USA Cycling maintains a list of licensed coaches; parents should interview candidates and discuss their approach. See Dieffenbach’s SafeSport Parenting articles for details regarding coaches.

When a coach comes on board, easing back from providing performance advice can be challenging for parents. Clear communication, the foundation for a productive parent-junior-coach relationship, will help. Dieffenbach suggests asking for the coach’s assistance in transitioning to a supportive parent role, as well as alerting the athlete to your new role, describing it, and asking what she needs.

“It is a great time to practice the shift that occurs as a child grows up, from directive to supportive parent. If you slip back, recognize it, own it, and move on.”

For additional guidance and education in junior racing, check out Bike Racing for Juniors, a book co-authored by Dieffenbach and USA Cycling Development Foundation Director, Steve McCauley.