Is Confidence a Gender Issue?

I ran a coaching session with my club, Hervelo Cycling this morning. The road cycling side of the club (known as ‘the skinnies’) is largely made up of ladies like myself who got a road bike and just rode it. The majority of us have not ridden with other clubs and do not have a background of cycling in a club where road cycling technique and wisdom is passed down through the club.

Through Active Cycle Coaching I run monthly coaching sessions for Hervelo, a women’s cycling club. It is incredible how much difference a few suggestions on technique can make to a rider’s ability on their bike. In the few months I have been coaching club members, I have seen riders go from strength to strength. These are ladies who are not especially interested in getting involved in racing at the moment, but they are feeling stronger, more comfortable and more confident on their bikes as a result of coaching.

When I trained as a cycle coach I expected to spend a lot of time correcting technique. I do indeed do this. But I do not think I expected to spend quite as much time correcting attitude. I definitely find that in the women I coach, the psychological holds them back more than the physical. This becomes most apparent in hill climbing. The women who fall behind on every slight hill are no less strong than those who do not. They are no less fit, they are no less able. But they have a deeply held conviction that they are slow up hills. They believe that they will be left behind and lo and behold, they are. You become what you believe. Simply starting to believe that they can keep up has made a huge difference to these riders.

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that it is a lack of confidence which holds many riders back.

Are Men More Confident Than Women?

I have long believed that lack of confidence, especially when it comes to cycling, is more of an issue for women than men.

Today I questioned this belief.

Sometimes, long held beliefs don’t last very long when you start to look at them more closely. Especially when you take a close look at yourself in the light of that belief.

By the time I got half way through writing this post, I had to start again because I had convinced myself that confidence is no more an issue for women than it is for men.

My belief that women lack confidence more than men was admittedly based on very little other than my own assumptions. I certainly find that the women I coach lack confidence in their own abilities. I have a particular interest in getting more women on bikes and this is very much what I am focused on at the moment. To me, the men I have come across in cycling do not seem to lack confidence in the same way.

However, I have a friend who makes a very convincing argument that this is simply because men hide their lack of confidence better. She is a very knowledgeable lady who has more than her own assumptions on which to base this.

Am I confident?

People who meet me would probably tell others that I am a confident person.

People who know me well would probably tell others that I lack confidence in myself.

If I am totally honest with myself, I would say that I often feel like a fraud and I cannot think of many areas of my life in which I am totally confident.

For example:

  • Parenting. I have two young children. I try my best to be a good parent. But I make mistakes and I doubt every single thing I do, all the time. From talking to others I actually doubt whether there is any such thing as a confident parent.
  • Blogging. I started this blog very much on a whim. I have always wanted to write and my husband suggested blogging about getting back into cycling after having children. I never really knew why I was writing and why anyone would want to read what I write. From the stats on my site and the feedback I get, I should feel more confident that my writing is good and people are interested. But as the blog has grown I feel a lack of confidence in what I write even more. Recently, I have found that I am becoming recognisable. I hear “you’re the one who writes Mummy’s Gone A Cycle” more and more. I no longer have the false confidence of anonymity. I live in fear of folk telling me  to my face that my writing is nonsense.
  • Work. I have run my own business since the start of this year. I coach cycling and produce teaching resources to promote learning across the curriculum through increased physical activity. I am passionate about what I do and I want it to succeed. So far, despite working around very limited time and two small children, this has all gone well. Yet every day I doubt my ability to succeed. Every day I consider giving up and going back to a ‘conventional’ job.
  • Bike Racing. I am enjoying getting into bike racing this year. But on every start line I doubt whether I really should be there (more on this below).

However, if there is one thing I am confident in, it is that I have the ability to blag my way through things.

A Confident Profession?

My confidence in my own ‘gift of the blag’ has grown since I became a primary school teacher ten years ago. Have you ever watched a teacher at the front of the class, counting to zero with the expectation of a silent and attentive class by the time they get there? It works. It works because of the confidence with which it is delivered. Trust me, when you first train as a teacher, you live in fear of the children realising that if you get to zero and they are not silent and attentive, you’ve got nothing. A riot may well result.

In managing behaviour in a classroom you either develop the gift of the blag, or you find another profession.

Maybe this is the real difference in confidence between men and women. That more men have the gift of the blag? That men feel no more confident than women, but they do not discuss their lack of confidence?

Maybe we are all really quivering wrecks on the inside?

Confidence in Cycle Racing

The Scottish Cycling Women’s Development Forum recently published the results of a survey they ran in October 2017 investigating women’s participation in cycle racing. They found that, in response to the question ‘is there anything that is preventing you from competing?’ the most popular answers were confidence and women believing that they lacked the required skills.

In Scotland there are a number of very dedicated women working very hard, largely as volunteers, to get more women racing. Their hard work is paying off and more women are starting to race. But it must feel like something of an uphill struggle when only six women take to the starting line in a crit race like last week.

I do think that there are women who consider racing but lack the confidence to get started. However, I do not think that confidence is the whole answer to why more women do not race. I suspect that a similar proportion of male cyclists lack the confidence to race, as women. But there are more male cyclists. So if 10% of male cyclists have the confidence to race and 10% of female cyclists have the confidence to race, this still explains why fields are smaller in women’s racing.

I have taken the plunge and started racing this year. But in the past week, I have begun to realise how much my lack confidence affects how I race.

There was a heated debate on the Scotland’s Women Cyclists Facebook page recently about a women’s race where it seems nobody wanted to take their turn on the front and this led to a somewhat boring race. I wasn’t there. But I did read all the posts. The posts put the fear of god into me about being seen by other racers as a ‘sandbagger’ and as too selfish to take a turn on the front.

At the time of reading it, I felt that the thread was unhelpful and that it would put women off racing. (I should add that this will not have been the intention of those who started or contributed to the thread). After reading it, I seriously considered pulling out of my next race. But I didn’t. I raced anyway. And when the race started I was determined to prove that I was not selfish. I was determined to take a turn on the front.

I did take a turn on the front. Possibly not that much, but more than I have done in other races. I found that I was stronger than I thought and I could do this without totally blowing up and ending up a dnf (did not finish). I also managed a sprint for the line which I have never managed before.

Feeling the fear on the start line (photo courtesy of Pam La’Craig).

In actual fact, what I had viewed as a negative and unhelpful thread has proved to be just the push I needed.

Previously I have relied on hanging on to the wheels of others in order to complete the race. I realise now that this was also all about confidence for me. I realise that I stand on the start line of every race truly believing that I am the weakest rider in the race. I find it hard to understand why another rider would signal me to come through and take the front when I am quite clearly struggling. I find it hard to understand why the rider I sprinted against last week did not respond and leave me standing. I am beginning to realise that everyone else in the race is struggling just as much as me. It does not matter how strong or experienced you are, racing is hard and everyone is struggling. Just beginning to realise this has been a huge confidence boost for me.

Graeme Obree is a man widely believed to know a thing or two about bike racing. He also knows a thing or two about the effects of the mind on the body, having suffered from bipolar disorder. Obree dedicates a whole chapter of his book ‘The Obree Way’ to the psychology of preparation and states:

‘We have control over performance by the way we think’

I think I may need to read it again.

Confidence and Age

The strange thing for me is that I was far more confident when I was younger. When I think back to some of the things I did in my teens and twenties, I wonder how I ever had the confidence to do them.

On a recent bike maintenance course I remembered getting my first road bike and having a go at fixing minor faults myself. Now in my forties I don’t dare tinker with my bikes in case I break them.

Where did all my confidence go?

Building Confidence

Regardless of whether or not there is a gender issue at stake, building confidence is important when it comes to enabling people who want to cycle, to get on their bikes, whether that be cycling to work or cycling to race.

With that in mind I will keep on coaching, I will keep on leading Breeze rides and I will keep on encouraging anyone who is interested to get on a bike. I believe that we all have a role to play in building confidence in others.

However, when it comes to building my own confidence, I am a little less sure. For the time being, I’ll just keep on with the gift of the blag.

4 Replies to “Is Confidence a Gender Issue?”

  1. I do workplace cycle training for NHS Tayside, it’s done with an annual “if you’re interested please fill in the form” and I see who we have and arrange lessons tailored to the folk involved.

    Most of my clients are women who state confidence issues. But, I do wonder if they’re possibly better at coming forward and doing something about it than the men who I generally don’t hear from?

    (Amongst kids at Discovery Junior I haven’t noticed any obvious confidence difference between boys and girls. You get no-fear merchants and I’m-not-doing-that types amongst both.)

    1. That’s really interesting about the children. I see the same in the children I have coached, there is no obvious gender difference in confidence levels.

  2. It’s a really important issue and I think one of the things that can make or break you as an athlete. I absolutely feel that one of the biggest things that can limit your potential is your mind. In Mind Gym, the authors say ‘beliefs drive behaviours – self-limiting beliefs lead to self-limiting behaviors’. If you don’t believe you can do something, there’s no way you will. Whether that’s in sport, or in other areas of your life. A fantastic example is Lizzy Yarnold’s interview after the last Olympics when she was asked whether she really thought she could win gold again she said something along the lines of ‘yes of course, I knew I could’. And that’s why she is the Olympic champion.

    In my main sport of lacrosse I make sure that I train as hard as I can so when I get on the pitch I know I deserve to be there. Then I go out and try to execute every part of my game as well as I can. I know I’m not the best player on the pitch but I also know I’m as fit as I can be, and I repeat my coaches mantra of ‘hustle beats talent, when talent doesn’t hustle’. This is the epitomy of my success as a lacrosse player – I spent years not making the national team because my natural skill was lower than others but I worked on what I knew I could change – speed, agility, fitness, stick work and I didn’t let my head go down. And eventually this paid off, and it’s because I told myself I deserved a place in that team – not by comparing myself to the talent of more gifted players, but just confidence that I had worked for my spot.

    When I race cross its only really as part of my lacrosse training but I still get nervous and I do the same as you and tell myself that everyone is nervous and makes mistakes and is about to chuck up a lung. No one racing is there for a toddle, we’re all in the red, regardless of whether we’re at the front or the back. I agree with your friend that women and men get equally nervous, but men have largely been conditioned by our social norms throughout their lives to push that feeling aside and show no fear. Down to exactly this we’ve got a big advantage as women as we in turn are more conditioned to open up and share our emotions. Role models in our sport (like Isla Short’s recent post on social media about Albstadt) need to say – look I doubt myself too, but this is how I control and use those emotions. And men need to do this too, and show that it’s also fine to be vulnerable. It’s our actions that define us, not our gender. I really hope we’ll soon be saying ‘why are some people more confident than others’, not ‘why are men more confident than women’.

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