Today my son raced in his third ever cyclocross race- on a mountain bike on a gorgeous day in Whistler. I tried to coach him in the race, cheering him on with a few words- key pointers I thought would help- big mistake, and by the finish line he was steaming mad at me. After a win in the day prior a fourth place and one step off the podium wasn’t the result that leads to a happy day when you are 13 years old. He told me in no uncertain terms that my coaching sucked- hmmm.
Reflecting on coaching, I am not sure of how the magic is created but I was fortunate in my life to be coached by a master – the one and only Mirek Mazur.
Mirek came to Winnipeg in the early 1980’s and under his tutelage a big group of us went from obscurity to prominence in road cycling In Canada and on the world stage.. Mirek was revered by us all, a soft golden heart under that stern demeanor speaking in a certain Mirekese- a Polish heavily accented English. We all craved his approbation. He brought Europe to Manitoba in the age of no internet and he was our entry into that coveted world. He trained us beyond what we thought we were capable of achieving and then we surprised ourselves. We were able to cycle even harder longer and with better skill than any of us had ever dreamed. With what we thought were crazy training programs at the time, in Winnipeg freezing winters we rode three hour indoor group trainer bike sessions in school gymnasiums. We rode outside in minus celcius conditions- no excuses, no wimps and we flourished. We sweated buckets together and as a group of disparate individuals we bonded as only athletes training hard can do with shared suffering. It was heady times to have someone unlock that potential in all of us and as athletes he changed many lives. In my immediate circle of friends National Team jerseys abounded and international racing became a reality and our lives were forever changed.
When he said “good” you knew it was beyond great and if he said “great” then you were headed for true excellence. He didn’t mince words nor did he ever deceive that you would do better than you had trained for. He was never critical just honest and some athletes who wanted to take the easy road and find excuses didn’t always appreciate his bluntness. Mirek once told me I could be a World Champion with such conviction that that dream lit a fire and I exceeded my wildest aspirations in sport. From barely having staged raced in cycling to earning the right (based on performances in selection races) to compete as a member of the Canadian Team. It was surreal, to race in 1984 in the Women’s Tour de France , to finishing on the Champs De L’Elysee just before the pro men with thousands of screaming spectators. How exactly did a young woman 2 years into cycling racing end up on the world stage, well I wasn’t there alone, it was due to my coach who stood virtually there with me… I never achieved anything close to that stated goal of World prominence, returning to medical school and ending competitive cycling for many years but finally did get finally win a rainbow jersey. I attribute my Masters World Championship Podium in MTB many many years later to the lessons he taught me about training, mindset, and belief in myself -remembering his words made it seem possible that I could take top step on the podium.
He produced true World Champions after I left the sport bringing that same conviction and mindset that it was really truly possible to other young athletes. What was his magic touch? He used science, and he had something unique and special. He was as dedicated as the athletes working tirelessly. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t do to see us succeed from motor pacing, winter cyclocross training, riding in extremely bad weather, and forgoing personal relaxation time.If an athlete needed him he did it no matter the personal cost. I think what we all felt was that he truly loved his athletes and never had a bad word to say about any of us. Despite the slim age difference he was more of a father figure than a peer. He didn’t play favorites and trained us all equally. If an athlete dedicated themselves he still gave the same coaching without the elitism that is pervasive in many sports. He gave us all a chance to find our own personal podium and that produced a generation of dedicated cyclists – many of us still competitive and loving cycling as masters athletes today. Having ultimate belief is something so rare and yet he gave us that- how and why I can’t really explain.
I can’t give my son the same mastery so I may need Mirek’s help someday . The ability to unlock the secret potential of an athlete is a true gift that few possess and we were all enriched. .