The Long Read - Team Novo Nordisk Navy Seal Off-Season Training
I can quite imagine sitting on a plane from Europe, en-route to San Diego, for the first training camp get together of the 2016 season for Team Novo Nordisk. Having never visited the United States, I'd have googled the Californian coastal resort of Mission Bay and the plush Hilton hotel that was detailed on the travel itinerary the admin officer at the team’s HQ had emailed through to me a few weeks previously. The image search would have filled me with something approaching smugness as I pictured expansive coastal rides, re-united with my team-mates after the off-season break, under crisp, blue late autumn skies and a low, watery sun; objective setting meetings mapping out the coming season's adventures and targets; bags of shiny new kit. Riding silkily smooth running bikes, straight from the sponsor via the gifted hands of the team mechanics, as we ventured inland later in the week for some mind and body awakening interval sessions amidst the verdant mountains and lakes of north eastern San Diego County. Yes, there'd be hard work in there, for sure- but I'm a cyclist, this is what I've worked hard for. Unfortunately, for any young dreamers amongst the actual Team Novo Nordisk squad, the above scenario was soon to be shown as being a very long way from reality…
The entire squad was awoken by a bang on the hotel room door in the small hours of Monday 16th November and ordered to report to the conference room across from the reception desk they had checked unassumingly in at the day before. There was to be a team briefing at 4am sharp. Do not be late. It was to prove to be a rude awakening in every sense of the word- physically and metaphorically; it was at this briefing that the squad would find out that it would be ex- U.S. Navy SEAL Special Forces personnel that would be calling the shots for the next 36 hours. Non-stop, with only 3 or so hours of sleep that would, by design, provide no real respite from the severe physical and mental stress they were about to be subjected to.
“There was to be a team briefing at 4am sharp. Do not be late. It was to prove to be a rude awakening in every sense of the word- physically and metaphorically"
“This is a young yet promising team, but we knew we needed to do something different to make our guys stronger mentally. The big question was “How?”, says Team Novo Nordisk Senior Vice President of Athletics Vassili Davidenko.
Photo Credit @veloimages ©
“We came up with the idea to do the Navy SEAL-style camp because we wanted the riders to work together more effectively as a team. We wanted to show them that when they work well together as a team, they can be better,” expounds Team Novo Nordisk CEO and co-founder Phil Southerland. “We believed that what was holding them back was truly mental, so we wanted to break them down and build them back up as one solid unit.”
This theory of 'breaking things down in order to re-build' is a constant theme in the thinking behind the shock and awe nature of the team's 2016 opening camp. J. Chabursky CSP, CEO of Acumen Performance Group (APG), who had been drafted in to run the camp, puts the flesh of theory onto the bones of Southerland & Davidenko’s initial idea, "Our training programs are designed to push our clients past their often self-imposed limitations. We expose weaknesses and then provide the mental tools to overcome them. We use an iterative process to repeatedly push our clients further past their limitations - in a sustainable manner, for sustainable results… This particular client was looking to develop mental toughness."
“...already being accustomed to physical exhaustion, we knew we had to really up the stakes in order to push the team beyond their already elite-level of physical and mental endurance."
But this was not to be some 'off the shelf' team bonding experience; far from it. APG just doesn't operate like that: "We designed this specific camp to suit the nature of competitive cycling. Many camps we design serve athletes who have the luxury of periodic breaks throughout a competition for planning and recovery, followed by short bursts of exertion. For cyclists however, we concluded that best results would be achieved through a camp that maintained a steady grinding pace and forced the team to learn and adapt as they performed physically and mentally strenuous tasks, just like they do during a race. However, already being accustomed to physical exhaustion, we knew we had to really up the stakes in order to push the team beyond their already elite-level of physical and mental endurance."
Chabursky ominously defines the squads imminent experience as 'immersive'. The itinerary APG have devised is indeed a grinding down process. The non-stop, overtly punishing physical exertion and "Sleep with watch rotations and impromptu activities" was to be punctuated by specific tasks: ‘The Crying Sherpa’, ‘Surf-Torture’, ‘Write Your Own Obituary’: Break them down and build them back up…
Photo Credit @veloimages ©
But 36 hours of Boot Camp torture was not to be the end of proceedings, merely an integral first part of a two part exercise. Following straight on from the exhausting APG program, the pre-season camp continued for the world’s first all-diabetes professional cycling team across the Mexican border in the town of Rosarito. There, the riders were joined by the entire Team Novo Nordisk staff to build houses from scratch for two families tragically impacted by diabetes and poverty. This was to be a two day operation in partnership with Hope Sports, a non-profit organization that promotes personal growth and community among athletes through short-term service trips. The riders and staff worked tirelessly once more to create the homes from the ground up. There it was again; that recurring theme of building something from bare foundations, of creating and achieving something through teamwork and the overcoming of challenges that pushed each team member outside of their comfort zone; Pro bike riders are not often called upon to swing hammers for hours on end, plum pipes or raise walls and roofs.
Photo Credit Luis Garcia ©
And so, with the tasks finally complete, what did the team and management make of all this somewhat left-field activity? At the outset of the squads 'immersion' I'd tweeted a picture of the guys wrestling huge tractor tyres from point to point at the water’s edge of Mission Bay. Someone tweeted a reply, questioning the value of such camps- was it a gimmick? Surely hours, and lots of them on the bike are what is really required? It was as good a question as any, and one I kept in mind upon gathering feedback from the riders and management as the keys were handed proudly to the house's new occupants.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I have a lot of respect for the military, but I didn’t know how hard it was really going to be” Charles Planet, the squad’s determined 22 year old Frenchman, looks back upon his experience.
"The night was the hardest part. I was really cold and we were only able to sleep a short time. My heart is what kept me going. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t stop until I hit my absolute maximum and even then, I’d go past that. All I kept thinking was that I didn’t want to let my teammates down… this experience will definitely help me on the bike. When we were in the water, I wanted to quit; my body felt like it didn’t work. Sometimes it feels like that during a race… but no matter how difficult it gets during a race, I have never felt so physically challenged as I did these last two days. Now I know I can push myself so much further… As a team, this experience was so important. There were no individuals, just one team".
"…coming to Mexico and building a home for a family affected by diabetes gave us something tangible to see that we’re making a difference…"
Team Novo Nordisk neo-pro Brian Kamstra confirms the unity Planet talks of that emerged and the values that became embedded, “My teammates motivated me to get through the tough moments… this will help next season - during a race, you can’t leave your teammate behind… this camp really revealed each riders’ strong points and weak points… now we know how to motivate each other. During the camp we needed each other, we couldn’t do it on our own and that is very similar to bike racing.”
But it wasn’t just the team’s young riders who emerged changed men: guys who’ve seen many a season in the saddle also took valuable lessons away from the experience. Chris Williams, the 34 year old veteran Australian, makes a point of highlighting the processes by which the methodically exposed weaknesses were then turned around allowing the teamwork to flourish, “A lot of the exercises relied on constant communication. We have riders from 10 different countries and a lot of languages with the team, so accurate communication is essential… we ride together at races, but often times we aren’t communicating well. If we can communicate better, it will make it a lot easier".
Chris also hints at how the experience was both emotional as well as hugely physical, "We ride for Team Novo Nordisk so we’re always working to inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes, but I think coming to Mexico and building a home for a family affected by diabetes gave us something tangible to see that we’re making a difference… this week has been a great experience for everyone here. A lot of us have been humbled by it and I think we’ll be more selfless now. I think everyone is more willing to give more and help each other more."
Photo Credit Luis Garcia ©
The Management, Vassili Davidenko & Phil Southerland, are equally as enthused by the week's activities and outcomes, "At this camp, the playing field was levelled and all were equal. They all had to work together to achieve the shared goal. There were no superstars and no riders were left behind" reflects Davidenko. Southerland continues in the same vein, “The list of positives that came out of this camp is truly endless. They started as individuals, but they quickly came together to work as a team. The team essence that we ended with is unbelievable… for me, seeing different leaders step up in different fashions was great. I watched every single guy crack at one point, but they were then pulled back together by their team and within minutes were back and focused on the goal at hand… throughout the two days, every rider impressed me at one point. To see the resilience and strength of the team and the lack of complaints throughout the entire process was very rewarding. For me, I think we have a much stronger unit now to attack our goals for the 2016 season. Being here and building a house is something our athletes had never done before."
Photo Credit Luis Garcia ©
But what about the experts? APG: The guys who devised the programme and who have worked in some of the most close-knit teams in existence- how had they seen the squad change?
"The team is much more tightly bonded. Communication between the athletes, support staff, coaches and management are vastly improved... even as the team approached physical and mental exhaustion, their ability to stay together and operate as a single unit showed drastic improvement over the 36 hours. As a perfect example, the first exercise we did with the team was completing 10 push-ups in unison as a group; this took several attempts to complete, even when the team was warm and fresh. The very last exercise the team did during this camp, after 36 hours on the go, in 7 different locations, in temperatures as low as minus 3, on only 3 hours of sleep, was 10 push-ups, in unison, as a team; the team performed these perfectly, and in unison, on the very first try.."