Leading Top-Talents in a Global World

“It is not because you did not win today that your day is lost. When you continue to make progress, the wins will come.” 

Bernard Moerman

Bernard Moerman is co-founder of Flandrien Hotel, a speaker, writer, executive coach and consultant in the field of organizational change and transformation. Prior to shifting his focus to the corporate sector, he spent more than two decades as a talent manager, mentor and Team Director in the world of elite-level cycling. 

But rather than channeling his energy into working directly with professional cycling teams, Bernard’s passion was supporting young riders from Asia-Pacific, the Americas, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Russia and the former Soviet Republics to come to train and race in Europe. As founder of The Cycling Center and later General Manager of Team3M he hosted more than 850 young riders at his base near to Brugge in Belgium. 

In this interview Bernard talks about his experience in supporting young people to succeed, and the techniques that he learned to address their fears of failure, their setbacks and the very human feelings of isolation and loneliness when far from home. Bernard’s experience in supporting young people to succeed is universally relevant – not just for sporting coaches and mentors, but for any leader working with ambitious young people. 

Can you explain what inspired your decision to dedicate a significant part of your life to supporting young people achieve their dreams?

As a young man my dream was to become a soccer player, and I progressed to the Belgian professional league. As part of that journey I came across young and talented foreign players, and I was intrigued by their courage of leaving home and travelling half-way around the world. After my football career I became a business entrepreneur, but still felt a strong connection with sport. This led to an interest in cycling, and I saw the struggle that many young foreign riders had in establishing themselves in Belgium. I thought that these young people were so brave, and that they needed support. So I decided to see what I might be able to do to help them and before too long it became not just a passion, but a calling and a full-time commitment. 

Many of the young people that you hosted in Belgium over the years were top-talents in their own countries. But the level of cycling in Belgium is renowned to be incredibly high, so how did these young sports people find that transition from hometown hero to racing in Europe?

For all of them it felt like being hit by a truck. They often arrived with a lot of confidence and a track-record of good results in their home countries, but very soon they discovered that racing in Belgium was at a whole new level.   Soon these young riders discovered that “cycling-talent” was not the prime survival factor. They needed resilience, adaptability, agility and most definitely a reason for making the sacrifices they were making. 

I soon discovered that many of these young people defined their goals in rather narrow terms – of winning this race or that, or “getting a contract.” But they rarely reflected on the wider purpose of why they were doing what they were doing – like realizing their true potential as a human being or by competing in Europe as a way to inspire others in the countries and communities from which they came. 

This lack of a deeper purpose meant that a lack of results in competition could discourage them greatly – they were unable to reflect upon the bigger journey that they were on. So an important objective was helping each and every rider to reflect upon some wider objectives for coming to race in Europe – to articulate their personal Why?

I always told them, “Make sure you go back to your country stepping on the plane with as few “what ifs?” as possible. If I had only done this, If I had only done that.” This is where it always came back to the question of purpose. If a rider had been able to frame their experience in Belgium at a deeper level of meaning, then they rarely left Europe with regrets. 

It must have been difficult for these high-achievers to be suddenly realizing their weaknesses and limitations. How did you support them to rebuild their confidence and to improve? What specific techniques or approaches did you use? 

 The first thing I said: Don’t do anything “half-ass” an expression I learned from the first Californian rider we had. Do the right things and do those things right and at 110%. This included not just training and eating right, but also resting and making time to reflect upon lessons learned.

Another important aspect was helping them to understand that only 1 out of 250 Belgian riders and 1 out of 400 foreign riders would make it to a pro contract. And making it to the top was as much a lottery of luck, crashes, injuries and sickness as it was about talent and hard work. So becoming pro could not be the only objective – it also needed to be about building strength of character and learning life skills. The “Why?” needed to come from a deeper level.  

It was not unusual for foreign riders to perform very poorly in their first races in Belgium. The level was so high, the courses very technical and the style of racing quite different to what they were used to. So maybe they would finish just half of the race, or even less. It was necessary to have a strategy to prepare them for this, so we set “micro” goals such as staying at the front of the race for as long as possible. And in cases when they were dropped, there would be a clear post-race objective, like riding double of the remaining race time at training pace. This meant that no race was a “failure” but part of a wider development plan. 

It was also important to encourage the riders to have a growth mindset. Training on the bike is very important, but that only takes maybe 2 to 6 hours each day. So athletes have a lot of down-time for rest and recovery. But rather than just watching TV or playing video games they could use this time to learn. They could explore technical topics like aerodynamics, or research latest developments in nutrition. 

But more importantly I encouraged them to take a break from time to time to pursue their interests outside of cycling – whether it be other hobbies and passions or studying a distance-learning course. Doing so could help to avoid mental burnout and also lay the foundation for lifelong learning and a career after the bike – something that far few riders invest in during their years of competition.  

Many of these riders were very far from home. How do you think that affected their performance? Was there a difference between these international riders and the local riders living at home with Mum & Dad? 

The difference was huge, and many of the local riders were pampered beyond imagination. I told all foreign riders at the Cycling Center that homesickness is nothing to be ashamed of as it means you are thankful of your family and your community. So homesickness is not a proof of failure or weakness, it’s proof of being human. Performing at the highest level, even though you miss home, makes you so much stronger as a person. It boosts your self-confidence and prepares you well for the ups-and-downs throughout life.

To what extent was there a role for you to support them on a personal level when they felt isolated or lonely? Were there other members of your team who took on this role?

My wife Ann and I understood the importance of supporting our riders emotionally, especially during times of difficulty. We had two “Golden Rules”: Ann was the “far-away-from home mom” and riders knew they could talk with her about anything. The deal between myself and my wife was that as long as “the issue” was not endangering the team or the cycling center, it was not necessary to tell me.  Secondly, if there was a rider in the hospital because of a crash, something that happened all too often, then he needed to see one of us as soon as he opened his eyes. We felt it essential that they all knew we would be there for support. 

Only a small number of all of the riders that you worked with over the years managed to build a long-term career in the professional peloton. How do you think that the experience racing in Belgium impacted those riders who returned home to pursue other careers? What did they learn from their time at The Cycling Center?

In my introduction towards new riders I always told them that the Cycling Center was a place where they could learn to become a professional – not just in cycling, but in any field of endeavor. I said, “You all think about becoming pro-cyclists, but since very few of you will make it, I want to provide a program that insures that your investment in time and money will not be wasted. This experience will prepare you for life.” 

We worked on understanding the value of team-spirit, collaboration, honest and straight forward communication, respect, resilience and discipline. We were always results-oriented not results driven. We worked out ambitious plans and broke those plans down into achievable steps. We always tailored to the needs of the individual but also encouraged the individual to be humble and generous to others. 

Over a period of 25 years we hosted over 800 riders and about 10 made it to the “big-league” as successful professional cyclists. Great. But the biggest achievement to me has been the fact that very many of our riders thrived in their lives after cycling. They became lawyers, surgeons, physicians, engineers and entrepreneurs – we know of at least 150 that have started their own businesses. 

And now that you work as an executive leadership coach, what do you think that leaders in the corporate world might learn from your experience in working with young talent?  

First, a leader needs to juggle the Why? of the organization, their own personal Why? and the Why? of the young talent.  These 3 Whys need to be aligned – and need to be clear to all. The leader also needs to help his or her young talents to build resilience as the journey to career success is rarely without setbacks.

No matter how clear the Why, no matter how much talent there is, no matter how much preparation there is, real talent will be measured at critical moments – moments when things go wrong. Helping people to be open minded and humble at these times prepares them to cope in moments of crisis, and to learn from their mistakes. Good leadership celebrate resilience as a foundation for future high-performance.

Emotional engagement is also critical in today’s fast-moving and global working environment.  Leaders need to be there to back-up their high-performers, and to accept very human emotions such as loneliness and homesickness.  Humanity, honesty and integrity are the glue in stressful moments, when the resilience of the young talent and the empathy of the leader is tested.