Elisabetta Borgia: Sport psychology on Trek-Segafredo

Elisabetta Borgia is the first full-time sport psychologist who works for Trek-Segafredo's men and women teams

Several riders have taken a break from racing to protect their mental health in recent years. That includes Marcel Kittel, who in May 2019 decided to stop professional cycling because he was unable to train and compete at the required level. Kittel declared that he would reflect on his goals and plan his future more calmly. However, three months later, the German retired from professional cycling and has had no regrets since.

A more recent episode is that of Tom Dumoulin. Last January, a few days after his training camp with Jumbo-Visma, he decided to take a period of reflection because he was physically and mentally exhausted. However, after visiting his teammates at the Amstel Gold Race, Dumoulin declared that he was ready to get back on the bike. The break did him an incredible amount of good. After returning to competition at the Tour of Switzerland in May, he won the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August in the individual time trial.

Related: Rouleur Podcast: Pfeiffer Georgi, Marcel Kittel and Peter Kennaugh

Marcel Kittel (right) with Peter Kennaugh (centre) and Laura Winter (left) at Rouleur Live 2021, where they spoke about pro cycling and mental health. Photo: Sean Hardy.  

So the news that the American Trek-Segafredo team will have a sports psychologist on their women's and men's teams from 2022 should come as no surprise. After all, a sports psychologist is not only used to protecting the mental health of athletes. They're also seen as professionals who can build mental strength and improve performances.

Related: British champion Pfeiffer Georgi on her big win, 2022 ambitions and the Tour de France Femmes

However, Trek-Segafredo's move is something new in professional cycling. The figure chosen by the American team is the Italian Elisabetta Borgia, who had worked as an external consultant for the women's team in previous seasons. 

Ancient need, modern response

Elisabetta Borgia (left) at the Trek-Segafredo's training camp in December. Here she's with Elisa Longo Borghini with whom she has already worked in the past. Photo: Trek-Segafredo.

"I don't think [in the past] there was no need in the past for a support person," Borgia explains to Rouleur. "I do think, though, that one observed the more macroscopic things while one struggled more to see the finer things."

The fact that there is now a greater awareness of the mental wellbeing of athletes is due to several factors, including greater understanding and increased attention from sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), federations, and of course, teams. 

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"IOC research tells us that top-level athletes have more psychological problems than the average non-athlete of their age," Borgia says.

And among the various ills of our time – which you don't have to be a top-level athlete to have experienced at least once – are anxiety attacks, eating disorders, and depression. As well as dealing with the pressures of modern society, top-level athletes also have to cope with the stress of highly competitive environments. This results in a greater vulnerability to the accumulation of demands and expectations.Borgia with Longo Borghini at Strade Bianche in 2021. Photo: Trek-Segafredo

In addition, the reality we live in today is not the same as it was just ten years ago. In a professional cycling team, this translates into more data and areas to pay attention to, like bike-fitting, physiotherapy, nutrition, rest, training loads and aerodynamics.

"Performance is so divided into so many areas that if you can take the good in each part [you can keep your balance], but if you're already a bit insecure and struggling, the variables to manage become disorienting," adds Borgia.

Related: The rise of the female sports director. How cycling is changing

Not to mention media and daily obligations with social media, making athletes more susceptible and vulnerable to aggressive comments and fans.

"Today, the athlete is online up to ten minutes before the race, with live coverage and stories, and is online a second after the race is over," adds Borgia. "And it is no longer enough to win. The athlete also has to be a character and always be present, and the private life becomes a little less private."

And it is for these various reasons, Luca Guercilena [Trek's manager, now on a break to recover from cancer] proposed Borgia join the performance team along with doctors, coaches, and nutritionists. This is a first for both Trek and the World Tour.

Cyclocross, psychology, and Trek

Borgia with the Italian downhill team. Photo: Elisabetta Borgia archive.

Borgia, born in Cantù in 1987 and now based in Castell'Arquato, raced for 17 years at a high level and wore the Italian national team's jersey in mountain biking cyclo-cross (where she won three national titles). The passion for the psychological component of sports has always fascinated her and then drove her to study the subject.

"For me, it has always been an aspect on which, in retrospect, I should have worked more," says Borgia. "And in some cases, it was also a vulnerability. I was an athlete who was able to prepare for important appointments, but perhaps – in the last part of my career – it was one of those elements that led me to stop racing."

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However, Borgia is also keen to emphasise that these were not just "weaknesses" but a reality she could not control and change completely. This was mainly because, in the elite categories, she had found herself competing against athletes who trained and competed full-time while she was already divided between sport and study.

Borgia thus chose to continue studying psychology and graduated first from the Cattolica University in Milan (2009 and 2011), then from the University of Turin's SUISM sports psychology master's programme in 2013.

Elisabetta Borgia with the ciclocross team. Photo: Elisabetta Borgia archive.

After her master's degree – with a thesis on drug addiction and comorbidity (presence of other psychiatric disorders on top of the addiction) – Borgia did her post-graduate training in the Casa di Lodesana therapeutic community of the Associazione Gruppo Amici Onlus in Fidenza, in the province of Parma.

"I still work in the same community today," says Borgia. "For me, working in the community is continuous training and gives me necessary ideas for my work in sport."

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Since 2013, Borgia has also worked with the Italian Cycling Federation as a teacher in the training of sports directors. In addition, she has continue projects with the Federciclismo in cross-country, with the management towards Tokyo 2020 and, in the last two years, with the national downhill team. 

The SFERA and DBT model

Borgia uses a methodology known as SFERA, but she also uses the Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. Photo: Trek-Segafredo.

Her working methodology is based on the SFERA model – developed by sports psychologist Giuseppe Vercelli – which stands for Synchrony, Strength, Energy, Rhythm and Activation.

"I started from this model, and then over the years, I adapted it based on my experiences and models that I follow in the community. Like DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy), which works through a dialectic of acceptance and change – and acceptance as a fundamental element to start changing," explains Borgia.

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And while historically DBT began as a therapy to help people with severe personality disorders, this methodology can be applied to various fields, as Borgia has done in sports.

The three phases of Borgia's work

Trek-Segafredo took all at Roubaix 2021, with Lizzie Deignan first and Elisa Longo Borghini third. Photo: CorVos/SWpix.

Borgia's method is intended to be straightforward and allow athletes to eliminate grey areas. The first part of the work consists of analysing and getting to know the person, where it is essential to create trust and a mutual alliance. In this phase, Borgia also builds up an athlete's past sporting and psychological history with which she draws up an individual emotional profile.

"This is a bit of an identity card, in which I highlight the strengths and weaknesses to be aware of, and then the areas of vulnerability, which become the targets for improvement," she explains.

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Following the analysis phase, there is the optimisation phase, in which short-, medium- and long-term objectives (for performance, not results) are drawn up. These are based on season periodisation and aim to get the athlete to be "the best representation of himself or herself."

Starting with the seasonal goals, the work is then broken down backwards. And from the starting point, the process towards plans progresses through small increments. As Borgia points out, it is crucial to be aware of your level when you start the journey.

"I work with some athletes who tell me that at the start of the season they are devastated [as they begin their training again]," she says. "And I tell them: guys, it's good that you are devastated now. It means you've recovered, and you've recharged yourselves to face a new season."

Trek's outfit for Borgia. Photo: Trek-Segafredo. 

Finally, the work done during the season (at first in the studio; then in person during training and competitions; but also remotely and via messages before events) uses various reinforcement tools and techniques. Borgia mainly uses behavioural techniques taken from cognitivism, but the simple dialogue and theory can help athletes learn.

"Sometimes you develop a disturbing thought that we address with a technique called cognitive restructuring," she explains. "You have to restructure that thought – which is a wrong thought and can create a chain of thoughts that can cause the athlete to lose focus or self-boycott."

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Borgia also uses biofeedback techniques such as heart rate coherence (Heart Rate Variability or HRV) to show in real-time how emotions and thoughts affect heart rate and the sympathetic nervous system, linked to individual stresses (physiological and psychological). And it shows in real-time how breathing exercises can help relax and regain proper heart variability. 

Men, women, and functional balance

From 2022, Borgia will work with both the men and women's team of Trek-Segafredo. Photo: Santini/Trek-Segafredo.

In her working experience with men and women, Borgia has noticed that men have less difficulty "finding a balance and balancing several aspects at once. But, on the other hand, when they are concentrated, women are, so to speak, fundamentalists. That is, they manage to reach a level of rigour and diligence that leads them, at times, to go beyond and be too concentrated and eliminate everything else. In the long term, this also becomes burdensome."

Too much concentration leads the individual to lose energy and risks leading to burnout. And, as demonstrated by the decisions of Kittel and Dumoulin – especially at the World Tour level – the risk is very high for everyone and can evolve into clinical depression. It often happens that athletes who have achieved outstanding results through enormous sacrifice cannot repeat the same effort the following year or even decide to quit.

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"The greatest difficulty is to help athletes find a balance that is a real balance and can be carried on overtime without guilt," Borgia adds. 

This is true for professionals and amateurs alike, especially when comparing your days with those of your friends – like when you take a day off, and your friend uploads a 200-kilometre ride on Strava.

For amateurs and professionals alike it's paramount to find a functional balance to manage sport and private life. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images. 

"The suggestion I would give to amateurs," Borgia concludes, "is not to mimic the professionals but to take into account their other commitments. For example, if you work 9-5, you've woken up at dawn, worked your butt off, you can't expect to go out and do the training that a pro does."

Whether you’re an amateur or professional, it’s key to take mental health as much into account as your physical fitness. We may not all have access to sport psychologists like Borgia. But it’s heartening to see cycling teams taking the issue more and more seriously by hiring professionals like her – and, hopefully, it represents a step that opens up the conversation about mental health for the entire sport.

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