Winning isn’t everything: why I think every professional athlete needs a second story

@danfromnam on Instagram

Last week something unexpected happened. My boyfriend, the professional cyclist Dan Craven, asked me to tweet status updates from his account during the Olympic men’s road race as if it were him. He specifically asked me to write “Hey Mum” if he ever looked at the camera. That was all. He knew I’d probably do some silly writing to entertain his fans, but what we didn’t realise was the tweet storm of responses he would receive first on twitter and then the mainstream press (The Sun, The Mirror, the front page of USA Today, Velo News, Cycling Weekly, and many many more) later in the week.

And it wasn’t enough to just “be funny”. Being funny is great, but that wasn’t why people got excited. People got excited because they felt an authentic human connection with an Olympic athlete. The proof of this was that the buzz we created by live-tweeting the road race was dwarfed by the press coverage he received four days later when he decided to ride the time trial, unequipped and unprepared, coming last among the world’s highest class of cycling talent (which had virtually nothing to do with live-tweeting). Dan got a lot of media attention simply from trying to have fun and being himself as opposed to trying to get media attention. So what was happening? Why did this happen and how? What happened was Dan tapped into his second story.

I’m writing this not to congratulate myself and Dan, but to help me understand why it happened and hopefully other athletes, individuals and maybe even consumer brands can learn from our experience. It’s not meant to be a prescriptive recipe, but some thoughts to shed light on the topic.

In the world of sport, simply winning, being the best, (or “highest quality” in consumer goods parlance,) is the easiest thing to talk about. It’s the stuff of conventional press releases. Chris Froome wins the Tour de France. Fabian Cancellara wins the Olympic Men’s Time Trial. Sarah Storey wins more Paralympic cycling medals than any other paracyclist. On the days of Dan’s road race and time trial, the only cyclists with greater or even equal press coverage were the race winners. Not even those who came second or third. For a rider like Dan, competing at a level where he will likely only ever be able to perform in a supporting role, if he was going to get any press attention, he would have to find some other method.

The Olympics are a unique cycling event. The rules are different with smaller teams and riders representing their home countries in a way even the UCI world championships doesn’t allow for. More, and smaller nations are represented so it is a chance for riders to shine a spotlight on their countries in a unique way. Dan is from Namibia, and as he has said in numerous interviews, getting press attention for his home country was of utmost importance. Every tourist to Namibia creates local jobs. And a local Namibian cyclist riding in the Olympics sets a powerful precedent other Namibians feel they can follow.

Dan is a very proud Namibian, but being Namibian wasn’t the story that stuck. He could probably have been from any small, slightly unknown, emerging-cycling nation and had the same effect.

I believe Dan, and everything he represents, makes him a very “everyman” character. He has a big fluffy beard (not because of any trend, he reminds me, but because he’s too lazy to shave and hates the way he looks without it). He wears prescription glasses when he rides (again, not for the look, but because he can’t wear contacts and hasn’t been able to afford sport glasses with prescription lenses). He chats and laughs with officials and other riders at the beginning of the race because he likes to talk. He’s a bit of nerd and very much himself, not caring very much what people think of his looks or style. He responds to fans online.

Dan’s image and interactions with fans might seem planned, but it’s all simply him being open with fans, true to himself.

People were tweeting how much he resembled “a weekend warrior Dad” during the time trial for which he was extremely under-equipped and unprepared for. He’s the professional cyclist a lot of fans can imagine themselves being. Being from Namibia supports this “normal guy” story because he has lacked the top-end support often received by athletes in more established economies. He’s an underdog, he’s open, he’s warm, he’s flawed, he’s a little silly, he loves the fans, he loves journalists (Ned Boulting visited him in Namibia last winter), and he is very much a man of the people. Dan loves cycling for the same reasons any average punter loves cycling, and this is obvious across all he does.

The effect of this for cycling fans is they feel more connected to the sport through Dan. That is his magic. Not the beard, not the bike, not jokes online. His magic is the way he helps people love cycling through his own love of the sport. He did the time trial because he loves cycling and he knew this surprise opportunity to represent his country might not happen again. He didn’t do it because he stood a chance to win. But for his fans, his participation represented a chance for them to dream of winning too. The guy — who is like us — is doing it.

This is Dan’s second story. And everyone, every brand, every team, has one. It’s the story people connect with. Yes, winning can help, but being the best comes with its own limitations. Everyone wants a piece of the winner, but the winner is often so far removed they just seem superhuman and literally, untouchable.

Enter Team Sky. I’m a big, big fan of Chris Froome — always have been. But in my opinion, while he’s done a few things right, he has some brand issues. Chris is a brilliant athlete and winner. But his image is confusing and he seems to have struggled to connect with fans in the way, say, Bradley Wiggins, or even Dan, has done. But from what I’ve heard from people who know him personally, Chris has an amazing second story he could potentially amplify. And, no, it’s not just that he’s from Kenya — just as Dan’s story isn’t based on the fact he’s from Namibia.

Chris appears to spend a lot of effort trying to look “cool” with his fancy cars, super fancy white minimalist house, and baseball caps (ahem). From my fairly uneducated position, it seems like Chris wants people to think he’s cool and that that will connect him to people. But being “cool” never created passion. Only keenness can do that.

Chris’ really powerful second story (from what I’ve heard from people who actually know him well), and what I really think would ignite his relationship with fans is that he’s a big nerd. He’s a numbers geek. He’s a big dork who is bloody obsessive about cycling. His running up the Mont Ventoux proved that — and was notably the most interesting, powerful thing he has ever shown his fans. The way he rides by numbers proves that. Yes, not everyone is going to see this and think that’s what will connect them with Chris, but it’s authentic and it’s human and having a thousand people LOVE you is far more powerful than a few hundred hundred thousand who kind of like you. Chris could tap into his inner nerd and take his place as the rightful king of the cycling nerds.

This is just so weird and just not Froomey. From
But this is Froomey. It makes sense and builds his relationship with people who care about him.

What is a second story? A second story is the thing people talk about when they’re not talking about you winning or being the best. It’s the authentic, human thing about you which shows a depth of character and connects you with people. It’s the manifestation of your passion beyond going fast. And I believe all professional athletes — and consumer brands — need a powerful second story in order to most effectively connect with fans.

Another of my favourite professional cyclists with a powerful second story is the Orica rider, Christian Meier. His second story is his passion for coffee. Now, a lot of cyclists will say they are passionate about coffee, but very few will learn how to roast, and become so obsessed with it they’ll open their own shop (La Fabrica), and then another (Espresso Mafia) when the first is extremely successful. Christian is deeply, authentically, nerdy about coffee, in an extremely powerful way. He’s beyond being a cyclist who is great at coffee… He is great at coffee and happens to be a professional cyclist. This is his second story and it’s what makes him more than a winner.

Christian Meier in Espresso Mafia, photo by @themusette_cc via @espressomafia Instagram

There is a top triathlete who also has a brand of coffee, but he doesn’t seem to have the same passion for it as Christian. The passion isn’t quite as authentic. It seems — from my perspective — just an endorsement based on his winning. Not to downplay his passion for coffee, but I reckon he could find something else more powerful because that is what is most true about him… beyond winning, beyond brand endorsement. He is not a nerd about coffee — so what is he a nerd about? Or what is the thing he creates that connects or connects with fans? He’s probably got something… but I don’t know what it is.

People wonder why endorsements are sometimes ineffective. Endorsements need to go beyond an association with winning. They need to be proof of an athlete’s second story.

A second story doesn’t need to be about a deep authentic passion. It just needs to be something authentic which people feel a connection with/through.

For example, the New Zealand triathlete Callum Millward created a video series called Cupcakes with Cal. It’s a platform for him to interview other athletes, do silly things, and unlocks his relationship with fans. It’s a powerful second story.

“Cupcakes with Cal”

Bradley Wiggins has a notably strong second story. He is an irreverent punk without a fuck to give about what people think of him (he would probably laugh and think it a pathetic joke if he knew someone was trying to analyse him like this). And he would be the irreverent punk whether he was winning or not. The fact he actually wins makes his wins all the more interesting and powerful. His looks, his style, his tattoos, his “English-ness”, his brand partnership with Fred Perry: all of this is well-crafted proof of his story. Simply put, he knows who he is beyond winning.

So how can an athlete hone his/her own second story? Here are my thoughts:

  • Start with your heritage, your upbringing: is there anything unique or defining about it? Think about what that might symbolise for your fans.
  • Who are your most passionate fans already? Why do they really like you so much? Think beyond the obvious (for example, people love Dan’s beard, but it’s because of what a beard symbolises, not just the beard itself… for most people).
  • What are the things you’re most passionate about? I know one professional cyclist who is a deeply passionate cross-trainer, nutrition geek and gym rat in a way few others are — he’s a proper nerd about it — he should really look at that as potentially his second story and amplify it, make everything he does a symbol of that story. In what ways are you a nerd?
  • What are you known for talking about or doing during an event?
  • Are you super creative? Do you have a PhD in engineering? Are you a gifted pianist — what does that represent for people?
  • What about your appearance or style? This won’t be the case for everyone, but if you’re a big fashionista, authentically obsessed with fashion and style, maybe that’s your thing.
  • Can you create a storytelling platform, like Callum did, to connect yourself better with fans? A platform for your personality?

A second story is beyond “Peacocking” — wearing a funky hat or having cool hair to get people’s attention. I can think of a few athletes who do this, but it’s not why people connect or feel connected with them.

A second story might be a super intangible thing (like Dan’s every-man-ness), but it might also be something obvious (like Christian’s obsession with coffee).

Just remember, everything you do is either a symbol of this, or confuses this. For example, when Chris Froome tries to be trendy, drives a super expensive, flashy sports car, he looks a little odd. His story is not about being cool, he’s keen, and that is always going to be the more powerful story.

A second story is important for any athlete (and also for consumer brands), because it will tell you what brands to partner with; it tells you a lot about your values and the people who will naturally find you appealing — aka who to “target”; it future-proofs you for when you STOP winning… because at some point that will happen. If you’re the kind of athlete (or consumer brand) that isn’t necessarily the “best”, but is really, really interesting for other reasons, it will help you stand out. Whatever your second story, this is the tribe for which you can be a leader. This is the event you can always win.

UPDATE: I’ve had a think about media platforms and second stories you can read over here.