I originally created this page when I was trying to qualify for London 2012 and kept it going through to Rio 2016. Now I'm going for one last Games: Tokyo 2020, but this time it's going to be much, much harder...

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A winning mentality

One of the questions I get asked a fair amount is: what does it take to be a winner? The short answer is – there is no set formula. It is a perfect storm of circumstances, luck, hard work and genetics that all contribute to putting you on the top step of the podium. But perhaps the biggest muscle you use when powering yourself to a win… is your brain.

We’ve all heard it before: “A winning attitude”. You have to believe you can win. Without this self-belief, you might as well stay home. Similarly, falsely and blindly thinking you can win when all signs indicate otherwise, probably won’t get you very far either. Belief has to be tempered with a grain of realism.

If I were to examine all the elements that have combined to make me a World Champion, my mentality would be up near the top of the list. But what about the other characteristics I mentioned? My father (or so the story goes) was a very good boxer in his youth. On this basis I can deduce that some his genetic material filtered down and I at least have some predisposition to athletic endeavors. They say you can train up a donkey – but you can’t turn it into a racehorse. You have to be born with it.

I’ve also had my fair share of luck (some bad, but a lot of good). You might think losing a leg and having spinal cord damage would count as bad luck, but without these things happening to me I wouldn’t be a Paralympic World Champion. I might have ignored sport altogether or never reached my full potential. And despite me not being one of those ‘everything happens for a reason’ types of people, I do think you have to take opportunities wherever you can find them.

The one thing that virtually all top athletes must do, is to work HARD at it. The harder you work, the easier you make it look. And it’s not just a matter of working harder than the next person, it’s also a case of working smarter. Using your time wisely, planning each step of your training, trusting in your coaches and support staff, whilst still questioning many of the small details. Knowledge is power and the more I know about why I have to do the things that are in my training plan, the greater the chances I will continue to do them. Once I understand the reasons behind my training methods, it becomes easier to put in the hard graft.

Make no mistake – training is indeed hard work. And this is perhaps where a strong mental attitude comes into play the most. When you are suffering, or freezing or hurting on a training ride – it’s your mental toughness that helps you carry on. Your brain has to override your body’s desire to give up and go home. You need to be able to push yourself, day in and day out, so that when it comes time to race and it really matters – you are as prepared as you can be.

In a race no one is going to wait around for you because you’re having a bad day or don’t feel like riding. You have to dig deep for yourself. You have to (sometimes) force yourself to carry on. I have been in races where I was faltering, barely hanging onto the back of the pack, and have told myself to just hang on a little longer. In those cases I managed to ride back into the group and finished with everyone else. I have even gotten some decent finishes out of races like that. But the times you just simply give up and let the group ride away from you are the times that you guarantee yourself a losing day.

When it comes to time-trialing, mental toughness can be even more important. You are out on the road all by yourself, only racing against the clock. You may not see any other riders at all so it can be hard to stay motivated, especially when the pain starts to set in. The ability to suffer and keep pushing on at these times is what helps you win.

I know I’ve had a few conversations with myself in big races when it started to get tough. I remind myself that this is why I do all the training and that I can do it, that I can’t quit and most of all, that if I want to win I can’t be a wimp. That usually gets me to the line just a little bit faster!

In London I know my head will be in the right place. I just hope that puts the rest of me on that top step of the podium.