Olympic gold? It's all in your head

MALAYSIA - Malaysia have come close a few times but an Olympic gold medal still seems to be elusive.

We've come close on six occasions (from Razif and Jalani Sidek, Cheah Soon Kit and Yap Kim Hock, Rashid Sidek, Lee Chong Wei and Pandelela Rinong) and some argue we would have doubled our chances if squash had won the vote to be included in the 2020 Games.

While some Malaysians remain sceptical of Malaysia's chances of striking gold, one Englishman says it's perfectly doable.

In fact, his exact words during a recent interview were: "Frankly, I don't see why not".

Prof Keith George, Head of Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at the Liverpool John Moores University, says it's all about cultivating the right attitude, mental strength and support system.

It's all in your head

Prof George says winning at the Olympics is all about the ability to cope with stress, and be motivated as well as highly attentive.

"People say winning a gold medal has nothing to do with anything neck downwards; it's all to do with here," says Prof George pointing to his head.

The professor was in Kuala Lumpur a few months ago at the invitation of the National Sports Institute (NSI).

Prof George's recent work and research involves cardiovascular physiology with a focus on ultra-endurance athletes. He has worked in various clubs and at events including the Western States Endurance Run (California, US) as well as junior athletes at the Premiership Rugby League in England. His cardiac scanning work also includes Premier League football clubs and rugby teams.

With all this research, Prof George sees the potential where most of us see only doubt.

He cites the case of Team Great Britain which had a fantastic outing at their home Olympics last year, winning 29 gold medals from sports like cycling (eight golds), rowing and athletics (four golds each).

They weren't always this good, he explains.

At the Atlanta Games in 1996, Britain finished 36th on the medal tally after coming away with a solitary gold medal from rowing - Sir Matthew Pinsent and Sir Steve Redgrave in the men's coxless pair. It was Britain's worst showing since Helsinki in 1952 where they also won a solitary gold in equestrian.

So what was the catalyst that brought about this 180-degree turn?

Prof George attributes it to sports research and science, and a little thing called mind over matter.

Marathon runners are familiar with the term "hitting the wall". It's when you noticeably slow down and that little voice in your head tells you to give up. And, this is exactly when you shouldn't give up but push harder. It is well documented that the human body is able to withstand a lot of pain and pressure - especially when the adrenaline kicks in.

"Often people understand the demands of being an athlete but fail to give mental strength the same degree of importance," says Prof George.

"Let's be honest, with standard coaches, the focus will be on either technical, tactical or physical. They might impart some psychological skills, but not by conscious thought. That too has to evolve."

More importance needs to be placed on giving athletes confidence and a winning mindset, says Prof George.

Support system

Another important factor is the support system - helping young athletes through the transition phase from juniors to professional sportsmen and women.

This includes equipping them with the necessary coping skills according to their age, emotions and environment. It should also cover family, friends and peers.

"It should no longer just be about giving them the right meal and the right training but giving them the right social environment. Have they got friends, support, things to do?"

While it is important to focus on training, these athletes should also have a social outlet, says Prof George.

We've all seen footballers who moved abroad and failed to fit in in one country (because of the language, lack of family support or even inability to adapt to the food and culture) only to thrive in another country.

"Support systems are vital in relation to making sure that people feel that they have a life ... they're comfortable doing what they are doing. It's a major pull-factor for young athletes to want to make that jump from being someone who plays for fun to being a full-time athlete."

Imagine sending a 13-year-old to Denmark to train - who would she talk to, hang out with or even befriend? Without a proper support system, that athlete would feel lonely and lost and eventually not be motivated to train and excel, he explains.

Early exposure

Crucially, exposure to high-level competition also needs to happen much sooner rather than later.

Prof George cites the example of British paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds. She is the classic example of someone with immense self belief who was willing to put everything on the line for a shot at being a top class athlete. Single-mindedly focusing on excelling at competitive swimming, she left England at age 11 to move to Swansea, Wales, to train.

Simmonds represented Britain in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics at age 13 and went on to win her first gold medal in the S6 category in 2012 at age 18. Today, she is a celebrated sports icon in Britain.

Talent needs to be spotted from a tender age and nurtured to become medal-winning Olympians, rather than trying to train athletes when they are already teenagers.

Focus on the right things

Prof George recommends that Malaysia focus on these three aspects:

Athletes' mental strength;

A proper support system; and

Early exposure.

"This is not a revelation. Many countries know this, yet they still focus on the wrong things.

"Malaysia are not by any means on their own in this. It's the same in Britain. Take for instance the juniors who are nurtured and given early exposure ... how many actually go on to play for their country? Probably just two or three. That's why a good support system is vital."

One additional tip he has for Malaysia: Fund just a few sports that the country can excel at instead of going for every sport.

Rather than spending millions of ringgit funding 20 sports just to give our athletes exposure, wouldn't it be better to provide more funds on just 10 sports in which we are more confident of winning gold?

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