The countdown to the Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games is well and truly on, with the winter sport season under way, and the Olympics beginning on February 4.
British athletes have enjoyed unprecedented success at recent winter Games, nobody more so than Lizzy Yarnold, who in 2018 became the country’s first-ever double winter Olympic champion when she defended her skeleton title in Pyeongchang.
The BAC’s Athlete Engagement Manager, Kristian Thomas, asked Lizzy for her advice for current athletes, as they navigate the final few weeks and months before the Games.
Kristian: Most winter athletes will have begun their season already – should their attitude towards competition change as there is a Games at the end of the season, or is it key not to focus on that too much?
Lizzy: It’s an interesting mindset, knowing that the Olympics and Paralympics are at the end of this winter season, which obviously hasn’t been the case for the last three seasons. It’s tempting to think ‘I’ve got to approach it differently; it’s got to be an extra-special season because it’s Olympic season’. I automatically think ‘don’t change anything’. You’re an elite athlete, you’re at the top of your game and you know what you’re doing – don’t panic. But one thing I think is important to note is that you not only want to be at your best (come the Games) physically, but also emotionally, socially – all of those different ways that we can be at our best as human beings. My over-riding thought about it is that it’s a whole winter season that you can show yourself at your best. That’s not only race results, that’s learning tracks and learning courses, having that champion mindset – that’s something that you can practice week in and week out leading up to the Games.
Kristian: Many of those going to Beijing will be first-time Olympians or Paralympians – do you have any specific advice for them?
Lizzy: I don’t think I’d be brave enough to give advice to another elite athlete – they’re already an elite athlete for a reason! But one thing I learnt from my first Games was that it wasn’t purely about performance. I was very driven, and the pressure I put on myself was much greater than any external pressure, but meeting other athletes out there showed me it was more than just performance. Athletes I met wanted to raise the profile of their sport, of themselves as individuals. It’s your one-in-four-year platform, so use it how you want to use it. I’d encourage people to have a sit down and think about how they want to approach the Games – of course from a performance point of view, we want to do the best that we can possibly do, but there are lots of other things to experience and to take part in with other athletes from other nations. Make the most of the experience, and enjoy it – I wish I’d taken more photos! I wish I had taken more videos – I’d advise people now to get a couple of Go Pros, or some really good cameras. Have an absolute blast, and know that you deserve to be there – you’ve been chosen and you deserve to be there.
Kristian: On a similar theme, what advice would you give to your younger self before Sochi, if you could go back and relive that experience with hindsight?
Lizzy: With hindsight I know straight away what advice I’d give myself, and it’s not specifically about the Olympics themselves. The few weeks before the Games – after we were selected, we had a two-week break where we were back in the UK and we went to kitting out, which was amazing, but I also found it hugely anxiety-inducing and quite overwhelming. Lots of family and friends wanted to see me before I went off to Sochi, as it was very meaningful to them as it was to me, so I just got drawn from pillar to post, and there were demands on my time. So what I’d say to my younger self is ‘just rest, relax and take a moment for yourself’. If there’s ever a time to be a little bit selfish and put yourself first, it is that time. Think about what is good for you, what you need going into your first Games, whether that’s a month out, a couple of weeks out, and at the Games as well.
Kristian: You went to two Games, the second of which as a defending champion. How did your approach to your second Games change in comparison to the first?
Lizzy: The mindset definitely changed. I believed that to be the best athlete, you had to have everything right – to eat well, to sleep well, to train well. But it takes so much more than that – it’s so much more complicated than that. When I was in Pyeongchang I thought ‘it’s fine – I know what to do, and that’s to do what I did in Sochi’. But we’re not the same athletes that we were four years ago, or last year, or even last week, and that is a huge positive. We’ve had learning experiences, we’ve failed, and we’ve fuelled ourselves to be motivated again. If this is your second, third or fourth Games, I would say recognise and embrace the individual that you are today. Take all of your learnings and know that that is your superpower.
Kristian: Particularly for athletes who are successful at a Games, the immediate aftermath can be a whirlwind of media interviews, appearances, and all the consequences of having a higher public profile. Do you have any advice for athletes who may face that this time around?
Lizzy: The whirlwind is wonderful – if a bit overwhelming! Immediately after my race in Sochi, I hugged my husband and he said: ‘Be ready – it’s going to go crazy now’. It was a rollercoaster but I loved it. I don’t think I slept for days…maybe even weeks! I remember coming back to the UK and I’d have to be doing my weight sessions, going into schools to make sure I was talking to kids and showing them the medal, then people from my old hometown would say ‘can you come by and open a sandwich shop – it’s really important’! I didn’t have time for everything! Even though living in the madness and the celebration is wonderful, I would advise athletes to think about what they’d like to do after the Games, whether that’s a weekend break away with friends, your other half, family, book something in for March or the early months of the summer, because then you know it’s not just about sport and that things won’t just end after the Games – there’s something that happens after. Enjoy the fun, go for it, but also know what works for you and plan for coming back to normality a little bit.