While Great Britain again brought back impressive medal hauls from both the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer, the very nature of elite sport will mean that some of our members will still be processing disappointment, frustration or anger over personal results or performances.
Para-cyclist Neil Fachie went through the range of emotions after finishing second in his event at Rio 2016, and in the process failing to defend the title that he had claimed in London.
Neil spoke to the BAC’s Athlete Engagement Manager, Kristian Thomas, about how he dealt with the immediate aftermath of the Games, came to terms with what had happened, and refocused on Tokyo, where he would successfully win back his title.
Kristian: Can you tell us about your emotions and reactions to winning that silver medal in Rio?
Neil: In the four-year cycle between London and Rio, my tandem partner Pete Mitchell and I went undefeated in international competition. We were winning everything and breaking records, so we went into those Games as huge, overwhelming favourites to win gold. We were also on the final day of track cycling at the Games, so I’d watched my team-mates win medal after medal. It felt like we were nailed-on, but on that day, there was a bike from the Netherlands that beat us – we didn’t quite perform to our best for whatever reason. So to me, that silver medal, which to many would be a great achievement, just felt like a complete and utter failure, and at that time I thought I’d let my team down, let myself down and let my family down, who’d travelled all that way out to Rio to watch me. I was very aware that the TV cameras were there, and I felt that I’d let my whole nation down to be honest. We’d done interviews beforehand saying that if anyone was going to beat us, they were going to do this incredible performance. So when you tell the world you expect to win, when you don’t it’s a massive disappointment, so I wasn’t in a great place after that.
Kristian: Once you were back home after the Games, how did you process what had happened?
Neil: It certainly wasn’t a case of getting straight back and thinking ‘I’m going to fix this’. It took a little while to process what had happened – I had to go through the emotions of it first, before I could look back on it logically, understand where we could have been better, and just accept that sometimes in sport these things happen. We had a world championships early the following year, and I came second in both of my events there as well, so in the space of a few months I’d lost my Paralympic title and my world titles, and I wondered if I was getting towards the end of my career. We all get to that age, I guess, where performance starts to dwindle, and I wondered if that was it for me. But, I knew that the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast were a year away, and I was still defending Commonwealth champion, so I didn’t really want to sit at home and watch someone take my titles – I thought I might as well try one last time to defend them. So that was my goal – to get to the Commonwealths and give it one last try; see what I had left in me. But the fire and the disappointment from the Rio Games were still very much there, and that fired me up, so I went to the Commonwealths, and in that year I trained harder than I ever have and ultimately got the result. It wasn’t until that point, when I got the confirmation that I was still capable of being the best in the world, when I really thought about moving towards Tokyo. So it took time, it wasn’t a case of ‘let’s move on straight away and get on with it’.
Kristian: We’ll have some athletes who will be experiencing the early stages of this now, having perhaps not had the Tokyo Games that they wanted. What would your advice be to them?
Neil: Personally, I needed to allow myself the time, first and foremost. I took some time away, which I’ve done after every Games barring my first one, where I guess I didn’t really know better. I’ve always needed that time to decompress, whether I’ve had a good result or a bad result – being part of the Games is the greatest thing on Earth, there’s so much hype about it…then you come home and it comes to an end, win or lose. So it’s a tough time for athletes anyway, so I find something else to distract myself, away from sport – a different interest. I’d definitely recommend giving yourself that time to process things – there’s no rush to come back, necessarily. Take that time to get that emotional response dealt with, before you can actually look at it logically. In sport we’re always desperate to move on, but sometimes you just have to take that step back.
Kristian: How do you then manage motivation and focus between Games, and keep your ultimate goal in mind?
Neil: We all think of the Games of being that huge target on the horizon; it’s always there and it’s always looming, but three or four years – even a year at times – is too much to have everything on that one focus. I always remind myself that I’m doing it for the Games, but in day-to-day training, you need more. I’m quite big on having measurable things in place all the time, and within a training block I’ll set five goals for myself in a variety of areas – weights in the gym, performance on the bike etc. – but they’ll all be things that I can measure and track my progress throughout. I always set one of those goals away from sport, just as a separate focus, which I think is important. Having something to work towards outside of sport keeps you mentally fresh. It’s amazing how powerful the motivation of the Games is when you’re having a tough session, but it can’t be the be all and end all for four years – that’s just too big. So I’d advise to narrow things down to smaller goals, and have that element of competition in training as well – we’re all competitive people, so we thrive off things like that.
Kristian: How do you stop that motivation becoming an obsession, and it from taking over your life?
Neil: That’s something we can all be very guilty of in sport. It feels like in order to be the best in the world you have to dedicate everything towards that target – that’s something I used to do, and it did work for me at the London Games, where I won gold. When it’s going well, it’s great. However I was still in that mindset going into Rio, and when I didn’t win, my whole world comes crashing down around you because everything is focused on sport. It was after those Games that I started to take some time away, focused on other things and explored other interests and hobbies, including what I might do in the future after sport as well. I noticed that my sporting performance sky-rocketed while I was doing other things, so what my belief was, that you’ve got to dedicate everything to be the best, just disappeared. I realised that having this alternative focus was so powerful – I could just go away, switch off, think about something else. It gave me that time away from sport so that when I did come back to a training session, I was ready to go and ready to commit. So for me, that has been the biggest performance enhancer that I’ve ever had – taking time away from sport. A little bit of time every week doesn’t hurt your performance – we all need that time to recover from training anyway, so that is the key, in my opinion.
Kristian: Do you have any advice for athletes wanting to find that outside interest, and how to balance and integrate it with training and competition schedules?
Neil: The nicest thing I’ve ever done is getting social circles away from sport. I was guilty for a long time of just seeing fellow athletes all the time, and when you’re in that environment you almost feel that your achievements are not that special, because everyone around you is doing incredible things! But when you actually have this group away from sport, suddenly everyone tells you you’re amazing! It’s such a nice thing to hear now and again, because you forget that what we do is really quite cool – people love it. So first and foremost I’d advise to break away from that circle that we often find ourselves in, and try different things – just explore a little bit. I started doing business coaching, passing on my lessons from sport, and people in a business environment absolutely loved hearing the stories from sport, which was really refreshing for me. So it’s just a case of getting out there and trying different things – we all saw Tom Daley doing his knitting and Tokyo, and why not? Just find something different that shuts your brain off from it all.
The BAC works within the high performance system to ensure that athletes are supported in every way. We work alongside the English Institute of Sport (EIS), whose Performance Lifestyle support is available to all World Class Programme athletes, and provides holistic support, promoting and encouraging activity and development that allows athletes to grow as people as well as sporting performers.
The #More2Me campaign is designed to encourage athletes to develop a more rounded identity which reflects them as a person, as well as a performer. It aims to prompt athletes to consider their lives outside of and beyond sport, whilst they are still competing – promoting life alongside sport, not just after.
To find out more, speak to someone in your sport’s support team.