Due to the COVID-enforced postponement of Tokyo 2020, our summer sport athletes have a shortened cycle of three years between Olympic or Paralympic Games, as opposed to the usual four.
For some, this may result in worries or anxiety over setting appropriate and achievable targets as they navigate the condensed cycle.
Someone who knows all about reaching a target in a shortened timeframe is Laura Sugar, who switched from para-athletics to para-canoeing (having previously played hockey for Wales) in 2018, and claimed gold in her ‘new’ sport in Tokyo three years later.
She spoke to the BAC’s Kristian Thomas about target-setting in elite sport.
Kristian: What was it about the challenge of switching sports to canoeing that appealed to you?
Laura: I’ve always loved sport – I’ve never been of the opinion that ‘this is my one sport’. I’ll watch anything, I’ll take part in anything, and I love it. It sometimes gets me in trouble, but I always say ‘yes’ to giving things a go, and that’s why I’ve got to where I am today. I push myself, and I keep changing the goalposts, so at first canoeing was a bit of fun, then it was all about getting under 60 seconds…I didn’t know anything about canoeing, so I just followed my coach’s instructions, and that meant I got better and better. So I just kept pushing myself and kept setting those new challenges. The gold medal was always in the distance, it was more just week on week, how can I get better? I love challenging myself like that, and it’s those little steps that bring you progress, without ever really setting those goals.
Kristian: When you first started on your canoeing journey, how far away did a gold medal in Tokyo seem?
Laura: Very far! In 2018 I was still fully athletics; just wanting to get faster and challenge for medals. Then the opportunity came along, and it was all about challenging myself. We have five or six girls in my category alone in Britain, and only one of us could get that Games spot – I was third or fourth in Britain, so it wasn’t even really a possibility at the start. But I’m competitive, and I wanted to keep improving every time I raced. April 2019 was my first-ever selection race – I’d chipped away at the time, and ended up winning the race, and that’s when I thought ‘this is a real possibility now’. I knew that Britain as a squad was really good, but I’d not competed internationally, so when I got a World Championships medal, I thought I had a chance. But just getting on the plane to Tokyo was the difficult bit.
Kristian: Along the way, what are the biggest setbacks you’ve faced?
Laura: There are always setbacks in sport. There’s always something round the corner. Before selection this year, I had an elbow injury, so I couldn’t paddle for a week, and my brain was just telling me ‘it’s only five weeks until selection’. The thing I’ve learnt is to just keep going, and you’ll get there at some point. The biggest one across my whole career was a big hamstring tear in October 2015. It was at the World Championships, which was hard enough because I was in the form of my life and trying to get a medal, but it was also a really late World Championships, the year before Rio, so you’ve not even got a year to recover. It felt like a massive uphill battle just getting to Rio – I ran the qualifying time at the last possible opportunity, and it’s a mental rollercoaster…you have good days and you make progress, then all of a sudden you’ve taken a step back.
Kristian: Did you then develop a mentality to deal with such setbacks?
Laura: Definitely. Meeting other athletes really helps as well – it stops you from thinking you’re the only person affected by injury! Every single athlete, even Olympic champions, have all had massive setbacks in their careers, but it’s the ones that keep going and that are stubborn who get there. As long as you keep going…it’s really easy to keep going when everything is going well, but when you’re on a down day, it could be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. No matter how small the progress, as long as you keep going, you’ll get there. And I know now, that when I’m feeling really rubbish, that it’s ok to feel like that, and just having that awareness that it’s completely normal is everything I’ve needed to keep going.
Kristian: There will be plenty of athletes listening to this who are now facing a shortened cycle – three years between Games rather than four – and potentially having to set ambitious or unusual targets because of that. From your experience, what advice can you give to these athletes?
Laura: A huge thing is that relationship with your coach or your physio. When you’re having those tough times, being able to have that open conversation is really key. For me as well, it’s so important to still have that rest time – I’ve learnt from previous experience that when I’ve not had a proper break, there is a time when it all gets too much; my body breaks and my mind breaks. So still give yourself the optimum rest to be able to do the optimum training – it’s really easy to be tempted to do too much too soon. And still take it year-by-year – yes, it’s only three years compared to four, but for most athletes there’s some kind of championships or competition each year, so while Paris is in the back of your mind, the performance targets and the ‘how am I going to get better’ are crucial. My goal is just to do the best time in the boat, and whatever time I record in Paris will have been the best that I could do.