Despite the shorter length of the Paris cycle, for our summer sport athletes, another shot at Olympic or Paralympic gold may seem a long way away this winter.
Coupled with the very common post-Games comedown, this point in the cycle can often lead to a loss of motivation and direction. Four-time Paralympian David Smith has lived through this before, but on each occasion has found the motivation and the desire which has enabled him to medal at every single Games he has attended, making him Britain’s most successful ever boccia player.
David spoke to Kristian Thomas about dealing with this particular point in the cycle.
Kristian: As a four-time Paralympian, how has the aftermath of Tokyo differed from the weeks and months after your other Games experiences?
David: Being live on Channel 4 for my final in Tokyo has done massive wonders for our sport. I think 1.1m people watched my final, and I think as it unfolded it connected with a lot of people, because I’ve been inundated with messages. I think the connection with the audience was massive, and we haven’t always been able to achieve that as a sport, so that’s been the first difference to previous Games. I had three plans going into the Games: one for if I didn’t medal; one for if I medalled or won gold but didn’t get any media attention; and one for if I won gold, got media attention and got inundated with stuff. Luckily it was the latter option, and I’ve basically just been milking it for the last two months!
Kristian: For many athletes, the time after a Games can coincide with a loss of motivation or even sense of identity – is this something you’ve ever experienced?
David: It happens to us all. I think it’s natural to have a comedown after such an intense event. For me, each Paralympics was different – in Beijing, I was new, and starting my degree…so basically I just used Freshers’ Week as a massive celebration! But because I was in a new environment, and I was doing a degree I’d always wanted to do, I was excited by that. Basically, there was something else to be excited by, so I was into that instead.
Kristian: At what point after a Games will you set your targets for the next cycle, and how do you go about doing this?
David: Everything will come round a bit quicker before Paris, but I don’t think much will change. We have four majors before then, of which our recent Europeans was the first one, so Paris won’t really be on the radar until the beginning of 2024. It’s hard because the sport is so fluid in terms of who’s winning and who’s in form, it’s quite difficult to set a target for Paris when you have all of these majors in between. We tend to focus on the stepping stones in between and take each competition as it comes. With the qualification criteria for Paris, the coaches will sit down and discuss what we need to achieve to qualify for Paris, and then you can focus on the Games at that point.
Kristian: As someone who has won medals at four Games in a row, what is your best advice to keep the desire and hunger for more success?
David: I’m just addicted to winning, to be honest! It becomes quite a bug – I picked it up at 14 and I haven’t lost it! I’m surrounded by good people and the sport is constantly evolving; there are constantly new rivals, different rules that throw things up in the air, things are always shifting and it’s good fun. The competition is super intense and it gets your juices flowing – it lets you know you’re alive!
Kristian: How important, though, is it that this hunger for medals doesn’t completely take over, and that you retain a balance in terms of sport and outside interests?
David: Things came to a head for me in this regard just before the pandemic. The pandemic hit and it gave me a chance to reset and figure out what my priorities were. I figured out I could do a lot more outside of sport which would take the pressure off me in the sport, and I could play for the sake of playing. That mental shift made me more bullet proof, and its coincided with Tokyo, which was one of the toughest competitions I’ve ever played in. Having that mental resilience helped me no end. Weirdly, it’s also probably made me more attractive to the media, with things like being selected as flagbearer at the Tokyo closing ceremony. I’m not convinced that would have happened with my previous mindset, which was just ‘head down and get on with it’, and not necessarily enjoying the moment. So it’s weird how thing work out, but I would say that finding a different career or a different hobby has provided me with a bit of security and probably more longevity in the sport.