Going for Gold
I was delighted to see Max Whitlock win his third Olympic gold medal as he retained his pommel horse title at Tokyo 2020. Max trains at our local gymnastics club where my daughter is a member. A few weeks ago, her class was lucky enough to be invited to watch Max practice his routine before he left for camp in the build-up to Tokyo, so we were keen supporters for his final on Sunday.
If you haven’t followed his journey, Whitlock won pommel horse bronze aged 19 at London 2012. He became world champion in 2015, a title he also won in 2017 and 2019. As well as the three Olympic golds he now has (two for pommel horse and one for floor), Whitlock also has three bronze medals from London and Rio. But it isn’t all as easy as it seems.
Firstly, I’ve been on the horse that bears his name at the local club and it was near-on impossible to hold my legs up straight out in front of me, never mind actually trying to move around on the thing.
Then there’s the pressure of success.
Whitlock spoke in his interview of the weight of expectation he felt as defending champion; of how much harder it is to deliver success when everyone expects it and when his competitors are all gunning for him. In 2018, he came second in the World Championship and the Commonwealth Games, something he says would have been a great year if he’d done it 10 years ago but which is now viewed as a year of failure. Failure which further increased the pressure.
Next, of course, there was Covid-19. Not only did it push back the Olympics and the peak that he (and, of course, his challengers) had trained for, but a series of lockdowns would have a significant impact on training. Although Covid is a global issue, the impact of lockdowns, of course, has not been uniform around the world.
Whitlock had made the decision to prioritise a single apparatus and increase his longevity in the sport, rather than go for the all-around title and defend his floor title. This may have been a benefit during the lockdowns, but with a commitment to specialise comes a decrease in medal opportunities and a need to be right at the peak of your chosen discipline. Initially using his sofa as a stand-in horse, he then trained in his garage but couldn’t practice fully due to the height of the ceiling. This saw the pommel horse move to his garden to ensure he could practice his full routine.
In his first competition back at the 2021 European Championships, Whitlock failed to qualify for the final. He and his coach, Scott Hann, reflected and set about their final preparations for Tokyo. When the format of the Olympics became clearer and it was confirmed that no fans would be present, they began training in an empty hall. This would replicate, as best as possible, the conditions Whitlock would encounter in Tokyo. It was his best opportunity to be mentally prepared for the environment when he found himself there in the heat of competition.
In Tokyo, Whitlock qualified for the eight-man final with the fifth-best score. Even in the final itself, he faced a new challenge. Whitlock was drawn to go first, something he hadn’t done in previous Olympic finals and can’t remember doing in any major final. As he explained in his interview afterwards, he prepared three levels of difficulty in his routine to account for different scenarios he might face. This means that he and Hann can usually choose which version to perform depending on how the competition is progressing. However, this time there was no option to watch the others and judge how his competitors were performing.
Once the draw was made, Hann had the awareness to know they had to choose the highest level of difficulty and set the standard for the rest of the field to beat; he encouraged Whitlock to ‘go big’. Max agreed and ‘go big’ he did, posting a score that proved too high for his competitors as he claimed another wonderful gold medal.
Interestingly, in both Olympic finals he has won, Whitlock wasn’t the highest scorer for execution of his routine. However, on both occasions he was the highest scorer for the level of difficulty. With the support of his coach, he chose to back himself and go for the greater challenge that none of his competitors could rival, rather than taking the safer, slightly easier option and hoping for others to slip up. Even if the execution wasn’t absolutely perfect, the routine he was attempting could still better everyone else if he could perform it under pressure.
Much like the sentiment expressed in my article on Charlotte Worthington, Max knew that if he performed his highest-risk routine well, he would have given his best and done all he could to challenge for the title. He had the belief in his ability, the trust in his preparation to execute it under pressure, and the courage to go out on the biggest stage to win, rather than hoping others lose.
So how will you ensure your training prepares you to adapt to the situation and deliver a peak performance at the right time?
How can you increase your level of difficulty that sets you apart from your competition?
And have you considered how coaching can help you prepare better, build the awareness to make the right decisions and have the courage and skill to execute under pressure?