What does it take to become an Olympic champion in Rio?

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With the 2016 Rio Olympics now well underway, millions of people across the globe are set to witness two weeks of sporting magic. Our guest blogger, Derek Redmond, talks us through what he believes an athlete needs to become a champion.

As the world watches the inspiring scenes in Rio, I often get asked an all too familiar question, one which I am asked during every Olympic games, World Championships and major competition. 

What separates Olympic champions from the rest?

The obvious answer they expect me to give is talent, and of course, this is partly true. An athlete will get nowhere without being talented in their discipline. However, becoming a champion and the best in the world requires far more than talent alone. The formula for success is complex and made up of many different components, all of which play a critical role in the creation of a champion.

The makeup of a champion

I have always said that to win at the highest level, you firstly need to be physically fit. This goes without saying – to compete at the highest level, athletes must be in peak physical form and the best condition of their lives. But physical fitness alone is not enough - you also need to be mentally fit. You can’t win at the highest level without both.

From the physical side, athletes must be fully committed to putting in extreme levels of work and training. At the height of my athletics career, it was not uncommon for me to put in 7-hour long training days – especially during winter where this level of training was the norm. Training to exhaustion was certainly not uncommon. I can remember multiple occasions where I passed out or became physically sick from exhaustion!

The commitment didn’t stop at what I did on the training field. It extended to the food I ate, amount of sleep I got, medical attention I required and the sacrifices I had to make. All of this required me to have the right mentality, one that was prepared to do anything to succeed.

The right mentality

More often than not, the mental side of sport is something that many athletes neglect – that is, apart from those who are champions.

To me, self-awareness was probably one of the most important ingredients that contributed to my success on the track. Whether you compete in an individual sport as I did, or a team event, having an understanding of yourself and a high level of self-awareness is something that can impact hugely on how you perform.

Despite the fact that I worked alone on the track, I had a huge team of people supporting me behind the scenes, all with a role to play in my personal training and development. From a head coach, strength and conditioning coaches, physios and sports psychologists, to my agent, dieticians, masseuses and training partners, it was truly a team effort.

Ensuring each one of us had an awareness of ourselves and the impact our behaviours had on others was always very high on my agenda. As far as I was concerned, in order for me to be successful we all had to work as a perfectly coordinated team, so I set two rules:

1) We all knew what I was doing
2) We all knew and understood each other

There was no way I would have achieved what I did without this. We all work, think, operate and behave in different ways but we all had the same common goal which was my success as an athlete, so having a solid understanding of how we all behaved was the foundation of that success.

Managing emotions

The ability to manage my emotions was also critical, particularly when it came to competing and performing in high-pressure situations. Through an understanding of my emotional intelligence, my coach knew exactly how I would act and behave leading up to and during competition. Was I self-motivated? Was I able to manage my stress? We were both aware of all the things that could make the difference between gold and no medal at all. The margins are that close that we needed to do everything in our power to ensure my mental shape was in the best possible place leading up to and during a big competition to give me the best possible shot at becoming a champion.

Unfortunately, my Olympic dream ended abruptly in Barcelona 1992, with an injury that shattered my chances of going for gold in the 400m. Of course, this disappointment was hard to swallow! However I firmly believe that without this physical challenge, the mental preparation I put in leading up to the Olympic games would have put me in a powerful position to challenge for a medal in the competition.

Want to hear more from Derek?

Watch our exclusive interview with Derek as he talks us through the lead up to his 1991 Tokyo World Championship 4x400m relay final where he realised his dream of becoming World Champion with Roger Black, John Regis and Kris Akabusi.

Derek Redmond

Derek Redmond

Having been a motivational speaker for 17 years, Derek joined Thomas in 2014 as Group Performance Director. Derek enjoyed a successful athletics career during the 1980s and 1990s as a member of the British 4 x 400m relay squad that took gold at the 1991 World Championships, 1986 European Championships and Commonwealth Games of the same year.