“Winning is all about holding your nerve”The Olympic gymnast Sam Oldham is at his physical peak, but, as he explains, it’s mental strength that keeps him on the podium
At the age of 19, Sam Oldham won his first Olympic medal. It just happened to be on home soil, too, as the young gymnast played an integral part in the British men’s team storming to a bronze-winning finish at London 2012. With the World Championships in Glasgow this month and the 2016 Olympics in Rio on the horizon, all bets are on the Nottinghamshire lad scooping an individual medal or two. It hasn’t been plain sailing since London, though, with a serious ankle injury last year almost derailing the 22-year-old’s Olympic bid before it had started. Incredibly, despite some serious setbacks, he’s now back on track. It’s a feat, Oldham says, that’s down to mental muscle as much as physical strength.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’ve got a big year coming up – how’s the training going?
SAM OLDHAM: It’s going well. I’m working on getting every little dent out of my routines. I’m a perfectionist – I train for six to seven hours a day and I’m very critical of myself. Winning a medal can come down to pointing your toe in one split second. You’ve got to fight for your place.
How did you cope with a major injury last year?
It was incredibly tough. The problem for me was the flexibility in my ankle, and the only thing that was going to make it better was patience, which is something I struggle with. But now I’m in a great place going into the World Championships. Originally, I was told it could be a career-threatening injury, but now my ankle is about 90 per cent back to where it was. I’ve learnt a lot from the experience.
How important is mental strength to your success?
When I’m competing at a major event, I’m in the best shape I can be, doing routines I’ve done hundreds of times. The question is whether I can hold my nerve, stay in the zone and not think about the outcome. Winning is about who can perform best under pressure. It really is 10 per cent physical, 90 per cent mental.
Is that kind of pressure tough to deal with?
It doesn’t come easily – I’ve had to train myself. But it’s part of why I get up in the morning. I need to put myself in high-pressure situations, even on a small scale, to push me on and help me to prepare.
Have your experiences at London 2012 prepared you for Rio 2016?
I’m so proud and happy that I got to compete in a home Olympics, but Brazil will
be very different. I’ll be at a completely different point in my career. In London, I was the baby on the team and there was no expectation on my shoulders; in Rio, I’ll be hitting my peak, and I’ll get my best opportunity to win an individual medal.
Will you be focusing on one discipline for a better chance of an individual medal?
For me, it’s always been about the all-round competition. In my view, being the all-round Olympic champion is one of the greatest feats you can achieve in sport. I see it as the ultimate test and I’ve always loved the challenge of finding that balance between being strong on rings, being able to hang on the high bar, being powerful on the vault and technical on the pommel horse. It’s my only aim.
Training is a full-time job for you – do you ever have those days when you just don’t want to go to work?
Yeah, without a doubt. It can be hard work, but I think my best attribute is my ability to endure that. Getting up and going training in the morning is tough, but I know the extra commitment will pay off and give me that edge. You’ve got to keep the end goal in your head at all times. Short-term goals leading to the end goal are key, too – otherwise, it becomes all too easy to sack off the gym for a day.
Does that principle apply no matter what your job is?
As long as you enjoy what you do, or what your job enables you to do. It’s very difficult to find the drive to work hard without that. It might sound cheesy, but there’s still that little seven-year-old kid in me who walked into a gym and fell in love with throwing himself around in the air.