Sally Gunnell: The path to victory

Published:  17 June, 2017

Sally Gunnell OBE remains the only woman to ever hold four concurrent major track titles across the Olympics and the World, European and Commonwealth Games. Winning the Olympic Gold medal in Barcelona 1992 took her to the height of the athletics sphere, and she spoke to delegates at the BMF Conference about how much of her success was down to mental determination.

Sally began her presentation by asking the delegates how many of them really knew what they wanted to achieve, whether that was in five years, six months or even just tomorrow?

“It was one of the first things my coach said to me – you have to know what you want to achieve. Knowing that, keeping that goal in mind every single day is what gave me the drive I needed,” she said. “You always need a realistic goal, even if it is a short-term one, but also a dream goal. Never be scared to dream.”

Sally’s dream goal is what set her on the path to sporting greatness, way back when she was 14 and glued to the television watching the Olympics coverage.

“I thought it was the best thing ever, and decided then and there that it was what I wanted to do in life. I watched the winning athletes on the podiums and from that day on I wanted to feel what that was like,” she explained.

Knowing what you’re really good at is one of the hardest things to decide, Sally believes, and it’s something she struggled with in her early career, as she tried to work out whether she could make a living out of the sport she loved. Starting out as an accomplished long jumper, Sally then switched to the heptathlon, but missed out on a place in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 by just 20 points.

“I was really gutted at the time, but looking back now I think it was good because it helped me to focus on what I needed to do to achieve my goal,” she said.

Sally then switched from the heptathlon to the 100m hurdles, winning Gold at the Commonwealth Games just two years later.

Despite her success, her coach advised her to switch to the 400m hurdles if she wanted to become the best in the world.

“He taught me that it’s easy to stay in your comfort zone, but if you do, how are you going to grow and develop as a person? Staying in your comfort zone just makes that zone get smaller and smaller every day.”

So, Sally stepped out of her comfort zone and for the next two years ran both the 100m and 400m hurdles events competitively. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Sally qualified for both events, eventually getting knocked out of the 100m, but coming fifth in the 400m finals.

This, she said, at the age of 22, was the first time she’d really let herself think about actually achieving that dream goal.

“I knew then that I had four years to do this, and that it would probably be my best chance at Olympic success – I had to get everything right. I had to learn so much about myself to become strong enough to take that next step – life lessons that I still use every day, like knowing how to deal with disappointment,” she said.

Handling pressure

Something Sally struggled with, after her success at the Commonwealth Games, was how different it was competing at events when she was the favourite to win, and so the athlete that all the other competitors were aiming for.

“It was so very different – suddenly I had to live up to this weight of expectation,” she said. “So, when I then ran a race and ended up sixth, I thought I’d bottled it under the pressure and started to question why I was doing this to myself.”

After some time to reflect, and with support from her coach, Sally realised that she needed to learn how to handle failure, because it happens to everyone in life at some point in their careers, and you have to learn to deal with it and move on.

“You have to look at the reasons why it happens, learn from it and rise again. Why do we set ourselves these goals? Even in tough times you must never lose focus on your goal. Take each day one at a time, but don’t lose sight of where you’re headed,” she advised.

Sally took the time to examine what it was that made the difference between being first in a race, and coming fifth or sixth – which might be a distance of just a few metres physically, but mentally can mean something very different.

“I knew I couldn’t work any harder without risking injury so, three years before the Barcelona Olympics, I tried to learn everything else about the sport that I could,” Sally explained. “I watched the other athletes to try to learn how they did things, and I realised that I needed to have the right people around me – I couldn’t do it on my own. Once I found them and they were able to help me to make sure all those little increments of improvement were in place, the difference it made was amazing.”

One year out from Barcelona, Sally attended the World Championships in Tokyo. Her goal here was a medal; initially she didn’t mind which colour it was, but she wanted a medal to set her up for her ultimate goal – the Olympic Games the following year.

During the race and with two hurdles to go, however, Sally realised she was in the lead and started questioning herself, watching her strong competitors and wondering if she really was going to be able to beat them. She ultimately came second after stumbling slightly at the ninth hurdle, which she puts down to her doubting herself and her ability to take the top spot.

Determined to address this doubting voice inside her head, Sally brought in sports psychologist Dr David Hemery CBE, himself a former athlete and Olympic champion.

Despite the prevalence that mental attitude and psychology is given in sport nowadays, back in 1991 it was much rarer, but David advised her to visualise what being successful looked like – to imagine herself running the race and coming first, and to do that over and over again in her mind.

She admitted: “I found it very difficult at first; I’d always had a natural block that stopped me worrying things out until the day itself, so having to make myself actively think about it was hard. But the more I did it, the clearer it became in my mind; even if at first I found myself imagining finishing second or third, rather than first.”

Working with Dr Hemery and her whole team, Sally learned to always feed off positive energy, and to keep negative thoughts away, to mentally “screw them up in a piece of paper and throw them away”. This included ignoring the mind games that some of her competition played, and to ignore the little voice in her head that everyone has, the one that says they can’t do something, or aren’t good enough.

“I firmly believe that the people who excel in life are the ones who are able to control that voice,” she said.

When the day of the Barcelona Olympics came, Sally was able to use all the mental skills and determination she had learned to get “in the zone”, and she admits that she remembers very little of the race itself, she was so focused on her goal and the race she wanted to run that she blocked out everything else.

Running the 400m hurdles final in 53.23 seconds, Sally was victorious and walked away with the Olympic Gold. She puts her success down firmly to her mental preparation.

“Other people I was racing against were faster and stronger than me, but I won because I truly believed in my own ability,” she finished. “That’s what gets you through life – 70% of your success is in your own mind.”

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