Sonia O’Sullivan: Learning to relax the key to success

My trainer Alan Storey taught me simple lesson that training harder is not always answer

Sonia O’Sullivan: “I never really thought about winning the race, just getting myself to the point in the race where victory was an option.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Sonia O’Sullivan: “I never really thought about winning the race, just getting myself to the point in the race where victory was an option.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

It still takes something special for a woman to grab the sporting headlines. Especially in Australia. The first Tuesday in November was one of those days, when at the 155th running of the Melbourne Cup – the richest and most popular horse race in Australia – Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to ride the winning horse.

With that, Payne immediately became the focus of attention, rather than her mount, Prince of Penzance. A lot of people took notice, and I think began to wonder why it had taken so long. The first time a female jockey had ridden in the Melbourne Cup was in 1987, and it was only now, nearly 30 years later, one had won it.

As Payne admitted afterwards, horse racing remains a male-dominated sport, and she could easily have been voted off the ride, only for the absolute faith of the trainer that she was the right person for the job.

A large part of that, as Payne said herself, wasn’t her strength or confidence, but her ability to get the horse to relax, and work with her, rather than against her.

It helped that she had a long association with Prince of Penzance. And I don’t think she ever considered the fact that being a female jockey would stop her from winning a race.

She viewed her abilities as equal to those around her. As they walked to the start line, she truly believed she was just doing her job as a jockey, on a horse she believed in. The connection is similar to an athlete and coach; when that trust is there, not much more needs to be said to get the job done.

Payne’s victory was something that certainly resonated with me. I’ve always believed one of the most important things for athletes lining up for a race, or taking the field for any sport, is their ability to stay relaxed and enjoy the environment that they’re competing in. This is one sure way of getting the best out of yourself.

Second Captains

Most athletes train in a quite similar fashion, logging the weekly miles and doing similar speed sessions. Yet when it comes to the races there is often a great disparity. I’ve trained with a lot of athletes who over the years would actually outperform when it came to training. Then, when it came to the races, I wouldn’t see them once we left the starting line.

In order to be a successful athlete, there are a number of factors involved: talent is a good starting point, dedication and good work ethic also help, but the ability to relax and to weigh up what races are important – and where you need to try your hardest – is perhaps the most underrated factor of all. It’s also a very difficult skill to teach an athlete, yet something that must be encouraged regularly.

Stressed the mind

Back in 1997, when I first started to train under the guidance of British distance coach Alan Storey, it surprised me how much emphasis he placed on relaxation. If you try too hard in training, he believed, you also stressed the mind, and with that the body reacts negatively.

I can still hear Alan at the side of the track, gently encouraging me to relax, to “slow down”, when naturally my instinct was to run as fast as I could. Then, at the end of the session, we would do a few 200m sprints, but again focusing on relaxing, more than the pace. Up to that point, I only ever worried about the pace. Gradually I began to learn to relax, and not just simply run hard, without control.

It was a whole new lease of life for me, to practice and listen and learn how to control my efforts. Every session had a purpose.

The first big test came for me in 1998 at the World Cross Country, in Morocco. I had a diary full of training completed. I was very fit and ready to race. I knew there was no more I could do than just run relaxed, and controlled, until the point where I could take off and ensure victory.

I never really thought about winning the race, just getting myself to the point in the race where victory was an option. Then came the point in every race when instinct must take over: when that point came, I was able to win with such ease that I actually surprised myself.

It wasn’t just in the hard sessions: Alan would always encourage me to “take it easy the next few days”, with no exact specifics on how far or how fast to run; or to make my long Sunday run “as slow as you like”.

Before that, all I thought about was bolting out the door, each morning, but now I had the option to relax, enjoy the run, and it made a big difference. Also, when doing hill training sessions, such as on Saturday mornings in Richmond Park, it was all about relaxation. You can only run up a hill so fast, so proper form and technique was the best method of getting to the summit as quickly as possible.

Energy systems

Once I learnt these methods of training, to relax and control the energy systems, I could get a better feel for what I doing, and a stronger belief that the work I was putting in would deliver when I went to the track to race.

I often surprised myself during those first few races of the new season, as I would never know what to expect, but the ability to absorb the training through controlled methods meant that when I stepped on the start line I was ready to race. I hadn’t left all the hard work on the track or the hills.

So, just like Prince of Penzance winning the Melbourne cup in a controlled fashion, once you work out the dynamics of sport you don’t have to try too hard to get the best result. Just relax, and let it flow out of you.

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