As she prepares to defend her title in PyeongChang, the Olympic skeleton champion offers her Top Tips to athletes on taking time out and returning to competition.
At the end of the 2014-15 season, Lizzy Yarnold was ranked number one in the skeleton, having added world and European titles to the Olympic gold she won in Sochi a year earlier. The efforts had taken a toll however, and she decided not to line up on the ice for the following campaign, citing burnout.
“There was never a moment when I didn’t want to [return to competition],” says the 29-year-old.
“The problem was that after the 2015 World Championships [in Winterberg, Germany] I was really struggling to find the energy required to go into the detail of focusing on this goal or that goal, and to complete every gym session. So I knew then that I had to take time off then to be able to come back stronger.”
Now, ahead of her bid to become the first British winter Olympian to retain her title, a refreshed and refocused Yarnold offers her advice to athletes who may be considering taking a break during an Olympic cycle…
Recognise the impact of sport on your health
“I think everyone is very different: every athlete is different, and the sports are different. With skeleton, we’re away for the winter for six months, so it’s like you have two lives – a summer and a winter life. That was hugely demanding for me and my personality type, as someone who misses home.”
“I would say to any athlete that when you’re living through such finite performances and high expectations of yourself, that it is very exhausting. And if you’re finding it mentally challenging, it’s OK to talk about it – and I’d always encourage people to talk about it throughout the Olympic cycle.”
Protect your motivation levels
“I needed the year off because I didn’t have the motivation at that time. I took the time off and [the motivation] has slowly crept back, and it’s actually building all the time – even through competitions, it fires me up when I don’t perform very well. I embrace that and encourage it because I know it’s going to make me work even harder, which is always the way.”
Try a different approach to your sport
“I put a lot of pressure on myself; that’s never changed. But I think I’m a bit more chilled out and enjoying it now. I’m finding the fun in being a full-time athlete. I’m so fortunate, so I’m not taking any day for granted. Now, preparing for PyeongChang compared to preparing for Sochi, I feel I’m a better athlete.”
Use the time off to educate yourself
“I think preparing for a future career is really important. I always encourage athletes within our sport – but also anyone who gets involved in full-time sport – to continue some sort of education. I was at university for the first three years of skeleton, but after you’ve done that structured education there are loads of online courses that you can do for free. Being an athlete doesn’t last forever, and we’re very happy to talk about ‘one year to go’ until the Olympic Games because that’s our normal, day-do-day existence, but what about five years to go? It’s just as important and you have to talk about it.”