The British race walker writes about managing expectation and how dealing with the disappointment of the London 2017 World Championships tested him like never before
Managing expectation or performance pressure is a skill that every athlete must master if they wish to succeed.
It can start when you are a junior athlete, with pressure from parents or peers. It can come in the form of sponsor pressure, just to make sure you can keep paying the bills.
Then, if you are fortunate enough to receive it, there’s lottery funding. That comes with a lot of strings attached and, for many, it has reached the point where they perform better without that ‘support’. Some may even turn down the opportunity to be funded so they can focus on themselves rather than hoop jumping. For me it’s quite the opposite. I’ve tried to make the most of the support in every way, from camps to medical to nutrition.
Then, if you ever reach the point where you attract some publicity, the media expectation kicks in.
I have dealt with many things during my career but I have never been tested to quite the extent I was last year.
I went into London 2017 being spoken about as a medal hope. People are still learning about race walking, but I hope my own performances have helped educate the public that it’s not all just about having two feet off the ground at the same time.
The month before the World Championships, I broke a world record – something I never dreamt of doing. I felt so proud to have managed to get a race walk in a Diamond League event at the Anniversary Games and, though I felt so much more pressure than normal as this had been built solely around me, I delivered that day.
The following month, I would race on The Mall at the World Championships. The crowds that showed up were overwhelming and the pressure was like nothing I’d felt before.
The media had built up how many medals we hadn’t won and, with my event being on the final day, and the full 20km race walk being broadcast, I knew the expectation to deliver was on!
I felt I had earned the right to call myself a medal contender and, after sixth place at the Rio Olympics, it felt like it was all coming together, for this one moment, at a home championships.
What happened broke me. Leading with just 8km to go and getting disqualified was soul destroying. I hadn’t had a DQ in over four years. How could I possibly pick up the pieces from this one?
I had no idea when I was coming round to the 12km point that I’d received two red cards and was on the edge of a disqualification.
I felt unstoppable. I trust my coach to make me peak at the right time and he’d done it again perfectly. The crowd were leaning over the barriers screaming in my face, I had a nation willing me round. Thousands screaming for a British race walker. “How has this happened?” I thought to myself.
Letting a nation down was bad enough, let alone my team, my family and British Athletics, while I also had to contend with my own shattered dreams.
Dealing with the following weeks and months was difficult, to say the least. The following weekend I had a runner vs walker event at the Birmingham Diamond League and I wanted to keep the moment going for race walking but I felt like being a million miles away from an athletics track.
After that, I became a shell of myself. I started hating everything I was doing and I made decisions which were so far from my usual self. I had nowhere to run but all I wanted to do was run away.
I didn’t know what to do next. No-one sees the hard days of training, the sacrifices, the events missed with family and friends. They see us perform a few days a year, when we try to be at our best.
No-one can understand how everything is built around one day a year, the championship that all the work was for.
My disappointment didn’t end in London, either. In December I lost my sponsor. It shows how tough it is in today’s world, that someone who has achieved what I have can be dropped and left to look for a job. What sort of message does that send to aspiring athletes?
If I was a runner I doubt I’d have to deal with this in the same season I broke a world record.
Yet I’m not one to let things defeat me.
That day in London had been incredibly negative in my own personal opinion, however there are so many positives to take.
I was leading the race – fitness wise that was no problem – and the fans, media and support were second to none. One bad day won’t change that.
Lessons have been learned, I will do everything in my power not to let that happen again. However, disqualification in race walking isn’t like other events. It’s well and truly part of it – it adds spice, it adds unpredictability.
I escaped, I went to altitude, I trained hard and by Christmas I knew I was getting into decent shape. I’m fit, I’m stronger and I’ve focused on my technique every single day.
I’m now on another altitude camp in South Africa and finally I feel back to my usual self again – happy in what I’m doing, focused and determined, yet terrified to step back on a track and race again. I haven’t raced since London – that’s a long time when your last memory is one of pure devastation.
I pride myself in my mental strength, in my focus and ways of dealing with pressure. But London 2017 threw something else at me. Something that I don’t think many athletes will ever experience and I’m not sure I will ever face again.
Has it deterred me? No chance, it could have broken any athlete and those good days don’t feel special without the pain of training and the days of failure.
Chapter closed, time to get a smile back on my face and break more records, win more races and deal with the next challenge that comes my way.
It’s the difference between being a world-beater and someone who is beaten by the world.
» Tom Bosworth finished sixth in the 2016 Olympic 20km race walk and is a world and British record-holder. You can find out more at tombosworth.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @TomBosworth and check out his videos at youtube.com/user/MrBosbo5