Elinor Barker: Great Britain Olympic gold medal winner on importance of mental health ahead of Tokyo Games
Barker won gold for Great Britain and broke the world record in the team pursuit at Rio 2016 and is targeting further glory this summer; Welsh cyclist, 26, discusses mental health ahead of Olympics: "We never actually train our minds and spend all of our time training our matter."
By Joe Tanner
Last Updated: 23/01/21 6:45am
Elinor Barker is urging fellow athletes to put their mental health first ahead of the postponed Olympic Games and believes her gold medal in Rio four and a half years ago can prove advantageous in her preparations for Tokyo.
Just six months before the rescheduled July 23 start date, doubt surrounds the Games after a one-month state of emergency was declared in the Japanese capital because of a surge in coronavirus infections and fears over a new variant.
However, Tokyo 2020 spokesperson Masa Takaya has told Sky Sports News he is confident the first postponed Olympics will be delivered this summer. Figures show that Japan has recorded over 4,200 deaths due to the virus and around 325,000 positive cases.
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Barker, already an Olympic gold medallist, had her 2020 schedule disrupted because of the pandemic yet still managed to place first in the points race at the Track World Championships in Berlin last March.
She also won three medals - golds in the elimination race and team pursuit and a bronze in the madison - at the European Track Championships in Bulgaria.
The road and track cyclist is single-minded and will not allow herself to contemplate the prospect of another cancelled Games. She insists showing full commitment to her adjusted training schedule is the best coping mechanism amid the continued uncertainty.
"The lows have been fairly low, the Olympic cancellation was rubbish and it's very hard not to describe it by using cliches like unprecedented," she told Sky Sports News.
"Almost a year on, I'm still kind of getting over the shock.
"Until a decision is actually made and finalised in my head it is on 100 per cent. And I think that is the only way mentally that I can deal with it, by still turning up to training every day and giving 100 per cent.
"Because even if I had one per cent of doubt in my mind, that would impact my training and preparation which I cannot afford to happen."
Barker says her mindset has benefitted from achieving success on the track in 2020 during a year in which Olympic hopefuls had to cope with a lack of regular competitive action.
"I only managed to race three times last year and luckily they were all quite successful races so I've got that positive feeling," she explained.
"Because racing opportunities are so few and far between, having those experiences are really good psychologically to be able to hold onto given that there's such a huge gap in between races.
"Equally I cannot get complacent because there aren't many races between now and Tokyo at all, to be honest. A lot of people who didn't perform at their best at the World and European Championships last year will be really raring to go."
Barker won a gold medal for Great Britain in the team pursuit at Rio 2016 alongside Laura Kenny, Katie Archibald and Rowsell Shand, setting a new world record time of four minutes and 10.236 seconds in the process.
She got the Olympic rings tattooed on her wrist on the day that the 2020 Games should have begun to mark four years since that impressive feat in Brazil, and Barker is using the body art as motivation for further success in the summer.
On approaching Tokyo with the experience of a previous medal triumph, she said: "It's huge. I feel so unbelievably grateful that this is not my first Games, I'm hoping that it's not my last, it is kind of midway through my career.
"Although this has all had quite a big effect it has not changed my experience of what an Olympics year is.
"And it hasn't meant that I'm hanging on towards the end of my career which is what so many other people who are planning for retirement have had to do, or people who have been forced to retire early.
"Knowing what a Games is like has really allowed me to push on because I know 100 per cent that it is worth that extra year of graft, changed plans, and hardship that I've had before.
"Making an Olympics in any year is extremely hard and trying to make it this year is that extra bit harder but I think having that memory of something to strive to has really helped a lot.
"I also got my Olympics tattoo on my wrist last year on the date that the Olympics should have started so I can look at it during my training and remember what I am doing it for."
Following news of the Games' postponement last March, the 26-year-old, who hails from Cardiff, used the first lockdown to train harder, covering distances some 80km further than she usually would on quiet roads while the "stay at home" instruction was in place across the UK.
As we live under the current lockdown restrictions, Barker recalls she would typically be overseas on a winter training camp, but instead, she is braving inclement Welsh weather with her team-mates for daily five-hour stints on the bike.
"Usually, we would spend a big chunk of the winter training in places like Spain so we can get a lot of hours in on the road without it being in horrible freezing weather. So it has been important to keep quite a strong unit to keep us going," she added.
"Particularly today, everybody was out and looking after each other because it was one degree and raining and we were out for five hours so it can easily be quite unenjoyable if you allow it to be."
"There was a nice portion of lockdown where the roads were really quiet because most people were at home.
"The weather was really good and I was actually training for longer hours than I was used to.
"I could get to all these places I'd never been before because I was training for about two to three hours [80km] longer than what my usual trips were, so it felt like a bit of an adventure."
'It is a worrying time for athletes'
Barker is an ambassador for Sporting Minds UK, a charity that seeks to raise awareness and provide support to enable positive mental health in young sportspeople aged 16-30, and gives one-to-one help in association with Bupa Healthcare.
The charity's referral rates have risen exponentially in line with the coronavirus waves and lockdowns in the UK.
Prospective Olympians are among those seeking support due to ongoing doubts surrounding the tournament this summer.
Mental health among the population has been brought into focus amid the global pandemic and when it comes to athletes, Barker has urged her fellow competitors to acknowledge that their mindset is something they can nurture and manage during a time when there are so many uncontrollable factors at play ahead of the Games.
Barker said: "I've previously spoken about the importance of a psychologist that I work with and how much that had brought to my performance, and potentially how much it had prolonged my career by, just by having a really good positive working relationship and the ability to plan ahead which isn't something that we're used to doing.
"I'm in such a privileged position to have a psychologist on call all the time and that's not a position that many people are in whatsoever.
"We [as athletes] talk a lot about mind over matter when it comes to sporting capabilities and huge feats of strength but we never actually train our minds and spend all of our time training our matter.
"So I think it's really important that all athletes should have this as part of their training programmes every single week or every couple of weeks.
"I would say try not to look too far ahead, especially when things seem uncertain. I think the time will pass a lot quicker when you just plan the next two weeks.
"It's also a really good time to work on your weaknesses, when you're in competition or a selection phase it is really difficult to do that but at the moment when you're away from all that pressure it is kind of the time to be bad at something for a little bit."
We [as athletes] talk a lot about mind over matter when it comes to sporting capabilities and huge feats of strength but we never actually train our minds and spend all of our time training our matter.
Elinor Barker, GB track and road cyclist
Callum Lea, the co-founder of Sporting Minds, says curtailing of training and competitions along with the changing lockdown restrictions are being cited as chief contributors towards anxiety in the case of many competitors.
He told Sky Sports News: "Earlier in 2020 during the first lockdown, we saw a real big increase in referrals, we saw a lot of athletes really starting to struggle with the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.
"Referrals have kept coming in throughout last year with the second lockdown and now with the third, it's been a busy year for us. We have been able to support quite a number of athletes and those tough times which they're experiencing.
"We have had Olympic athletes come through our support system and it is reassuring to know that we can support these athletes but from a wider perspective, it is a really worrying time for these Olympians.
"Athletes are brilliant when they have things in their control. They are creatures of habit when they have a lot of things in their control like their diet, their training, and their recovery.
"But no matter how hard you work on the aspects of your performance, when there are massive issues like the pandemic and the Tokyo Olympics being delayed, those are huge things which are completely out of the control of the athlete.
"Potentially there are huge career opportunities where athletes who in a normal time would have had the opportunity but now it is just not in their control and that can cause huge anxiety issues and effects on mental health."
Lea added that the ramifications of the Olympics being postponed for a second time would be catastrophic, particularly for elite athletes who have prolonged their careers for a final shot at a medal.
He said: "I think it would be absolutely devastating, for a lot of these aspiring Olympians it is every four years and potentially there are those that are on the cusp or those that feel it is their last time to compete in the Olympics.
"To have that feeling of it slowly slipping away would be a horrifying experience really which is why from the charity's point of view we want to support these athletes as much as possible."
'If it's feasible, a vaccine roll-out would benefit athletes mentally'
IOC (International Olympic Committee) member Dick Pound has told Sky News that athletes should be given priority access to coronavirus vaccines to save the Tokyo Games from cancellation.
Discussions are ongoing between UK Sport and the British Olympic Association regarding the possibility of vaccinating Team GB members ahead of the Games, albeit not at the expense of elderly or vulnerable groups.
On the subject of whether to provide athletes with jabs before July 23, Barker said: "It's really difficult to comment now without knowing what the situation is going to be like at the point that you will need to be vaccinated by, and without knowing what the availability of vaccines is going to be.
"As athletes, we are not the most vulnerable [group] in the population so it feels selfish to say we should have those vaccinations.
"That said, I do think that having the Olympics go ahead will be such a massive boost for everybody and I feel like what everyone actually really needs is two weeks of really good TV that the whole world can get into.
"It is such a monumental event and people can really get behind it from home and feel like they are a part of something.
"As athletes, it is our world, so of course we really want it to go ahead but for the general public as well it could be a huge boost."
Lea added: "If those athletes were given a vaccination and given that security of knowing that the Olympics was going to go ahead safely then that would automatically bring a lot of certainty into those aspects of their life.
"If it can happen and if it is right for it to happen, I think it would be hugely beneficial to the mental state of these athletes.
"I think generally the public would want to see an Olympic Games go ahead, it is the biggest sporting event in the world so I do think it would be a positive thing to happen.
"It would bring that certainty back to these athletes which is only right for them really. So every effort should be made for that, whether it is feasible or not I don't know but it definitely would be beneficial."
Sporting Minds is a UK registered charity offering mental health support to young athletes. For more information, to donate or to access one-to-one support, go to www.sportingmindsuk.org.