HM Insights

The Sammi Kinghorn blog – Grace under pressure

At Harper Macleod we're lucky to have double World Champion wheelchair racer Samantha ‘Sammi’ Kinghorn as our Athlete Ambassador. Recently named Scotland's Sports Personality of the Year, Sammi will once again represent Scotland in the Commonwealth Games in April. At a time when the mental aspects of high level sport have been getting more attention, Sammi talks about the pressure athletes are subject to and, in particular, coping with the increased expectations that come with success.

Sammi Kinghorn Harper Macleod Tenerife 2018

Sammi on track for winter training in sunny Tenerife 

Sammi Kinghorn has just escaped a freezing Scotland for a fortnight's winter training in the far more hospitable climes of Tenerife. The timely trip came shortly after she enjoyed a well-earned rest over the festive period and the celebration of her 22nd birthday.

While 2017 will go down as her breakthrough year – becoming World Champion over 100m and 200m and also picking up both of Scotland's main Sports Personality of the Year Awards – 2018 promises something completely different to anything she's experienced before.

For once, Sammi starts the year knowing what awaits her on the track. She'll compete in the 1500m and marathon events at the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia and then … well and then her races will pretty much be run in what's going to be a strangely condensed season.

She said: "I usually start the year having to put the word 'hopefully' into every other sentence because the squads for summer events haven't yet been announced, so it's nice to know exactly what I'm doing. The Commonwealths will be my only real event and it's soooo early in the year too. April's normally when I start thinking about racing, but this year it's when I'll finish. It's always a challenge to peak for the right time, which is usually the summer months for me, so this is a different test.

"I'll be taking some time off to have a holiday in Australia afterwards then coming back and training solidly on my sprinting for a year, which I think will be good for me in the long run."

The Tenerife trip has become a staple part of her training regime in recent years, and after enjoying a break Sammi is looking forward to getting back to work.

She added: "I feel really good. A bit of time off usually seems to make me a bit hungrier and I tend to come back a bit faster. I had a couple of weeks off before my Chicago marathon for example and that worked out well. I think sometimes my body is just thankful for a wee break. I did a few gym sessions during my 'holidays' just so that it wouldn't be too bad getting back into it. That can be the worst thing, being so sore for the first few days."

Grace under pressure

The Gold Coast Games give Sammi the rare privilege of racing in a Scotland vest, and she'll do so as one of Team Scotland's best known athletes. Her performances in London last summer and the attention which followed have made sure of that.

For someone who has until now been seen as 'one to watch', an up-and-comer to be cheered on as she did her best, that's a change which brings a different type of pressure than the usual pre-competition nerves.

A light has been shone on the struggles sportsmen and women can face by recent news reports involving participants in a range of sports. Many outwardly uber-confident competitors have subsequently shared tales of their own hidden struggles over the years.

Sammi is well aware of the importance of the mental side of top-level sport, and keeping on top of that aspect is something she works on constantly.

She explains: "People either forget or maybe don't realise the pressures athletes can be subjected to and the ups and downs we have to cope with. I struggled with that in London last year. I'd never really won a major medal and I was so excited, the media was so interested and I didn't sleep at all the night before my first race. You get so high but then you have to come back down again and coping with that can be difficult. I can't imagine how I would have coped if I'd had a really bad event.

"In sports such as rugby they play so many games and they're not all going to go well. You have up and downs constantly and it's hard to get control of it in your head. One minute you're the greatest thing and you're so pleased, but the next you could be back to the bottom – how do you pick yourself up? It can be hard to keep yourself on a level playing field and keep your moods the same.

"Everyone always goes on about how Andy Murray is so stern-faced but sometimes I think that's exactly what he's doing. He's keeping that same game-face all the time, whether he's won or lost."

Like Murray, Sammi has achieved success and increased attention at a relatively young age and she's learning to cope with that as her career progresses – indeed, as it becomes a career rather than simply a sport she loves doing.

She said: "I think sometimes it's easier when you're really young as there's not so much pressure on you and people are far more likely to make allowances and expect your performances to go up and down. Once people begin to know you they expect you to achieve certain things, and that also applies to things such as your funding. Suddenly you're trying to make a living at sport, rather than it just being a 'hobby'.

"It's strange how even simple sentiments can affect you. If you keep hearing that you're 'going for gold' then it gets in your head. Words are very powerful and you feel pressure to deliver.

"I would have never thought about these things when looking on from the outside. I would just have thought what a funny thing it was to have a job as an athlete – I still find it a bit strange. But it can be tough having a level of public scrutiny to cope with."

Fortunately, Sammi feels she's blessed with a support network which enables her to create a positive mental attitude – both in terms of her family, coach Ian Mirfin and the national teams, and also the businesses and organisations who help support her as a full-time athlete.

She said: "I always tell people that I'm so lucky. To have the backing that I have, as a para athlete, is fantastic and I really get on well with all the people who are sponsoring me, which is nice.

"It's also good to know that you have people supporting you because they believe in you and genuinely want to invest in what you're doing and believe you can achieve at the very highest level.

"Athletics can be a very lonely sport and you can think that you're all alone. I never feel like that. I really appreciate that I have some many people backing me."

Working on the mind games

Sammi works hard on building up her resilience and developing ways in which to both deal with and even harness the pressures that can build up.

She said: "I really try and think positively the few days before leading into a race. We're often in a village with the other competitors and you might see them at breakfast etc. You don't want to be looking and focusing on them all the time, which it's easy to do.

"I constantly remind myself that I've trained as hard as I can. In the call room before the race I'll imagine the start in my head repeatedly – On your marks, set, up, push … Even on the start line, right up to I'm in 'Set', I tell myself that my arms are in the best position they can be, because that's what I worry about the most – that my arms won't be in the right position and I won't get a good enough start. It's like a mantra I keep repeating.

"The most important thing, however, is remembering that I can only control the controllable. Not the weather, not what other people do, not even getting a puncture! I can make sure that physically I'm in the best condition I can be in, and my equipment is also ready.

"While pressure before the start line isn't fun, when you're coming to the end of a race it's actually easier to know that there are people watching you. You kind of guilt trip yourself and it makes you push that little bit harder."

This mental preparation begins long before the big events begin however – Sammi's already visualising her sprint finish at the end of a gruelling 26.2 mile marathon.

She said: "I like to visualise when I'm training, and at the moment I'm trying hard to see the end of the marathon. I'll be so tired, so at the end of every single set I try and sprint to the end. I need to be able to sprint like I do in a 200m after 26.2 miles. I know who's going to be around me so I try to visualise them there and then me passing them!

The mind games, in the best sense of the phrase, may also influence Sammi's on-track schedule for the rest of the year. As World Champion and World Record holder, she doesn't want to give her rivals any chance to take her on at anything less than top form.

She said: "I don't want to race against my main competitors over 100m and 200m and do badly, which might give them that boost. I'm not going to put myself in a situation that could dent my confidence and boost theirs until I know that I'm in shape to do my best.

"Maybe, for once, I'll do what some other athletes have done over the years which is kind of hide away for a bit and then come out for a championships with people guessing just what kind of form I'm going to be in!"

Find out more

You can find out more about Harper Macleod and Sammi here.

You can see the short film we made with Sammi as she trained around her Borders home here.

You can also follow Sammi on Twitter and Facebook