Earlier this month, I spent some time in the company of the remarkable Paralympic champion David Smith. For those of you who may not have heard of him, please read the article at the bottom of this page that I wrote for the Scottish Daily Mail about his incredible story.
To sum up, though, he is a man perpetually battling against and overcoming obstacles placed in his path. None has been greater than the tumour which has been removed from his spinal cord twice and, as he discovered recently, is back. If the tumour grows another 8mm, he could be paralysed…or worse, but he is delaying surgery for the time being in the hope he can slow it down and give himself enough time to qualify for and ride the cycling road time trial in Rio next year.
His bravery is astonishing but, given that both his surgeries have left him having to learn to walk again, so too is his drive and mental power. Visualisation techniques played a huge role in him making it from his first surgery in 2010 to the top of the podium in 2012. His last operation came 12 months ago and he outlined how, even when he was confined to his hospital bed and barely able to move, using visualisation helped him start the process of getting back on the bike.
‘I researched it all and worked very closely with a psychologist,’ he says. I downloaded a video of a time trial and I used to watch it every day and then visualise myself riding the course.
‘First of all, I had to sit on my bed when I couldn’t move and just watch the video. Then I built up to being able to put my hands in the position (they would be on a bike) and just move my legs on the bed. Then eventually I had a laptop on a table and I’d just lean my arms on the table (in the position they would be on the aero bars of a bike) and then move my legs under the table like I was pedalling. The next step from that was to get back on the bike. They were my little goals.
‘My first goal was just to sit with the laptop on the bed and watch the video, which is hard. 20 minutes feels like two hours and I used to think: “Come on, hurry up and get to the end!”. I used to have to force myself to watch that initially and then when I achieved that I thought it was time to move my legs and then when I got to the table I was so excited and it felt amazing to sit there and hold that position. Then the next step was getting on the bike and it made the whole nine weeks of rehab quite enjoyable and it really trained me.
‘What I found is that when you’re training at the top intensity, you never really see the little gains – you never see that one watt or that one second. But when you’re starting from ground zero you have these massive gains and you get this endorphin rush all the time. So in a really sick way I used to kind of enjoy rehab.
‘I’d have this great high because I’d do my visualisation and every night I went to bed feeling like I’d achieved something. That sort of reset my mind.’
David took his visualisation to an incredible level. After all, he’s a professional athlete in an extreme – and totally unique – situation. But it’s worth remembering that, no matter what goal you have set yourself – be it completing your first ever 5k run or breaking the tape at an ironman – regularly spending a while visualising yourself reaching your target or making a breakthrough in training is time well spent. If you can convince your mind that you can do something, the body usually follows.
To read the Mail online article with David Smith, click: