Back in 1996, if you’d spoken to anyone who knows me, they’d have said I was never short on self-confidence. I had a belief in my ability, but I didn’t know what it meant to really believe in myself. My self-belief was all superficial, and soon cracked under certain types of pressure.
I later realised the pressure was not actually external. It didn’t come from opponents. They were just people playing to the best of their ability. It came from within. In other words, it was a pressure I was putting on myself. Therefore, it was unnecessary, and it could be changed only by one person: Natalie Cook. If I blamed anyone else, I was just avoiding the problem. If I was in awe of those opponents who I believed were putting the pressure on me, I was giving them more power than they deserved.
I’d already been there once, when I was a kid, and wanted to be a champion swimmer. But I kept losing to a girl who was half my size. I would say to myself, “She’s too good; she’s too quick. I can’t do it”. One day, for some reason, I changed it. I started saying “I’m too big to let her beat me”. I didn’t lose to her again from that day on. It was a change in my self-talk; a change in the way I viewed myself and my ability. There was not one physical change. It was all in my mind.
“It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.
The Greatest— Muhammad Ali, who lit the flame in Atlanta”
It took two years after Atlanta before my beliefs actually began to etch themselves into my heart and mind. At first, it was very hard. I had an emotional block about hollow “motivational” techniques, and when I later came across the real thing, I didn’t recognise it at first. It takes a lot of understanding to tap into real motivation and belief. The difference between the Atlanta Games and Sydney was that, in planning for Sydney, Kerri and I sat down and said “Okay. Gold is the target. How do we make it happen?” We had specifically defined the goal, and we knew that taking the Holy Grail was entirely up to us. We would now work backwards from the gold. And the brain would tell the body exactly what it needed to do to achieve that. Somebody once asked Jimi Hendrix what made him a great guitarist. He said he didn’t focus on the individual notes. He concentrated on the entire passage, and his fingers would rapidly do the rest. We began to focus on outcomes, something not taught by psychologists who insist that, if you focus on the process, the results will come. Sydney was still a long way into the future, but this shift in our thinking was an important starting point for us.
“The most important time for you to believe is when you have no reason to.”
By the time we got to Sydney, Kerri and I were mentally and emotionally able to put ourselves on the top first, even before stepping out on the sand. From there, all the steps we needed to take were far clearer, and it sure is a better view from the top of the mountain than it is from the bottom! But, as I said, Sydney was still a long way into future, and this book is all about how we got there. In Atlanta, we were still standing at the bottom, hoping to get a gold medal. It was constantly up hill. It’s a lot easier to gather momentum on the way down to success, if you know what I mean.
As a child, you hear the story of the little train: “I think I can, I think I can…” It’s only when it got to the top it said “I knew I could…” We sometimes need proof to be able to believe. It’s a bit like the chicken and egg. Do you believe first then achieve, or achieve then believe?
In Atlanta, our coach was still trying as hard as he could to help us focus on succeeding. I had trouble saying I could win, because I hadn’t won before. It’s very hard to have that belief, when you have no reason. Only after you get the results do you have the proof. Then is it easy to believe. The runs are on the board. But what if you don’t have the results? Does that mean you never will? Then, there is no other choice but to believe anyway!
One of the things I had to adjust was my attitude to losing: I needed to realize that, if you don’t make it, you’re not a bad person, or a loser. Someone was better than you on the day. That’s all. You’ve just got to keep believing. I know now that that’s where it starts. There are no losers; only learners. Some people win and say “I don’t know how I did it”. But somewhere inside themselves, there was a belief they could do it: otherwise they wouldn’t have put in all the work to be there in the first place.
It’s said that you lose gold to get silver, but as they said on that Sydney Olympic Games commercial, those people have obviously never won silver. It’s not just about medals, it’s about competition, not only with your opponents, but between you and your own mind. The mind is a powerful force, and when you conquer it, you can achieve anything your heart desires. You can achieve excellence in your chosen field, and the beauty of it is that it’s an ongoing process.
The semi-final loss in Atlanta also taught me the value of specific preparation. Kerri and I had prepared for Atlanta by focusing on the American team, Holly McPeak and Nancy Reno. They were the number one team. The Brazilian team of Jacqui Silva and Sandra Pires also loomed large in our thoughts. All our training, all our role-plays, in the lead-up to the games, was focused on those players. In our minds, we constantly saw one of those four players. So really, when we beat them, we got what we prepared for! Before the semi-final, Steve, our coach, said (rightly) “If you can beat those two teams, you can beat anybody”. But by the time we got to the semi-final, we hadn’t spent any time mentally on the Brazilian team we lost to. They were the number two Brazilian team, and ranked fourth in the world.
“Ingenuity, plus courage, plus work, equals miracles.” Bob Richards,pole vaulter
They were quite different to play, mentally and physically. They served very differently. They were big girls, and played a different style of game to any other team. We hadn’t spent enough time visualizing their game, and steeling ourselves mentally for what they had to serve up. In other words, we didn’t have a mental framework, a ‘video tape’, if you like, stored in our memory banks, for them. When we stepped out onto the sand, we simply felt as though we were playing someone we didn’t know. What a lesson! All it would have taken was a few hours of running our minds and bodies through the experience of playing them, and during the game it became obvious to us that we had neglected this simple, but very important, part of our preparation. We lost to them, and so we got what we’d prepared for!
“The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.” Joe Paterno
What’s more, The Voice kept saying “You’re not prepared, so how can you expect to win?” I even wrote in my diary the night before the match, “One thought lingers…we spent so much time and energy on McPeak/Reno and Jackie/Sandra, we kinda overlooked Monica/Adrianna (ironically, the team that really has given us trouble in the past)”. Even at that point, I was talking myself into losing.
We were primed to beat the team that eventually won the gold medal—Pires and Silva, and I truly believe that we would have achieved that victory, had we played them for gold. But we never got there, and the best team on the day shone through.
In sporting contests, or in any other ‘contest’ in life, people intuitively sense fear or a lack of confidence in others, and they become more aggressive. In Atlanta, teams served me 95 per cent of the balls. I’d pass the ball, Kerri would set the ball, and I had to hit it. So I had to constantly apply two skills. They knew. It was as though they could hear The Voice every bit as well as I could! The game was always on my shoulders. In addition, I wasn’t as experienced or as skilful as Kerri, and I was eight kilos heavier than I am now.
The heavier that burden became, the easier it was, emotionally, to step out of the way and hear The Voice as it said “You’re not good enough Nat!” And the less comfortable I felt, the more comfortable the other team looked. They just seemed to be getting bigger and stronger by the minute, and I started feeling smaller and weaker! Now, I had a lot of thinking to do.
I always had the dream, but I didn’t fully realise what it was to dream. To have a vision is one thing; to transform yourself into the sort of vehicle that will arrive at that destination is another thing altogether. To master the mind is like putting a plane on autopilot. The plane’s still doing all the work, but the guiding intelligence—the pilot—can get on with refining the process even more.
“He who stops being better stops being good.” Cromwell