Joe Clarke defied the odds, embraced the moment and succeeded as a big underdog, paddling to a kayak singles (K1) gold medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
The 24-year-old Briton from Stoke-on-Trent skilfully navigated the Whitewater Stadium slalom course in blustery conditions en route to becoming his country’s first Olympic champion in the event.
“It was my first Olympic Games and I didn’t know what to expect,” Clarke says. “Canoe slalom features a lot of variables, but training had been going very well. I knew I could put myself in the mix and on that day it was a gold medal.”
Competing internationally since 2009, Clarke previously had never won an individual event at a world championship or World Cup, so was not expected to challenge for Olympic gold in Rio – hence his underdog status. Suffice to say, he stunned the canoe and kayak world with his performance.
Here, he offers five tips on what it takes to exceed expectations and prosper when it counts the most.
Be confident in your ability
“Be confident that you’re good enough. Whatever standard you’re at, just be confident that you can perform at that level. Don’t try to perform above or below. Push at your level because if you try and ease off [in the qualifying rounds], sometimes it goes wrong. Just do what you know how to do, like on a normal day at a normal training session. That was my tactic – to try and race like I train.”
Focus on yourself and yourself only
“Cut out all distractions because there are plenty of them. The Olympic Village is like 10,000 or more people mixing in one area. It’s around four times the length of a football pitch and you have every type of cuisine. It’s so easy to overeat or get drawn away by other things like the game room there. Give yourself an hour a day to enjoy the sites, but then bring it back to what you’re there for.”
Don’t let bad practice bring you down
“Just because practice might be going badly in the run-up, it doesn’t mean that your event is going to go badly. Have confidence. It’s so easy to get yourself into a bad mental state if practice is going poorly. Don’t let it drag you down. There have been many competitions when I’ve trained terribly and then had one of my best races.”
Don’t let your team or the media have a negative impact
“When you’re in a team environment and your team is doing very badly, don’t let that drag you down as well as the media surrounding it. Team GB wasn’t doing very well in the run-up to my event. It can be a downer if you read the newspapers – I actually didn’t. Cut out all distractions and if that means not going on social media then don’t do it. If you’re doing well, it’s really positive and if you’re doing badly, it’s super negative.”
Just enjoy it
“It’s an amazing experience – the Olympic Games or even the world championships. If you don’t enjoy it, then what are you there for? You get to make new friends with your team and other teams. To have all these friendships all over the world from competing in elite sport is just fantastic.”