Cheung Ka-long had no right to win his fencing Olympic gold in Tokyo two years ago.
“I thought to myself, everyone was either an Olympic or world champion, and I was nobody … that helped me relax,” Cheung said of his mental approach back then, when he was ranked only 19th in the world.
After reaching the final, against 2016 gold medallist Daniele Garozzo, “I told myself, ‘I am nothing against him, he is the Olympic champion’,” Cheung recalled.
Italian Garozzo had history in his corner for the final, too. He had been there and done it, and his nation had 259 Olympic gold medals by the end of the Tokyo Games. Cheung hails from Hong Kong, which does not traditionally trade in the most precious metal. Windsurfer Lee Lai Shan, in 1996, was the city’s only previous Olympic champion.
“Cheung’s gold medal was more a product of mental ability than technique,” sports psychologist Alex Tang said.
“His ego and self-belief and hunger to win helped him retain focus and were integral to him performing at his maximum.”
For every Cheung, using mental strength to perform beyond expectations, there is another who succumbs to demons at the height of competition. Instances of both will surface over the next fortnight.
Even the greatest performers are susceptible to pressure. Greg Norman, twice an Open Championship winner, excruciatingly unravelled on the final day of the 1996 US Masters, blowing a six-shot lead and finishing five strokes behind winner Nick Faldo.
World-record-holding Australian swimmer Cate Campbell was overwhelming favourite for 100 metres freestyle gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but trailed home sixth. “The world got to witness possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history,” Campbell said.
Mark Bowden is a mental performance coach for Premier League footballers in England and author of multiple books on the subject. He asked his clients about the extent of the brain’s influence on performance.
“No one came back with a figure below 90 per cent,” Bowden said. “Elite athletes have trained for tens of thousands of hours, and have the technique and the skills. The brain is brilliant and powerful but it can cause issues. It is vital the conscious mind does not interfere with the unconscious mind.
“If a javelin thrower thinks about every element of their technique, the performance level will collapse. The person needs to get out of the way of the athlete and allow the trained ability to take over.”
An athlete is ultimately judged on their results. But when a Hongkonger in Hangzhou enters the arena, they must banish thoughts of the spoils of victory and similarly bury concerns over what would follow a poor outcome.
“Winning or losing is in the future, the athlete has to be entirely focused on the present,” Bowden said. “The mind will waver, we can’t help that. If a field is evenly matched, the person who regains focus quickest will win.”
What if an elite sportsperson has consistently come up fractionally short? Tang, who works with individuals and teams, and lectures in universities, explained how a tennis player with match point in a grand slam final, after a succession of runners-up finishes, should manage their thoughts.
“Healthy self-talk is important. If they think, ‘I can’t lose for the fifth time in a row’ … they probably will lose.
“They should focus on their opponent’s weaknesses, how to win tactically and technically. They are two different mentalities: one is avoiding failure, the other is trying to achieve success.
“It is normal to lose. Michael Jordan missed plenty of important shots. If an athlete identifies what went wrong, they can go back to the training field and improve.”
On overcoming repeated disappointments, Bowden said: “The brain is always looking for evidence. If it sees, fail, fail, fail, it will expect the same again.
“Visualisation is a good tool for providing new evidence. If you imagine doing well in that environment, the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory – thinks, ‘I have been brilliant whenever I have played here’. In a lot of circumstances, the brain cannot distinguish between imagination and reality.”
Bowden “hasn’t come across” the athlete who has mastered mental performance, “and never will”.
“Every athlete at the Asian Games will look at their rivals and [notice their strengths],” he said. “They need to think about how great they are, and understand nobody is bulletproof.”
The majority of competitors will have experienced sporting anxiety. It can be “crippling”, Bowden said. “But anxiety is a great thing for an athlete, as long as they correctly harness it.
“Players with anxiety have told me they envy teammates who are completely relaxed. I say they have an asset. If they make the feeling work for them, it is a game-changer.
“Anxiety becomes alertness, frustration becomes drive, anger becomes positive aggression. They harness the worst to become the very best.
“If eight sprinters line up in an Asian Games final, the one who thinks, ‘I love this anxiety, it’s fuelling me’, has a massive advantage.”
Techniques including breathing exercises can help. For athletes favouring music, 135-140 beats per minute “gets you excited”, Tang said, citing “Whatever it Takes” by Imagine Dragons and “Feel this Moment” by Pitbull.
How athletes feel in the moment will decide countless medals in Hangzhou.