The key to success?

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

What is one common factor among all the Filipino Olympians who are favored to medal in Tokyo? It’s something that was made even more obvious by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also recalls what the Philippines did in preparation for the 2005 Southeast Asian Games, which resulted in an overall championship for the country. In a word, it’s isolation.

When we talked about medal favorites going into the Olympics, a common list would include weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, boxer Eumir Marcial, pole vaulter EJ Obiena, gymnast Carlos Yulo, and lately boxer Nesthy Petecio and golfers Yuka Saso and Bianca Pagdanganan. Almost all of them have been training (and competing) exclusively overseas, in isolation, from the main infrastructure and politics of local Philippine sports. And their extended overseas stays have made them physically and mentally stronger, more so now that their entire support teams are with them onsite in Japan. It has made a huge difference.

Before the Asian Weightlifting Championships, Diaz had not come home from her training camp in Malaysia. Of course, the constant uncertainty of the Olympics even happening took a toll on her confidence, and her psychologist, the PSC’s Medical Scientific Athletes Services (MSAS) and her nutritionist Jeaneth Aro all helped ease her mind. The same goes with EJ Obiena, who has been in Italy while barnstorming Europe and training with world champion Thiago Braz. Obiena was also regularly on video calls with Dr. Shyi Casuga from California. Eumir Marcial turned pro, and trained and fought under Freddie Roach at Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles. Yulo was constantly performing well in competitions in Japan while living, studying and working out just over an hour’s train ride from Tokyo.

Sixteen years ago, hundreds of Filipino athletes spent two months in China, where they were shoulder to shoulder with Olympic and world champions daily. The result was a stronger, higher-performing, more resilient Philippine contingent. This comfort with being up against the strongest competition in the world showed, and made a difference when up against “only” Southeast Asia’s best.

What are the benefits of literally being away from it all? First, a new environment provides a new energy. Everything is fresh and unfamiliar; there’s an excitement and adrenaline rush. A new chance to tailor your environment to your needs also gives one a sense of ownership, of connection to the place. Of course, the downside is a certain loneliness. But then again, you are on a mission, and the sacrifice can feed motivation. With less to do, there is less to distract. The isolation also provides a certain serenity for the mind to work better.

Most of the athletes mentioned did not train in big cities, but went where the training was focused the best. Being away from the country also forces one to be detached from problems at home. Of course you will worry, but you have a support system for that, anyway. Inevitably, you will realize that you can’t deal with those concerns from where you are, anyway. And your social circle will be confined to the immediate group around you, your training team. You can’t really go out and party. The pandemic highlighted all of that.

We sometimes forget what works for us. But tens of millions of Filipinos working abroad remind us that isolation more often produces the results we are after. In a way, athletes are luckier, because they get to go home sooner. Hopefully this time, luckier, too.

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