Badminton's Kirsty Gilmour: "The key thing was that I was unafraid to lose"

Kirsty Gilmour will head to Paris for her third Olympics with one ambition – not being afraid to lose.

It seems an odd approach for the badminton star from Bellshill, but after winning a fourth European Championship silver medal in Germany in April, it is one that is working for her.

Now 30, Gilmour has a stack of Commonwealth and European medals in her collection, and will now look to improve on an Olympic record that has seen her fall in the group stages on each previous appearance.

And if she is to achieve that, she believes it will be by managing the stress of the biggest stage of all.

She said: “Selection never gets old. It’s maybe a bit cliché but it’s just as special as the first one. I’m maybe a bit better versed in what’s going on and all the build-up and pageantry around it, but it’s still super exciting. I’m really looking forward to it.

“I’m better at managing that last-minute cramming session at the very end of preparation. I’m learning to be a bit more calm in the build-up rather than getting infinitely more stressed out. I’ve seen enough times how the forward thinking and the spiralling is useless. To have that trust in myself and all the years of training that have gone into this preparation period. I’m really trying to enjoy it, that’s a factor.

“With the first one, you want to squeeze everything out of it. Tokyo was a bit strange circumstances so for this one, I’m just trying to be super confident in all my preparations to be able to play with some freedom and a relatively relaxed outlook.

“It seems counterintuitive to relax on the biggest stage of your life. I’ve worked pretty closely with a psychologist and the conversation we’ve had was about reflecting on Europeans and the unique set of circumstances that big Championships bring.

“The key thing for me in that week of Europeans was that I was unafraid to lose. I know it sounds counterintuitive because you step on court and want to win but I was just so unafraid to have that feeling. It unlocked freedom in my play and a fearlessness. In major championships, people can get really bogged down in what might happen or what might not happen. You could have the best week of your life so allowing for the possibility of that is super important.”

Of course, playing without fear is easier said than done, but Gilmour seems to have found the formula.

Asked how, she explained: “I really like the float pods, some people call them sensory deprivation tanks, but I think that’s a myth. But I really like them, we’ve spoken with my psychologist about microdosing that feeling because I feel great after that. There’s a lot of pressure on that 60 minutes a month or however often I manage to do it.

“If I can get five minutes of that feeling every day, I’m trying to stop scrolling and be a bit more bored more often. I’ve forgotten how to be bored, how to have actual thoughts and how to spend time with my own brain, maybe thinking about what is happening in this moment.”

That boredom extends to bike sessions without headphones, left to her own thoughts – an experience that she admits is unpleasant.

But knowing that on the court, she will have nobody else to turn to when it all gets tough, Gilmour believes this is the perfect way to ensure that her mind, as well as her body, will be ready in Paris.

“It’s grim to spend an hour with your own thoughts," said Gilmour, who is one of over 1,000 elite athletes on UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme. "But there’s definitely something in it that grounds you and helps you think about yourself which is all you’ve got on the court. You can learn about yourself and where your brain wanders to.

“I try to mimic the conditions as closely as possible, either with a bath or just bed with no phone and no lights. 5-10 minutes of focusing on me, focusing on breathing. If I think about badminton, that’s fine, if I think about nothing, that’s also fine. As long as it’s present and internal and not outward looking. It’s about taking a few minutes to just be with yourself.”

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