This year, adding to our fantastic line-up of Athlete Mentors is gymnast Craig Heap.

Having trained as a gymnast since the age of nine, Craig has won 14 British championship titles and competed at five European and five World Championships over the course of his career, with his Olympic debut coming at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Craig has represented England over 100 times in multiple international gymnastic competitions. He is best-known for captaining the men’s team to their first ever gold medal in the 1998 Kualar Lumpur Commonwealth Games and repeating this feat in 2002.

Now a qualified High Performance men’s gymnastics coach, we’re sure Craig has plenty of fantastic advice for our young athletes across all sports!

We sat down with Craig and found out a little bit more about his sporting career…

Craig, what’s your proudest achievement to-date?

Without a doubt my proudest achievement was my personal best score in the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Where did you study?

I didn’t go to University, but I do realise now that education is really important and we should all have a good work/school life balance!

What would you be doing nowadays if you weren’t an athlete?

I would definitely be farming! I was brought up in a dairy farm in Burnley, in Lancashire, and as a young lad that was my aspiration – following in the family business!

Who do you look up to?

It’s a real tricky one but, without seeming weird, I would probably say myself. I mean that because I wasn’t a naturally talented or gifted gymnast but I realised that I could either sit back and moan about it or I could work extremely hard!

So, I continually pushed myself every day in the gym to be the best that I could possibly be… so that was my motivation!.

I guess, in gymnastics at the time, Olympic champion was Alexei Nemov; he was somebody who was very good and had his own originality and flare. He used to play to the audience… so quite like him too!

Any study tips to share with our student athletes?

When I was in school I was probably training three or four nights a week and then all day Saturday.

So, unfortunately my studies took a little bit of back-seat. Looking back now, that’s something I really regret.

I don’t regret anything in my sporting career, but I definitely regret some of the choices I made when I was younger around education!

I guess my top tip is to make sure you’re balancing everything and think really carefully about the choices you make!

Have you got any tips about how to get the most out of training?

Yes! Purposeful practice. This relates to the 10,000 hours of training it takes to become an expert in something.

This only applies if it’s purposeful practice; that means that you’re making the most out of every single minute of the time in the gym!

Where, in school I probably wasted quite a lot of minutes, I was so determined in the gym that I wasn’t going to waste any second… and I think that’s the key to my success!

What about any teamwork tips?

I was actually captain of the team in the 1998 Commonwealth Games, so I do have some great experiences with teamwork; we made history that year by getting Team GB’s first ever men’s team gold, and doing the same again four years later!

I think when you work in a team, you’ve got to be aware that everybody has a different personality and you’ve got to think about what makes you tick.

You might be totally different to somebody else but knowing when to push them harder in training or in a competition can really help them achieve.

You can easily spot when someone’s head goes down in a competition, so to go over and motivate those people is important but you have to learn about each other because there are some people that just prefer being left alone!

Everybody needs to work together for that end goal!

How do you prepare for competitions?

When I was younger I was probably a bit superstitious: lucky pants, lucky shirt.

Then I realised, when you get older, it’s all about the preparation. You realise that if you don’t have the lucky pants on, that’s probably not going to get you the points.

I had the worst preparation probably for my Olympics, because I broke my hand seven weeks before the Games. I went out and got my personal best score, but I understood that the performance wasn’t down to the last seven weeks; it was due to the last 18 years of my life which had built up to that one moment.

When we’re under pressure, building up to a performance, you’ve got to believe in your preparation. Whereas sometimes that is directly before the competition, you can’t forget about all the work you’ve put in throughout your life.

Has anything embarrassing ever happened to you at a competition?

Yes! Loads of things actually!

I remember, on the floor exercise, I had to show a balance (generally on one leg) and I remember going into this arabesque, leaning forward: it looks very simple but I got the wobbles and the more I tried to balance on one leg, the worse it was!

At that stage, the entire stadium was probably looking and laughing at me.

From that point on, when I got to the balance all I could think was “don’t wobble, don’t fall over!”

I was so thankful when you could swap that balance for a strength move!

What’s your best strategy for overcoming defeat?

Very simple: get back in the gym!

It’s bizarre because, as a performer, I almost preferred defeat. It sounds weird, but it’s a motivator!

There were times when I won a competition and you think “oh no, I’ve got to go back to the gym”. For me, if I’d made a mistake at a competition, I couldn’t wait to get back into the gym and work on it.

That’s what’s really cool about sport, actually: it builds really resilient people. Where else would you keep failing and going back to something?!

What was the most difficult country/environment you’ve ever competed in?

Because gymnastics is indoors it’s not too bad, but I remember in Kualar Lumpur at the Commonwealth Games it was air conditioned – it was freezing cold!

It sounds great, going from boiling hot outside to air conditioning, but it was really difficult to work out how to manage my body temperature because I’d never been in that situation before.

It’s baking outside and then you go to the gym and end up having to keep yourself warm in between apparatus.

It’s those sort of challenges that make you into the perfect athlete: you have to overcome all of these obstacles along the way to be ready for everything. In my kit bag now I have everything, but I’ve learnt that you never know when you’ll need it!

Have you got a stand-out childhood memory?

School wasn’t that great, just because I did gymnastics in an era where it wasn’t particularly ‘cool’ to do gymnastics… even more so because I went to an all-boys school. I think that’s why I made some bad decisions; they were kind of a survival technique.

I think we develop skills in school, and I developed the skill of humour.

That was my way of getting through everything and later on in life it’s really helped me in jobs (like delivering fun sessions).  It was definitely developed through a tough time in my life, so I think through every difficult situation or experience, there’s always something positive to take out of it.

It’s the same with this year’s School Games competitors: they might have expectations to win and if they don’t, I hope they come away having learnt something from it!

What’s your favourite cheat meal?

I’d probably say a burger or something!

Especially at the Olympics, because there was free McDonalds! You had to be careful not to turn into a sumo wrestler before you competed!

It teaches you how to practice self-control, for sure. The athletes at the School Games will go through it to: for many of them it might be their first big multi-sport meet and there will be loads of new temptations and distractions.

You have to think “yes, I’d love to stay up really late with these new friends, but is it really the best for my competition?”

Lastly, what’s your favourite wind-down technique?

It sounds bizarre but just relaxing on my own!

I just need some me-time to watch a movie or have a bath.

If the competition’s gone well then it’s great to celebrate with your team! Having a night where you can eat and drink what you want like an average person is great, after a period of intense pre-competition training.

You should never restrict yourself from celebrating successes, but think about your environment: obviously don’t go out in your team kit and make a fool of yourself, but you’re allowed to have fun!

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