Watching James Cooke sprint to the line and secure his world Championship title is the stuff of Hollywood. It’s the sort of sporting cliff-hanger that has the ability to captivate fans and non-fans alike. The apparent inevitability of the result, Valentin Prades’ premature celebration and James’ crazy, almost superhuman, dash to the line fulfil all the critical tropes of a blockbuster ‘turnaround’ movie. In fact, before you read on I recommend watching it for yourself (we’ve inserted the clip below). Even knowing the result it will draw you in, as only an iconic sporting moment can.
The story line becomes even more fascinating when you realise that this is an athlete who tells me that he was, “pasted, destroyed in the fencing at Rio” and saw his own and his nations hopes dashed somewhere near sands of Copacabana beach in 2016.
James was one of the U.K.’s major medal hopes for that Olympics. Already World number one and back to back World Cup winner, a feat never before achieved, he was ‘nailed on’for a medal. Except things didn’t go to script. He performed so badly that to this day he still cannot recollect key moments. Perhaps he just doesn’t want to. The one thing he does remember vividly is that he walked away from those games thinking, “I never want to be that athlete again”.
It’s not my usual opening question but I ask, “What went wrong? How come you had become that athlete”.
James doesn’t hesitate with his answer.
“Because I’d been built up by my team. I was told I was a good athlete. I’d been a successful junior and then come through the senior ranks and won major competitions. I kind of thought I was there. I thought, ‘I’m here to mix it’. But I hadn’t prepared mentally. It was bigger than I ever anticipated. And like any elite sport it’s never ultimately about technique or physicality, it’s about mindset and mental toughness”.
Like any elite sport it’s never ultimately about technique or physicality, it’s about mindset and mental toughness.
Cue a quest for self-improvement, specifically in relation to his mental preparation. James believed he found the answer reading ‘The Pressure Principle’ by Dr. Dave Alred MBE and resolved that they had to work together if he was to fulfil the potential he knew he possessed. All he had to do was persuade his coaching team, funders and Dave himself to agree. First James had to justify his decision, “Dave told me he’s not a psychologist nor a coach, so it was hard to explain what he did and how he was going to help”.
Bringing in an external coach to any established performance environment is rarely easy and never comfortable. Getting Dave Alred to agree to work with you is never easy or comfortable. James was not to be deterred. He persuaded, pleaded and pushed to work with Dave. In the end he decided to fund it himself and in doing so convinced Dave that here was an athlete genuinely committed to being the best he could be. Dave was impressed from the outset, “I already knew he was prepared to really push himself from his swimming times. That takes more than just physical ability. Then, when we first worked together and I applied golfing techniques, taking a completely unconventional approach for Modern pentathlon, the way he responded to the challenge showed me that his commitment was genuine”.
The impact on James has been nothing short of transformational. In Dave he found the coach prepared to challenge him, push him and explore new means of improvement like never before. As well as radically improving his performance the relationship has been the catalyst for one of James’ more long term ambitions,
I want to try to become the next Dave
Dave Alred deals a lot in facts when it comes to addressing an athletes mindset. Perhaps this is born of his view that, “you don’t need to be happy to perform, you just need to be ready”. With James he deconstructed his fencing, his weakest discipline, in a way that James and his team had never considered. Listening to James explain his work with Dave in this area and its impact is fascinating – so much so that, despite the poor recording quality, I felt it merited being available for you to listen as James tells the story in his own words.
In short, by applying golfing science to his fencing James became better at understanding when and how he was most effective. Dave helped him move into his Ugly Zone and in doing so released a confidence in his ability that he’d never before possessed. If you haven’t done so already, have a listen. As James puts it, “a lifeline to hold on to”.
You don’t need to be happy to perform, you just need to be ready.
Attention to detail, exploring innovation and (of course) constantly pushing outside of his comfort zone were already critical components in James’ approach. So when the points rating changed in Modern Pentathlon, reducing the importance of the swim (his strongest event) and elevating the run James resolved to recalibrate his approach to running even if it required defying convention.
An avid reader and self-educator he came across several articles on the village of Iten in Kenya, the self-proclaimed ‘spiritual home of running’. This one area of Kenya has produced a remarkable amount of world class runners including Wilson Kipsang, former Marathon World Record Holder and Edna Kipalgat, a two times gold medallist in the IAAF World Championship Marathon. Self-funded and against the counsel of his coaching team James put himself on a plane and spent three weeks amongst the locals, coached by an Irish missionary Brother John, for whom running is a way of life. Three times a day, on a diet of primarily rice and vegetables and living in the most basic of conditions he re-defined his running abilities. He was the first Modern Pentathlete to ever do this. The results are there for all to see in the aforementioned film. However, it wasn’t only his running that benefitted, it was his perspective. Despite the paucity of facilities and equipment in Kenya he witnessed an attitude and application amongst the local athletes that would shame many European athletes used, as they are, to having a level of practical, financial and pastoral care their African counterparts could only dream of.
The benefits of spending time in Kenya have re-enforced his views about how we should develop people to be the best in the world. Being given everything does not feature high on his list. He has concerns with the current emphasis on ‘culture’: the way it is applied in elite sporting environments in the UK and how it is misunderstood by the media. We want winners but, all too often, we’re not prepared to accept the demands that achieving world class status requires. We agree that the topic merits a return conversation although James confesses that in the week following his success in Mexico he spent a week on a beach in Cancun (he still occasionally likes some creature comforts!). Three days in and his phone rang, “It was Dave… no ‘well done’ or ‘great work’, just, ‘right when are you back in Bath? I have something big that I want to talk through with you’”. James pauses for a moment, a wry smile on his face at the recollection, “He never stops thinking. That’s what I love and that’s what I’m trying to do”.
It appears he’s already done a lot of thinking, not least setting his sights on being a coach: the next Dave Alred: pushing his legacy forward. But first there’s unfinished business in Tokyo 2020. And he knows exactly what type of athlete he’ll be when he gets there.