Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing five-time Olympic medallist Max Whitlock about a variety of topics, including: boyhood heroes, nutrition, best moments, extra-curricular activities and life after competition. Being GB’s most successful gymnast of all-time, he had plenty of interesting things to share…
Who is Max Whitlock?
For those of you reading this for the first time, you either didn’t read the original when published or don’t follow me on Twitter to find out! Anyway, before we get to my questions and his answers for this piece, here’s some context about the man himself:
Max Whitlock is a British gymnast. A five-time Olympic medallist, he has eight world medals to boot. After winning both the men’s floor and pommel horse events at the 2016 Rio Olympics, he made history by becoming GB’s first ever gold medallist in that field.
With 12 medals and five titles to his name at just 27, he’s the most successful gymnast in the country’s history and will naturally be looking to add more this summer in Tokyo.
For this interview, a number of questions were featured in the Sunday Times paper but those with initials (MO and MW) are either me asking or him responding with answers!
Where it all began
I originally did swimming, which was my first sport. A friend from swimming club introduced me into gym, I literally loved it as soon as I stepped foot in the gym and my hours started ramping up quite quickly in gymnastics.
I was trying to juggle both sports and at nine-years-old, I got through to a GB gymnastics squad. There, they told me I need to make a choice and commit: I’m obviously happy now that I stuck with gym rather than swimming, though it was a bit of luck that got me into it really. I was still quite young to make that decision but just loved gymnastics!
My breakthrough moment
When I was 17, I went to my first senior competition and was very inexperienced. It was only then that I thought I could do something in the sport.
Before then, I wasn’t one of those people who dreams of going to the Olympic Games, it wasn’t on the radar or in my mind but that’s what helped me get to where I was because I was doing it for fun and continued for that reason. Going to the Commonwealth Games, coming away with three medals changed my mindset into a huge form of motivation to push, go into the Europeans, Worlds, and who knows? Perhaps an Olympics one day.
It was a crazy experience for me, I did hardly any competition before, it was my first senior one and I was a newbie on the scene with plenty of work to be done. It was an experience to remember, in Delhi in India and helped set me up into the next competitions.
The coach I looked up to
I’ve been working with Scott Hann since I was 12, I think what has been absolutely key is how close we’ve been in terms of relationship in and out of the gym. We are actually family as well, it’s absolutely key in terms of knowing how we want to move forward and in the same direction – we’re both massively driven and want the same end goal.
I think that works well when you listen and work with each other. When you’re young it’s kind of a dictatorship from coach-to-gymnast but as you grow up, it’s so important both sides learn and it’s a partnership. I’m 27 now so it’s important we work together and we do really well. You could talk to Scott and me separately, in terms of the plan going into training today and we’d probably come out with the same answer.
One of the things he does so well is reducing stress as much as possible. He tries to block out all of the noise for me, so I can go and focus on doing my job. Scott is my brother-in-law, he’s married to my wife’s sister and our bond is quite close but it’s been really helpful in terms of how we’ve built our relationship, helped us move forward in a way where we both understand each other.
My childhood heroes
Max stressed the point he didn’t watch a lot of sport when he was younger and wasn’t entirely sure, but key influences were:
I’ve always looked up to Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and Jess Ennis. Ennis sticks out a lot because of the way she carries herself, she’s genuinely a really nice person and her results speak for themselves.
Coming back and retaining titles after having a baby, obviously she’s retired now but looking back on what she’s done in her career, a brilliant role model.
I’ve massively respected them but if you look at Bolt; every race he went into, on the start line looked as though nothing fazed him. It’s impressive to be in that state at that moment, just before you going into one of the biggest races of your life, under so much pressure.
One thing I have learned throughout my career is that it’s so much easier to chase results rather than retain them. He had a lot of years on top and pressure on his shoulders to keep the title of World’s Fastest Man.
Hobbies outside of gymnastics
MO: Outside of training, is there anything you watch / listen to / reading right now?
MW: I love listening to music, I do all the time. Music is a huge motivation for me, it can change the mood really easily in terms of getting geared up and ready for a session. At home, I’m quite a chilled person – chilling with family, going out for meals and the like but watching TV… one of my favourite programmes is Dragon’s Den. I find it massively interesting, especially because me and my wife run our own business and work together so I think it’d be cool to one day make an appearance. I’m a big fan of learning through it.
As for music, I’m still a Wiz Khalifa fan. I like Drake, Trippie Redd, Gunna and music like that – I have done for years, but was talking to someone about it the other day, why does it [rap, hip-hop] motivate me so much? It’s because if you listen to the lyrics, what they talk about, it’s motivational, they talk about where they’ve come from and where they are now. I really like it.
MO: I know you have a passion for designing clothes and trainers but it’s rare for athletes to have time to focus on other hobbies. How did that start, is it serious?
MW: Like you say, a lot of athletes struggle with time. I haven’t managed to fit in any time for that recently but it’s a huge passion of mine. Quite a few years ago, I was sitting around drawing trainers. For me, trainers were the one thing I absolutely loved.
What was quite interesting was, I did designs years ago and the little new thing [in-shoe upgrades] I wanted comes out in shoes so it was quite a cool feeling to know that I was on the right path [with his design ideas]. If I got all the designs out, I would probably have well over 50 different shoe design plans I was exploring. It’s taken a bit of a backseat but is definitely something I love to do.
MO: I know you love training but saw that once you retire, you’d be open to becoming a champion snowboarder – so how far in the future would that be then?
MW: I’m hoping to carry on gym for another five years: if I can go to Tokyo and Paris in the Olympics after, that would be a dream. Four Olympic Games, I would be really proud of that. After that yeah, I would love to try some other sports.
First of all, I want to have a bit of fun because gymnastics is so transferrable across so many sports. I want to try my hand at things and see if I can pick it up quickly but skiing and snowboarding are definitely on that list.
Nutrition, guilty pleasures and superstitions
MO: I’ve done my research: is your guilty pleasure still waffles and ice-cream?
MW: It is! Waffles and ice-cream, I’ve never gone off that. I could eat that all day, every day. I treat myself all the time; I think that’s quite important. It’s funny because when I go to places and do stuff, let’s say food is laid out for us, it’s always mega healthy as they think that’s all I will eat.
If there’s any chocolate, they naturally believe I won’t eat it but throughout my career I’ve been relaxed with my nutrition and it’s important not to be too strict and treat yourself because I don’t think anyone can eat healthily all year round. It’s better to have a diet – I don’t even like that word – a nutrition plan you can maintain all year.
MO: Nutrition is also an important part of training, so what do you usually have for breakfast/lunch/after training? Do you do anything differently in-competition?
MW: It’s quite normal, nothing too crazy but obviously a lot of fruit, veg, meat, fish, making sure I get enough carbs in for energy levels and recovery.
I think around that time, I love food so it’s got to taste good, but around competition time it’s about keeping it similar to what I have done in the build-up because obviously [in competition] it’s not the time to change anything.
Consistency is key but food is definitely all about energy levels and recovery – every 1% makes a huge difference and food is a huge part of helping me feel my best on competition day.
MO: Ok, so what’s your favourite meal? No restrictions…
MW: I’m in a phase where I’m treating myself at the moment. I like pizza, it’s not a healthy one but I’ve recently written a fitness and recipe book where I have put stuff like that – what I generally eat – and a healthier pizza in there, stuff like that.
It’s important to treat yourself, so yeah, I’m a big fan of pizza at the moment. As for specific toppings? I like a double pepperoni with mushrooms.
MO: Do you have any pre-competition routines or superstitions?
MW: I do. Not any specific ones per say, but my whole life I’ve had a routine in terms of my gymnastic career and for sportspeople in general it helps massively out of training.
Everything I do in training and competition, I try and make it the same or as similar as possible, which comes down to everything I do in daily life. That helps me be more confident when I go out to compete because in my head, I know that I’ve done everything I could – checked everything off – the same thing I’m doing at home. That helps so much.
Sporting advice, the good and bad about gymnastics
The exercise I hate the most is…
I’m not – this might come as a surprise – a big fan of chin-ups. I struggle with them, it’s one exercise that doesn’t seem to suit me at all. Obviously, you still have to work and train that over time but I find it very difficult.
Most beneficial and frustrating thing about your sport?
Beneficial, I’m very lucky to be a gymnast. Gymnastics is one of the world’s best sports and when I started, it wasn’t one you could make a career out of. I am very lucky to be doing this as my career now – you get huge benefits with everything, staying healthy and keeping fit which you don’t have to think about too much but comes as a massive bonus of training hard to achieve goals. Staying healthy, keeping fit and active is a huge benefit.
Most frustrating, is that it’s a very tough sport. Learning a skill can take months, if sometimes not years. I’ve spent a long time over the years learning some new stuff, make improvements and upgrades but sometimes it hasn’t happened. You try for years but can’t crack that skill, which is frustrating, but comes with the sport and how tough it is. Once you achieve something through that, it makes it all the more rewarding.
MO: What’s the best advice you could give to a budding sportsman or woman?
MW: Setting goals is massively important but in my recent book, I spoke about the 80/20 rule: 80% be good, 20% treat yourself. If you apply that to everyday life, not too intense, being chilled with what you’re doing – I see a lot of massively intense athletes, they spend 100% of their time focusing on their sport and it’s important to have a balance.
What you do outside of sport, in terms of relaxing or whatever you like doing, if you make time for that, will help you inside the sport so that’s really important.
Memorable experiences, motivation and planning for the future
Sport never got any better than….
It has to be standing on the podium at an Olympic Games with a gold medal around your neck [Rio 2016]. Reaching the pinnacle of your career is incredible and I didn’t even dream of going to an Olympics until I was 17 and I think that moment is very rare.
It’s something I never thought I could achieve, I always believed I would do my best but am very proud of the results – completely outdone any expectations that I had of myself, it feels surreal and stands out by an absolute mile.
MO: Is glandular fever the worst pain you’ve ever felt?
Context: He changed his training hours from 36 to 20-25, having reduced them a little bit before Rio – onset by contracting glandular fever in 2015.
MW: Yeah! That taught me to start training a bit smarter, be more efficient in the gym. After Rio, I made a stronger plan in terms of what hours I do and how much I do, what’s right for me while having enough time for recovery. I’ve practiced a lot on those hours and have experience, having done it for three, nearly four years now.
I was lucky that it was low-grade glandular fever, but it still absolutely took it out of me. Some days, I would wake up and weigh a tonne and be absolutely exhausted from the minute I woke up. Go in the gym, preparing in my head for a full day in the gym and I’d come home after 20 minutes because I couldn’t do anything. That was quite difficult but a blessing in disguise in terms of what it taught me in sport.
Experience I learned most from
I think there have been a lot of times in my career where I have had good competitions but not learned so much. The ones where I’ve made big mistakes – especially in 2014 – sticks out in my mind.
The World Championships that year, I completely mucked up, fell over and didn’t make any finals or anything but managed to get an opportunity to go to the all-round final. I ended up with a silver medal just behind one of my gymnastics idols [Japan’s Kohei Uchimura] and that was my best result to date back then.
It taught me a lot in terms of experiencing failure, turning it around, changing your mindset and gearing up for another opportunity to still make it a success. I think that taught me a lot in terms of looking at my whole career, trying to keep relaxed even if mistakes do happen because they always will happen to everybody. Learning from them and moving forward is absolutely key.
MO: How do you think that doctor – when you were 14 and said you should quit – would feel if he saw you now?
MW: Yeah, I think he’d be pretty proud and happy that I stayed in it, was determined and kept going. The key part of that was setting targets, I always say it to people but it’s absolutely vital in terms of trying to achieve anything so from that time on, it was a point in my career where I felt like I really wasn’t good enough as a gymnast.
I was watching around, comparing myself and that’s where I learned that is the opposite of what I should be doing: I need to focus on myself, be the best I can be and not worry about others. That was a huge turning point in my career and I can thank myself for carrying on.
MO: You want a pommel horse move named after you – the Whitlock – so how’s it coming along?
MW: Very, very slowly – I feel sorry for everyone who keeps asking me! It’s still not done, I think it’s definitely still a mission of mine: a move named after me, a crazy cool feeling in 20-30 years, kids trying the Whitlock on the pommel horse but it will take a very long time. It takes years sometimes to master a skill and this is definitely one of those. If I do achieve it, it will be the hardest skill ever done [on the pommel horse] and take a long time to get to that stage, but 100% one day, I’m determined to achieve that.
MO: You and your wife Leah plan to engage one million children in gym activities by 2022, so how are you going to achieve that?
MW: Yeah, that was a pledge that we made. We started our business – Max Whitlock Gymnastics – in 2018 and wanted to make gymnastics more accessible. The gym club I train at, there is a two-and-a-half year waiting list with thousands of kids who cannot get into the sport.
It’s a big shame because that’s the future of our sport, there’s over a million kids on waiting lists around the country and even if 20 were mega talents, that is 20 we’re missing out on.
It’s important to get them in, our mission is to make it more accessible, and have done a licence deal with Everyone Active Leisure Centre to push it out even further, so are trying to find opportunities where we can to get gymnasts through the door and get them loving the sport.
Thanks to Nick Greenslade and Rosie Margesson for setting this up, as well as Max for his intriguing answers! If you enjoyed the piece, stay tuned for more from me in due course!