Judo star Nekoda Smythe-Davis is using her time away from the mat to reflect and have honest conversations as she plots her path towards the Tokyo Olympics next summer. Walsall-based Nekoda is waiting for the green light to signal the return of her sport, with judo still weeks away from resuming given the physical and close-quarter nature of competition.
And it’s been a bumpy ride for the 27-year-old during lockdown, who has been seeking to diligently juggle her fitness regime alongside helping others and enhancing her own mental fortitude. Nekoda, who succumbed to a second round defeat in the -57kg division at the Olympic Games in Rio, says the lay-off has presented the perfect opportunity to come back stronger.
“I’ve been calling the last few months a corona-coaster,” said Nekoda - who was supported by SportsAid between 2010 and 2013. “The motivation was definitely there to train at the start, but with the Olympics being postponed, things did shift and it became harder to stay motivated.
“We’ve got no goal in sight so it has been hard but I’ve been trying to use the time for reflection on how I’m going to change things when sport comes back. It’s 100 per cent been about bettering myself mentally, as well as physically – it’s about reflecting on my experiences in Rio, and past disappointments, and it’s so important to be mentally aware and preserve mental health.
“It’s been quite a spiritual experience for me and I’ve been focusing on the relationships around me - it’s been a reflection on how I felt Rio went and what things I want in place for this Games to make sure I’m in the best place mentally. I hope I can come back an improved version of myself - it’s been a time of having a real conversation with myself, so I’ve started to hold myself accountable more.
“Eighty per cent of judo is mental, so I’ve been using this period to tighten up on my mental game and make sure I’m strong and ready for the Games, whatever challenge gets thrown in my way. Some people underestimate athletes in that they’re born with some innate mental toughness, but that isn’t the case - it’s important that you reflect and work on your mental resilience.”
Nekoda has enjoyed considerable success on the mat despite her Brazilian dreams being dashed, scooping gold on home soil at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games before winning bronze in the 2017 World Championships in Budapest.
Silver at the 2018 renewal of the competition soon followed but the judo ace hit a stumbling block in Tokyo last year, crashing out during the World Championship pool stages after losing to South Korea’s Kim Ji-su. Nekoda knows there’s more to life than sport currently, however, and has used the coronavirus lay-off to help educate others in both the judo world and beyond.
The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement has brought with it a shift in mentality, and Nekoda is acutely aware of her responsibility as a black athlete in the public eye. As discussions in Britain continue to unfold, the thoughtful Nekoda has been reflecting on her experiences and having some conversations of her own to help make a difference.
“I think athletes using their platform to promote a point of view is very important,” she added. “I applaud all the athletes who have been supporting the movement and helping to educate people and get behind it. I’ve personally felt I can make a greater impact by having those conversations with my immediate friendship groups and family, so I’ve been having tough conversations by getting down to what’s going on in society and the challenges that we’re facing.
“It’s important to do what you think is right for you, and it’s about having those hard conversations with friends who have different opinions, and getting to a place where we can understand each other and understand what this movement’s about. I’m going to have the biggest impact in the judo community, and education and conversations are 100 per cent the best way to combat this.
“I don’t like to do it, but I have had to draw on personal experience to educate and help people understand as sometimes you don’t understand unless you’ve actually walked in those shoes. Travelling in an all-white judo team has proved its challenges, and there have been times when it’s been hostile in places like Russia. I've been through situations white people won't have been through, but once we start to have those conversations and people start understanding each other, that new message will be able to spread.”
Nekoda’s pensive persona will no doubt serve her well when Tokyo comes calling, as she bids to use her previous experiences of heartbreak to propel her to glory. That end goal is still a long way away, however, with Nekoda and her fellow judokas still waiting on a concrete timetable for the sport’s resumption.
It’s a combination of pilates, cycling and core exercises for the Great Britain star at the moment, as a return to the mat remains uncertain in a world continuing to confront the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when that time comes and the countdown to Tokyo intensifies, Nekoda says she’ll be raring to go.
“I’ve started religiously doing pilates every day, and have found that really helps my mobility and my core strength,” she said. “That’s really important as there are lots of muscles groups I can’t work properly when I’m at home, so online classes have been a real perk for me, while I’ve also had a bike delivered.
“My experience of Rio in 2016 will 100 per cent help me in Tokyo – now I know what it takes to go out there and really believe that you can win. Getting there is hard but once you’re there it’s about giving yourself the best chance possible of winning a medal, so that’s the goal. I want to become completely invincible by the time the Games come around, and have done everything possible in my power to make sure I can win on the day.”
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