Nicola Adams: “Now I get my adrenaline rush from acting – and I don’t have anyone hitting me in the face”
Most of us have experienced work pressure at some point or another, but it’s unlikely to have come close to that experienced by the home athletes at London 2012, who carried the weight of the nation’s expectations on their shoulders.
For Nicola Adams, the pressure was doubly intense: not only had she been earmarked as one of the GB’s likeliest gold medal winners but she was also fighting for the reputation of women’s boxing in its first year as an official Olympic sport.
For Adams, though, this kind of pressure was nothing new. “I’ve always had that pressure with being a female boxer, trying to pave the way for others. The only way we could further women’s boxing was by winning medals and it was always down to me to produce the goods, I guess.”
But while the competitive aspect of the sport may have been freighted with expectation, the sport itself was a great way to de-stress. “Punching bags has always been good for me. And I also loved having the team behind me as well. The laughs, the banter; it was always a good way to just switch off from the pressure side of things.”
And she had techniques to help her keep focused and manage the stress. “I knew that if I won a gold medal, I would make history. And it was a home Games so there was a lot of pressure and a lot to think about. For me, meditation works really well. Just being able to get myself in a good mental headspace and not think too much about the pressure of having women’s boxing on my shoulders.”
And then, as is the case with all elite athletes, she had to navigate the potentially fraught process of retiring, which brings its own new set of challenges.
“It was really strange not having to wake up and train three times a day and going to the fridge not having to stop myself from eating what I wanted to eat – it took me a while to get over the hesitation of going for a cupcake. I think it was those sorts of things that I struggled with, and the change of pace. But it was good that I already had things I wanted to achieve once I stopped boxing. I think when you retire as an elite athlete and you don’t have anything to look forward to you could feel very lost.”
She’s lucky too that she has a ready replacement for the adrenaline of being in the ring. “I used to love the energy of the crowds but now I get that adrenaline rush from my acting and performing, only I don’t have anybody hitting me in the face. So that’s awesome.”
And like anybody else, away from the ring, she has all the stresses and strains of life to deal with: parenthood to navigate, the need to provide for her family. Unsurprisingly, physical fitness remains a key part of safeguarding her mental health.
“I still work out once a day. It just makes me feel good. I couldn’t imagine getting up in the morning and not working out. I’ll be in the gym, lifting or cycling, and it’s like I have a blank space in my mind, and I can make a whole schedule for the day while I’m working out.”
But it’s not just about pumping iron: balance is key. “I always do meditation before I go to sleep to clear my mind.” And she alternates days, lifting on some days and doing yoga on the others.
“I think it’s important to balance the two: it’s important that my body gets a workout, but it’s also important to keep mentally healthy as well by finding ways that keep your mind at ease, because it can be very easy to become stressed and find yourself feeling overwhelmed.”
But don’t imagine that tuning out and creating mental space necessarily involves high-minded breathing practices. What did she do on the night before the 2012 gold medal bout? “I played on the PlayStation, and then did some meditation before I went to sleep. For me gaming is a good way to just switch off and not think about anything.”
Find out more about the Sweat and Tears campaign and how it aims to promote better physical and mental well-being across the nation, through exercise and hydration.