‘You have these pivotal moments throughout your life, even if you try to forget them, you can’t. It’s just there, it’s in you.’ Lee McDermott – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 84
Lee McDermott, Olympian 1996 and a two-time Commonwealth Champion outlines how he experienced a severe injury and the long journey back from the injury, why he believes stubbornness has contributed to his sporting successes, and how he compartmentalizes things to find solutions.
Lee shares how he got into coaching, his work as a Head Coach for Cirque Du Soleil, and how he helped to restructure it.
Furthermore, we discuss
- His darkest moment
- His best moment
- His advice to a younger Lee McDermott
- His success habits
- How he restructured the sports Science department at Cirque Du Soleil
- The differences between professional gymnastics and the performing arts, like Cirque Du Soleil
- His morning routine
- How to prepare for important moments
- How to overcome setbacks
- His role model
- The best advice he has received
- How does a typical training day in the life of an Olympic Gymnast look like
- How he structures his training sessions
- His interview nomination
- What’s going on in the life of Lee McDermott at this moment in time
- Where can you find Lee McDermott
Christian: Today I’m joined by Lee McDermott. Lee competed at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics representing England in gymnastics. is a 1996 Olympian. He is also a two-times Commonwealth Champion.
Lee: Hi, how you doing, Christian?
Christian: I’m good. You are an English man from Down Under. What took you to Down Under? Is it the weather?
Lee: Yes, the weather is a little bit better down this side of the world. I moved to New Zealand in 2000 after I finished my gymnastics career. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do or anything. I just moved to New Zealand and then within about 18 months, I ended up as National Coach for gymnastics. So Southern hemisphere has been my life mostly.
Christian: Okay, cool.
His darkest moment
Christian: In your life as an athlete, what was your darkest moment?
Lee: My darkest moment was probably snapping my ACL. That was after the Olympics in 1996. I was on a very good trajectory and then I snapped my ACL, and I needed to do a lot of rehabilitation to come back.
I came back to full fitness and just kept tweaking and tweaking my knee again. I really got to the point in 1999 where I decided that it was just too much and my body couldn’t take it anymore.
Christian: Is that when you decided to retire?
Lee: Yes, that was in December 1999 when it was the moment of realization that my mind wanted to keep going, but my body just couldn’t do it anymore.
I was on a very good trajectory and then I snapped my ACL, at some point I decided that it was just too much and my body couldn’t take it anymore. My mind wanted to keep going, but my body just couldn’t do it anymore.
Christian: Is that also what brought you into what you’re doing now? The kind of physical preparation, strength & conditioning work?
Lee: That’s a really good question. I never really related the two, but to be honest, the experiences that I’ve had through my gym career and having to rehab and having to do that quite a lot, I guess it has a big relation, yes.
Christian: We will speak about that later, but from what I’m seeing, the videos you’re sharing of the work you’re currently doing, I think a lot of these activities that you are doing, they are preventative of ACL injuries.
Lee: Absolutely. It’s preventative, not just in a one dimensional way, but really with spatial awareness movement patterns, and that’s from the AC joint in the shoulders and the ACLs in the knee.
Christian: If we get back to that dark moment, how did you recover from it? You had to let go of your dreams of becoming a double Olympian.
Lee: Yes, there was a good chance that I could have been a double Olympian in 2000, and that would have been great to have done the Centennial Olympics and then the 2000 Olympics. That would have been just absolutely awesome.
After the injury in 1997, I knew that it was always going to be a struggle. But to be honest, I’m very stubborn and no one was going to tell me that I was finished. I had to make that decision myself.
I’m very stubborn and no one was going to tell me that I was finished. I had to make that decision myself.
There were a few people that did tell me that I was finished, but I still went to Commonwealth Games in 1998 and was still able to compete and still be successful. So I guess I just wanted to keep that dream alive for a little bit longer.
His best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Lee: I’ve had a few. The 1996 Olympics was an absolutely awesome experience and when they talk about athletes being in the zone, I actually have very little recollection of competing because my body was completely on autopilot. But I just remember finishing and feeling amazing.
But probably my best moment was winning Commonwealth Games gold in 1994 on rings and almost being the underdog. Having your National Anthem played and standing up there is just an amazing feeling.
Christian: What did you learn from that moment?
Lee: I was a very quiet person and I actually missed some of the interviews after the competition. I was worried about standing in front of people and talking because my sport is my sport, but having to be in front of the cameras and things were something completely different.
I try and teach my kids this, that you don’t have to be big-headed or anything like that, but you need to be able to put yourself out there and acknowledge your successes as well and be proud of your successes. So I try to instill that into my kids as well to acknowledge the not so good stuff and also the good stuff that happens in life as well.
You need to be able to put yourself out there and acknowledge your successes as well and be proud of your successes.
Christian: Really cool. And you mentioned that the Olympics, you were in the zone and an auto-pilot. Why do you think that was?
Lee: I think I had the best preparation possible. And when you know that you’ve prepared well your body goes into autopilot and if you haven’t and you have more chance of failing. When you’ve prepared well, I believe that you’ve given yourself the best chance possible. So I feel that my body almost took over.
All I can remember was lining up, walking into the arena, and having the basketball Dream Team on my left-hand side, going into one arena and the gymnasts on the other side, going into the other arena. So it’s the tallest and the shortest and then finishing, and then I don’t remember much in the middle.
Christian: I was asking because that answer actually comes back quite often that if people experience what you just outlined, they relate it to prepare and that they are fully prepared for the moment and then it just happens almost automatically.
Lee: Yes, absolutely. I agree.
His advice to a younger Lee McDermott
Christian: If you could travel back in time, 10, 15, 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Lee?
Lee: A younger Lee? That’s a tough question. But I would say to prepare for when your sport finishes. Be better prepared for when your sport finishes. From the age of 10, wanting to go to the Olympics was all I ever wanted to do.
I never knew what that meant or what it took to get there. All I knew that that’s just something that I had to do. And I didn’t know whether that was going to be as an 18 or 20-year-old or a 40-year-old. I had no idea. I competed at 22 and obviously I didn’t look too far beyond that at that time.
To prepare for when your sport finishes. To go to the Olympics was all I ever wanted to do. I didn’t look too far beyond that at that time.
Nowadays, there’s better preparation for athletes when they’re finishing this sport and there are better support mechanisms around, also with mental health after finishing. Our coaches did ask us to do those things, but I guess I was very narrow-minded at the time.
Christian: You participated in seven events at the Olympics, which not a lot of athletes do. So that means you are a true all-rounder. Do you think if you would have doubled down on fewer disciplines, you would have been more successful?
Lee: It wasn’t an option in those days. Nowadays the sport has changed where you can specialize a little bit more on a particular event. But in the nineties, it was very much, you had to be an all-rounder and you had to be pretty much an all-rounder to qualify for the Olympics.
So, really it wasn’t much of an option in those days; now you can specialize. When I got to post Olympics and we started to do Grand Prix competitions, we could specialize in each apparatus. But it’s a different format.
His success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful personal athlete?
Lee: In what way, Christian, because I see a lot of it as mental toughness and mental resilience. As well as some stubbornness and work ethic in my particular case.
But as far as habits, I tried to make sure that everything that I did had a purpose. So it wasn’t just training for the sake of training. It was as if I was training to make sure that your percentages were a particular level, or if you’re coming back from injury, make sure that every go counts so that you’re maximizing your training each time.
I tried to make sure that everything that I did had a purpose. So it wasn’t just training for the sake of training.
And then it’s okay to finish training early if you’ve reached what your goals are for the day. Other than habits of going to the competition and I put my headphones on and listen to certain music, that would have been my rituals.
Christian: And the mental toughness part, how did you develop that, or is it something that came naturally?
Lee: Honestly, I don’t really know, it has always been natural inside me. I lived in a kind of rough part of London as well, so there was a lot of bullying going on or bullying at school. It was a rough part of London. That’s all I can say, and you needed to be strong.
I lived in a kind of rough part of London as well, there was a lot of bullying going on, and you needed to be strong.
Christian: Which side was it?
Lee: It was Southeast London, in Peckham, in London.
Christian: South East. I think I used to live there myself a little bit further down. I used to work for the LTA, so I lived outside London, Southeast, so I lived in the Orpington area.
Lee: Yes, that’s a nicer part of town.
Christian: Okay, cool.
How he restructured the sports Science department at Cirque Du Soleil
Christian: After your career, you have done some really interesting projects. You were working with Cirque du Solei, and so I read that you restructured the department. How did you do that?
Lee: I was looking at gaps and looking at where we can improve. When I’d gone to Las Vegas, we’d looked at how we incorporate the rehab with the training components.
When you’re coming back from injury and you’re stuck in a physio room rehabbing, you’re not really integrating so strong with the athletes or what’s happening around you. So really try to work with the physio teams to have a little bit more of a holistic approach to doing that.
I was looking at gaps and looking at where we can improve.
Maybe we did some of their rehab in the theater whilst we were performing so that then they can talk with their teammates. If there were changes happening, they were there on-site, looking at how things were progressing. And especially if you’re on a long term injury, things change quite quickly and you need to be up to speed.
Then that way the rehab will be a little bit faster. And I believe the mental approach to coming back improved because they really felt fully engaged and wanted to get back quickly.
Christian: Yes. So kind of return to play, is it called nowadays; returned to play strategies?
Lee: Yes. So it was me the physio team really working together and collaboratively.
The differences between professional gymnastics and the performing arts, like Cirque Du Soleil
Christian: Considering you have been a gymnast yourself, and the artists at Cirque du Solei, in a way they are also performers. What do you think are the similarities and what are the differences between professional gymnastics and the performing arts?
Lee: When you’re preparing like an athlete, you’re preparing from a young age, whatever that is when you start through your career. When you get to Cirque du Solei, you’ve pretty much done most of your career.
You’ve already got a lot of the physical patterns and physical attributes to be a high performing athlete. You have a lot of work ethic and understanding of what it takes to be successful. When you go into Cirque du Solei, you go there as an accomplished sportsman, in your field.
And there, it’s a matter of tweaking, and nurturing and creating and using your attributes to the advantage of the show. This really highlights anything that you can bring to the table so that the performance on a daily basis is out of this world.
And so I see it like that in the athlete way, you’re doing all the preparation part. However, in the Cirque du Solei, you’re nurturing all the parts and the components that you’ve mastered throughout your career, and then highlighting those.
- Check out the interview ‘Your thinking creates your feelings, your feelings create your actions and your actions create your results.’ with 2002 Olympic champion Jamie Salé, who outlines the similarities and differences between Olympic figure skaters and professional figure skaters, in a very similar way.
Christian: What’s the structure like someone as Cirque du Solei? How often a week do they perform or what is it like?
Lee: On tour, if they’re traveling around, it’s around 365 shows per year and in Las Vegas, it’s 476 shows per year. So you’re in it for the long haul.
There’s a lot of performances that you have to perform throughout the year and as a coach, your job is to always balance the workload. So it’s just like any other strength and conditioning coach or coaching a sport that your job is to make sure that you’re balancing workloads.
You’re looking at the athlete’s well-being and at the whole package. Thereafter, you do base training accordingly for what’s needed and that’s essentially what you’re taking your strengths as a coach into the same field.
It’s around 365 shows per year and in Las Vegas, it’s 476 shows per year.
Christian: I would think with such a high frequency, it’s the main challenge is keeping the body together, right?
Lee: It’s the long haul, so it’s the mental approach to it. It’s the physical approach. It’s a lifestyle, it’s everything around the performing and making sure that on a daily basis, we have the best show possible.
His morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
Lee: At the moment, it’s driving the kids around and getting the school run done before I go to work. Or if I have morning training, I’ll do morning training, school run, and then go back to work.
At Cirque du Solei, I wouldn’t start till 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon and finish at 11:00 to 11:30 at night. It’s the same amount of hours, it’s just a different shift of the day. So, yes, it does vary at the moment with the kids and family.
Christian: And as an athlete?
Lee: As an athlete, when I was at my National Sports Center, we trained three times a day, mostly. Half-day on a Thursday and a Sunday off.
It would literally be, wake up, go to the gym, go have to breakfast, have a little sleep, and go back to the gym. Then you would have lunch, have a little sleep and go back and train again, and then have dinner in the evening.
It would literally be, wake up, go to the gym, go have to breakfast, have a little sleep and go back to the gym, lunch, have a little sleep, go back and train again, and then have dinner in the evening.
And then if you studied or anything, you’d probably do something towards the evening. So I guess it was at the time, a bit institutionalized and robotic. And then we had to find ways to keep that engagement going.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?
Lee: What kind of important moments? Could you give me an example?
Christian: For the Olympics, for example, as an athlete, when you step into the arena, how did you prepare for that?
Lee: Going into Olympics for me the last week or two beforehand, it didn’t really matter what I did in the gym because the weeks and months prior to that was actually the work and knowing that I’d done the work prior. For me, that was how it worked.
Other athletes, I know, love to work right up to the given day making sure that they’re right in their particular way. So routine wise, I tended to back off just a little bit. And for me, it was more about feeling good and feeling that I can be successful but knowing I’ve done the work.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Lee: That’s a really good question. It depends on the magnitude of the setback. So with my ACL, I knew, that that’s a good 10 or 12 months’ rehab. At the time you have to go, this is what it is.
I’m quite good at compartmentalizing in my brain, putting components in separate boxes, and trying to deal with each part individually. I get overwhelmed if I have to think of everything in its whole entirety. So I have to put things into boxes.
I’m quite good at compartmentalizing in my brain, I get overwhelmed if I have to think of everything in its whole entirety. So I have to put things into boxes.
Christian: Yes. There’s this video on YouTube. It’s the difference between how a man’s brain works and a woman’s brain. He talks about the men who have different boxes in their brains. I don’t remember it all. Something like that.
Lee: Yes. And it’s very simple in my brain or I try and keep things very simple if I’m competing or training, it was in one box. If life was in another box and I tried to really separate it else, it became too much and overwhelming.
Just for the entertainment check out ‘Men’s Brains and Women’s Brains with Mark Gungor’
His role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Lee: At the time it was Neil Thomas, who was the first or one of the very first medalists, at World Championships for Great Britain. And I really saw a shift change in believing you can do or you can achieve.
When I used to spend time with him and a few other athletes, knowing that they were on the brink of making those medals or then just making those medals, that really inspired me.
The best advice he has received
Christian: What’s the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Lee: The best advice was probably one of my very first coach, Simon Moore, and he literally just kept telling me that if you think you can do something, then we’ll make it happen.
My very first coach literally just kept telling me that if you think you can do something, then we’ll make it happen.
And I’ve been very much the type of person that if you’ve got the right mindset to something, for the most part, you’ll probably be able to achieve it. It was one of my very first coaches when I was 12 years old.
Christian: Interesting. So just before puberty.
Christian: I’m asking because it seems like a lot of athletes actually have these so-called moments of ignition right before puberty, and then that carries through to them wanting to be successful and ultimately becoming successful.
Lee: Yes, and I think you have these moments throughout your life and you’ll have these pivotal points that are key points where even if you try to forget it, you can’t. It’s there. It’s in you.
You have these moments throughout your life and you’ll have these pivotal points that are key points where even if you try to forget it, you can’t. It’s there. It’s in you.
How does a typical training day in the life of an Olympic Gymnast look like
Christian: Back in the days, a typical training day, you outlined already three sessions a day. How were the sessions structured differently over the course of the day?
Lee: Most of the time we would do strength training and conditioning training in the morning. Then because we have six apparatus, we will do three apparatus in the middle session and three apparatus in the afternoon session.
Depending on when you’re getting towards competition, things might change because you have your macro and micro phases and things of getting ready for competition. That was a standard type of day.
How he structures his training sessions
Christian: You’ve shared some training impressions of what you’re currently doing, everyone should go and look at that. I think they are on LinkedIn at times. How did you structure these sessions? What would these elements you’re looking at that you put into one session?
Lee: Definitely a warm-up component at the beginning; a very active warm-up. Then, obviously depending on the group, the most important part is to know your athletes first. So what are the strengths and weaknesses working with the team that you’re working with?
The whole goal of everything was to try to reduce injuries and try to work on spatial awareness. I started with a very beginner gymnastic style routine doing forward rolls, rolls over the left side, the right side of the body, and falling backward. Then I look at the competencies of each athlete and then make sure that the next training is adaptive.
I’m very much one that you have to look at the athletes and be an adaptive coach rather than just purely a systematic coach. I have always an idea of what I would like to achieve. But you need to know the material you’re working with.
I’m very much an adaptive coach rather than just purely a systematic coach. I have always an idea of what I would like to achieve. But you need to know the material you’re working with.
We will go from the basics of gymnastics, rolling forwards, backward, sideways, and then progressing towards working with height, then working with length, and then work with height, length and rotation. Then you’re increasing the knowledge of the athlete from the beginning through that journey.
His interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Lee: There’s a guy that I’ve learned a lot from, and that was a guy called Ben Darwin who was a rugby player for Australia. I met him when I went to Japan. We got talking and we ended up good friends.
So when I came to Australia, I lived with him for six months. He set up his own business about cohesion in sport and in business and how successful you can be as an athlete or as a team based on the relationships with you and your coach, you and your sponsor, or you and your partners on the field.
He’s a very interesting guy and very knowledgeable about how important it is to have that cohesion and stability within a structure. So, that would be my person who I have learned a lot from.
Christian: Yes, it definitely sounds interesting.
What’s going on in the life of Lee McDermott at this moment in time
Christian: What’s going on in your life at this moment in time?
Lee: I’m the General Manager at South Port Gymnastics Club up on the Gold Coast in Australia, I’m doing that on a daily basis and then I’m working with the Gold Coast Suns once to twice a week on the falling, rolling, protection stuff.
I’ll be working with Palm Beach School for their AFL Academy and working on the same concepts so that by the time they can, hopefully, go through the talent pathway, they’ve already got the knowledge and physical knowledge and mental knowledge of what I’ve been doing.
And the school has really embraced me coming on board, especially when they are the pathway and feeders through to the Gold Coast Suns AFL part, so I’m working with them. I’ve connected with a guy called Ben Collins, who’s an ex-England Rugby Sevens player, and who’s working a lot in mental health space for kids but also athletes. And I’m just talking with him at the moment. I’d love to do some work with him as well.
Christian: And the work you’re doing, I saw the video clips on LinkedIn. Are there any other platforms where you can see your work?
Lee: Mostly, it’s been on LinkedIn, just because I’ve kept it on that professional level of business. I have to say that I’ve not been the greatest at putting stuff on Instagram or anything. And I rely heavily on my wife to help me with that particular part, which is something that I need to improve on.
Christian: No, we’re not digital natives, aren’t we?
Christian: Yes, I see that myself. My son and my daughter, it comes so naturally to them. For me, it’s still a work in progress.
Lee: Yes, my wife and daughter are the same.
Where can you find Lee McDermott
Christian: Where can people find you?
Lee: Just type in my name, Lee McDermott Olympian on LinkedIn, and you should be able to have a look at the videos and things that I’ve been putting up there. And you’re more than welcome to direct message me if you’ve got any questions.
Lee McDermott’s social profiles
Christian: Awesome. Lee, thanks for your time.
Lee: Thanks very much, Christian.