Diving Olympic champ Jack Laugher: Coping with an obsession for perfection
In a sport so heavily dominated by the brilliance of China, the Brit has not only managed to equal to his Asian counterparts in competition, but often sets the standard.
At the Rio 2016 Olympics, China won a whopping seven out of the eight gold medals on offer. The only blemish on their record came as Laugher and Chris Mears plunged to victory in the synchronised 3m springboard event.
Laugher also took home a silver medal in the individual event to underline his status as a world-leading springboard diver.
So how has the Harrogate-born man done it?
“I don’t want to give all my secrets away!” the 25-year-old told Olympic Channel via video call with a smile.
“I’m confident in the techniques I use when diving and training - I think I do things a little differently which may help explain why I’ve had some success in the sport.
“I also believe that in Great Britain we have the best coaches in the world, and a network of support staff including physios and psychologists, which also plays a huge part in being able to challenge for medals.
"I’m really good friends with the Chinese athletes, but I’m always really pleased for non-Chinese athletes when they manage to win a title, as I know how hard that is to do. It makes the sport more competitive."
The best of British diving
The current British diving team is arguably the strongest the island nation has ever produced.
Another star member among the ranks is Tom Daley, and Laugher’s long-standing relationship with his fellow Olympic medallist is testament to the consistency of their team selection.
“Tom, Grace [Reid] and I have been diving together for over a decade now, and to have been there for all of each other's careers is quite special,” said the five-time Commonwealth Games champion.
“In 2012, Tom and I actually won the 3m synchro junior world title in Australia which was unexpected.
“It was pretty funny actually because I really looked up to Tom as he had already won an Olympic medal. But while he was so calm and composed off the daunting 10m platform, he was new to springboard diving and I needed to coach him through it.
Having such established and settled divers in the team not only helped Britain enjoy a successful period in the water, but also served to provide the athletes with a support network as they gained more media attention.
“Both Tom and I have dealt with some horrible media backlash at points when we’ve competed,” he said.
“It was good to be able to speak to someone else that’s experienced the same negativity, and to see how they deal with it.
“Now I delete all social media accounts from my phone when I go to an Olympics or world championships, as someone could take 10 seconds to write one thing, that will ruin my whole day."
“So I ensure the only ones that can give feedback on my performance to me are the people that matter."
"The mental aspect is big"
Diving is one of the most technical sports at the Olympics, where competitions are won and lost by the smallest of margins.
With such high stakes over six dives, athletes rely heavily on routines to ensure that they are both mentally and physically prepared to give their best performance.
“The mental aspect is big,” Laugher continued. “There’s loads of mindfulness and visualisation involved and I have a routine that I go through before each dive. Controlling your breathing, and keeping focussed is the most important thing.
“Getting too excited after a good jump can be just as detrimental as being down and distracted after a bad jump. The last jump is in the past, and the key in diving is to focus on the next jump."
“I practise mindfulness before bed, and also work with a superb sports psychologist who gives us tips and exercises to try. The psychologist is also great just to have someone there to talk to after competing, and ensuring that we aren’t left stewing on a feeling."
Team GB's Laugher and Mears win diving gold
Team GB's Laugher and Mears win diving goldJack Laugher and Chris Mears win gold for Great Britain in the men's synchronised 3m springboard at Rio 2016.
Heartbreak in Gwangju
The psychologist was to perform a vital role for Laugher at the 2019 world championships in Korea, where not everything went to plan.
After some exquisite diving, the Leeds Diving Club man was enjoying a significant lead in the individual 3m springboard final, and was also in contention for a world record.
A decent final dive would have been good enough to clinch his first world title. But a major error left Britain’s top prospect agonisingly in bronze position.
Chinese defending world champion Xie Siyi and his compatriot Olympic champion Cao Yuan, clinched the gold and silver respectively.
“The backward three-and-a-half somersault tuck can score me 90 to 100 points... It's usually one of my strongest dives and that's why I always finish on it,” he explained.
“It was a huge disappointment and I was in tears and very upset for some time after. I had an ankle injury heading into Gwangju and when it suddenly disappeared before the event maybe I got over confident, I don’t know. I was had a long talk with my coaches and our psychologist.
“The same thing actually happened in the semi-final where I was leading until the last jump - which was fine as I just wanted to make the final."
That heartbreak was to linger for some time, given Laugher’s meticulous dedication to his craft and obsession with perfection.
But in the aftermath, he has realised that the episode was something to learn from, and that he must turn it into a part of his story towards future success.
“Since then I have gone away, changed the order of my dives and now finish on a different jump to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“I’d much much rather that it happened this year rather than in Tokyo at the Olympics.
“I believe it’s because I’ve made so many mistakes that I’ve been able to achieve the successes. In hindsight, a bronze medal at a world championships is a huge achievement, and something that Britain should be very proud of in diving."
The importance of chemistry
A new routine and a bronze medal weren’t the only positive things Laugher left Korea with, after teaming up with Dan Goodfellow to secure a shock silver medal in the synchronised 3m springboard.
The second-place finish was unexpected for two reasons. Firstly, the duo were only in their first season of diving together, following Mears’ decision to retire in 2018.
Secondly, Goodfellow had made the transition from 10m platform diving [where he partnered Daley to bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympics] down to 3m springboard, which takes a huge change in skill-set and body composition.
“He was about six kilos lighter than me, so we had to work hard on our timing. We’d had a difficult time finding our rhythm as a team that season in all honesty,” Laugher admitted.
“Preceding Gwangju, we did start to put some really nice dives together, so while it was a surprise to win the silver, I wasn’t shocked that we put in a very good performance.
“Chemistry is very important in a diving team, and fortunately I already knew Dan really well, so that definitely helped. While it was disappointing not to compete in the Olympics this year, it will certainly work to our advantage that we will get another year of experience diving as a pair.”
Great Britain's gamers
While Goodfellow and Laugher continue to work on their partnership in the water, they are able to keep bonding in quarantine over their mutual love of video games.
“Yeah, you could say we stay in sync through gaming, which is nice as we get to spend some time together away from work,” he said.
While many athletes have struggled to keep their pent-up energy in check during the COVID-19 quarantine, Laugher is indulging in his favourite hobbies to pass the time away.
“We train, we love experimenting with cooking and I’m a huge gamer,” he said of his isolation experience with girlfriend and fellow diver Lois Toulson.
“I’ve played video games all my life and I’ve always really enjoyed them. Online, I have friends that I’ve never met, who probably know me better than some of my friends from home."
“I was top 10 in the world at Fortnight at one point, but really it’s my way of unwinding. Having said that, there are certain games where my competitiveness can come out!"
Laugher believes that the next dive is the only one that matters, and he has applied the same mantra towards competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
But while some athletes in his position would look upon the Games as an opportunity to defend their Olympic title, he sees it differently.
“Aside from the postponement, the cycle running up to Tokyo has been completely different to Rio.
“While Chris and I were established diving partners, Dan and I are still getting to know each other as a synchro team. From that perspective I don't feel like the defending champion, but rather challenging for a new title.
“The only thing I ever wanted as a boy growing up was to win an Olympic medal, and I'm just as determined now to make that happen again.”
For now, it’s back to training and gaming for Laugher and Goodfellow. But at their current rate of progression as a team, China will surely have one eye on the duo from Britain who are wired into winning gold at Tokyo 2020.