When Guillaume Emard set a new standard for Canadian men’s gymnastics with his eighth place all around at the World Championships in Kitakyushu, Japan in October, he also overcame a psychologically crippling anxiety attack that caused him to “panic. about almost everything ”and that almost kept him out of the competition to begin with.
Super star Simone Bilès called worldwide attention to the potentially catastrophic effects mental health issues could have on athletes during his events at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, and Emard treated and reconciled shortly after his own fight to become the highest ranked Canadian all-rounder in world championship history. . He then finished seventh on still rings and eighth on vault at Kitakyushu.
Emard, 21, who trains under a coach Adrien balan at Laval Excellence in Quebec, arrived in Kitakyushu with Challenge Cup medals he won the previous month in Koper, Slovenia, and Mersin, Turkey. An improbable training break during which he remained in solitude just a few weeks before the Worlds gave him the time, space and clarity necessary to recharge his batteries and refocus for Kitakyushu.
In this eye-opening interview from International Gymnast Online, Emard talks about his performance at Worlds, the mental challenges he faced along the way, and his schedule for the important competitions ahead.
I GO: As the world championships approach, what were your expectations in terms of participation in the all-around final and one or more apparatus finals?
WE: To be honest, I had no expectations for the all-around because I only knew three days before qualifying that I would be competing in all six events. My teammate was scheduled to compete in the all-around but injured his ankle. With this injury, it was impossible for him to do his routine on the ground. I therefore intervened to replace the open competition. I didn’t want to put pressure on myself with this. I knew I could do a good job on all six events, but my main goal was to perform on my strongest events – floor, vault and rings. I was hoping to make two finals on these events. Also, I was not in my best form mentally, so I tried not to put more pressure on before playing. I really didn’t need that. I would say that I managed the wait fairly well with the results that we are now experiencing.
I GO: When you saw your ranking after qualifying, how did you manage to stay focused on the tasks that awaited you in the final, and avoid feeling overwhelmed by the level you completed?
WE: After qualifying I saw my name next to the number 11. I was so happy, but I also knew that my floor routine was not my best at all, and that I fell on the horse of pommels. I was really happy with the result and I knew it could be better. In the all-around final, I started on pommel horse, my weakest event. It was a little different starting on rings like in qualifying. I managed to get through my routine on the horse, so it was already a better day than the day before. After the first rotation, I was 23rd out of 24 people! I remember saying to my coach Adrian, “Let’s start to catch up. After that, I did what I was able to do. No more no less. I just wanted to hit some solid, clean routines. I didn’t want to be perfect. The only thing I wanted to improve was my routine on the floor because I was not happy with the one I presented in qualifying. In the all-around final, it was a routine that was much more like the type of routine I usually do. I finished the competition really strong with a 14.633 and saw my name next to the number 8. It was crazy. The feeling of being in the top eight, I cannot express it in words. I was so proud after everything that happened in the last month.
I GO: Being the only versatile Canadian in Kitakyushu, how did you manage the weight of this responsibility of supporting the team?
WE: Like I said, I didn’t want any extra pressure. I knew my worth and I knew what I was capable of doing. When the team told me I was ready for the all-around, I was happy and accepted the challenge. I saw it as an opportunity and took it. I was focusing my work on my strongest events and after that I just hit the other three events. It didn’t look like a big change from qualifying. I was doing the job I was supposed to do and adding three routines to the mix.
I GO: We understand that you suffered from an anxiety attack two weeks before you left for Japan. What factors contributed to this fight, and when did you feel like it overtook you?
WE: My anxiety started with a mixture of a lot of things. After the trip to Slovenia and Turkey (for the Challenge Cup competitions in September), my biceps were hurting a lot and I was afraid of injuring my shoulder again because I had surgery on this shoulder in 2018. In addition, I had to drop out of school because of the World Cups and the World Championships which were too complicated to manage with the university. There was a bit of shame in me because I wasn’t in school and because I didn’t know what I wanted to do after my career as a gymnast. It might sound silly, but not knowing where I was going was so uncomfortable for me. I was also going through a breakup after a relationship of almost five years. There were a lot of things in my life and all of my comfort zones were gone. The anxiety took over the Friday before the preparation camp a week before the departure for Japan. It was the worst timing, but I decided I needed a break from everything for the weekend. So that Friday I texted my coach and told him I wasn’t going to be training on Friday or Saturday and needed to hit pause. I went to my cabin for the weekend, with no social media, no gymnastics, no nobody. Just myself, meditation, a beautiful book, journaling and nature. It didn’t seem like the right choice at the moment, knowing that the Worlds were approaching. But my physical trainer (kinesiologist) saw that I didn’t need to train. I needed to rest my brain and recharge my batteries before I left. It was a big bet, but he was incredibly successful.
I GO: We also understand that you were able to overcome anxiety thanks to a long conversation. Who did you discuss the matter with and when did you realize you were able to move forward to the Worlds?
WE: The discussion was with Maryse Allard, my physical trainer (kinesiologist). We were supposed to practice that Friday, and as we talked about the Worlds, she saw that I was not there mentally. Instead of doing my workout, we sat in the middle of the gym just to talk and analyze the situation. It was in fact she who suggested that I go out of the city into nature, to disconnect from everything. At first, I was against the idea. Who takes four days off right before the World Championship warm-up camp? Nobody, I say. After an hour of talking, she convinced me that I wasn’t going to do anything right at the gym because my mentality was not sharp at all. So I listened to it and went to my cabin. There I pointed out the things that stressed me out and decided to focus only on gymnastics for two weeks. No school, no “What am I going to do with my life?” », No love drama, no family problems. Just me and my gymnastics. I knew that at some point I would have to deal with these things, but decided that I would have to wait a month before facing them. I was in the zone for a month, but after the Worlds, I fell, and hard. I questioned myself a lot, but it’s something I’m ready to take. I’m super proud of the way I handled my emotional state during this time.
I GO: Since Simone Biles’ experience in Tokyo, the sports world and society at large have recognized the value of mental health and the potential dangers mental health issues can pose to athletes. Based on your experience, what do you think are the signals an athlete might need to deal with mental health issues, and what is the best way for an athlete to communicate their concerns to their coach and support staff? ?
WE: In my case, I did not have confidence in myself. I was questioning my every move, and you can’t do that in a sport where everything happens every tenth of a second. You don’t have time to think about whether you are putting your hand in this way or the other. Just do it. In my case the contrast was so clear. I was not the athlete who just won World Cup medals. I was a guy who panicked about almost everything. You absolutely have to talk about it if you get to this point. In my case it was my physical trainer, but it can be anyone you can trust who is a good listener.
I GO: By 2022, the competition at the 2022 Worlds in Liverpool is expected to be even stronger than in Kitakyushu, with gymnasts who rested after the Tokyo Olympics and new challengers who were not in Tokyo or Kitakyushu. In your overall program, what changes and improvements do you plan to keep in the top eight?
WE: The goal is to improve my weakest events – p bars, high bar and pommel horse. The other three are really solid. I’m sure if I get there I’ll be in the top 8 again. I have the potential. I am more than confident in my ability to do this. I know what I have to work on. I just have to get there.
I GO: What are your plans for Christmas and New Years? If you have New Year’s resolutions, what are they?
WE: For Christmas it will be calm. I need rest and time with my family. We will organize a buffet, play games on the evening of the 24th until the early hours of the morning, then open the presents. It’s always like that in my family and I can’t wait. Regarding my resolutions, I would say to learn to manage my discomfort on a daily basis and not to put them under the carpet without facing it. I want to appreciate more the little things that life brings to me every day, enjoy life’s little surprises and try not to be afraid of the unknown.
Other recent International Gymnast Online coverage of Canadian gymnasts includes:
Felix Dolci from Canada: “I know what I want and how to get there”
The Brooklyn Moors of Canada: “I do it with passion, love and reflection”
Canada’s Brooklyn Moors: “I have more confidence in myself and my skills”
Canadian Ava Stewart and coach Elena Davydova face 2021
Tyndall on Elite Canada Win: “I tried not to think too much about anything”
Emard from Canada in quarantine: “There were also some positive, isolated points”
Olsen on Tokyo postponement: “Another year to improve and refocus”
Moors on Tokyo 2020: “excited by the possibilities”