Having a rest time during the week. This could mean different things for everybody. I love going for long walks on a Sunday and being in nature. Some people will take a break and read a book. Some people might just take a nap. But do something that takes your mind of your daily tasks. This way you reset your mind to get focused again for the upcoming week.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mona Pretorius de Lacey.
Mona Pretorius de Lacey is a 6-time Karate World Champion, CrossFit Games athlete as well as a Commonwealth Games medalist in Olympic Weightlifting. She is currently in the South African squad for the Olympic Games in 2021 in Tokyo. Mona also has an Honours Degree in Sport Psychology as well as an Honours Certificate in Mindfulness Training. You can find her online coaching business at Powerful Pretorius.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Igrew up in a small city called Port Elizabeth in South Africa, I have always been a very active child and did quite a few sports at a very early age. I might have been around 4 years old when I started gymnastics and later on went on to do some ballet as well. These were fun sports to do. But, at the age of 8, my love for Karate started. Little did I know that in time I’d become a 6-time karate world champion. I didn’t take it too seriously in the beginning and failed my very first grading which at that time was for a yellow belt.
This was a very bad performance and my father decided to take me under his wing where the serious training started. I remember waking up on very cold mornings during the wintertime around 5–6 am doing my first training session of the day. Sometimes these would even be in the rain. I had to sacrifice playing with my friends to train for my up and coming competitions. I would sometimes train up to 3 times a day which can be hard for a child to grasp. These tough times made me who I am today and has opened up many doors. At the age of 12, I started my 2nd sport of Weightlifting where I am currently training for the Olympics. My hard work ethic, discipline and will to be the best at a very young age helped me to be successful in yet another sport.
It was not easy and I wasn’t the most talented athlete on the stage. This meant I had to work twice as hard to become the first-ever weightlifting athlete from South Africa to compete at an International competition where I broke youth Commonwealth Records. Further, I broke youth, junior and senior South African records as a youth athlete. My childhood was definitely not the normal playful childhood that most people will remember. However, I would not change a thing about it.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I will forever be grateful to my Karate Coaches and Father Pieter Pretorius who pushed me to reach my goals and become a World Champion and world competitor in many sports. My father dedicated hours and hours of his time to research training methods to make me a faster, stronger and a better athlete than the rest. He pushed me to become the athlete I am today and the life lessons I learned is something that can never be replaced.
My Karate Coaches, Sensei Kenny (my very first Karate Sensei), then later on Sensei Michael Kliment, as well as Beebob, my very first Weightlifting Coach. Beebob convinced me to compete in Weightlifting and believed in me in a sport which I had no real clue about. He told me I should compete and see how it goes and entered me into the senior division as a youth athlete where I ended up taking first place qualifying me for the Senior All African Games.
My coach after Beebob was Aveenash Pandoo who coached us in the South African National Team and this is where things got serious for me within the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. I later ended up with my American Coach at the age of 21 who helped me become an even better international athlete as I moved up the ranks. I took my training very seriously and ended up moving to America so that I could be closer to my coach in preparation for all my competitions.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I think there are numerous people who did this for me but if I had to pick one person then it would be my dad. He was the toughest on me but also always believed in me and my abilities. He is the very first person I want to call when I achieve success in my competitions overseas. He told me to never quit when things get tough and that those tough times define me. He also made me read tons of motivational quotes and books which at the time sounded so silly to me. I now love how those quotes helped me through tough obstacles in my life and in my sports career. I could not have done it without his help.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
This is a tough one, but the funniest (and trust me, this was not funny at the time), was probably when I packed my bags to travel overseas. I am a heavy traveler and could never get my bags to be underweight. I had a training partner at the time who said he would help me repack. I left it up to him.
When I got on the plane I kept wondering if the packed both my weightlifting shoes. As a Weightlifter, you would understand that you could never borrow someone else’s shoes because it could affect your technique. When I opened my bag when we got to the hotel, I only saw one shoe and started to panic and threw everything out of my bag. Thank goodness I ended up finding both shoes. This was a huge relief and something I laughed about later. From that day on I made packing lists and made sure I packed everything myself. I also made sure that from then on I traveled with my weightlifting kit as hand luggage.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
The advice I would give a young person would be to follow your dreams. No matter how big they are. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you are not good enough or your dreams are too farfetched. Yes, the road will not always be easy. There will be plateaus and really tough times. But the famous Mohammed Ali quote “It’s not about how hard you can hit, but how hard you can get hit and still forward which counts” is something that I would advise every young person.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The book that had a significant impact on me is called The Mindful Athlete. I have always been an athlete who followed and practiced a lot of mental skills to be a well-rounded athlete. I would visualize as a young athlete before my training sessions. I would visualize what I want to achieve and would visualize how it felt achieving what I wanted to achieve.
I have always believed in the power of the mind. This book summed up exactly how important these skills are to athletes. I was also a HUGE Bruce Lee fan and the author of the book quoted Bruce Lee throughout his book. I guess this is another reason why I liked it so much. I also believe that if athletes can practice these skills to become more mindful, they would be better equipped to handle whatever comes their way.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
A diamond is a piece of coal that did its best under great pressure. I read this quote once in my classroom during my exam period. Immediately I thought to myself, “wow this is me.” I wrote the quote down as soon as I got home and I stuck it on my wall with all my other quotes and goals I had written out. Whenever things got really tough for me, I would go back to this quote and read it over and over again until I believed it. I told myself I am a diamond in the making. No matter how tough things might seem, I will become a diamond.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
My most exciting project I am currently working on together with my online coaching as a Weightlifting and Strength Coach is actually a fat loss challenge I am running with females. This challenge is done remotely so people can join from anywhere around the world. I decided to take this project on because I was tired of seeing people I know doing fad diets and not seeing results. With this challenge, I teach people how to count macros and how to lose weight while they are eating the foods they like and making adjustments to achieve their goals.
I work with them one-on-one throughout 60 days and I give them an at-home training program to do as well. All they would need is a resistance band and a food scale. Throughout the 60-days we work on life-skills, routine and planning, creating good habits as well as having a happy relationship with food. After the 60-day challenge, they have the tools and skills to carry on with their fat loss journey with good the habits we created together.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?
Creating good habits first and foremost sets you up for success. It helps you to stay on track with your goals and by continuing to practice good habits, they will later become automatic. It will definitely be tough in the beginning when you are starting to change your bad habits to good habits, but the key is to start small and progressively add to these new good habits for it to become a part of your lifestyle. Good habits will also help you when you have a set-back of some sort or something happens that throws your goals off track. These good habits will help you bounce back a lot quicker than if you had only bad habits to rely on.
As an elite level athlete, I have had many disappointments in my 22 years of competing internationally. If it wasn’t for these good habits I had in place then I probably would have quit a long time ago. These good habits helped me stay focused even in my darkest hours.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
In my sport, in order to be the best, you have to have good habits to help you stay on track of your goals. Good habits include eating healthy, training daily (even when you are tired or sore), fitting in studies and coaching. I also had to make sure my recovery was on point to be the best athlete I possibly could. This meant, sleeping early, sometimes having to cut weight for a competition, sacrificing parties and staying focused for long periods of time. Having these successful habits as part of my daily life has helped me stay motivated and goal-driven. And, I know, it doesn’t matter how tough the road is to success. It will all be worth it when I stand on that podium with the medal around my neck.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
Developing good habits takes time and work. Just like bad habits that developed over time. Replacing those bad habits won’t happen overnight although making small changes will make a big difference in the end. What I recommend is:
- Write down the bad habits that you are currently battling with. Writing them down makes it more visual to the eye and it makes you realize that they are there.
- Write down the good habits you would like to replace the bad habits with. Start small and start with one habit at a time.
- Journal your progress or do weekly check-ins with yourself to make sure you are still on track on replacing those bad habits. By telling someone you trust what your plans are and by having someone there for emotional support can help keep you accountable. ‘
- Be kind to yourself and remember that any small baby steps forward is still a step forward in the right direction.
Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.
- Waking up at the same time every day: This helps your body to stay in a routine and the body loves routine. I find this helps my productivity during the day as well as have more energy throughout the day. This also helps me to go to bed at the same time every night and by having a good routine with sleep helps your recovery.
- Drink a big glass of water upon waking up: I have always loved doing this. It helps my day get started on the right step and I feel like it helps me wake up faster. This way I get a head start on getting my 3 liters of water in daily.
- Make time for me: This could be your training time, your meditation time or even just going for a short walk. But doing something for YOU, every day, is important for your overall mental health.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
The best way to practice these good habits is to keep a diary or have something to remind you that it’s that time of the day to do that specific activity. I am old school where I love writing everything down and sticking them on my walls or writing them out in my diary. This helps me prioritize the most important things of the day without trying to do too much.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
- Write down what you want to achieve and make sure to have an action plan with it. This way you know what you want to achieve and how you will achieve them. This is a great way to make sure you are on track with training or even career goals.
- Have a timeline for what you want to achieve. Get into the habit of knowing when you need to achieve what. This way you can have a perfect plan for each goal you have set your mind out to achieve. I love the saying, a goal without a plan is only a wish.
- Good nutrition. Eating a healthy diet gives you a clear and focused mind. Your energy levels will be high for the tasks you need to achieve. I also love the saying healthy body, healthy mind. Do not neglect good nutrition. Just like with your goals. Have a daily eating plan for what you need to eat and make it simple. You want to make it achievable.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Writing down your goals in order of priority. Write down some short term to make sure you are on track with achieving your long term goal. Food prep you protein for 3 days in advance. This way you don’t have to spend hours daily in the kitchen preparing your meals. Write out what your meals will be in advance so that it’s quick and easy to stay on track with your good nutrition.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
- Enough sleep and recovery. When I get enough sleep the night before, I wake up feeling energized and ready to take on the day.
- This one might not be for everybody but I love doing a short 10 min meditation daily to set my attention for the day. This way I know what is expected of me and go into the day focused and ready to crush my goals.
- Having a rest time during the week. This could mean different things for everybody. I love going for long walks on a Sunday and being in nature. Some people will take a break and read a book. Some people might just take a nap. But do something that takes your mind of your daily tasks. This way you reset your mind to get focused again for the upcoming week.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
There are so many people who spend a lot of time in front of their computers or phones. Yes, this might be needed. But to get a good night’s rest you will need to shut off from those screens a couple of hours before bedtime. I find reading a book before bedtime helps me get into a relaxed state and ready to sleep.
A nice warm bath can also help. Set a reminder on your phone so that you can see when it’s time to start getting ready for bedtime. Also, reset your mind by doing something different than your daily routine. Prioritize it so that nothing can interrupt that special resetting time. Write down what your plans are at the beginning of the week and make sure to not schedule anything during that time.
As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
A state of flow is something that a lot of people have no idea how to achieve, yet it is so valuable in the journey to success. In my sport, being in a state of flow is needed to be the best you can be daily. Being in a state of flow also makes you feel like time is moving in slow motion. Everything feels a lot clearer and you are focused on the present.
The only thought is what you are doing RIGHT NOW. The way I have gotten myself in a state of flow and being really focused is doing some visualization or mental imagery before I perform my lifts in weightlifting. This could be done before you do your daily work or even an important interview you might have.
You can also do some mindfulness training. Everyone likes to do this a little differently but I enjoy taking 10–15 minutes of meditation where I just let my thoughts come and go. I like doing this lying down and in a quiet room or even outside in nature.
I also make a point to focus on my breathing and letting go of any worries or thoughts I might have that is stopping me from achieving what I set my mind out to achieve. By doing these exercises, my mind becomes ready and focused on my task I am about to perform.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This is actually something I have wanted to do for a very long time and something I was working on in South Africa many years back before I moved to the USA. I would love to create a movement to help kids in orphanages to get into sport. Specifically, Weightlifting because that is the sport I love the most. I would love to be able to coach these kids where they can have a safe place to work on life skills. I want to create an opportunity where they can mix with other kids and have a chance to be successful in sport. This could help open doors for them. I love working with kids and I believe all kids should be able to have big dreams no matter what your background.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
My very first person would have been Bruce Lee. He was a huge idol of mine and someone that inspired me to get into martial arts. But, seeing that he isn’t with us anymore I know this is impossible. Another great and inspiring person I would love to have a breakfast or lunch with is Brene Brown. She is such a great role model to so many and I would say especially to goal-driven female entrepreneurs.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I post a lot of my work on Instagram actually under @powerfulpretorius
I also have a Facebook page called Mona Pretorius de Lacey — Powerfulpretorius
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.