The new book by Ronnie and Rhiannon Lambert , “Top of your Game” is due to be published on May 16, 2019.
It didn’t happen for Ronnie in Sheffield, but 2018/19 still remains one of his most successful seasons, one during which he broke several records, and, maybe more importantly, one he enjoyed.
The Sunday Times,
Ronnie O’Sullivan is known as much for his mercurial temperament as for his stellar success as a snooker player. Recently, within a month, he was named world No 1 and crashed out of the World Snooker Championships in the first round, beaten by an amateur. It was one of the sport’s biggest upsets, but O’Sullivan seemed to take it in his stride.
Over the years, he has battled addictions and continues to suffer from crippling insomnia, but there’s one area in which he’s found a happy equilibrium — food — and he credits it with changing his entire approach to life.
“The penny’s dropped,” he says. “I used to eat two steaks, all the potatoes, my dessert and everyone else’s too. Now, I’ll still have dessert, but just one or two mouthfuls. It’s about moderation.” Perhaps inevitably, he’s written a food book about the changes to his diet that have transformed his physical — and mental — health.
What makes the book so interesting is that it’s not a get-fit-quick diet book, but a thought-provoking read, with half dedicated to his acceptance of his addictions, what he was doing wrong and the lessons he’s learnt.
For the rest of us, these lessons can be translated into a steady, manageable lifestyle that leads, if not to world domination, then certainly to feeling and looking better. As he writes in the introduction, “moderation, healthy living and self-care aren’t necessarily things that you would automatically associate with me. I’ve been very honest about my addictive personality in the past; depending on the year and what else was going on in my life, my addictions have included drink, drugs, food, Prozac and running. It’s taken me a while, but I can now accept that my addictive personality is just the way I am. It’s my nature and I’m finally OK with that.”
When one of his obsessive pursuits — running — reached a professional level, he cut out all carbs, saying, “I thought this was the way forward.” It wasn’t easy, being the son of a Sicilian mother and spending half his life travelling and working late into the night, filling up on whatever food he could grab. He laughs ruefully. “I’ve always been a big eater.” But with typical focus, he cut out carbohydrates altogether — and replaced them with vast amounts of avocados.
He couldn’t understand why he seemed so fit and yet was unable to concentrate during snooker matches. “A match can last seven hours and I need to try and stay alert during that time. Snooker is an endurance sport.”
O’Sullivan, 43, has battled insomnia for some time, but this was different. “I’d never felt so bad. I ended up at the doctors having blood tests because I thought there’s got to be something wrong with me. I was just exhausted and I had to go and do TV interviews. Honestly, it was embarrassing, because I felt people could see that I was not really concentrating on what they were saying. They thought maybe I was being a bit rude or a bit distant.”
It was when he was introduced to the nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert that he was told in no uncertain terms what needed to change. “I told her what I was doing and she said, ‘That explains why you were feeling like that. Carbs feed the brain.’” He followed her nutritional advice. “Since then,” he says, “I’ve never had a day where I’ve not felt how I’m supposed to feel.”
“It was a lightbulb moment,” he says now, comparing it to the time, several years earlier, when he started working with the psychiatrist Steve Peters. As a result of eating a regular, balanced diet, he has lost 1½ stone, has more energy and is generally playing brilliantly. Was it important to have regained that No 1 status? “Not really. Not that I’m not feeling good, I’m just not driven by it. When everyone was going, ‘You’re going to be No 1’, for a nanosecond I kind of thought, ‘Yeah, it would be nice,’ but then I realised, that’s not why I play the game.
“The thing I love, more important than snooker or anything, is my health and fitness,” he says emphatically. In a flash of that addictive personality, he says: “I still run three, four, five miles a day, but that’s what I call not running. That’s just fun.”
He talks about the “rat race” of competing with trademark candour. O’Sullivan has managed to break free of the exhausting routine of comparing himself to other players. Instead, he likens himself to a racehorse. “You don’t race it every day. You don’t overtrain the horse. You want it on the start line raring to go. You don’t want to leave its best form on the gallops. I used to do that. I’d practise six, seven hours a day. I was overplaying, just playing out of guilt, because you think, ‘If I do it more and more, I deserve to win — everyone else is doing more’.
“I don’t look at anybody else now. I go by how I feel, and I’m not worried about results so much, just about being ready, having longevity and feeling as good as I can for as long as I can.”
He shows me his diary on his phone, with notes on all of his performances, annotated with emojis. “I play 45 matches a season, maximum. In Shanghai, I played shit, but I felt good in myself. Smiley face. Smiley face. Smiley face. Smiley face. Smiley face… I’m not playing good in every tournament, but the smiley face measures what I felt. Was I happy, was my whole life balanced?
“You get one life, one body,” he continues. “It’s the most important thing we own, and I’d like to get the best out of it because I abused it for quite a while. I could have been kinder to myself maybe, done things differently. That doesn’t mean I have to carry on doing that.”
He lives in Chigwell, Essex, and has three children — a grown-up daughter (who has just had a child of her own) and a younger son and daughter, although he doesn’t live with them. He calls himself “a bit of a gypsy” and is never happier than on his boat. He proudly shows me pictures of a very smart houseboat, with a full kitchen for his regular cooking sessions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who skipped a season of competitive snooker to work on a farm, he’s fascinated by the idea of a “gap year” to train as a chef. “I was thinking about doing something like that,” he says. “Is it expensive? I’d have to move closer to the school. I’m definitely thinking about it.” For now, he enjoys planning each day’s meals and making packed lunches for when he is on the road.
Judging by the enthusiasm with which he talks about the recipes in the book, and the upbeat, natural Instagram stories and short videos in which he rustles up healthy dinners, this is no “famous person attaches their name to a ghost-written money-spinner”. He is taking this, like everything else in life, seriously.
“This book ain’t for everyone. It’s for someone that wants to make a shift, wants to have a go, wants to feel good about themselves. If they do, then this is something I’ve tried and tested. It’s not a diet book. It’s just about getting your portion size down and taking control.”
Meanwhile, he continues competing. After all, he’s been playing tournaments for 30 years. “I have plans. If one doesn’t work out, then I’ve got another one, and if that one doesn’t work out, I’ve got another. I’d rather be in control of my own destiny. I will probably still be playing in my mid-fifties, maybe sixties, as long as I’m fit and healthy.
“I think the key — if you can create some space and time for yourself — is to listen to the body. That’s all I do. That’s why I use the smiley faces, because sometimes you can forget how you felt and I go, ‘That smiley face tells me that I was on the right system for me. It worked for me.’” And with that he moves on to the next part of his day, armed with plastic boxes filled with snacks and meals.
RONNIE’S DAY ON A PLATE
Before Two eggs and an avocado; chocolate bar; mezze including hummus, falafel, rice, bread and chicken; crisps; two portions of curry; chocolate cake
After Porridge with berries and flaxseed; fruit and yoghurt; chicken, rice and salad; hummus, rye crispbreads and cottage cheese; fish, sweet potato and vegetables; fruit
- Acknowledge colours, flavours, textures and smells
- Chew food slowly and put down your knife and fork between bites to help slow down your eating
- Lose the TV or mobile phone at mealtimes
- Learn skills to cope with anxiety and guilt around food
- Set realistic goals
- Avoid eating directly from a packet, and always pre-portion food
- Eat something hot within the first hour of waking
- Avoid going more than 3-4 hours without eating anything
PORTION SIZES PER MEAL
- 1 outstretched palm of protein — for example, chicken, fish or tofu
- 1 handful of carbohydrates — oats, rice or starchy fruit and vegetables
- 2 handfuls of non-starchy vegetables — broccoli, spinach or peppers
- 1 thumb of healthy fats — olive oil, butter, coconut oil or nut butter
RONNIE’S GAME CHANGERS
- Consistency is key, so stick to your plan
- Premix your favourite spice blends in big batches to save time — you can then label and freeze them, either in big portions or in ice cube trays
- Batch cook your main meals with extra portions and freeze some of them for another time
- Write a weekly shopping list, planning your meals and snacks
- Keep a food diary. If I eat too many biscuits, I make a note and put a sad face next to it, because that’s how I feel afterwards
- 1 small pot of Greek yoghurt
- Almonds and a piece of fruit
- 125g edamame beans
- 1 apple and 30g nut butter
- 2 sausages (chicken or vegetarian)
- Wholegrain bread
- Brown rice
- Starchy vegetables