‘I’ve always wanted to fight… I have that hunger, I love football’

Jesse Lingard explains to Professional Player how maintaining his peak physical condition has helped him fire on all cylinders following his loan move to West Ham United…

Jesse, let’s start with diet and nutrition. Has it always been a big part of your life as a footballer?
When you’re a kid you eat pretty much anything, but when I was 12 I moved into digs with another family and the food was much healthier. That was tough to adjust to at such a young age, as was moving from home, but as I progressed through the ranks at United and into the first team, I appreciated just how important a healthy diet was. At the club, we’ve always had nutritionists and dieticians to help find the meals that work for us individually, and I’ve also got my own personal chef who has been brilliant for me.

Tell us more…
We’ve worked together for a time now, since the last World Cup. While she’s based in Manchester and has been unable to visit me in London during the latest lockdown, she has come up with a nutritional plan for me, which has included a lot of fish, chicken, pasta – plenty of proteins and carbohydrates, which has given me more weight and more muscle mass. Diet and nutrition is very important for a professional sportsman and while the club – be it Man United or West Ham – provide our breakfast and lunch, it’s important for me to have a good plan in place
for when I’m at home.

What do you eat in the build-up to a game, to ensure you reach your peak on a Saturday?
As early as three days before a game, the food that you eat is the fuel for the game. I want to be in the best possible shape ready for kick-off, so in the build-up I’ll be eating plenty of pasta, chicken and vegetables, taking in all the right nutrients. I’ll stick to drinking water or apple juice – you’ve got to keep it clean – while on a match day I’ll have a normal breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast and then, for the pre-match, it will be pasta, chicken and veg again. But I can’t stress how important those days are leading up to a game – it’s vital you fuel your body the right way to hit your peak when that whistle blows.

Jesse Lingard

What about relaxation? Is it important not to burn up too much energy away from the pitch?
I’ve been strict on myself in that respect, since an early age. While my friends might have been partying at 18, 19, 20, my main ambition was to play football for the first team at United – and that’s what I achieved. I knew that if I wanted to play 50 to 100 games at a young age and establish myself as a regular, I had to be fully disciplined, fully committed. For all the young players at the club, that’s drilled into you, but football always was the most important thing for me. Yes, you can start to do other bits and pieces away from the game the more established you become, but certainly, in the early days, you have to be totally dedicated to becoming a first-team footballer.

At 28, do you appreciate more the rest periods between games?
Yes, 100 per cent. As you get older, it’s really important to relax when I get my downtime after training. I like to read a lot, or I’ll go on the PlayStation, just things to take my mind away from football, otherwise, it can become 24/7. Mentally it is important to switch off from the game when you have the opportunity because if you are thinking football all the time, you can get too caught up in everything and that’s going to have a detrimental effect on the pitch.

‘I’ve been strict on myself since an early age. While my friends might have been partying at 18, 19, 20, my main ambition was to play football’

Do you take part in extra gym work after training to give yourself an edge?
I like staying behind; I’ve always done it and it’s always helped me. Even when I’ve not been in the team at United, I would always stay behind and do extra work in the gym, or work with the physios, just to ensure I maintained my fitness levels and kept myself in tip-top shape should I be called upon. Training is never as intense as games so if you’re not playing regularly on a Saturday, you have to keep your fitness levels up – and I’ll work on building up my strength or injury prevention work. I actually find the extra gym work relaxing; you stick the music on, you’re in a good mood and it can take a lot of your stress away – and you know that if you stick with it then it’s only going to
help you on the pitch.

What about the psychological side of the game? It couldn’t have been easy when your United team-mates were gearing up for match day and you knew you were unlikely to be involved…
Mentally it can be stressful and it could have been easy to just give up and take the easy route out, but that’s not in my make-up. It never has been. I just wanted to knuckle down and get my mind, as well as my body, in perfect shape. During the first lockdown, it was obviously that much harder but I was always focused on maintaining a good level of mental health as well as physical strength. I think when you play at the highest level, both are so important. You have to be in a good place to help reach your absolute peak on a match day.

Jesse Lingard

Ryan Giggs took up pilates and played into his late thirties – is that something you’d consider?
I actually started yoga a few years ago and although I had to stop due to the pandemic, it’s something I’m keen to get back doing once the restrictions ease. Yoga relaxes your body and your mind – and that subtleness and flexibility can only help on the pitch. I’ve definitely felt the benefits of it and, as you get older, it’s something that’s only going to help extend my career.

So how important was maintaining a high level of fitness, diet and mental strength in you hitting the ground running at West Ham?
It was so important. When you’re not playing and not preparing for games it’s hard, so I knew in my head that I had to stay on top of everything so I’d be ready for whatever came up. I did play a few games for United earlier this season but if there was a chance of going on loan in January, I was ready for that once I joined West Ham, I was ready for that first training session, that first game, and I’d like to think that showed on my debut.
Like I said, I could have given up and fallen out of love with the game but I’ve always wanted to fight; I have that hunger for the game, I love football, and now it’s about maintaining my level of consistency right through to the end of the season.

You netted twice on your West Ham debut against Aston Villa and have been in fine form since, so it’s all going well…
I was absolutely buzzing with my debut; it proves that all the hard work has paid off but with the way the team has been playing this season, I know I have to stay right on top of my game to stay in the side. I found a really happy camp here and it’s felt like I’ve come into a family environment.
Everyone made me feel welcome from the very first day, which helped me settle really quickly, and I obviously know the manager too [ex-United boss David Moyes], so it’s all good.

‘I actually started yoga a few years ago and although I had to stop due to the pandemic, it’s something I’m keen to get back doing once the restrictions ease’

West Ham are on target for European football next season, so what has impressed you most about this squad?
We have a good mix of youth and experience, and that blend has obviously worked well for us – it has done all season, long before I came here. It’s about maintaining that high level of performance now if we want to finish as high up the table as possible.
It’s all about keeping our consistency but we’ll have a chance because the team works really hard for each other, we fight for each other and we don’t give up until the final whistle, which is important. The team spirit and the work ethic is also brilliant and if I can play my part in helping us reach our goals, then I’ll be delighted.

Finally, at 28, are we seeing peak Jesse Lingard?
I don’t think I’ve hit my peak yet. I know exactly what I’m capable of and I know there’s still a lot more to come. I have my aims and ambitions written down on a board, which I’ll be keeping to myself, but I’m confident of hitting those targets. I’m really enjoying my football, my headspace is good and I have the right people around me. Long may it continue!

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