David Beckham was the most popular player in the biggest sport in the world. But since hanging up his boots, he’s still working harder than ever. In Sydney in his role as global ambassador for AIA Insurance to help push the company’s healthy lifestyle message, Beckham talks exclusively to Men’s Health about staying fit after 40, fatherhood and the secret to making a mean risotto.
MH: As a player, you were always known for your work-rate and stamina. There’s even a rumour you’re one of the few athletes to have completed all 23 levels of the “bleep” test…
David Beckham: That’s true.
MH: How did you build that phenomenal endurance base?
DB: I was always a good runner - it came naturally to me from a very young age. As a kid, I always used to win the 1500m at school and for the county, so I was always into long-distance running. That set me up for my career because one of the things, other than my free kicks, that I was known for was my stamina, how I could always keep going during a game. But I never really actually enjoyed competing in those races. I’d get so nervous before them that I knew I wasn't ever going to do it professionally.
MH: Would you suffer similar nerves before a big game?
DB: Actually I never got nervous for a big game. The only game that I ever really got nervous about playing in, was the European Cup Final for United, against Bayern Munich. And even then, it was good nerves. I wasn't scared or anything, it was just excitement.
MH: You constantly had to front up to intense pressure and scrutiny. For example, you were sent off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Then in the next World Cup you had to step up to take the decisive penalty against them and proceeded to slot home the winning goal.
DB: Yeah (smiles).
MH: What advice would you give to someone about how to excel under pressure, whether in a sporting capacity or giving a speech in the boardroom?
DB: It's all down the preparation. Whether I'm in the lead-up to a big game or I have a speech to deliver for say, UNICEF, then I need to be prepared. That’s one thing I always tell my kids: "If you are practicing, if you are preparing, if you are going over something 20 times a day for two weeks to prepare yourself for a certain test, for a certain game, for a certain exam, then there's no more you can do."
Personally, when I stepped up to take a free kick, I knew that because I've taken 20, 30 free kicks every day in practice, I know that I couldn't have done anything more. So I'm prepared. And that’s when I know there's a pretty good chance that I'll score.
MH: You're here in Australia as a global ambassador for the insurer AIA, promoting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. What's been the biggest challenge for you in maintaining that lifestyle since hanging up your boots?
DB: I've gone from playing high-level sport and being a professional athlete for 22 years to stopping – obviously I could never compete with that level of fitness unless I did an Ironman every week. Now to stay active I just try to find things that I enjoy. I’ve done some boxing, I do a lot of cycling. Swimming, I tried to, but I'm not very good at it.
But I try and eat as clean as possible. I eat a lot of nuts, I eat a lot of fish, I eat a lot of vegetables - those are my main things that I never miss out on. But there's days that I do like a nice steak, or I have some bread or I have some pasta. So I don't cut out everything, but I try to eat as clean as possible.
MH: One of your former managers, Steve McClaren once said about you: “To be that fit your lifestyle has to be perfect. You cannot survive on burgers and chips. David's performances show that he leads an exemplary lifestyle.” But you actually became a pro in a very different era when players would still go out for beers after a game. As a young player, did you make a conscious decision about your lifestyle then?
DB: When I came into the first team it was still okay to go and have a beer on a Wednesday night if you were playing on a Saturday. But luckily we had a great youth coach called Eric Harrison - he was stricter than Sir Alex Ferguson and that's saying something. If we went out of our apartment then he would know. So we couldn't go out because everything that we did was watched and monitored. But we were thankful for that because we had to stay focused. Plus I was never a big drinker even as an 18 year old.
When you look back, players from that era used to only play until they were 32, 33, and then they were done. I played until I was 38, and I think players these days will play even longer, because they look after themselves better. The sports science and nutrition each team gets now is at a much higher level.
MH: Talking of nutrition, you're meant to be a decent cook. So we're in the Beckham family kitchen, you're wearing an apron…
DB: Yep. Love a good apron.
MH: What are your favourite meals to cook for Victoria and the kids?
DB: Well, Victoria's so regimented in what she eats - I don't know how she does it. She eats fish, steamed vegetables, a lot of fruit, a lot of salad. So she's easy to cook for. Normally I grill her a nice piece of sea bass. And (daughter) Harper's exactly the same. But the boys are big pasta fans. So I try to make them a healthy version of pasta, whether it's a ragu or just plain fresh tomato sauce and garlic.
MH: You cook a fair bit of Italian food don’t you? You recently did a risotto cook-off...
DB: With Gordon (Ramsey), yeah. I can't believe I lost that to be honest, I should have won it. He cheated. We both had our ingredients agreed at the start of the show, and then all of sudden he said, "Actually, there's some amazing crab here, I'm going to put some in my risotto." And everyone loves fresh crab so they picked his over mine.
MH: What’s the secret to a good risotto?
DB: You have to pay attention. You have to constantly be over it and continually stirring it. You can’t step away.
MH: You were just 24 when you had your first son, Brooklyn. How did fatherhood change you as a man?
DB: I always wanted to be a young dad. I was lucky that when I met Victoria we both wanted a lot of kids. And obviously we had Brooklyn at a very young age, but I always wanted that, because I wanted my kids to actually live through my career with me, through the highs and obviously a couple of lows along the way.
But I think you mature quicker with kids. You have more important things in life to worry about. And I think that that's what you learn as a father, you become less important and the focus becomes all about your children.
MH: Your own dad, Ted, was a big influence on you. What qualities did you most admire about him growing up?
DB: Dad wanted to be a footballer - he had trials for a team called Leyton Orient. He was a massive football fan, massive Manchester United fan. But what I think I learned from him was his work ethic. Dad was a gas fitter - he still works at 70 years old. And he used to go out at 6am and often only come home at 9pm.
MH: What was the best piece of advice he ever gave you?
DB: "Never give up. No matter what.” It was one of the things that he'd always say to me. If I got a kick in a game or got injured during a game, I'd look over to him and he'd be like, "Get up. Get up." There was a steeliness that he instilled into me on that side. It made me stronger as a person.
Make your #onechange - Setting a new year’s resolution? The secret to success is to keep it short-term and measurable
A number of studies suggest that willpower is like a muscle that’s susceptible to overuse. Chase too many goals at once and you’re likely to run out of the mental energy to make the change stick
That’s the logic behind AIA’s #onechange initiative, which calls on Australians to embark on one change towards leading a healthier and happier lifestyle. “It’s about getting momentum from making small changes that are achievable, and have incremental or positive benefits that will help people to lead a healthier, longer, better life,” says AIA chief executive, Damien Mu.
As for David Beckham’s #onechange? “To drink more water,” he admits. “I travel so much that I get dehydrated - I've never been good at drinking as much water as I should.”