‘Mental Coach Jegal’ review: skill isn’t everything, but passion and community are

You don’t need any knowledge of professional sports to enjoy this heartfelt K-drama starring ‘A Model Family’’s Jung Woo and recent Emmy winner Lee Yoo-mi

“Why was I given a desire that’s far greater than what my talents can achieve?” Cha Ga-eul (played by Squid Game’s Lee Yoo-mi, a recent Emmy winner) laments in Mental Coach Jegal. A short-track speed skater, Ga-eul’s dreams of making the national team are dashed after the actions of a corrupt coach lead to the blade of a competitor’s skates slashing her thigh, rendering her unable to compete with full strength in the qualifiers. Once a gold medalist at the world championships, Ga-eul is now sidelined as other Olympic hopefuls bribe their way to the top; it certainly doesn’t help that her family’s hopes and dreams are riding on her success.

Her circumstances thus beg the question: why should she work this hard – and cause herself undue misery and self-doubt in the process – only to be a pawn in a game she has no control over? Such is the life philosophy of Jegal Gil (Jung Woo), an acclaimed mental coach. His origin story is not too far off from Ga-eul’s: having grown up with a gambler father who constantly tells him life is 70 per cent luck and 30 per cent skill, Gil once sought to prove him wrong by rising through the ranks of South Korea’s taekwondo Olympic team.

Mental Coach Jegal
Credit: Viu

The universe, however, had other plans for him. He and his teammate and best friend Cha Moo-tae (Kim Do-yoon) were bullied and beaten to physically incapacitate them ahead of their own qualifying matches. Gil gave his all in the competition in spite of a severely injured knee, but, he learned the hard way that skill and determination alone are not enough to triumph against the duplicity of the professional sports world. His snide, violent opponent Goo Tae-man (Kwon Yul) played dirty despite Gil putting up an honourable fight, and the referee declared Tae-man the winner. Gil left the match shattered in more ways than one – left to reckon with what seems to be a lifelong physical disability and a prolonged struggle with his mental health that ultimately led to a permanent ban from his professional training.

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Fast forward 13 years, Gil, who now walks with a limp and a cane, counsels other troubled athletes undergoing emotional and mental turmoil over their respective sports, like Ga-eul. “Stop working yourself to the bone only to cause your own dejection”, his mantra goes. “Be yourself and pursue the things you enjoy, and find peace for yourself.”

Mental Coach Jegal
Credit: Viu

From the start, emotions and stakes run high on Mental Coach Jegal. What is one person against a corrupt institution? This question forms the core conundrum of the series as both Gil and Ga-eul seek their personal truths. Gil is on his own journey of self-acceptance and forgiveness over a decade after that fateful match. Ga-eul is learning how to accept help from others when she needs it. The ongoing course of their respective epiphanies are made poignant and nuanced through the performances of Jung Woo and Lee Yoo-mi, both proven maestros at their crafts. Their brilliance lies in the way they communicate their characters’ inner turmoils not only through dialogue, but also through their expressions, dynamics and interactions with each other. They each have their bad sides – Gil in his anger management issues and Ga-eul in her uncouth, prickly disposition as a means of pushing others away – but these traits ground them and make them relatable.

In spite of the series’ palpable emotional weight, Mental Coach Jegal unfurls its overarching storyline alongside numerous subplots and expansive roster of characters. There is no rush to establish Gil’s world nor a need to stretch things out for the sake of fulfilling its episode count – at least, in the first four episodes.

Mental Coach Jegal
Credit: Viu

If there is anything to be said about the show’s execution, it’s the slight confusion that comes with its asynchronous editing. At times, it threatens to overcomplicate specific series of events when Mental Coach Jegal’s appeal lies in its simplicity. Another minor gripe is the underutilisation of Dr. Park Se-young (Park Seung-ha), Gil’s former psychiatrist. It seems she doesn’t serve any wider purpose in the series than another source of juvenile rivalry with our protagonist for cheap laughs. However, there still remains plenty of potential, time and space for Mental Coach Jegal to use Dr. Park more effectively as the story deepens – perhaps we shouldn’t write her off as entirely pointless yet.

No, you don’t have to possess any knowledge of professional sports to enjoy Mental Coach Jegal, because it’s not about sports at all. It’s about community, mental health and the double-edged sword of pursuing a passion that hurts you. It’s what makes this series one of if not the most heartfelt K-dramas in recent memory: it’s a bittersweet lesson in putting yourself first above all else.

New episodes of Mental Coach Jegal air every Monday and Tuesday on tVN, and are available on Viki and Viu in select countries.

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