A theme keeps popping up in the articles and blog posts I’ve been reading.
I repeatedly see words like insecurity, self-doubt, anxiety and fear.
I’m tired of talking about these things, to be honest. With the holidays coming, I’ve wanted to write something fun, and spent the better part of November resisting more thought on how emotions can play with performance in sport.
Yet, I can’t escape the fact that my own inner critic continues to manifest on the racecourse, keeping the topic in front of my mind.
On the surface, fall head racing can be characterized by a parade of unremarkable results: three third place finishes in the single at Navy Day, Head of the Schuylkill, and Fall Speed Order, and an eighth place finish in the double at Head of the Charles. Going deeper, the season is marked by performances that simply didn’t reflect my best.
Navy Day: I found a good rhythm on the second half of the course but felt a little too frantic and lacking control on the first half.
Head of the Charles: We crushed it off the line. Aggressive. Together. One push. One send. But somewhere in between the Weeks and Anderson bridges, we lost our strong rhythm and never really got it back. I’m certain we crossed at the finish and simultaneously thought, “Hmm… that wasn’t quite what we could do.”
Head of the Schuylkill: My focus was external for almost the entire length of the course. Some rowers feed on this type of focus: They watch other boats and gain fuel. Push it away. Drive. Send. My brain doesn’t work like that. I need to keep the focus internal to move the boat as fast as I can. I know this, and yet it’s a discipline I have yet to perfect.
Fall Speed Order: I wanted to accomplish one thing: Keep the focus INSIDE MY BOAT! In other words, learn from Head of the Schuylkill and adjust. Outcome: Fail.
In the middle of all the mediocre racing and results that reflected as such, I started regretting not giving more thought to the schedule for fall. Exactly what did I want to accomplish? How did fall racing support the larger goals? I’d been excited by the momentum of September and early October, and easily silenced any trace reservations about the mini marathon of races ahead.
But maybe I needed a break – if not from racing, then at least from making weight. Between training and selection camps, Trials and Canada, I weighed in a lot in 2016. And despite that it’s become a near perfect science, there’s still a good deal of mental stamina involved.
In the days following Fall Speed Order, however, some new realizations and one strong sense of gratitude for the racing took hold.
It’s no secret that I’ve struggled with self-confidence – I’ve written about it directly and indirectly several times now. It’s an issue that’s undulated significantly over years and years, peaking at different times and manifesting in various ways. And an issue that’s undoubtedly affected my racing—if you think you can’t defeat yourself before the start of a race, take my word for it that you can.
It’s also an issue that I’ve moved beyond, for the most part. I can clearly articulate who I am; I no longer feel compelled to justify what I do.
The frantic feeling on Navy Day: lack of self-confidence.
The external focus at Head of the Schuylkill and Speed Order: lack of trust in my speed.
I revisited some of the writing that partly inspired this post. A blog post by Dr. Sarah Lesko recapped her awesome weekend at the 2016 New York City Marathon in contrast to “feeling alone and invisible … tired and powerless” during a six-month stint in Manhattan nearly 20 years ago. A post by Olympic runner Kate Grace described how a sophomore slump shook her confidence and the methods she used to regain it. Lastly, an article by Olympic wrestler and gold medalist Helen Maroulis explored her anxieties, mind games and fear.
When I read these pieces for a second and third time, my attention was grabbed by something new. Those words that I said I kept seeing—insecurity, self-doubt, anxiety and fear… those words were all juxtaposed with courage, confidence, transformation and strength. Not in the sense that one took the place of another—courage for fear, confidence for doubt, for example—but with the idea that each has a place… on the road… the track… the wrestling mat… the water.
I love how Helen Maroulis says it:
There’s a stigma that only tough girls wrestle. There’s a stigma that only fearless people win. Yet here I stand in … front of the world – distinguished by my gold – and by the overwhelming feeling that all of my fears and all of my anxieties in that moment rolled down my body with every tiny bead of sweat, one by one.
The Gratitude Part
2016 was a year full of soul-searching, decisions and personal growth. I’m stronger, and more resilient, independent, and understanding compared to this time last year. Yet, fall racing showed that I’m continuing to carry old insecurities with me to the start line.
I’m grateful for the awareness. Frankly, I thought I moved past the mental roadblocks that have plagued me. It would have been difficult to work and progress through the winter only to encounter the same self-defeating tendencies this spring.
I’m grateful for the months of hard, quiet training ahead; there’s time and opportunity to better my mindset and close the lingering gaps in my game. Granted nothing is guaranteed. New challenges will arise and current ones may continue to test me. But that’s part of the beauty sport and an aspect we all voluntarily buy into.
In the words of Lauren Fleshman:
The more I pushed myself in running, the more I discovered the weaknesses of my mind. These were the same dragons lurking in my life. To compete is to voluntarily come into contact with your dragons so you can learn to SLAY them.
Slaying dragons—I like that idea. I also like the idea of just freeing them – freeing yourself of whatever it is that may be holding you back. In this moment, think about your own dragons. Where do they come from? Why do they persist? Now think about what it’d be like to just let them all go.
Take a deep breath and let them all go…