I just completed my registration application for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Check it out!
The application was sent to athletes identified as potential competitors in Tokyo, Japan. Its completion, “does NOT guarantee a selection to the final 2020 Olympic Games Team USA delegation.” If only it were that easy!
U.S. Olympic Team Trials
As of today, we are less than four weeks out from the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials #1. After a fall season that included illness, injury, and a struggle with low motivation thanks to the impact of hurdles #1 and #2, I am happy to report that I am finally in my groove. Whoo, whoo! The problem: We are less than four weeks out and I am still without a doubles partner—a critical piece of the equation given that the double sculls is the only Olympic event in lightweight rowing.
A Quick Lesson
Lightweight rowing includes four events: the pair, single, double and quad. The double is the sole Olympic event and therefore the only lightweight event being contested at Trials #1. The pair, single and quad are designated Non-Olympic events. Trials for these events will be held in July, and the winners will earn the right to compete in the 2020 World Rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia, in August.
There is still a small glimmer of hope—not everyone in the lightweight women’s community is fully locked down with a partner and clear path ahead. But with each day that passes, it looks more and more like I won’t be at the start line at Trials in March.
Pivoting in Practice
This is not what I wanted.
What I wanted was to build on a previously established partnership, and design and tackle the training year exactly how we collectively envisioned. When that didn’t pan out…
I agreed to participate in a six-week-long training and selection process that would potentially yield two doubles. Ten days in, when one athlete retired and the other two subsequently abandoned the process…
I reached out to a friend and fellow competitor, and started down a new path that provided a good training trajectory and promised possibility ahead. When I learned that my friend’s priorities had been shifting and we wouldn’t be lining up together for Trials…
Reaction vs. Response
There is a difference between reacting and responding. In Psychology Today, integrative health psychologist Dr. Matthew B. James explains that a reaction is instant, survival-oriented, and on some level a defense mechanism. A response usually comes more slowly and is based on information from both the conscious mind and unconscious mind. According to Dr. Matt,
“A reaction is driven by the beliefs, biases, and prejudices of the unconscious mind. When you say or do something ‘without thinking,’ that’s the unconscious mind running the show. A reaction is based in the moment and doesn’t take into consideration the long-term effects of what you do or say… A response will be more ‘ecological,’ meaning that it takes into consideration the well-being of not only you but also those around you. It weighs the long-term effects and stays in line with your core values.”
Pivoting, as I use the word, is directly in line with responding. Obstacles are commonplace in sports. It is rare that our plans and dreams manifest exactly how we envisioned. In some cases, when obstacles arise, it’s best to stay the course. In others, it’s best to take purposeful action.
Let’s Talk About Stress
In On Top of Your Game, Mental Skills Coach Carrie Cheadle explains that stressors—events that cause stress—can be initiated in the body (physiological) or in the mind (psychological). Both lead to what’s called the stress-response: biochemical changes that take place in the body and prepare you to deal with threatening (or what is perceived as threatening) situations.
Fear and anxiety are the emotions commonly related to stress. “Fear alerts you to an immediate threat and anxiety involves concerns about the potential of a future threat,” explains Cheadle. “With the emotion of fear, the danger is real and immediate… Anxiety is an emotion caused by the thought of a possible threat.”
Another of Cheadle’s key points:
“Anxiety arises from fear and is meant to propel us to create solutions to deal with an emerging threat. However, sometimes you can get stuck in that cycle of worry and the feelings of anxiety can become overwhelming and detrimental to your performance. The doubts and worries that can accompany anxiety can become a vicious negative feedback loop, reinforcing the anxiety you feel until you do something to stop the cycle.”
Read that last line again: The doubts and worries that can accompany anxiety can become a vicious negative feedback loop, reinforcing the anxiety you feel until you do something to stop the cycle.
Enter the Current Situation
In early February, with three doors now closed, it was time to recalibrate and pivot again. Fortunately, a selection opportunity had just opened up in Sarasota. I immediately talked to my coach about getting involved and we mapped out my next steps… no follow through from the top. Days later, I talked to him again, got on the same page with a plan… no follow through from the top. I spoke with the athletes, circled back with my coach… again, no follow through from the top.
Cheadle says that as athletes, we tend to experience the most anxiety when we are faced with the following situations:
• The outcome is important to you;
• The situation is new and you don’t know what to expect;
• Things are unpredictable;
• You feel like you have no control;
• Fear of failure; and
• You are experiencing life stress.
Here I was, on the outside of selection, getting the runaround during what may be my last chance to find a partner to race with at Trials. Was the outcome of the situation important to me? Check. Were things unpredictable? Check. Did I feel like I had no control? Check. Did I start experiencing anxiety? Check.
Anxiety is tough in the context of sports because it can negatively impact performance if it spirals out of control. In my case this month, I started losing sleep and experiencing waves of worry, hurt and frustration. With sleep compromised, my recovery suffered, and it was tough to get my brain to slow down. I adjusted my training load as needed, and mustered my mental strength in reserve.
Here are five tools that I called on for help.
Tools for Rising Up Strong
Specifically, diaphragmatic breathing. Gang, it works, and I wish I knew sooner! Breathing, for me, has always been one of those tools that I’d casually brush off when I’d hear other people sing of its praises. However, in the past two weeks, I committed to a new practice and actually noticed my body relax and my mind slow down!
A quick Google search revealed that diaphragmatic breathing works by stimulating your vagus nerve and activating your parasympathetic (i.e., rest and digest) nervous system. This helps reduce stress and promotes relaxation. What prompted me to finally give it try? I’ve always half-heartedly practiced deep breathing. I listen to guided meditations daily and use the time to try to relax my mind and just breathe. Two weeks ago, though, my mental skills coach sent me audio of a specific diaphragmatic breathing practice. The audio is about 10 minutes long and walks me through three different stages of breathing. Compared to the meditations, I found it easier to stay focused thanks to the detailed instruction. Its effect was apparent, and I was sold after the very first try!
2. Dominate the Controllables
We’ve all heard “control the controllables,” which is a practice critical to success in most sports. In an article on Forbes.com, I recently noticed a slight but powerful reframe of this skill. “Top brain trainer,” Cindra Kamphoff is quoted as follows:
“Elite athletes stay focused on what they can control which includes everything inside themselves such as their attitude, attention, actions, passion, preparation, purpose, emotions, and effort. Their attention is not on things they cannot control such as weather, refs, coaches, and the haters. In fact, they dominate the controllables. When they find their attention on what they cannot control, they quickly shift their attention to what they can control… Focusing on the uncontrollables leads to frustration, blame and low performance. Dominating the controllables leads to high performance.”
Dominate the controllables. I love that! When I think of this reframe, I feel compelled (even more so than normal) to take ownership of all the things I can control on the daily. Think about what it means to dominate! Make a list of everything in versus out of your control, and then get to work dominating what you can!
3. Feel vs. Focus
I learned this exercise from my mental skills coach. It is an easy tool that can actually tie in nicely to your practice in dominating the controllables.
Simply complete the following:
I am feeling fill in the blank because I am focused on fill in the blank.
I want to feel fill in the blank so I will focus on fill in the blank.
I am feeling sad and frustrated because I am focused on the actions of others.
I want to feel calm and rested so I will focus on breathing to relax my body and mind.
In the context of the recent selection situation, this exercise helped me identify exactly what was triggering my stress and frustration. Once I was aware of the trigger, I could deliberately work to redirect my thoughts, and put my mind and body at ease.
I learned this tactic in working with High Performance Coach Samantha Livingstone. “A” stands for awareness. Scan your body and mind. Ask yourself: What sensations am I feeling? What thoughts are running through my mind? B: Breathe/breath. Remember to exhale completely in order to stimulate your vagus nerve and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (see “Breathing” above). “C” is for curiosity and choice. Get curious about your internal dialogue. Ask: What are the stories I am telling myself? What do I think I know or believe? Then remember: You always have personal agency and choice.
In my opinion, this last piece is key. When we’re stressed or feeling helpless or overwhelmed, we can feel pinned to one choice or like we don’t have a choice at all. In these moments, and this is where the awareness comes in, it is critical to take a step back. Give yourself space to tune in. Remember, we want respond to situations with thought and intention, not react in a state of heightened emotion. Awareness, breath, curiosity and choice.
5. Write It Down
My history with journaling is similar to my history with diaphragmatic breathing. I’ve listened to leaders and various highly accomplished individuals validate its merits for years—years! Yet, I’ve stubbornly stuck to my keyboard and consistently disregarded the practice of writing things down. Well, I’ve been shifting that mindset during the past two years. I started “journaling” by getting a day planner that gave me just enough space—10 lines to be exact—to write one simple paragraph at the end of each day. Today, I continue to write my 10 lines at night, and I keep a notebook meant for all the ideas just whirling in my head.
There is something powerful about putting pen to paper and seeing your thoughts on a page. In my experience, writing gives you a sense of control. It is rhythmic and calming, compels your brain to slow down and helps you engage with the content you put on the page. I encourage you towrite down your list of controllables. Write down your feel versus focus. And write down your A, B and C’s. (Well, not your B’s but you get what I mean!) Release your thoughts, free you mind and reclaim your sense of calm, trust and ease.
Let’s be honest: Obstacles and setbacks can be mentally and emotionally TOUGH! Stress is not fun. Fear, anxiety, worry and doubt: Not fun. Yet, time and again, when I reflect on the difficult times and “failures,” I can see how they’ve not just contributed to but actually accelerated my growth as a person. They’ve helped me build character, strength and resolve.
I felt proud when I stood on the podium last summer and I want to share more about why. Yes, I fulfilled a dream by standing alongside a dear friend and teammate, American flag in hand. I felt grateful for the gold medal and excited by the overall scene. But the pride? The pride came from the fight—the years of fight it took to get to that top. It was a fight that included injury cycles, and struggles with self-confidence, shame, depression and doubt; a fight that involved lost seat races, and politics, bias and agenda; it was a fight that included coaches telling me, “no,” or, “you’re too tall to row lightweight,” or, “you’re not allowed to train with this group… or go on that trip… or participate in that race;” and it was a fight that included teammates and peers making me feel excluded, unworthy and small.
I am not an expert. But I’ve been through a lot in this sport and I’ve grown and I’ve learned. I humbly encourage you to work through the tough times and challenges. Utilize the skills that I’ve shared. Believe in yourself and lean into your people—your circle of trust—when you need extra support and care. Trust your inner wisdom. Have faith. Know that something true and amazing awaits you.
Thanks for reading, my friends! Have a question or want to say, “Hi!” Get in touch with me HERE.