About Danelle Kabush

I am certified mental performance consultant, a mom of two, avid athlete and lover of the outdoors

How to Practice the Skill of Riding with Resilience

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In life or in sport, your resilience grows stronger every time you bounce back and get back in the saddle after a fall. Each time you work on pushing a harder gear, or you increase your flexibility and adaptability,  you become more resilient. Resilience also comes from recognizing strengths you never knew you had until you’ve had to use them.

Like learning to ride a bike, the skill of resiliency can be regularly practiced. And it isn’t always about just “toughing it out”. More often, resilience-building is about finding ways to keep moving forward, to tackle challenges creatively, and to adopt a positive attitude. Here are some ways to practice resilience on the ride of life and sport:

  1. Widen your perspective by taking time to look around at the bigger views. Sometimes it is feels easiest to just stay focused on what is immediately in front of us, to just drive forward harder when we feel overwhelmed. But when a setback occurs, take a pause and stop pedaling for a moment. Take in the beauty of your surroundings without becoming overly preoccupied with the outcome you’re striving towards. Take time to breathe, to appreciate the full spectrum of your experiences, and to connect others who are riding alongside of you.

 

  1. Recognize that you are fully responsible for steering your bicycle. You can’t control the conditions, unexpected break downs in your equipment, or how fast or well others are riding around you. But you can choose how to respond to changes and setbacks. You can choose to steer toward positivity and hope and away from negativity and hopelessness. Where you look is where you will go!

 

  1. Accept changes in the terrain. As in life, changes along the road and the trail are to be expected. When you accept the uncertainties and unknowns, you’ll be better able to change your approach, your line, your equipment, or your position with ease and flexibility.

 

  1. Anticipate challenges up ahead. When the journey becomes long, difficult or extremely uncomfortable, focus on the positive ways that you can embrace and meet such challenges. Meeting anticipated challenges with a positive plan will help you feel more confident and in control of your ride and less prone to dwell on possible negative outcomes.

 

  1. Smooth out your pedal strokes when you feel them getting choppy. When you feel yourself reacting to a challenge with escalating stress and anxiety, recognize your emotions, physical symptoms or behaviors/habits that increase the tension and choppiness in your pedal stroke. Practice calming techniques that work for you to smooth out your pedal stroke again, things like relaxation, meditation, yoga, visualization, stretching, and deep breathing.

 

  1. Ride through your fears. Don’t let fear hold you back from the opportunities for growth that came come from changing direction or exploring a new route. Start with the simplest thing you can do that will take you in the direction you want to go. Once you’ve studied a new map, a new way of looking at things, and the route you want to take, go ride it!

 

  1. Let go of the anger brakes. Difficult obstacles like logs, rocks, and slick roots can cause us to feel frustrated, impatient or even angry. While such feelings are normal, they won’t help us move forward and flow over or through such obstacles in our path. Negative emotions only cause us to stiffen up, to tighten our grip on the handle bars, and to attempt to force the bike to go where we want it to. When we learn how to ride through our negative feelings and let go of them, we can move forward with fluidity, openness and the ability to absorb the obstacles in our path instead of fighting them.

 

  1. Take action and change gears. Avoid dwelling on setbacks that can temporary sideline you or blaming external things like your bike, external circumstances or other people. Focus on what you can do and on solutions. Figure out how you can fix your bike and back on. Then do it and take it one step, one pedal stroke at a time.

 

  1. Laugh. Even when you can’t seem to ride in a straight line or keep or falling off your bike, find time to smile and laugh, even if it’s at yourself. Watch something funny, or spend time pedaling with friends who can always find the humour in life.

 

  1. Focus on the parts that are working well. Be thankful for each bike ride you have the opportunity to go on, and your body that gives you the ability to pedal your bike anywhere you want to go. Try to appreciate the day-to-day good things with a spirit of gratitude. The more time you spend looking for the positives, the quicker you will see them and enjoy them fully.

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How to be the most mentally weak and unmotivated athlete you know!

My best demotivating tips for you based on personal trial and error, and a little observation!

  1. Don’t take any self-responsibility for planning where you want to go and how you want to get there. Forget about all that big picture perspective planning with purpose. Never ask why and just do what you feel like one hour at a time. Let any of your success come by pure luck, chance, and circumstance.
  2. Whenever you feel tired or uncomfortable, stop and take a long, well-deserved rest!
  3. When you’re not training spend all of your time and precious attention span dwelling on all the well-crafted social media posts of your closest competitors. That way you’ll be continually reminded that your life as an athlete is less exciting, less good looking, and less successful.
  4. Only practice, train or compete in your sport when conditions are ideal or just right. Don’t settle for less than perfect weather, conditions, or company for working on upping your game.
  5. Never stay focused on one task for too long, especially ones that require deep thinking, difficult problem solving, or that push your current capacities in any way.
  6. When things don’t go according to plan always conclude only one of the following: 1) It’s all your fault or 2) Blame your poor performance on everything or everyone else. Remember that when setbacks occur there are no balanced, in between alternative perspectives to consider.
  7. Work only on building up your strengths. Maintain the belief that your weaknesses are permanent, unfixable, and untrainable
  8. Suck all the joy out of your athlete journey by “should-ing” on yourself every day. Spend lots of mental energy continually ruminating on some form of “I should be….”, “I should have..”, “I should be doing more of….”, “I should be doing less of…” etc. etc.
  9. Never ever take risks or try anything new that scares you. Stick to what you know and who you know. Stick to an approach or routine that feels safe and comfortable.
  10. Never make any training or competitive decisions that are socially motivated, include fun, or involve the support and knowledge of others around you. Stay inward and isolated; after all you’re a “serious athlete”

A bit of satire was fun…but of course we can all build motivation and mental toughness by doing exactly the opposite of all of the above! 🙂

 

Value and joy in the journey

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If you were told that if you took a road trip across the country a million dollars would be waiting for you at the end of it, would you do it? Who wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity, right?!

Now think about how you would plan that trip. Would you find the fastest car with the best engine and take the fastest route to get there as fast as you could? Or would you take the smaller roads and choose a larger camper van with all the amenities? Maybe you would choose to use a bicycle for parts of the trip or even hike off the beaten path at times on your own two feet? What would you do if you broke down along the way, or ran out of funds or resources to finish the trip? How would you prepare in advance to be able to get back up and running if needed? Who would you turn to for support?

Would you plan key stops along the way, at places you’d always wanted to visit? How long would you stay in each place? Would you take time to visit friends and family? Who, if anyone, would you bring with you on the trip?

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After carefully considering the above questions, imagine yourself halfway through your cross-country road trip. What if at the halfway mark, you were told that there would be no guarantee that of any monetary reward being there at the end of your trip? You might only receive as little as 10$ for your trip.

As we head into 2017, perhaps you’re planning some exciting trips, have set some New Year’s resolutions, personal challenges, or competitive goals. As exciting as new intentions feel, many resolutions fail because we focus to much on the final destination, and/or choose them because we feel it is something we should do, the classics like drink less alcohol or watch less TV, eat healthier, exercise more etc.

However, no matter what all the external forces in our lives say as to why we should pursue any health, wellness or performance goals, we still need to find and connect with the intrinsic values in our goals in order to truly enjoy the journey and ultimately be successful at reaching them. Like the road trip metaphor, achieving our goals means taking as much stock in planning the journey as we do in reaching the destination. The desired destination is only reached by regularly focusing our attention on the present journey.

In the athletic world, we are drawn to our chosen sports most often because we experience some initial success. Positive reasons we stay involved are because of enjoyment, social connection, lifestyle, and the intrinsic challenge of continued self-improvement.

When we think of New Year’s resolutions or other goals we’d like to strive towards, as athletes we can recognize and reflect on the journey’s we’ve taken to get in reaching previous goals. Maybe you’d continue to take a similar approach in 2017 or maybe you’d do some things differently. Either way, consider reflecting on the following for any new challenges you’re setting for yourself in 2017:

  1. What will it take? Like any goal worth pursuing, a degree of discipline, time management and commitment will be needed on a regular basis. Without a plan for when, where, how and how often, it won’t happen. What environment works best to focus on the task and be free from distractions?
  1. What will make it enjoyable? Let’s face it, even the most challenging goals need to include fun and enjoyment to make them worth pursuing. Can you do it alone, or will you seek need to increase the joy in the pursuit by seeking out others for motivation, support, encouragement and accountability?
  1. What will be the cost? What will I need to give up to pursue this goal? In our time warped New Year’s optimism it can be easy to forget that pursuing new goals likely means giving up time we normally devote to other activities. Whether it be leisure time, social/family time, sleep time, or work time, it’s important to consider what, if anything needs to be lessened, stopped, or sacrificed to make room for the new goal.
  1. When and how will I evaluate whether to keep pursuing this goal? As an athlete, you likely have experienced those feelings of satisfaction from increased strength, endurance, or improved skills that comes after several weeks, months or even years of training, with all its highs and lows. Whether an initial commitment to a new goal lasts several weeks, months, or a full year, it is important to take time to ask yourself every so often – is this still worth it? What criteria you use evaluating the pursuit? It will depend on your life stage and your values; your current definitions of success, quality of life, overall enjoyment and life balance.
  1. What do I value about this goal that is separate from any performance related outcomes that may result? In other words, if you never reached your ultimate outcome goal, would you still pursue it? This also relates to self-compassion and not beating ourselves up when we fall short – can you commit to unconditional self-acceptance and to be kind to yourself even if you don’t reach your ultimate goal? Like the road trip, if you never reach your ultimate destination will the trip still be worth it?

 

Athlete-mom interview and co-author of The Athletic-Mom-To-Be: Jennifer Faraone

Let me introduce you to Jennifer Faraone, a mom of two and avid runner from Toronto. As a mother of two children, Jennifer has competed in road running, trail running, and duathlons. She is a World Championship two-time medalist in Duathlon (Gold and Bronze) and has represented Canada at the World Mountain Running Championship. Jennifer has won numerous trail and running events including the 3 Day Transrockies, the Toronto and Ottawa half marathons and North Face Endurance Challenge-Bear Mountain and Collingwood. She also coaches and hosts trail running clinics.

We have never met in person but I was first introduced to Jennifer a few years agao when she contacted me for a book she was writing for athlete moms and moms-to-be. Ever since I did the phone interview with Jennifer for the book, I’ve been super excited to see the final product: The Athletic Mom-To-Be: Training your way into pregnancy and motherhood.athletic mom to be.png

When I was pregnant with my first child in 2007 there wasn’t a lot of up to date information out there to empower women to stay active during  pregnancy and in the first year plus after having a baby. I was super excited to hear about this book coming together. As many people have said, it is a wealth of information all in one spot and a book I wish I had had 10 years ago.

Grab a cup of tea and read on to learn more about Jennifer the athlete, the mother, her co-authored book, and other tips she has for athlete moms.

What was your life as an athletically before you become a parent and how has it evolved since?

As a child, I was active but nothing intense; usually ringette in the winter, and baseball in the summer.  In high school, I didn’t do too much.  In University, I started to run a bit, and joined the varsity team to work out. This was my first real exposure to running consistently.  But it wasn’t until a few years later when I moved to Toronto that I started to pick up running again around 2003 or 2004. It was the first time I’d followed a training plan! I saw my running improve which was exciting and I was starting to win races. But I would run on and off, as I had a hard time dealing with the mental side of running. I wanted to run for the sheer pleasure of it, I was enjoying placing on the podium, but I had a big fear of taking it too seriously. I also did the odd triathlon/duathlon as cross training.

I have two children, Sophia (age 10) and Dominic (age 7). After Sophia was born, I was hitting personal bests in the first year postpartum and I started to train with a team again; but I also had some injuries! This is also the time I started to explore with trail running and competed at the World Mountain Running Championships.  After Dominic was born, I started to race duathlons (run-bike-run) as well, going to the World Duathlon Championships twice.

I would say that my “relationship” with training and racing has deepened since having kids. I have been more purposeful in my workouts and race selections, but with a healthier attitude and balance.

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Did you exercise/train during your pregnancies? How has your training/racing evolved/changed since becoming a mother? 

With Sophia I was fortunate in that I had almost a text-book pregnancy. It went amazingly well and I was able to run most of my pregnancy; I would forget that I was pregnant when I was running; but then at 32 weeks I was showing signs of preterm labour, so I had to stop running. At 34 weeks my doctor gave me the go ahead to run again. I was heading out the door for that run when my labour started. She was born just under 35 weeks but totally healthy.

With Dominique, it was very different, as I had varicose veins from hell pretty much since the beginning. Running was too painful so I had to switch to pool running. I could do other forms of exercise but even walking was limiting. This was really tough but I wasn’t concerned about losing my fitness or gaining weight as I knew that it would be temporary. What I found really hard was the constant pain I was in (the varicose veins went from my groin to my feet) and I almost had to take a leave from work.

I would say that I have had more successes athletically since my kids have been born; I think it’s a combination of my desire to put in the extra level of training, wanting to be a good role model for my kids, and really being in tune with my body.  I am more thoughtful with my training and everything I do is because I want to do it as opposed to feeling the need to do it.  I’ve also seen my confidence and self-esteem grow, and I think that my kids play a big role in this. When I get nervous about a race I ask myself: “What would I tell Sophia or Dominic right now?” and it really reminds me of the reasons why I do this, that it’s okay if I have a bad race, and that I don’t have to do anything I truly don’t want to do. It’s all about fun and passion

As is the case with most athletic moms, my workouts are flexible as every week is different. Trying to run with others is rare but a treat when it happens. Sometimes I have to train at odd hours to avoid interfering with family life. But my husband and I are creative. Date nights usually involve some kind of athletic activity followed by dinner (with us still being sweaty at times). If we are driving to visit family, one of us is usually biking part way and getting picked up along the way. My daughter also bikes alongside my husband while he runs. Most of my runs are done during the day when they are at school; other parents at the bus stop are used to seeing me in my run gear covered in sweat.

We’ve also tried to incorporate family activities more in the past few years. Winter is all about cross country skiing an hour north of the city. The kids take their lessons, my husband Steve and I ski, and then after lunch we can all head out skiing again. Last year we all took part in the Ski Marathon. In the summer, we do a similar routine with mountain biking. If I’m doing a race, my kids will sometimes jump in the kids race or volunteer at the water stations. It’s really important to my husband and I that we do these things as a family and that our kids realize that “this is what we do”.

Maybe it has to do with trail running focus, but my training the past few years has been very laid back in that I wasn’t following any sort of plan, did few quality sessions, and did not monitor pace/distance etc. I just went out and did what I felt like doing; the only real intentional focus was ensuring that I got some long runs in. I like this approach as it works well for me; keeps me from taking things too serious and not getting anxious if I miss a workout. And makes it easier to have less interference with the family. These past few weeks, leading into a race I have on December 3rd, I’ve actually for the first time in years, started to put together a tiny training plan, meaning I aim to do one quality session per week, and schedule my long runs 10-14 days apart. (I’m more structured in the training plans I give my athletes)

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What currently motivates to get out training and/or racing?  What are your current training/racing ambitions?

I’m motivated by the pure enjoyment. Also the curiosity to see what more I can accomplish gets me out the door. I keep joking that I’m going to be one heck of a master’s runner.  I’ve always felt like I haven’t fully applied myself to training, or found the right training approach to see my potential. That being said, the minute I find that it gets too serious, I check out and take a break.

At the same time, I just love training and how it makes me feel. Doing well at races is icing on the cake.  I think that my husband is secretly annoyed with me in the way that I’m usually surprised when I win or place at a race. Honestly, I don’t usually go into a race thinking that I’m going to win and then I feel giddy like a child when I do well.  I think that this comes back to my fear of taking the sport too seriously and putting pressure on myself.

My daughter used to ask “mommy how did you do in the race”? And now she asks “Mommy, how did you do compared to the men in the race?” She has gotten used to the way that I win many races, and now sees me in a similar playing field as men. For her, this is just an innocent question; but at the same time, I think that this is amazing, as it’s showing her that it doesn’t always have to be the case where men and women are different. Training partners/competitors can be either sex.  Right now, she is in mountain biking class and she is the only girl so she is asking to discontinue the lessons. I’ve been talking to her about the fact that it’s okay (and kind of cool) to be the only girl and that she should be proud, and instead of looking at it as “1 girl and 8 boys” to see it as “these are other kids at a similar biking skill level as I, and can help me become a better biker”.

As for racing ambitions I’m not sure. This year my goal was to race some more competitive trail running races, and to continue exploring with longer distances.  My big race was the 3 day Transrockies (won) and in a few weeks from now I’m doing the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship 50k in San Francisco.  In the summer I also did the North Face Endurance Challenge Blue Mountain Marathon where I won, but also beat the first male by 15 minutes.  Prior to that I did the Cayuga Marathon (won, however all the competition was in the US 50 miler championship). As for next year, I’m still trying to decide what I want to focus on

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How do you balance family/work demands with your training/racing goals? 

I went from training first thing in the morning with others to training during the day often on my own.  I will be starting to train with the team I coach (MB Performance) in the new year as there will be a subgroup of us meeting at 9am which I’m super excited about! My husband travels a ton for work, and when he is in town, he works long hours; and we have no family nearby to help. So I try to give him the priority to work out in the mornings.  Creativity and flexibility are key, and my husband and I try to plan things a bit in advance. Where possible, we try to make a race a family affair.  My husband and I will sometimes go just the two of us to a destination race, so that it’s a combo of “we time” and racing.

But if helps a lot that I quit my job working in health care as project manager/change management consultant a few years ago, as it gives me the flexibility to train during the day. It also means that there is more time for me to manage the family stuff.  That being said, I feel that I am busier now than when I worked. Although I no longer have a typical office job, I also coach, write and put on various clinics and retreats every year.  I’m often waking up at 5:00 am to get some work done before the kids wake up.

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You recently co-authored the book “The Athletic Mom-to-be”. What is the book about? What was the inspiration for the book? How did the book come together?

I co-authored the book with Dr. Carol Ann Weis.  It all started when I was injured postpartum and the physio treating me suggested (in a joking way) that I should write a book on the topic of pregnancy and postpartum for athletes, as info was hard to find, not to mention confusing. For whatever reason, I thought to myself “sure, that would be fun; I can do that” and literally got started. Shortly after, I met Carol Ann and we decided to write it together.  The book is a one-stop shop for valuable information from preconception to postpartum and touches on a variety of topics; it’s not just about exercising.  It’s also about empowering women to make decisions that are right for themselves and for their baby; to do this, they need accurate, comprehensive and up to date info.  This is not a book that only talks about how to continue exercising while pregnant and how to get back to it after having a baby. If a person decides that they want to take a break from training during this time, good for her for making this decision! And we encourage such reflection, and there’s a lot in the book that touches on the emotional and mental side of exercising.  The book encourages women to let their body be the driver, and not the numbers on the watch.  And to respect that every pregnancy is different. We incorporated feedback from close to 50 female athletes helps to further reinforce this message.

I love researching a topic, so the idea intrigued me. I love helping others make exercising part of their lifestyle, and deriving pleasure from it. And because I now had personal experience to draw upon, the idea of the book made sense to me (even though I had no writing experience).  My goal from the beginning was to produce a resource for other athletic women regardless of their performance level.  Instead of having to do their own research and try to find the information (not to mention try to make sense of the research), we wanted to put everything in one spot. I also wanted to use the book as a platform to reinforce a few keys messages, such as:

  • Continuing to exercise, and at what level, is a choice and it is possible to make an informed decision with resources like this book
  • It’s okay to decide to take a break from your training; this doesn’t make you any less of an athlete.
  • Have faith in yourself while also recognizing the importance of understanding and appreciating the complexity of getting back to exercising postpartum
  • Pregnancy and postpartum is a time to think creatively and to change the mindset that “the way you did things before” might look differently now
  • Just because you are experiencing discomfort or pain doing your pregnancy doesn’t mean that you need to just “put up with it”. For instance, if a pregnant woman suddenly felt discomfort running, a common response would be “I guess my body is telling me that I need to stop running now”.  On one hand, sure, maybe this is what your body is telling you, and you need to respect that. But at the same time, a) your body might feel different in a few days, so wait and see and b) there’s things you can do to try and alleviate the discomfort such as a lower lumbar belt, seeing an osteopath, doing adequate strength work etc.
  • Have honest discussions with yourself and to reflect on what training means to you; how much of it is driving by guilt or pressure?

What makes this book unique as compared to other resources out there for athletes who transitioning into motherhood?

  • It is based on 3 key sources of information: 1) the latest research/guidelines, 2) advice from clinical subject matter experts (over 50) and 3) advice from other female athletes of various abilities (close to 50). So this is not just our opinions and thoughts; it’s a collection of valuable resources.
  • It’s not just about exercise; we touch on a lot of other subjects such as breastfeeding, pacing your mind, etc.
  • We focused on many of the common questions and misconceptions when it comes to athletes and pregnancy, starting from preconception
  • We really emphasize the fact that every pregnancy is different; you can’t compare
  • The book is very proactive in nature. It talks about what you can do before getting pregnancy in order to maximize your chances of staying active while pregnant. We also talk about the role of several health care providers such as osteopath, naturopath doctors, etc.
  • We try to reinforce what you CAN do, whereas most books talk about what you CANT do
  • There’s a big emphasis on pelvic floor wellness (which is often neglected or not discussed enough) and this spans across preconception, pregnancy and postpartum.
  • There is a lot of information about the pregnant body and the postpartum body; we feel it was important that women have a good understanding of the changes happening to her body, as this would help her to honour and respect it more.
  • The postpartum chapter is quite extensive; we divide it into 3 separate phases and explain in the detail the importance of each one. Getting back to training is not just about putting on your running shoes the moment you think you feel ready; it’s a lot more than that, especially if you want to come back for the long haul. Most books simply provide a few guidelines.

How has the book been received so far?

The book has been received really well so far.  We often get feedback such as “I wish I had this information before I was pregnant” or “Where was this book when I was pregnant”?  Unfortunately, our strength is not in marketing/advertising so I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could be doing to market the book; but to be honest, our motivation was never to make money on this book; our goal was to produce the book and make it accessible to women.  Even the way that I describe the book likely doesn’t do it justice! I should probably hire a spokesperson!!!

What did you learn through the experience of putting this book together?

It takes time!!! And yes, info can be hard to find or track down, or try to make sense of the conflicting information at times.  But honestly, this was all such an amazing experience. I got so inspired writing this book. I loved seeing the diversity among women and their pregnancy; everyone was so open with sharing their experience, including the good and the bad.  It’s hard for a woman to admit that she let the “pressure” get the best of her and returned to training too soon. Or to admit that she had a hard time accepting her sagging tummy. Yet this book gave them the opportunity to reflect on their own experience and to be more accepting.

Our biggest challenge is writing this book was synching our schedules.  When I would be available to spend a lot of time on the book, Carol Ann would be super busy. And vice versa. This is the primary reason why the book took so many years to write

My biggest lesson: you can do things if you have the passion for it. I had no writing experience, yet I had the desire to write this book. I really, really enjoyed this entire process and this is what kept me going for many, many years. I really believed that the information we were providing was meaningful, unique and would help women a lot (I should add that we also intended for the book to be a valuable resource for health care providers; we were surprised with how many HCP are buying our book!)

Any other tips or advice (perhaps not found in your book) that you would have for other moms with goals of getting back in shape and/or continuing to train/compete with children?

One piece of advice that I’m been giving lately (which is not in the book) is that whether you are injured or getting ready to come back to training, start by carving out some time to yourself on a regular basis. For instance, take 30 minutes as “your time” and make this a routine 3 times a week. This way, once you are ready to start exercising, the time is already laid out for you and you don’t have too feel guilty. Taking time out for yourself can be really hard for many moms.   For example, a close friend of mine who is a mom of 3 kids, finally (after 6 years) began to exercise 4 days a week and was loving it for so many reasons.  She took so long to get started because she felt guilty about taking the time to herself and logistically thought that it would be impossible.  But then she got injured and couldn’t walk and she mentioned that she was really afraid that she wouldn’t be able to start up again once her injury had healed because she stopped the routine of taking that hour to herself 4 days a week–she got absorbed with the household stuff again. So I suggested that even though she couldn’t walk right now, that she should still preserve those one hour blocks four times a week and do something else so that once she was healed, she could easily start walking again with no guilt.  She loved that idea. I think that a huge hurdle for athletic moms is getting over the guilt of taking time to ourselves; and it’s too easy to say that there isn’t the time.

Second, don’t be afraid if your training is not a family affair; its okay if your training is just for yourself; it doesn’t make you any less of a mom.  You can still be a positive role model. Getting the kids involved with your sport has to be something that everyone enjoys otherwise it won’t be a positive experience. So often we hear comments like “involve your kids in your training”—and on one hand, it’s great to do so and offers so many benefits. But at the same time, it’s okay if you want to use this as your private time, and something you keep to yourself.  Respect your boundaries.  And these boundaries may change over time. Brining a small child to a race who is quite happy to nap in the stroller or sit on a blanket is much easier than bringing a toddler who can’t sit still.  I went through a period where it was more stressful to bring my kids. And whereas my daughter was quite happy to run/ski in the chariot, my son had other ideas.  So I chose to put him in daycare while I exercises, whereas my daughter was often my training partner.

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Thank- you Jennifer for sharing your personal and book story with us! For more from Jennifer you can check out her blog here: https://runningthetrails.wordpress.com/about-this-blog/

Athlete-Mom Interview: Gillian Clayton

Meet Gillian Clayton from Courtenay, BC, where she works part time as a physiotherapist. Previously a CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) gold medalist varsity soccer player, Gillian started running marathons in 2004. She taught herself to swim in order to compete in her first half-Ironman in 2010. Gillian raced as a professional triathlete in 2012 — and won the 2012 Ironman Canada — after just 2 years of racing as an amateur in triathlon.
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Gillian is mom to two little boys (3 years old, and 6 months) and recently finished the Victoria Marathon as the 10th women overall with a post-baby personal best of 3:11:30! Read on to learn more about Gillian’s latest perspectives on life and sport as a mother. You can also check out Gillian’s website here, and follow her on Twitter: @gillianliz

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1. What was your life like athletically (or otherwise) before becoming a parent and how has it evolved since?

My life before kids? Well, very different is the answer. The bottom line is that before kids (we have two young sons, 6 months and 3 years old), I could just decide what I wanted to do, and do it.  Quite simple.  I wanted to race in Europe? Okay.  Whereas now that question makes my head spin before I even figure out how to book a plane ticket (which we couldn’t afford anyways!).  So some logistics are different, and that shapes your training.  I get very excited now for local runs and races (here on Vancouver Island) because they are ‘available’ to me. Training is getting out the door and doing the best I can in whatever amount of time or energy I have that day.

2. Did you exercise/train during your pregnancies? How has your training/racing evolved/changed since becoming a mother?

I did train well through both pregnancies. I’ve often said I was lucky to be able to be so active during pregnancy, but I also worked really quite hard at it. Definitely I struggled in the first trimester with both pregnancies because I was so sick.  That was hard, for sure, but at least training made me feel like I accomplished something that day.

Certainly I’ve had lots of friends that had pain or illness that did not allow them to continue training, and I really felt for them, and felt quite lucky in that sense that I could continue doing what I wanted to do.  I was able to run and swim up until the days I delivered with both babies.  Biking took a bit of a backseat after the 3rd trimester because it wasn’t as comfortable and primarily I was more concerned of motorists on the road.  I am so happy I was able to train throughout pregnancy, as it has so many benefits (to the mother, to the baby, to the athlete, to the family!)

My training has changed immensely since becoming a mother so it’s a hard question to answer.  I realize I have a much smaller window for training, but I have quadruple (or more!) the amount of gratitude for the ability to get out and train. It’s a treat! I love my children and my life, but I am a born athlete, and I cherish when I am able to get out and move, breathe, and be an athlete again.  I recently trained for a marathon that I completed 6 months postpartum.  Some of that training was very hard, emotionally more so than anything.  But all I had to do was just start.  Just start and keep running. It came back to me, even when I was pretty sure what I had chosen to do was impossible (and maybe not the best idea – wrong, it was the best idea!).

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3. What motivated (or continues to inspire you) to get out training and racing?

Training is very simple.  I was just born to do it.  I love it.  It makes me who I am.  I’m not hardcore – I’m hardwired. I feel good inside my body when I move.  Racing is slightly different – there’s that extrinsic factor thing going on.  Why do we race? I’m not fond of race medals anymore and I am now comparing myself way less than I used to.  I do love the spirit of racing – of running beside someone and honestly putting your body & mind up against them and meeting the challenge. When you race someone to the line and you both end up laughing about it – that’s joy.

I keep getting out there because I have to do it too.  As a new mom, I’ve realized I need this for my mental health more than just about anything.  Postpartum hormones are no joke, and they can make for a very bumpy ride, and for me, I found that exercise was what kept me level. And as a mom of two young kids, being level is a gift in itself.

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4. What are your current training/racing ambitions for the upcoming months?


 Well, doing the marathon was a huge goal for me.  And now we head into the winter months where there is little on the schedule in terms of road races (I signed up for a trail race and rolled an ankle while walking on the road the week prior, and then realized, maybe trail is not for me – yet, anyways).  I really now look forward to the Cross Country ski season – because it’s a tremendous workout, lower impact, and I get up into the snow – which for the seasonal blahs of the west coast – is so, so important for me.  Plus I get to tow a kid along – honestly there is no harder workout!
Triathlon is a long term goal – I just don’t see the time to be able to fully commit to what I’d like to accomplish in that sport at the moment, so I’m happy with sticking to running.  Certainly I will run another marathon next fall, and perhaps one in the early summer depending on how it works for our family.  I just love endurance.  It should have been my middle name 🙂 My training is a combination of some workouts for my fitness, some for my mental health, and some to entertain my kids (or give my husband the occasional break!).  The goal of training right now is to stay healthy, in the greatest sense of the word.  But I do agree that racing helps you set goals, and that is something that I need to do to help feel purposeful in regards to training.  Certainly I will be back racing my second Loppet (Cross Country race) this year – I did one and loved it (bad technique and all!)

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5. How do you balance family/work demands with your training/racing goals?

I’m currently in the advantageous position of being on maternity leave, meaning I do get the extra time for training, but that’s balanced out with the needs of an infant who needs me a lot, so it also has some restrictions. Balancing the needs of my family with training is always the most important part.  Sometimes for my family to work well, I have to come first, and I need to get out to exercise enough to have a break, reap the rewards of the lovely endorphins of exercise, and normalize my energy levels (all moms know how being up multiple times every night can mess with your sleep/wake patterns). I’ve struggled with the guilt of saying, “I have to run”, but it’s getting easier.  I know as a mom I am not alone in this, which makes it easier too.
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6. Any tips or advice you would have for other moms with goals of getting back in shape and/or continuing to train/compete with children?


Oh, good question. Gosh, what would I say? I’d say do it because you enjoy it, not because you feel you have to have a certain type of body or look. I’m sure in the biggest milky boobs to speed ratio, I’d win every race. I look different – it’s okay. Your body has gone through a tremendous change, and it’s meant to be different right now.  I’d also say listen to your body – not everything is smooth postpartum (is anything actually….?).Push yourself because it feels good to do it, not because you’re supposed to.  Know that I felt so super crappy technique and speed-wise getting back into running – but that I felt so free getting a break that I didn’t care how awful I thought my running was.  It comes back to you faster than you think, but never as fast as you want it to.  Get a good sports bra.  In fact get 5 because you’ll never have time to do the laundry.  Find good body glide type products because you’re likely going to chafe – and that hurts! You’ve bled enough having a child – no need to lose any more!
Know that it’s okay to start small because no amount of exercise is insignificant.  Find a healthcare provider that can help guide you with exercise if you feel you need it – I’m a Physiotherapist so I have a bias, but we’re pretty good at getting you started and solving issues along the way.

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7. Anything else you would like to add?

I can’t imagine a life where I wasn’t able to intertwine exercise and pregnancy, postpartum, and motherhood.  It’s just who I am.  Motherhood has helped me see that more clearly because I care less about the results, the races, the validation of “I’m a good athlete”, because I now realize I was just simply meant to do it.  That has become a huge freedom in my life as of late.  I worried before, after having our first child and again when pregnant with our second, what if I lost the ability to really ‘push’ or ‘hurt’ myself in training to get to the level of fitness I wanted? When the mama-brain took over, I wondered if I’d ever be a good athlete again.  This was a real fear.What happened when I ran my last marathon was that I was so free of the old thoughts that once served me (usually punishing type thoughts), that it made way for a whole slew of positive thoughts, and room for the ‘flow’ of training and just enjoying doing what I was doing.  And now, although I don’t think I really care if I ever win a big race again, I’d be tempted to say, watch out, because I have a feeling I’ve finally gotten out of my own way, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I can now achieve more than I ever have before.

 Thanks for the opportunity to answer these questions Danelle!

How to Make Friends with Performance Anxiety?

Performance anxiety. It can roll through you in unexpected waves of nausea and self-doubt. It can threaten your appetite, your sleep, and leave your mind racing on high alert for any and every potential threat to your competitive readiness. A physical taper coupled with excess nervous energy can lead the best prepared athletes to over think, change regular pre-race routines, and even over train in the last few days before a race, when more rest would be best.

Symptoms of performance anxiety are unpleasant and uncomfortable and sometimes our first instincts are to judge it, attempt to control it, avoid it or make it go away. After all, our brain senses the anxious threat but doesn’t know the difference between an upcoming race we really care about and an approaching lion who hasn’t eaten for days.

So before you start to lament and ask, “WHY is this happening to me?!, decide to curl up in tense ball of nerves, or attempt to run away in a rush of panic, could a more welcoming approach to anxiety be considered? Can you let it in the door, make it your friend, and learn to harness it as positive performance fuel? Try these steps to make friends with performance anxiety.

Acknowledge its presence. Performance anxiety is normal and to be expected. We experience it because we care about an upcoming race or competition. If your anxiety level was zero, you’d likely be in a deep sleep, completely bored, and not invested to any degree in your sport or performance. View anxiety as the reminder that you care, you’re motivated, and that you’re ready to race, to compete, to push your limits and showcase your potential.

Your training has prepared you to handle it. Remember if you’ve trained seriously you’ve likely had some practice with managing anxiety before in your workouts. I know I’ve had workouts on the track as a runner, power tests on the trainer as a cyclist, or sets in the pool swimming that have made me nervous, with degrees of doubts as to whether I would be capable of handling the effort needed or simply completing the goals of the workout. But I also remember how good it feels to come out the other side, with that YES, I DID IT feeling. Sometimes looking forward to the other side of the workout or race, is enough to commit to pushing through the jitters and butterflies that come beforehand.

Calm your body and your mind will follow. IF you feel your pre-race anxiety levels to be so high that you can’t sleep, eat, or think straight, it may be time to practice using some specific calming techniques. For example, the use of deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation. Learning and regularly practicing taking deep, slow, complete breaths from the belly will usually trigger a relaxation response. Momentary muscle relaxation exercises can also help such as a quick body scan to consciously focus on releasing tension in muscles where it’s too high. It is also very common to carry excess tension in the neck and shoulders so releasing tension in these muscles tends to spread relaxation to the rest of the body. More specifically if you’re not sleeping because of anxiety, instead of fighting it, what is another calming activity you can focus on until you are able to sleep? If you’re having trouble with eating, what can you get down that will digest easily and contribute to your energy to perform? Making these contingency plans ahead of time is proactive preparation to manage anxiety with confidence. In turn, you will use up less excess mental and physical energy as a result of over reacting or over thinking when feeling anxious.

Harness the power of thoughts. A mental technique to gain control over our anxiety is by cognitive restructuring, that is, interpreting our anxiety symptoms (both mental and physical) as beneficial and positive for performing optimally. Focus on the conscious process of identifying and replacing negative interpretations of anxiety symptoms with positives. Ask yourself one simple question: “Is my interpretation of my anxious symptoms helping me to feel positive about my upcoming race? If the answer is no, work to replace such thoughts with more helpful and positive ones. For example, choosing to view your physical anxiety symptoms as an indication that you are prepared, physically ready to perform, and motivated to compete is a calming perspective when anxiety ridden thoughts strike. To illustrate, when I first started racing mountain bikes, I experienced my fair share of pre-race anxiety due to the newness of the sport, and the technical aspects that changed with every race course. I remember one specific race as a newbie to the sport, when I noticed my hands shaking before lining up to race. When I showed my hands to my brother his response, was “Good! It means all your systems are firing and you’re ready to go!” That was a great perspective shift that changed my mindset and confidence in a moment’s time. It was a great experience of the power of our ability to consciously change our interpretations of pre-race anxiety from a negative place to a positive, energized, and performance enhancing place.

Do one thing at a time. When your mind starts to race, or jump from thought to thought, and turns into a “monkey mind” slow it down with the purposeful intention to focus on only one thing at a time; only on what you have immediate control over in the moment. That is why pre-race routines, schedules, checklists and race plans that also include mental focus points are excellent tools for calming the mind and grounding our focus. Be proactive with strategies for moving confidently through the natural waves of anxiety.

Leading up to a race or competition, it can take some conscious effort and work to face anxiety thought acceptance, releasing tension through deeper breathing, reframing negative thoughts to positives, or routine behaviors. With practice, these strategies free you to focus on what you can control, and arrive at the start line with the confident, energized calmness that you’ve done everything possible to do your best on the day.

The Psychology of 4th Place

“How much it must suck to come 4th at the Olympics!”… “All that hard work for nothing!”… “My heart aches for (insert athlete) getting 4th”… “It must be the worst feeling”… “Coming 4th is worse than dead last”. These are recent and common spectator comments you may have heard, thought yourself, and can read if you just take a scroll through a Twitter search for example.

On the other hand when an athlete seems overly upset or inconsolable over a 4th place finish in the media, one may feel like shouting back, “Why are you so upset?!! You just placed 4th (or even 5th, 6th etc.) AT THE OLYMPICS!!”

I remember watching one of my favourite Canadian athletes that I looked up to in my event at the time, the 1500m, run at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. It was Leah Pells and she finished 4th, half a second shy of a bronze medal. She ran an amazing race. She recently wrote a book on her life up to that moment, called “It’s not about the medal”. It is definitely worth the read to understand the full meaning of all her accomplishments on the track. The first chapter of the book starts with the following quote about that 1500m final race in Atlanta,

“I was thinking I could get 8th. Then, I thought I could get 7th, then 6th, 5th, 4th… and by the time I realized I could get 3rd it was too late. I had run out of track. Some people I’ve talked to have been saying, ‘You were so close to a medal. Too bad’. Those people don’t really know me. They don’t know where I’ve been or come from.” (Leah Pells, Tri City News, August 1996)

A recent CBC article came out titled, “Canadians felt heartbreak of Olympic ‘tin medal’ with the byline, “Fourth is probably the worst place”. One online comment in response to the article stated, “This story is only newsworthy if there is context added.” When it comes to understanding the context and subsequent psychology of “winning” fourth place or “losing” a medal I couldn’t agree more.

As Leah Pells stated regarding the 4th place sympathizers, “Those people don’t really know me.” If one is to judge an athlete or team’s 4th place performance as full of heartbreak or somewhere towards the other end of the emotional spectrum: complete joy and ecstasy, you must first understand it within the context of the entire season and years leading up to that point. Was the athlete a clear favourite or one of many contenders? In sports like swimming the field is so deep that being a fraction of a second off can be the difference between 1st and 8th. Perceived clear favourites  can miss the podium by having just a slightly off day. A season’s best or personal best at the Olympic Games is always something to celebrate but a “choke” can be unfairly assumed without knowing all those contextual factors; the health status, the athlete’s full story of the journey there or even accounting for many luck factors, which are a much bigger factor in some sports than others (think BMX) that go into performing on the day!

And in speaking of sports that involve some luck, our Canadian mountain biker, two time World Champion (2011 and 2015), Catharine Pendrel recently wrote a blog reflecting on her Olympic experience and her Bronze medal. You can read it here. Catharine writes about her personal growth as an athlete through Beijing and London. In Rio, she was caught up in a crash right off the start line, had her shifting stop working for part of the race, and crashed again in the final lap. Those are some of the luck aspects of mountain biking. On the other hand, she was ready to respond and fight back through all of them from everything she’d learned and experienced as an athlete at that point.

In summing up her Olympic race she writes, “I LOVE my Bronze. To me it is Gold. I got everything I wanted out of that performance. It was far from perfect, but it was magic. I rode the race of my life and got exactly out of my performance what I wanted most, a ride that I could be proud of.”

And perhaps that is what needs to be celebrated more often. Attention, media recognition and Olympian status certainly create a large perceived gap between the meaning of a Bronze and 4th place. When we finish on the flip side and feel like we’ve missed out on a dream result (and for some the financial payoffs) by so little, of course there will be mixed emotions, and when any competitive athletes tastes “victory” so close, they will always think about what could have been, continue to strive for more, and hopefully come back even more motivated. In that same mountain bike race, our other Canadian rider Emily Batty finished 4th, and 2 seconds behind Catharine. I hope she can now feel more pride than defeat, and celebrate her effort, race execution and say that was the best ride she could put out on the day. And when you can say that, there is no shame in coming 4th at the Olympics.

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Photo credit: Tyler Anderson

 

 

Re-discovering athlete-identity beyond the competitive stage

We all go through major transitions in life that can initially leave us with mixed emotions, high school and college graduations, leaving home for the first time, relationships and career changes, or starting a family to name a few. However, for athletes who retire from competitive sport, the struggle to adjust to “normal” life is very real and thankfully it is discussed more and more openly by athletes themselves. For example, Michael Phelps has talked publicly about his post-London Olympics struggles. After making a return to swimming for the Rio Olympics, he insists he will be retiring for good after ending his career the way he wanted to. And I’m sure after the mistakes he admittedly made in transitioning out of sport the first time, he’ll have a better plan and approach in the coming months and years this time around.

Of course, not all athletes can decide to retire on their own terms, especially with the ultimate high of Olympic Gold. Team deselection, injury, financial stress, and motivational burnout are all reasons athletes struggle with or ultimately walk away from a competitive driven life.

Perhaps shedding “athlete” as your primary identity is one of the most difficult because it is so all-consuming. You don’t have to be an Olympic or Professional athlete to experience the many, mostly positive, influences that purposeful and clear daily goals, and constantly pushing one’s physical capabilities can bring to one’s life. In the name of performance sleep and nutrition are prioritized and discipline is cultivated. The immediate gratification of accomplishing optimally challenging training sessions provide regular endorphin highs. Social ties can run deep as teammates and training partners forge strong social bonds through the highs and lows or training, traveling and competing together.

When all of the above is taken away by choice or involuntarily, after a win or a loss, a period of withdrawal and grieving is to be expected, and every athlete will experience the intensity of this process differently. It is important to have a plan, with non-sport goals to move forward, and the social support to do so.

As a result of a debrief report after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Canada it was concluded that life-sport balance and post-sport career planning needed to be better addressed with athletes. Of course this has also been done in the name of optimizing performance prior to retirement as well. As a result Canadian athletes now have access to program called Game Plan which was founded to support athletes with their transitions throughout their sport and non-sport careers.

A Canadian paddler, and Olympic medalist, Thomas Hall, recently wrote in his blog titled,  When the Games are Over:

My “live your dream” speech to students has evolved. I tell them now that I have learned that though having a goal is important, having multiple things that excite you, multiple goals, is crucial for happiness. If I could, I’d offer the same advice to most athletes I know.

Multiple goals are certainly important. Over a year ago when I began the transition from life as professional athlete as part of the LUNA Pro team, travelling and racing Xterra triathlons for the most recent decade of my athlete life. Well before athlete retirement, I had a PhD, a husband and two kids, my ongoing part-time career as a mental performance consultant and college instructor, as well as continuing to work towards clinical counsellor certification. These were all things that I was sure would make the transition away from a jam-packed training and racing schedule, and a dwindling competitive fire, as seamless as possible.

As much as I was looking forward to the break from the structured athlete-life – working out as often or little as I wanted to, worrying less about what and when I ate, not fretting as much about lost sleep, having more time for work, social nights and drinks with friends, planning family vacations that didn’t revolve around races, as well as more time to just go with the flow of kids and family life – I was still surprised at how lost and listless I felt at times without purposeful training goals at the core of my daily schedule.

Although most athlete retirement advice is centered around pursuing other goals, and thinking and planning for what’s next, I personally believe it is also important to stay connected to your athlete-self in important ways that will help manage the transition away from competition. Here’s my bit of advice from personal and vicarious experience:

Keep moving. Yes, it is important to give yourself a few days or weeks to be lazy after a hard season of training and competing to recharge the mind and body. However, don’t be surprised when you start feeling grumpy and irritable within days. Since your body has been accustomed to working out every day, it is important to avoid the bodily withdrawal and ensuing potential downward mental/emotional spiral from stopping cold turkey for too long. Be sure to prioritize the time to still do something active, whether it is your sport or something completely different. Staying active and committing to a minimum level of exercise will give you the energy and clarity to find your new path as you start to focus more on your non-sport goals. While you don’t need to train at the level you once did, all the discipline and positive habits you’ve cultivated so well over time don’t need to go out the window either. If you need reasons and motivation to keep moving without a competitive focus you’ll certainly find them in the book:  Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain.

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Find your happy place when it comes to exercise. As competitive athletes the bar of expectations are set high when it comes to working out. If you’ve been used to training hours per day, getting out for 30 minutes can feel almost pointless and like a fail. Start somewhere. Everything counts. Experiment with how much and what type of exercise is enough to burn off stress yet leave you feeling rejuvenated; enjoy the change from previous training that may have left you feeling more often grouchy and tired than re-energized. Some athletes retire and never want to do their sport again, and choose alternative active pursuits. Others realize how much they truly love and enjoy their sport and continue to participate in it, even if at a much lower key level. Is exercising socially or solo, indoors or out-of-doors in nature most important to you? If you miss pushing the pace, go hard once in a while but don’t bother comparing with your old self or previous times and benchmarks, just enjoy the endorphins of a hard push now and then. Most importantly give yourself time to find out what brings out the best version of you when it comes to a new relationship with exercise, and maybe even competition, if you’re so inclined at any point down the road.

Let go of your old athlete self and be where you’re at today. I often hear athletes say, I wouldn’t do a race/event (insert previous sport) because then everyone would expect me to do well and I’d be disappointed. Let go of your old self, and your previous glory days, as they don’t define you today. Be where you’re at, train or participate at the level that is ideal for you now. This is one of the joys of non-structured athlete life. For example, these days, I sometimes miss swims with my master’s group for several weeks but I always go back because I truly enjoy swimming and I like the social aspect of the group. Each time I miss a significant chunk of time in the pool, the transition back is tough as I feel clumsy and out of shape for a week or two, but it always comes back and the feelings are worth it! I know I still enjoy running and love mountain biking, but if I don’t get to do one of them for periods of time I’ve learned not to sweat it. Psychologically, so much of an athlete’s identity and self-esteem can come from completing training consistently and successfully. In post-athlete retirement one of the biggest challenges is learning to let go of rigid all-or-nothing training goals, to be okay with doing less to feel good, to find new meanings and (social) connections, and truly enjoy what our bodies are still capable of doing, partly in thanks to the years of hard work put in!

 

Why Get Organized for Optimal Performance?

“Camping is so much work! All we’re doing is organizing, cleaning up and putting stuff away” was a recent observation of my husband’s. My family and I spent the B.C. long weekend camping. While it was lots of fun, deciding what to pack, and how to set up camp was also a challenge in order to develop a system to keep things organized and not lose stuff. Of course, not being expert campers like many of our campsite neighbors, we forgot plenty of things like a rope to hang our wet towels between trees, and noted what we should bring, and leave behind next time. With more practice, the potential countless decisions around something like a weekend of camping get easier and more efficient. What are the top priorities and which things are less significant in the decision-making tree? Furthermore, the better we get at organizing anything in our lives, the less stress we’ll experience and the more mental capacity we have to focus on other things around us.

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As athletes, countless decisions go into pursuing potential, and optimizing performance.There are the more significant choices like what races to do or what coach to work with down to smaller decisions around the daily details around training, nutrition, and recovery.  While constantly juggling the work-life-sport balancing act, ranking the importance of each decision can be easier for some than others. Either way, when we waste too much time on trivial decisions or on decisions that don’t really matter (e.g. should I wear my smurf or my superhero underwear today?) then the result can be neural fatigue, depleting our energy and leaving less energy for the more important decisions and for what really matters to us in terms overall and daily priorities.

In this age of information overload, the processing of every decision we make such as what to pay attention to and what to ignore comes at a cost to our brain. Neurons are living cells so when they’ve been working hard we experience fatigue.

Attention is a limited resource. With brains that evolved to focus on one thing at a time we often have more things to keep track of than our brains were designed to handle. This is also why optimal performance often happens in sport with an in the moment, simple focus, with a well-rehearsed and practiced mantras or cue words. These types of mental tools leave no room for analyzing the past or fretting about the future. Perhaps this is why many of us enjoy the pureness of the single-minded focus we experience while training, playing, and competing in sport. The rest of the time we are often in a multitasking state demanding our attentional system to focus on several things at once – we read email and talk on the phone, or watch TV while social networking or studying for an exam.

When our brains attention constantly flips from one thing to another, there is a neurobiological switching cost. For example, ever wonder why scrolling through your social media feeds can leave you feeling more fatigued than recharged afterwards? It can be a process of constantly deciding what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Since our attention is a limited-capacity resource, our brains function best when we start a task and stick to it. So how does all of this relate to performance? Here are a few points to consider as you organize your life around sport in the name of maximizing your brains attentional capacities, and optimizing your overall energy and performance.

  1. Organize your physical environment to take the burden off your brain. While we all have varying degrees of cleanliness, home organization and tolerance for messiness, it is hard to disagree with how frustrating it can be when we misplace our keys, wallet or goggles for swim training on the way out the door in a hurry. And of course, we often misplace things, even if we have a regular keeping place for them, when our attention has been distracted elsewhere. While this may be a work in progress for most of us, the more we can organize, keep our belongings together in functional categories and have a regular place for them in our physical environment (e.g. camping gear, workout gear, keys, glasses, phone or even files on a computer), the less energy we’ll waste looking for things. This also applies to being on the road for athletes. As someone who has traveled to many races with a bike on planes, it is essential to develop an organization system for finding things, packing, and not losing things while away. Good organization of time and things reduces anxiety and stress, and allows more time to focus on performance and what matters most!

 

  1. Clear your mind by writing things down as often as needed. As I wrote about in a recent post, writing things down can be an excellent way to process ideas, plans, and reflections and literally take the mental load off your brain. For example when I progressed from a runner to a mountain biker to an Xterra triathlete, the list of gear and equipment to maintain went up substantially for each sport. Making of list of what not to forget or what routine to follow on race day was and still can be a simple example of getting it off your mind so you can relax, sleep well and know you won’t forget anything as long as you go over the checklist again on the way out the door. The same goes for organizing your race plan into manageable mental chunks and focus segments. The less conscious decision-making you need to do during a competition, the more your brain can focus on auto-pilot and more energy can be put into performing. Keep in mind this is a practiced and continually refined process with time, patience and experience.

 

  1. Focus or daydream while minimizing multitasking. As already mentioned, it takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task than it does to focus. If you’re able to organize your time in a way allows you to focus for extended chunks of time, you’ll not only get more done, but you’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted afterwards. The challenge is that our brain’s attention is easily distracted by something new called the “novelty bias”. Multitasking is like an addiction loop as our brain becomes rewarded with dopamine bursts for processing new stimuli that grab our attention; think of constantly attending to notifications on your smartphone. I also remember the short period of time when I decided to work on my French comprehension by listening to the radio while riding my bike on an indoor trainer. An already boring task coupled with a challenging cognitive task did not work out well for my ability to stay focused on what I was hearing, my motivation to keep pedaling or my overall energy management! Neither, in my opinion, does reading or checking your phone while working out at the gym. This also relates to the fact that daydreaming also takes less energy than multitasking. I often enjoy the time I have to daydream while out on an easy bike ride or run without the constant interruptions that are hard to avoid at home or work. It is a great time to be creative, make new connections and naturally problem solve things that have been on our minds. Focusing and daydreaming both help to recalibrate and restore our brains while multitasking does not. Staying organized in order to focus on one thing at a time while ignoring all the potential distractions certainly takes awareness and discipline, but it will pay off in terms of brain power potential and ability to focus in your sport as well! I know I’m still working on it!

Getting-Organized

 

 

Earn your Confidence

In my work as a mental performance consultant with athletes, struggles with confidence is one of the issues that comes up most frequently. Think of the most confident people or athletes you know. Were they born confident or did they develop the confidence you see in them over time? Nature versus nurture debates aside, when it comes to sports I think most of us have observed or experienced personally how fleeting confidence can be. One moment you’re feeling on top of the world, ready to take on anything and anyone, and the next moment you may be going through an existential crisis questioning what in the world you are doing on the competitive stage in the first place? Passing thoughts like ‘why am I doing this?’ certainly don’t contribute enhancing your sport confidence.

So where does confidence come from and how do we nurture it and build it over time?

Like physical training, confidence builds in increments. Rock solid confidence doesn’t come over night and like any other aspects of an athletes training, it will have setbacks and temporary slumps. How we work through setbacks and what we look to for sources of confidence can make a big difference in building and keeping confidence more consistent over time.

Look beyond competitive results. Don’t buy into the common misconception or cliché that “you are only as good as your last result.” We can’t deny that a great or peak competitive performance certainly adds momentum to confidence. But we also can’t let one disappointing day override the confidence earned to that point from months or years of practice and competitive experience. If you let your last competition, race, workout, or training session determine your daily confidence you’ll be in for a real roller coaster ride emotionally; not a good way to balance your emotional energy or perform optimally over time! Furthermore looking beyond results also helps you to focus on the bigger picture perspective of all the reasons why you enjoy pursuing your sport in the first place.

Create a confidence plan. Sometimes when the normal waves of pre-competition nerves and anxiety hit in the weeks and days before an event, our brain says hey this a threat and we need to prepare for it. That is when negative thoughts and doubts creep in and it becomes easy to question our preparedness and readiness to compete. Many athletes I’ve worked with have found it helpful to write down all the things that have contributed to their confidence over time – things they’ve accomplished, overcome, positive feedback and encouragement they’ve received: all and any reasons they have to be and remain confident. Reading over this list when pre-competition nerves strike can be a calming and centering routine which also helps to shift the focus back to an eager and excited pre-competition state.

Focus on your own plan. If there is one thing that undermines confidence more than anything else it is constant comparison with others and rigid expectations with those comparisons (e.g. I should be ahead of him/her). While competitive rivalries are there to optimally challenge us and bring out our competitive best, if you’re focused on others or constantly comparing yourself against others in training or in racing, it will only erode your own confidence over time since what others are doing (or what you think they are doing) is out of your control. Put your focus and energy into your plan, what works for you and what you need to focus on pre-, during and post-competition to do your best. For example, the late Al Oerter, an American athlete, was incredibly a four-time Olympic Champion in the discus throw. In an interview he said one of the secrets of his success was practicing in absolutely every kind of weather condition, an example of focusing on your own plan and preparation for anything!

To grow confidence it needs to be challenged. Like the title of this blog, confidence needs to be earned. If confidence was something that was given to us or that we could buy it wouldn’t mean much. Confidence grows from those moments of pushing through fears, anxieties, challenges, setbacks, workouts, races, competitions and coming out mentally and/or physically stronger from them on the other side. When we embrace training and competitive days as opportunities to push our current comfort zones when it comes to effort, focus, and overcoming adversities we can appreciate how they help to build confidence and belief over time. When viewed this way, successes and setbacks can both equally contribute to building consistent sport confidence.