By Rebecca Kawaoka and Hannah Levy
In late March, when America was struck hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, I had the pleasure of virtually meeting a bright, ambitious doctoral student in clinical psychology, Ms. Hannah Levy. A young talent with a few triathlons under her belt, Hannah approached me about coaching her to gain a competitive edge in her swim-bike-run. A Stanford alum with four years of successful collegiate rowing, she is no stranger to the challenges in competitive sport. In the past six months she has built a strong, smart base despite an uncertain racing future, and with each passing week I realize how talented, hard-working, and self-aware this young woman is. I am excited, to say the least, to have the privilege of working with such a gifted yet grounded competitor.
Recently, I reached out to Hannah for her expertise: athletes and mental health (specifically student athletes). After a candid conversation, I felt enlightened, renewed, and ready to dig deeper into my own mental health journey. Even more so, I felt the responsibility to share our discussion with you in hopes that you may enrich your movement experience. This applies to all types of fitness enthusiast – whether you’re a mall walker, home exerciser, recreational jogger, collegiate rower, powerlifter, competitive cyclist, or aspiring triathlete!
Our primary objective is to find what brings an individual joy. Hannah specifically encourages her clients to engage in a practice I found particularly insightful. If you were to strip away all evidence of exercise would the activity still bring you joy? As in, no data logs from a watch or timing device, no coach watching practice, no trainer during a workout, refraining from posting via online platforms like Strava, Facebook, or Instagram. If you were to take all the proof of something away, would you still feel happy and accomplished? If you responded yes, good on you for being in a self-aware and confident space. If you responded “Well…. maybe but probably not.” or simply “I don’t know” we invite you to reflect further on this thought. So, how do we emotionally evaluate our responses?
Hannah went on to explain that the idea “if no one sees this or notices, it won’t matter” is what may contribute to athletes feeling jaded after workouts and competitions. I was immediately reminded of my first-year racing triathlons. I was very consumed with what my husband thought of all my workouts and race results. My purpose was very tied into his reactions, which was not healthy or sustainable. It took a month of self-reflection, grumpy workouts, and some personal, emotional breakthroughs for me to realize my purpose in training and racing was far deeper than impressing my husband. My purpose is to challenge myself so I can constantly grow into a better version of myself. This means failing just as much as I succeed, so to lean on someone’s responses to my workouts and races is not a fair representation of my purpose, nor does it bring me long term, sustainable, daily joy. I am passionate about sharing this journey so others may experience the happiness I have found in changing my lifestyle and discovering new things about myself. This is why I write blogs, in fact it’s why I started a YouTube channel, coaching endurance athletes, and personal training in the first place!
Hannah affirmed that this experience is common for athletes. There seems to be an addiction to sacrificing things we want to do “because we have to train.” She explained there’s an unhealthy idea many of us have that if we can just suffer through this practice, workout or session, we will be happy later – after we win nationals, after we make the time cut, or qualify for the championship race. Unfortunately, as her studies confirm and as most of us can agree from personal experience, these experiences often leave us desiring another national title, another more aggressive time cut, or another qualification- leaving many individuals feeling empty and unfulfilled.
While it’s not wrong to desire or train towards these things, our mindset has to shift from the very beginning. The mindset of success being tied to an outcome seems to be associated with a cycle of training towards said outcome, competing followed feelings of loss or depression once the outcome is reached or not reached, and searching for another outcome. Instead, what if we shifted our mindset to process-based goals and emotions? For example, one might start a training block by stripping away all data and feedback and identifying how a particular movement or sport brings them joy. From there, one can progress to more objective goals with a proper emotionally healthy and balanced mind. How might this shift in mindset help prevent the hopeless “now what?” feeling at the end of a big competition, weight in, or even a key session?
Hannah proceeded to touch on another striking point. Many athletes use verbiage like “I can’t, I have training.” This builds a negative mindset, sending a message that we are choosing a sport at the expense of activities that bring us joy. She suggests that we should avoid the mindset of limiting joy for “joy” or the glamour of giving up social/personal experiences for sport. I can’t tell you how powerful this was for me. After admitting my own experiences using phrases like this, namely when I was a college student playing soccer, Hannah comforted me by suggesting the use of private responses like “and yes/no” over “but yes/no.” She explained when offered the chance to do an activity outside of sport to listen to my inner voice responding. For example: Do you want to go to brunch and find a way to get your training/workout in, or do you want to go to brunch, but you have to train? Intrinsically, if I feel the urge to forego a training session for something, I enjoy I should identify that and make a decision based on what will bring me long term joy, which will likely bring my athletics long term success.
This doesn’t mean I’m clear to skip every swim practice for drinks with my husband. This means I should identify what I enjoy doing outside of sport, like baking, crafts, and playing games with my spouse, and limit the instances where I sacrifice doing them for my sport. There are obviously varying degrees of appropriateness based on the degree of competition for sport, but I truly believe with proper time management, even the most competitive athletes (and/or busy parents looking to stay in shape) should be able to make time for hobbies, social interaction AND their sport. Yes, there will be times calling for sacrifice of time, comfort, and finances. Saying no to one activity is a silent yes to something else, and vice versa. The most powerful tool during these times is self-awareness and knowledge that these sacrifices will bring an outcome-based goal to fruition with the awareness we need to take care of our emotional wants and needs in return. This is especially powerful now, during a global crisis that leaves us emotionally strained and drained. Check in on yourself regularly by communicating with loved ones, coaches, and friends about how you feel.
This led us to our final key point. We discussed the trendy obsession of pushing through emotional and/or physical pain. Often times, Hannah noted, athletes are glamorized for pushing through injuries. She has found athletes fear being perceived as weak, as sports are often associated with tones of masculinity and power. This leads to failure to communicate about nagging injuries and, in some cases, emotional disparity. It is critical to a both an athlete’s success and longevity in sport to effectively communicate about your physical and emotional status. Refrain from praising teammates or colleagues for pushing through pain or niggles. Acknowledge when you feel beat up or worn down. Openly share an accurate depiction of your training journey with people instead of a glamorized Instagram version of what you think people want to see. Tuning into your body on deeper levels while building the self-confidence to share honestly with the people you care about should help enrich your experience rather than burden you.
PSA: Sport and fitness should never be about how many people follow or like you online, as those people will not be the ones to rush to your side when you retire and find a life outside your sport, or when the outcome doesn’t go the way you wanted it to. There is wisdom in guarding your heart by building a trusted circle to share your most intimate experiences with.
I found it humorously fitting when Shania Twains “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here” came on the radio immediately following my discussion with Hannah. The lyrics are quite applicable, despite being written for romance:
“Let me make it clear
To you my dear
If you’re not
In it for love
If you’re not
Willin’ to give it all you got
If you’re not in it for life
If you’re not in it for love
Let me make it clear
To you my dear
If you’re not in it for love
I’m outta here!”
All jokes aside, I’ll leave you with this final thought: if you had one day left to live, what would you spend it doing? I hope your response leads to you find gratitude every time you get the opportunity to do the things you list. Try to strip away the data, limit the pressure to sacrifice things you love doing, minimize the noise of social media and cheap verbiage, engage in valuable conversation about emotional and physical health, and improve your knowledge of yourself. I could summarize it by stealing some of Shania’s lyrics and say: do what you love, with all ya got, or get outta there!
*A special thanks to Hannah Levy for her insight and time. I cherish our common goal of improving fellow athlete’s quality of life, and feel empowered when we unite to reach that goal. You bring me joy – an invaluable gift! If you are a Washington resident and would like to work with Hannah via Telehealth (video therapy), please contact the WSU Psychology Clinic (509)335-3587. Please note this is a training clinic for graduate students in clinical psychology and all of the clinicians work under the supervision of licensed psychologists.