As a competitive figure skater growing up, my coach was born and raised in Russia, competed on the Olympic Russian figure skating team, and then came over to the United States as a coach. She met most of the stereotypes you might have about Russian coaches: intense and demanding, she set high performance expectations and enforced strict codes of dress and behavior. There was no lolly-gagging or chatting with other skaters—we were there to do a job and were to remain focused and productive for the entirety of each session. If you couldn’t stand the heat—prioritize all things training/high performance and withstand the harsh critique and intense physical and emotional demands—you were ousted from the “kitchen.”
For better or worse, my coach placed a central role molding me into who I am today. High performance in any setting requires unrelenting work ethic, the continual pursuit of mastering your craft, and the ability to be comfortable being uncomfortable; and my coach drilled these skills into me. Subsequent coaches, professors, and managers alike have commented on my high pain tolerance and ability to keep training, racing, and pushing my mind and body when many others would stop. All of these skills have played an essential role in my ability to succeed in both NCAA Division I rowing and my quest to be a top triathlete on the world stage, and I know they will continue to help me not only in sport, but also beyond athletics, in the world of business.
But on the flip side, a large part of how I’ve been able to do this is by disconnecting from emotional sensations and silencing that inner voice that tends to pipe up when we are uncomfortable. While this can be a powerful skill, I’ve begun to discover the limitations inherent in this approach.
Strictly adhering to what is ideal on paper, without regard for joy or happiness, can create an artificial ceiling when the time comes to dig deep for a big performance. As an example, when Jarrod and I created a plan for my 2019 season, I continually emphasized my desire to base it upon what was “optimal” from a performance perspective. But this plan resulted in me spending a lot of time on my own, sometimes going for days without interacting in person with any friends, family, or even close acquaintances. I was apart from Adam (the hubby!) for over four months at the start of the year and have only been with him for 6 weeks of the 39 that have passed thus far this year. This took an unexpected emotional toll on me, which I was able to block out in day-to-day training but always seemed to rise to the surface on race day. Reckoning with this has certainly been a process. At first I questioned it deeply: did it mean I have I lost my edge?
But as I’ve faced my deep-seated perceptions about what it takes to perform at the highest level, I’ve come to realize that as much as performance can come from silencing emotion, even more can come from embracing it. Bringing joy and gratitude to each session can foster an inner fire and an even greater depth of power and strength than almost robotic discipline. Of course, I still think the magic comes when someone can combine the two! I ended my season with so much unexpressed fitness, and that hurt; but I’ve let that hurt in and come out on the other side more motivated than ever. I’m taking my off-season break for honest reflection on the best environment for me to not only train hard but also tap into the joy that, for me, comes from being able to both pursue my potential and to share that journey day-in and day-out with the people I care about the most—my friends and family. I’ve seen through the examples of many top women in long-course triathlon that it is more than possible to combine the two, and I can’t wait to find that for myself!
All this is to say: yes, if you are setting big goals, you must organize your life to meet the demands inherent in achieving them. But don’t lose sight of the other things that are important to you. Clear eyes, full hearts—both, not one or the other—can’t lose. Stay tuned…. Onward and upward!