Sometimes life weighs you down. As an adult, that weight may be the pressures of work and caretaking—of children, parents, spouses, friends, and community. For athletes, though, it’s usually the pressures of performing academically and athletically and of the future that weigh them down.
We have done such a good job of stressing the importance of making good decisions to our kids, that we have collectively managed to create a generation of youth that is breaking under the weight of future expectations.
I came across this photo on a friend’s facebook the other day (source unknown) and it really hit home. If reading this leaves you breathless, imagine how it must feel to a teenager that’s trying to live it. These are very privileged worries that don’t involve food insecurity, homelessness, abuse, or violence of any kind, but they are real worries for many kids. When did childhood become such a race to cram in all the information and achievements? When did it become all or nothing?
I’ve written a bit about the need to drop the ball as an adult… there are just some things we have to let go of to maintain our mental and physical health. As parents and coaches, it’s our responsibility to not only teach kids about good choices but also about resilience and perspective. They don’t have to kill it on every assignment, and it’s ok if they skip a couple of days of piano practice if they need a bit of extra sleep. We have to teach them to juggle it all, how to choose which ball to drop when, and how to respond appropriately when they choose incorrectly.
Parenting this way is hard. We are biologically programmed to fear potential threats, and society teaches us that we must compete in every way and falling behind is failure. And goodness knows the cost of higher education is enough to make nearly any parent fearful. Every child develops at their own pace, though, and getting into and affording the best college doesn’t equal happiness or material success.
When I step off the hamster wheel and really see the kids I coach and, more importantly, my own son, what matters most is their character. Do we teach them to be respectful of others’ time and energy? Are we modeling gratitude for them? Do we hold them accountable for the mistakes that matter and let the little ones slide? Have we shown them the value and joy of working towards something that makes our heart happy? Are they honest, observant, and compassionate? Do they stand up for what is right?
I don’t want my son to stress over his college apps at 13, and I don’t want him judging himself only by comparison to his peers. I do want him to experience some level of financial security in the future, but most of all, I want him to be a good person.
One of the best things we can do as parents, coaches, members of the community is consistently evaluate the ways in which we measure “success”. Athletic feats are exciting and make us proud, but is that because of our own ego or because we are happy to see the joy in our athletes’ eyes when they play?
The right amount of stress is important—not enough stress in our lives and we lack resilience, but too much stress leads to chronic health issues—so I’m not necessarily saying we never need to compete or perform again. Let’s just make sure we are being intentional about how we approach competition and that we keep our most important values at the forefront of our decisions and actions. This is the balance that we keep talking about in yoga—finding that balance is the yoga.
If you're wondering about what some of those values are, stay tuned. I'll make a new post soon about that.
Leaving competitive sports behind is a lot like breaking up with a significant other. Either you're the one who chooses to end it, or someone or something chooses for you. When you retire from sports, sometimes it’s because you don’t make the cut for the team, or maybe you have a career-ending injury, you graduate, a parent loses a job or they get divorced, or maybe you just don’t love it enough anymore to keep making the required sacrifices. Or maybe a tragedy (or pandemic) leads your peers to grow apart and your family to reevaluate your current financial and emotional investment. No matter the reason, leaving competitive sports almost always entails an agonizing transition for an athlete.
One of my students recently decided to stop skating. It had been a long time coming; I had seen the signs for a while, but I thought she would be able to hold out for one more year of high school and to pass one more skating milestone. When she came to tell me that she was thinking of leaving the sport, she was distraught. Being at the rink makes her anxious and she doesn’t feel good about herself when skating anymore because she isn’t achieving goals quickly enough. (As in any sport, the higher you go, the harder it gets to maintain the level of athleticism required to progress and stay interested.) She doesn’t have time to get all her schoolwork completed, participate in the other extra-curriculars need for college apps, keep a part-time job, AND skate. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, she feels like her rate of progress is being used as a gauge for how others around her feel about their own progress. Whether or not others are actually paying attention to what she is doing now is irrelevant—she believes that is the case, so the environment is no longer good for her.
This is not the first conversation I’ve had like this. In fact, for over twenty years I’ve been having similar conversations with almost every teenage athlete I have taught. Skating is a sport that specializes early, and since it hasn’t traditionally been a collegiate sport, most skaters wind down by the time they get to high school. It’s a problem that US Figure Skating is trying to rectify by offering other programs and paths besides the traditionally “competitive” route that you see on TV and by pouring energy into the collegiate skating program. Ultimately, though, the athlete feels pulled in all directions. Their friends change, schoolwork intensifies, they want to try new things, they might get a job, and skating just gets too hard to continue. While many athletes in skating and other sports do stick it out to graduation, most eventually go through a similar transition at some point during or after college.
Yet, the transition is a tough one. “What will I do now? It’s all I’ve ever done.” I’ve heard this statement so many times from young athletes, and when I stop to put myself in their shoes, it can be quite terrifying. I remember what it was like in college to be without the sport I had chosen when I was 4. I also remember what it felt like when my first love left me (also while I was in college). Both felt like being thrown into the deepest abyss imaginable. It was all darkness, and I couldn’t imagine a life different than the one I had known before. I struggled to let go of both and kept searching for ways to maintain contact—with both skating and the boy.
If the time has come for a chapter to close, though, then ultimately you will make the leap or be pushed. You shouldn’t stay in a situation that no longer serves you just because you don’t know what else is out there—that only leaves you feeling more heartbroken, more resentful, and even worse about yourself. (Side note: I did meet a woman once who told me, “never quit your job or your boyfriend until you have the next one lined up”, but as I’ve become much more in tune with my mental health over the years, I definitely do not agree with her!)
What’s next, then, once you foresee the big leap? Here’s what I told my student:
Buckle up, feel all the feelings, give yourself some grace, and enjoy the ride.
The Olympics and Simone Biles are still on my mind. How can they not be? After all, I'm still a coach of youth sports, and my own sport still faces its own struggles with prioritizing medals and money over athlete well-being.
Is an athlete's body their duty? What is missing inside us that we make young athletes feel as if the well-being and identity of our community depends on their performance? The athletes are the ones sacrificing and working, not the NGB's. Even before I discovered yoga, I often wondered why college basketball fans yell, curse, cry, and fight over teams of 18 and 19 year-olds. They're just kids.
Can we still love and support a sport when we are aware of the layers of abuse that have historically been tolerated and perpetrated by those in power?
Elite sports, by nature, require a level of single-mindedness that some would argue is pathological. What do we do with this knowledge? Just how much should a coach push an athlete to help them achieve their goal?
What role do agency and bodily autonomy play in our path to healing and creating a truly safe sport? Is it possible for young people to achieve success and be well-balanced, multi-dimensional humans?
These are the questions that have kept me up at night for years and made me question the depth of my involvement in skating. These are the questions that led me to found The Skating Yogi--to offer athletes and former athletes a safe community in which to explore these questions and find their own individual answers through the powerful embodiment practices of yoga.
If you have asked yourself these questions and other similar ones, I encourage you to listen to this podcast by The Atlantic.
It feels like we are at a tipping point toward a safer world of sports, thanks to the work of many brave victims from many sports. This podcast, while difficult to listen to at times, left me feeling very hopeful for the future.
Until then, I'll stay in the present and keep doing my work.
As we have seen over the past few years, many well-established athletic training methods and practices need to stop. Most level-headed people now agree that clear patterns of abuse like what we saw in USA Gymnastics should never have been tolerated. But what about the behaviors that aren’t so clear, that may still be justified as “scientific” or to promote “toughness”?
When I was younger, for example, club and team weigh-ins for figure skaters were a common practice. As more education about eating disorders became available, this practice fell by the wayside. We now know what a harmful, humiliating practice this is, even though some training schools we see on Instagram still do this. When we know better, we must do better.
The more I dive into this work, the more passionate I become about protecting athletes and really, humans in general. This summer I’ve tried to talk less, listen more, and connect the dots between different themes and thought processes I see in society and sport. The more I observe society, the more quickly I recognize harmful behaviors and patterns.
A few weeks ago one of my skating students came to me complaining of how tired she was. She said that she had attended a 4-hour conditioning and practice for her school sport the evening before. Apparently, the A/C was out in the gym and the heat index was over 100. Sounds awful, I thought, but the school surely knows what they’re doing. Then she said, “My coach made us work for water.”
Whoa, what? Timeout. I was speechless.
After asking her to repeat what she said, I promptly replied, “Well, that’s abuse.”
When I pried a little more, she justified it by saying, “It’s ok, it was grit training. He’s a really nice guy. He just called it ‘work for water’.” Then she backtracked a little and said they knew they could stop for water if they really needed it, but that the coach would have been displeased. So basically, these adolescent female athletes had to choose between displeasing their coach (and potentially losing a spot on the team) or hydrating their bodies in oppressive heat.
Let’s say that these girls really did know that they could drink water whenever needed and they actually weren’t worried about displeasing their coach. On a day that hot and a practice that long, the coach should be mandating regular hydration breaks, not rationing them out like Halloween candy.
But let’s play devil’s advocate and defend him some more… let’s say that he actually did mandate frequent water breaks and simply called the exercise “work for water”. While this scenario makes me feel a bit more confident in the athletes’ immediate safety, I still cringe at the wording and realize how far we still have to go in coaches’ education.
Using terms like “work for water” sends the message that athletes don’t deserve to take care of their bodies, that they aren’t worthy of basic nourishment, let alone love and self-respect. Basically, it teaches that our worth is tied solely to our productivity and our accomplishments. Terminology like this takes away agency from the athlete, which can leave them feeling powerless, which ultimately paves the way for an environment of fear and abuse. It’s the same message that society still sends Olympic athletes today. One only has to look as far as the criticism Simone Biles received after withdrawing from the team event in Tokyo to see that society puts the weight of the world on young athletes. And for what?
We aren’t in ancient Rome training gladiators to appease the emperor and the gods, and this isn’t the Hunger Games. The grit we want for our athletes must come from within—nurtured through love for sport and community, from a desire to uplift and improve, rather than from perfectionism or fear of failure. It comes showing up day after day and putting in the work in an honorable, sustainable manner, simply because we can and because we love our sport and the process, regardless of the outcome. While teaching and building grit, we must also teach our athletes about boundaries, agency, respect, and love, and we must create spaces that empower them to make the right choices and to believe in their own worthiness and strength.
Our job as coaches, teachers, and leaders lies not in the big accomplishments, but in the small, daily efforts and in the words that we utter on a daily basis. When we know better, we must do better.
For as long as I can remember, my family and I have been going to the beach at the beginning of June. When I was little, it was my parents, my sister, and I that went. Through middle and high school, my aunts, cousins, mom, and I travelled together. When I moved away for several years I couldn't join them, but once I came back to Kentucky, my parents and I started the annual tradition again. This post-COVID vaccine year, my husband and stepson joined us.
While I love adventure and travelling new places, going to the same beach has become somewhat sacred to me--a ritual, if you will, and it's one that I look forward immensely. I read books, listen to the surf, wear a fancy sun hat, and visit our favorite restaurants. It's fun in the sun and sand (have you built a sand castle lately???), and a time to rest and smell the salty air.
In sports we are always training towards that next goal or the next great feat, and we don't prioritize time off for recovery or family. Our competitive society teaches us that our worth is measured by our productivity, and our sports conditioning truly makes us believe it. We forget that we are enough as we are. We forget that the beauty of life is found in the small things.
Because of this, when you leave sports, you may feel lazy or unproductive when you don't continue to achieve "great things". You may feel lost, looking for ways to build community, find purpose, and regain control of your life. One way to help regain control is to use rhythm and ritual to help ground yourself. Rituals have been a part of the human experience for thousands of years, and while modern society has drifted away from them, there's no doubt they can have a major impact on our lives. Paying attention to the rhythm of the seasons and celebrating and creating traditions with loved ones can bring new meaning to your life, especially when things feel otherwise chaotic.
For me, sitting by the pool with my mom every June in St. Pete Beach is one of those rituals that always brings me back to my core.
Some of you may have heard me mention this book a few moths ago, but it’s so good, that I have to bring it back into the conversation. In fact, it’s so good, that I have chosen it for the inaugural Skating Yogi Book Group. Here’s why:
At the start of 2021, I decided to do some deep personal work and dive into some of my mental and emotional sticking points. As part of this, I took part in a 6-week immersive course by my friend, the amazing Dr. Katie Blake. This course was intended to guide participants through the process of deconstructing faith, offering support and community rather than dogma.
It turns out that deconstructing faith is quite similar to dissecting the components of any culture or belief system, including those of competitive sports. This makes sense, since sports and religion have been intricately linked since ancient times in Native American, Eastern, and Western civilizations. While modern sports are a secular pursuit, many of the values and details of religion and sports are the same. Both deal with relationships to self and others, personal sacrifice, the pursuit of non-material achievements, and the promotion of purity and higher ideals. Additionally, both rely on ritual, rulebooks, holy houses, and heroes, and both can unite a group of people or tragically divide them.
The first book we read in Dr. Katie Blake’s course was Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. In this book Dr. Brown talks about our deep, biological need for community and how this need is becoming harder and harder to fulfill in today’s polarized society. Finding community has become even harder since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalations of political tensions. Sports clubs and churches have traditionally offered us this belonging, but as society has become more fragmented, fewer people are staying in communities that we once were a part of. Leaving a restrictive community can be liberating, particularly for people who have traditionally been oppressed. Nevertheless, this freedom can also leave us quite alone. As Dr. Brown says, even as our need for community is greater than perhaps ever before, we are isolating ourselves more and more. We have lost our ability to find common ground, so we retreat.
How do we fix it? According to Dr. Brown, the only way to fix our isolation is to learn to belong to no one but ourselves. You read that right—in order to find community with others, we must learn to belong primarily to ourselves. In Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brown explains her theory of belonging from her 2010 book titled The Gifts of Imperfection, saying:
Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
Wow. Read that last line again—“… our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
We have all heard the sayings “you can’t help someone if they won’t help themselves” or “you can’t accept love until you love yourself”, and maybe we have even had experience with these realities. Either way, reading Dr. Brown’s theory of belonging helped things click for me in a completely new way.
How often do we do or say things just to fit in? When you are having doubts about your sport or your desires to keep competing, or are growing apart from your friends and teammates, how long are you willing to hide your true desires from yourself and others? How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice? Authenticity takes courage, but it’s the only true path to belonging. Dr. Brown goes on to say:
True belonging is not something that you negotiate externally, it’s what you carry in your heart. It’s finding the sacredness in being a part of something and in braving the wilderness alone. When we reach this place, even momentarily, we belong everywhere and nowhere.
I am here to tell you that you can find your place in sport and still be your authentic self. You can be part of a club or a team and not sacrifice your sense of self. As one of my students once said, “I realized that you can have friends and not be BFF’s with all of them”. If your current situation in sport does not allow you to be your true self, then I encourage you to explore why and to reach out for help to explore your options.
Only when we belong to ourselves can we truly belong anywhere. This is my hope for you.
Our first book club chat will be Sunday, Aug 15, 6:15-7:00 pm EDT. Register here (it's free) and join us! We will discuss Braving the Wilderness in more depth. To support local booksellers, you can purchase your book here. (This is an affiliate link, and I earn a small commission with each purchase).
Are you looking for guidance on how to transition into a new place within or beyond your sport? Sign up for my mailing list to receive my 7 Principles for Life Beyond Sports to help you on your journey.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. Having experienced the highs and lows of being an athlete and the loss of identity upon retirement, I am passionate about coaching other skaters and athletes who have been through some of the same challenges. I love working with young athletes, former athletes, and anyone that wants to reframe their athletic experiences to re-write their story, rebuild their identity, and thrive in life outside of sports.