The Role of the Cognitive Triangle in Figure Skating Self-Talk
The Cognitive Triangle is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and is used to treat many mental health issues. It is well-researched and documented and very widely applied to performance related therapies, and as such, is particularly relevant in sports psychology and figure skating performance.
Basically, the cognitive triangle diagrams the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We have a thought or a belief, which produces a feeling, which leads to anaction or a habit. Then that action or habit produces additional feelings and thoughts, thus continuing the cognitive cycle.
In my last blog post I discussed how the Cognitive Triangle is key to our ability to control our actions, our reactions to our environment, and ultimately to our happiness.
I am not a therapist or licensed social worker, even though I sometimes wish I were. When I was a young coach, I felt completely unprepared to guide my skaters through the negative thought cycles that often sabotaged their goals and happiness. All I had to advise them with was my sincere emotional investment in their well-being coupled with my own ADHD and anxiety fueled overdrive.
Later, after many years of personal therapy and study, I became aware of what I called the Positive Thought Cycle and began applying it to my own life. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate the ability we have as humans to intervene in our own thought processes in order to change our behaviors.
Developing Mental Toughness – Intervening in the Cognitive Triangle is Like Exiting a Twizzle
Imagine the cognitive triangle is like a rotating spiral staircase… maybe you’re standing still as the rotation takes you downward, or maybe you’re walking frenetically just to stay at the same height and avoid plunging into the dark basement.
If the staircase were only rotating in the other direction, you would make your way up to the roof and soar to new heights.
When we rotate on the ice, all it takes is one action to stop—usually it’s the twisting of the upper body against the lower body. (Hopefully it’s this action and not the blade getting stuck or another person stopping us!). The faster we rotate, the more forceful the opposing action needs to be, but just one action will stop the rotation, nonetheless.
The same concept applies to the cognitive triangle—If you are in a downward spiral with your actions, thoughts, and feelings, all it takes is an action or thought to make a change. The more ingrained our negative habits and beliefs, the more we must produce positive actions and thoughts to counteract them, but all it takes is ONE thought or action to start the process.
Think about when you’re having a bad skating day and you’re lost in your own thoughts. You may say to yourself “I can’t do this… I’m so embarrassed I keep missing this jump… Why is she able to land that jump and I can’t? What’s wrong with me? I’m so dumb. I can’t figure out how to do this. I should just give it up. No one believes in me. I’m such a disappointment. My parents are wasting their money. I’m never going to get it. ”
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
The other day I was driving to teach a Spanish class I teach at a local university, listening to a flamenco song about nostalgia. One line in the song hit me, and I got lost in memories of a loved one who recently passed. I started to get very sad, feeling sick to my stomach, weak in my knees, eyes welling up with tears. I went through the drive through of a local coffee shop, and when the cashier handed me my coffee, I hit the cup on the edge of the car window, spilling the coffee everywhere.
This one action is all it took to snap me out of my thoughts. The coffee didn’t burn me or stain my clothes (I was on my way to teach, remember?), and the barista gave me another coffee and didn’t charge me for the spilled one. I took a deep breath, laughed it off, and was grateful for the moment I had had to feel the sadness, grateful for the kindness of the barista, and grateful to be back in the present moment.
Sometimes it’s an outside force that intervenes, but other times, we must intervene on our own behalf.
When you catch yourself in a downward spiral—like in a frustrating practice session—stop what you are doing and take a deep breath. Maybe take a lap around the rink, do a quick shake down or dance move, and take out what one of my coaches used to call “the brain floss”. Then, visualize something positive or say some positive words to yourself. In that moment, it can be as simple as, “You got this” or “you are talented” or “you skate with grace and ease”.
When the Going Gets Tougher, The Tough Keep Going
Stopping the rotation of a triple jump requires more strength and “check” than stopping the rotation of a single jump. So, just as I mentioned above, the more ingrained the belief and habit, the greater the effort required to change the cycle.
We all have ingrained beliefs and habits that are a product of our environment and our upbringing. Plus, the Negativity Bias built into our brains over millions of years makes sure that the negative input sticks easier than the positive.
This bias has a good purpose—to keep us out of harm’s way—but the brain hasn’t evolved enough to quickly distinguish between an actual tiger chasing us and a not-as- imminent danger, such as making a mistake on a double flip jump or a nasty comment or look from a rival.
As Dr. Rick Hanson explains on his website: “the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. On the other hand, positive experiences – unless they are very novel or intense – have standard issue memory systems, and these require that something be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time.”
It is true that the negativity bias can lead us to ruminate and fixate on negative experiences more than the positive ones. We have all experienced this—someone says something mean to us or about us, and we think about it for hours, days, sometimes even months. But how long do we remember a compliment?
Researchers agree, though, that we do have control over how much the negative information and experiences stick.
According to Kenneth Yaeger, PhD, the director of STAR (Stress, Trauma, and Resilience) Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, “The single most important underlying factor is….how we talk to ourselves about our experiences”.
The negativity bias might seem like it stacks the cards against us but changing the conversation in our heads is 100% doable.
How do we change our inner dialogue? One step or action at a time.
How to Develop Positive Self-Talk
The first step in changing your habits and the way you speak to yourself is awareness.
Mindfulness practices such as meditation, breathwork, yoga, and journaling can help you slow down and observe your thoughts and how they make you feel. Identify negative thought patterns and aim to cultivate self-compassion instead.
Would you speak to your best friend the way you speak to yourself?
Therapy is a very effective tool in helping you identify and understand the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. A skilled therapist will be able to give you exercises and strategies to help you work through this.
And combination of all the above tools is especially powerful.
Becoming aware of ourselves through any practice is just that—a practice—and it can take time to see the benefit.
In the meantime, you can take a first step towards intervening in your cognitive triangle with one simple strategy:
practicing positive self-affirmations.
Here’s how to do it:
Practicing positive self-affirmations is not the only answer to developing positive self-talk in your figure skating journey, but it’s a solid step in the right direction.
Science shows that the practice works by activating new neural pathways in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, but it only works when done regularly. So, try to make the practice a habit—just a few minutes first thing in the morning and/or right before bed can make a big difference.
Enter the cognitive triangle: this rewiring of the brain helps us feel better, which leads us to take more positive actions.
Once you have a regular habit of practicing self-affirmations, then you have some positive thoughts to recall during a rough skating session.
And that one positive thought may be all it takes to get the ball rolling to intervene so you can turn your negative thought cycle around.
Competitiveness in Youth Sports
Do a quick search of “toxic culture in youth sports” and you’ll find lots of good articles, like this one from US News and World Report.
Our modern society that promotes growth and achievement at all costs continues to push its unhealthy competitive values onto our kids. Not only do we see this in academic settings, but also in social settings and even more so in youth sports, including figure skating.
Just as weight bearing exercise makes our bones stronger, so does a small amount of competition strengthen character. Too much stress, though, and both our bones and souls can end up broken.
Healthy competition fosters creativity and excitement, teaches grit, and can boost confidence.
But when the pressure is so high that parents, coaches, and athletes focus on achievement and winning over fostering true friendships, loving the game, and enjoying the growth process, then everyone loses—most of all, our kids.
This is not new information. Especially since COVID, athletes and coaches have been speaking out about the harms of toxic competitive culture on our mental and physical health.
Nevertheless, the problem is as rampant as ever.
Just this week a football coach friend posted a picture of national basketball rankings for 4th graders. And today I saw this article about nationally ranked 2nd grade twins and their personal brand as basketball stars.
What does this have to do with figure skating?
Figure skating was a trailblazer of the current youth sports industry. Most of its biggest female stars throughout history have been young teenagers. 3-time Olympic champ and 10-time world champ Sonja Henie competed in her first Olympics at age 11 in 1924 and won her first Olympics at age 15 in 1928.
And while figure skating no longer holds “national championships” for skaters at the developmental levels of Juvenile and Intermediate, it still ranks skaters by posting their competition scores highest to lowest. All skaters in a national series—Excel, Solo Dance, and National Qualifying Series—are ranked in this way. Some are as young as 7 and 8 years old.
National events in figure skating—where certain regions have fewer rinks and lower numbers of participation—are important for the development of our sport, so I’m not arguing that the series rankings should be abolished. If there is a qualifying event or series, then transparency is absolutely crucial to the integrity of our sport.
It’s what parents, coaches, and skater do with the ranking information that matters.
Toxic Culture in Figure Skating
If you have seen either of the skating movies from figure skating’s heyday--The Cutting Edge or Ice Castles—or any of the more modern equivalents, you will see cut-throat competitiveness and ego-driven behaviors that harm young athlete
Or maybe you vaguely remember the Salt Lake City Olympic judging scandal that led to the development of the International Judging System?
There was also the infamous Nancy/Tonya saga—where trauma, socioeconomic differences, hyper competitiveness, media bias, greed, poor sportsmanship, and terrible guidance came to a head with Tonya Harding and her then-husband hiring someone to physically assault Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 US national championships.
US Figure Skating pretends that the assault of Nancy Kerrigan was an anomaly—and indeed, many characteristics of the attack are unique to the rivalry between Nancy and Tonya and the era in which it happened.
Some pertinent factors in the Nancy/Tonya saga are widespread in skating, though: unchecked desire to win at all costs, public derision of those who are different, and the quiet, yet deeply embedded politics of a sport that refuses to accept newcomers or anyone that thinks or acts outside the box.
When I was skating in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was advised to never leave my skates unattended. Some of my friends had seen evidence of rivals attaching slivers of scotch tape on the blades of their competitors—a hidden, dangerous way to sabotage a competitor.
Yet another example of fear-driven competitiveness was the Professional Skaters Association’s long-standing rule that forbade solicitation of another coach’s students. In some facilities, you could be reported to the PSA for even saying hello to a skater that wasn’t your student!
This rule was drilled into coaches for decades with the intention of protecting coaches from unscrupulous, greedy rivals, but only served to create an industry of rugged individualism, self-importance, arrogance, secrecy, and jealousy.
At the same time, it instilled a total lack of confidence as well as a sense of isolation and fear among many coaches. As a result, there was little team teaching, little information sharing, much pettiness, many cliques, and frequent backstabbing among coaches.
The athletes lost out and were taught negative thought processes and harmful behaviors. It was pretty much a world where only the extra tough or the favorites could thrive.
Just thinking about that environment brings back dark memories and gives me heart palpitations.
Several years ago, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that such a policy violated anti-trust regulations and determined that the PSA must change its code of ethics to allow its members to solicit business, advertise their services, and compete on the basis of price.
Since the FTC ruling, figure skating has gradually shifted to include more collaboration and information sharing, particularly through social media. In addition, coaches are now much more inclined to team teach, which benefits everyone—coaches, parents, and skaters alike.
Unfortunately, negativity persists in the sport because negativity persists in society.
So, to stay in the sport we love, we must gain control over our responses to toxic situations and negative people through our own mindset work and our own attitudes. In other words, we must develop a new form of mental toughness.
Can Mental Toughness Be Developed?
Sports psychologists and performance specialists specialize in teaching techniques that help athletes better handle competitive situations. Athletes are also facing issues outside of sports performance, though, and must tackle their overall mental health first.
Current best practice for collegiate athletic programs is to have three different types of mental health professionals on staff—a counselor or licensed therapist, sports performance specialist, and academic success specialist.
Some armchair experts will argue that athletes should work towards being tougher in the traditional sense—pushing themselves at all costs and being single-minded to the point of obsessing over the goal. As I stated in a previous blog post, obsessiveness and masochism do help athletes reach high levels, but also make them more susceptible to serious mental health challenges in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong—grit is important, but it’s more important to be able to focus and have enough self-discipline and self-compassion to practice appropriately and smartly without self-harm. Setting achievable goals, implementing positive self-talk, and learning to redirect our thoughts and actions when necessary are crucial to long-term physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
I highly recommend all humans work with a mental health professional, but whether you choose to or not, the tenets of yoga can be applied to help your mental health as well as your sports performance.
How Does Yoga Fit into the Mental Toughness Picture?
The vagus nerve is the longest, most complex cranial nerve in the body. It connects the parasympathetic nervous system to every organ in the body.
Information from all around us—the temperature, the energy in a room, sounds, sights, etc.—is taken in through our spinal nerves and sent to the brain, which quickly interprets that information and in turn sends signals back out to the body. This two-way communication continues is constant.
Trauma and/or stressful situations can impede vagus nerve function and interrupt or hijack these signals. So can diabetes, drug and alcohol abuse, infection, and even poor posture, among other factors.
Vagus nerve stimulation has been scientifically proven to help with a myriad of health issues, from epilepsy to depression, PTSD, and autoimmune disorders.
Yoga works, in part, by stimulating the vagus nerve through breathing practices, helping to rebalance the nervous system, bringing it back into homeostasis. A balanced nervous system allows for all body systems to function more effectively.
Mental health and performance mindset are much more complicated than just breathing while doing some asana, though.
The brain is quite complex and even has a region dedicated solely to processing and remembering fearful events. The amygdala is responsible for attaching emotional meaning to our experiences and is key to forming new memories related specifically to fear. Therefore, it plays a key role in PTSD, and researchers also believe that the amygdala is involved in anxiety in learning situations.
And we have already established that anxiety levels are high in youth sports.
So, figure skating needs need more than just physical yoga practice. We need an overhaul of the way we look at sports, too!
Yoga Is More Than a Physical Practice
It is important to remember that yoga was always about mastering the mind and nervous system to reach a higher connection with ourselves, the world around us, and ultimately, with our own personal understanding of God.
Ancient yogis contemplated human issues and wrote their ancient wisdom to teach people throughout the ages—to help us live with less suffering.
As with any belief system, humans often turn these teachings into dogma ruled by fear, and indeed, some periods of yoga history involved just that.
There is learning to be found everywhere, though.
Through his Yoga Sutras, the ancient sage Patanjali teaches us that the physical practices of breathwork, asana, and meditation are foundational to developing mastery of the mind and, as such, key to our journey on this Earth.
Patanjali also offers us many philosophical keys to right living.
Mental Training for Figure Skating and the Positive Thought Cycle
One sutra is especially pertinent to the conversation around youth sports culture, competitiveness, mental toughness, mental health.
In fact, this sutra is so important that my yoga teacher calls it the “key to mental peace.”
In Yoga Sutra 1.33 from Patanjali says: maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam
“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
What does this mean?
Everyone knows that the mind bounces around between different thoughts all the time—in yoga this is called “the monkey mind”. Thoughts create emotions, which are inextricably linked to the body, which further responds to the emotion. The body then sends signals back to the brain, which either perpetuates these emotions, or if we take an action to change our circumstances, it can change the emotion. This, in turn, can lead to another thought, and the cycle continues.
We cannot easily change our brain or the physical structure of the nervous system, but we certainly can improve the mind-body communication and balance of the nervous system through practices such as meditation, movement, breathwork, diet, hydration, sleep hygiene, reducing stress levels, and more.
How do we apply the positive thought cycle to figure skating mental training?
First, we must normalize our emotions. Sometimes in preaching good sportsmanship we inadvertently promote toxic positivity and fail to accept the true feelings an athlete might have.
Figure skaters are supposed to act poised and can be penalized for showing authentic emotion. Emotion as art during performances is encouraged, but real live emotions are frowned upon.
“Leave them out the door”, coaches often tell their skaters.
As Brene Brown teachers us, it is important to normalize all feelings so we aren’t ashamed of them or try to ignore them. Nothing good comes from shame, and ignoring our feelings leads to chronic sress, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and mental health problems.
Feelings can be conflicting—you can be happy and sad or proud and a little embarrassed at the same time. You can be happy for your friend but sad for yourself, or vice versa.
When we begin to accept the AND of our emotions, we can be true and complete… and only then we can be genuine in our friendliness to others in the face of our own defeat.
Second, we must recognize that we are not our thoughts. We are simply human beings experiencing the thoughts. Our thoughts change all the time, according to all sorts of circumstances, including mental illness and neurodivergence. Meditation teaches us to imagine our thoughts as passing clouds and not to identify with them.
Third, when you notice yourself having a rough day, commit to taking one small, positive action. Put the phone down, go for a walk, practice gratitude, drink a cup of tea, take 5 deep breaths, or write yourself a nice note. This action may be enough to change the sensations your body feels to allow yourself to think positive thoughts.
Here’s an example: Many years ago when I was going through a difficult time personally and professionally someone said to me, “change the conversation in your head.”
To do this, I wrote post-it notes of positive quotes and affirmations and put them up all around my house—on all the mirrors, the walls by my desk, my laptop, my kitchen cabinets, and so on. Not only does writing things down help you remember them, but so does reading those things over and over.
Every day for weeks I read amazing things about myself until slowly I started to notice physical changes in my mood and my body. To be clear—Post-its were not the only solution to all my problems at the time (most likely they won’t be for anyone), but this Post-it process got the ball rolling and allowed me to begin feeling better, so I could think confidently enough to make some much needed changes in my life.
Once we acknowledge these three things, we can really begin to practice the Positive Thought Cycle (also called The Cognitive Triangle) I describe above.
Figure Skaters Can Develop Mental Toughness Through Yoga
Patanjali and the ancient yogis knew about this cycle even if they didn’t call it by the same name. This is the foundation of how yoga works—cultivate certain attitudes to live rightly, practice asana to help master the mind, and practice breath to stimulate the vagus nerve to help with all of it.
In simple terms, Patanjali is saying that there are four attitudes we must practice in order to have mental peace:
Friendliness towards the happy
In life we may experience misfortunes while those around us experience moments of great joy. After all, there is only one winner at each sporting event. A great skating example of this is when two friends take the same skills test and only one of them passes. It is normal for the skater, parent and maybe even the coach to be disappointed, sad, and maybe even feel a twinge of envy or embarrassment.
Our experience in skating is about the journey, the friendships, the lessons, and the love for sport and growth. We must cheer for and respect the good work of all athletes and their support teams—even those we may not particularly like. Envy never helped anyone be happy!
Daily opportunities abound for this practice—your friend lands a difficult jump, an acquaintance passes a difficult test, a rival wins a competition.
As with anything, the more we practice, the better we get at it.
The next time you feel envious of someone who has succeeded in something you are still striving for or wanting, practice saying something genuine and kind to them and to yourself. Maybe give them a high five or a fist pump or a round of applause.
Remember, a positive action can lead to a positive feeling, which can lead to a positive thought.
That person—whether your friend or not—may remember your kind action and words in the future and reciprocate when the tables are turned. And your training environment and our sport will be the better for it.
Compassion for the unhappy
Just as there are daily opportunities for us to practice friendliness towards fellow skaters’ achievements, so there are opportunities to show compassion to those who are struggling…
maybe a rival keeps falling on a jump or gets a bad grade in school, an acquaintance has a poor skate at a competition or forgets their gloves on a really cold day, or a friend doesn’t pass the same test that we do.
Put yourself in the shoes of the person struggling—we have all been there and will be there again—and take a positive action. An encouraging word, a nice note or text, asking if they are ok after a fall, offering a hug, lending a pair of gloves or just a helpful ear, or muting the outward celebration of our own successes can all change the course of the day for someone.
Or maybe the person struggling is you and you need to practice self-compassion.
Compassion and genuine respect toward competitors are part of good sportsmanship, and it is what we need in our sport. But it takes practice—one small word or action at a time.
I grew up in a skating environment that felt like the antithesis to this, and it has taken me many, many years to recover.
Let’s practice our way towards a positive sports culture.
Delight in the virtuous
Philosophers and writers throughout history have understood the truth in this advice. Indeed, the Bible is full of verses that express the same idea.
If you want to build habits that help your skating journey advance more smoothly, surround yourself with good examples and people who are practicing good habits.
When you struggle to make good training decisions or to follow through on a habit or action that you know to be helpful, don’t criticize or envy those who are succeeding on the stricter path. Instead, respect their efforts and appreciate their steadfastness, dedication, and discipline.
Ask questions, observe, reflect, and adopt what is appropriate for you. Everyone must follow their own journey, and we can learn from everyone.
Disregard toward the wicked
Of the four attitudes that Patanjali says we should cultivate, this one is perhaps the hardest, even if it has the most pithy sayings to go with it.
Why is this one the hardest?
Because the human brain is hardwired biologically for negativity—our survival as a species depended on it. (This may be why humans are drawn to drama!)
Furthermore, research shows in order to change our thinking and habits we need positive thoughts and experiences to counter negative ones at a ratio of 5:1.
And finally, sometimes we are working very hard practicing friendliness, compassion and delight for others, but certain others are not reciprocating. Maybe they are envious of our successes or afraid of losing their status, so they take their feelings out on us.
This hurts, and it is easy to let ourselves get beaten down by others who seem to succeed despite doing harm.
(Obviously we must report abuse and speak up against harmful behaviors when appropriate, but there is a wide range of harmful speech and behavior that doesn’t equal what legally defines abuse. It is these non-abusive yet toxic behaviors I am addressing here)
Athletes, parents, and coaches that do harm are part of the human journey just like everyone else and have their own personal blocks, past teachings, and traumas that make them behave the way the do.
Therefore, we should continue to model good habits and practice good sportsmanship (friendliness and compassion), while setting very clear boundaries to avoid putting ourselves in harm’s way.
(As I told a student many years ago, you can be friendly with someone and not be their BFF)
Even with boundaries, though, sometimes words and situations can hurt our feelings. In this case, recognize and observe the emotion, speak out if necessary, and do your best to shake it off.
Sometimes “shaking it off” means walking away and taking a drink of water, taking a few deep breaths, saying some positive affirmations to yourself, dancing it out, or practicing any other redirecting tactic that can put you in a good mood.
This is another example of the positive thought cycle—one positive action can lead to a positive feeling, which can lead to a positive thought, and so on. While it will take many positive actions to ultimately change a mindset or an ingrained belief, the practice is certainly worth the payoff.
In short, if you change the conversation in your head—beginning with either your thoughts or your actions—you can hijack the cognitive triangle and slowly begin to change the information your body receives. Little by little with consistent practice you can change your habits and your mindset, and ultimately, build your own happiness.
Isn’t this the most valuable measure of mental toughness?
Let’s cultivate Patanjali’s attitudes and build a healthier sport.
7/23/2022 1 Comment
The Secret to Being a Good Figure Skater
It’s no secret that to be a good figure skater you must be a good athlete. And to be the best kind of athlete in any sport, you must include strength and agility, cardiovascular, plyometric, flexibility, psychological, and even dance training. For a great summary of some of the athletic demands of the sport, you can visit this video on the Olympic channel.
Many elite level athletes also include yoga in their conditioning regimen. In fact, Professional teams such as the USA Women’s Soccer team, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, and the New Zealand All-Blacks, among others, have mandatory team yoga practice. Lebron James credits his yoga practice for helping the health and longevity of his career. Individual Olympians, such as Olympic figure skaters Evan Lysacek and Madison Hubbell have both been very open about their yoga practice and how much it has helped their mindset and performance.
For some reason, though, many skaters and coaches think of yoga purely as flexibility training and only want teachers to work on the fun, deep, Instagram photo worthy poses. On the flip side, they think of yoga as a rest period for low impact days.
Yes, yoga asana (the physical practice) can help figure skaters with flexibility, strength, and balance, and it can be a gentle practice for rest days, but it is so much more than that.
Have you ever thought of yoga as off-ice endurance training for figure skaters?
Endurance Training for Figure Skaters
Endurance for figure skaters is typically taught through program run-throughs, power classes with high intensity interval training, double program run-throughs, and the like. These kinds of strategies, though, only train a skater’s anaerobic systems.
For anaerobic training to be effective, the skater must have a minimum base aerobic capacity. With aerobic training, which is generally done at a medium intensity over a longer period of time (think approx. 30 minutes). The skater’s resting heart rate lowers and the lungs begin to process oxygen more efficiently, among many other benefits.
Another measure of conditioning is the VO2 Max—a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness, or how efficiently the body uses oxygen. The most accurate tests for VO2 Max are done in laboratories and can be quite expensive, but some athletic trainers are certified to use a less sophisticated test, and some smart watches can even give you a rough estimate (although I don’t know how accurate they are). An athlete’s V02 max is partially genetic but is related to fitness level and can be improved through high intensity training. It does typically go down as we age, though.
What if an athlete is doing all the training typically recommended for improved aerobic capacity, but their V02 Max number and their endurance don’t improve? Sometimes improvements don’t come because of lack of training intensity, inadequate recovery between trainings, forgetting to plan for breaths within the choreography, and maybe even performance and practice anxiety.
Or, as this yogi likes to argue, maybe the athlete doesn’t know how to breathe properly?
Figure Skaters Need Yoga
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health titled Yoga versus physical exercise for cardio-respiratory fitness in adolescent school children: a randomized controlled trial evaluated the effects of yoga versus physical exercise training on cardio-respiratory fitness in adolescent school children. Researchers recruited 802 students from 10 schools across 4 districts. Students were randomly assigned to receive either an hour of yoga or an hour of physical exercise daily over a period of two months and then tested their V02 max. The results were very promising, suggesting that yoga “can improve cardio-respiratory fitness and aerobic capacity as physical exercise intervention in adolescent school children.”
Another study titled Effect of Yogic exercises on aerobic capacity (VO2 max) that was published in the International Journal of Recent Trends in Science And Technology studied college age students over 12 weeks of yoga therapy. These researchers also concluded that “yoga practice can be used to perk up cardiorespiratory fitness.”
It is widely known in the scientific research that yoga decreases resting heart rate and can help us breathe more efficiently. After all, everything that we do in yoga is about manipulation of the breath.
An asana (physical posture) practice involves pushing the body just to the edge of our comfort level—just far enough that we might be a tad uncomfortable but are still able to breathe smoothly, fully, and evenly.
Pranayama is an arm of yoga practice designed specifically to regulate the breath through specific techniques and exercises.
Both of these practices are very powerful—they stimulate the vagus nerve, recalibrate the nervous system, balance the hemispheres of the brain, lower the resting heart rate, and improve oxygen saturation. Additionally, specific pranayama exercises help teach techniques that can increase lung capacity and control the rate of respiration.
What figure skater doesn’t need all that?
Breathe Like a Champion Skater
There is a technique to activity-specific breathing—singers have one technique, swimmers have one, actors have another, and so on. Runners practice timing the breath with their stride rhythm, and power lifters practice using the breath to lift more safely.
In skating, though, few coaches but the elite of the elite really talk much about the breath, except to yell “Breathe!” across the ice at their athletes as they gasp for air like fish.
For some skaters, breath control and stamina come fairly naturally as they progress in skill and level. In fact, most people only breathe with about one-third of their total lung capacity and this functions just fine for them.
For others, though, breath control and stamina are incredibly challenging. Sometimes this is due to genetics and limited off-ice aerobic training, but other times it is related to asthma, allergies, and/or anxiety.
In times of stress, we tend to take even more shallow breaths than normal and muscles often tighten, which raises the heart rate, which makes us even more stressed. The body does not know whether the stressor is real or imagined—it only knows that the breath is shortened and the posture tense, so it sends signals to the brain to release stress hormones.
This series of responses is biological, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, and is necessary for combating threats to our survival. It is the fight or flight or freeze response.
In an athletic situation, the threat we face in training or performance is not usually to our actual survival, even though it may feel as such. For some skaters who have a history of breathing trouble due to allergies and asthma or who simply struggle with stamina due to genetics, the fear of having an episode during a performance is enough to provoke anxiety causing even more shortness of breath.
Shallow breaths caused by whatever reason will lead to fatigue and less than optimal performance. The skater does not get enough oxygen into lungs, the stress level causes the body to process oxygen less efficiently, lactic acid builds up faster, and fatigue sets in earlier.
Under these circumstances, the process and performance are not enjoyable. Eventually, if a skater experiences this enough, they will burn out and leave the sport.
There is hope, though!
Breathing exercises can develop underutilized portions of the lungs as well as strengthen the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.
The diaphragm is a very flat muscle located just below the lungs that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. It is attached to the sternum, lower rib cage, and spine. It moves rhythmically with the breath. As it contracts, it flattens out and makes room for the lungs to expand within the rib cage. As it relaxes, it goes back to its normal parachute shape and expands into the chest cavity, creating pressure on the lungs to blow out air.
The diaphragm mostly works on its own, but we do have some control over it, which allows us some measure of control the rate of respiration and breath retention.
The Intercostals are muscles in the rib cage further responsible for expanding the lungs and chest for breathing.
Besides helping us breathe more fully and efficiently, exercises that work these muscles can also help athletes relax to ride out waves of anxiety or breathing episodes.
Off-Ice Exercises for Figure Skaters
I was not a very well-trained competitor. Due to geographical challenges, exercise-induced asthma, severe allergies, intense perfectionism and anxiety, and a late start with training, I struggled with stamina once puberty set in.
One thing I learned early on in these struggles, though, was the importance of the exhale.
When I was in middle school I attended a talk in my city by Nancy Hogshead, gold medalist in swimming at the 1984 Olympics. Meeting her and hearing her speak was very inspiring to me, and her book Asthma & Exercise was a game changer for me because of the practical tips and breathing exercises it offers. Specifically, she suggested one exercise that focuses on the strength of the exhale, suggesting readers to work towards lengthening the exhale to two times the length of the inhale.
Through this exercise, I discovered that a longer exhale can also help calm anxiety. I don’t remember any coach, doctor, friend, or mentor telling me this. My body just remembered having helped with asthma and started naturally focusing on the exhale as a distraction to whatever was bothering or scaring me—usually right before medical procedures.
Later, as I began studying yoga, I realized that this type of exercise is central to a well-rounded yoga practice and can easily be taught to skaters wanting to improve their overall quality of breath and endurance.
Below are two simple exercises you can try for yourself or suggest to someone you think might benefit.
I like to practice both of these exercises using yoga ocean breath, where you slightly close off or constrict the muscles at the back of the throat so that inhales and exhales make a slight ocean sound. Practicing this way can increase oxygen consumption and allows for a more controlled, focused exhale—like blowing up a beach ball where you expel the breath through the valve.
Conscious Diaphragmatic Breathing
1. Lie on the floor in a comfortable position—perhaps with legs extended and a pillow under the knees or with knees bent and feet on the floor. You can also do this exercise sitting in a chair or in a cross-legged position, but I like to begin practicing it on the floor with the eyes closed. I find it easier to focus on the correct movement this way.
2. Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest.
3. As you inhale, try pushing your belly out using the diaphragm. You will notice the movement by feeling or seeing the hand move up. The hand on the chest should stay as still as possible.
4. Then, when you exhale, imagine you are blowing up an enormous beach ball by blowing air out forcefully through your nostrils, with the back of your throat acting like the valve. Gravity helps relax the diaphragm to begin the exhale, but you must activate the abdominal muscles to speed up the exhale and complete it fully.
5. Begin by counting to a slow count of 3 on the inhale and 3 on the exhale for a few rounds of breath. If that feels good, try lengthening the exhale to a count of 5. If that does not feel good, go back to the 3-count for both.
6. Breathe like this for 5 minutes, at least once a day. After several days of practicing, you may gradually work your way up to 10 minutes, perhaps placing a light book on your stomach for added effort.
Note: You won’t breathe quite this way when skating—the inhale will be more natural and automatic during most of the activity because of the way the brain asks for oxygen and the lungs have a spring-like reflex. In other words, you won’t need to think about taking a belly-full, diaphragmatic breath.
However, since it is not effective to relax the core as we are skating, the diaphragm has a hard time flattening on its own… this means we often have a hard time expelling the stale, used air (aka excess carbon dioxide). If we use the abdominal muscles to forcefully exhale as in this exercise, we can effectively create room for more new air to enter the lungs.
Also, we can use the abdominal muscles to control the length and timing of the exhalation, which can help lower the heart rate. It’s a win-win!
To begin the transition to the ice, you can practice this exercise exhaling through pursed lips—like blowing bubbles in your drink through a straw—or maybe even smiling and blowing out through the teeth.
Conscious Rib Cage Breathing
1. Stand with the feet a little wider than hip distance apart and knees soft.
2. Place the hands at your sides, cupping the bottom ribs. Thumbs will be towards the back side of the body and the fingers towards the front.
3. Breathe normally for a few rounds of breath, noticing whether your hands move in and out on the inhale.
4. Then, begin to breathe deeply, trying to push the hands out to the sides. Try to fill the lungs completely—all the way out to the edge of the shoulder blades and up to the collarbones.
5. Gently contract the abdominal muscles to give yourself a slow, long exhale.
6. You can begin by keeping the inhale and exhale the same length. I like to use a slow count of 4, but you may prefer to count to 3 or 5—do what feels best for you. Begin practicing for 30 seconds, gradually working your way up to 2-3 minutes.
7. Once you get comfortable here, you can try to implement the ocean breath, and maybe switch to making the exhale a little longer than the inhale.
I love this exercise because it brings awareness and mobility to an area of the body that is often overlooked—the intercostal muscles—and as a result, helps us breathe more fully. When I practice it, I still find nooks and crannies of the lungs and chest cavity that I didn’t know existed!
On the ice, I find the most benefit from this exercise when trying to take deep inhales, as it will help you take in more air.
Putting It All Together on the Ice
Practice the two exercises described above back-to-back to really feel the difference between the functions of the diaphragm and the intercostals.
Then, to put them together: exhale as you did in the first exercise—blowing out into the beach ball—and inhale into an expansive rib cage (another good reason to keep working on that pesky upper body carriage 😊). Repeat.
My favorite way to practice this combination on the ice is to swizzle and fan the arms overhead on the inhale, glide with the feet together while finishing the inhale. While still gliding on two feet, fan and press the arms back down to the sides on the exhale. Take a couple of laps this way, really focusing on how the breath feels with the movement.
If you have never done any breathwork and are having an episode asthma or anxiety, you should wait until you are feeling better, as you may have difficulty with these. If you experience any dizziness or lightheadedness while practicing, discontinue the exercise. Also, it is generally not a good idea to practice immediately after eating.
There are more exercises to share, but these are two of my favorites to begin with. If you try them out, comment below to let me know how it went for you and if you liked them, please share with someone you think might benefit.
Why Kids Figure Skate
While we sometimes see intense skating parents that push their kids to the limits from a very early age, the reality is that most skating parents just want opportunities for their kids to have fun, grow, learn, build self-esteem, make friends, and succeed.
We intuitively understand that play-based learning is crucial for our kids’ emotional, intellectual, social, and physical development, and we expose them to many different types of play—both structured and unstructured. In fact, play-based learning is currently the predominant theory in action in early childhood education.
When you observe a skilled Learn to Skate USA teacher, you see the fun and the learning taking place. Not all the learning is easily observable—the life lessons may take some time—but as parents, we know they are happening.
These are the reasons why we sign our kids up for skating.
Kids, on the other hand, try skating because a friend or relative skates, or because they saw an ice show, or their favorite anime character or Peppa Pig tried it, and it looks cool. They sign up because they think it will be fun, and they stay with it when they make friends.
If we become involved in figure skating to have fun and play, then why do so many young figure skaters eventually struggle with their mental health?
Mental Health in Figure Skating
Figure skating is a tricky Olympic sport that has traditionally encouraged early specialization for its athletes.
Since the days of Sonja Henie’s victory at the 1928 Winter Olympics, ladies figure skating has been dominated by teenagers. Teenage Olympic figure skaters don’t traditionally go to school full-time, and many must train far away from their families.
Most figure skaters are not bound for the Olympics, though, and parents, skaters, and coaches know that. After all, the Olympics only happen every four years!
Nevertheless, some skaters still want to aim high and work towards competing at national and international events. Competition for these spots is incredibly tough, and skaters with this goal in mind also may forego traditional school and move away from home to train. This is true for singles, ice dance, pairs, and even for synchronized skating in some cases.
In singles skating, this track of competition has most recently been called the “Well-Balanced” track, which is ironic, because to be successful you must lead a life that is anything but well balanced.
The competition structure in US Figure Skating has promoted a competitive overdrive among skating families. With very few opportunities for success and very little acceptance by the federation of anyone outside of a select few skaters, it’s no wonder many competitive figure skaters leave the sport traumatized. They feel as if the federation never valued them.
Ashley Wagner, Alysa Liu, Gracie Gold, and many others have all spoken out about some of the challenges they faced during and after their elite competitive careers.
US Figure Skating has made improvements in recent years by adding opportunities for those youth skaters not wishing to pursue a path towards international competition—the Excel program, solo dance, showcase, and theater on ice are all excellent options for figure skaters. Because humans are involved, though, even these new opportunities can be highly competitive.
A federation that appears to undervalue athletes as human beings and prominent athletes with mental health struggles are not unique to figure skating. What is unique to figure skating (and a handful of other sports, such as gymnastics and artistic swimming), is that we display our athletes in tight fancy costumes often when they are at their most vulnerable age and judge how they are “packaged”.
And then we tell them their placement is determined by how hard they work.
Beyond the intense competitive structure of US Figure Skating, young skaters face other pressures of many kinds. They are humans first, figure skaters second. More than they want to be great at skating, the vast majority of these young humans just want to please their parents, do well in school, and be accepted by their peers.
As they move into middle and high school, they become more aware of the family and financial sacrifices that allow for their participation. Additionally, they grow and experience significant body changes that make them more self-conscious.
At the same time, adolescent athletes begin to show more understanding of progress and placement in relation to their peers, and their homework load and school obligations (and phone usage) become more significant. All this can lead to poor sleep hygiene, which further exacerbates mental and physical health.
The higher the stakes of the competition, the harder it all is. As the hours of training required and the pressure to perform increase, so can the anxiety and all its symptoms and comorbidities. Skaters go to great lengths to improve their performance, often overtraining and falling into disordered eating patterns in effort to be “body perfect”.
Add injury to the mix, and you have a recipe for loss of identity, social isolation, dopamine depletion and all sorts of hormonal imbalances, loss of identity, and depression.
If young skaters start the sport just to have fun and be with friends, how does it get to this point?
Characteristics of Great Athletes
I have asked myself often if the institution of skating is to blame for the mental health challenges of figure skating, or if genetics and personality traits of individual athletes might also play a role. After all, my sister always told me that I was born anxious, and I am a figure skater (former competitor, now coach and parent) recovering from a lifetime of perfectionism and disordered eating.
While humans tend to revere their sports heroes and think they are invincible for their discipline, grit, perseverance, and strength, recent studies regarding the mental health of youth athletes show that athletes are just as vulnerable to mental health struggles as members of the general population.
However, young competitive athletes have additional circumstances that may trigger their mental health struggles. In an article titled “Mental Health in the Young Athlete”, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania suggest that young athletes “experience unique stressors that put them at risk for the development or exacerbation of mental health disorders.”
Kinesiologists and researchers Dr. Todd Sabato, Dr. Tanis J Walch, and Dr. Dennis J Caine reviewed research of the risk of physical and psychological injury associated with participation in elite youth sport. In their article titled “The elite young athlete: strategies to ensure physical and emotional health”, in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine they state that preliminary data suggest risk of injury among elite young athletes is high, and “there is concern regarding burnout, disordered eating, and the long-term consequences of injury.”
Furthermore, Drs. Sabato, Walch, and Caine point out that although science has long established that physical activity supports mental health, “intense physical activity performed at the elite level might instead compromise mental well-being, increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression through overtraining, injury, and burnout. The peak competitive years for elite athletes tend to overlap with the peak age for the risk of onset of mental disorders, increasing the likelihood of depression-based injuries.” The big question is why?
“Skewed to the Right—Sport Mental Health and Vulnerability” by Dr. Amy Izycky attempts to answer this question. Dr. Izycky is a former high-performance rower turned clinical psychologist and psychodynamic psychotherapist specializing in neuropsychology. In her book she presents a theory that athletes are “skewed to the right” in personality traits such as masochism, obsessionality, perfectionism, and avoidance and “skewed to the left” in terms of internal acceptance and self-worth.
This means that in her research, elite athletes fell one standard deviation above average on a bell curve in these key personality traits and one standard deviation below in the others. Two standard deviations away from average signifies diagnosable mental illnesses. It stands to reason, then, that high-achieving athletes may be more vulnerable than the general population to tipping into a clinically significant state of mind.
As Dr. Izycky states, “(P)ersonality traits that help you to be an incredible athlete and may present as socially admirable qualities on the field or on the water—“he has such discipline, such control”—may tip you over into something unhelpful in everyday life.” (p.6)
Combine two opposite extremes of personality structure and you have a unique recipe for high performance athletics and mental health vulnerabilities. Any one of these characteristics taken to the extreme can lead to harmful behaviors and clinically significant disorders, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses. When combined, these personality traits can feed off each other and can be exacerbated by the situational difficulties present in athletics, as described above.
Balance for Figure Skaters
Despite its reputation and tradition of pushing its athletes too far, there are many healthy skating clubs, amazing coaches, and beautiful options out there. Figure skating can offer a magnificent sports journey for your child, if you are certain to follow some key guidelines for maintaining a well-balanced figure skating life.
Below are my top tips for you to support your child’s skating journey AND their mental and emotional well-being:
Progress over perfection.
Say this one over and over until you and your young skater believe it. It’s easy to say, but hard to believe for some people. Celebrate the every day baby steps, which sometimes equals just showing up.
Stay focused on the process and present, rather than the outcome.
The journey is where the growth happens, where we build our community, where we build character and where we spend most of our time as athletes and parents. Achieving milestones are the fruit of this mindset.
Yoga and meditation are great tool for learning to be present.
Diversification, instead of early specialization.
You can start skating early and be very involved at a young age, but all the current scientific data point to the harms of overspecialization.
Good athletes make good skaters—allow your child to become an athlete first and develop a multitude of movement patterns in various activities they can enjoy for life.
Follow your own path.
Great thinkers dating back to way before Aristotle knew the dangers of comparison and the potential pitfalls of competition.
Each skater has their own body, personality, schedule, budget, interests, school, and family. Help your child set goals according to these priorities and realities and encourage them to keep their proverbial head down and plug away on their own figure skating journey.
Know that they do not have to compete, and make sure they know they are allowed to change their mind about their goals and even their desire to skate.
For extra stressful chapters of life, the goal may be to simply show up and connect with the skating community and move the body a little. You do you, because as Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Build a kind, inclusive community and support system.
Your skater will need positive friends to connect with, and you will need other positive parents to share the journey with.
Find a club that values teamwork, respect, and camaraderie over competition.
Find parents with a grounded perspective and balanced mindset to talk with.
Choose a coach whose values support yours.
Finally, your coach can help you assemble a team of specialists—orthopedist, physical therapist, conditioning coach, yoga and mindfulness teacher, ballet teacher, choreographer, therapist, sports psychologist, nutritionist, etc.
Being a skating parent is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.
Normalize failure and grace.
To quote Brené Brown: “There's a lot of darkness in learning, a kind of trying to feel your way through. Educators have the ability to reframe the conversation into, “Look, this is a powerful experience precisely because it's so uncomfortable, and if you are really going to engage and put yourself out there, you are going to fail.”... Failure is part of the learning process.”
When interviewed by Glennon Doyle on We Can Do Hard Things, Dr. Brown encourages parents to normalize things by talking about them, thereby removing the shame and stigma surrounding them.
So, let’s normalize failure amongst our skating community. Minor slip-ups, big mistakes, and massive failures--they happen to everyone, and every skater needs a bit of grace when they happens to them.
Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of potential mental, emotional, and/or physical illness or injury.
Athletes, coaches, and parents walk a fine line of pushing through when it counts and pushing too far. Observe without judgment, ask questions, and act when necessary.
It’s up to the parents and coaches to be alert enough to protect and support the skaters.
Limit the body talk.
According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, “Parent weight talk, particularly by mothers, (is) associated with many disordered eating behaviors. Mother dieting (is) associated with girls' unhealthy and extreme weight control behaviors.”
Social media, peer pressure, the “look” of elite figure skaters, and other mental health struggles make our skaters vulnerable to disordered eating patterns.
This means we must refrain from weight-based comments about anyone, including ourselves, which may be hard for those of us raised on diet culture. But it’s crucial to the well-being of our young figure skaters.
Seek counseling with a licensed therapist.
Sports performance experts are an important tool and certainly can help our skaters on their skating journey, but young athletes need mental health support beyond performance enhancement.
All experts and my 40+ years of experience agree that it’s best to be proactive and seek counseling before harmful thoughts and patterns become clinical. As young athletes approach adolescence and begin creating their identities, it’s crucial that they find their voice and use it for internal validation.
Therapists are a big part of this process and can help parents cope with stress of parenting a child in competitive sports.
Maintain outside interests and friendships.
This may be one of the hardest tips to implement. Our modern lives are so busy, and often our young skaters don’t even want to do anything else but skate.
Don’t let your skater become consumed by the sport, as this only leads to burnout. Injury, illness, fatigue, and boredom come for every athlete at some point, and your skater is no exception. They will need to lean on school and other interests and friends.
Keep it fun.
It can’t and shouldn’t always be about working towards a goal. Sometimes the work and progress are part of the fun, but sometimes we just need to play.
Science has shown over and over that play is essential to learning. Encourage your young athlete to play games while skating with friends. Allow them to take specialty group classes, such as jumps, spins, power, choreography, theater on ice, ballet, etc.
And most of all, keep yourself and your skater in check—sometimes parents expect too much work from their kids, and sometimes the skaters expect too much of themselves.
After all, it’s just skating!
Do you have a top tip for supporting mental well-being while participating in competitive figure skating? Leave comment below!
Athletes know that four of the main types of exercises are balance, strength, endurance, and flexibility. In many sports, balance is one of the most under-rated, often being overlooked in workouts in favor of the other three.
So what is balance and how do we achieve it?
Merriam Webster lists many different definitions, but for athletic and yogic purposes, we generally refer to physical equilibrium—the ability to balance and not fall over; to mental and emotional steadiness; and to finding a happy medium between conflicting or interacting elements.
It is widely known that one of the most common predictors of injury is muscular imbalance. Yoga combats this by constantly working towards muscular balance—every movement and posture is practiced bilaterally and is geared towards balancing effort and relaxation.
Additionally, yoga helps develop our actual balance (physical equilibrium) by challenging our sensorimotor control systems. Specifically, yoga challenges our vestibular system, our sight, and our proprioceptive awareness. Many movements or postures such as vinyasas and inversions stimulate the vestibular organs, while the twisting and turning of the neck and head challenge the sensory input our brain receives from our eyes. Strong, balanced muscles, good proprioceptive awareness, and healthy eyes and vestibular organs lead to less falls and less injuries.
Just as importantly, yoga works to balance the two nervous systems and hemispheres of the body. It recalibrates the brain. In the modern world of constant stress and overstimulation, young athletes need as much attention to this area as any adult. Yoga begins by calming the breath because it is easier to calm the breath than the mind. In his book titled One Simple Thing, yoga teacher Eddie Stern says, “If stress levels are high, yoga practice will down-regulate, particularly through breathing, the parts of the brain and endocrine system that are responsible for hormonal release of adrenaline and cortisol.... (Yoga) restores the functions that are out of alignment toward a state of balance.” (74)
Don’t have time for a long practice? Begin with the following 6 poses and practice them mindfully, focusing on keeping the breath full, smooth, and even for the entire practice. Breath becomes short or labored? Then back off on the effort level. Remember—the goal is balance, not intensity.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Hand to Big Toe Pose. This is a great posture for a daily balance check. When standing on one foot, try to feel the opposing actions of grounding into the standing leg from the hips while lifting from the waist through the crown of the head. Keep the glutes of both legs engaged—they help support the standing leg and may help lengthen the adductors of the raised leg. Use a strap around the foot if the hand doesn’t reach the big toe. In part B, turn the head at the same time as you open the leg to the side to help with balance. Hold A & B 5 breaths each on each leg.
Garudasana. Eagle Pose. This pose enhances awareness of alignment and develops the sensation of opposing forces. The glutes squeeze towards each other, inner thighs, shins, and arms do the same, but all in different directions. The standing leg roots down, while the elbows and torso rise up. In figure skating this pose is often taught with a twist to the torso to mimic the last position of a jump before checkout. Pressing the outer shin of the free leg against the shin of the standing leg adds stability. You can rest the toes on a block for balance. Gaze can be upward or forward, depending on what is most appropriate for you today. Hold each leg for 5 breaths.
Parivrtta Anjaneyasana. Revolved Crescent Lunge. Athletes know that lunges build strength, which helps balance. Adding a twist further challenges the balance. Squeeze the sit bones towards each other and lift the front of the extended leg, pushing out through the heel. Engage the core to twist and hold and press the upper arm against the outside of the thigh to create more twist. This pose is said to build confidence and courage. Option: lower the back knee to the mat. Hold on each leg for 5 breaths.
Ardha Chandrasana. Half-Moon Pose. The standing leg uses the gluteus medius to stabilize the pelvis and maintain balance, while the lifted leg is using the gluteus medius to lift. Weakness in this muscle limits balance. Work to create maximum energy and extension in all directions, as extension facilitates balance, even though extension takes extra strength and flexibility. Turning the head towards the lifted hand further challenges the balance. Place the hand on a block or on the floor--whichever you feel gives you more stability. Hold each side for 5 breaths.
Paschimottanasana. Seated Forward Fold. While this is a very effective pose for lengthening the hamstrings, this pose is also important for massaging the abdominal organs and resting the heart, which calms and balances the mind. Engage the quadriceps and hip flexors to avoid overstretching the hamstrings. If the low belly is on the thighs, you may wrap the hands around the feet and clasp the fingers around the wrist. If hands don't reach the feet, bend knees to your comfort level, take chest towards the thighs and clasp hands behind knees or rest them on shins. Hold and breathe deeply for 1-2 minutes.
Viparita Karani. Legs up the Wall. This is by far my favorite pose. I do it when I'm stressed, tired, when I’m getting ready to travel, or when my legs are extra achy. Some say this is the #1 pose for every athlete and every yogi to do every day. Place a blanket a couple of inches from the wall (or chair or bed), Lay on the blanket with hips slightly off the edge. If hamstrings are tight, you can move blanket further away. Arms can go in a T, overhead, or on the belly. Place a blanket over feet to warm them and help legs stay vertical with minimal effort. Breathe deeply and evenly, and stay for 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Notice how your heart rate slows and your mind becomes more centered.
Sit in silence in a comfortable cross-legged position for a few minutes after your practice. Keep a soft gaze or eyes closed, hands resting softly in your lap or on your thighs and notice how you feel.
There are so many other poses that can be added to this sequence to help develop balance, but these are some of the most effective to begin with to target both the body and the mind.
Click here for a downloadable pdf of this sequence including pictures of the poses. If you choose to try it out, let me know how you feel afterwards by leaving a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. Schocken Books, 1976.
Long, Ray MD FRCSC. Key Muscles of Yoga: Your Guide to Functional Anatomy in Yoga. Independent Publisher, 2010.
Solloway, Kelly. Yoga Anatomy Coloring Book: A Visual Guide to Form, Function, and Movement. Get Creative 6, 2018.
Stern, Eddie. One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How it Can Transform Your Life. North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2019.
Young student athletes may not realize it yet, but parents in competitive youth sports know that even though the days are long, the years fly by.
If we know this, then why don’t we learn to savor the little moments of the sports journey instead of rushing about from one thing to the next, cramming as many things into a day as possible?
When we strive for efficiency just to achieve more (rather than as a means to free up time for hobbies and quality time), then efficiency is just code for pressure.
And the pressure we have created here in the US has spread around the world. Recently I met some friends from Guadalajara, Mexico whose children attend the American School there—a bilingual private school that issues both a Mexican and a U.S. high school diploma. Although they are Mexicans living in Mexico, my new friends said, their kids are expected to keep up with the pace of the American academic system, applying to dozens of universities and participating in multiple sports and activities. It’s all about standing out from the competition.
I am a highly sensitive recovering perfectionist who suffers from anxiety and is easily overstimulated. As such, competition is a chronic stressor for me. While I have implemented many tools to be less bothered by others' words and actions and to stay grounded in my own journey, many days are still a struggle.
Do more, be more, buy more, the world around us says. When the pace of growth and information overload makes our bodies and minds suffer, it’s time to step away from the competition and courageously and honestly give ourselves a reset.
What kind of reset? Sometimes a reset may look like embodiment practices such as restorative yoga, conscious breathing, and walking in nature. Other times it may look like journaling, meditation, and talk therapy. Even other times, though, that reset might look like a dramatic change of scenery.
Over twenty years ago I learned that one of the best ways for me to reset my nervous system—bring it back into balance—after chronic overwhelm was to get far away from the outside influences and expectations pulling me in all directions. I like to go far enough away that it’s clear to myself and others that communication will be minimal while I’m away.
If you or others have a hard time respecting your boundaries, or if you are easily overwhelmed by competing demands, this type of physical distance can be a helpful tool for a personal reset.
To be clear— getting away is never an escape from your problems long-term. You must do deep work on yourself for any change to be lasting.
Mindful travel, however, is an opportunity to reset your nervous system out of fight or flight mode and to help you see things through a different lens.
To this end, I decided to travel to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino, or The Way, is a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. The first pilgrims made their way to Santiago nearly 1000 years ago, as the pilgrimage was one of three main pilgrimages in which Christians could earn a plenary indulgence. The main route follows an earlier Roman trade route and stretches from France across the northern part of Spain to Santiago and all the way to the coast at Finisterre.
Most definitions agree that a pilgrimage is a lengthy journey often on foot or horseback to a destination of special significance—such as to a shrine or other sacred place—for some spiritual or deep personal reason.
While traditional pilgrims made the trek to Santiago for purely religious reasons, now people do it for all sorts of reasons. What is clear, though, is that most pilgrims choose to walk the Camino to experience a period of reflection and to reconnect with themselves or nature. I met people along the way recently divorced, widowed, retired, and graduated, and I met whole families, school groups, military squadrons, best friends, and solo travelers.
I chose the Camino because I wanted to reset my mind, body, and soul after many difficult years working in a toxic environment. Additionally, I needed to let go of old thought patterns holding me back, and I hoped to feel connected to the shared humanity of everyone who had walked before me. Besides, I love to walk, and being in Spain fills my heart with joy. So, what better time and place for contemplation than on the Way?
Pilgrims can begin their journey at any point along the Way, but to receive an official “compostela” –the document certifying you have completed the Camino—you must complete at least 100 km on foot or 200 km by bike. You must also have a “credencial” or pilgrim’s passport stamped at least twice a day during the last 100 km of the Camino. To walk the entire 500-mile route may take 5-6 weeks. Since I only had a few days, I opted for the most popular journey of 115 km (about 70 miles) in 5 days.
(To learn more details about the Camino, visit the website of the Pilgrim’s Reception Office, or to understand more specifically about the compostela, check out this article by Correos, the Spanish postal service.)
Athletes and sports parents looking for a break or departure from the competitive lifestyle can find their reset on the Camino and learn a lot about life and themselves in the process:
Whether or not you make it to the Camino de Santiago, these are valuable lessons that hold true for our journey through life and sports.
Tiffany Dufu’s Drop the Ball is a game changer for me and for any former athlete struggling to move past the hustle culture of high-level sports. While Dufu spends a bit of time pointing out facts about the gender based pay gap and the need for all-in-partnership in the home, the more impactful parts of the book are her tangible examples of the emotional labor imbalance and how that relates to her journey as a recovering perfectionist.
So often perfectionists don’t allow others to do the work if it’s not done as they (we) would do it. The main point of Dufu's book, though, is that perfectionists have to be willing and able to "drop the ball" before others will pick it up. This holds true in school work, volunteer work, housework, and on and on, where the work simply doesn't need to be perfect...where it just needs to be good enough. As two of my coaches often say, "We must learn to embrace the B-."
In her book Dufu chronicles the humbling experiences of letting go of tasks in the home in order to achieve some of her more important life’s work—advancing and empowering women and girls and raising two children to be globally conscious citizens. If we are too busy checking things off our to-do list to cultivate a network of relationships, or if we are too caught up in the minutiae of day-to-day life, we simply cannot have the bandwidth to tackle larger, more important projects. Dufu provides real examples of how she worked through some sticking points in her life to discover not only her core values but also how to empower her partner at home to share more of the workload. She says women have faith in a “false meritocracy” (p.64), which often leads us to expect that we can work harder and will naturally be recognized for our productivity. Therefore, we work and work and work to the detriment to our mental, physical, and emotional health.
Whoa. This is powerful stuff.
Dufu's work may not resonate with athletes still in the thick of their athletic careers, as Dufu is not an athlete and much of her book focuses on trying to have the perfect home and raise the perfect children. This shouldn't distract us from the greater message, though, of letting go of perfectionism, which is a real struggle for student athletes trying to do it all.
For me, perhaps the most important part of this book is when Dufu highlights how we need to choose between where we bring the most value to a situation or job vs. where we are given a task or job simply because we are more experienced at it (p. 94). As she states, though, we should be asking, “Where (can) I be most useful in order to achieve the things that (matter) most?”
This stood out to me, and perhaps was the tipping point that led me to resign last year from my role as Artistic Director of Louisville Skating Academy after 17 years. My time in this role producing the Nutcracker on Ice, among other things, was valuable and rewarding, but it was no longer advancing my higher purpose of helping athletes achieve a healthier relationship with their sport, themselves, and others. It became something to do just because I had experience at it--more than anyone around me--and because it was habit. I was afraid of letting go of the control, the connections, and the community that being Artistic Director provided. However, I came to realize that the amount of unpaid work involved in that role actively took me away from advancing my higher mission.
Even when the writing is on the wall, sometimes it is hard to leave your current surroundings, especially if it's all you've ever known. Maybe you've been in the same place or situation for so long that you've lost sight of what you stand for and what your real strengths are. This is normal! While our inner nature is ever-present, sometimes we lose sight of it due to circumstances, social conditioning, and/or the life choices that we make. The work of listening to and coming back to that true nature is constant.
Nevertheless, when we can't see a clear picture of our next steps, leaving can be scary. In Drop the Ball Dufu offers some practical and powerful exercises to help us reconnect to our inner nature so we can confidently take the leap into a new chapter of life.
The first exercise Dufu recommends (p. 84) is a funeral visualization popularized in Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. You visualize three people--a family member, colleague, friend, or maybe a community member-- speaking your eulogy at your funeral. Dufu admits that it feels cheesy to do, but says that it really helps you tap into your true nature and clarify what your guiding principles and next direction should be.
A second exercise (p. 84), The Reflected Best Self Exercise, was developed by researchers at the University of Michigan. Basically, you ask a varied group of people from different phases of your life to tell you about a time they experienced you at your best. Dufu recommends printing the answers and circling phrases or words that appear several times so you clearly see themes that arise across years and areas of your life. I completed the exercise, too, and found the experience enlightening, empowering, humbling, and heartwarming. Some of my dearest, most trusted friends gave me some very valuable insight into areas of my personality I hadn't considered in years and gave me new appreciation for my loved ones and for my own true nature.
If you are an athlete trying to discover how to best align your participation in sport with the lifestyle you want to lead, a parent helping your child navigate the after sports transition, or a coach helping your athletes become well-balanced individuals, this book is a must read. I don't have all the answers for helping athletes move from a life of perfectionism and intense competition to one of deeper connection. Thanks to Dufu, though, I have taken additional steps in that direction.
What steps can you take to live more in alignment with your higher purpose or mission?
Since I retired from my role as Learn to Skate Director, I’ve been blessed to be able to fall back on my language teaching skills. I began teaching university-level Spanish in 1998 and started teaching Spanish in person again this semester. A new perspective and refreshed outlook after time away has done wonders for my teaching and for my connection to the students. Sometimes a short vacation isn’t enough time away from something—it’s possible we need a much longer break. In my case, it was several years with one toe still in the water, but with my heart fully in skating. Now, I shift to the other foot—I am diving back into teaching, hoping to teach abroad again, and have one foot still in skating, but much of my energy elsewhere.
Last week as I was reading through some old notebooks working on a course proposal teach abroad, I came across this essay I wrote for a composition and grammar course while studying in Spain many, many years ago.
The topic was “My Profession”. Here’s the translation for you:
“When I finish my degree, I want to be a figure skating coach. I know that skating has nothing to do with being a Spanish and English major, but it has a lot to do with my life and my dreams. When I was a child, skating was always on my mind. Everything I did—whether it was sleep, walk, study, eat, or breathe—it was to be able to skate more and better. Now, even though it’s been four years since I stopped training and competing, thoughts and dreams about skating still fill my head and I still want to go back to where skating was my life.”
What a young mind it was that wrote that! The essay goes on, but this section is the most impactful part, I think. Each of you will read this in a different way, colored through the lens of your own lived experience, but for me reading it brings up many conflicting emotions. My complicated journey in the sport makes me wistful for the dreams that could have been, glad for the ones that did, and pained for the damage done in the process. Maybe you can relate? If I had known yoga at that time, I would have approached so many aspects of that dream differently, but then I might not be here writing this piece for you.
Sports are wonderful for so many reasons--testing our limits, lifelong friendships, goal setting time management, healthy lifestyles, confidence building, and more... but what happens when the dream of pursuing our sport must take a pause? Or when we get or ill and can no longer live out that dream? Or when life circumstances place us in a city where living the dream isn’t lucrative enough to bring financial security? Or when the schedule your sport requires prohibits you from being present for your family?
It is important that we allow our athletes and our children to live their dreams, but it’s crucial that we also allow them to pursue other avenues in life—get an education, take a vacation, have other hobbies—and understand that we can’t put all our eggs in one basket. Even Olympic champions can go to college--thank you, Nathan Chen, for being so open about that. Skate or play tennis or surf or whatever you choose as much as you possibly can as long as you can to live your dream--AND also educate yourself to keep things in perspective.
Sport is only one small part of life, even when we think it’s our everything.
Northern Arizona has four seasons, unlike the rest of Arizona. Phoenix is glorious in the winter, and miserable in the summers, and the landscape is made of various shades of reds and browns. It’s beautiful, but it stays the same year-round. When I lived in Arizona, of all the things I missed about Kentucky besides my family, I missed the changing seasons the most. That most visceral reminder of the passage of time and the cycles of life is like a road map guiding us on our journey. The timelines of my memories from Arizona aren’t as clear as they are of memories from other places simply because the landscape doesn’t change very much throughout the year.
Life is full of transitions—from one season to the next, one relationship to another, beginning and ending semesters, changing jobs, growing children, retirement, and on and on. Sometimes we mark the dates on the calendar months in advance, and other times, radical change is forced upon us at the most inopportune times. Everyone knows this, and writers of all genres from ancient literature to pop songs have written about it. The only thing constant is change, right?
Yet, as humans, we try to fight the end of a season and cling to what is in front of us, sometimes even while we are dreaming about something different. A summer’s last hurrah, the sledding adventure in March, the pleading with an ex-boyfriend to please come back are all examples of this. In our professional or athletic lives we can be completely burnt out and still want to stay in the game. Why do we resist making a change(s) that is necessary to move us forward? Because our brains are hard-wired to be fearful of new things and because change can require a lot of work.
One thing you realize as you get older, though, is that changes will come whether you are ready for them or not. Family members get sick, we get injured, children and parents get older, the economy goes up and down, accidents happen, and people around us make decisions that impact us. Right now, I’m closing another chapter in my professional life to hopefully forge a new one a few years sooner than I imagined. At the same time, I am caring for a very ill, aging aunt who just wants to feel safe and loved, and helping my son write essays for the convoluted high school application process we have in our school district.
In mid-summer I did not know I was heading towards any of these concurrent paths, yet somehow I ended up here. And I’m trying to be more present than ever for my family, maintain my health and sense of self, while still serving the students I deeply care about.
The question begging to be asked, then, is how do we adapt to such sudden changes? How do we navigate life’s big transitions gracefully?
I find the answer to be simple: Always go back to a yoga practice that incorporates breathwork, asana, and meditation. There are many reasons this works, but my favorite way to explain it clearly is that the breathing sets the stage for the movement, and the movement helps you sit still enough to meditate comfortably. The breath and the movement work hand in hand to balance the nervous system and strengthen your stress response. Then, in the stillness of the meditation is where you can find what you’re looking for—the courage to identify and let go of whatever is extra and stand firmly present in what matters most to you.
The sooner we get used to idea of constant change (for good and bad), the sooner we can stop fighting the transition and go with the flow. Don’t get too attached to the phase of life that you’re in—try to experience it in its fullest, because you never know when the next chapter will begin. In the meantime, do more yoga.
Don't know where to start? Check out some of my free practices.
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.
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, the effects of toxic training environments, and the loss of identity upon retirement, I am passionate about coaching athletes who have been through some of the same challenges. I love working with athletes, former athletes, and anyone that wants to reframe their athletic experiences to re-write their story, rebuild their identity, and thrive in life in and out of sports.