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?
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 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.