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?
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.
The Olympics and Simone Biles are still on my mind. How can they not be? After all, I'm still a coach of youth sports, and my own sport still faces its own struggles with prioritizing medals and money over athlete well-being.
Is an athlete's body their duty? What is missing inside us that we make young athletes feel as if the well-being and identity of our community depends on their performance? The athletes are the ones sacrificing and working, not the NGB's. Even before I discovered yoga, I often wondered why college basketball fans yell, curse, cry, and fight over teams of 18 and 19 year-olds. They're just kids.
Can we still love and support a sport when we are aware of the layers of abuse that have historically been tolerated and perpetrated by those in power?
Elite sports, by nature, require a level of single-mindedness that some would argue is pathological. What do we do with this knowledge? Just how much should a coach push an athlete to help them achieve their goal?
What role do agency and bodily autonomy play in our path to healing and creating a truly safe sport? Is it possible for young people to achieve success and be well-balanced, multi-dimensional humans?
These are the questions that have kept me up at night for years and made me question the depth of my involvement in skating. These are the questions that led me to found The Skating Yogi--to offer athletes and former athletes a safe community in which to explore these questions and find their own individual answers through the powerful embodiment practices of yoga.
If you have asked yourself these questions and other similar ones, I encourage you to listen to this podcast by The Atlantic.
It feels like we are at a tipping point toward a safer world of sports, thanks to the work of many brave victims from many sports. This podcast, while difficult to listen to at times, left me feeling very hopeful for the future.
Until then, I'll stay in the present and keep doing my work.
As we have seen over the past few years, many well-established athletic training methods and practices need to stop. Most level-headed people now agree that clear patterns of abuse like what we saw in USA Gymnastics should never have been tolerated. But what about the behaviors that aren’t so clear, that may still be justified as “scientific” or to promote “toughness”?
When I was younger, for example, club and team weigh-ins for figure skaters were a common practice. As more education about eating disorders became available, this practice fell by the wayside. We now know what a harmful, humiliating practice this is, even though some training schools we see on Instagram still do this. When we know better, we must do better.
The more I dive into this work, the more passionate I become about protecting athletes and really, humans in general. This summer I’ve tried to talk less, listen more, and connect the dots between different themes and thought processes I see in society and sport. The more I observe society, the more quickly I recognize harmful behaviors and patterns.
A few weeks ago one of my skating students came to me complaining of how tired she was. She said that she had attended a 4-hour conditioning and practice for her school sport the evening before. Apparently, the A/C was out in the gym and the heat index was over 100. Sounds awful, I thought, but the school surely knows what they’re doing. Then she said, “My coach made us work for water.”
Whoa, what? Timeout. I was speechless.
After asking her to repeat what she said, I promptly replied, “Well, that’s abuse.”
When I pried a little more, she justified it by saying, “It’s ok, it was grit training. He’s a really nice guy. He just called it ‘work for water’.” Then she backtracked a little and said they knew they could stop for water if they really needed it, but that the coach would have been displeased. So basically, these adolescent female athletes had to choose between displeasing their coach (and potentially losing a spot on the team) or hydrating their bodies in oppressive heat.
Let’s say that these girls really did know that they could drink water whenever needed and they actually weren’t worried about displeasing their coach. On a day that hot and a practice that long, the coach should be mandating regular hydration breaks, not rationing them out like Halloween candy.
But let’s play devil’s advocate and defend him some more… let’s say that he actually did mandate frequent water breaks and simply called the exercise “work for water”. While this scenario makes me feel a bit more confident in the athletes’ immediate safety, I still cringe at the wording and realize how far we still have to go in coaches’ education.
Using terms like “work for water” sends the message that athletes don’t deserve to take care of their bodies, that they aren’t worthy of basic nourishment, let alone love and self-respect. Basically, it teaches that our worth is tied solely to our productivity and our accomplishments. Terminology like this takes away agency from the athlete, which can leave them feeling powerless, which ultimately paves the way for an environment of fear and abuse. It’s the same message that society still sends Olympic athletes today. One only has to look as far as the criticism Simone Biles received after withdrawing from the team event in Tokyo to see that society puts the weight of the world on young athletes. And for what?
We aren’t in ancient Rome training gladiators to appease the emperor and the gods, and this isn’t the Hunger Games. The grit we want for our athletes must come from within—nurtured through love for sport and community, from a desire to uplift and improve, rather than from perfectionism or fear of failure. It comes showing up day after day and putting in the work in an honorable, sustainable manner, simply because we can and because we love our sport and the process, regardless of the outcome. While teaching and building grit, we must also teach our athletes about boundaries, agency, respect, and love, and we must create spaces that empower them to make the right choices and to believe in their own worthiness and strength.
Our job as coaches, teachers, and leaders lies not in the big accomplishments, but in the small, daily efforts and in the words that we utter on a daily basis. When we know better, we must do better.
For as long as I can remember, my family and I have been going to the beach at the beginning of June. When I was little, it was my parents, my sister, and I that went. Through middle and high school, my aunts, cousins, mom, and I travelled together. When I moved away for several years I couldn't join them, but once I came back to Kentucky, my parents and I started the annual tradition again. This post-COVID vaccine year, my husband and stepson joined us.
While I love adventure and travelling new places, going to the same beach has become somewhat sacred to me--a ritual, if you will, and it's one that I look forward immensely. I read books, listen to the surf, wear a fancy sun hat, and visit our favorite restaurants. It's fun in the sun and sand (have you built a sand castle lately???), and a time to rest and smell the salty air.
In sports we are always training towards that next goal or the next great feat, and we don't prioritize time off for recovery or family. Our competitive society teaches us that our worth is measured by our productivity, and our sports conditioning truly makes us believe it. We forget that we are enough as we are. We forget that the beauty of life is found in the small things.
Because of this, when you leave sports, you may feel lazy or unproductive when you don't continue to achieve "great things". You may feel lost, looking for ways to build community, find purpose, and regain control of your life. One way to help regain control is to use rhythm and ritual to help ground yourself. Rituals have been a part of the human experience for thousands of years, and while modern society has drifted away from them, there's no doubt they can have a major impact on our lives. Paying attention to the rhythm of the seasons and celebrating and creating traditions with loved ones can bring new meaning to your life, especially when things feel otherwise chaotic.
For me, sitting by the pool with my mom every June in St. Pete Beach is one of those rituals that always brings me back to my core.
Some of you may have heard me mention this book a few moths ago, but it’s so good, that I have to bring it back into the conversation. In fact, it’s so good, that I have chosen it for the inaugural Skating Yogi Book Group. Here’s why:
At the start of 2021, I decided to do some deep personal work and dive into some of my mental and emotional sticking points. As part of this, I took part in a 6-week immersive course by my friend, the amazing Dr. Katie Blake. This course was intended to guide participants through the process of deconstructing faith, offering support and community rather than dogma.
It turns out that deconstructing faith is quite similar to dissecting the components of any culture or belief system, including those of competitive sports. This makes sense, since sports and religion have been intricately linked since ancient times in Native American, Eastern, and Western civilizations. While modern sports are a secular pursuit, many of the values and details of religion and sports are the same. Both deal with relationships to self and others, personal sacrifice, the pursuit of non-material achievements, and the promotion of purity and higher ideals. Additionally, both rely on ritual, rulebooks, holy houses, and heroes, and both can unite a group of people or tragically divide them.
The first book we read in Dr. Katie Blake’s course was Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. In this book Dr. Brown talks about our deep, biological need for community and how this need is becoming harder and harder to fulfill in today’s polarized society. Finding community has become even harder since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalations of political tensions. Sports clubs and churches have traditionally offered us this belonging, but as society has become more fragmented, fewer people are staying in communities that we once were a part of. Leaving a restrictive community can be liberating, particularly for people who have traditionally been oppressed. Nevertheless, this freedom can also leave us quite alone. As Dr. Brown says, even as our need for community is greater than perhaps ever before, we are isolating ourselves more and more. We have lost our ability to find common ground, so we retreat.
How do we fix it? According to Dr. Brown, the only way to fix our isolation is to learn to belong to no one but ourselves. You read that right—in order to find community with others, we must learn to belong primarily to ourselves. In Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brown explains her theory of belonging from her 2010 book titled The Gifts of Imperfection, saying:
Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
Wow. Read that last line again—“… our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
We have all heard the sayings “you can’t help someone if they won’t help themselves” or “you can’t accept love until you love yourself”, and maybe we have even had experience with these realities. Either way, reading Dr. Brown’s theory of belonging helped things click for me in a completely new way.
How often do we do or say things just to fit in? When you are having doubts about your sport or your desires to keep competing, or are growing apart from your friends and teammates, how long are you willing to hide your true desires from yourself and others? How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice? Authenticity takes courage, but it’s the only true path to belonging. Dr. Brown goes on to say:
True belonging is not something that you negotiate externally, it’s what you carry in your heart. It’s finding the sacredness in being a part of something and in braving the wilderness alone. When we reach this place, even momentarily, we belong everywhere and nowhere.
I am here to tell you that you can find your place in sport and still be your authentic self. You can be part of a club or a team and not sacrifice your sense of self. As one of my students once said, “I realized that you can have friends and not be BFF’s with all of them”. If your current situation in sport does not allow you to be your true self, then I encourage you to explore why and to reach out for help to explore your options.
Only when we belong to ourselves can we truly belong anywhere. This is my hope for you.
Our first book club chat will be Sunday, Aug 15, 6:15-7:00 pm EDT. Register here (it's free) and join us! We will discuss Braving the Wilderness in more depth. To support local booksellers, you can purchase your book here. (This is an affiliate link, and I earn a small commission with each purchase).
Are you looking for guidance on how to transition into a new place within or beyond your sport? Sign up for my mailing list to receive my 7 Principles for Life Beyond Sports to help you on your journey.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. Having experienced the highs and lows of being an athlete, 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.