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.
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.
Leaving competitive sports behind is a lot like breaking up with a significant other. Either you're the one who chooses to end it, or someone or something chooses for you. When you retire from sports, sometimes it’s because you don’t make the cut for the team, or maybe you have a career-ending injury, you graduate, a parent loses a job or they get divorced, or maybe you just don’t love it enough anymore to keep making the required sacrifices. Or maybe a tragedy (or pandemic) leads your peers to grow apart and your family to reevaluate your current financial and emotional investment. No matter the reason, leaving competitive sports almost always entails an agonizing transition for an athlete.
One of my students recently decided to stop skating. It had been a long time coming; I had seen the signs for a while, but I thought she would be able to hold out for one more year of high school and to pass one more skating milestone. When she came to tell me that she was thinking of leaving the sport, she was distraught. Being at the rink makes her anxious and she doesn’t feel good about herself when skating anymore because she isn’t achieving goals quickly enough. (As in any sport, the higher you go, the harder it gets to maintain the level of athleticism required to progress and stay interested.) She doesn’t have time to get all her schoolwork completed, participate in the other extra-curriculars need for college apps, keep a part-time job, AND skate. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, she feels like her rate of progress is being used as a gauge for how others around her feel about their own progress. Whether or not others are actually paying attention to what she is doing now is irrelevant—she believes that is the case, so the environment is no longer good for her.
This is not the first conversation I’ve had like this. In fact, for over twenty years I’ve been having similar conversations with almost every teenage athlete I have taught. Skating is a sport that specializes early, and since it hasn’t traditionally been a collegiate sport, most skaters wind down by the time they get to high school. It’s a problem that US Figure Skating is trying to rectify by offering other programs and paths besides the traditionally “competitive” route that you see on TV and by pouring energy into the collegiate skating program. Ultimately, though, the athlete feels pulled in all directions. Their friends change, schoolwork intensifies, they want to try new things, they might get a job, and skating just gets too hard to continue. While many athletes in skating and other sports do stick it out to graduation, most eventually go through a similar transition at some point during or after college.
Yet, the transition is a tough one. “What will I do now? It’s all I’ve ever done.” I’ve heard this statement so many times from young athletes, and when I stop to put myself in their shoes, it can be quite terrifying. I remember what it was like in college to be without the sport I had chosen when I was 4. I also remember what it felt like when my first love left me (also while I was in college). Both felt like being thrown into the deepest abyss imaginable. It was all darkness, and I couldn’t imagine a life different than the one I had known before. I struggled to let go of both and kept searching for ways to maintain contact—with both skating and the boy.
If the time has come for a chapter to close, though, then ultimately you will make the leap or be pushed. You shouldn’t stay in a situation that no longer serves you just because you don’t know what else is out there—that only leaves you feeling more heartbroken, more resentful, and even worse about yourself. (Side note: I did meet a woman once who told me, “never quit your job or your boyfriend until you have the next one lined up”, but as I’ve become much more in tune with my mental health over the years, I definitely do not agree with her!)
What’s next, then, once you foresee the big leap? Here’s what I told my student:
Buckle up, feel all the feelings, give yourself some grace, and enjoy the ride.
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 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.