For the past several years I have really struggled with focus. I was miserable–my brain darting between tasks, unable to focus on any one thing for more than a few seconds at a time.
During the act of teaching things felt fine–it’s naturally faster paced–but sitting to work at a computer for my other job, for writing, or for planning was challenging in a way it never had been.
Even though I rarely eat processed foods, aim to get enough sleep, practice meditation, exercise, and drink enough water, I just… couldn’t. be. efficient.
I knew something was off, but I still felt like a failure.
Then, I read somewhere that “systems will beat hard work and talent every time”.
And I realized that I wasn’t failing, but I certainly was spinning my wheels.
I think it’s safe to say that, in 2023, the vast majority of humans struggle with focus. It’s impossible to process information as quickly as technology throws it at us.
We can’t keep up with our obligations because our brains simply haven’t evolved as quickly as society demands them to.
Add in processed foods, lack of sleep, the chaos of the world, and the frenetic pace of achievement we are compelled to follow, and our brains are in crisis.
I needed a system and tools to help me dedicate time to do the work that really mattered most – like writing these blogs for the skating world – and to block out distractions.
So, I went to work finding tools to help streamline my processes and started practicing their implementation, and I plugged in breaks throughout my day to allow my brain to reset in between tasks.
This process has reminded me so much of skating.
We’ve all seen skaters spin their wheels on the ice–they get so bogged down with what needs to be done that they move from one thing to the next with no focused effort to make any improvement.
Or even worse, they fail to do anything because deciding where to begin is too difficult!
In getting to work, it’s all about using your energy in the right way - Brahmacharya. (A few weeks ago I wrote about the yamas - a code of conduct presented to us in the 8 limbs of yoga… Brahmacharya is one of the yamas. You can read more about it here.)
Coaches know this, parents know this, and deep down, skaters know it, too. But for it to click and to get a system in place can be very challenging. Enter the SMART goal.
3/18/2023 0 Comments
Failing a Figure Skating Test
I wish I had failed more as a skater.
Of course, I experienced minor failures every day in practice as I worked to achieve new skills, but not until the end of my career did I fail a test.
Most things in skating can only be really learned by doing, and sometimes things don’t really click until you start to learn something even harder. Take jumping, for example. At some point, in order to begin learning a double jump, you have to say that the single is good enough. You continue to work on the single, but you can move on.
However, I used to get so angry at myself for making mistakes in practice and needed my skills to be so perfect, that I wouldn’t allow myself to move on to learn new things.
I was so terrified of making mistakes, that I stunted my progress and robbed myself of the joy of achievement. Instead, I turned achievement into obligation and a requirement for proving my worth as a human.
We can go more in-depth about the pitfalls of perfectionism in a later post, but I will say that the best skaters are the ones who take risks and don’t let failure stop them from trying.
They are the ones that can hustle and skate with abandon and really push their limits.
So why, then, as a society, do we only celebrate our successes?
Whether you are focused on athletic achievement or life lessons, creating a safe space is crucial for the well-being of everyone involved.
As a skater, I trained in environments that, from the outside, appeared healthy and safe. There was no physical or sexual abuse that I am aware of, and there was none of the heinous screaming and name-calling that still exists in many rinks.
However, when I was younger, my coaches behaved like mean girls in club politics and created ugly rivalries where there should have been collegiality and friendship. Later, at a different facility, my peers had weekly weigh-ins, and I was applauded and revered for drastic weight loss that led me down a decades-long path of eating disorders. In yet another facility, I was made to feel like an imposter–just a “tester” among those actively competing.
As a coach, I have always tried very hard not to repeat the mistakes of my teachers. Most of them were good-hearted with good intentions, even if they were often blinded by their own competitive nature and their own past wounds and teachings.
So, without a good model in my background, I repeated some of the same mistakes. Pushed kids when they didn’t need to be pushed, compared skaters to one another when I shouldn’t have, offered dietary advice without being a licensed dietitian and tried to convince a skater to stay in the sport when what she really, really wanted was to be done.
For many years I coached in an environment that closely followed Safesport guidelines. Yet, it didn’t feel healthy and was arguably quite harmful to me and many others. Playing favorites, forming cliques, ignoring skaters who need extra emotional support, and politicking amongst coaches are surefire ways to ruin a healthy, collegial environment.
While Safesport and SkateSafe attempt to prevent and prosecute the most egregious acts of abuse in our sport, they fall short in many ways, especially in instances of emotional abuse. Their shortcomings are beyond the scope of the post, so I will simply say that I believe we need good models of conduct and spirit that go deeper than US Figure Skating’s Code of Conduct and the PSA’s professional standards.
As a figure skater, beginning a yoga practice–or starting to “do yoga” –can be overwhelming. There is so much information online it’s hard to know who to trust and where to look.
Besides, society presents this image of yoga as bubbly young athletes sweating in Lululemon doing crazy poses. The franchise yoga business in many cities has perpetuated this myth.
Sure, some yogis are very flexible, even hypermobile, but most of us aren’t.
The reality is that all figure skaters already have some experience with the foundations of yoga, whether they know it or not. Spirals, catch spirals, lunges, Biellmanns, split jumps, layback spins, etc. Many of the movements and movement patterns we use in skating are very similar to those of yoga, as is the overall focus on balance, strength, and flexibility.
In fact, I was drawn to yoga because when I practiced, it was the first time I felt like my body could move in a somewhat similar, yet more gentle, way than skating, and the first time ever I felt like I could synchronize my breath with my movement. And that was the most powerful tool I had ever experienced.
The additional reality is that yoga has something to offer every single skater.
In a post a few weeks ago I even talked about how the foundations of yoga - Patanjali’s 8 limbs - relate to the skating journey.
In short, I broke down the foundational journey of yoga to show how it parallels some aspects of the figure skating journey:
So back to the original question… where does a skater go to begin “doing yoga”?
We have all faced nerves and felt anxious before a skating test or competition, right?
Sweaty palms, racing heart, nausea, jittery legs, shaking from the cold yet dripping sweat, forgetting your steps, feeling like your head is floating above your body, maybe your coach even sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher—wah wah wah. When I was a young competitor, I would yawn excessively and tell myself, “I’m not nervous! Look how relaxed I am.” 😅
I didn’t know that I was experiencing performance anxiety, and my coaches didn’t have any words of advice for me. In fact, I was too embarrassed even to admit that I was nervous. In the 80’s and 90’s, performance anxiety was considered a sign of weakness.
Either you could handle the stress, or you couldn’t. If you could, you won. If you couldn’t, you “bombed”. And "Sports Psychology" was only for the elite of the elite.
So, instead of recognizing my nerves, I internalized the bad skates and told myself, “I’m just not as good as the other skaters.”
As a result, I tried to work harder by beating myself up more in practice. Sound familiar?
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.
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.
5/27/2022 0 Comments
Why I Started to Drop the Ball
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.
2/25/2022 0 Comments
Keep It In Perspective
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.
11/11/2021 0 Comments
In Times of Transition
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.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the lower levels. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process. It should be an opportunity for athletic and personal growth and for building lasting friendships. With this in mind and following the 8 limbs of yoga, I use movement, breathwork, meditation, self-reflection, and community to help skating folks transform their outlook and relationship with skating. I help them learn to ditch comparisons and connect with their true selves and new possibilities. I also educate skating folks on building and nurturing a safer, more supportive skating community while continuing to develop skaters as authentic humans. I don't have all the solutions figured out, but I know what is kind and what feels right in my heart, and I know that yoga can change people because it changed me.
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