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.
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.
One very long, very difficult chapter of my career is coming to a close soon, so I have some space to reflect rather than just survive.
Play has been at the forefront of my mind a lot lately. Play is an essential part of being human--it helps in brain development, social cohesion, relieves stress, supercharges learning, and just adds joy to life. I am not a neuroscientist or psychologist, so I won't venture into many details here except to say that scientific research has shown this over and over.
Yet, somewhere between childhood and adulthood many of us stop playing, eventually even forgetting HOW to play. This gradual shift is especially common in competitive sports, and it is a big factor in driving youth away from sport. The shift is also a big factor in the unhappiness of many youth who choose to stay in sport for longer. I have seen it in myself and I have seen it in my students. As Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the US National Institute for Play, says: "The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression."
Time is limited and sport is expensive, though, so athletes, parents, and and coaches choose to prioritize setting goals and "moving forward" . Pressure for college application resume building pushes this need for achievement, as does the human need to keep up with the Joneses. With so much focus on goal setting, discipline, hard work, and achievement, we often forget to build play into our athletes' (and our own) days.
As an aside, you may have heard the adage "work hard, play hard". Some people use this to refer to the concept of work-life balance. Unfortunately, this saying is often used in the sports world to justify the binge drinking, mixed-age parties, inappropriate relationships, and sexual misconduct all too common in the elite and developmental levels of many sports. Let me be clear--alcohol induced partying and inappropriate relationships are not "play". This is toxic, sometimes illegal behavior and is a conversation for another day.
The play that I'm talking about refers to simply doing an activity with no real purpose other than for pure enjoyment. Swinging, geocaching, dancing in the kitchen, trying to play an instrument or draw, learning about houseplants, metal detecting, cheesemaking, whittling, or simply daydreaming--they're all valid hobbies to help us tap into our creativity and explore new possibilities without a goal in mind.
We all need this sort of play--adults, kids, elite athletes, beginning athletes, former athletes, and the never-ever athletes. In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul , Dr. Brown says that "Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively.”
I've turned nearly every hobby in my life into a job--skating, Spanish language and culture, yoga. It is tempting to say that I forgot how to play at my hobbies because of this tendency, but the truth is I don't remember thinking of any activity as "play" since I was about 14. The pressure to perform and fear of failure was just too great. It's no wonder I struggled with depression, anxiety, and an ED, and it's no wonder I ended up chronically stressed out and completely burnt out.
Once I started gardening and tending to houseplants, I had to let go of perfectionism (there's no way to control Mother Nature). I still haven't embraced failure, and I still sense a teeny twinge of jealousy every now and then when I'm losing Putt-Putt or Scrabble, but I'm slowly relearning what it means to play and experiencing so much joy in the process.
How do you make play a priority in your life? Leave a comment and let me know.
If you'd like to hear more about Dr. Brown's research on play, check out some of his TED talks here.
This work of loving ourselves is constant. It’s not like we can say “I did a week-long retreat of reflection and now I’m going to love myself forever and always.” Why is self-acceptance and self-compassion so hard? Even if we are naturally compassionate people, and even if we think we are really good at showing compassion towards others, we often fail miserably when it comes to taking care of ourselves.
There are lots of ways to show compassion towards ourselves—a spa day, a walk in nature, a favorite movie or book, and dinner with friends (maybe after COVID) can all be means of self-care. These longer practices are important for our well-being, but perhaps even more important is developing strategies that we can implement on a regular basis, on short notice, when we’re short on time, and when the negative self-talk surprisingly rears its ugly head, invading our space.
My favorite way to take care of myself is to promise 10 minutes a day, no matter what. No excuses. Sure, I’d love to have time to do an hour or more of asana practice per day, or take a long walk in nature, but that’s not always possible. So, sometimes those ten minutes take the form of sitting and counting my breaths. Other times it means sitting and repeating an affirmation or mantra, such as "I love myself unconditionally". Another favorite strategy is to set a timer and set myself up in a restorative pose for those 10 minutes.
My favorite restorative pose is Supta Baddha Konasana, and I’ve spent a lot of time here this week. This is the best pose for me when I’m feeling depressed or anxious.
Here’s how you do it: Lay out a sturdy cushion or several blankets with one end on a block (or a big, sturdy book), so it’s at an angle. Sit with your sacrum up against the lower edge of the cushion. Bring the soles of your feet together into Baddha Konasana / Cobbler’s Pose/ Bound Angle Pose and place a folded blanket or towels (or a block) under each knee. Slowly lay back onto the cushion. If your arms feel any strain, you may place additional cushions, pillows or blankets under the elbows (I love this option—feels even more relaxing to me). Finally, place an eye pillow or a scarf over your eyes, relax into the pose, and let the tension melt away. Stay here for as long as you like, preferably for at least 15 minutes for maximum benefit, but less is good, too. I often set a timer so I am not worried about knowing when to come out--this allows me to fully release into the posture--and sometimes I turn on instrumental meditative music to help calm the mind.
Keep in mind that in restorative yoga, the intention is to fully release into the posture. When the body feels supported and safe, we allow the nervous system to being to rebalance itself--out of fight or flight mode and into rest and digest, which is key to our long-term health. So... be sure to support yourself with a sufficient amount of props to allow for zero muscular effort. I'll talk more about this rebalancing of the nervous system in another post at a later date. Stay tuned!
I’ve been doing a lot of reading in 2021 so far. I love reading, and when I’m hurting for inspiration, there’s nothing better than a good book to kick me in the butt.
This month I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic—Creative Living Beyond Fear.” (You may remember Elizabeth Gilbert from her hit memoir “Eat, Pray, Love”.) In “Big Magic” she talks about having the courage to unearth the treasures that are within us. Each one of us, she says, has the capacity to live a creative life, but we get bogged down with thinking about the outcomes. She suggests that we approach our creations, or our craft (books, paintings, choreography, program, spreadsheets or whatever) with diligence and gratitude because we love it and because we can. Keep your head down and do the work, basically, regardless of the outcome. We are lucky enough to have found our craft, and it is our duty to keep honing it because the world needs to see our individual interpretation of it.
Another book that addresses this is Rob Bell’s “How to Be Here”. Bell talks about finding our purpose and that it’s our duty to approach it as a craft, rather than success, which comes with the pressures of an expected outcome. He says:
throwing yourself into it begins with being grateful that you even have something to throw yourself into…. We surrender the outcomes because we cannot control how people are going to respond to us and our work in the world….The joy come from being fully present in this moment. The reward is in throwing yourself into it right here and now.
I love this. As much as we preach “focus on your own journey” in skating, it’s hard to live that motto when every single outing in our sport is judged, and when social media consistently brags about the achievements of others. By focusing on our gifts and how lucky we are just to be on the ice, we can begin to reframe our relationship with the sport.
P.S. If you're curious and want to read either of these for yourself, visit my bookshop to purchase while supporting local bookstores.
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.