How to find satisfaction as an athlete, regardless of the outcome

What sport has taught me

By Cory Rublee | Canada (22-12-2014)

I wrote the following essay as a way to organize my thoughts about my current state as an amateur athlete. I’ve been on and off the Canadian national canoe team for 7 years, but have yet to really break through to the top. Through much reflection I’ve managed to put down some things I’ve learnt about myself as athlete and a person. I’m hoping that others will find this useful.

In the paddling world, people throw around the phrase “living the dream” a lot. I sometimes think it doesn’t feel like I’m living the dream. I always assumed that the problem was me, figuring that I’m too pessimistic and I don’t know how good I have it. I have felt grateful, and lucky to do what I do, but there were also many times I didn’t feel that way. “I’m working hard everyday, I’m not moving forward, and I’m getting no recognition.” But it’s only sport right? So I would be ashamed of having these negative thoughts about something that should be fun. People are way worse off than I am as an athlete, so I told myself to stop complaining.  But I came to realize that when you don’t address a problem it doesn’t go away; you can’t fix something that you deny exists.

Many times it seemed like I was fighting against my own feelings. I was conflicted between thinking with my brain and thinking with my feelings. I felt one way, but my brain told me I should be grateful and should be happy that I’m doing my sport everyday. I convinced myself that it was just me being too negative and focusing on the wrong things. But I wondered: when is it ok to think about the bad parts of what’s going on? When is it ok to acknowledge that even though things should be right they aren’t?

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It’s taken me a long time to understand that it’s ok to admit that things aren’t ok, and that something that seems silly to someone else can mean a whole lot to you.

I think I’m a bit of a slow learner, and that, mixed with the fact that I’ve had a transient lifestyle, has had an impact on my personal growth.  For the past ten years I’ve been moving around Canada for paddling, and I feel my development outside of sport has suffered for it. I think it’s hard to grow with no roots. Now, facing the loss of my identity, I feel like for the first time I am starting to find out who I am. I say losing my identity because for the past while I haven’t performed very well in my sport. For the last four years I’ve been trying to push to the top and every year I fall short. I, like many athletes, used my sport and my achievements in sport to define myself.  I’ve never been great at sport-life balance, so when things started to go downhill in sport it was a difficult time for me. This year hit me especially hard, and in the past few months there has been a lot of reflection and trying to make sense of everything, which brings me to expectations.

Expectations

When I wasn’t performing well on the racecourse, at least according to my standards, I began to look more closely at other areas of my life, examining everything. I realized that I wasn’t happy. I was feeling like I had wasted my time. I wasn’t reaching my goals or performing; I had spent all my time training while those around me were making careers and starting families.

From a young age I had high athletic expectations: by this age I wanted to be here, and by that age I want to be at this point. In my mind I was failing. The only thing I cared about, sport, wasn’t working out. It made me feel miserable and worthless. Then I got to thinking about these expectations. Goals should be  tools for motivation; they shouldn’t be a source of emotional distress. It’s ok to set high goals, but what’s important, for me at least, is how you approach them. I’m beginning to see that. I’m still trying to put in a 100% effort, but I understand that I also need to find satisfaction regardless of the outcome. It is possible to be content with where you end up.

Looking back I see my goals have been a source of unhealthy pressure for years. I have to do this; I have to make this team; I have to go on this trip. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to realize that I don’t have to do anything. It also took me a while to realize that I don’t have to keep paddling at all. I could quit. When I let that thought settle in, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. And then the realization: I’m not in my sport because I have to be; I’m in it because I want to. For too long it seems I was stuck in this thought process of “I have to keep competing because I have so much I need to accomplish.” I don’t need to accomplish anything.  Sure there are things that I’d like to do, but I think I finally get it that, if I don’t achieve those things, it won’t diminish me as a person.

Now when I train, I train knowing that it’s a choice: my choice, not a requirement.  Reminding myself that I don’t have to keep going if I don’t want to adds more joy to my daily routine. I know that it may not last that much longer so I appreciate it a little more, and I can push a little harder. Because I know that paddling isn’t forever, I can tolerate the negative times a little better. I can weather the storm because its impermanent and it truly is my choice.

I still have performance goals but now I’m mostly focused on two non-performance goals. The first is allowing myself time for recovery and rest. When you’re tired small problems can become big problems and it’s easy to get down on yourself. The next is enjoyment. I’m working on enjoying my daily routine and being around my coaches and teammates because, who knows how much longer I’ll get to see them like that everyday.

I’m not sure how long I’ll keep paddling. For now, I’m taking things as they come, and that suits me just fine.

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