NATALIE BURTON OLY
I recently decided to do something that Natalie from 12 months ago was too afraid to ever let herself do.
I made the decision to leave the club I have played for and been a part of since I first started playing basketball when I was 12 years old. I am now 32.
For 20 years, I have put the same team colours on so often that I may in fact bleed blue and white.
Throughout this time, as I played all around the world, my home club was always the place I came back to in order to recharge and re-discover the joy I felt when playing alongside friends and family.
In 2016 following my Olympic experience, and backing it up directly with a gruelling WNBL season, I was experiencing burn out both physically and mentally. I had lost the joy and fun that was pivotal to the game and vital for my happiness. I was not playing my best, because I was not mentally at my best. The 2017 NBL1 season that year was the only thing that stopped me from walking away from the sport completely. The Hawks, along with the coaches and playing group, provided a space for me to find that joy again. And find it, I did. Basketball was finally fun again; I felt confident and capable on and off the court, and was surrounded by support from every area. That is the sign of a special club, coaches and playing group.
So, when that joy went missing from playing last year, I knew something had changed.
The 2021 NBL1 season was tough for many reasons. But I can only speak for those of which I had control of, and I take full ownership of them. I was not in a good headspace. I felt stagnant and trapped. The loyalty of which I was once so proud of turned into a box. In that box, I felt safe. I was comfortable. But it was also suffocating, and my mind-set on the court reflected that. It became increasingly harder for me to control my frustrations and anger derived from my own shortcomings. I met everything with resistance. If the coach went over training time by 1 minute, I was furious. I was turning into someone I barely recognised on the court. And I was incredibly ashamed.
At numerous times throughout the season, I told myself that I would not play again next year. Because in my mind, I was either playing for the Hawks, or I was not playing at all. Leaving my home club was not even an option I entertained. I would rather retire.
Until my great friend challenged this close-minded thought process, and asked me what I actually wanted from playing basketball. Just that simple question: “What do you see when you picture yourself playing next year?”. To which the answer was simply “Fun.” I wanted to feel the joy I get when coming up with a rebound I wasn’t supposed to get, or when diving on loose balls and putting my body on the line. The feeling that comes from sprinting the lane hard and getting a fast break layup purely from effort. The feeling of camaraderie that is born from sacrificing everything with my teammates in pursuit of a common goal.
This is what fun looks and feels like to me.
And with that intention in mind, I asked myself where I could achieve that, allowing myself to look at places other than my home club. Because a big part of the reason I couldn’t leave the Hawks was because of my fear of the repercussions of my move. The people who would judge me, the people I would offend. I feared it looked like I was turning my back on the club that was a part of me.
But to continue to make a decision based on the fear of judgement from others felt inherently wrong. I would have been doing something to please other people, therefore putting their opinion of me over my own. I would be saying that the way they think about me was far more important than how I thought about myself. I would be denying myself what felt right within me, purely to keep others happy. I would be allowing fear to sit in the driver’s seat, and I didn’t want to let it hold me back anymore.
By taking ownership for my own actions last year, and by finally letting go of worrying what others might think, I could make a decision based on what I wanted instead of what I feared.
By actually asking myself what I wanted and exploring where I could potentially find that, I became open to new opportunities instead of feeling like my situation was out of my control.
In doing so, I have held my worth and my future in my own hands, right where it was always supposed to be. And that is incredibly powerful.
I have realised that I have been holding myself back in fear in a lot of areas of my life, this is but one example. You may not be contemplating leaving a club…you may not even play sport. But I encourage you to ask yourself this one question, as I continue to do the same: How is fear holding me back from what I truly want?
I’ve always struggled to put into practice the usual advice people offer when receiving criticism from others.
You know, the standard ‘Don’t pay any attention to those who criticise you and judge your performance’.
This has always seemed so much easier said than done for me, as my default reaction has been to let the negative comments feed my own self-doubts and beliefs.
I guess it’s because the criticism that hurts the most is the one that mirrors what we already believe about ourselves.
(How many times can you remember being criticised for something you are confident about? You probably can’t remember it ever happening, because you just brushed it off and moved on.)
For me, I believed I was never good enough throughout many stages of my basketball career.
So, when I heard people online questioning my selection in the 2016 Australian Rio Olympic team, I listened, and I let the words find a home within me.
Actually, I tried to tell myself not to pay any attention to these people’s opinions, and I pretended like they hadn’t affected me.
I knew rationally that these people had not been there for all of my trainings and workouts, and they had not witnessed the blood, sweat and tears that I put in behind the scenes to get selected. They were not the decision makers for the team because they were not my coach, so their feedback could not contain any critical, useful information that could be used to enhance my performance. Their feedback was therefore literally irrelevant to me.
But I still believed them. These comments found root within me, because they confirmed the belief I already had about myself. That I wasn’t good enough.
It was a constant battle between the rational thoughts, and the part of me that believed my worth and wholeness was determined by my performance and capabilities on the basketball court. Every time I heard criticisms about my performance, the more attention I gave them. I was essentially watering a weed; allowing it to grow larger and larger as I gave it more and more of my mental energy. Each watering-can only confirmed my limiting belief, and it found even deeper root within me.
So, someone telling me simply to not listen to the people who criticised me and judged my performance really didn’t help me. And it’s no real surprise when we understand that our focus is our fuel, and whatever thoughts we focus on, are the ones that will grow and influence our actions and behaviours.
The key then, is to change the way we perceive feedback.
Feedback is not personal; it is simply information.
If it is coming from another person, then it is information about how that person sees things; their own assumptions, opinions and beliefs. So, when a person gives you their opinion about your performance, it actually doesn’t tell you anything about you, but rather, about the person giving the feedback.
When we see the world this way, we don’t end up attaching any sort of meaning about ourselves to the words of others.
Using my story as an example, the information I was receiving was really only telling me one thing: what these people liked and disliked in a basketball player. It did not determine MY worth, it did not tell me if I was good enough to play at that level, and it certainly didn’t tell me if I was capable of playing basketball or not. It was purely information being given to me, and I get to choose how I let that affect me.
That is the real kicker. It now becomes a question of what you are going to do with that information. Are you going to let someone else’s words poison you? Are you going to give them power? Or, will you put your energy and focus into your own self-efficacy? That is; your own knowledge and belief in your abilities, without doubt.
I’ll leave you with one more idea; when we can reflect on the feedback that hurts the most, we can actually learn a lot more about ourselves. If the criticism stings and takes root within you, remember, it is shining a spotlight on a limiting belief we have about ourselves.
This awareness provides you with an insight into the way you may be holding yourself back. Now you can choose to take action either based on your negative self-beliefs, or, you can go for what you want to achieve. This is how you truly learn and grow from every experience you have in life, no matter the outcome.
Put your sanitised hand up if you agree that what we’ve been going through over the last couple of months could be classified as a ‘set-back’. Definition: a problem or period of upheaval that delays progress or makes a situation worse.
Say for example, an end or pause to an upcoming sports season for which you had just gone through a long and gruelling pre-season to prepare for. Or a pause in the startup of the new business you were creating. Or a massive change to what your exciting and vibrant social life used to look like.
I’m picturing a lot of hands up right now.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out, we’re in a pandemic after all. But have you given it much thought beyond realising this obviousness?
You see, ‘set-backs’ and challenging times may feel like the things you were pursuing were never meant to be, that it’s not worth the pain and hard times you’re in right now, and that you may as well give up chasing that dream, but they are there to provide you with the information that will help you learn about yourself and grow.
So how do you actually allow yourself to seize the opportunities in front of you when you feel like you’re swimming through mud?
At the most basic level, you need to acknowledge and accept your current reality. Acknowledge that your life has changed and will probably continue to do so for months, and accept that there is uncertainty about what the future will look like. Acknowledge the mixed bag of emotions that come with a life of isolation and social distancing: disconnection, loneliness, anxiety, boredom.
When you can’t accept your current reality and fight against everything that comes up for you within it, you go into control mode. Your energy and focus becomes directed towards trying to gain control over your situation, even over the things that are totally out of your control. This distraction will only block your ability to see the opportunities available to learn from your circumstances.
Noticing how you define your current situation is going to have a massive impact on your ability to be open to seeing the opportunities in front of you. Are you playing the victim and feeling hard done by because life has thrown you into the deep end and you didn’t have time to put your floaties on? Are you seeing everything around you through a lens of struggle and despair, of fear and hardship? Have you thrown your arms up in defeat, decided you are incapable of doing what you want, and given away your power to the situation rather than directing it to working towards your vision and goals?
That’s why I have been using the term ‘set-back’ in inverted commas. The language we use to define our situation has a massive impact on our mindset. If we define it as a set-back, or a crisis or struggle, we are ultimately telling ourselves that it’s all doom and gloom, that our lives will slide backwards and nothing can be done about it. We will become blind to the information available and closed off from seeing the opportunities available.
Don’t get me wrong, there are extremely devastating things happening all around the world. But that doesn’t mean that’s all there is right now. There are always opportunities available for us to learn. After all, our greatest growth comes out of our darkest times.
When I look back on some of the hardest moments in my career, I see how they helped me discover my why; my motivation for devoting 19 years of my life to playing basketball. Without the pain and struggle of going through these challenging times, I know I would not still be playing. I would not have fallen in love with basketball again, and I would not have discovered my passion for helping others by sharing the knowledge and experiences I gained from my career.
When you define your situation as a period full of potential for growth, you allow yourself to see the opportunities to not just bounce back from this, but to grow and learn and to actually bounce forward. Sam Cawthorn’s fantastic book Bounce Forward: How to Transform Crisis into Success presents this idea of growing through a crisis, and I thoroughly recommend reading it to gain a deeper understanding of how you can turn a crisis into growth and success.
Lastly, keep your focus forwards, instead of on the past and where you were coming from.
You won’t be able to see any opportunities for growth if your focus is behind you, if you’re holding on to what used to be, waiting for those days to return, and feeling stuck because you can’t get back to the way things were.
What is your vision for yourself? What are your goals?
Picturing your desired end results and keeping them in the front of your mind daily is a powerful tool in keeping your focus forwards. When you’re looking ahead, the actions you can take to push you towards these goals and vision will become clearer and clearer.
It’s up to you to choose how you come out of each situation in life. The information you need is all around you, it just depends what lens you view your experiences through.
The dust has settled a little as we all get used to our lives in isolation. Our morning rituals are solidified and help set us up for our day as we head into the routine we have become fairly comfortable with. We’ve put in the extra effort to connect with our friends and come up with fun ways to replicate the social interactions we miss most; hanging out online with friends on the weekends, virtual game nights, team workouts.
By now we all know what we are supposed to be doing to look after ourselves and each other. Stay home, stay connected to friends, stay active, spend time in nature when you can, don’t read too much news, have a routine.
But four weeks in and the novelty is kind of starting to wear off. Each day slowly bleeds into the next one, and I find myself forgetting what a weekend even is anymore. Yes, I could go on Zoom and talk with a friend as we sit in our own living rooms, and spend most of the chat looking at myself in my own video, fascinated by the way the camera angle makes it look like I have multiple chins instead of just the one. I could organise that team bingo night we were going to have over Zoom. But I could just as easily not bother and choose to hideaway and do my own thing.
As I contemplated this disheartening change in my attitude, I realised that the first few weeks was the easy part. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard having to scramble to adjust to the abrupt changes in our lives as we knew them. But we found our way through it, and for the most part we have comfortably settled in to our socially distant lives.
So, as we acknowledge and accept that we could be in isolation for weeks or months to come, it has become apparent that this is a marathon, not a sprint. We now face an even harder test as complacency creeps in and we let the things that we know are best for our mental and physical wellbeing start to slide. It becomes easier to not reach out to connect with our friends. It becomes easier to binge watch Netflix. And it is so much harder to find the will to make the extra effort required to do that workout.
So how do we fight this threat of complacency? How do we push through this next challenge?
This right here, right now, is when you play your resilience card. The resilience that you have practiced and honed over your professional sporting career, or the resilience learnt studying day in and day out to get that grade to get into the university you want. The resilience to do extra workouts to make that state team, the resilience to work long hours so you can provide the best service you can to your clients.
As this situation progresses and changes, we have to make sure we keep doing the things that we know will help us in the long run, even though it may seem like the hardest thing to do right now. Just like doing all your mandatory team trainings is the easy part, and doing your own extra workouts is the hard part. Just like merely going through the motions and doing the drill the coach asks you to do is the easy part, but putting that extra bit of effort in and pushing yourself to make the drill as game-like as possible is the challenge.
The thing is, it’s these extra workouts you do and that extra effort you put in during the hardest times that will have the most impact on your development. Those times when you were struggling but still kept on pushing through, they were the times you came out the other end, looked back, and realised why you had that exact experience. You see that it was indeed worth that extra effort, because you learned about yourself through the fight. Maybe you learned that you’re tough, that you don’t give up. Maybe you realised what matters to you most in your life, or you discovered what you’re willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of your goals and dreams. Heck, maybe you realised what you thought you wanted in life isn’t actually important to you anymore. Whatever you learn and however you grow along the way will make the fight worthwhile.
As my coach Rick Morcom would say, “The third quarter is the championship quarter”. The hardest part of a game isn’t the beginning or the end, it’s the grind of the third quarter. It’s when your body is starting to deeply feel the fatigue and you’re in a constant battle with your mind as it contemplates the tough half of a game still left to play. It’s no surprise then that it’s also the most important part of the game and has the most impact on the outcome.
This right here is our third quarter.
I love being part of a team sport environment. It provides you with an instant social connection to a group of people of similar age, with whom you spend countless hours together, as you all work extremely hard towards a shared goal. Immersed in this highly competitive and passionate environment you are driven to work hard and get better in order to perform for yourself, and for the greater good of your team. It makes it remarkably easier to pour so much blood, sweat, tears, time, energy and focus into your training.
So what happens when your season suddenly comes to an abrupt end, or pause, and you lose your biggest motivation to stay fit and healthy? How do you make yourself sweat now that you don’t have your teammates and coaches surrounding you and holding you accountable, encouraging you, pushing you? What exactly is the point of finishing the workout when you don’t have the dream of holding up the championship cup driving you anymore?
If you have found your motivation waning lately, whether you are an athlete or not, I have some useful ideas for you to try out.
1. Change your ‘why’
Right now, you’re being shown that you cannot solely rely on external motivation (coaches, teammates, winning). And although this period of isolation will end, the day will come when you say goodbye to your sport forever.
Emphasising your intrinsic ‘why’ for staying active is vital for your mental and physical wellbeing during this period, but even more so for life after retirement.
The most effective way to increase your internal motivation is to enjoy what you’re doing. Working out right now should be about enjoying helping your body feel good both physically and mentally, and having fun in the process.
Focus on the emotion that goes with that. I feel joy that I’ve looked after my body and got it moving early in the day. My body feels good with all those endorphins running around. I feel peace from the break I gave my mind from the stress of the outside world, and the frustrations I allowed it to work through. Keep these emotions in mind when you feel like quitting, or not even starting a workout.
2. Let’s celebrate what our amazing bodies are capable of!
Allow your body to try something new for a change rather than the same old movements it’s used to.
When I was in college, there used to be a joke about how the swimming team spent so much time in the water that when they had to run on land for conditioning, they literally looked like fish out of water as they tried to make their bodies do something they weren’t used to. The same went for us basketball players when we did the odd session in the pool; most ended up looking like drowned rats.
We become so specialised in our specific sport, which is obviously tremendously important, but we often fail to realise our bodies are able to do so much more than we think. Let your body explore and learn new ways to move and you might notice improvements when you do start your sport again. You may even find new sports or exercises to tickle your interest when it does come time to retire.
3. Give your mind a break from the constant stressing over your lack of motivation and feelings of guilt for not doing enough.
Your mental wellbeing needs to be nurtured right now.The more you obsess and feel guilt over your lack of motivation and your inability to start, or get through a workout, the more powerful the problem will become. After all, what we resist, persists. Work on noticing the thoughts that come up for you every time you think about working out or worry that you should have worked out today but you didn’t. Accept these thoughts. Don’t fight them, don’t try to resist them, and don’t punish yourself for having them. As you shift your focus, you will notice that the power these shaming thoughts have over you becomes increasingly insignificant.
Now try easing yourself into being active, because even a little is better than nothing. So, start small if you need to, maybe a 10-minute workout first, then build it up.
If you use this time now to give your mind a break, you have more chance of coming back feeling refreshed.
4. Understand the influence Decision Fatigue can have on your motivation.
When trying to come up with a workout, or wondering what to do, we often get so hung up on the decision that we decide it’s easier to just throw the towel in and not even bother. To avoid this happening, reach out to your strength and conditioning trainer or a professional in the industry for some recommended workouts. If you don’t have this, firstly contact me and I will find someone for you! But secondly, try putting together a bank of exercises that you enjoy doing (FYI, burpees would absolutely, 100%, NOT be on my list. No way. They are the worst exercises in the history of exercises. But anyway...). Use this bank as a starting point to take away the pressure of making a decision, seeing as you should at least enjoy doing them.
5. Try implementing short-term goals.
Setting some little short-term goals gives you something to aim for and allows you to create some structures and routines to help you achieve them. If you’re an athlete this can help you fill the void of the goals you just lost. Just make them realistic and achievable otherwise your motivation will quickly be back to where we started.
Some ideas to help you become more accountable:
Amidst this current sea of uncertainty, your physical activity is one thing you can actually control and use to help you create some structure in your daily life. Without structure, it is too easy to become paralysed by the fear and not adapt with the continual changes.
Whether you are an athlete or not, there is a high probability that this isolation situation is especially testing your motivation right now. But one thing is sure: keeping your body active helps your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, which is something we should all be making a priority right now.
For the athletes out there, I encourage you to think of this period as a chance to prepare for the future as you implement and test out some strategies that may help you once you retire.
Amongst all of this change and uncertainty, I have been finding small pockets of joy in such seemingly simple things. Like the joy of having left over birthday cake to eat for a week (does 3 days count as a week?), or the freedom I feel when I escape from the house down to the beach for a quick dip. And most of all, the happiness, calmness, and fulfilment I get from my daily morning ritual.
A couple of years ago, when I was first exposed to the idea of morning rituals, I had a picture in my head of a top-level CEO business guru who gets up at 4am, does a yoga session followed by a 12km run, then sits down with their bulletproof coffee and writes the next best-selling novel, invents a new gadget, starts a new business, conducts all their board meetings, and writes their memoir, all followed by reading a couple of self-help books.
Anyone could be forgiven for not attempting to implement their own morning routine with this picture in mind.
But a morning ritual is not about accomplishing all of your tasks or getting all your jobs done before the sun rises. Rather, it’s about giving yourself this time in your day to look after your own mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing first. This devoted time sets you up to be able to handle the days’ ups and downs with resilience, and maintain your focus to help you complete your various work, tasks, and goals.
My current morning ritual is as follows:
Let’s go over the most important areas of a morning ritual:
1. Incorporating some form of mental stillness practice such as meditation, mindfulness, or even journaling.
With the current upheaval to life as we know it, the temptation to binge on social media and fall down the deep dark spiral of fear inducing doomsday scenarios is all too easy. And you will do it, I did it yesterday myself, and I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of the darkness. I was full of anxiety and I did not achieve the end results I had set for my day.
It took my team sport psychologist to give me a dose of my own medicine and remind me of the importance of staying in the present moment rather than running away into a future full of ‘what ifs’.
Which is exactly the premise behind mindfulness; when we practice mindfulness, we become aware of our thoughts in the present moment rather than replaying the past or imagining and stressing about the future.
Whether you practice your mental stillness in the morning through a guided mindfulness session or by going for a walk to clear your thoughts, not only will your mind get a reprieve from any anxiety you’re experiencing, but it will help you maintain your focus in each present moment throughout your day, instead of being distracted by your emotions and stresses.
2. Another piece of gold I have in my morning ritual is reminding myself of my chosen end results and vision, and setting my desired outcomes for the day. This helps give me a clear guide as to what actions I can take today to get me closer to achieving them.
Some people will have a clear vision, and some won’t. If you would like some help finding yours, please send me a message and I can take you through some exercises and worksheets. The direction this exercise gives you is incredibly powerful and meaningful.
3. I use my morning ritual to start moving early and get a workout in first thing in the morning. It really gives me a buzz when it’s completed, and knowing that my exercise is (mostly) done for the day feels amazing. I say mostly because I used to play this game called basketball and we would have team trainings in the evenings and games on the weekends…except isolation equals no more basketball, or team sport, or just sport in general. Sad face.
4. If you’re really into your food, like me, then take great delight in eating something nutritious and delicious as part of your morning ritual.
When I think about my morning ritual and the breakfast that accompanies that, I get excited for it the night before. But then again I get excited about most things when food is involved. I won’t go into the details of the importance of a nutritious breakfast, I’m not a nutritionist. This routine is about looking after yourself and using the time to do things that bring you joy. If you’re a person who doesn’t care much about what they eat for breakfast, then don’t give it too much thought, and devote your time and decisions to another area of your morning instead. Research suggests our brains are really bad at making decisions in the mornings, so don’t use them all up on something that doesn’t serve you!
A few things to remember:
What not to do:
So much is changing in the world, and it will continue to do so for many months to come. Use this opportunity to try out new things, like a morning ritual, or mindfulness, or journaling. Our lives before were so busy and full of distractions that we used as excuses for not doing the things that we knew would probably help us.
Make the most of this down time, practice self-care, implement some changes, and if they help you then carry them through when things start to pick back up, which they will. This is how you can look after yourself and create the changes that will serve you, and therefore others and our communities in the long run.
The past few weeks have seen the abrupt end to almost all competitive seasons for athletes (apart from you, AFL), for at least the next month. Our dreams, goals, hopes, and even livelihood have all been put on hold as the world navigates unknown pandemic territory. With this postponement comes high levels of uncertainty about when and if we can return to our sport. And for a group of people who are used to working towards clear goals and feeling in control in our daily rigid routines, this period of uncertainty will most likely challenge us mentally and physically.
It is more important than ever that we stay on top of our wellbeing during this time. With the absence of our normal routine, setting up a new one will help you adjust and perform healthy daily habits.
The temptation to sit and watch Netflix all day every day is going to be real, especially in the first few days. But I can guarantee from personal experience of living in a foreign, non-English speaking country, this will get old incredibly fast. And it also feels crappy. Wake up at the same time every day and loosely plan out your workout times, meal times, relaxation times, and productive times.
Don’t have any current studies to keep you occupied? Allow yourself to pursue whatever your intuition guides you to pursue. You don’t have to write the next best-selling book or paint a masterpiece during this abundance of free time. Just embrace your inner child and allow yourself to explore, play and create as you wish.
Here are some recommendations of potential explorations:
If this time has highlighted the fact that you have no plan set up for life after sport, and you’re looking for some direction in your own career development path, please let me know. I am currently completing my Cert IV in Career Counselling and am happy to offer my services to you so that I can get some practice while at the same time helping you out.
Now if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone recommend mindfulness practices to athletes…you know where I’m heading with this. But seriously, if you want to stay on top of your mental health right now, you have to be implementing some form of daily relaxation practice. Mindfulness can be as easy as 10 minutes a day and there are hundreds of apps out there. I will put some recommendations up on my Resources page.
I also encourage you to keep a daily gratitude journal to highlight the good amongst the change.
Motivation to workout may be challenged while separated from your S&C coach and teammates. My teammates actually took the initiative with team spirit at heart and have organised weekly workout sessions over Facetime. One of us will lead the workouts and everyone else will follow in their own back yards, with everyone wearing our team jerseys just to increase the camaraderie a little.
Obviously, it is not only athletes who are experiencing upheaval and change during this time; everyone will be challenged. This is a perfect opportunity for athletes to give back to their communities. Use your social media platform and status to remain a constant presence amongst your network. Promote connection with each other to combat the side-effects of social-isolation and reach your followers through messages of support and inspiration. This is what the internet was made for; connection without proximity. Let’s use it and engage with each other.
I will be using my extra free time to serve my community in any way possible. I’m making myself available to anyone who needs a chat, for whatever reason. Whether you’d like advice on careers, mental wellbeing, hobbies, or just to say hi and listen to my funny jokes, just send me a message and let’s sort something out.
I will also be writing more posts with ideas to stay on top of your mental wellbeing during this period of uncertainty. If you would like more information on something in particular please let me know.
We don’t know what the next few months will hold for us, but we do know things will change. And that’s ok. Use this opportunity to do things you wouldn’t usually do, explore new interests, and think about how we can change our way of life in the future for the betterment of our society and the environment. We need to use our unique skill set which has been naturally sharpened throughout our journeys as athletes. Your leadership skills and knowledge of how to work cohesively in a team will be of great use, along with your hard work ethic and ability to adapt to change. Your resilience will be tested, but your ability to bounce forward will be needed.
If you were to ask me 2 months ago what the key ingredient to achieving success as an athlete was, my answer would have been confidence. Without a doubt. Yes, you need talent, and yes you need the drive and motivation to work hard, among many other things. But the unwavering belief in one’s abilities seemed to be the common denominator in the most successful, resilient athletes.
It would take me a long time to realise that confidence was not the holy grail I believed it to be.
Considering I never saw myself as an especially confident player, I was sure that if I could gain a higher level of confidence then I would achieve the higher level of performance I was continuously striving for.
So, I constantly tried to convince myself of the unwavering belief in my skills as a basketball player. I focused entirely on how I felt about myself when playing basketball, always taking note of when I felt ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When I felt great I would be brimming with confidence and I was able to play relaxed and strong. But in the next moment I could feel ashamed and stupid, all the confidence zapped from my body leaving me plagued with self-doubt and playing with fear. And then there were the most confusing times, when I felt fantastic yet still played poorly, or when I felt off but still managed to play some of my best basketball.
My self-confidence was on a continuous rollercoaster. I never felt truly, deeply confident.
I had failed to realise that confidence is too easily influenced by feelings and beliefs, both of which don’t always tell us the truth about our abilities and performance.
Just because you believe or feel something is true, that doesn’t necessarily make it so. You may think a particular feeling is real, it may feel real, you may believe it is truly real, but it is just a feeling. Emotions are normal, but they are not always based on facts.
If I’m relying on the way I feel about my abilities to give me more confidence, but the way I feel isn’t necessarily based on a truth and doesn’t always match my execution or performance, then the foundation for my confidence is extremely unstable and unreliable.
I now understand that chasing higher confidence does not give you all you need to achieve success. Instead it can come from building Self-Efficacy: holding a truth about your abilities to perform without doubt. This theory is about knowing that you have the skills necessary to perform because you have worked on them tirelessly. If you have established this truth about your capabilities through endless hours of practice and extra workouts, then this should be your focus. It’s not about how you feel; it’s about drawing strength from the hard work you have devoted to increasing and developing your skills.
Self-Efficacy is centred around facts, not feelings. It is based on truth and knowledge instead of what you feel or believe.
When I stop playing basketball I often wonder what part of my life will provide me with the adrenaline rush I get before every game. The butterflies in my tummy that come from knowing that in a few hours I will have to perform and work hard and do everything I can to help my team win. The amazing feeling of the adrenaline coursing through my body as I start warming up and prepare to use the unique skills I have worked so very hard to develop and hone. I love that feeling, and it is why I still play, because it is a crucial part of being ready to perform.
So I have a real problem when asked on game day “Are you nervous for your game?!”
Because when I admit to them that yes, actually, I am rather nervous, I am bombarded with comments like “Don’t be nervous, you’ll be fine” or “Why? You’ve played in front of bigger crowds than this”. I know these people mean well, that’s not my issue. It’s just that it highlights the extent to which we put such a negative spin on being nervous without realising how this might affect our headspace and therefore our performance.
All too often I see coaches, parents, spectators, and most of all players themselves, who believe that being nervous is something to fear and avoid and a sign of a weak mind; something that only soft, unprepared, or inexperienced players get. When in actual fact, it is a completely normal reaction by our bodies, and if harnessed correctly, can actually help us to perform.
So how do we change the way we feel about being nervous and make sure we are using it to help us instead of hurt us?
Let’s look at the two opposing stories we tell ourselves about being nervous.
For me, being nervous before a game means that I’m ready for battle. It tells me that I will be able to put any minor pains to the back of my mind and I will be able to react in a split second. I will be able to sprint the floor when my legs are tired and my breathing is heavy. I am focused on all the good things that can happen if I do well. I like to call this ‘excited nervous’ because when I think about being excited it brings forth positive feelings of eagerness and enthusiasm.
When I feel nervous before a game, I focus on the horrible feeling in my tummy. I can’t eat because I feel sick. I’m scared of the pain that is coming during the game, and I’m worried about the outcome and the fact that we could potentially lose. Or that I could play horribly and feel crappy about my performance. I’ve had these thoughts before; it often leads to an anxious playing style full of second guessing and self-doubt. There is no flow and nothing seems to go right. I call this one anxious nervous; thinking of anxiety brings forth feelings of worry and unease.
The interesting thing is that the body’s reaction to being excited nervous and anxious nervous is actually the same; arousal. The same rush of adrenaline, the same feeling in your stomach, and, if you’re unlucky, the same sweaty palms. But when we tell our minds that what we’re feeling is excitement, we can harness the body’s natural reactions and use them to help us perform instead of allowing them to cripple us like anxiety so often does. Being excited is like a magic positive potion that helps us be more energised, productive, and aware.
What’s even more interesting is that when you try to convince yourself that you’re not feeling either excited or anxious, that in actual fact you’re cool and calm and not the slightest bit nervous, your mind doesn’t even bother to believe you.
In a study by Professor Alison Brooks at Harvard Business School, three different groups were to sit a math exam. One group had to tell themselves they were excited, another was told to try to calm themselves down, and the last was instructed to do nothing (aka be anxious, because we all know how it feels when faced with a math exam). The group that did the best was the excited group, the second best was the group who did nothing (the anxious group), and the worst was the group told to calm themselves down.
Think about that for a minute...harnessing your feelings of nervousness using a positive emotion like excitement can make you perform even better than using a crippling emotion like anxiety. But to totally deny them to yourself doesn’t work at all and definitely doesn’t help in any way.
Being nervous is a natural reaction in the body, no magic potion necessary! I encourage you to think of ways you can make full use of it by changing the way you view every situation around you.
There is a particular word that has recently found its way into my everyday life, demanding my attention like a flashing neon sign. It’s a scary word. A challenging word. One that carries the high probability of upcoming exposure and pain. But one that at the same time can enhance conversations, connections, relationships and experiences, if you allow it.
This word is vulnerability and researcher and author Brene Brown describes it simply as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” I thought about finding exact definitions of vulnerability to help explain what it is, but I don't think I need to. You know that feeling when you don't know what the outcome of something is going to be...when you are scared to put yourself out there because the possibility of being hurt or looking like a fool is too daunting? That all to common feeling is vulnerability.
In fact it is Brene Brown's book ‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead’ which started my curiosity with vulnerability and led to the discovery of the massive impact it has had on my basketball career so far. This book explains how vulnerability is a normal part of our everyday lives, and how we commonly view it as a weakness and something to run away from. It delves into the strategies we use to fight the feelings associated with being vulnerable, and how these strategies are actually distancing us from the things that bring the most meaning and joy to our lives.
I feel vulnerable when I voice my opinion in a group which might not agree with me, when I initiate intimacy, and even when I am presenting something that I have created to the world (Like a blog post). But I feel perhaps the most vulnerable on the basketball court, the place where I have spent an incredibly huge amount of my life over the past 18 years.
I have really vivid memories of different moments throughout my career where I have tried to make a post move and ended up being blocked, or turning the ball over. The shame I felt at myself for making such a stupid move was almost debilitating. I felt so exposed. I felt like everyone watching was laughing at me. My brain jumped to the extreme thought that because I made one bad move, I wasn’t a very good basketball player in general. So all I wanted to do was crawl under my bed covers and hide. Of course I couldn’t exactly do that in the middle of training or a game. And so my response to this shame was to withdraw and do whatever I could to not feel those feelings again. That meant hiding from getting the ball in the post. That meant not looking to try and make another move, but rather passing the ball to someone else instead. I was so scared to make another mistake that I became a player who was almost like a robot in offence. I think this is where I developed my love for defense. I was already pretty good at defense which meant the risk of exposure was a heck of a lot less than that in offence, and so I felt a lot more comfortable and made it my focus. It was easy to hustle hard to get stops and dive on loose balls and out work my player to get rebounds. These qualities along with my athleticism and work ethic helped get me to an Olympic games!
However I was deeply unhappy with myself and my basketball. I have always wanted to be the best that I could be at whatever level of basketball I was playing. I knew I wasn’t at my best when I was hiding. It took the help of a sports psychologist for me to realise that I had to deal with feeling vulnerable if I wanted to get better. I had to learn to feel comfortable with being vulnerable, because it was in those vulnerable moments that I was actually being courageous and pushing myself by trying something new. After all, how could I get better at making a post move if I hardly ever did one?! I eased my way into this thought process, starting in individual sessions and then progressing to practices and games. Throughout training sessions I had to push and push to keep making myself stay exposed and explore instead of hiding. This carried through to games where it was a good game for me if I had felt vulnerable at some point in offence, as weird as that sounds. I made that feeling my focus when the shame threatened to tell me I was rubbish.
Four years later and I still need to remind myself to be aggressive and look to make a move, even though I may make a mistake. My immediate reaction is still the same after a post move doesn’t quite work out. I still feel shame. But because I am more self-aware I recognise this response in my head quickly, I say something vocal and supportive to my teammates which doesn’t allow me to disengage and hide, and I remind myself of the growth I can achieve when I am vulnerable.
Like I said, basketball is just one of my many examples of feeling vulnerable, and it has been a place for me to practice being more comfortable with vulnerability so that I can apply this way of thinking to all areas of my life.
Sometimes I feel like I will never be "cured" of this shame. But then I realise that I am breaking down habits I have incorporated into my mind for 30 years. The better I get at recognising when shame is controlling me, the more I can allow myself to keep pushing and be open and courageous, because on the other side of this is growth, joy, and fulfilment.
After re-discovering the concepts in this book and reflecting upon my career so far, it has become increasingly clear that vulnerability is the crucial pathway from fear and disengagement to authenticity, creativity, empathy, and love.
By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and by accepting all the things that hold us back, and then still doing it anyway, we can live a more fulfilled life.
I thoroughly recommend Daring Greatly to everyone. Whether you play a sport or not, I guarantee you will have daily moments when you feel vulnerable, and you will try to fight this feeling in your own way. This book made sense of feelings I have experienced and struggled with understanding for such a long time, and I have a feeling it will do the same for you.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” Brene Brown