NATALIE BURTON OLY
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