I’m sitting there quietly, four walls around me, chalk on my hands, waiting to feel rested enough for the next lift. I’m looking around as I sit on my stool, and I ask myself the same question I always ask when I’m training:
“Why am I here?”
I don’t ask the question in the metaphysical sense, but specifically, what am I trying to achieve today? A skill? A technique? What am I training, trying to accomplish, learning specifically today? But also… why am I here? What is this adding to my life, what am I learning, who am I personally letting into my life by being here, and do I enjoy what this brings to my life?
I’ve been an athlete since I was 9 years old. For most of my life, I’ve made a living being an athlete. First as an equestrian, then as a long distance triathlete. This set me up on a different path than what most will call “normal.” My life has been structured in a way always geared towards achieving certain goals in a very certain way.
I’ve written before about the transitions athletes take as they retire out of full-time sport. This can be a process that is sometimes not talked about or fully understood by the athlete themselves or the people around them in their lives.
My journey has been one I’ve been navigating through thoughtfully. As a coach, I often talk about the process of understanding your “why.” You should understand how important it is and what role it will play in helping you achieve goals. I’ve talked about how this can change based on your phase of development and where you are in your athletic career.
As I personally navigate through post-professional sports, I carefully apply the tools I know and have learned. I ask myself things like “why?” I set goals, follow a plan, and surround myself with good people.
As they balance life with family, work and their own athletic passion I help a lot of athletes understand how it can all work together and what “balance” might look like at different times in their lives. You need to have a fire in your belly that comes from deep inside you. This is the most important thing that I feel steers your direction. We all have this thing inside us; a deep burning fire we can feel. It’s what causes us to choose our paths. It might be to go after a certain job, or degree in school, or have a family or reach for an athletic goal. But we have all had it for something at some point. It’s what helps us start to understand ourselves on a deeper level.
The year after I retired from racing, I made a list of my “why?” again. It wasn’t that different from when I first started training. Things on the list were: I like to learn, challenge myself, meet great people, be around good environments that are positive in my life, travel, feel my heart beat, face fears, be outdoors, look good physically, feel good in health… things like that. Although what drove me to train and perform took many twists and turns throughout my athletic career as a professional, I never felt very far away from my original “why.”
Sometimes I think my “why” is driven by things like structure, achieving a goal, discipline and a certain way of life. But whenever I put myself in a position where these are ahead of the true fundamental things that burn inside me, I find I actually drive myself further away from achieving those goals.
Let me give you a recent personal example. I’m a retired endurance athlete who has taken up Olympic weightlifting for a new challenge in sport. Being who I am, I went after weightlifting the way I go after everything I do… with complete focus, structure, and discipline set towards very specific goals. What I noticed is I was starting to feel kind of sad, which was weird to me because I love weightlifting. I was learning new things, challenging myself, and creating an environment of structure and discipline.
I didn’t think much of this slump because I’d been there before as an athlete. I was having some struggles in some sessions and I thought maybe I was getting lazy or needed to work harder. But here is where even experienced athletes can find themselves caught wrong. You see, I was focused on the goal and the structure. I was forgetting the things that truly live deep inside me. I had forgotten that being a bit of a free spirit with fewer rules, more outdoors and being out in the sun is what makes me turn up every day with a smile on my face and the right attitude. It became really clear to me in a single moment when I was visiting a friend and I was trying to take a nap before the structured weightlifting session I was meant to do later that day, and I heard her clip in to go for a bike ride in the mountains of Colorado. I suddenly felt like I was being suffocated and had this incredible desire to jump up and yell, “Wait for me!”
Later that day, I went to train and had a terrible session. My head was spinning. I wasn’t smiling. I wasn’t bringing my best effort to the table, or my best self. This is when I knew I’d been fighting what I’ve always known in my heart, because it was that little burning fire that I couldn’t ignore. Fortunately, I have very good people in my life who I can talk to about this. We talked out very specifically what my “whys” actually look like. I can I tell you from that second forward, I was suddenly my usual best self: light on my feet, smiling, lifting weights easily, spinning on a bike comfortably, and swimming reps of butterfly like I’ve been training all year. It’s funny how if we try to restrain the fire, we kill our own inner strength that makes us strong, fast and successful in the first place.
We all do things that in the end make us happy. People are wired that way. Sooner or later, we end up drawn to things, activities, people and environments that make us happy. When we are happy, we are successful. We are able to work harder, we roll with the punches easier, we turn up every day, and we put more effort in… because we are happy. When we start to get sidetracked and confused about our fundamental “why”, that’s when it gets hard. It’s not hard in the sense of “this is hard work,” but more getting in our own way.
I’m not saying it’s always going to be a barrel of laughs, or that sometimes you might question your own sanity, but at the end of the day, if you look around and you feel at peace with where you are in what you are doing, you’re doing it right. That’s not because you are going to win anything that day, but because truly you know in your heart that’s where you want to be. If it works out or it doesn’t, you’d say you had a great time doing what you love with people you love and feeling darn good about it. For me, I know I need to be around people that make me laugh. They work hard, but have a great time doing it. I know I need to be challenging myself and learning. I know I need to be outdoors and experience weather, conditions, terrain and sun. I need a certain level of work ethic around me.
If you are ever wondering if you are doing the right thing for yourself, take a few minutes to just sit quietly and truly look around where you are. Take a deep breath and ask yourself when you see your surroundings if your reaction is a feeling of peace or a feeling of sadness. If you feel peace, you are right where you are supposed to be, so just keep turning up. If you feel sadness, don’t question yourself. Go find your peace and happiness, because success is right around the corner from there.