Why I Fail

On Saturday, I failed to perform in Jena. Am I devastated? No! But I’m absolutely disappointed and a little embarrassed (although whatever, my process is my process). I threw well in Rome. I threw well in Halle. I had an overall great trip to Europe for three weeks! But finishing it off that way leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and motivation to understand my own brain and failures moving forward in this long season. I want to share two big reasons why I fail. These aren’t specific to Jena: I do the same technical things wrong consistently, and I let self-doubt creep in after being alone for a while.

Ich liebe Hallesche Werfertage!

Ich liebe Hallesche Werfertage!

Trusting myself has always seemed normal to me. I blame good parenting! I know I put the work in. I know I have what it takes. I know that I care the most about the outcome (team situations were frustrating for me and I’ve been let down by people). But when I have any little dent in my independence armor and there’s someone there to lean on, I leeeeaaaan.

It’s my problem, not those willing and helpful peoples’ issue. I need better blinders, and to trust my own instincts, not necessarily in competition (I’m good at that), but when things don’t go as planned surrounding it. Long travel day? Go to the pool instead. Only bus later than I hope to go to the meet? Roll with it and shorten the warm-up when I know I’ll have a warm place to do so (prioritize the throwing stuff). Extra worried about my body throwing twice within 3 days? Strengthen the mind with visualization rather than just ignoring the negativity. And do all the mobility and core rather than just resting and hoping to feel better! I’ve always been good at following instructions. I’m coachable! And I highly value Jamie’s input into my training and competition preparation plan. But I also know he’s open to my feedback. For whatever reason, when I don’t feel good but know I have a meet coming up, I put my head down and stick stubbornly to the plan rather than expressing what I know, 99% of the time, we’ll both agree with. I should have gone to the pool on Friday after leaving the Rome hotel at 7:30am and arriving in Jena at 5:30pm, sweating all day. I could have done some core in my room first, then swam some laps, sprinted a little, and relaxed, weightless. I didn’t. Dummy.

There’s this saying that the hay is in the barn. Have you ever been around a farm? Animals need more than hay. My Mom’s horses get a carefully concocted mixture of hay, fancy hay, beet pulp, grains, various vitamins, and of course, love. The hay may be in the barn before big competitions (whatever “big” means to you: Every meet can feel big at this level), but you still need grains to finish the job. To do it right. I’ve ignored that instinct one too many times, and I’m finally processing it. Before Zurich and after Rovereto last year, I was finally brave enough to focus fully on what I wanted, and harvest the grain of mental fortitude and specific mobility and stability in those last days and moments. To do things I know make me feel invincible in this post-ACL, different-for-me era. I can be more successful. I just also have to be braver in looking my big, scary goals in the face and taking care of the details that can get me there.

My technical mistakes are always the same. They present themselves as “losing the tip” or “forward,” which in Jena’s left head/crosswind was a disaster. But actually it all starts for me with my right foot. And really my left foot. I spent 8 years solidifying a habit of striking backward with my right leg after my impulse, which I could get away with because of the gift of shoulder mobility. I look forward to lumbar arthritis as a result of hyperextension of that area for close to a decade as well (and more since I’m still not 100% disciplined). Anyway, with tiredness and some soreness (I’m very good at managing stiffness/being dinged up in one area, but 2/3/4 gets harder) comes timidity and lazy legs. Even though I know my legs were the reasons for 62.08m in Halle and 63.11m in Rome, I willed them to go and they just wouldn’t!

On Saturday, I let people (who are not Dana) tell me what to do. I already know what to do, and what they told me would have been accomplished by my strategy (specifically steps 2 and 3), but I allowed myself to be distracted by input.

I need to:

1.       Gradually accelerate down the runway.

2.       Hit a strong impulse after already using my left leg as a driver in crossovers.

3.       Be patient in my tunnel of power (knee up/toe up and left arm closed), wait for the ground with my right foot.

4.       Drive my right knee to the ground immediately upon right foot contact while keeping left arm closed.

5.       Keep the handle of the javelin “hidden” from the sector right behind my head.

6.       Be a freaking tree in my left leg.

7.       Push my chest forward after all of that happens.

8.       Watch the jav soooooar.

Everything happens if I hit an impulse and actually wait for the ground. But when I allow myself to be distracted, I focus on the end result rather than the key step that will lead to that result. In a headwind, that’s “keep the tip down,” “control the tip,” and “tip by your eye.” When I think about that cue, my only focus becomes keeping my chest up, which gets me tall in my legs and forward, not allowing good, powerful leg action. Inactive legs mean no impulse, and the body’s rush to create speed with a pawing right foot and pressure behind me rather than under me, forcing me forward more. A pushy right means I don’t have to snap a solid block down, because I feel support from a leg (the right). The left arm swings open for balance and because there’s time, and the right arm follows suit by swinging around. I try to maintain connection with the implement by extending/breaking my wrist, both skyrocketing the javelin and not applying energy to it.

My face sometimes.

My face sometimes.

It’s tough to break the self-doubt cycle in the midst of a competition, especially when you have excuses (four travel days and three meets in a week, end of 6-week trip, two days after the most intensity my body has felt in throwing in months, headwind, etc.). But I’m sick of it. Details are important and empowering. Let them be by allowing yourself to pay attention to them. Trust yourself, even when you’re tired, by practicing mental toughness, however you harness it. Change your cycle. Be better!

Rookie Mistakes

I had a great question from someone I am really excited to see make a debut in professional track and field this summer about looking back on first-year struggles. Rookie mistakes, if you will! While I’m really proud of how my rookie season went, there are a few things that I wish I would have known, or at least been more comfortable with.

My first real professional season was 2010. Hanging on for dear life after a collegiate season in 2009 doesn’t really count, but what I see now about my PR at USAs in 2009 is that Coach Zuyderwyk prepared me well for the post-collegiate season, I just didn’t have the experience to take advantage of that at Worlds that year. When Russ and I moved to the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center in the Fall of 2009, I had no idea what professional athletics was about. I changed coaches (read: training philosophies and technique), I had a new training partner, and all of a sudden I had all the time in the world. That year of training was phenomenal for me, and I hope most rookies have the same experience: Removing the stress of not only school, but other on-campus obligations meant that my recovery was amazing, friendships were fostered well, watching Russ grow as an athlete alongside me and having more time for each other made our relationship stronger, and I just thrived with more javelin-specific information. One of the constants I think for everyone in that first year of training as a professional athlete is that leveling up your training (volume and intensity and intention) means you’re exhausted all the time, therefore rest is a natural thing to do! Your recovery is really important, but it’s also just automatic. I slept constantly in 2009-2010.

AR during rookie season…

AR during rookie season…

I had a little back hiccup, but regardless of that, I was really well-prepared for the 2010 season. I started in April, competed a few times in May, and then the focus of my year was USAs and beyond (end of June/beginning of July resulted in two of the three furthest throws of my career in winning USAs/setting the American Record and winning Prefontaine). When I went to Europe after that, though, I comparatively struggled. I had some really good showings (mid-64s, lots of top 3 placings during the Diamond League’s inaugural season), but I wasn’t at my best in Europe, and I absolutely crumbled at the very end of the year, when it mattered most (an “off” year, the Diamond League Final and the IAAF Continental Cup were the biggest meets of the season).

Photos from Pre 2010:

So, you’ve had this great training year in which hopefully you feel totally free to train how you want/are coached and see weekly improvements, because now this is your job! Even if you have another job, that is my wish for you. I LOVED my first full year of full-time javelin throwing, and I continue to love the build-up to a season to this day. The process is fun and I hope you agree. But now it’s season, and that’s where you get to shine! Here’s a little bit of how:

DO

Crush it.

               You’re clearly an excellent athlete. You deserve success just as much as the next guy. For a while after my knee injury, I was just happy to be there, and there were times that I was too much in awe of the athletes I was competing against to allow my own performance to shine through. Maybe that’s a personal problem, but you can do both. Be a sportsmanlike, respectful force of an athlete. Burst onto the scene even more than you already have.

               One of the best things I ever did in preparing for a professional career was look the stigma that a rookie year is perhaps your most difficult right in the face and refuse to accept that outcome. It was my mantra all year, “This will be my best season ever,” because I had heard that most post-collegiate athletes struggle, and I decided I would NOT be one of them. Recognize the odds that are against you and use them as positive motivation. Rise above.

Communicate with your coach.

               All season, wherever you are. Continue to check in, because that person cares just as much about your success as you do, and wants to help facilitate performances moving forward. Provide them with all of the information they need to do that. Tell them how you adjust to time zones, what you’ve been eating and how you think that affects your training and performances, what your sleep habits have been like, and how you’re finding the process of hydration in places where water fountains are less available than the USA. Your coach can help you with strategies beyond technique and training plans, and might have suggestions about how you can best prepare for competitions in your new international process. I had a coach for a long time who wasn’t necessarily responsive to my communication. Having Dana and Jamie in my back pocket for encouragement, but also adjustment on the fly is so comforting. Even when you’re all alone in a foreign land, you’re not alone.

               That first 2010 professional season of mine? When my performances fell off at the most important time? I had a meeting with my then-coach after the season in which he said, “Oh yeah, I expected that to happen.” I can’t imagine my face. We were clearly not on the same page. Be on the same page with goals, positivity, honesty, etc.

Foster your agent relationship.

               Your agents are your friends! They’re professionals who have been around this sport longer than you have and will continue to be part of it long after you’re gone. They’ve seen lots and lots and lots of athletes succeed and know which recipes work for different kinds of people. Allow them to really get to know you via open and honest communication. Accept their help, whether that’s bringing you a water bottle in the warm-up area, ordering a competition jersey last-minute, going out to dinner, or changing a flight because you got sick or something. They work for you, sure, but that’s a rude attitude: They might have a vested interest in your success, but they’re also all huge fans of the sport! They love watching you win for multiple reasons. Recognize them as the positive force in your support team that they are! It can be a really fun relationship, especially when it lasts for a long long time.

Focus.

               Decide what your goals are with your support team early, and stick to them. It’s so understandable to want to make a huge splash in your rookie season, as early as possible. But what’s actually important? The mark of a truly phenomenal rookie is showing up at the right time. Big marks are always fun, but consistent places on national teams and perhaps international podiums (we are the World’s Greatest Team, after all) for many years is the mark of a true professional. A fantastic rookie season is so so so fun, but the true superstars are those who show up, meet after meet, year after year with incredible marks and performances, especially when it counts the most. Christian Taylor. Caterine Ibarguen. Tom Walsh. Allyson Felix (I believe so much in that Mama’s comeback: How could you not?).

               The flip side of that (focus on performance at the right time) is that all opportunities are important. The biggest ones are the most important, yes, but you’re going from being a big fish in a small pond (NCAA) to every competition being high-stakes. Do your best to prepare mentally for much tougher fights week in and week out than you’ve had before. This is not at all the same as a professional debut, but my senior year of high school, I got fourth or something at the Washington vs. Oregon high school track meet that I had always wanted to win. The competition was fairly good for my capabilities back then, and I was really disappointed. I remember so clearly my Dad saying, “Well Kara, this is what it will be like now.” After that meet was Golden West and USATF Junior Championships, and then on to college where everyone was going to be better than me. Then eventually on to the professional ranks. He was SO right, and I remember that lesson all the time in my training and competition. You ALWAYS have to show up in professional track and field, or you will absolutely be left in the dust. You can do it. And one off-meet is also okay. You can RE-focus.

               Don’t party too much. Youth allows you to recover a lot easier than I’d be able to now (ha!), and I’ve been so impressed by younger athletes’ maturity on the circuit in general, but it needs to be said. Get your rest in the midst of the season.

Have fun.

               I LOVE this sport and life. It is a blast to see the world through athletics. I can’t believe that some people don’t embrace the opportunities that international competition affords them through sightseeing and other adventures alongside competitions. Dana and I paddleboarded with Barbora in Prague last year. I’ve been to the Colosseum and Vatican Museum by myself multiple times. In 2010, a bunch of friends from the CVOTC and I rented out Cologne’s beer bike. Living in Offenburg last May and riding a borrowed bicycle to commute for three weeks was so fun. Russ and I went on vacation with the Kuehls to Austria in 2015 and then hung out in Paris before and after his last competition. Tokyo training camp and sushi dates with him were amazing that year. We held a koala bear and saw quokkas do backflips in Australia in 2012. I’m going to Bergen, Norway for my first meet of 2019 at the end of May, and then staying to train and hike and have fun with Sigrid for a week.

               Not everyone is like me, sure, but I am so incredibly grateful to track and field for expanding my worldview. I think it had already done that via collegiate teammates before my professional career, but I love this earth so much more than I think I would if it weren’t for being able to see it in my travels to throw the javelin. Take an afternoon to be amazed by where you are in a way that doesn’t involve track and field. The sport is already fun, sure, but there’s more to life.

Berlin ISTAF in 2010 was one of my first experiences just having fun and performing well at a meet:

Learn how to travel.

               For performance, I mean. For you. Some people fly back and forth to Europe for each competition. Other people have a training base in Europe for the summer, and travel to meets from that second home. There’s also a sort of in-between that I enjoy most: Destination-hopping for a month or so at a time.

               There are a lot of ways to succeed, and everyone is different. If you’re someone who can hop off a plane and perform well, kudos to you, and I’m also very jealous! I have been able to be decent at that in the past, but it’s not my optimum situation. I loved living in Germany for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, but I also had my future husband and a lot of friends around constantly. I was in Europe for two months in 2017 and got the closest I’d ever been to a mental breakdown from homesickness by the end of it (there were other factors involved, but 2 months solid is a long time). My away-from-home limit is 4-5 weeks, so I’ve figured out how to travel from meet to meet with little training camps in between, then come home for training and rest. AirBnB, VRBO, Uber, and public transportation apps in different countries now make that process SO much easier than it used to be, and I get a lot of joy and peace out of planning my own lodging and training situations after deciding on my competition schedule and receiving air transportation that my agents plan for me.

               Talk to friends in the sport and reflect on how travel has gone for you when you’ve performed your best. Perhaps do a training camp at some international destination and figure out when your body feels best before you have to deal with that factor going into a competition. Next time you travel to a drastically different time zone for anything, just take notes on how you feel. Plan for success.

DON’T

Stretch yourself thin.

               You don’t have to compete every time there is an opportunity. You’re young enough to be able to! But don’t feel like that’s what’s expected. In the same vein, protect your rest time when you’re at home. It’s so easy to fall into catching up with all of your friends when you come home from travels, but if there’s more work to be done, recovery time from travel and training again is super important. Definitely get your mental game up by spending time with loved ones, but remember that a season can feel like a marathon, and prioritize rest (mental and physical).

This was a mistake of mine, as much as I enjoyed it. Russ and I lived in a tiny Cologne apartment in 2010, and had very different competition schedules. I wanted to spend time together and support him, so I traveled to a few of his competitions to cheer him on. They are still some fabulous memories, and I can’t say I regret that, but maybe my circumstances are different than yours: I knew this was my future husband so wanted to protect the relationship, but did galavanting around Europe mean I performed at my best and/or got my training in? Maybe not.

Get caught up in early season numbers-yours or others’.

               This is absolutely a rookie mistake. Focus on what matters, and stay in your lane. If you have a huge mark early, cool, maybe count that as a confidence builder, but remember that you have to do that again-or better-when it matters. Worlds this year are not until late September/early October. That is still 5 MONTHS away. Calm down, haha.

Look at other grass.

               You know, how the grass is always greener elsewhere? The grass is green where you water it. A rookie mistake is looking at what is working for other people and thinking that you’re doing something wrong. You’re now a professional track and field athlete for a reason, and that reason is the people that have prepared you for this moment/season. Trust your team and your own process rather than jumping ship to someone who might be promising you things, but doesn’t have your best interests at heart like those who have been there for you for years. Continue to water your own grass.

               A little caveat to that is to recognize where there ARE opportunities for you that stem from your rookie success. I had different agents in my first year of professional competition, but I was told multiple times that I didn’t get into certain competitions because of who my agents were. So when, at the end of my first professional season, I had the opportunity to switch to the wonderful JRS Sports Management, I did. Water your grass, but if no amount of watering will make it better, you may get new grass. You’re in charge of your career (you care the most about it).

Get homesick.

               Okay, you’re allowed to be homesick (I get this way more now with the Madeline, as I can’t talk to her on the phone). But figure out a way to just make that discomfort normal as you continue to travel the world and dominate. Everyone feels the drag of a long season, but prepare for it mentally as best you can. You will get to go home, I promise. Stay in the moment while you’re still at track meets, and don’t let homesickness derail your success on the track or in the field.

Some fun attention comes from rookie success:  Donald Miralle  took these images in 2010 and I got asked to do other things after a good year…more on that in a future blog!

Some fun attention comes from rookie success: Donald Miralle took these images in 2010 and I got asked to do other things after a good year…more on that in a future blog!

 Take quiet notice throughout this year of how it’s going and how it could go better. Continue to be in the moment, sure, but also don’t be satisfied! Whether your notes are mental or you actually write stuff down, just remember that you want your career to be amazing now AND amazing later (hopefully even more so). So be honest with yourself and your team about how you can improve. Your ideas on that matter, because you are the one performing and representing all of you. It’s absolutely a team effort, but giving everyone all of the information you gather aids in that teamwork. Cheering for you!! I’m such a fan of track and field.

The Magic of Good Training Partners

I just got home to Colorado from two weeks in Chula Vista, California, my original post-collegiate training home. Russ and I moved there coming up on ten years ago. I loved it. Thought it was magical. It is again.

San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park when we visited Chula Vista for Spring Break 2009!

San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park when we visited Chula Vista for Spring Break 2009!

I’ve talked a lot in the last year+ about how fantastic my coaching situation is. I love love love love love working with Jamie and Dana. They are two of those rare, fabulous people in my life that just get me. You know the ones, that you always have some extra five minutes of conversation to cover before leaving each others’ side. Who say aloud what you’re thinking before you can form the words. Who are there for you in the hardest of times, and proudest of you in the best of times as a result. The ones who surprise you often with statements and observations that burst forth belly laughter. Absolute gems of friends.

As far as javelin is concerned, Dana and Jamie are all I need. The way we’re working together has my focus so much more locked in than it has been in years. All of us being together in Chula Vista on this trip resulted in some of the best practices of my whole life. I can feel performance building even more than I did last year, because I know our system works, and the technique isn’t quite as new as it was in 2018. Sunny and 70 San Diego conditions help everything. But let me tell you about an X factor that I can’t believe I keep forgetting about.

Good training partners are what I want.

I have had many fabulous training partners over my years as a javelin thrower. Let me take you back.

High School:

Rachel Baardson. Lisa Haakensted. Adam Mobley. Kate Helms. People who enjoyed javelin, sure, but also just made me laugh. After the silence of swimming and intensity of basketball in high school, track practice was just such a time of friendship. Sure, we worked hard, but we also talked and laughed and enjoyed outside the whole time. My high school track friends were the original training partners who are friends. Friends who just happen to be training partners.

College:

Lindsey Blaine. Quietly focused. Someone I, to this day, don’t feel cool enough to be friends with. A woman with relentless drive. I always just wanted to impress her. In training and in life.

Jim Schwingendorf. My dear, dear friend, fellow BGRite and party crasher, and neighbor. Whose Dad was my Catch Phrase soulmate. Jim nicknamed me “Knee Sweat.” Always ready with a joke and always giving 1000%. It made me so proud when Jim and Steve Carlson both made regionals in 2008!

Betsy/Laura/Elaine/Kylie. Four sweet freshmen when I returned from Beijing for my fifth year. Their endless energy in their pursuit of knowledge was so special at the end of my time as a Boilermaker!

Purdue T&F Banquet 2008: Me, Jim, Steve, Lindsey!

Purdue T&F Banquet 2008: Me, Jim, Steve, Lindsey!

Professional:

Mike Hazle. That guy. We met in Beijing in 2008 and then were the best training partners in the world in Chula Vista for three years. So unlike each other but somehow perfect together. One of the most loyal people I’ve ever known. He knew exactly how to fire me up and I like to think I was good at calming him down (sometimes he needed that). The end of his career and what sometimes feels like the beginning of mine overlapped, and I couldn’t be more grateful for his leadership and friendship. He was creative in his approach to training and appreciated every day, which taught me to do the same, regardless of how we felt physically. Jamie still writes “Hazle squats” into my lifts sometimes. In May of 2012, Mike suffered an elbow injury, shifting his focus from a second Olympic Games to his other passionate aspiration of serving in the military. I didn’t understand at the time that he was serious, but we started rucking from the runway to the weight room instead of walking. His goal of BUD/S was halted by serious ankle issues that required surgery (on both) before going an alternate route. His ankle surgeon was my ACL surgeon, so we’d pass each other in the doctor’s office parking lot that Fall, both of our dreams shifted into something we didn’t really see coming, and exchange the same encouraging words we always had. I was proud when he finally won a USATF National Championship in 2011 after four consecutive silvers. I loved being at meets together in Europe. But my pride in him as a U.S. Veteran leaks out my eyeballs when I think about it too much.

After my knee surgery and Russ’s and my move to Colorado in 2012, my focus kind of had to shift to myself. I went back to school. I was just healing. We got engaged at the end of 2013 and then I bought a house and then we renovated that house ourselves. I spent time traveling to see Ty by myself in NOLA and Texas, and loved the freedom of those trips. Russ was my periodic training partner and travel companion until he retired in 2016. What I’m saying is that I’ve spent a lot of time inadvertently learning how to train alone. And I do simply love the training. I do cherish time focusing on my job, listening to music, by myself.

I’ve visited Chula Vista at least once a year since we moved away. It is always fun to see Jamie and feel supported when he comes to watch my throwing sessions. But now there is this little tribe of training partners that make the place an unmatched treasure again.

Mike Shuey (Shuey in this blog, for clarity). Intentionally light-hearted but obviously earnest in his pursuits. A newly-minted 80m thrower with a lot left in the tank. Very tough: He’s had some of the weirder injuries I’ve heard of and shaken them right off. A family man with great comedic timing and sometimes-too-good sarcasm. He came to Colorado last year and Russ and I took him fishing, plus I got to learn that we practice well together when he came to the Academy with me to throw with Dana. Very athletic, and getting more so all the time. Questionable musical taste within workouts, but that is something we absolutely have in common.

Max Rohn. Fellow Coloradan. Many would call him a hero. Someone who fully appreciates cool life experiences that have come his way through uncool life experiences. New enough to the javelin throw to want to soak up everything he can, and brings an attitude of gratitude to every session. A strong person without being stubborn where he doesn’t need to be. Up for debate on anything. Excellent mannerisms, periodically including my favorite, finger guns. An old soul with a young zest for this Track and Field adventure that he started later than most, and is likely enjoying more than many as a result. Apparently some of the best humans come from Penn State (Shuey coached Max a bit while they were both still there. See also: Jimmy, Darrell.).

Brent Lagace. A periodic companion for Shuey in throwing sessions. Lovely, relaxed energy to be around.

Justin Phongsavanh. Great hair, and great hair flips because he probably knows it, haha. Has the best surprised face right before he laughs out loud. We can talk about electricity and dogs. Justin is a seated thrower, and Dana and I were both humbled and intrigued to try it out and give him our input. His questions challenged the very way I think about how my able body throws. I’ve been around para-athletes for a long time, but not many para-javelin throwers. They’ve sharpened my focus on how best to do what we all do.

Erica Wheeler. One of my original javelin heroes. This ’96 Olympian is the Paralympic javelin coach at the CVEATC, and therefore works with Max and Justin. Still the Washington State High School Record Holder, I’d seen her name for two years on record books before watching her win Nationals in 2003, when I was there for the very first time to compete as a junior. I just thought, “She’s from where I’m from. I want to do that.” It is so much fun to interact with her in a collaborative coaching capacity, and Dana agrees. We had an absolute blast putting our brains together and geeking out on the javelin.

I spent two awesome weeks with that group of great people, plus my two coaches. I know that Russ and I moved away from Chula Vista for good reasons, and those all remain, but knowing that such an excellent community exists there again means I’ll be back more often.

The bottom line in an ideal training situation is to love what you do. I LOVE training. I love the process of making my body feel good and perform through movement. I love the knowledge that every little thing I do physically is contributing to my ultimate goals. I love being outside and active, often, even when it’s cold in Colorado. I love the necessity of good hydration and adequate nutrition. I love working hard: Asking that extra little bit of my muscles when they’re burning and shaking, putting mind over matter. I love the feeling of surprising explosive power and stretch reaction. I can do that on my own and enjoy the heck out of it. But I forget how much better it is, together. Every track athlete is internally motivated. But there is just something special about celebrating other peoples’ success alongside your own. The X factor of fabulous training partners isn’t something I imagined I would find again. The right people, who yell strength into your muscles when the barbell suddenly gets heavier. Who can’t help but whoop with you at that tiny javelin dot that you made rocket away. Who join in on celebration dances, the more ridiculous the better.

This might all sound really sappy. But I’ve been around a long time, and the magic of good training partners is a big deal. It probably means more to me than it does to them too, and that’s okay. I also realize that I am now the Mike Hazle in the Chula Vista equation: The perhaps wise, sometimes ridiculous, older athlete. I don’t live there anymore, but training there for ten years now makes it feel like mine, and if I can periodically drop in and meld back into that great community, I can’t wait to contribute again in some way.

Have you had great training partners? Did you tell them how much you appreciated their role in your career? You should.

Next week: How to be a good training partner! I’ll flip the script of this blog. More practical advice than just gushing and reminiscing. 😊

Competition Mentality

I know that outdoor season has now begun for many collegiate programs in the U.S., so I wanted to touch on the mentality of an athlete going into competition as I know it! Also Lara Boman of University of South Dakota suggested this topic, and she was right. 😊

I want to be totally straightforward and tell you that I am not yet the master of this art. My sophomore year of college, I absolutely wet the bed at NCAA Championships. All of the end of sophomore year actually was a total disaster. I never won NCAA Championships. Every. Single. Major. Championship of my career so far (save one) has been incredibly disappointing, but we’ll get into the successful one and how my brain was different in a bit. Not until 2018 did I feel like I truly performed when I was supposed to, and a new, happier, more relaxed training and coaching situation is a huge enormous reason why.

The only differences between training and competition are the uniform, venue and the number of people watching! The implement weighs the same. You’re competing with the same teammates if you’re in a team sport. The play book doesn’t suddenly change. You are usually wearing the same shoes. You might do your hair differently or drink a little extra coffee before heading to the stadium, but you’re focused on executing the same positions that you’ve practiced over and over and over again. The X factor in a competition that I used to get hung up on is the fact that people are watching. Expecting. But once I figured out that those spectators weren’t waiting for me to fail, but instead were there for the same reason I was (to experience something amazing), their attention instantly turned positive.

There are other X factors. Maybe your own expectations are the ones that get you all nervous. Perhaps there’s that one competitor that always just edges you, and it drives you crazy. You could be hoping to perform well enough that you get to travel with your team for the next weekend. All completely valid worries, and all things you can practice overcoming.

How to Approach a Big Competition Mentally

Keep everything as normal as possible. There is so much that goes on around big competitions that elevates you anyway. You don’t need to do anything extra at the last minute. You are enough!

So many times, I have overthought and overstimulated myself going into an important meet. Some of my very, very best performances have come when I’m jarred out of my own head by something unexpected, and forced to just rely on the tools I have. At NCAAs in 2008 I was SO nervous that I just barely made the final, and then ended up 5th even though I led not only the collegiate system, but the country. In 2009, I tried SO hard in the qualifying round of World Championships in Berlin and put so much pressure on my first professional Team USA performance that I only threw 52 meters. My 2011 season was absolutely riddled with sub-par results from a crippling lack of confidence. That terrible season had some other causation, but the mind can be very powerful in both directions.

In 2008 at Big Ten Championships, I fell hard on one of my last warm-up attempts. I sprained my left wrist in the process, plus I was pretty darn embarrassed. I was not leading the Big Ten at the time, Ruby was, so I had been super serious and too focused during my warm-up process and in my whole approach to the meet. After I fell, all I could think about was how much my wrist hurt and all I could focus on was the careful and deliberate placement of my feet so that I wouldn’t fall. Turns out, that careful focus meant I got my left down quickly, and that plus adrenaline (and great preparation by Coach Zuyderwyk) meant I threw 61.56m, the Olympic A standard. I just needed something to shake me loose.

I missed the bus to the track at USATF National Championships in 2010. I caught a ride to Drake Stadium with some strangers I met in the parking lot who had also missed the shuttle bus. Kurt and Sylvia came to watch me throw after we scored a sweet parking spot. That slight change in plans and thinking on the fly meant I was just happy to be there that day! I stayed completely relaxed and broke the American Record.

Your body already knows that you are approaching a big meet when it’s coming. Drink lots of water, get lots of sleep, and if you need to visualize throws, keep it very simple. Stick to the cues you’ve used in practice recently that have worked rather than thinking up something new before the big show. Trust yourself, your coach and your process. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to perform on big stages, and messed it up many times. I’ve just been lucky a few times to have things happen that get me out of my own head and let fun performances happen.

There are two times I feel I approached competitions correctly and on purpose from a mental standpoint: World Championships in 2015 and the Zurich Diamond League Final in 2018.

Russ and I were both on the World Championships team in 2015. We were roommates at training camp in Tokyo and got to go on sushi dates and tourism adventures and practice together like normal. We were roommates in Beijing as well, where we were completely at ease with each other, like every training day of my life. I was in the middle of my MBA program, and took an academic final the day between the qualifying and finals rounds. Before qualifying, we were able to watch funny shows and play cards together in our own space. Things were so much more normal than they ever had been or have been since at that Worlds, and I ended up 8th, the best an American has been for a long long time.

After months of a new training program, new technique, and a season of fabulous European experiences in 2018, I spent four days alone in Prague before traveling to Zurich for the Diamond League final. I love being alone actually (to an extent), and I simply drank water, slept, read books, trained, and visualized my perfect javelin throw at that point. I didn’t let myself think about it ALL day. I didn’t have access to the internet where I was staying, which was perfect. I hibernated and focused on my goals, but also just chilled, like normal. Arriving in Zurich meant reuniting with my long-time friend and short-time coach, Dana. This was the first time a coach had accompanied me to a Diamond League Final. Her companionship, humor, and just plain NORMAL presence in my life was the perfect recipe for success. We joked around throughout my warm-up process, I stayed loose, and then I got third and threw further than I ever have before in Europe.

What do you normally do? How can you combine your regular life and optimal performances? Maybe you have this experience too: You’re at practice, maybe you don’t feel great physically (you’re tired, you didn’t sleep well, you have a lot to do later, etc.), so mentally you know just to focus on technique that day. You’re relaxed because you’re tired and not expecting a whole lot, and then a throw or component of technique surprises and thrills you early in the training session! I absolutely love that. So you try harder, and it falls apart. That’s the lesson. The other lesson is not to panic. You can get it back!

Tools to Hone Mental Toughness

Since it is darn early in the outdoor season, you still have time to build mental tools for the end of the year when you want your best performances to come! Here are some ideas for specific problems that you might feel hold you back in competition.

Worrying about Spectators

               I did this a lot. I saw their attention as pressure. It’s not. It’s encouragement.

               A fix: Practice pretending that there are spectators! Invite people to practice who aren’t usually at practice. Even have them heckle you if you think it’ll help! Give yourself a scenario that involves visualizing a giant stadium and lots of noise, or a super intimate venue with people close to the runway if that’s what’s intimidating. Exercise your mind so you’re practicing putting up with that attention until it’s second nature.

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Your Own Demons

               Maybe you have a hard time leaving your past failures there. It might haunt you that you didn’t throw far enough that one time, or multiple times! I’ve been there.

               A fix: Change something. It could be as simple as your breakfast routine, or some positive self-talk right when you wake up in the morning. Let yourself believe that that simple shift in your habits will permeate your life and lift you to success when you want it. One of mine is extra recovery and rolling-out stuff. Mobility work makes me feel fluid and relaxed and prepared, so keeping that habit going at big, important competitions reinforces that feeling, and success follows.

Getting Really Serious

               I watched other people get their game faces on and be celebrated for it, so I thought I needed to do that, too. Maybe that’s you (the serious person), but it’s not me. I need to relax and have a great time to throw far.

               A fix: Funny shows, hilarious podcasts on the bus to the competition, a book you love (but can put down in order to sleep haha). Bring a relaxed attitude to practice and then carry that over to competition! In 2015 (my first season after ACL surgery and without my knee brace), I knew I would be an absolute nervous wreck, so my former sports psychologist suggested I bring photos with me that made me really happy. I printed a bunch of pictures of Russ (this was pre-Madeline) that make me laugh, and they were perfect to flip through between throws to keep me relaxed.

A Particular Foe Vexes You

               There’s just that one person that either gets under your skin or seems to find some little extra gear to clip you at the end, repeatedly. It feels unfair and out of your control!

               A fix: Visualize your victory over this particular competitor in practice. Come up with detailed scenarios involving that one person that you can overcome in training, and lean on that practiced confidence in competition. “Sally is ahead of you by 15cm going into the fifth round. You haven’t executed X cue so far. Go.” “You improved by 20cm, but she passed you again by half a meter. Last chance.” Reinforce your technical cues within that framework instead of just relying on emotional energy (you can do both).

You Want to PR

               I GET IT. Unfortunately we can’t force these things. Focusing on distance alone tightens me up!

               A fix: Watch video of your PR if you have it. Identify the technical things that you did correctly. Remember in detail what happened and how you felt that day. What other things in life cause you to feel the same ways? What kinds of emotions run through you and how do you channel them when you throw far? Try to do things that illicit those emotions and that energy on the days of your competition. Pinpointing the technical stuff that went well allows you to focus on an actual technical goal in the midst of a meet instead of getting caught up in hoping for numbers. Then when everything comes together it’ll happen! I believe!!!!

Calm, positive, focused confidence. Practice it! Photo by  Jenny Mann  and  Above Ground Level Studios .

Calm, positive, focused confidence. Practice it! Photo by Jenny Mann and Above Ground Level Studios.

This has been blog one of this week, and both will cover your mindset going into competition. Blog two on the same subject will be a simple Q&A from Instagram questions I’ve gotten! So submit those or drop a comment below if there’s something you’re wondering about after reading above. Thanks!