Any road won't do. The path to fulfilment is in being values-led
Updated: Jan 25
In January 2012, just 5 months before Olympic selection, I broke the wrist on my sword-wielding arm. I’d been dreaming about going to an Olympics all my life (with two Olympic fencer parents and a house full of Olympic memorabilia, the dreaming started early for me) and had been training full-time for the previous 6 years with all-consuming focus on the London 2012 Games. Then, during my first training session back after the christmas break, I took an innocuous tumble during a sparring match and broke one of the small, carpal bones at the base of the hand, and so began the darkest period of my adult life to date.
This blog is my testament to the power of harnessing your personal values to live up to the person you want to be. If ever there was a master key to living a fulfilled life, this would be it.
My ordeal involved two surgeries (to put a screw in to the bone and wire up the wrist, then later to take the wires out again) and four months without being able to hold a sword in that hand.
I went into the training centre every day to work with our physical trainer, Rhys, a legend of a man who was a big support for me during that period. Every day I watched as my teammates continued training, getting better, and fighting for a place in the team. At best I was going to have a month and a half, once my cast had been taken off, to get back up to speed and show that I was worth my place in the team again. For all of the previous 6 years I had been number 1 or 2 in the team and now it was doubtful if I could keep a spot in the top 4 to qualify for the Games.
But, as is often the case, times of crisis are also times of great revelation and renewal, and this dark period was also when a number of seeds were sown that have greatly impacted my life’s path.
I began working with an incredible sport psychologist, Katie Warriner, who opened my eyes to just what is possible when you work determinedly on your mindset. Our work together started by exploring my core values and identifying how I can better live up to them in my daily life. During those months I was plagued by resentment and bitterness towards my teammates for being able to continue as normal, and a sense of victimhood - caught up in thinking “Why me? Why do I get my first major injury right when I got the first glimpse of my goal up ahead?”. I was not a pleasant person to be around and when Katie got me to describe the kind of person, athlete and teammate that I wanted to be, it was blindingly obvious how far I was from living up to that vision. But day by day I slowly turned things around by constantly referring back to what my values were telling me about how I wanted to behave and be in the world.
I got back to full training just in time, and ended up being selected for the Olympic team, but only for the team event, not in the individual. Despite the time away from trainingue due to the injury, it still felt like a blow to not get the full selection I had been dreaming of for so long. In my Olympic debut, in front of a crowd of 4000 people, including a load of my friends and family, I was proud with my fencing performance that day, but I was far more proud of the person and teammate I had become in those weeks and months leading up to the Games. And this experience of seeing how focussing on my values had guided me through the biggest challenge of my life, convinced me that this is something of enormous power, that everyone could benefit from.
Since then, I have coached hundreds of people, from across sport, business and academia to explore their values and identify how they can harness them in a very practical sense in their lives. In the athlete mentoring programme we run at The True Athlete Project, our values module is consistently the part of the course that both mentors and mentees say was the most meaningful and beneficial to them.
Working with your personal values in this way has a number of profound benefits:
• It provides a compass for making important decisions, where you check-in with your values to see which direction they might point you.
• Highlights the potential for strengthening and development of your personal values through the activities you are engaged in. Even the activities you like the least have opportunities for developing your values through.
• Gives an understanding that the true self is not affected by your daily performance, thereby providing increased freedom from the stress and anxiety of the success vs failure narrative.
• Allows for greater integrity throughout the various parts of your life. We all show up somewhat differently in the different areas of our lives – work, sport, social, family, etc – but there should be a common thread that runs through all of them. That should be underpinned by your values.
If you engage in this work as part of a team, it also has some incredible bonus effects:
Allows for greater understanding of the differences and differing motivations between the individuals in a team.
Provides space for deepening the human connection between team members, leading to increased psychological safety.
Greater wellbeing and resilience within the organisation, as people build stronger, more positive foundations of identity for themselves.
The Values-led path
The values-led path model was introduced to me by the sport psychology team at Team Denmark. It highlights, in a very practical sense, how important values work is. The lighthouse in the model represents your vision / mission / goals in life, and to get there you must follow your values-led path.
The key lesson from this model is that the times when you are led astray from the values-led path actually come with a short-term reward (think of the delicious taste of the chocolate cake that you know you shouldn’t eat), while remaining on the values path often means you must stay with an experience of discomfort or tension (e.g. following through with a difficult but important conversation with a colleague). This is part of why it is so hard to stay on the true path, and why we so often find ourselves leaving it.
Furthermore, we generally go around thinking that we live our lives aligned with our values most of the time, but researchers Verplanken and Holland found that “Individuals only made choices consistent with their values if those values were consciously activated in the decision-making process”. So, if you haven’t done the homework around your values, you are pretty much leaving things up to chance as to whether you follow your values path or the reactive/emotional path.
If you haven’t been through a process like this before, then you absolutely should - whoever you are and whatever you do. If you don’t know where to start, then fear not, I have put together this resource to guide you through the process that I use in my coaching work. If you give it a go, I’d love to hear your experience of it.
And I’ll leave the final word to the king, Elvis Presley.