Becoming a True Athlete - Prologue
This book encapsulates the experiences and passion of a wide range of contributors, but it also represents a culmination of my own transformational adventures in sport. My story is not unusual considering that every athlete who stays the course long enough will come out the other end inextricably changed compared to the youth that began their journey. I consider myself lucky that through the people I got to work with as a two-time Olympian, and the chances that came my way, I was able to experience certain key moments that allowed me to view with fresh eyes not only my own performance, but the whole of sport itself. Some things were learnt slowly through repetition, but others came more like revelations, changing my perspective seemingly overnight. It is these such revelations – a highly personal exploration with a sport psychologist in a dark time of injury; a conversation on the meaning of sport with my wife; being introduced to a new approach to team dynamics and performance – that lit the path towards writing this book. My primary motivation for writing it is to help athletes have a more positive experience of sport, to help them avoid some of the most unnecessary pitfalls, and to recognise the meaningful aspects of their journey more clearly. I am also excited to present a vision for how sports culture could look and feel on the ground if we are to unlock its true potential for doing good in the world.
Growing up, my life revolved around sport and my main sport was fencing. Both my parents were Olympic fencers, and they supported me in every way I could have hoped for. I was one of those athletes who took losing to heart. As a kid I would be in floods of tears after being knocked out of youth tournaments, feeling down for days or sometimes even weeks after the event. The final time I cried after a defeat I was aged 24 and competing in a senior World Cup, the highest standard of tournament below the World Championships and Olympics. I remember walking out of the competition hall in a non-descript suburb of Bonn, Germany, feeling devastated and worthless. It was grey and drizzling rain. I felt like quitting. Things were not going to plan. I felt so far from achieving my dream of following my mum and dad in competing at the Olympics. The truth is that although I was representing my country at senior level and had some decent results under my belt, I had hardly developed my mindset or approach since my junior years. Looking back, I’m not very proud of my younger self. At the time I was arrogant and self-centred; hard working in some ways but mostly hedonistic. My competitive mindset was fierce, but also aggressive and hostile. I felt a strong dislike for my opponents and frequently disrespected my compatriots. I see now that much of this was born out of a fear of inadequacy and failure. In my final junior year, at 19 years of age and one of the most experienced in the British junior team, I was sent home in disgrace from the World Championships in Bulgaria after a riotous night that I would rather forget. Certainly, no kind of role model.
Flash forward to the end of my fencing career, hanging up my swords at the age of 32, as a double Olympian, I now had a dramatically altered perspective of the value and meaning of sport and the attitudes and behaviours that help or hinder you as an athlete. Even more importantly, I had a clear idea of how I had arrived there.
For one thing, between my two Olympics in 2012 and 2016, I had taken a two-year break from serious training and competition. The reason for that break was that the lead-up to qualifying for the London Olympics in 2012 was the hardest and most stressful period in my career. The Olympic year began in nightmare fashion, with my first ever major injury – breaking the wrist on my sword-arm, which required two surgeries and four months without being able to hold a weapon. The battle to get back to fitness and claim the spot in the Olympic team that I felt was rightfully mine was plagued by fear, bitterness and envy towards my teammates. But this was also where I started working with a wonderful sport psychologist, Katie Warriner, who helped me discover a powerful new perspective – one based on striving to live by my values. This period proved to be a major turning point in my life. Having clawed my way back into the team and competed in my hometown Olympic Games (an indescribable, thrilling ride that very few athletes have the fortune and privilege to experience) I decided to take an extended break from the sport to give space to some, as yet, unexplored parts of me. I travelled through South America to practice my Spanish, visited my sister and her family in Australia and spent four exhilarating months on an outdoor leadership course deep in the Canadian wilderness. One year away from competitive fencing led to two as I met my future wife on one of my stops, in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I set up a new life in a new country with her. The fire to return for another shot at the Olympics eventually returned and with it came a fresh approach, founded on the new perspective I had gained during my time away. This would be all about ensuring quality, not merely quantity in my training, and the joy of giving my best in competition and of being part of an ambitious team with huge potential. When performing I felt free of self-judgement, and I had a greater sense of, and appreciation for, the path I was choosing to take this time around. I was clear on why I was doing it and had the mental tools and strategies to help me stick to my game-plan in competition, and to live by my values along the way. I also knew that this would be the final act in my fencing career, and that motivated me to prepare for what would come afterwards.
At the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, during my debut in the individual event, on the biggest stage and under the glaring spotlights, I got off to a disastrous start – within 3 minutes, I was 8-1 down to my Chinese opponent in a match to 15 points. It looked like it could become a whitewash. My younger self would have been flooded by fear and anxiety at the prospect of a humiliating loss. However, the work I had done in the intervening years meant that I felt free of any suffocating emotions. I simply maintained a calm, yet fierce, determination to fight my way back into the match. I didn’t win that match, but I came right back in it, and it is one of the performances I am most proud of. There was a stark contrast between how it felt to compete free of anxiety compared to the majority of my career, which was plagued with nervousness and inconsistency. It showed me the immense power of the strategies and techniques I learnt along the way. For too long I had been far too focussed on the outcome of my performances and knew little of what the process should look and feel like. I also misattributed the value of what I was engaged in – thinking that my results in the sport would alone define whether I was successful, whether it was all meaningful, or not.
As I got older and my international competitors became good friends (I learned to break free of the protective armour that prevented me from appreciating them as people), I realised that none of them were satisfied with what they had achieved; those in the top 100 wanted to get to the top 20; world champions desperately wanted to be Olympic champions; Olympic champions wanted to defend their title. It is the nature of sport – and of athletes – to always feel you could have done more, or done better. But if it is inevitable that everyone, regardless of the level they reach, will finish up somewhat unsatisfied with their achievements, then what really is the point of it all? The real point, I came to realise, is in the development of the self; in the relationships you build and incredible experiences you share with people from all over the world; in the positive impact you can have on others. The point truly is the joy of effort, of overcoming challenge, and the pursuit of personal excellence. If you cannot find meaning in those places, then you will not find it anywhere.
My experiences led me to speak out on what I saw as competitive sport leading participants down a misleading path and then failing to deliver on its mythical promises – promises which often turned out to be misguided in the first place. That in turn brought me into contact with some like-minded people who were equally eager to explore what a better culture of sport could look like and to help bring it back on track. People such as Sam Parfitt, a former elite tennis player and athletic director with an inspired vision for what sport can represent. And Pam Boteler, a top American canoe athlete who was the first woman to beat men in the US nationals as well as the driving force behind the movement to bring gender equality to the canoe events at the Olympics (a twenty-year campaign that finally came to fruition at the Tokyo Olympics). Together we make up The True Athlete Project, a non-profit based in the UK and USA, with a vision of a more compassionate world, achieved through leveraging the transformative power of sport.
The True Athlete Project
In 2014 at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, USA, The True Athlete Project (TAP) was born. After a promising career in Division I college tennis was brought crashing down by 4 years of desperately poor health and numerous surgeries, TAP’s CEO and founder, Sam Parfitt, realised that he had to find a different way of making an impact in the world. His undergraduate research began to focus on the historic use of sport to affect society, and he worked extensively with at-risk Hispanic immigrant youth through soccer. He was introduced to mindfulness and meditation and began to work closely with a leading US sport psychologist. His first job out of college was as the athletic director of a school which had up until then not had a physical education programme. It was an opportunity for Sam to bring to life some of the ideas he had around a new way of teaching and developing young athletes. The program he initiated involved activities such as parkour, mindfulness, sports poetry and projects on sporting idols such as Muhammad Ali.
The Muhammad Ali Center asked Sam to present his pioneering curriculum at their annual Forum on Athletes and Social Change. While listening to the other presenters talking about using sport to build a better world, Sam felt an overwhelming sense of inspiration to be part of the change. But he also noticed that something was missing – the athletes themselves. It was as if the athletes were left to focus entirely on improving their game, while others got on with the business of harnessing sport’s power for social good. But those same athletes are the ones who are most passionate, most committed and with the greatest untapped power, stemming from being natural role models with platforms from which to make their voice heard.
What Sam recognised back then in 2014 was that striving to be the best possible athlete and wanting to make the world a better place could, and indeed should, go hand in hand – a symbiotic relationship.
At that forum Sam, a super-connector, began bringing together a unique group of people to create a vision for harnessing the power of performance sport to bring about positive change in the world. The idea for the True Athlete Project was born with Sam at the helm and an original team that included athletes, coaches, sport and clinical psychologists, mindfulness teachers, policy makers and others with a passionate interest in sport and an unwavering optimism for the future.
The aim was to create something both inspiring and practical, which pointed towards a better future and also showed the path to get there, and which supported those at the heart of sport – athletes, coaches, clubs and federations – in being the drivers of the change that is so needed.
TAP’s vision was of sport as a powerful catalyst for a more compassionate world. To achieve that they proposed the following:
To re-imagine sport as a training ground for compassion, mindfulness and mental well-being
To re-imagine the athlete as someone who trains mind and body in order to help themselves and others and make the world a better place.
These paradigm shifts would be achieved by designing and delivering a range of pioneering, mindfulness-based programs at all levels of sport – programs that prioritise personal growth and an increased awareness in all aspects of life. They would help coaches and organisations skilfully nurture the holistic development of each and every one of their athletes, and enhance each athlete’s experience of sport, improving their overall health and performance, and instilling in them a passion for making a positive difference in the world.
At the heart of all these programs is a philosophy which the TAP team live and breathe through their work and in their daily lives. This book will attempt to describe and define this philosophy.
I have personally seen the immense positive effects that can come from the approaches described in this book. As an athlete myself; in my work with both youth and elite competitors as well as coaches, through The True Athlete Project, and also in my professional role as performance director of the Danish Fencing Federation. The contents of this book are therefore not merely theories, but have been shown to be impactful in practice, across a wide spectrum of sports, countries and settings. Where relevant I give examples of these approaches in action, both from my own experience and that of others. My hope is that the messages in this book, combined with real life examples and stories, will lead those who are currently on their athletic journey to have a more positive experience than those who went before and for them in turn to help others.
Specifically, this book aims to achieve four things:
Challenge the current win-at-all-costs culture of elite sport
Persuade athletes to think more deeply about the meaning and value of sport
Help athletes achieve more of their athletic potential
Give athletes a foundation for enhanced well-being as they go through their sporting career
These aims are woven throughout the entire book, and in many places come into play simultaneously. Now that you know what we hope you will get out of reading it, let’s get started.
To get a copy of the book, Becoming a True Athlete - a practical philosophy for flourishing through sport, you can find one here, or from any of your usual bookstores.