A single sentence that changed my life's path
Updated: Oct 6, 2022
I went 8-0 down in my first fight of my individual Olympic debut, in Rio 2016, against a strong Chinese opponent. In a match to 15, it was looking like a total whitewash. Had I still been caught up in the mindset that had gotten me through most of my life as a professional fencer, I would have been feeling absolutely terrified by now – consumed by thoughts of how humiliating it would be to lose so badly, how everyone would think worse of me afterwards – blocking myself from being present in the match. In fact, I felt none of that.
Replacing those unhelpful, distracting thoughts was a fierce determination to figure out what I needed to do to get back in the game. The reason I felt such calm determination rather than outright fear in the face of disaster on the biggest stage of my life, harks back to 2012 when I was preparing for the previous Olympic Games in London.
One simple sentence delivered to me at the right time by the right person uprooted my entire approach to being an elite athlete and flipped my perspective on performance almost overnight. I went from being fear-driven to being motivated by the joy of performance and the desire to live up to my vision of myself at my best.
Developing a true performance mindset is something that takes immense dedication over a sustained period, but sometimes dramatic improvements can arise from a single moment, even a single sentence. We have a word for this – a revelation.
My experience of such a revelation was the turning point of my athletic career, bringing about a profound perspective shift that led to improved performance and far more enjoyment of the entire experience of competing.
I say it was a profound message to receive, and it was that, for me. For many of you reading this, it will sound like basic common sense, to the point of a platitude even, but I can say with full confidence that there are A LOT of athletes out there who would benefit the same way I did from hearing it. So, what was the single line that was the catalyst for this beautiful new take on my sporting life?
“You know you don’t have to feel devastated when you lose, don’t you?”
It was offered to me by my sport psychologist at the time, the brilliant Katie Warriner, and it cut to the heart of everything that was holding me back in my sport. I had clung onto self-flagellation after losing in competitions like it was a badge of honour – starting with my earliest U9 tournaments and continuing well into my 20’s at senior international level. I have written this series of articles about extreme self-criticism being the biggest issue among young athletes, as I see it, and the solution of cultivating a more self-compassionate approach. So, I won’t go into all of that again here. What I want to touch on here is how a single line can change so much.
I have thought a lot about this part of my journey and have come to the following conclusion about why it landed so perfectly for me.
The message was rational
After the initial conversation where this line came out, we spent a good amount of time unpacking it so that I really understood all the ramifications. But it struck home in the moment because it made total sense. It was undeniably rational. I took little convincing that it was my own belief system that was out of whack.
The is a growing field within sport psychology called Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, which is as powerful as it is simple. Uncover irrational beliefs in athletes and then dispute them.
A revelation needs to make perfect sense to the subject.
It was inherently inspiring
After nearly two decades of beating myself up in times of defeat, taking days to get over, and with the anxiety during performance that stems from knowing the backlash that awaits me should I lose, I was more than ready to hear about a better way of doing things. The approach that sat behind Katie’s statement was uplifting, motivating and inspiring. It boiled down to this – if you give your best in performance, then you truly have nothing to feel bad about. Sounds ludicrously obvious again, doesn’t it? But in exploring my values and how to live up to them; in being explicit about my gameplan; in doing the mental preparation to gain greater awareness and control, I was unlocking the most exciting experiences of my time as an athlete.
And most importantly…
It was delivered by someone I respected highly, who clearly had my best interests at heart
Katie is a master of creating a connection with her athletes. I have since heard from many others that they had the same, wonderful experience of working with her. (I often tell aspiring sport psychologists that who they are is as important as what they know when it comes to making an impact with the athletes they work with).
I have seen this dynamic play out so many times in the mentoring programmes I run. A mentor is often someone deeply respected by their mentee, and is unmistakably a neutral and entirely supportive figure in their life. When a mentor talks, their mentee listens in a way that they don’t listen to their parents, their coach, their teammates. A rational, inspiring message coming from a mentor is absolutely golden.
I am sure my parents would have told me the same thing Katie did, and probably as various times in my life, but it clearly didn’t land. Thankfully the message got through eventually, delivered by the right person and in the right way to leave its mark.
Back to that match against my Chinese opponent in Rio. I managed to get myself right back into it, drawing almost level before he extended his lead and held on to win. He was simply better than me on the day. So there wasn’t a glorious end to the story, but for me it remains one of the most special experiences of my fencing career, because it proved to me just how far I had come in my search for a healthy, sustainable performance mindset.