Coaching yourself through barriers, like an elite athlete


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This gloomy economy has me feeling scattered. My ability to prioritize has flown right out the window because everything feels important, like it needs to be done today, right now.

My daily thought process sounds something like this: “What should I work on now — the stories due Friday? new story pitches? catch-up reading? my blog, so I can build my personal brand? something else that every other freelancer is doing but that I haven’t figured out yet?”

602px-cyclist_l_georget_loc_04379jpgToday my thoughts were in a whirl, when I saw that one of my interviews had gone up on a client’s site. It was an interview with Steve Owens, who runs a training program for elite, Tour de France-level athletes. The topic was overcoming barriers.

Reading it again made me realize that I’m hitting a barrier now. My vision and thinking are both stuck. I’m so worried about being a freelance writer in this economy that it’s getting in the way of prioritizing or rethinking what I’m doing, which requires stepping back and seeing the big picture.

But here’s what I think I can learn from Steve or any good coach: There’s always a way to overcome a barrier or become unstuck. Steve doesn’t believe in barriers. And it’s easy to see why — he’s constantly helping people break through them. The trick is in finding creative approaches to clearing the hurdles.

Steve does it with the help of sophisticated tools and one-on-one conversation. His elite clientele fly in to Colorado to use his training facility’s test bed, which is a stationery bike inside a wind tunnel. Three cameras film the cyclist from different perspectives as Steve is running the test, all the while capturing and measuring body angles — at the hip, knee, etc.

The more information he can collect on the athlete, the better. He can look at what an athlete’s drag is at any particular point of the ride, then help the athlete refine that baseline position to improve his speed. In the case of cycling, it’s all about overcoming wind resistance.

Here’s what I learned from Steve about overcoming any obstacles:

Exploring new ways of doing things requires confirming which things don’t work. Steve might ask a cyclist to hold his neck differently to see if that reduces wind resistance, or he might try a different stem for the bike. He’s constantly figuring out what doesn’t work.

I’ve tried some things lately that haven’t worked. For example, I thought that Elance.com and Guru.com would be a goldmine for freelance work. But after investing time in establishing my profile and clips on the sites, the results have been disappointing — too many low bids from the international market.

For a while, I allowed myself to wallow in that mini-failure. But it was just one experiment, and it didn’t work. Time to move on.

Let go of assumptions. Allow yourself to be surprised. For example, Steve says, “We train a guy who’s a world champion in the time trial. He puts his elbows pretty far apart on the handlebars, which is actually very counterintuitive. You’d think that would be slower. But we took the measurements, and it actually works for him. That’s just how his body is shaped. We can make assumptions about things, but they’re not always correct.”

Sometimes we assume we have to do things a certain way. If a world-class coach can assume wrong, it’s entirely possible that some of my assumptions are wrong too. That’s why exploring — bullet #1 — is important. Rigid assumptions are like shackles when you’re trying to find a new way of thinking or working.

To come up with groundbreaking ideas, you have to forget about the rules. If you’re a cyclist — and I’m not — you probably know  there are a lot of rules dictating what you can’t do within the sport. Steve says it’s important that his team not feel so confined by the rules that they’re unable create new ideas. A good way to do that is to bring in someone who doesn’t even know the rules. In the past, Steve has brought in the U.S. National Ski Team to work on a solution.

Your emotions are going to get in the way. They just are. In the middle of a brutal exam week, you’re going to feel the mental stress getting to you physically. It’s the same thing with cycling or writing. If you don’t factor in emotions, you’re going to expect too much from yourself. Steve asks his athletes to score their mental and emotional stress, to make sure the intensity of their training is a good fit. He may shorten a bike ride, if someone is feeling rough emotionally.

If you’re still running into barriers, you either have unfair expectations or you need to take a break. Here’s where I could use a good coach, like Steve, or a mentor. As a freelancer, I don’t have a boss or trusted co-worker, so there’s no one for me to do a temperature check with. Do I have unfair expectations or need a break?

Steve says that often people don’t have good, realistic goals. You want to run a marathon? It’s going to take some time to reach that goal, so set up some smaller goals along the way. He also says that when a person says she’s hit a barrier or a plateau, nine times out of 10 that person needs a rest. Lately, I’ve been resting. I stopped using Twitter (mostly) and avoided my blog for a month. And I feel much better now, thank you.

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  1. tish jett’s avatar

    Alice,

    This is wonderful and curiously just what I need at the moment. I’m completely paralyzed by a story I’m supposed to write — I’ve put so much importance on it and the implications of “what if it’s not good” that I cannot write one word.

    I think I’ll take a nap.

    And, please do not take another month off on your blog. I miss it and I’m sure I’m not alone.

    xoxo

  2. andthatremindsme’s avatar

    Tish,

    I completely relate to your paralyzed feeling, and all I can say is that you know, of course you must know, that you are an amazingly wonderful writer. You could address an envelope and we’d all be enthralled reading it. I exaggerate only un peu.

    I’ve already written another post so you won’t have to miss me for another month. Thanks, as always, for the kind words of encouragement.

    What’s this story you’re writing, anyway?

    xoxo