Exercise is a great way to regulate mood, improve your overall wellness, and help you move towards a more balanced life. But when you take it to the extreme, as elite athletes do, exercise and physical fitness can also encourage the athlete to neglect areas of life that need attention.
Such was the case with Clara Hughes, a dual-season Olympian, and the only athlete in the world to win multiple medals in both the winter and summer Olympics. Her list of accomplishments is outstanding.
I just finished her autobiography, Open Heart, Open Mind. It was interesting to learn about the world of competitive cycling and speed skating, and how her life as an athlete masked her battles with self-doubt, depression, body-image issues, and painful childhood.
It was also inspiring to read about how she pushed through it all to become, arguably, Canada’s most accomplished athlete.
Here are some other insights I took away from her book.
Even the most-talented athletes struggle with self-doubt.
There were many competitions where Hughes doubted her abilities and strengths, in spite of already having several victories under her belt. She worried about her physical and mental toughness, and in some competitions wondered if she even had the strength to finish a race.
But at the last moment, she would find a source of inspiration that would completely change her mindset. For example, in the morning of a speed-skating race at the Salt Lake City Winter Games (2002), Hughes received an email from a First Nations elder. The email said, EKWA!!! CLARA. It means NOW.
As Hughes awaited her turn at the oval, she grabbed a pen and wrote down EKWA on her hand. Hughes won bronze at that event and became the only Canadian athlete to medal at both the Winter and Summer Olympics. Ironically, there were days leading up to the race where Hughes had to remind herself, I can skate – I can really skate! She was anxious, doubtful, and in panic-mode up until race time.
You have to crash several times before you win.
When Hughes turned pro in 1993 as a professional cyclist, she never made it through a race without crashing at least once. I found it inspiring to read this. We’ve all received messages that allude to the role of failure as a prerequisite for success. But knowing that this Olympian failed many, many times before she attained national and international success is inspiring nonetheless.
Along with this were her challenges from childhood. Hughes had an alcoholic dad who verbally abused her mom on multiple occasions. This negatively impacted Hughes in many ways. Metaphorically speaking, you could say her childhood and teenage years contained emotional and psychological crashes. But she pushed through and wound up winning in many other areas of her life when it mattered most.
Today, Clara Hughes is the face of many mental health public education campaigns. Her story is a reminder that in spite of personal struggles, you can accomplish more than you think is possible. It’s a fitting message for Psychology Month.
What have you learned from sports? Leave a message below.