I don’t exercise, I compete. Being active isn’t a chore, it’s a responsibility. Balance doesn’t mean avoiding work, it means embracing it. I am an athlete. I participate in competitive sports that push me beyond my current capability. It’s a process that enables me to move past discomfort into what I thought was impossible. In student affairs, we often focus on holistic health, wellness, and balance. We cite studies that remind us that when we exercise, we reap the benefits of released endorphins, the ability for us to remove ourselves from stressful situations and take much needed time for ourselves. These are all important, and I value them. But we also need focus our attention of developing the athletic mindset of professionals. Hopping on the elliptical for 45 minutes a day isn’t exactly the same as being an athlete, nor does it produce the same positive benefits. We need to devote the same care and intention towards embracing the development of the athlete as we do cultivating holistic wellness.
There are many of us who are athletes, though too many are reluctant to embrace that identity. Perhaps you’re not the star player on a team or are often bringing up the rear in a 5k race. I frequently hear “I’m not a runner, I’m pretty slow,” “I’m more like a halflete,” or my favorite “I’m just doing a half marathon” as though running 13.1 miles is trivial. We discount the effort that we put into pushing ourselves to do something physically uncomfortable, and fail to recognize the benefits we acquire from this work.
This positing came at some shifting points in my personal and professional life. After starting a position, I took opportunities to reflect upon my professional progression and saw a shift in how I approach work and think strategically. Part of this is a natural maturation that occurred and the gaining of a broader understanding of the profession. This self-discovery also happened when I started/ended relationships, moved, etc. However, as I reflected, I discovered a major component of my life too often glossed over or compartmentalized is being an athlete, despite it teaching me some of the most valuable lessons of what it means to be a professional.
When I was in college, I gained the freshman 15 (or let’s be honest, 40), and decided I needed to get on a treadmill to get my health under control. Running seemed more like a chore and I had no appreciation for it. This all changed my first year as a professional when I decided to sign up for a half marathon. I had run a race…once…four years earlier. And it was a 5k. But sure, I was ready for a half, no problem. My training was painful, difficult to manage with a busy schedule and fraught with excuses as to why I couldn’t/didn’t want to complete this task. “I have better things to do with my time,” “my knee is hurting,” “I’ve worked a lot today and now am too tired to go for a run.” These thoughts permeated my consciousness. On race day I started off strong, but gradually fell back into old patterns and thinking. I was tired, my feet were hurting, and I wanted to throw in the towel. At mile 7, I was going to pull out of race and just go home. But then I saw a pack of friends, waiting to cheer me on. That’s the moment when I became an athlete. I had to push past all the crap and excuses to get the work done. I finished that race and pushed through those doubts and insecurities. I was in the back of the pack, but I crossed that damn finish line and have never looked back. Since then I have run countless races, began participating in other forms of athletics, and am prepping for my sixth full marathon this fall.
Reflecting on my own and others development as athletes, I’ve identified some ways in which competition and athletics contributes to being a better professional, colleague, and change agent in the workplace.
1. Increased capacity for work. We all have that moment where we want to quit. It is much easier to watch the latest episode of Scandal than to get a couple of miles in. When I am in the middle of a workout and slowing down, taking more breaks than needed, or not pushing myself hard enough, my coaches don’t let it slide. My favorite coach is tenacious about this. When I find myself starting to whine, she tells me to “Suck it up, Buttercup. Get the work done.” And guess what…I get it done. In my life and in my work, giving up isn’t an option and neither is slowing down. I have a job to do, and I get it done. Being an athlete helps me cross my “professional finish line” every time.
2. Enhanced Commitment to Accomplishing Goals. Signing up for my first marathon was scary. It made striving towards a huge goal a reality. I couldn’t back out. I had to stick with my training, which meant getting up at 6am to get a run in or avoiding that extra piece of candy (which was hard because I LOVE candy). I couldn’t spend as much with my partner because I needed to take time towards achieving this goal. We have to sacrifice to reach our dreams. We put in extra hours, do things we don’t want to do, and give up notions of achieving perfect balance. And we do this without complaining because we signed up for this and no one else is forcing us to continue. Becoming an athlete has increased my follow-through and has helped me understand what it takes for me to reach the objective.
3. Increase Efficiency of time. In Crossfit, we have high-intensity workouts in structured amounts of time. Every gym has this dreaded countdown clock that constantly glares at you, reminding you that you have a job to do and you don’t have forever to do it. I hate that clock. But that clock has taught me that in order to achieve, I have to be incredibly intentional about how I use my time. This practice carries into my work. I set timers to complete specific tasks. I get breaks throughout the day, but nothing will be accomplished if I break concentration during my work. If I have 20 minutes to get something done, you can be damn sure I am not farting around on Twitter…most days. I have prioritized my time differently as a result of this new athletic identity.
4. Being Ok with Being Uncomfortable. Walking into a gym where guys are competitively lifting hundreds of pounds is intimidating. Scratch that, it’s not intimidating, it scares you sh*tless. My first time going to an Olympic Weightlifting Class, I walked in, looked around, and then walked right back out. I couldn’t compete and wouldn’t be the best. Then I remembered something a supervisor told me in grad school. “Nobody starts out as a VP. You put in your time and do good work.” Remembering this, I went back, checked my ego, and then went back again. Now I am starting to finally get my feet under me, I have a new sense of confidence, seeing improvements, and finding joy. This would have never happened had I stayed scared. It is in those moments of discomfort that being an athlete has pushed me forward past my own perceived limits. I am stronger because of the times I pushed forward even when feeling uncomfortable. I also notice that I have less and less of those uncomfortable moments because my confidence has grown.
5. Collective Perseverance. There is a comradery that you build with fellow athletes who are invested in your success. You find community with these people and are better for it, because they have seen you at points where you were on an adrenaline rush from running your 5k PR as well as the times that you have failed. Either way, they still cheer you on. Recently, I ran a half marathon in the most miserable weather. It was raining hard, cold and windy. As I crossed the finish line, runners from the front of the pack who finished much earlier were there in the pouring rain cheering and running people in. When you enter a community like this, you help each other push through because you have been there with them in that agony. In my professional life, I don’t surround myself with people who aren’t invested in my success or the success of others and likewise, I will always strive to be a person to push others to both individual and collective standards of excellence.
Not everyone can, nor needs to, go out and run a marathon (although, if you choose to do so, know I’m cheering you on). However, we need to find things external to our work that push us to become better professionals, allow for personal growth and find that inner voice that pushes us to take one more step and be better than we were yesterday. How will you find that inner voice? I hope you will listen to it and let it push you that extra mile.
Originally posted as a guest blog on AnnMarieKlotz.com