Are you a “Happy Athlete”?

Okay okay what a strange title for a blog post, right?  What the heck does she mean “Happy Athlete” you might be asking, but if you’re reading this then at least I grabbed your attention.  My hope is to answer this question and unpack what I mean by “Happy Athlete” and why it’s so darn important (in this unique endurance-adventure craved world so many of us live in) that we spend time and ask this question.   I came up with this term (well-it’s not really that original) “Happy Athlete” to describe the elusive state that I find so many of my clients, friends, and myself aiming to achieve.   It’s loaded with nuances, paradoxes, and unique intricacies that really only us self-subscribers to sport seem to understand.  But to me, both personally and professionally it’s the MOST important question we continue to ask ourselves-assuming we want to continue in our sport or activity with any amount of satisfaction and longevity. 

Okay-time to get basic:  Let’s first take a look at the word “athlete”.  A Google search produces this definition: The noun athlete comes from a Greek word, loosely meaning “contestant in the games; anyone who competes in sporting competitions can be called an athlete, but usually the term is reserved for people with a high level of dedication, skill and fitness.”

When I use the term athlete-I liken it to the last part of that:  a person with a level of dedication in skill or fitness.  I like to get clear on this because all too often I see folks shy away from that self-subscribing noun, athlete, as if it’s only reserved for some elitist pool.  I think not, any of us that run, ride, climb, surf, hike, wander, with some consistency, determination, and dedication are truly “Athletes”.   Ah, now with a capital letter! Phew, now that we have that in perspective-let’s look at that other piece: happiness.

The descriptive term happy, seems much more difficult to nail down.  Yet when I ask a new client the reverse question of “What’s wrong?” (What would you like to work towards?”) the word happy is usually the first word that is uttered.  That fascinates me!!  Out of all the different backgrounds, lives, sports, dynamics, relationships, almost everyone desires the same exact state:  happiness.   

The simplicity stops there.  I usually discuss with folks in an effort to distill it down, that the state of “happiness” is rarely achievable all the time-despite what western culture has led us to believe.  So from there, usually we settle on words like: content, or peace, or joy and often a blend.   There was a fantastic documentary called “Happy” that was put out many years back to address this question from many cultures-take a look.  I believe it’s still on Netflix.

Now let’s put these terms together and ask the question again:  “Are you a Happy Athlete?”  -content, peaceful, joyful in your activity?  If yes, then wonderful!  Rarely do I find someone that can honestly and humbly say yes, 100% of the time.  In reality for most of us, that activity or drive we have is joyous at times but so often also becomes a monkey on the back that we perpetually seem to battle with.  If this feels more accurate than please read on! 

I remember way back in the height of both my professional road cycling career (and my disordered eating, and compulsive training days) I was asked to do an artistic photo shoot with a brilliantly creative photographer.  He wanted to do some type of photo shoot that metaphorically represented our relationship with our sport.  During the pre-shoot interview he sat down with me and asked me what my metaphor of cycling was.  I had a three word answer for him:  “a jail cell”.  There was such a long pause after my pithy response that I thought he had misunderstood me.  Needless to say…I was not chosen to continue on with the project.  I suppose my brutal honesty was way too shocking and didn’t quite fit the optics of a professional athlete.  Oh, well.  

I was far from a “Happy Athlete”…although I was skinny, darn fast, and very sponsored.  

I do have filters, but I’ve always been one of those people that just gravitates towards truth and authenticity which is why I believe I choose to enter the realm of mental emotional health eventually.  My fight with compulsive training and wonky food issues eventually became something I just couldn’t ignore and I decided that there HAD to be a way to find joy again-thus what I do now professionally.  

I realize that my example is at the pretty far end of the spectrum, but what I’ve found after years of turning my attention to clinical work is that most of my client-athletes describe some level of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction with their sport.  Commonly I hear things like comparison and not feeling “good enough” bubble to the service, or anxiousness or “fear of failure” or doing too much or too little.  All too often I’ll hear a self denigrating statement of body shape or size-that’s a biggie.  Or a hyper obsession with food or calories linked to performance.  Anyhow, the point is for most of us there is pure delight in what we do, but at times it gets clouded with the other-the darker side.  

My intention for writing this somewhat quirky blog post is to simply offer up a question that I feel is so important to ask ourselves…is what is what I’m doing making me happy-what are the yes pieces and what are the no’s?  And then of course, are the no’s worth taking a deeper look into.

I can’t say this is 100% across the board  but I can say this: that most of the time the edgy spots in our sport or activity are often the same edgy spots in the rest of our lives.  So it makes sense to pay attention and take a look…that is,if you desire happiness.  

Simon Senek is popular for using the adage  “How we do anything is how we do everything.”

So in my experience, it’s worth taking a look…a real honest look and asking that question, “Am I a Happy Athlete?”.

Naturally it follows, that if there is a part of no in the answer, the next logical question is what can I do about it.  Well, that’s quite the individual response and often not a simple one, but the intention of this blog is to start to ask the question.  Reciprocally, I’ve also found that examining our relationship with our sport can be the catalyst for major life shifting as well.  Addressing those monkeys on our backs from the lens of our sport or activity can provide powerful insights into how we can become happier, peaceful and more congruent humans in general.

But first we have to listen, we have to ask those questions and we have to be willing to be honest with ourselves.

In the spirit of that, and my healthy compulsion to be fully authentic now, I can say that about 80% of the time I’m running (or cycling, or moving) from that place of “happy”, even on the hard days, but from time to time that 20% sneaks in…the good news is that I can catch it.   Usually not an instant process but more so it happens in real time these days.  I use it to go deeper to pay attention to what I’m not paying attention to.  It’s a powerful gig.

So I invite you…without getting sucked into the solution (yet)…spend some time and ask the question:

Am I a “Happy Athlete”?

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