Why I’m Not an Olympian, But Here’s How You Could Be

posted Feb 10, 2017, 7:48 AM by Ashley Lee
Friday, February 10, 2016

A very well written article that is a good read for all young athletes out there today. Derek Thiessen was an Outside Hitter for the Trinity Western Spartans from 2009-2015. 

Check out his website here: http://www.derekthiessen.com/

Why I’m Not an Olympian, But Here’s How You Could Be

By Derrick Thiessen

Part 1: Let’s Start Here

*This is a bit of a long one, so strap in.

This past summer I watched the Men’s Canadian Volleyball Team compete at the Rio Olympics. It was the first time the team had qualified in 20 years. It was a momentous occasion for Canadian volleyball and everyone was excited.

Over the two weeks of the Olympics, a particular emotion began to develop within me. As I sat there on the couch nearly every day, I couldn’t help but begin to notice a hint of jealousy creeping in.

Any time an athlete’s information would flash across the screen, I couldn’t help but take note of their age. 

An 18-year-old swimmer. A 23-year-old gymnast. A 30-year-old rower. And most notably a 25-year-old volleyball player.

In fact, the Canadian volleyball team was comprised mainly of guys that were either my age or very close. Some of these guys even played with me on my university team.

A lot of them are also around my height, my size, and my physical strength. 

On paper, we are pretty much identical. 

Yet, there I was, sitting on my couch. And there they were, at the Olympics.

What the hell happened?

When you think of the word “sports”, what comes to mind? Entertainment, money, teammates, fun, frustration, love, fear, balls?

When I think of the word “sports” I find a sense of comfort. I think of teamwork, sweat, strength, glory, and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.

I have spent the vast majority of time on this planet immersed in the sports culture. Growing up I tested out and played every sport there was available. I lived for the competition. Winning was always the goal.

If you’re a high-level athlete, there’s a good chance your early years looked something like this: Growing up you were always one of the fastest kid in your school. Every sport you tried, you would have some success and excel quicker than others. When you did eventually specialize in a sport, you were probably one the best in your local district. Plain and simple, you were an athlete. Always have been, and most likely, always will be.

 

Sound familiar? Keep reading…

But as you got older and moved up within each sport you played, something troubling happened. The pool of players increased. And not only did it get bigger, but the competition got better. With every step up, the skill required just to be “average” became increasingly more difficult to achieve.

Just being tall, fast, or “athletic” was no longer enough.

You had to adapt — Or accept the inevitability of becoming average

This is a moment every athlete will face. Hell, it’s not just athletes— nearly everyone will come face to face with this crossroad. We come to point where we realize just going through the motions is no longer enough.

For me, I wasn’t ready for that choice. I would rather thrive on my natural born traits. I would rather use my physicality and try to win with brute force.  

Unfortunately, in a sport like Volleyball, brute force is not always the answer.

Long story short. This mentality got me further than one would expect. I was lucky enough to get recruited onto one of the best volleyball teams in the country. With that, came a vast number of upsides. We had a great coach, amazing team culture, and a collection of some of the best players in the country. 

The last of these was certainly a positive and had so much potential to allow me to succeed. Instead, I let it become my downfall.

Here’s where I went wrong:

In my early years, I wasted my time as a bench player. As far as I was concerned, I simply needed to wait it out, and one day, when I was “old enough” I would be a starter. I didn’t think about trying to beat out anyone. I just worked as hard as I needed to, but never harder than was necessary.

Well… soon enough, I got “older”. And low behold, I wasn’t ready.

To sum it up nicely, my final year consisted of a lot of frustration, bitterness, and regret — I was fighting every week for my starting position and ended up splitting time with an arguably better 2nd-year player.

Not much could be done at that point and some young buck was showing me first hand all the mistakes I had made in the past. He proved my preconceived notions wrong and capitalized on my complacency.

I had failed, and to be honest, it took me a long time before I could fully understand why.

But after some overdue reflection — I get it now. I see where I went wrong.

If you’re still a young athlete, I don’t want you to follow in my footsteps. I want you to succeed. I want you to realize that you are capable of so much more than you think. The only thing holding you back is YOU. 

Regret is a powerful emotion, but the hardest part about regret is that we cannot feel it’s full weight until it arrives. My hope is that you can sense my regret, that you can realize the importance and urgency of what I am about to pass onto you.

In the next part, I have laid out what I see as some of the most destructive reasons as to why I failed to reach my athletic goals. And more importantly, I have outlined some helpful ways you can correct your path to put you on a more focused journey.

One more thing I’d like to address:

As I read back and review everything I’ve written so far, I’m starting to notice a somewhat troubling similarity. With all these hypothetical “what if’s” and “what could have been’s” that I’m tossing around, I’m beginning to sound a lot like Uncle Rico.

The washed up athlete who can’t let go. It’s a risky label to give myself. Our culture has turned this line of thinking into somewhat of a running joke. We laugh at the desperation and pettiness that comes with such a mentality. We have labeled these people as “stuck in the past”; which, yes, to a certain extent they are.

But for those of us who are looking to improve ourselves, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from people like myself and Uncle Rico: Don’t make our same mistakes or history is destined to repeat itself.

Why I failed

1) I didn’t set specific goals

I’ve always thought I was the goal setting type of person. I had big dreams of what my life could be like and had a good idea of where I wanted to end up. 

All through my athletic career, I thrived on being the “all-star” player. It was the main thing I cared about. I loved being one of the best and sought it out wherever I could. Luckily, being a star player was something that always came easily. Being tall, jumping high and hitting hard never took much work. With these simple traits, you can actually make it fairly far in volleyball. That is until you get onto a team full of players who are ALL tall, high jumpers, and hard hitters. Just like that, you’ve become the average. Being the star player is now going to take some extra work. What are you going to do in order to separate yourself from the competition?

My goals were based on the idea of being the star on my team — which don’t get me wrong, it’s was an admirable goal. But how was I supposed to get there? It was no longer going to be easy like before. Where I went wrong is that I set a specific goal based on an end result, but didn’t focus on the path to get me there. More on that later.

2) Too much pressure

This one comes back to something I mentioned previously — I sought out validation through being one of the elite. Simply put, if I wasn’t playing well in games, it meant I wasn’t living up to the expectations. 

But whose expectations was I falling short of?

Well, in my mind, I was failing my parents, my teammates, my coach, my friends, my girlfriend. With every mistake, it seemed as though I was not living up to the image they perceived of me. And to a certain extent, yes, I did sometimes let down other people. But the amount to which they cared about my failures is nothing in comparison to how harshly I judged myself. 

We are all our own worst critics. The sooner we recognize this, the faster we can learn to avoid the trap of applying pressure when there is no need.

3) Not enough pressure

Too much pressure can cause anxiety, frustration, and poor performance. But on the flip side, a lack of pressure can be just as damaging. As humans, we enjoy comfort. It’s only natural to seek out routine and stick with the status quo. Making a change in our lives is difficult and it takes consistent effort. We enjoy doing things with a predictable outcome — it’s the same reason we choose to watch a movie we’ve seen before over a movie we have never heard of. 

For me, I would only apply pressure in extremes. I would get so worried about not performing well or letting people down that it would cause me to run away and hide from change. So instead I would go to a position of complacency. I would rather be content with my predictable position than go through discomfort. Quite simply I settled… 

4) I settled

By the time I got into my third year of university, I had chosen to settle. The guys above me were simply too good. There was no way I could beat them out, so why even bother? They will be graduating after this season, I might as well just buy my time and be a starter next season. 

Bad idea! 

“Yes, they are better than me. For now…”

I wish that was my mindset, but it wasn’t. As far as I was concerned, the guy ahead of me was impossible to beat out. He was the team captain and arguably one of the best players in the country. Even if I somehow managed to play better than him, I could never fill his shoes as a leader. It’s painful to look back on this mindset now, but I regret to inform you that it was these sort of invisible scripts that were my greatest downfall. I already created a story in my mind before it even happened.

5) I let my circumstances discourage or distract me

We all suffer from the ill-timed and seemingly unfair obstacles that cross our paths. To think that your problems are any more important than some else’s is simply selfish.

“Boldness is acting anyway, even though you understand the negative and the reality of your obstacle.” — Ryan Holiday: The Obstacle is the Way

Whether it was injuries or what I thought were poor coaching decisions, I let my own problems affect my growth. I saw my issues as more important and ultimately expected special treatment because of them.

“It wasn’t my fault I got injured!”

“Coach should have started me tonight!”

I let these kinds of thoughts take over. I let them dictate the way in which I choose to take action. Instead of accepting my injuries and pushing for a faster recovery, I used them as crutches to lean on when I wasn’t a starter. Instead of proving my coach wrong, I accepted my fate. 

6) I made excuses

Making excuses in some ways ties into my last mistake. But I would like to mention one thing on the matter.

When we say “I don’t have time”, what we are really saying is “it’s not a priority”. So next time you are complaining about doing something, don’t say that you simply don’t have the time. Plain and simple, tell yourself that it just isn’t a priority. You will be amazed at how quickly your mentality will change. The things that truly matter will get done and time will be allocated for what needs to get done.

7) I didn’t properly channel my emotions

This was a big one for me and it’s something I still struggle with today. When I say emotions, I am mainly referring to what I would simply label as the Three F’s: Fear, Frustration, and Focus.

I’m typically regarded to as a fairly calm person. In pretty much all things I do, especially sports, I never lose my cool. I liken to myself as a well-tempered person, who is slow to anger. I would certainly show emotion on the court, but almost never in a negative or damaging way.

However, when it comes to these three F’s, I am all over the map.

In pressure moments, I would let fear get the best of me. In games, I would let my mind run wild on all the possible ways in which I could screw things up. I would constantly battle in my own head with negative ideas that all revolved around letting other people down. After the fact, I would get so frustrated with myself for my unnecessary fear that I would rather just avoid high-pressure situations. I never got comfortable with them. Ultimately, I never had the focus required to handle those situations. Instead of just thinking about the task in front of me, I would be thinking about 4 points ahead when I may, or may not, have to serve with the game on the line. 

 What I would do differently

(actionable and incremental steps)

1) Creating more short-term goals that lead to one bigger goal

Reason: Big goals and dreams are awesome. But to achieve those goals requires a lot of patience and steps in between. Instead focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals that ultimately build towards the big goal. By setting smaller goals and achieving them, you will receive more frequent feedback on what you are doing right/wrong. In the end, the small nuances of training are given much more meaning. Making sure you do weights today may not seem all that important in the long term, but when you define your small goals, you realize that for today it’s the only thing that matters.

2) Spending more time working on my weaknesses

Reason: Brute force and physicality were my two main ways of getting points. But in volleyball, that can only get you so far. I never spent the time working on my passing and eventually got pushed out of that role. I didn’t work on my blocking and found myself on the bench. It’s easy to show off our strengths. It’s hard to expose our weaknesses. They can be embarrassing to work on and difficult to change. But you know what’s more embarrassing — spending your final year of university losing your position to a younger player.

3) Developing mindfulness practices

Reason: This one may not apply to everyone. But if you found yourself nodding your head when I talked about the Three F’s, then read on. A common trait of many successful athletes, entrepreneurs, and performers is having some sort of meditation practice. Whether it’s breathing exercises, guided meditation, or some other way of achieving a mindful state — the ultimate goal is to achieve awareness. Why are you anxious? Why are you impatient? What is giving you joy right now? By taking the time to sit down, and clear our mind we gain clarity and perspective. It will allow us to be much more focused in times of stress and help to reduce anxiety. Just like any other muscle in our body, strengthening our brain takes time. But with a daily mindfulness practice, we can sharpen our minds and gain back some emotional control. Mindfulness is not about getting rid of all negative thoughts and emotions. It’s about giving us an understanding of what they are, why they exist and realizing they do not control you. 

Book Recommendation: The Mindful Athlete – George Mumford

Not sure where to begin? Check out www.headspace.com 

4) Reading when I had the time (summers)

Reason: I cannot even begin to express how much I have learned from reading. I used to only read for school, but then I started doing it purely out of self-interest. I was simply amazed at the sheer volume of useful information that would come about from the different books I’ve read. Some of it only useful for small talk, but much of it has been simply life changing. If you are too busy to read during the school year, that’s fine — but the summer is where I highly encourage you to soak in as much as you can.

5) Coaching more

Reason: There’s a wonderful subreddit known as r/explainlikeimfive. It’s a wonderful place where you can ask questions about complicated topics and receive simplified answers that even a five-year-old could understand. The reason these people can give you such simple and concise responses is because they truly understand what they are talking about. This is the truest sign of an expert and the same thing applies to sports. At a lower level, it is easier to get away with not fully understanding strategies and tactics of a sport. But when we reach the highest levels, those who genuinely understand the inner workings of the game will be the ones to stand out.

Therefore, coaching is the best step in improving your own skills. After spending some time trying to explain a skill to a young player, you will soon begin to see how well you actually understand it. And if you find yourself struggling to explain it, you probably don’t know it. So keep practicing.

 

6) Get some better friends. Seek out a mentor.

“You are the average of the 5 people you associate with most.” — Tim Ferriss

Reason: It’s easy to feel good about yourself when you are hanging out with deadbeats. When everyone around you is settling and not seeking out improvement, it’s easy to sink into a comfortable state. We even begin to trick ourselves into thinking that our minimal effort is exceptional in comparison to others. But it’s only human nature. We constantly compare ourselves to those around us. So why not improve the people who surround us on a regular basis. 

Seek out the people who want more. The ones who aren’t content with their current state. Or find the ones who are already exceeding. After enough time spent around these people, you will begin to notice what makes them special. You start to take note of their daily practices and all the little things they are doing to improve themselves. 

If you don’t have the luxury of just finding new friends, seek out a mentor. Find someone who has been in your shoes and provides you with some wisdom. Bouncing your ideas off this person can be beneficial for both parties involved. All you need to do is ask.

So what happens now?

Well…that’s a tough question and ultimately it’s not one that I can answer for you. 

But here’s one final thing I can say:

We are all going through life in our very own unique ways. There is no one true pathway. In fact, there are millions of paths we can encounter. Some will be freshly paved highways, some will be windy roads through the mountains full of switchbacks, some may even be a little bit bumpy, and then some will send you on what feels more like a suicide mission than an actual pathway. Yet, that’s just the way life goes. I cannot guarantee you safety along the way. But what I am offering is a previously used map. It’s one that is covered with poor choices and riddled with wrong turns. However, it’s also one that is packed full of treasure — with X’s that mark the spot.

My goal with this whole article was to hand over this map and show you where to go. But ultimately, I cannot force you to use it. That choice is yours.

–DT


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