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Behind the Blocks

Updated: Jul 18, 2018

What if I lose? What if I don’t go fast? What if I’m just not as good as I think I am? That is what I heard when I asked a young woman what she was thinking when she was standing behind the blocks getting ready to race.

My jaw dropped. How could this elite athlete have those kinds of thoughts going through her mind? Her jaw dropped too. She never intended on getting that honest with me, it was just a moment of unexpected vulnerability.

I had been trying to get her to be honest with me for so long! But she continued to “tap dance” and tell me she’s “fine.” We, as women, all have a tap dancer in us. When life is not going well, and people start to wonder and question us, we start tap dancing and performing, and telling everyone that we are fine. But we are not fine.

The moment that she finally found the courage to get honest was a very big deal. I looked at her and said, Thank you for finally being honest with me. I’m proud of you.

And then I watched her do something that I’ll never forget. She took a huge breath and exhaled. And that exhale was so much more than just a breath. That was a, “Thank God I don’t have to pretend anymore. Thank God I don’t have to act like this tough, confident woman anymore. I can just be me.”

Tap dancing is hard work, isn’t it? She felt relief, she felt a weight lifted, she felt like she could breathe again.

After that, I started getting honest with myself. I knew that I had those same kinds of “what if’s” going through my mind before I raced back in college, but I always thought I was just weak. I figured everyone was standing behind the blocks fearless, and I was the weakling that couldn’t get rid of the fear. I tried so hard to be “mentally tough”, and I failed miserably. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t be fearless like everyone else?

But now, hearing this young woman tell me the truth of what she’s thinking, I was curious if anyone else had these kinds of thoughts.

A few years ago, I sat down with a group of teenage girls. They ranged from junior national to senior national to Olympic trial qualifiers (and one of them ended up winning a medal in Rio.) I told them the story of this young woman getting honest about her “what if’s”. I then asked them to anonymously write down what they are thinking when they are behind the blocks getting ready to race. I wanted it to be anonymous, because I knew they might not be 100% honest if their name was on it. They all started scribbling and then folded up their papers nice and tight so no one else could see.

Later that evening, I read them.

What they wrote on those sheets of paper can only be described as pure terror. I wanted to bawl my eyes out seeing how much fear was filling these young women’s souls. My first thought? What are these coaches doing to these young women to make them so afraid?

But then, every time I spoke to a group, I asked young women to write down anonymously what they’re thinking behind the blocks. 99.9% of the time, I saw the exact same stuff. Terror. And this terror was coming from the 14 year old trying to make a Sectionals cut to the Olympian with a gold medal hanging around her neck.

Here’s why this information is so important. Through the years, I’ve learned that everyone experiences fear, but everyone also thinks they’re the only one experiencing it. And when you feel like the only one, you feel like something is wrong with you. And we all know as women, the world already works really hard to make us feel like something is wrong with us. Right? We aren’t pretty enough, skinny enough, smart enough, successful enough……fearless enough.

And yet, the sports world still won’t talk about fear. It’s taboo and not allowed to be talked about. You are considered weak if you talk about it. And no one wants to be weak. So, everyone continues to believe they are the only one.

What is wrong with me that I can’t be fearless like everyone else? What is wrong with me that I can’t get rid of these doubts swirling through my mind? What is wrong with me that I fear failure so much? Everyone else can handle it, why can’t I? What is wrong with me?

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Nothing is wrong with you. I’ve worked with some of the best athletes in the world, and I’ve never met one that is fearless.

Below are some of the most common thoughts behind the blocks.

* What if I die? (No, that does not mean literal death. That is a piano on your back, your body starts to shut down, but you somehow have to find a way to finish….and it hurts like hell) * What if I disappoint my coach? (Yes, coaches, take note. Your swimmers are really scared to disappoint you.) * What if I disappoint my parents? * What if I don’t go fast? * What if I don’t get my cut?
 * What if so and so beats me? (I usually beat her, but what if she beats me this time?) * What if my taper doesn’t work? * This is going to hurt. (it isn’t always a what if) * What if I embarrass myself? (in front of teammates, family, friends, fans) * What if all my hard work doesn’t pay off? (FYI – this is the #1 “What if” I hear from the Olympians I work with.)

Any of those sound familiar? I’ve never met a female swimmer that said no. Here’s the good news; You are not alone. You are not a misfit. You are not a weakling. There is nothing wrong with you. What a relief.

Coaches, next post will let you know why “don’t think about it”, “just stand behind the blocks confident”, “don’t be afraid, be excited” is not going to fix this. Stay tuned at

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