Author: Jason Dunkerley, 5-time Paralympian, Paralympic and World medalist
Sport teaches us innumerable lessons. When I reflect on my own sporting journey, I cringe at some of the mis-steps I took as a younger athlete. This is not to say that today I’m past the point of making mistakes. Some of us are slow learners after all, and even those of us with years of experience under our belts can still get it wrong. Rather it is to highlight a few hard won lessons, offered as cautionary tales, in hopes that up and coming athletes might avoid these slips.
- One program, one plan: Prior to my first Paralympics in Sydney in 2000, I was training with our varsity club team, but was still in touch with my former club coach and occasionally did workouts which he suggested. Eventually the varsity coach became aware of this and confronted me about it, after which I committed fully to his program. However with having incorporated the two training approaches, I was probably overtrained and remember feeling burned out in the lead-up to Sydney, where my guide and I would ultimately place second in a 1500 metre final in which I felt we had lost first place.
The takeaway: Believe in your coach and the plan which you’ve developed with his or her support. This plan can always be modified but the key thing is to work together to implement required changes.
- Eat to perform: As competitive athletes we are constantly looking for an edge and this search does not preclude diet. Over the years I have experimented with cutting out gluten and even dabbled with vegetarianism when I was younger. The problem, notwithstanding food allergies or intolerances is that many of the recently touted nutritional approaches are limiting and difficult to sustain. Another consideration is that in many sports, there is an undeniable relationship between weight and performance. To be light without being too light is as Martin Fritz Huber writes, a “precarious truth”. And yet, food is our friend as athletes; it is when our relationship with it becomes complicated that we encounter problems. I can recall racing poorly several times because of not eating enough in the hours or days beforehand.
The takeaway: Do not limit food intake as a way of boosting performance. Triathlete and multiple Kona Hawaii Ironman winner Chrissie Wellington offers sound advice on this topic, stating that “healthy eating for athletic performance is not rocket science … the basic principle is this: keep it simple, eat natural foods as much as possible, balance intake with output and everything in moderation.”/li>
- Let go of the little things: It’s important to sometimes have a short memory as athletes. Poor sleep, subpar training, or seeing a competitor exceed expectations can all too easily rattle our confidence. I remember competing at the IPC Athletics World Championships in 2006. My guide and I barely squeaked into the 800 metre final and to make matters worse, I hardly slept the night before the race and went in with low expectations. In the final we ran just behind the leader for 650 metres and then somehow I was able to find another gear as we took the lead and went on to win.
The takeaway: Trust in your preparation and your ability to overcome setbacks. Invariably we will encounter bumps in the road but we have the capacity to reframe these into the learning opportunities which guide our development.
- Develop your whole self: We pour our heart and soul into the sport we love, but this does not mean that we should neglect other parts of our life. For those of us privileged to devote countless hours each week to the maxim of citius altius fortius, the allure of placing all our eggs in the sport basket can be intoxicating. Prior to the Athens Paralympics in 2004, I took a leave of absence from my job working at a bank to train fulltime. While I would have the entire day to train, eat, nap and train again, I found myself questioning whether I was doing too much, or not enough. Often I would simply not get around to training until late at night. I went from having a hectic daily schedule to having almost nothing to do, and found myself feeling lost.
The takeaway: Do not live in a fishbowl. Recognize that although you are committed to your sport, it’s possible to pursue an education, gain employment experience, and develop other interests which can complement life as a high performance athlete.
- Learn to sometimes say no: As athletes we can be pulled in many different directions. We often see the glass as half full and for this reason it can be hard to pass up what appears to be a good opportunity, even if it poses a distraction to our training. I’ve fallen prey to this particularly when I was younger. Recently however I did say no to an invitation to be profiled in a documentary which would have involved multiple days of filming at the track. This was not easy for me because it was presented as an exciting opportunity and truly, few people are given a chance to share their passion for something they love to do in such a unique way. However, agreeing to be featured would have entailed hours training with a film crew around us and wearing microphones, which would have been distracting in a year where our focus is on qualifying for and preparing for the Rio Games.
The takeaway: Be honest with yourself and know that it is ok to politely decline if you are uncomfortable with something you have been asked to do away from the playing field as an athlete.
Undoubtedly the journey undertaken by each of us is its own circuitous route. Most of us learn by trial and error. By thinking about some of the pitfalls in which we have been caught as athletes who have lived to tell the tale, we can hopefully avoid reliving our own past mistakes and perhaps, encourage up and coming athletes to walk a smoother path.
Fritz Huber, Martin. “Does Distance Running have a Weight Problem?” Outside Online, October 30, 2015. Accessed online, March 2, 2016.
“Para-Swimming”. Canadian Paralympic Committee. Accessed online, March 2, 2016.
Wellington, Chrissie. “My Favourite Session: Food and Fuel”. Blog post, accessed online, March 2, 2016.