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Atlanta – my first Olympic experience

Physiotherapy was put on hold, and has been there ever since. I don’t know that I’ll ever return to it, but I learned a lot about physiology and how systems work, and have maintained that interest, in various ways, ever since. In 1995, Anita and I decided to go our separate ways. I teamed up with Kerri Pottharst, one of our best-ever indoor volleyballers, who took up beachvolleyball to prolong her career (after a bad knee injury). In August 1995, we made a breakthrough: in Portugal, we had our first top-four finish on the world tour. It was an eye-opener because, for the first time, we realised that, as a team, we might just have what it took. But we needed a coach. We literally flew straight to the shores of California, in search of the next piece in the puzzle. We interviewed about six coaches, telling them they had two hours to teach us everything they knew about the sport. By the time we left to come home, we had chosen Steve Anderson, who impressed us with his approach to the game and his teaching methods.

We immediately began to make an impact. By the end of 1995, we were number one on the Australian circuit, and were giving a few international sides quite a shake. The Olympic dream was looking good. We easily gained selection for the Games in early 1996, and we just couldn’t wait to get there. Everyone back home was excited by our opportunity to represent Australia, and we were surrounded by encouraging and loving friends and family. Everything seemed to be falling into place. We had had a dream run, and experienced little adversity, even though we were yet to win an international tournament. At least we had beaten some of the world’s best teams along the way.

Atlanta came around quickly. At the age of 21, I was barely prepared for the intensity and the incredible sense of occasion. Here we were, exponents of a new sport at the Games, and rubbing shoulders with Kieren Perkins, Sam Riley, Susie O’Neill, and the Awesome Foursome. It was inspiring to hear people such as the great Herb Elliott and Laurie Lawrence address the team. At the time, as they talked about fear, doubt, pressure, hunger, as well as personal growth through hardship, obstacles, difficulties, and challenges, I thought I understood exactly what they meant. But as I said, I was yet to experience any real adversity.

“Do not fear the winds of adversity. Remember, the kite rises against it rather than with it”

They advised us to welcome adversity, and uncertainty, and to thrive on them. They then told us to ask ourselves: “Why am I here?” I remember writing in my Atlanta diary, “I am here to win! Nothing less will cut it. ‘If you act the part, eventually you will become it”.  All through our preparation for Atlanta, my self-talk was so positive. By the time we arrived, I was pumped and excited to be there. It all sounded so right at the time, and I felt I was on the right track. Here is a collection of quotes I wrote in my diary just before the Games began:

  • Don’t let you fears control your dreams—NO FEAR.
  • The greatest mistake one can make is to be afraid of making one.
  • Success is not a destination…it’s a journey.
  • Teamwork is the ability to work together towards a common vision. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results. The harder you work the luckier you get.
  • Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.

It all sounds so right, doesn’t it? And it is. But deep down, I’d begun to develop a powerful sense that something was missing, and I just couldn’t figure out what it was. In hindsight, all the positive self-talk was just surface chatter. My heart didn’t buy into any of it.

I just didn’t realise at the time that what I’d done very well was grasp the theory. What I probably needed to understand better was that the learning we do is only true learning when it’s implemented. And that meant I still had to experience, first hand, a lot of the ‘fear, doubt, pressure, hunger, hardship, obstacles, difficulties and challenges’ that Herb and Laurie told us about.

There’s a telling entry in my diary back then, in amongst all the positive stuff. It was just before we entered the Olympic Village when I wrote: “physically not working too hard but the mind is working overtime to stay positive”. I then went on to write how I deserve to win gold, and that this was our opportunity to execute, execute, execute! But that little emotional detour revealed a lot about where I was really at. I thought that, if I could keep telling myself I was motivated, it would come.

Coming into the Games, I was scared. There’s no doubt about it. I was letting little things get to me, as though I was internally making excuses before I’d even begun! Even then, I told myself that frustration is no solution, but fear and doubt were different matters. One day I was so down at training, and it affected my performance so much, that Kerri and Steve came down pretty heavily on me. And it was all because I was hanging on to one thought: “What if I fail?” I probably didn’t know it but, somewhere in the depths of my mind, succeeding meant not failing—because failing is what I was really afraid of. The line between success and failure is so fine that we rarely know when we pass it; so fine that we are often on the line and don’t even know it. I had my toe on that line!

Beach volleyball is a tough game, and your destiny rests heavily on the shoulders of your team mate. One day, after a practice, Kerri stuck a note on our door. It said “The way we play as a team determines success…we may be two great players, but if we don’t play together, we’re not worth a cent”. At the time, I thought Kerri looked despondent at training. I thought she was giving up, and I was getting angry. I realise now how much these things are a ‘loop’. Who knows who it really starts with? She was probably as affected by my attitude as I was by hers. She probably even detected my doubts.

We were getting aggressive toward each other on the court during practice: “Stop being a bitch”. “Shut up and look interested”. We were no longer playing our opponents. We were playing each other. We resolved our differences, and continued in our determination to slay the opposition. But these ups and downs were telling behaviour. At one point I wrote, “It’s scary to think that the confidence comes and goes like that. I hope it’s there on the day”. Doubts were beginning to creep in. I was trying so hard. The Voice that I brought with me everywhere kept having the last say, but I was yet to understand its power. The Voice was saying “You suck” and “You’re not good enough”, and I was trying hard to have it say something else, or to create an alternative voice to answer it. It was actually my biggest opponent. I was beginning to become aware of its ability to sabotage my performance. I just wish at that point I had a way to control it. We just might have had another gold medal.

I’m so pleased that I recorded my thoughts in my diary. The good thing about keeping a diary is that it is a terrific aid to self-reflection. Self-awareness is the starting point to eliminating negative emotions, and writing down what you really feel—knowing that no one will read it unless you want them to—is a very good way to begin reflecting on your own behaviour. The diary is like a ‘third party’, much like a counsellor or a therapist. It can’t judge you or hold any expectations.However, it was another ‘third party’, team psychologist Mark Spargo, who managed to weasel out of me my true feelings: fear of not reaching my expectations; of not playing well; of failing. It was the first time I’d articulated them to another person, and I did it after the opening ceremony and before our first match! I was hoping like hell that all the extra emotion and adrenalin would give me ‘the eye of the tiger’. But you can’t really get your energy from emotion, because emotion, on its own, is such a fickle thing.

Remember this
Life has doubt and uncertainty. We can’t make it more predictable—but we can develop the behavioural flexibility to deal with it successfully.

Unless learning is implemented, it’s just theory.

Any aid to self-reflection is important if you want to address who you are, and who you want to be. It might be a friend, a counsellor, or a diary. A ‘third party’ is a big help.

Don’t rely on your emotional state for energy. You gain energy from the way you choose to perceive, and react to, circumstances.

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