We are designed for survival. When presented with a life threatening situation our bodies produce the fight or flight response. When this response is triggered our bodily systems become beautifully synchronized, all firing at their highest capacity together. Theses days the closest we come to a life threatening situation is being chased by a cougar…..in a Granville St bar. So that we are always prepared for these life threatening situations our bodies hold onto a reserve storage, so our energy tank never becomes completely exhausted. As elite athletes we try to push out of this reserve mode to reach our bodily limits. If there was ever a time to push myself to the limits, it was the Pan American Games. Here’s my story…
In the summer of 2011 the team was in a brilliant place and feeling optimistic about our approaching Olympic Qualifier, the Pan American Games. I was extremely motivated, and with no school during the summer I spent my days at the field and on the track.
Due to the lack of competitive domestic competition in Canada the team would play matches against an U18 boys team. These games challenged the team to combat the boy’s strength and speed with technical and tactical smarts. During one of these games a particularly tall boy, who hadn’t quite gained full coordination over his limbs, came barreling down the field towards me. Stepping in to tackle we collided and I left the collision with the ball and a broken rib.
Receiving news of a serious injury so close to the Games was tough to take. However, the Pan American Games were 4 weeks away, allowing me just enough time to heal so coach still wanted me for the competition. My recovery was….different. I had basically been told that by training I couldn’t make the injury any worse, only prolong the healing time. I was asked to monitor my training and return to play based on my ability to handle the pain. What was worse is that my coach knew this and I can distinctly remember when I was struggling at practice him saying “well come on, you’re not going to make it worse.”
Just for a quick reference point, a broken rib is excruciatingly painful just when you’re trying to get out of bed, let alone during a workout! For the first week, pushing myself to do any heavy breathing, along with the usual pain accompanied with running seemed ludicrous, but eventually I built up to it. I developed a funny running technique hugging my arm to chest almost as though I was trying to cradle my rib. On one of my runs I was so focused on the pain and getting through it I ran straight past my house!
My first game like session back was at the new facility for the Pan American Games in Mexico. All I can really recall is being incredibly nervous and then becoming frustrated because I couldn’t bring myself to reach or tackle. After getting knocked a few times, although painful it helped. At least then I knew and felt the pain as apposed to battling the fear of the unknown.
I spent most of the tournament in physio treatment having needles stabbed into me in an attempt relax my muscles that were so desperately trying to protect my rib. My body was recruiting any breathing muscles to get air into my restricted rib cage which left me with a very tight thoracic region.
I won’t dissect every pool play game because I don’t want to bore you…. and because I really don’t remember. But I do want to discuss our game against Argentina. Argentina was ranked #1 in the world at the time. Facing a top team can be mentally challenging and intimidating, but not for me. I was convinced that no matter how good a team was, they had no right to score on us. I’m not sure if this is coming from sheer stupidity or a masterful sport psych mindset. Don’t get me wrong, I believed scoring on these top teams presented a very difficult challenge, but my mind was made up that there were no excuses for defence. My reasoning was that defence required discipline. I recognize that there are very talented defenders with the ability to read the game, intercept balls and win impressive tackles. However, I believe defence on the whole simply requires discipline, and the fitness to maintain this discipline. If these two ingredients are present then a team is able to hold up the fortress surrounding the goal for 70 minutes. In the first half of the game it became apparent that we didn’t care what team we were playing, we were hungry to win. The first half ended with a 4-3 lead over Argentina. Then during half time break you could see the reality of leading against the #1 team in the world start to sink in. Entering the second half, a combination of our new fearful mindset and a newly motivated Argentina left the final score at 7-4 to Argentina. It’s not so much the loss that was hard to take, but the role we had to play in it.
Knowing that we had to take a lesson from the Argentina match, we looked forward to playing Chile in the bronze medal game. We had played Chile a number of times leading up to the Pan Am Games. Our most recent game against them was a victory, nicely coinciding with my 50th cap, at Champions Challenge in Vienna. Neverless, the games against Chile were always close so we knew we were in for a good battle. However for this battle, I’m not sure if we left our artillery at home but the team began to crumble shortly after the first whistle. The psychology of a team has always baffled me. The source of the mood can never be pin pointed to a precise reason or isolated moment like a quite warm up, a struggling player or yelling coach. No matter how many sport psych tools we had, once the team felt like it was falling apart it was a downward spiral. In hindsight my theory is that we were a very tactically run team. Different teams required us to have different rotations and presses. I think this caused players to lose confidence in their ability and the ability of their teammates, so when things weren’t working we didn’t trust ourselves to simply connect the passes and play the game. Slowly but surely the game slipped away from us. The feeling of desperation and hopeless was screaming inside me during the dying minutes of the match. We lost the game 3-0, the most we had lost to Chile in the most important game. At the end of the game the combination of exhaustion and emotion left me lying on the ground gasping for breath, writhing in pain from all my body had gone through this tournament. I’m not a dramatic girl…..but I was an absolute mess.
Walking back into the changing room I saw champagne on ice in the sink. In that moment I wanted those 70 minutes back. I wanted to be back at the start of the game with the sweet taste of opportunity and optimism, instead of the bitter disappointment that was now being forced down my throat. At the end of a game, or even an tournament like this you can’t help but ask “did I leave it all out there? Was there anything more I could have done?” At that point I thought the answer was no. My legs could not have given any more, I didn’t know what else I could have done with my positioning or plays. But the key part of that sentence is that I didn’t know. It’s only upon reflection that I realize I already have a preconceived picture in my mind of what I think my maximum effort is. It’s only when you surpass your limits that you know they can be higher. We will never know our best because the closer we get, the further our potential grows. I chose to discuss this theory with this tournament because I had so many excuses to say I performed only to the best of my ability. The tournament could have been an opportunity to push other parts of my game to unknown levels in order to compensate for my physical state. Or even more specifically my broken rib could have forced other parts of my body to perform at new levels, that I might not have been able to otherwise achieve. So how do we push ourselves to find these new limits and break free of this perceived potential….I haven’t quite figured that out. But I do believe being aware of it is a key step. It could start with a mindset of focusing on the undefined heights, rather than the created restrictions. Or even realizing what or who’s standards you are limiting yourself with. There are no limits, there is no trying your best because these are all self created ideas. We know they are self created because when we approach these limits we create new ones. Pan Ams showed me how much I could push myself when I’m injured, now I need to understand how to reach towards the endless potential I have when I’m healthy.
As Russell Brand so simply put “the Universe is infinite, and time eternal”.…..our world is limitless, so is our potential.