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Growth Mindset: Prioritizing mental health on the path to becoming a successful athlete

Growing up, I envisioned that a successful athlete was one born to greatness. In my imagination, a future professional athlete would emerge from the womb with preternatural athleticism,

SARAH TRUE - Professional triathlete

Growing up, I envisioned that a successful athlete was one born to greatness. In my imagination, a future professional athlete would emerge from the womb with preternatural athleticism, exuding confidence and strength every time that he or she played sports. A champion was always a champion; they only needed to apply their inherent gifts through hard work and discipline.

Although I firmly believe that success is a product of hard work and discipline, my belief in this unrealistic athletic ideal has thankfully been relinquished over the years. I bought into the mythology shaped by advertisers, Hollywood and sports broadcasts. Through experience, I have gradually chipped away at this belief about athletic perfection. And in the process, I made room for myself in my expanded idea of what it takes to be an accomplished athlete.

Early on in my sporting career, I realized that I differed from the picture in my mind. I struggled with self-esteem, anxiety, and clinical depression: characteristics that I believed disqualified me from being a successful athlete. I thought that I would never be a great athlete because I would never be the perfect human I envisioned. I saw myself as fundamentally flawed, incapable of being a high achiever.

However, through sport, I gradually learned to view daily training as ongoing development. My strengths or weaknesses didn’t define me, and I could shape myself through deliberate practice. I am physically a work in progress; areas of weakness are not barriers, just areas requiring more development and attention. Over time, I realized that I could apply a similar approach to the mental side. Depression would always be a part of my life, but I could improve how I managed my symptoms and develop skills that would allow me to thrive.

I am fortunate to belong to an era in which public individuals, athletes and otherwise, are breaking down our stereotypes about what is required to be successful. I speak about my struggles with depression to help aspiring athletes recognize that high performance is not incompatible with mental health struggles. Growing up, I wish that I had known that achievement comes in different forms, encompassing a variety of physical and mental characteristics. Perfection doesn’t exist; even the most naturally gifted in their field must constantly develop their strengths and weaknesses.

Instead of comparing ourselves to an unrealistic ideal, what if we instead focused on adopting a growth mindset in how we approach mental health? As athletes, we learn that we can improve our skills over time through deliberate and dedicated practice. We are all works in progress, able to be molded through our environment and our actions. There are areas where we need to work with more commitment for some of us. Constantly attending to my mental health does not make me weak or flawed. Instead, putting my mental health first allows me to be a better version of myself. Unlike the unrealistic model for the professional athlete, I had as a girl, I am not perfect. Thankfully I now realize that I can approach my imperfections with grace and, through growth, allow myself to succeed.

ABOUT SARAH TRUE

American triathlete Sarah True began her career in the ITU series, where she competed for 12 years and won several placements. During this period, Sarah participated in two Olympic Games; then in 2018, she decided to challenge herself and began competing in long distance. In her first year as a long-distance triathlete, she won several races and was able to compete at Kona, where she came in fourth place. Her grit and tenacity have elevated her to the top of the podiums and her fight to bring visibility to mental health issues in athletes has made her a role model for many fans and lovers of sport.

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