Calm Before the Sturm

A Pro Athlete’s Guide to Finding Balance in the Midst of Chaos

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Remember when you learned to ride a bike? You probably had training wheels — those little plastic disks that kept you balanced. And as adults, we still strive for that perfect balance, where both of our imaginary training wheels are floating off the ground, keeping us centered. In this story, the Tenspeed Hero cyclocross racer, Sarah Sturm, explores what balance means to her and how she finds it on the road.

As I drive my Element down the wet pavement, littered with the golden leaves of fall, my dog is crunching his kibble from a bowl in the back seat. There’s dirt from every part of the southwest hiding in each crevasse, crack, and corner of my car. I’m multi-tasking, jamming a donut into my gullet as I try to drink coffee and water simultaneously, just so I don’t see blank spots on my ride from dehydration again.

I don’t have a sprinter van, I don’t have a job that allows me to work off-the-grid and out of an office. Today, I’m not going to get my two-hour ride in because I want Norman to run his furry little buns off, which is why I’m driving to the trailhead before I work my second job for the day. And then I wonder, “Is this balance?”

I’ve been a cyclist for 10 years now, with collegiate racing being my introduction to the sport. I threw myself into the scene, both figuratively and literally. While I was busy learning how to ride and race every conceivable kind of bike, I was also inadvertently working on a much bigger skill — finding balance. As a student athlete, I started acquiring the rudimentary building blocks it takes to balance multiple facets of a modern life so that now, as a professional athlete, the biggest barrier I face isn’t the one I’m jumping over during a race. It’s all of the behind-the-scenes action, and that takes management and, ultimately, balance.

It’s taken time, but over the years, I’ve figured out that I’m happier when I have more than one thing going on. This requires the ability to balance. Too many things and I tip into the fun land of stress. Too few things and I get hyper obsessed and put too much pressure on myself. So how do you know when you’ve gone too far in one direction?

As we move through life, we’re trying to better ourselves, our habits, and our actions. Part of that process is learning where our tipping points are (and when I say “tipping points” that’s just my nice way of saying total f-ups). These mistakes are on a spectrum, too — it’s not always slamming our faces into the ground. Sometimes, it’s just a skinned knee, and sometimes it’s a faceplant-after-faceplant until you learn not to grab a handful of front brake. Mistakes are how we learn. It sucks, but they’re an aspect of almost everything we do. All learning is really just a series of mistakes and adjustments until we think we’ve got it right and then we start it all over again.

“When you’ve totally messed up, and are sitting in a pile of failure, just remember that literally every single human has done or will do the same.”

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Again, here we are back with the training wheels, tipping from one side to the other. Without mistakes we have to have some way of knowing we need to sway the other direction and fix the things that are causing us to crash or lean too far. And it’s not just a matter of fixing one thing either — it’s a constant stream of lessons and learnings as we swaying from one side to the other, occasionally feeling that balance of gliding on just two wheels.

As a professional athlete, working professional, friend, girlfriend, dog mom, and just a normal person with responsibilities, what challenges me is prioritizing. More than that, prioritizing within a timeline. My mom always told me that I was born without a sense or concept of time, and now I’m beginning to think she wasn’t wrong. It leads to tons of mistakes, like overcommitting to too many things. This can result in everything being completed sub-par; misjudging the appropriate amount of time I have and things I have to do in that time; and even (this one is my favorite) completely forgetting about a very important event because I have way too much going on! Knowing this, how do I find balance?

Here’s my advice to you, based on how I do it.

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STURMY’S GUIDE TO MAKING FEWER MISTAKES

STEP 1: EMBRACE THE PANIC

This is usually the moment that I start coping with my situation by totally freaking out. Cry, panic, and curl into the fetal position in your room, biting your nails down to nubs while your dog looks at you with a much too humanlike disapproving stare. The first step is to accept it.

STEP 2: FORGET PERFECT

You’ve panicked, time to do something to fix it. And I use the term “fix” loosely, because really, we’re just making small micro-adjustments in hopes that the outcome is ever-so-slightly less painful. Nothing is ever fully fixed and perfect. So, forget perfect — just stop it. There isn’t perfect, so don’t waste any more precious time striving for it. Move on. Once you’ve done that, you can adjust your perspective and really look at what you have to do in a day, in a week, and maybe even in the next six months. What’s causing the most imbalance? Getting it down to a micro level helps you make those micro adjustments that turn into habits, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater and trying to implement a big life change. For me, my daily tasks stack up and get so jumbled that I’m paralyzed with the overwhelming fear of what needs to get done. So, I deconstruct my day and forget perfect.

STEP 3 — ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING

I start my day lying in bed, initially feeling overwhelmed with all of the things I have to do in a day. Then, after a cup of coffee, I figure out what means the most to me. Usually my job and training are at the top of the list, but that’s not to say that some days I put off training to spend time with the people and animals in my life. There isn’t a perfect equation for any of this, though some people treat prioritization like that. I advise going on feeling. If you’re sick of doing one thing because it’s always at the top of your priority list, then it can be healthier to sometimes drop it down a few rungs on the ladder and replace it with something that just feels right. The dilemma with most people, and certainly most athletes, is the wave of guilt that comes with missing a workout or even a race. This is when you have to start thinking big picture. You’re ready for Step 4.

“When you start going down the rabbit hole of stress and impending doom, with all of the things swirling around in your brain, remember: balance, daily balance.”

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STEP 4 — SMALL THINGS AREN’T SMALL

Stay focused. Remember that it’s the work we do each day that actually makes a difference in the long game. Same thing with your job, family, friends — all of it. Write one thing down, then write the next thing down, and then figure out which of those things is the most pressing. Add in a few things you can easily check off of the list. Personally, I like to work with a combination of easy items (writing my best friend a letter, texting so-and-so back, taking my dog on a hike or paying rent), then mix in the tougher things that I know will take more than an hour. I’ve used handwritten lists, but I noticed I’d lose them unless they were in my planner. I now use the task list under my Gmail, which I really love because it’s there every time I open my email. And I can see what I’ve checked off too, you know, to make me feel like I’m not just a blob on the days that it’s hard to even check one thing off!

But more than lists, emails, or apps, it’s important to trust your gut in your lifelong journey for balance. Finding it is something that will sway with the motion of life, and it comes with work and practice. Be kind to yourself and try to coast a little bit more.

Words by: Sarah Sturm

Photos by: Luke Batten, Tenspeed Hero

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