Conquering the Fear of Failure: Voices of Influence

TAGS: female powerlifting, powerlifting women, Dani Overcash, female powerlifter, Hannah Johnson-Hill, powerlifting

Be smart about who you permit to influence you. Be intentional about who and how you influence.

This sport changes people.

I look back at what I have accomplished outside training as a result of the mental growth incurred with training and I truly believe certain elements of powerlifting have made me a more effective person. It is no wonder to me that this sport is growing like wildfire, especially with women. Progress is easy to celebrate. It permits tangible and within-reach dreams (and it doesn’t hurt to feel like Optimus Prime with a pony tail some days, either). I have had such a privilege learning from those who have been around the sport, who have grown as professionals and admonished me to keep my goals and vision in line with who I wanted to be inside and outside of training. I thought I’d been doing a decent job until I stepped back one day and realized that I’d confined my relationships to be with people who I thought took pride in me ONLY as an athlete, no longer as a friend or colleague: that’ll do some unhealthy things to your self worth, especially as the classic “over-achiever” in everything she does. My goals in competing did some not-so-wonderful things to my identity. Take away the foundation of knowing your character, and it leaves you a little shaken.

I think it’s safe to say that those of us who compete in anything hold ourselves to high standards — half of what we do in our sport day in and day out is seeking improvement. For me, perfectionism is very often my personal Pandora’s box. It drives me to get better but makes it impossible not to focus on glaring failure. Within six months of my first meet, I’d reached top four all-time 123 females in the US, ranking top 12 world at the time. That generated a paralyzing level of expectation in my own heart and I think this level of perfectionist-bred expectation played a role in seeking out voices of others that I thought would keep me from “failing.” At what, I hadn’t figured out, but I knew I didn’t want to.

Seeking and over-valuing the voice of others makes it all too easy to downplay the truest voice that resonates with who we are at our core; our passion, drive, and values that ultimately cultivate the “why” and subsequent “how” we do life. That internal true voice tends to be the last one we hear before an attempt at something bold, and has either the power to drive for growth or to speak self-fulfilling pessimisms. I’m very quickly, through uncomfortable and muddy situations, realizing the importance of judiciously permitting someone else to be the last voice we hear, provided they speak a message that resonates with who we seek to become.

I feel a little silly writing this, but I just competed in an incredibly “disappointing” meet from a performance standpoint; even now, my definition of failure from above is defined as “I totaled slightly less than my last meet that was a top ranking performance.”

I know…Hello, inexperience.

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You can laugh and shake your head — I am. Truthfully, though, I’m more than thrilled, because the day had such an incredible mental impact. Training has been something emotionally difficult for me because my fear of failure drove me to listen to the wrong voices. Coaches are wonderful and the right coach will take you someplace incredible physically and mentally. On the other hand, I granted excessive influence to individuals with questionable motives, thinking that I “needed” them to avoid this ambiguous failure. It generated a high degree of performance anxiety, feelings of inadequacy and dependency, and a devaluing of my own knowledge and skillset. I had very little comfort calling shots for myself, as I think a lot of women do, unfortunately. As I craved experienced voices to keep me from failing my self-imposed expectation, my original and truest “self-voiced” vision for what training and competing was for me lost its roots.

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The dissonance between the inner and outer voices was constricting, like there was a portion of myself that I had to shut off. I became so attuned to a voice other than my own that stemmed from entirely different ideals that I didn’t even know “what” to fix. I had no idea why I was doing this thing with a heavy bar other than to say “I picked it up. It was heavier than before, maybe, on a good day.” In seeking influence to prevent failure, I had lost the heart and “why” behind what I do.

One of my absolute favorite books and concepts is Start with Why by Simon Sinek. He gets to the root, the very heart, of what we do—the actual why for our vision and our subsequent actions. I totally nerd out over “business” books like this, learning how we work and what makes us tick is something that provides an incredible platform from which to understand people and therefore connect with people. I’ve been in a weird place: quite the recipe of perfectionism, fear, broken trust, negative influence, and feeling overall pretty lost. I lost my “why” for training and competing. Training began as something incredibly empowering and I wanted to give that to other women somehow. Somewhere along the line, the pressure to perform outweighed my strength to maintain what I wanted my life to speak; training without authenticity felt stifling.

This wasn’t a training issue: this was an identity issue, and one that I imagine many others may resonate with, especially as this sport grows, the talent pool explodes, and records continue to be broken. To find my “why” it was worth revisiting part of what helped it developed to begin with.

Positive voices have the power to change our heart and ignite our “why.” Barely over a year ago, I competed in my first meet. I’d never met another woman who competed, having trained at a commercial university gym, and had the pleasure of meeting Hannah Johnson-Hill. “Luck” is an understatement; Hannah changed what I thought it could look like to empower people so naturally. I believe it was her first meet back while recovering from a pretty serious injury. I don’t think Hannah has any idea how much she drew my eye as someone to look up to, not because of how strong she was (though the numbers of plates on the bar even in her warmups had me staring), but because of how she carried and conducted herself. I think that day, she wasn’t thrilled with the numbers she’d been hitting, but she spent every one of the few free moments she had giving every other competitor in the room the extra edge of encouragement or push they needed to hit PR’s and do what they weren’t sure they could. She had high expectations for herself but those expectations were not mutually exclusive to who she was. They were not her “why.”  Her actions spoke that very clearly.

I’ve re-watched my third squat attempt from that meet over and over because the LAST voice I heard after my unrack was Hannah’s yelling, “Come on, Dani, you got this!” Hearing her, someone I respected, say that was what flipped my internal switch from “maybe” to “Yeah, I’m going to nail this.” It seems silly, but that lift made my day, and it wouldn’t have happened without her voice being the last one I heard before taking my attempt. Women like Hannah are the ones that made me want to both challenge and encourage other women’s confidence and tenacity.

The entire purpose of getting on the platform this time was to get this part of my life back, to be present somewhere for a while, to invest in the community, to serve and love others well in an environment that tends to be inflated with self-love, and have the mental and emotional bandwidth to give to others. I had no idea how I’d perform, but I was absolutely determined to breathe: I needed my “why” back. My training partner from Atlanta came out to Colorado to support me, knowing that it’s been difficult enough for me to get on the platform that I’ve pulled out of two meets this summer. For someone that doesn’t quit, that says a lot.

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I remember telling him, honestly a little bit misty eyed on the two-hour drive we had, that above all else, I want this meet to be an opportunity to give to women the way I’ve been given to and finally feeling the freedom to do so. I gushed about the way interacting with women like Jenn Rotsinger and Hannah Johnson changed me; they are so strong, so respected, so badass, and so challenging to the voice and character of the community that they make everyone they interact with better in some way, serving as examples of both excellence and humility. I told him what it was like seeing the women of elitefts interact at PLEXP2 and how powerful it was to be captured in that momentum even for a day. There’s a phrase I love: Leave people better than you found them. These women make that a reality.

So, I had a “bad meet.” I probably should have expected it. I haven’t trained much this summer due to traveling for family that ultimately lead to a last minute move cross country, I still have an hip injury that makes it difficult to hit squat depth, I have been studying for PT board exams, I left my previous job, and I dealt with some hurtful losses in friendships. A lot’s going on, coupled with the belief that I’d never succeed without certain people telling me what to do. This was my first meet without a coach there with me. I’d wanted a 900 total at 123, and based on numbers and projected attempts, it was well within reach. It’d be nice if “projected” and “reality” always aligned: not so much this day.

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We all know it can be a little bit of a head game missing a squat, especially an opener. I’d set mine at what I considered very conservative, something I’d hit for 6-8 reps recently in training. I felt my injured hip collapse at the bottom and shift out a few inches out of the hole. I dropped to parallel again, causing up and down motion, paused the lift, trying to find some stability, then drove up. No lift on an opener. I was shocked, considering I’d considered making this lift one of my later warmups. As much as I love progress, a meet didn’t feel like the right place to hit a pause squat PR.

That internal voice that we have?  This was mine:

Great. First meet without a coach and I’m about to bomb out. Maybe they were right and I really can’t do this on my own.

It needed to quiet down pretty quick—a huge part of reclaiming my “why” involved a strong sense of self efficacy, discernment in voices with influence, the ability to learn on the spot, and to find mental fortitude that could co-exist with other-centeredness. If I wanted to re-find my “why”, I knew I needed to recognize my ability without others in my ear. This was as good a time as any, especially since it wasn’t an “ideal” circumstance and I knew I’d have to adjust my planned attempts. I hit my opener at my second attempt, and got brave for a 40-pound jump at my third which was five pounds less than my planned attempt in hopes of still hitting my 900 total. I knew I’d have to make up for it on my bench and deadlift. It was a bit of a long shot, but I knew I wouldn’t miss my third pull and was banking on pushing the envelope there. I smoked my 315 (or so I thought), but was called just shy for depth. Bummer—there goes my meet. I ended with a squat 45 pounds off my original planned third attempt at 319. Frustration didn’t need an invitation to creep in.

My irritation wasn’t that I missed my lift; it was that it took a completely un-anticipated situation for me to have enough confidence to make a call for myself. My training partner pulled me aside and through one conversation changed everything about the day for me.

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“Hey. Remember what you told me in the car? That’s your heart and that was your purpose today. Not a total. Everyone here saw that you smoked it and they’re watching you. Use today to foster what you told me about in the car. Get your why, and go be you! No one builds people up like you do. I know this about you.”

And he was right. I got chills re-reading that just now, but having felt a little lost lately, someone who knew me calling out my strengths gave me the mental fortitude to remember my why. Things finally started to click again. As much as I didn’t hit any of the numbers I’d planned on, I still hit a few PRs and I finally broke a plateau in my bench and managed an easy 413 pull at 123, which I’m incredibly proud of. Being totally transparent, I love knowing I can consistently pull over 400 pounds. It's almost like that kid that does something daring and makes their parents watch (which was actually what happened at this meet. Sorry, mom.). The best PRs weren’t related to lifting, and all happened after my missed lift.

WATCH: Be the Change You Want to See in the Sport

I had a mother approach me with her daughter after the meet and tell me she came today so her daughter could see strong, encouraging women. She saw that behind the scenes I spent a large part of the day being present for others, as Hannah had for me. I had literally a dozen people (men and women) tell me how badass it is to see a woman lift that heavy but also spend time between lifts helping others warm up, changing plates, assisting with day-of injuries, calming nerves, and just being kind. I had an opportunity to speak about what it took for me to really get “strong” to other women, which involved bumping up a weight class, and I got to see my training partner hit some absolutely insane numbers that had been dreams of his. THAT is an incredible feeling: seeing people who have been in the thick of things with you succeed at what they care about.

This is tiny ripple of hoping to be someone encouraging, hoping to show a younger girl what it looks like to be both strong and kind, hoping to celebrate others’ successes, all started with Hannah a year ago, on the other side of the country, because I was absolutely captured by her "why." Seeing that changed me, and it took my training partner calling it out to remind me of it.I hate that I lost my vision so easily and so quickly, all as a result of just trying to avoid “failure” after success that lasted about as long as the blink of an eye. It’s a learning opportunity to reflect upon whose voice you grant influence to, knowing it will grow you as a person or leave you feeling lost and stifled. This experience has taught me how dear it is to have the "why" identified. It drives everything. When I think of the people I respect the most, I’m seeing this as a recurring theme.

To all the women out there lifting: challenge yourself.

You’re next. Seek voices for guidance, but be selective because they will impact the condition of your heart, not just your total. You will get stronger, you will impact people, and you will have others looking to you. You probably already do. Do something with that, and remember your “why”.

Make sure acquired strength isn’t just physical.  You will continue to hit PR’s.  Not just at meets or in the gym, but as a result of the discipline and resolve that you develop from doing what we do.  Those “personal” PRs have much greater influence than any total or single lift PR ever will. A big lift, crazy physique, or impressive total may grant you a little more influence, but it will be empty without the character to support that. You will continue to serve as role models for both peers and younger women. I said at the beginning of this that this sport changes people— partially as a result of the influence we seek. I say that with deep-seated conviction.

Use that influence wisely, and breathe some life into the people around you. Truly, live, learn, and pass on. Look at what your life speaks about what you value: wherever your treasure is, you’ll likely find your heart and your "why." Cultivate it wisely, and fight to keep it close to your heart. Find it, whatever it is, and use it to fuel the community around you. You make a bigger difference than you think, and your voice may be the last one heard before someone attempts something they’re not sure they can do, as Hannah’s was for me.  Make it count.


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