Quincy Interviews Sanya Richards-Ross: The Mentality of an Olympian I #AskASoccerPro Show Ep. 051
This week on the #AskASoccerPro Show we had a very special guest join us, Olympic gold medalist, Sanya Richards-Ross! I’m very pleased to share our interview with you.
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* Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity
Quincy Amarikwa: Thank you very much for taking our request at the last minute and joining us here on the first official episode of the 2020 #AskASoccerPro Show!
Sanya Richards-Ross: Well thanks for having me! You have a wonderful wife, … she’s great.
QA: What she’s [Sanya] talking about is that my wife [Sirena Amarikwa] just went on MommiNation and did a takeover for the day. Yeah, we just recently became aware of the account that you guys got going on and we’re really happy to connect and see what you’ve got going on over there! We’re always trying to find a way for a win-win and you’re the first not professional soccer player on the show!
SRR: I’m very honored and I can say everything always happens for a reason, so I’m excited to be connected with you and. Your wife. I also briefly got aware of what you guys are doing and it’s super dope! So, let’s get to it!
QA: Let’s do it! So on this show, I know you’ve recently become aware of it, but we talk about the MSL. So the MSL is the ‘Mental Strength League. It’s a philosophy, an idea that will help you accomplish your goals. That’s the simplest way to think about it and that’s what we talk about on this show. What I like to get down to at this point in the show is what we call the ‘mental breakdown.
So, obviously to get to the professional level in any sport requires a different type of mentality, and to get to the level of a gold medal, which basically means the height and pinnacle of your sport, takes another level of mentality. So, that’s what I would love to speak with you about and get a little bit of insight to share with our followers.
So, what do you think is the ultimate quality, the determining factor, for those who achieve greatness?
SRR: That’s deep. Ultimately, I would say you have to be relentless. I think that obviously when you get to the elite level, everybody’s talented, right? I think that for us, it’s like, you know I ran track in Florida, I was the best, and then you come to Texas and you’re the best… then you go to the Olympic level and everyone is talented. So, I think you have to be willing to work harder than everybody else, you have to be okay with failure, be okay with the fact that things aren’t always gonna go your way. You’re gonna have injuries, all of these things, but you have to be relentless.
Like my personal story in 2008, I was favored to win gold in the 400. It was the only race I lost the entire season. I was number one all season long and I won the bronze. It took me a long time to say I won the bronze medal and it was so disheartening for me. You know? But I just always felt like I was meant to be an individual Olympic gold medalist. So, when it came to bouncing back and being relentless about achieving my goals, that’s exactly what I did and what I wanted in 2012.
You know there were lots of factors. I think you need to quiet the noise, you need to work hard, always believe in yourself… but I think just not quitting no matter what happens, no matter what comes your way is probably the determining factor between those who really achieve the next level of greatness and those who don’t.
QA: Something interesting you said is that, “it took me a while to say I won the bronze and not lost the gold.” Why was that so difficult for you?
SRR: Because obviously in my heart I believed I was the best. I believed I should have been an Olympic Champion and so did a lot of other people. I was still number one that year and so I think it’s funny because I’ll never forget when I was standing on the podium at the Olympics in the bronze medal position.
I had walked back before I came out, and kind of gathered myself together. Imagine how distraught I was, bawling. I was really upset, so I got myself together and right before I go out, one of the officials, because they put your name on the medal, he said to me, “what happened, I thought you were going to win the gold medal?”
So I literally started crying again right when I was walking out. I’m on the podium and I’ll never forget it. At the time there was no real social media, and in 2008 I got all these emails, Quincy, from all these American fans saying I was so ‘ungrateful’ and you know, “how could you be on the podium crying?” “You’re such a disgrace.”
I’m like, you know it’s a different mentality for people at this level of sports. Yes, I’m grateful to be there but I had my eyes set on one thing and I didn’t achieve that, so I was disappointed. It took me a long time to see that as part of my journey and accept that I needed that moment to be able to stand on top of the podium.
But I just think it’s the mindset that differentiates a lot of us, right? It’s the fact that there was only one medal I wanted. I got one, but that’s not the one I wanted and so I was very disappointed.
QA: This is good. I really appreciate your willingness to be open and share honestly your perspective and experience, because it is difficult for most people to understand because they aren’t doing the type of work you’re doing. The ability to achieve what you want is literally milliseconds away.
For me, you had the blind belief that you were deserving of winning the medal, right? So, up until that point had it ever crossed your mind that you might not win?
SRR: No. [Laughing]
QA: At that point in time your world view is completely crushed.
SRR: Completely shattered.
QA: So, because of that, do you think it was a huge contributing factor to why you did win the next time you went after it [the gold medal]?
SRR: Yeah, absolutely. I think when you’re operating at that very, very, very high level where it’s like your body is ready. I always think when you’re training, especially for an individual sport and like the Olympics, I feel that it starts off with 100% physical, very little mental. Then you keep going and as you get closer to the big race it feels more like 80% mental, 20% physical. By the time the body is ready to go, it’s really like, can you be present in the moment and execute what you’ve been seeing in your mind’s eye over and over again?
So, for me, there were a few things that you know, I had a few breakdowns, why I think I didn’t win. But I was able to correct those things, so I do still think it was that single-minded focus on, “I’m gonna get this gold no matter what,” that allowed me to do it in 2012. I was able to fix my mistakes from 2008, so I absolutely think that mentality is what took me across the line first.
QA: So, you couldn’t have developed that mentality without having the devastating loss in 2008?
SRR: I mean, I wish I could have, but I guess not.
QA: Would you say your opponent was that you weren’t able to see a world in which you don’t win and you are blinded by the fact that there is no world that exists that you don’t win and you couldn’t see the mistakes that were going to cost you the gold medal?
SRR: Wow. Another deep question. I think there is something to be said about this. To me, this goes into the mindset of the favorite and the underdog. That’s what you make me think of when you ask this question. The favorite is the person who goes in and really says and believes there is nothing and no other outcome than winning, “I’m the best. I’ve proven it over and over again.” The underdog goes and there is a little bit less pressure, and they see themselves beating you.
No one had beat me the whole season. I’d never seen anybody cross the line in front of me. So every race I run every scenario in my head and it’s always me crossing the finish line first. So, absolutely, I think for Christine, who ended up winning the race, it’s like you got there, you’re giving everything you have, you have nothing to lose. There’s less pressure, just all these positive things happening for her.
For me, there was a lot of pressure. I was like, “okay, everybody thinks I’m gonna win. How fast is she gonna run?” I kind of crumbled a bit under the pressure. I do think that underdog mentality played well for her and me being a favorite in that instance worked against me.
QA: What I also heard you say was that you were able to correct mistakes in 2012 that you might not have realized fast enough in 2008. What do you feel was your frame of reference that allowed you to realize that mistake and project out in the moment but still stay present?
SRR: I think the biggest lesson I learned from 2008 was that, even though you’re doing something at the highest level, you can’t ever forget why you’re doing it, you can’t forget the joy of it. I think for me I had started to put so much pressure on myself that I was no longer running for the joy of running.
After 2008, I told myself, “you know what, I’m gonna be traveling the world, I’m gonna be getting paid to do this, I’m gonna love it. I might enjoy it again, I’m not gonna make it feel so much like a business that I have to do this.” So, I was inspired to work harder. I really did work harder in 2012 but I also stepped on the track and had fun.
You know, the other lesson I learned was, after I lost the sun still came up the next morning. I was still Sanya Richards-Ross. The world didn’t come to an end.
I decided that no matter what happened in London, as badly as I wanted it, I wasn’t gonna place all my joy on crossing the finish line first. I would have fun no matter what and I think that lightness allowed me to just execute my race and not be so tense.
QA: I really appreciate your willingness to share that because I think a lot of people are in a bubble but aren’t aware of the bubble that they’re in and it requires seeing something from a third party perspective to then really see it.
SRR: I compete in the 400 and I was also scheduled to compete in a 4x4 relay. I told my mom, my mom manages me, I was like, “mom, I can’t run. I just don’t want to go back out there.”
I think for me I was able to step back on the track for the relay, and for the first time in my career I ran anchor. It was in Beijing and I remember thinking to myself, “I am leaving Beijing with a gold medal.” So I ran down the Russian girl and we won the gold medal, which is why that is one of my favorite moments of my Olympic career. I was on that relay team and so for me that was the start of turning the corner. Had I not run that race and been successful at it again it might have taken me a little bit longer. I remember leaving the Olympics and still, I got to stick with my teammates and have fun.
I think that also made me see the difference right away, like, I could have had a whole different experience, so I’m not gonna say I wasn’t disappointed for a few months. The very next year I won my first individual world title in Berlin, in 2009. So, it was the start of an upward climb for me after the devastation of 2008.
QA: In our last episode, we talked about coping with depression and how do you build mentality to help dig yourself out of it. What’s interesting to me in what you’re saying is that it’s actually best to just get right back out there and do stuff. Would you say that is the best approach or do you feel it’s better to really feel that and process it in the moment? Where do you fall on that spectrum?
SRR: Good question Quincy. I think in the moment, my coach (who had also coached Michael Johnson the world record holder for the 400 meter and Jeremy Warner who had also won gold), he also recommended that I kind of get back out there. So, you know I only have the one experience, I can only say what worked for me, which was really getting right back to it. I also think there is a mental component to defeat. There’s a physical component, where you feel physical pain and it hurts, but there’s also something psychologically that happens to you and my fear, why I think it is probably better to just get back out there, is that. You can psych yourself out so much from failure that you almost paralyze yourself for the next competition or the next opportunity. Just get back out there even when you’re still feeling the pain, even when you haven’t fully recovered.
I’m not an expert, I’m only sharing from my own experience.
QA: I would argue that you are an expert. You have an expert opinion on it because, how many people are going, “Oh shut up and run on the track. Be quiet and dribble a basketball.” It’s basically like, okay, let’s see you stand out here and not throw up. What do you think was the largest contributing factor to your success?
SRR: I think for me, I had to learn the lessons. I also started working with a sports psychologist that helped me a ton. I think a lot of people don’t ever want to talk about it, but as much as you need a physical coach, like I said, at the big championships it’s way more mental than physical. I wish I had gotten him sooner because there were techniques that he taught me to be able to execute and to be mentally prepared as well as physically prepared when I’m on the line.
I’ll never forget, in 2012… one of the things we would do is a lot of visualization, so I would go into his office and we would talk about the race. Many times I had run in stadiums before, so I could visualize what it was like to be there and how it would sound, everything.
I’ll never forget right before because he came to London with me. He said to me, “Sanya, there’s gonna be something that’s gonna happen that will be unexpected and could knock you off your block.” He said, “I want you to take a deep breath.” One of the techniques was I would put my hand on my stomach right before I get in the blocking line, just to kind of calm my nerves.
In 2012 the woman that beat me in 2008 was from literally five miles away from the stadium. I was in lane five and she was in lane seven. They were announcing and so 7, then 8, then 9. So, they announce me, and then they announce her. In track & field we get loud applause, but the stadium was deafening when they cheered for her because she’s the hometown girl. They couldn’t wait for this girl to step on the track and it was so unnerving.
I took a deep breath and I said, “no, I’m ready for this. I prepared for this and it’s not gonna knock me off my block.” I got back into my zone and I executed. I had the feeling like I had been there before, like I had already won. I felt like I was supposed to be there, and I was supposed to win this race.
QA: Thank you very much, Sanya. I appreciate you joining in.
You can catch what Sanya is up to over at MommiNation, the fastest growing community for black moms! Check out MommiNation’s website: https://mommination.com , Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mommination/ , Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mommination
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