It’s week five of the Champion’s Mindset series and I am talking to Erin Cafaro MacKenzie. She is a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist in rowing and she has podiumed at every World Championship rowing competition that she has competed in – a total of six World Championship Gold Medals and two Bronze Medals. Erin and her husband currently run Power Speed Endurance, a sports-specific training program dedicated to improving skill, performance, fitness and overall potential.
Erin’s definition of the Champion’s Mindset has evolved over the years. At first, it was related to an indomitable spirit – the “X factor” of just going. While that may be a common definition, Erin believes the Champion’s Mindset is something that is more at peace, as opposed to forceful.
“A champion is someone who is doing it not to beat someone else – it’s for them.”
At Power Speed Endurance, Erin and her husband are trying to figure out an equation for each sport to use speed as a monitor for skill. In most monostructural (or endurance) sports – like running, rowing and even skateboarding – the athlete’s balance of friction and connection dictates the speed at which they can perform tasks, and the ability to perform those tasks relates directly to an athlete’s skill.
We’ve discussed Grit a lot during the Champion’s Mindset series, and it’s an idea that Erin has been exploring as well. Angela Duckworth has a fantastic TED Talk and book on the subject, but there is also a downside to Grit. Too much friction prevents us from realizing our fullest potential, but just the right amount of friction can propel us to amazing heights.
It’s rare for someone to make the Olympics once, let alone twice, and it’s even more difficult than you might imagine when you consider the adversity and setbacks an intensive athlete can experience. In 2011, a month before the World Championships, Erin broke two ribs; one on the right and one on the left. It was hard for her to stay sane at the time, but, in hindsight, the break gave her perspective on what it means to be a champion.
“If everything was going great and came easily, I probably wouldn’t take as much interest in it.”
After the 2012 Olympics, Erin had to develop a different perspective on fulfillment. Her whole adult life leading up to that was devoted to training and pursuing the win, and then she thoroughly accomplished that. Experiencing depression after a period of great accomplishment or during a big transition is common, and this is a good time to turn to your tribe for support.
“Pain is one of our greatest teachers”
Erin’s ability to endure struggle actually became an obstacle at times, because having a high pain threshold also means having a low ability to evolve and to change. “When it comes to everyday life and you have painful thoughts, and you’re just sitting on them versus actually dealing with them or doing something different so that they don’t reoccur, then that’s when it’s pretty un-functional.”
The greatest lesson that Erin has learned as an athlete is that being a champion is not about being the superstar – it’s about being able to get the best out of your teammates. She is trying to apply this lesson by creating a platform for Power Speed Endurance coaches to share their strengths, reach more athletes and thrive.
I appreciate Erin’s vulnerability and authenticity on this week’s episode, because it shows that even the greatest champions experience struggle and need help picking themselves back up. Communities and adversity can be really powerful tools to help us grow.
Don’t be a podcast junkie…
- Power Speed Endurance
- Watch Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on Grit
- Tribe by Sebastian Junger
- Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
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