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MY STORY

Where do we start in telling the stories of our lives? How do we know which narratives are true, and which ones are altered over time? How much do we share and what do we choose to highlight, and what do we choose to leave out? I think the passing of time gives us more perspective and better judgment here.

 

I grew up in a sporty family overseas. My mother was my role model in many ways. I saw her work long shifts as a nurse, take care of the home and family, maintain a strong social network, and still show up for her sporting endeavors in the little free time she had.

We lived in a place where women like her were the minority. She was captain of the men's squash team and ran alongside her male team members in triathlons and relay races through the desert and mountains. As a child, she had also been a strong swimmer and judoka. 

I guess you could say my love of swimming and sport came from my mom. Mom was all about throwing us in the deep end. By the age of five I was competing and didn't stop until I reached my teenage years. The pool was my home and like her, I was strong and it was the boys I raced against.

My father had always wanted a son and, with me being the third daughter, my athletic ways bonded us. He let me be what people back then would call a "tomboy", although today I think many of us would say I was just a sporty girl who loved to compete. Nothing strange about that. I've met so many sporty women like me since.

I think it's fascinating how our true characters are often present at a young age. Before we learn to abide by social norms or seek to impress, we're just drawn to do what we naturally love. Even if our means are limited, our spirits will shine through. Then life happens and curveballs are thrown, and suddenly new roads emerge.

 

A natural progression would have been for me to study Physical Education and do a degree in Exercise and Sport Science, then get a job in this field. But two significant things happened in my teenage years. First, I was sent to a strict all-girls secondary school. Then, war broke out nearby and I encountered violence for the first time.

My teenage years sent me in the direction of coping with stress and healing. I took up karate, trained hard, built character, and earned my black belt a decade later. I excelled in art and music at school, and buried myself in war and political prison memoirs. Then, I studied Arabic and Persian at universities in London, Egypt, and Iran.

I had grown up in the Middle East and my degree led me further into the many cultures and places around me. On graduation, I joined the International Red Cross and started my career as an Arabic interpreter in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Lebanon, visiting political prisoners. How far such a role appeared from my early days in sport.

Interestingly, the prisoners also loved art, language, music, and sport. Parallel to investigations on torture, my colleagues and I would try to bring them ping pong tables and books. We pushed for their access to fresh air and space to move. We tackled prison doctors on their access to food, and questioned interrogators on sleep deprivation.

 

This life diversion was an unexpected gift. Over a period of 16 years, I worked within and consulted for numerous humanitarian organisations. I moved from interpreting and prisons into many other roles. I also earned my first Masters degree in Violence, Conflict, and Development. Those years were rich, rewarding, and hard.

On a later mission to the Gaza Strip, I was asked to help lead a summer camp initiative for 250,000 refugee children exposed to war. The kids achieved Guinness World Records and, for a few weeks, many faces were filled with joy. I also worked with medical and health teams on the psychological and physical impact of stress and trauma.

With the higher stress levels that come with witnessing war, and no available outlet for sport for myself, I trained as a yoga teacher and taught women after work from home. I cherished those years of teaching women to breathe and move, and creating a safe space for us all. Many emotions were expressed on the floor of my little yoga room.

I took another diversion into the world of Dance Movement Psychotherapy, first as a client and then as a student. A teacher suggested I engage in therapy so I then worked with a Clinical Psychologist for 18 months. Humanistic and Spiritual Psychology fascinated me. For a decade, they were central to how I thought and approached my work.

 

New dreams emerged. Teaching yoga led me to train as a health coach. I wanted to learn more about nutrition and how to manage stress. I then left humanitarian work and set up an executive coaching practice. In my free time, I swam lengths, earned my second karate black belt, competed in judo, and won my first national gold medal.

During this time, I wrote about my own memories of violence and martial arts. I had spent years documenting the lives of others in person, and in writing. Now, it was time to better understand my own narrative. These writings led me to train as a reality-based self-defence instructor and I continue to teach self-defence to present day.

 

I also built a gym at home and then placed my home office in it. My coaching clients gracefully tolerated the hanging frame and Olympic barbell set that loomed over their chair. As they filled the space with their stressful stories, I realised that my approach to coaching needed a stronger foundation. That insight led me to study Psychology.

I studied Positive Psychology first. This was a second unexpected gift on my journey. It taught me to accept and be who I am at work. I loved coaching my clients on performance but so often, I wanted to yank them out of their seats and get them to move. I felt much more at ease coaching clients with a background in exercise and sport. 

 

Eventually, my executive coaching practice transitioned into Inner Athletics. I earned my second Masters degree in Exercise and Sport Psychology and developed an interest in Cognitive and Social Psychology. I then focused my research studies on the Psychology of Motivation with a focus on Positive Psychology Character Strengths.

Along the way, I trained as a Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer. This was a missing part of the puzzle for me. After years of training myself at home, and working with fitness trainers, I wanted to understand the physiological aspects of movement in more depth so that I could better link my knowledge and practice of Psychology to it.

I also had a deeper motivation. Running my own business on the back of humanitarian work was a recipe for burnout for someone like me who is driven to achieve. While my mind was strong my emotions and body were not. The years had taken their toll on my energy levels, and I had to find more efficient ways to train and recover.

A broken shoulder from competing in judo took me to a low point. I refused to give up training and take time off to recover. Months of pain and poor sleep forced me to stop. That was how I ended up pursuing a Masters in Exercise and Sport Psychology. I needed to know why I couldn't stop. Why was it so hard to step off the mat?

Sport is an integral facet of life. It helps us to build character so that we may step up and take the lead. It helps us to connect and cope with stress. It helps us to persevere through difficult times and build better teams. But there is a dark side too to sport. It isn't all roses. Failure, injury, and burnout are both rife and rough. 

I've been an athlete and competed, coached people at high levels on performance, and taught yoga and martial arts. I know that exercise and sport are not magic bullets for wellbeing, despite the wealth of research here. We need to be motivated to engage in them, and anything can go wrong when taken to the extreme.

Positive Psychology isn't a magic bullet either. It tells us to follow a meaningful life and serve others. I've done exactly this as a humanitarian for many years, and have found there is a tipping point at which meaning and purpose need to be balanced out with a broader set of character strengths, performance skills, and support strategies. 

Life is a journey to be explored in its fullest capacity, to the best of our means, drawing on what we know and what we have in any given moment. It is also a test of discernment. Who will we listen to, which teachings will we follow, and how will this information influence us? Most importantly, how will we use what we learn and why?

Things aren't so clear cut in real life. There is no holy grail or a one-size-fits all approach to performance, stress, and recovery. Our perceptions of success will change as we age. Coaches, trainers, and athletes burn out, just like anyone else. We can all fail. And we can all get back up, learn something new, and support each other.

 

Seeking harmony - even just the echo of it - amidst the stressors and storms of life is the most powerful lesson I have learned to date, both as an athlete and a human being. It starts with how we manage our mental, emotional, and physical energy. That requires performance skills as well as strength of character.

Claire Higgins, Director of Inner Athletics

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