The Tough Job of Being Defending Champion, in Sport and in Life.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

You entered the race/competition/tennis match last year as a relative unknown.  You had nothing to lose and everything to gain by making your mark on the playing field. You crushed it—the “kid” from out of nowhere, creating a buzz and fueling chatter of spectators and competitors, alike. This year, you want to try again, but being in the position of defending champion feels quite different from being the underdog or the unknown.  You’re afraid you’re not at the top of your game and know for sure that others are.  The pressure of a repeat top performance looms large, and you wonder if it’s worth competing at all.

Your high school or college reunion is fast approaching, and you’re not as smokin’ hot as you were ten years ago when you last attended.  You’d worked your tail off to get fit and look great then, but now the toll of time and some significant negative life events have you looking less lean and radiant than you’d like.  You consider bailing on the festivities.

Your first child’s graduation from high school was a rewarding and inspiring experience. A gifted student, she had won numerous academic awards along with several trophies for prowess on the lacrosse field. She’d been a star in community service, as well, and she’d fallen in with a great group of friends captured in the many photographs you proudly took throughout the weekend’s events. As your second child’s graduation approaches, you’re plagued with fear and sadness. Unlike his sister, your son has struggled in and out of the classroom, and it’s a wonder that he’ll be wearing the cap and gown at all. You’re engaged in some serious internal dialogue about how you will handle this very different parenting role both in the public domain and privately, within the family.  As defending parenting champ, you feel that all eyes are on you, and you know that you must face this battle in a different way.

For the past few years, you’ve enjoyed a level of success in your field that has led to accolades, media attention, and financial rewards. You’ve been on top of your game, enjoying the fruits of your hard work and talents.  Recently, though, you’ve endured some personal struggles and your work life has suffered.  The timing is bad, as there’s a conference of big-wigs and heavy hitters on the horizon, and you’re supposed to be one of the key presenters. You wonder how your message will be received with your status of defending champ in question.

The position of defending champion requires us to rise above pressures to perform in what may appear to be two possible scenarios:

1. Win again and feel relieved that we’ve done what was expected or

2. Fail to win again and seem to prove that our previous victory was a fluke or that we don’t have the goods to stay on top.

As I’ve written before, the expectations for future performances on those who have succeeded in the past can be paralyzing. In contrast, the beauty of the underdog position is freedom from expectation and permission to go out and give it our all. Win or perform well, and we’ll be the surprise talk of the town.  Struggle or fall flat, and it’s likely nobody will even notice. We might be considered a hero just for trying.

Doing something on a grand scale one time is one thing, but having the guts to come back and go for it again is quite another. Try to remember that much of what you perceive others to be thinking is actually your own expectations projected onto the world. Keep in mind that you may have inspired your competitors to up their own game, and that your history and the mark you’ve made will not be erased, even if you don’t reach the podium this time.  As I’ve said before:

Appreciate your history of success, but don’t be trapped by its hold on you.  Be open to the effort, uninhibited by the prison of your own rigid expectations.

Like so many psychological challenges, this one is easier said than done–but not showing up at all shouldn’t be an option. Get yourself to that reunion and shine in spirit and personality. Show up for your son even if it means crying while you’re there; perhaps it’s not all sadness if you let in the rest. Enjoy your sport and compete with passion and humor. You can gracefully pass the torch if your time as champion has come and gone, and your legacy will live on in the others you’ve inspired along the way. Rock that speech at the conference by being honest about your struggles and inspiring others to overcome their own. Maybe you’ll even surprise yourself and repeat history. You’ll never know if you don’t try. Besides, often the most meaningful and memorable growing experiences come when we push through self-doubt and struggle a bit.

On a final note, I’d like to highlight a repeat attempt / defending champ scenario that is close to my heart and home.  Last summer, my then-nine-now-ten-year-old daughter, Hollis, took on a fundraising project for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She juggled her soccer ball every day, posted videos of her daily records, wrote a blog about her experiences and why St. Jude is such an incredible place, and ended up raising an impressive $35,000. She worked like crazy to increase her juggling totals, knowing that higher numbers would attract attention, always mindful of the kids facing far bigger challenges than hers. Ultimately, she reached her goal of 400 consecutive juggles, ending last summer at 461.

The inaugural year of JUGGLING FOR JUDE was a huge success, and the idea of repeating the effort comes with a set of daunting emotions: can Hollis sustain the passion it took to pull off year one? Will people who donated last year want to donate again, and will new donors be found? Will she tire of juggling every day when she has so much else on her plate? Will the pressure of reaching a new goal of $40,000 and 1,000 consecutive juggles be overwhelming and make anything less feel like a failure? So far, despite the pressure, Hollis has come back fighting like a champ and is on path for a repeat performance.  On day six of Juggling for Jude 2015, she blasted past her original summer goal of 500, juggling 660 consecutive times! (video here)

The fundraising has just begun, and while Hollis has only raised a little more than $2,000 so far, she’s optimistic that people will step up in support of St. Jude, where doctors and researchers continue to treat kids with cancer, seeking cures for catastrophic childhood illnesses. If you’ve ever been motivated by my writing or are inspired by defending champ Hollis’s efforts, PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING TO ST. JUDE HERE.  Every dollar helps save a life!

THANK YOU!

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