Emily's Story: Growth Through Movement

Many of you who are interested in exploring sport psychology coaching with me ask how I got here, what sports I played, and how this all began. I’m glad you’re here, I’m grateful you’re interested in learning more about yourself, and I’m happy to share my story.

I started this practice because I discovered, firsthand, what kind of transformative, life-changing, self-changing force physical movement can be. Sometimes this movement came in the form of organized sports in my life, but not always.

As a kid, I was persistently trying to keep up with my three older siblings. We were always running around, climbing trees, building forts out of hay bales in our rural Minnesota barn, climbing up, jumping off—any kind of adventure and movement we could find. And we also played some organized sports along the way; swimming for all of us on the local YMCA team and gymnastics for me.  Gymnastics was something that offered me an early recognition of my physical strength and the potential to feel powerful in very special ways, like when I learned to do a back flip for the very first time.  And I was so proud when I found I could both stand and do a back flip and also, in the sequence of a running round-off back tuck. Not everyone could do that, and I recognized that. I also became acutely aware that I didn’t love doing it because it made me “better” than anyone who couldn’t, but it was significant and meaningful to know that I could do it. I had strength, skill, and determination—not to mention a little courage—that resulted in seeing myself as capable and strong. And it’s possible that this feeling of physical accomplishment, more simplistically, allowed me to start seeing myself in a way I never had before. Not as the youngest sibling, not as one of a class of students, but as me; an individual worth seeing. It was no longer just a trick I could do at gymnastics or to show my gym teacher, it was a tool for discovering myself and unlocking potential I was just beginning to realize was there.

I had always known that I deeply enjoyed being active but it was at this time in my life that I discovered I had physical capacities that made me feel strong and significant, which led to stronger internal motivation to be active and move my body.  But these physical capacities also seemed to be valued by others, which was important for building motivation as well. I didn’t know what it meant to achieve the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, but I did it as one of only two kids in my grade as I finished elementary school. I liked doing all the things they tested us on—and it earned me an award too?!? At that important developmental time in my life, anything that offered the experience of feeling internally powerful and externally validated became very influential in guiding my journey.

When I was eleven years old and starting 6th grade, sports started to evolve for me. It went beyond exploring what I was capable of physically, and it became a way for me to challenge norms and limits imposed by others on my ability and opportunity.

I attended a student assembly on the first day of 6th grade and learned from the principal that everyone who wanted to participate in extracurricular activities needed to get signed up that week. And the principal said, “Any boys who want to play football need to get their permission slips signed.” All the sound in the room went silent for me. All I heard was that boys were expected to play football and girls were not. And all I knew in that moment was that I needed to challenge that. Because I needed to know that being a girl would never limit what I could do. It might have seemed strange that a young girl who really knew nothing about football and who had never before thought, “I want to play football,” would join the team. But that’s exactly what I did.

There were a lot of conversations with adults in the school, from the principal, to my teacher, to the football coach himself, who looked at me with questioning eyes, but I persisted enough to gain permission, access, and entry onto the team, shoulder pads, helmet, and all.

Looking back now, I appreciate that I didn’t have a passion for the game of football, yet I gained a tremendous amount from it. Through it, I found an outlet to explore my own strength, determination, grit, and confidence. I also reinforced and validated my desire to stand up for what I believe in, even when I’m the only one doing it. It boldly brought to light, for me, a new significance and meaning to this experience of sport.

Middle and high school years were consumed by soccer and track. Initially, because my new school required sports participation each semester, and then because I found these beautiful spaces of feeling capable, strong, and skilled, as well as feeling valued on a team. Although I ended up doing well enough academically, it always felt harder to find these little pockets of success, achievement, progress, and validation in school than in sport.

I realize it’s not a universal experience for everyone, but for me, moving my body just felt like the most authentic and natural way to express myself. And it was during these years that I first began to notice and understand the significance of having a coach—someone other than me—who could see and believe in what was yet to come from me. I realized that it’s easier to feel confident when it’s grounded in successful experience. It’s easier to believe I can save a shot as a goalie or get over all the hurdles in a race if I’ve done it before. But in the journey of growth, learning, and developing skills as an athlete, there are many things we get to attempt with no guarantee it’ll work. Yet, when I knew down to the core of my being that my coach believed I could do something, I started to experience what felt like magic affecting my mind. They believed it, I trusted them, and somehow, I’d start to believe it too. And when I had belief, faith, and confidence in myself—even if it was only that I could be excellent in a tiny, particular thing—everything became a little easier and my mind could find a different kind of ease. There was less worry and more presence. There was less fear and more excitement.

Although I didn’t know it then, I was beginning my journey of discovering the psychology of sport—the relationship between mind and body during physical movement. I was uncovering little lessons about the impact that my thoughts could have on my physical abilities. If I said things to myself like, “This is too hard,” or “I can’t do this,” I never felt great about how I played or performed. But when I focused my thoughts on little parts of what I was doing and just dialed into those moments, I usually did things I hadn’t expected I could. And when I allowed the confidence my coaches had in me to help quiet the questions I had about myself, it helped me to see what they saw.

All of these lessons from my experiences became seeds for a far richer education of sport, a degree in self-discovery, and an endless library of experiences to continue learning from as my life continued.

Then I hit college and had the opportunity to experience sports as an education, of sorts. But at that time, when I was rowing at the University of Tulsa, a Division 1 school, my sport freed me from the rigors of academics and all the pressure to perform, to prove my worth and value, and to seek some unattainable perfection. Looking back now, I can more easily see that I, like many people do, felt such pressure to perform, to perfect, and to prove myself, but the world didn’t really seek to judge or value me solely on those unrealistic standards. It was just me. Somehow in life, I came to interpret and to believe that these were the ways to be seen, to be loved, and to be enough. It was a brutal battle.

It was when I found rowing in college that the game changed for me.  What I discovered during my years as a collegiate rower was really the result of a lifetime of seeds being planted in me, that only then came to bear the fruit of awareness and purposeful growth going forward in my life and career.

This was when most of the lessons from earlier years started to grow into thoughts and conscious beliefs. It was as if there I was in college, trying too hard to be a good student and not only learn, but also prove myself as a worthwhile, smart human being, and yet, there was this entire other education happening at the same time through rowing. I learned about working hard and finding ways to work both harder and smarter. I built mental strength and skills that helped me to both tolerate and also regulate sometimes great discomfort and strain, experienced physically and mentally. I learned about confidence, goals, and how to navigate the pressure to compete. I learned how to pace myself in a workout, in a race, and over a whole season. I learned how to get through really tough or boring workouts and how to walk back and forth across the line between health and injury. And among many other things, I learned to love the pursuit of the sport. I just wanted to become the best rower I could be.

But it wasn’t just the sport, it was also everything I learned about being a teammate, being in a boat with eight other women and figuring out how to work together as one singular unit. It was about learning how to be coached, to be coach-able and open to growing, even if it had to feel harder first in order to get better at something. It was about cultivating the ability to internalize a coach and become a being of self-awareness, both for body and mind, because there are not always guides and coaches right there with me to say, “You’re rushing the catch…be patient…” It became really helpful to be able to feel that rushing on my own and begin to understand it, in rowing and in life.  Like how I have come to understand that that anxiety within me is usually what drove me in college to start the stroke too soon (“rushing the catch”), and it’s what causes me to doubt my running technique now, and simply doubt myself in many situations.  With this understanding, it’s most powerful to then just notice the rushing, the doubting, and the anxiety, to not lose my shit (or my focus), and to adjust.

For me, rowing became both a very literal place of practice for the development of so many physical and mental skills, and also the most beautiful figurative and metaphorical place of practice to apply all the actual lessons from rowing to the sport of life.

Eventually, my sport became the lens through which everything in life made sense. And when hard things happened and the challenges of life presented themselves, there was always some sense I could make of things by reflecting on what I had learned in rowing.

But not everyone is a rower.

Not everyone is an athlete.

Hell, I’m not even a rower anymore. I identify much more as a runner these days, but I don’t feel limited to simply being a runner.

And not everyone has these same kinds of sport experiences I’ve had, which is great because everyone gets to experience their own journey.

What I’ve learned from my own experiences as an athlete and as someone who deeply values movement as a vehicle for self-discovery and learning, and what I’ve learned as I’ve worked with all kinds of human beings as a coach, counselor, teacher, facilitator and community-fitness leader over the last 20 years is this: Every single one of us wants to grow.

We want to learn, develop, discover, evolve, and progress. And we will use whatever vehicle we have available to help that growth journey happen.

When we have the opportunity to choose the vehicle for growth, many of us begin or continue to use sport and physical movement. I believe this is because anyone who’s experienced it in the past intrinsically understands the great potential there. And for anyone who becomes a runner, a yogi, a boxer, a cyclist, a triathlete, or anything else as an adult, they recognize on some level how powerful it is to do one thing that can so significantly influence our physical health, our mental health, and our social and emotional well-being.

And so, my dream, E Saul Movement, is all about this journey of growth we experience through movement.

Right now, at the same time that I continue to pursue my own human development through the variety of ways I move my body, I’m deeply passionate about helping others do the same. I’m deeply passionate about helping Y O U. I hope you’ll let me help you grow your movement too.