What It Takes to Be a Professional Athlete

What It Takes to Be a Professional Athlete

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By Margaret Fiero and William Schroeder

If you’re anything like me, whenever you see a high caliber professional athlete perform, you wonder from which planet they hail. The speed, agility, and grace these athletes possess can be mind-boggling, particularly if you’re among those of us with a tendency to trip over their own two feet.  Recently, Just Mind had a chance to interview one such talented athlete, Austin-based former professional pole-vaulter Chelsea Johnson, and get insight into the mind of a world class sportswoman.

Born This Way

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Johnson, the daughter of former bronze medal winning Olympic pole vaulter Jan Johnson, was born into the life of an athlete. “I can recall no other existence,” Johnson says of athletic competition. Some of her earliest memories are of challenging the boys in her neighborhood to one-on-one soccer matches. Though Johnson cites soccer great Mia Hamm as one of her inspirations, she ended up following in her father’s footsteps, who coached her when she was a high-school track-and-field athlete in California. Johnson became a successful pole vaulter in her own right, winning two NCAA track-and-field championships for UCLA, a silver medal at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin, as well as achieving a fourth-place finish at the 2004 Olympic Trials.

Round-the-clock Commitment to Greatness

When I watch a sporting event such as the World Cup or the NBA Finals, I tend to come away thinking the athletes must eat, sleep, and breathe their sport. They require the greatness mindset. According to Johnson, that’s a fairly accurate assumption. As she put it, when an athlete is “watching TV, reading, out to dinner with friends, in the back of their mind they are thinking about their sport…It is not a nine-to-five job, it is a 24-hour job, a 24-hour commitment to being great.”

Johnson has retired from that round-the-clock commitment, and is now trying to find a balance between keeping healthy and active, and working as a team member at Flatwater Foundation. Flatwater is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving quality of life for cancer patients and their family members, by providing them with mental health care and physical activities. Engaged to champion deacathlete Trey Hardee, she hasn’t completely left the realm of the professional athlete.

Pole-vaulting: Transferable Skill Set

Though to the outsider it may seem that the skill set required for pole-vaulting is too specific to apply to other jobs and life tasks, Johnson doesn’t think so. Along with many other virtues, it has taught her patience and determination, as well as how to cope with anticipatory anxiety. “If you don’t make the Olympic Team… you know that you have no choice but to wait four more years until you get another chance,” states Johnson. These four years can be filled with time spent “overcoming injuries, psychological blocks, financial sacrifices and so forth.”

Clearly, there’s a great deal of pressure on these athletes, and fortunately, according to Johnson, Team USA does provide a sports psychologist onsite at all Olympic Training Centers. Though sessions are not mandatory, they are “strongly recommended.” Johnson stated that she saw a sports psychologist weekly at various times during her career to battle negative thoughts that would surface for her in regards to her performance. “The negative thoughts and feelings were inevitable,” said Johnson. “The secret was learning how to replace them with positive thoughts once they occurred.” Sounds a lot like therapeutic techniques used for non-athletes as well: accepting that negative thoughts occur and learning how to cope with them, which can include thought replacement.

Johnson feels that the values she developed as a professional athlete are translatable to her life now as well. The paramount lesson Johnson took away from her experiences is the importance of determination and persistence. “In my career as an athlete and now as a working professional, I am constantly failing and constantly making the choice to continue trying because without trying, without attempting, there is no possibility for success,” Johnson said. Yet another truism that applies to everyone, regardless of their aptitude (or lack thereof) for athletics.

Photo by Matt Lee on Unsplash