Inside the Mind of a Perfectionist Athlete
“A minor setback paves the way for a major comeback”
This obsessive behaviour of extreme exercising and erratic eating habits is unfortunately becoming common among female athletes, in particular runners. Running is a ‘high risk’ sport in terms of eating disorders, as it is a sport that demands resistance and a thin body to reach peak performance (Dosil, 2008). Majority of successful athletes are extremely strong minded, and set challenging targets for themselves and work long hard hours to achieve those targets. Consequently these factors can lead into eating disorders. Athletes who manipulate their weight also suffer from long term effects of chronic malnutrition, pubertal delay or arrest and impaired acquisition of peak bone mass, increasing the risk of osteoporosis in adulthood and stress fractures (Eating disorders in adolescents, 1998). These features emphasise how essential it is for coaches and professionals working with athletes to understand about the risks involved in the sporting disciplines they manage, to help the prevention and development of such disorders (Dosil, 2008). For those who don’t know me I am Rosa Flanagan, a Level 3 carded athlete with Athletics NZ. I specialise in 3000m Steeplechase and 5000m.
I have represented New Zealand numerous times over my running career so far with highlights being the following:
- Multiple National titles in Cross Country and Athletics
- Canterbury + National records
- 5th World Cross Country Champs, Malta, 2012
- 1500m IAAF World Youth Athletic Champs, Donetsk, 2013
- 7th in the 3000m Steeplechase at IAAF World Junior Athletic Champs, Oregan, 2014
- 5th in the 3000m Steeplechase at World University Games, South Korea, 2015
- 3000m Steeplechase at the IAAF World Athletic Champs, Beijing, 2015
Along with my running I am the co-owner of Two Raw Sisters, with my sister, Margo. I am also finishing off my last semester at Ara, where I am studying a Bachelor of Applied Science specialising in Human Nutrition. Read on to learn about my successful yet challenging running journey.
Throughout my primary school years I did a variety of sports, which included jazz dancing, hockey, touch rugby, tennis and swimming. I had no pressure from my parents and literally did what I wanted and enjoyed. From Year 7 I moved to Rangi Ruru Girls School, where I stayed right through to Year 13. During my earlier years at Rangi I was very healthy and was introduced to another whole new level and variety of sports such as triathlon, gymnastics, cross country and athletics. During Year 10 I realised that I had some potential in sport and had a true passion for it. In particular running stood out and I started on a running program end of Year 10. As Year 11 rolled round my life/ sport balance began to rapidly slip.
WHAT IS RUNNING ALL ABOUT FOR ME?
My mindset has always been around the pure satisfaction and achievement that running provides me with. This mindset began to override me as a person. Obsessive thoughts began to creep up and come around more often. No days off, eat less, eat only certain types of ‘healthy foods’, run more and I will just keep getting faster! In my last few years at high school I began to train more seriously, added in extra exercises including hockey and gym workouts and I had a strong vision of running being my career. My running training would never be enough. After training I would always never feel satisfied, so I would continue to exercise by going for a swim or a long walk in the hills. I was always so exhausted and never had enough energy to socialise with my friends or family, study or simply just having a laugh. It was beginning to turn into a vicious cycle. I’m here to tell you my story in the hope that it will help other young female athletes understand the importance of making your own health and wellbeing a priority above your athletic performance.
I became concerned and obsessed with my weight, I wanted to lose weight as I believed this was essential in order for me to execute peak performances. Due to severely restricting my diet my weight dropped and my performances improved, running felt easy and effortless and everything went smoothly.
Unbeknown to me my whole personality was changing during this period. I was not as outgoing, fun and bubbly as the old Rosa. With the little energy I had, it all went into my running and needing to stay lean and fit, that was my sole focus and drive. Even though I was comfortably winning every race I still felt that pressure to retain my reputation. That perfectionist side took the better of me, falling short of my ultimate goal lead me to beat myself up, instead of being happy with all I had accomplished to date and the pure enjoyment that running provided me with. I knew that as a women you had to go through puberty but I didn’t want to know about it because I was performing at my best and didn’t want to interrupt that. I was completely oblivious to the consequences of the serious injuries I was heading for and man it was a huge shock when it happened.
For me I now look back and evaluate what mistakes I made. I specialised in intense training too early, I had a strong mindset that if I wanted to be a champion runner it had to become my life, I needed to increase the number and intensity of my trainings. I wouldn’t socialise with my friends as I was so committed to my training and racing. At the time it was extremely hard for me to understand the damage I was doing to my overall health and wellbeing.
Over the past 1.5 - 2 years shit has got real! Everything came to a halt, I was firstly diagnosed with a stress fracture in my tibia at the beginning of 2016, this was followed by labral tears in both of my hips at the end of 2016/ 2017 (one after the other), niggles that have put me out for weeks and I have just recently been diagnosed with another stress reaction in my tibia. The puberty game kicked in as well, I am 22 years old and I only just started menstruating in November last year. Everything was prolonged. Other issues I have dealt with throughout this period include low iron levels, gut issues and low bone density. Stress and anxiety issues have also affected me and I am happy to have received support to help to greatly reduce this issue. Outside of my running, over the past 2 years huge emotional stresses have unfortunately happened; such as my dad having a major stroke, capturing a burglar in my own house after they had been wanted by police for 2-3 months, uncle committing suicide, school friend suddenly passing away and a fire that completely destroyed my grandparents family farm and newly rebuilt house & on top of that, the Christchurch earthquakes.
It took me a while to actually realise that these events were affecting my running and how I was coping both mentally and physically in training and racing. My body was just exhausted by everything. I made the call in August 2017, after the passing of my uncle to pull out of the World University Games team. I was extremely gutted and never pull out of things, but I knew for my own health this was the right decision. My mind and body just wasn’t in the game. I ended up having 1 month away from running to let my body and mind recover from what had happened in my life.
Right now I am currently stuck in the middle as I go through this rough patch of my body adjusting and adapting to the changes it is experiencing. Mentally it is hard. My running style has changed, recovery between sessions is harder, my times are a lot slower and PB’s not being hit. I am having to be extremely patient and aware of niggles.
As I move forward I know that I am doing the right thing for myself. I am adjusting to my extra body fat and weight, which I know is crucial for my development. I have been finding this part extremely hard. Right now I am still getting frustrated as I didn’t expect it to be such a long process. Some days when times get tough I feel like throwing the towel in but my love and passion for running is too large for that to ever happen.
This whole situation I have ended up putting myself through has taught me a lot and I want to turn my “not so great” experience around into an experience young female athletes can learn from. I want other female athletes to be aware of what happens when you neglect your health and wellbeing at an early stage of an athletic career as it’s all too common. Unfortunately I had to crash in order to come right.
Through my story, my goal is to help other present and future female athletes to take action early so they don’t end up hitting rock bottom, like me.
Key learnings for me include:
- Make the most of your team mates and other athletes - social interaction helps in a huge way
- Understanding that my body has to go through puberty in order for me to take that next step towards becoming a successful elite athlete
- Understanding the importance of balance in my life
- Chill out, don’t be too intense
- Stress and anxiety can affect you both mentally and physically, whether its running related or not. Ensure you talk and get help and support from those around you to help overcome this internal battle.
- Talk to other athletes who have been through similar issues, I am super happy to chat to ANYONE!
- Communicate with your coach and support team. I am extremely lucky to have an amazing supportive coach and support team who have consistently been backing me.
- See a doctor, dietician and endocrinologist if required. Listen to their advice.
- To not be afraid of extra body fat, this is crucial for menstruation and part of being a women!
- Keep a watch of your iron levels. I regularly schedule in blood tests to keep on top of them.
- Be aware of photos on social media and don’t get influenced by them, you are you.
The journey back has been long but the old Rosa is coming back, my mindset is changing, I run for me not others, I was a perfectionist now I’m a vague perfectionist, I’m healthy and I feel like I have a good life balance again. I feel people need to become more aware of the challenges that females go through during puberty, our bodies literally change. As females we have to accept and others need to realise we aren’t going to be running our best all the time, eventually we all go through a tough patch. Females have to go through puberty in order to get the best out of our body as a runner. I have had people come up to me and say where have you been, they don’t recognise me, I am a different person, a girl now developed into a women. I have also learnt that we all need to consider other events that are happening in our lives outside of sport that could potentially be affecting us both physically and mentally. Unbeknown to you this could be affecting your performance and mindset, just like it was for me. Remember you have got to nourish to flourish. What I am sharing with you today is a well-worn path, so don’t be afraid to speak out and ask for help. I am happy to answer any questions and chat to anyone who needs advice.
Words can’t describe how incredibly grateful I am for the massive support and understanding from my coach, Maria Hassan, Athletics NZ, my support team (Tamsin Chittock, John Hellimans, Anna Simsic, Matt Ingram, John Quinn, Rebecca Cooke, Hans Lutters, Terry Lomax, Simon Wheeler) and my family and friends.
I am looking forward to getting on the other side of this ‘tough patch’, start performing once again and being a proud kiwi wearing the silver fern. Bring it on!
“You have to nourish to flourish ”