In light of Drexel’s historic athletic season, we decided to interview Dragon psychologist Madeline Barlow. We discussed her experiences with athletes during the pandemic, along with her journey into sports psychology and her advice for athletes. She has been working with Drexel athletes since 2018.
The Triangle: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience as a college athlete, and how this inspired you to do what you do now?
Madeline Barlow: I was a competitive swimmer from 8 to 22 years old. Swimming was my life. I lived and breathed the sport (chlorine fumes and all!). In the pool, I experienced the most joyful moments. It’s also where I experienced the deepest of disappointments. At the time, my mind was full of noise and negative self-talk — something I didn’t know how to deal with, nor did I have the support to help reframe my thoughts. I’m also extremely sensitive and feel my emotions deeply, yet I didn’t know how to honor my feelings in the moment and release them. In time, this led me to become the support I wished I had at the time. Now, I have the opportunity to support student athletes through the highs and lows and teach them how to lean into their true self in and out of sport.
TT: Congratulations on your new book! How has the writing process been for that, and who would you suggest reads it?
MB: Thank you! Writing a book has always been a dream of mine, I just never knew what to write about. My book is called “The Highly Sensitive Athlete: How to Embody the Magic of your True Self In & Out of Sport.” The writing process came naturally once I found the inspiration. In fact, I was inspired by the athletes I work with daily (plus my personal experience as a highly sensitive athlete). Many of the individuals that come to me for support identify themselves as being highly sensitive — in simple terms, they feel, observe, understand, care and are stimulated more deeply than the average person. This can either be viewed as a detriment in sport or recognized as a strength! When you learn how to lean into your sensitivity and have the tools and support to align with your true self, you’ll find yourself doing exceptional things in all areas of your life. This book is for highly sensitive athletes, coaches of highly sensitive athletes (15 to 20 percent of people are highly sensitive, so most coaches will have a few athletes with this trait), administrators, parents and even partners of someone who is highly sensitive. The book also applies to performers outside of sport, such as musicians, dancers, and other performing artists.
TT: What is the main focus on most of your work when you work with athletes as teams rather than individually?
MB: The focus of our “team” work differs from team to team. I will get to know the coaches and athletes well enough to understand what tools would benefit them the most based on their goals. Examples include building confidence (which could be the focus over an entire season), motivation with a reminder of their “why” (useful for mid-season slumps) and managing emotions in the present moment.
TT: What is your main focus when working with athletes individually?
MB: The main focus of my work with individual athletes is confidence (or the lack thereof). Over our sessions together, I help bring their awareness to this: Confidence isn’t dependent on performance (or at least it isn’t designed to be). Confidence lives within you, and you can access it whenever you need it!
TT: What is the biggest difference you’ve seen collectively since working with Drexel athletes?
MB: I have seen teams go from totally disconnected to coming together in high-pressure situations, from little to no belief in themselves or the team to standing up and yelling out their personal strengths to the entire team! It’s been inspiring to witness.
TT: Have you noticed any different issues or conversations coming up in light of the pandemic?
MB: Yes, a big topic of discussion this year was leaning into uncertainty. As athletes, you often feel that you are in control. When I was swimming, our meet sheets told us the exact time we would be stepping up on the blocks and the date and location of our championship meet (months in advance). This certainty was nowhere to be found in 2020. I spoke with our teams about what it would feel like to lean into this uncertainty while also “controlling the controllables.” The pandemic and the “new normal” equals uncontrollable, their effort and willingness to connect as a team equals controllable.
TT: As we see many students graduating and ending their college careers, what advice would you give student athletes as they come to the difficult end of their sport? I know you have spoken a lot about your experience of not feeling good enough after this experience—could you expand on that?
MB: Moving on from something you have devoted years of time and energy to is rarely easy. The most important thing I can say is to remember you are not alone. While some people finish their sport with a sense of relief, so many others are faced with a lack of passion, direction and purpose after sport. Seek out support from a professional (with a background in this or sport) and other former athletes with similar experiences. If the phrase “just move on,” “get over it” or anything else pressuring you to move forward feels out of alignment for you, that’s OKAY!
There is no timeline. Your life is not a race. You are right where you need to be. After I touched the wall of my final race, I felt like a piece of me died and left my body. It was wild and extremely emotional. For many years, I struggled to find any form of movement that I was passionate about (like I was about swimming). I even went a whole year barely exercising. While I continued to study and ended with two additional degrees post-grad, very little compared to how I felt when I swam a best time or made a Nationals cut. I had been conditioned to only see my worth as it related to my performance. Over time (and a 120-page dissertation later), I found myself working with a therapist and then my own (life) coach, who helped me to implement the tools necessary to separate what I do (swim, teach, coach, etc.) from who I AM (Madeline Barlow).
TT: What is your favourite part about working with Drexel athletes?
MB: There is nothing better than watching someone have an AHA moment right in front of your eyes. When we are working on a new mental skill/tool and suddenly something just clicks! And then I get to watch them applying this on the field, court, pool, etc. It’s also been a beautiful experience to watch athletes light up when they talk about something they love, whether that is a part of their sport, team, or otherwise. It is an honor to support athletes in this way.
TT: What would your best piece of advice be to any student athlete looking to improve mentally?
MB: Society has done a good job of making people feel weak for needing help. My advice? The strongest thing you’ll ever do is pause, look inward, and recognize you need support. The second strongest thing? Reaching out. Sometimes it takes a few tries to find a professional you connect with, but when you do, magic happens! By the way, asking for support doesn’t only have to apply when something is wrong. So many of the athletes I work with have come to me when they simply want to be even better!
TT: What is your favourite mindful activity?
MB: This is a tough one — I have so many! Over the last year and a half, I have established a daily meditation practice. This is a beautiful and powerful practice that allows me to meet with my true self each day. I also practice breath work, yoga, reiki energy training and walking outside (nature is good for the soul). A short, living-room dance party is also a super fun way to bring mindfulness into my day!
TT: Finally, what inspires you to continue your work with our athletes?
MB: The athletes are my inspiration. Every time an athlete shows up for themselves, it fuels my passion for this work. I’ve truly become the person I always needed when I was younger, and our athletes have trusted me to be that person for them. I am forever grateful.
Anyone wanting to work with Madeline can find her on Instagram @mindwisementor or at her website mindwisementor.com. Madeline shares offerings for athletes who have transitioned out of sport (applies to former Drexel athletes and those who competed elsewhere/in high school). If you want to work with Madeline you can fill out this form https://rb.gy/mcwocu Madeline’s book is in the pre-order stage and can be found at madelinebarlowbooks.com.