The Jock, the Nerd & Lady Luck (Part I) introduced the story of two siblings, a bookish boy and a sporty girl, whose athletic trajectories diverged sharply in their teenage years. The girl, a natural athlete and a fiery competitor, seemed poised to scale the heights of athletic achievement. Her brother, an unabashed nerd and a reluctant competitor, cared more about winning the approval of his teachers than winning races.
Yet, by young adulthood, they had undergone a dramatic role reversal. He discovered a passion for endurance sports and a latent competitive streak that would redefine his life. His sister, on the other hand, never realized her childhood athletic potential and eventually abandoned racing altogether.
This is the second installment in the story of my sister, Genevieve, and me; our similarities and our differences that separated our paths in competitive sports and in life.
|At our first triathlon, Genevieve’s only triathlon, ages 14 and 16|
The chance events described in Part I—perfectly timed doses of negative and positive reinforcement for my sister and I—shifted our perspectives on competition. They certainly played a pivotal role in our development, but it was psychological factors that set the stage and, in Genevieve’s case, closed the curtains on competitive sports.
As I penned Part I, I realized that there was an elephant in the room: mental health. I could tiptoe around the topic, but without tackling it head on, this story would be at best incomplete, at worst dishonest.
In our late teenage years, Genevieve and I both showed a tendency towards anxiety and compulsive behaviour. We both discovered that exercise, which had always been part of our lives, could be an effective outlet and a seemingly innocuous form of self-medication. What drug could possibly quiet the mind like the potent cocktail of endorphins and exhaustion?
Although we shared fundamentally similar circuitry, our compulsive nature manifested itself in very different behavioural patterns. I channeled it into a debilitating degree of perfectionism, while my sister’s life became dominated by an eating/exercise disorder. Both had profound effects on our relationship with competitive sports.
The origins of this critical difference were apparent long before our first swim meet.
The Early Years
Two decades before we were born, psychology researchers performed the now-iconic Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Young children were offered the choice between an immediate reward (often a marshmallow) or a greater reward (two marshmallows) if they were able to resist temptation for 15 torturous minutes. Hilarity ensued, but beyond the entertainment value, follow-up studies showed that a child’s ability to delay gratification correlated with certain measures of success later in life.
I’d be willing to wager all the marshmallows in the world that my little sister would have scarfed her marshmallow. Genevieve, for all her virtues, has always been more of the instant gratification type. Come Halloween, she would have ridden one long, jagged sugar high if our parents hadn’t pried the candy from her sticky fingers. On allowance day, she would make a beeline for the dollar store to blow every penny on knickknacks.
I was the type of kid who could have stared down that marshmallow until it turned to dust. The petrified remnants my Halloween haul could be found months later, meticulously counted, sorted and rationed out. My allowance went straight into a savings account, which I guarded with a nearly pathological aversion to spending.
As children, it was clear that Genevieve was the athlete and the competitor in the family. Despite being the youngest of the neighborhood children, she would climb the tallest and most challenging trees and taunt me from her swaying treetop perch. It wasn’t until we joined the local swim team at ages seven and nine that our capacities to delay gratification became apparent in the realm of sports.
For Genevieve, swim meets generated a level of excitement akin to Christmas which she channeled into ferocious race-day performances. Practices never inspired the same zeal. She would chat with her friends, fidget with her goggles and sneak a pull on the lane rope when the coach wasn’t looking.
I dreaded swim meets or any form of competition, but I took practices very seriously. I would hang on my coach’s every word and focus from warm-up to cool-down. Without the instant gratification that accompanied my sister’s natural athleticism, I was already embracing deliberate practice and slow, incremental improvement which years later would come to fruition.
The capacity to delay gratification would become a recurring theme in our development and, as I would discover, a double-edged sword.
|Swim meet, c. 2004|
When we left off in Part I, I was a happy and well-adjusted (if a little dorky) high school senior. In 2008, I graduated top of my class, a District All-Star in cross country and swimming, with a full academic scholarship to Queen’s University. I couldn’t wait to see the one-horse town of my youth receding in the rear-view mirror.
Just days into my first semester, I realized that university was not the intellectual playground I had envisioned. The courseload in engineering was crushing and overachievers abounded, intimidating me with their advanced placement credits and private school pedigrees. I remember feeling a stab of anxiety when my professors declared that first semester would be “basic review” for most.
Outside the classroom, the 24/7 forced socialization of residence offered no respite for an introvert. Soon, psychological stress began to compound the physical stress of trying out for the cross country team. One practice I was hanging with the front pack, the next, I was straggling off the back and dejectedly making my way home. A bitter failure.
As far as I was concerned, if I couldn’t be a top student and athlete, I had no desire to be there at all. With the all-or-nothing mentality of a perfectionist, I was ready to call it quits after a just few weeks. My sympathetic parents encouraged me to stick it out for one semester before making any decisions.
Driven by an irrational fear of failure, I poured myself into studying and training with compulsive intensity. I would sit at my desk for hours, agonizing over a single intractable problem, refusing to move on until I extracted the solution by main force.
What was once introversion became isolation, and within weeks, almost complete reclusion. I shared a residence floor with fifty students but I might as well have been in solitary confinement. I found perverse pleasure in living like a monk, denying myself the hedonistic university experience of my peers.
As my anxiety showed no signs of abating, I leaned more and more heavily on the crutch of training. It was the only way I could temporarily quiet the dull roar of anxiety. After training, I felt dopey, complacent and at peace. In moments of clarity, I recognized the signs of addiction and it terrified me.
For the next four years, I studied and trained myself ragged. A bad day at school called for a hard workout, whether I felt like it or not. I applied the same discipline and restriction to eating and watched my weight steadily creep down. I became obsessed with hitting ever greater targets. Any grade short of 100% was unsatisfactory, a pound gained was a disappointment, a missed workout was a calamity.
The holidays were an oasis of relief, but school always loomed like a dark cloud on the horizon. One summer, I quit an internship after sitting comatose at my desk for three days. I finished each semester a nervous wreck and pulled myself together over the holidays just enough to drag myself back. I vividly recall the dread of driving along the highway back to school, feeling very much like that forlorn little boy en route to his first swim meet.
I barely raced during those years. I was a mediocre runner by varsity standards and had not yet fully committed to triathlon. I couldn’t stand toeing the line unless I had perfect health, fitness and focus, which was never the case.
In hindsight, I should have taken action: transferred schools, sought treatment, changed something. But I kept promising myself that I would relax and enjoy life after the next exam, the next workout, the next semester. Then one day I found myself walking out of my last exam and making my way to the pool for one last swim. Instead of that long-awaited gratification, my light at the end of the tunnel, I just felt weary and numb.
The Elephant in the Room
I’ve always been open about my struggles and have alluded to them frequently in my writing. My sister, beneath her sunny disposition and dimpled smile, has also struggled, although she has always been more guarded.
Sometime during high school, food became a source of guilt and training became a means of purification. Before long, eating and exercise were inextricably coupled. She spiraled into a compulsive cycle of restriction, indulgence, and overexercise. She became addicted to the instant gratification the cycle provided: exercise to indulge, indulgence in exercise…
And for the better part of a decade, Genevieve suffered in silence. She learned to feign stomach aches, pretend to have already eaten and scrutinize food labels. When she was still running and swimming competitively, she hid her behaviour behind the guise of training and healthy eating. Her slim but athletic figure betrayed no hint of a problem. Her parents and coaches—all highly involved, attentive and exemplary role models—hadn’t begun to suspect the depth of her problem.
Her new relationship with exercise was hardly compatible with training and competition. Once a great passion in her life, competitive athletics became a casualty of her inner struggle.
Nevertheless, she graduated high school in 2010 with excellent grades, an impressive list of extra-curriculars, and many close friends, by all indications a successful and well-adjusted young woman. As in my case, the crucible of university brought her issues to the fore.
Much like my experience, Genevieve’s first year was marked by anxiety, self-imposed isolation and asceticism. But unlike me, she walked away after one year, forfeiting a scholarship. Even during university, I could appreciate the irony that it was easier for me to soldier through something I hated than to make a change. For Genevieve, the hard part was following through, or delaying gratification. She snatched her marshmallow and was gone.
She took off to the west coast where she volunteered for room and board at yoga communities. Perhaps she sought to escape her problems, hoping that change and yogic philosophy would heal. But her compulsions followed her. For two years, she was a nomad, drifting between British Columbia, California and Ontario, and wearing out countless pairs of running shoes along the way.
In the summer of 2013, she returned home to her family, travel-worn, careworn and deeply frustrated, but equally motivated to reclaim her life and move on.
Genevieve and I both became trapped in endlessly repeating cycles: subjective overindulgence fueling compulsive exercise in her case, and compulsive work fueled by subjective underachievement in my case. Both problems were insidious in the sense that we were superficially functional, even successful, yet inwardly suffering.
Perfectionism may be esteemed by some, but I am too familiar with its ugly side. In a sense, perfectionism is like hyperactive delay of gratification; you never really allow yourself the satisfaction of a job well done, ever fixing your eye on a greater prize. Genevieve’s challenges are also rooted in compulsion, but her more impulsive nature accounts for many of our differences.
After hearing my story, my decision to race as a professional triathlete may not strike you as the best course of action for a recovering perfectionist. I beg to differ. Triathlon certainly rewards discipline and attention to detail, but training and racing are exercises in mitigating the suboptimal, the unforeseen and the uncontrollable; in effect, a perfectionist’s worst nightmare.
There is a clear distinction between behaviour that optimizes performance—grounded in reason and forethought—and behaviour fueled by compulsion. I still struggle to choose the former and override the latter, but my progress since graduating has been heartening. My journey in triathlon is helping me learn to control perfectionism and not let it control me.
Genevieve has embarked on the road to recovery and is finally involving her family and friends in the process. She looks forward to resuming her studies in psychology and philosophy in January. She still runs, bikes, swims and walks for hours every day, partly because she genuinely loves movement, the outdoors and the peace they bring. But also because she is still overwhelmingly compelled to seek the absolution of exercise. Most importantly, she remains hopeful—hopeful that she can overcome her compulsions, hopeful that calmer waters lie ahead.
My hope is that she will one day rekindle the passion and joy of that little girl at her first swim meet.
A special thank you to my sister for her input and for allowing me to share so much. I explained how important I felt it was to tell our full story and she graciously granted me carte blanche. I began writing this piece to examine our role reversal in competitive sports, but it became something more. I have never found writing more challenging or more cathartic.
Research into compulsiveness and delay of gratification in eating disorders:
Delay of gratification in bulimic and restricting anorexia nervosa patients (“restricting anorexics scored significantly higher than bulimic anorexics on delay of gratification”)
Impulsivity in Eating Disorders is Associated with Bingeing/Purging
A multitiered view of bulimia (“insufficient psychic structure to delay gratification”)
Increased Capacity to Delay Reward in Anorexia Nervosa (“enhanced self-control that is not limited to food consumption”)
Understanding bulimia nervosa from a neuropsychological perspective: Impulsivity and binge-purge behavior in adolescent and young adult women
Anorexia nervosa as a compulsive behaviour disease (“many of the factors which underlie compulsive personality disorder are present in primary eating disorders”)