Christian: Today I’m joined by Jessica Zelinka. Jessica is a double Olympian and double Olympic finalist in 2008 and 2012, silver medalist at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and 2014 and gold medalist at the Pan Am Games in 2007.
Jessica has moved on from her athletic career and is now a coach and mentor.
Jessica: Thank you for the invitation and having me.
Why she wants to find innovative ways to address unmet needs in the world of sports, health, and well-being
Christian: What I found interesting Jessica, is you said you want to find innovative ways to address unmet needs in the world of sports, health and well-being. What do you see as these unmet needs?
Jessica: Great question. I felt that now that I’m a few years out from being retired, I can look back at my career a bit more clearly and see the journey I had and the structure of the sporting system and everything I was involved with. I can step back from that and see now as a coach.
When I speak to young athletes, parents and even coaches, there really seems to be a lack of resources for these people involved as part the support team of the young athletes, to know how to support them emotionally, mentally and even physically.
When I speak to young athletes, parents and even coaches, there really seems to be a lack of resources for these people involved as part the support team of the young athletes, to know how to support them emotionally, mentally and even physically.
So the big thing in Canada is [ice] hockey and already I have been pulled into that sport because there really seems to be a need for parents to know how to support the kids in such an intense sport at such a young age. It’s really mind-boggling, the different cultures and all the different sports, whereas in track and field, its individual.
It depends on what coach you had and if you’re lucky or unlucky. I had great coaches throughout my career from a young age, but I still had to make decisions towards what I wanted.
So to answer your question, I think a part of it is the gap of leadership from athletes nowadays to take those action steps towards what they truly want out of their experience in sport. They’re getting all these messages left and right from anything, even to social media and what their peers are doing, and I think there has been a bit of disconnect towards their alignment of what they want out of a sport.
Then you hear tons of stories about regret or unfulfillment or quitting too early. There’s tons of athletes that quit early in sport because it just wasn’t the experience they expected. So yes, I’m trying to hear more and talk to more people on these experience and really understand what’s missing.
Christian: It’s interesting. Actually, today I was at a conference, where they featured professors who are specialized in long term athlete development and the theme was the same. Kids growing up now tend to have much more pressure to perform, drop out early and I think it was also self-image. So that was the recurring theme throughout the conference.
Jessica: Yes, and another thing too, which I didn’t really think of is the fear of failure. A part of that could be because of social media and all the expectations. but to show that you’re weak or vulnerable, even for superstar athletes, the fear of failure is huge nowadays. They don’t want to show that side or show that they aren’t perfect.
Even for superstar athletes, the fear of failure is huge nowadays. They don’t want to show that side or show that they aren’t perfect.
In my days, you’d go to a local track meet, you’d have a bad day and you do really poorly, you brush it off and say it’s no big deal. It’s seen as a part of the process. Micromanaging an athlete’s performance almost doesn’t give them the space to fail, which is crucial, as we will be talking about today.
What is Heptathlon
Christian: I guess so. So for those who are not familiar, you competed in track and field and primarily heptathlon. Can you explain in a few words what a heptathlon is and why is it such a difficult discipline?
Jessica: Heptathlon is the equivalent of the men’s decathlon. Men do 10 disciplines, we do 7, it’s spread over two days and always in the same order; hundred-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, two hundred meters. The next day starts with long jump, javelin, eight hundred meters.
What I actually love about it is because I didn’t have to specialize, I loved all the events from when I was young. I had an aunt, who is a bit of a mentor of mine and she always told me not to just do my best events. She encouraged me to continue to work on all of them if I really enjoyed doing them all.
So that was great advice at a young age to just continue to not just focus on my best events. Even though I knew I could win in, maybe the hurdles, I would do javelin or a shot put at the Provincial Championships. What’s difficult about the event is that it always challenges you because you spread yourself out over seven events, you can never really attain perfection.
It always challenges you because you spread yourself out over seven events, you can never really attain perfection.
I think in any sport anyways, but there’s always room for improvement. You’ll never perfect an event. So there’s always that challenge of I wonder how much better I can get at this. At a young age, that’s what drew me to track and field.
Everything is measured in time or increments and I always wanted to see how much better I could get. So I was able to do that through my very, very long career to still have that sense of curiosity and excitement of I wonder how far I can go in this event?
Christian: I also think that it’s challenging because there must be a balancing act between programming and planning. There’s just a limit of hours you can train in a week. So if you are to train for so many different disciplines, that’s also challenging in the sense of programming and planning, right?
Jessica: Yes, for the coach, but in general, unlike say triathlon, which is biking, swimming and running, there’s so much volume. You can only do so much volume where you need to recover, whereas in heptathlon, most of the events are speed and power based. So you can only do so much.
It’s just a matter of hitting each event couple times a week and getting really focused when it’s time to throw. You know what you’re there for and what your intentions are for that training session. You build on each training session and then you’re done. You shut it down.
It’s not about volume. So it’s different in that way in that we don’t really train all day long. It’s a very typical athlete program. You need good intention and high-quality training sessions.
Her darkest moment
Christian: If you look back at your athletic career, what was your darkest moment?
Jessica: The good thing about my career is that it is very long, so just like humans, the older you are, the more baggage you have. So I had many dark moments throughout different points in my career and you know as you progress, the moments that may have been dark earlier in your career didn’t affect me in the same way later. There was a bit of perspective in that.
The moments that may have been dark earlier in your career didn’t affect me in the same way later.
My first very dark moment is when I wasn’t chosen for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, my first chance to compete for Canada. I was too young or inexperienced to go. That almost took me out of the sport. It was a very dark moment.
But then, when I looked back at it now, maybe it was coming back after having a baby. Having a baby and all that wasn’t the dark moment, but I lost that sense of just having a personal best at my first Olympic Games in Beijing 2008. I got pregnant unexpectedly. I felt lost, I felt very alone.
No one had come back from a pregnancy at that time, but now it’s definitely more common. I was really scared about it and I just didn’t have any guidance. I felt very alone, but I also felt very unsupported.
The first time was missing Athens 2004. I had to think about what could do next time to make sure I’m there. I was talking about taking more leadership and what I wanted and what I was going to prioritize in my life if I really wanted to go to the Games.
Then the second time was having a baby with my fiancé. I could no longer take total control or try to control everything. I needed to now reach out and get help and accept help. So again, it was a learning lesson. I think every dark moment brings a learning lesson that the athlete needs in that moment of their life.
Every dark moment brings a learning lesson that the athlete needs in that moment of their life.
Then my third, I would say, very dark moment was when I tried out for the Rio 2016 Olympics. So I competed at Beijing in 2008 and in London 2012, which was a huge breakthrough for me, especially after having a baby. I was trying to go for 2016 and the year before, at that point I was training `on my own.
I didn’t have a coach. My coach was in Kansas. I was long-distance coached, which isn’t ideal. I was training on my own. I was living in a city in Montreal, where I only knew the language to some extent, but I didn’t feel at home, even though Montreal’s a beautiful city.
I was going through a hard time in my relationship with my family and my husband. I felt guilty for training and focusing on my own needs still. He was also an Olympic athlete in water polo and he decided, probably a year after we had a baby, to quit water polo and I was still going on.
So at that point in my career there was a lot of inner conflict of why I was doing this. I wondered if I was being selfish. It really tore me apart physically, mentally and emotionally, but to the point where it actually showed up physically.
I was getting hot flashes, I had asthma for the first time in my life. I went to the sports doctor and they gave me depression and sleeping pills. I think the take away from that experience was I need to understand my why. I need to know why I’m doing this because it’s not good enough to just do it because that’s what I’m used to and that’s what I’m expected to do.
So for my last year 2016, I really tried to find my why and to take back control in a way that I decided that I was not going to take the depression nor the sleeping pills. I was going to focus on other things first. So I tried meditation, breathing, controlling my inner thoughts and being kinder to myself.
I had the support and I had only one more year left, so I wanted to really enjoy the journey. So that’s how I came out of that year. It was like I had zero funding and zero support from the Federation.
I couldn’t get any injury card. I had Achilles tendinopathy, I had ankle surgery that year and I decided that since this my last year, I was just going to enjoy the journey and give this gift to myself and those who have supported me.
Christian: Thanks for the open words. That was 2015, right?
Christian: What happened to the Olympic qualification?
Jessica: Well, what happened was I think it was too little too late. I came back from the surgery of my ankle that took a lot longer than I thought. In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t have gotten that done the year of the Olympic Trials.
Our family moved back to Calgary, so I could work with a coach, yet my relationship was still not stable. So again, a little bit of guilt around that. It was great to be around my normal support team in Calgary again.
The whole mindset shifts of enjoying the journey was really good. It really, really helped until I realized that I didn’t meet the standard. My plan goal was to get the standard on my first competition and go to Austria in the spring, and I didn’t make it.
I figured that I had another meet, so I’ll do it then. I was bouncing from heptathlon to heptathlon, trying to get the standard. So this was the exact opposite of enjoying the journey and letting go of the outcome.
Then I felt a lot of anger come up in me and I asked myself why I was jumping through hoops. I started thinking that if I didn’t get injured the year before this would not have happened. I got to a low level of desperateness.
I’d literally not finish the second day of a heptathlon, go online and find my next one, booked my flight and be there the next week. It was awful. It was an awful way to end my career, but you learn from these things.
I was bouncing from heptathlon to heptathlon, trying to get the standard. It was the exact opposite of enjoying the journey and letting go of the outcome. It was an awful way to end my career.
Christian: What sparked my interest is you spoke about the emotional hoops. How did you get through that? How did you recover from the ups and downs? Or how did you get more stability, emotionally?
Jessica: I kept on going back to my why for that year. I kept going back to ‘enjoying the journey’ and thinking about what I was grateful for. I was really excited to get up and to go to my coach every day and train.
I really enjoyed that. To have the support of my family and to even have my daughter be able to watch me, even not at my best, to see both sides of the world of struggling, but then getting up again and trying again.
I wanted my daughter to see both sides of the world of struggling, but then getting up again and trying again.
It was a very vulnerable time for me, but I wanted to do it anyways. I want to go for her anyway. I didn’t want to regret not at least trying, even if I failed. So I guess just bringing it back to the larger picture is I knew what was at stake there. This was my choice in doing this and if it doesn’t turn out, at least I won’t have any regrets not trying.
Her best moment
Christian: Well, what’s your best moment?
Jessica: I had a long career. I was really fortunate to have a longer career and I think a part of it is because these best moments came up when they were unexpected. It wasn’t just like at the Olympics or when I got a huge breakthrough.
The best moments came up when they were unexpected.
I had moments in training, I had moments speaking to other athletes, moments that reminded me of why I was doing what I was doing. Early in my career, my first international competition was World Juniors in Chile.
I had a really good competition. I got personal best, but I was still disappointed because I came fifth and I knew I could have done better. But I did what was expected of me and then some. I got the Canadian record.
But the moment I want to talk about is when I was leaving the track. Everything was done and I was very much in my head just looking at my feet walking back to the warm-up track. I was thinking that I was going to do better next time. I kept repeating that I can do better.
Then this little girl was at the entrance gate of the warm-up track. I remember seeing her all week during the warm-ups and I finally looked at her. I looked at her in the eyes and even just remembering this moment, it still gets me emotional.
She was a little Chilean girl. She couldn’t have been more than, I say five. I think she was even younger than five and she was there all week by herself, sometimes her friends or siblings would come. I looked at her and she asked me for my autograph. I was like, “Wow!”
So I took off my singlet and I had my number on it still and I signed my number and I gave her my singlet and the look in her eyes was just amazing. It gave me goosebumps. I was like, “This is why I’m doing. This is what it’s all about.”
So I had that experience at a young age before my career took off. I always remember that moment and there were other moments in my career where the same thing happened. It’s like when I connected to something bigger than myself and my own needs and my own desires, that reminded me of why I’m doing this.
When I connected to something bigger than myself and my own needs and my own desires, that reminded me of why I’m doing this.
It could have been right before the 800 meters and at the Olympics where I was all consumed with wanting to do well. I kept thinking that I didn’t want to be there because it was going to be painful. But then I told myself that I should be grateful because I was at the Olympics and there was a hundred thousand people watching.
And just that moment I looked up and I saw the can of flake in the rafters way up high. I didn’t notice for the whole two days of competition and I just connected at something that just cleared my mind and just felt like, “Oh, okay, that’s why I’m here.”
You feel grounded again and supported and you feel an immense amount of gratitude in this opportunity. Those are the times where, yes, I was able to compete at my best, compete and flow, let things go, let go of the outcome and needing to get anything out of it. I already had everything I needed in that moment.
So, yes, there are more personal moments like that, versus when I won Canadian trials in that hurdles when I wasn’t to qualify for the hundred-meter hurdles at 2012. Obviously, that was a crazy moment and a big breakthrough for me, but it was more of those moments of connection that no one could really know what was happening, but I felt immense meaning in what I was doing is those amazing moments.
Christian: Okay and it seemed like these moments of connection they came by chance. Were you later able to reproduce them deliberately?
Jessica: I guess that’s what I was trying to do in 2016 with that whole joy aspect of the larger picture, ‘why am I doing this’ and not focusing on the outcomes, however, I wasn’t successful.
Maybe I just didn’t give it enough chance, but I think to have these moments, there needs to be some kind of position where you are feeling absolutely, almost helpless. For me, I’m a Virgo. I don’t know if you know astrology, but just like perfectionist and wanting to control things.
So for me personally, it’s going to be different for anyone else, it was about letting go and the only way to get me to let go was to be so overwhelmed with a challenge or fear, that was my only option and that’s when these moments came. When I felt doubt or fear or just a sense of helplessness, that’s when I finally just let go and it opened me to this larger connection.
Her advice to a younger Jessica Zelinka
Christian: Okay. So if you could go back in time, let’s say 10,15 or even 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Jessica?
Jessica: I took a lot of pride in my habits around training and being an athlete. I was very disciplined.
I always had a journal. I always did my own research around other things besides just training and technical. I focused on recovery and diet stuff. For me, it was about personal growth and that if I grow as a human being my results will get better.
For me, it was about personal growth and that if I grow as a human being my results will get better.
It was always about wanting to improve in track & field, that was my number one goal, don’t get me wrong. But I knew if I was better here in life, it will help my results. So I took pride in that and I think what I now I would tell myself is maybe step back a bit and enjoy the journey without needing to try to control every detail.
What I mean by that is when something’s not going well in training, even over a longer period, like two months, or if I get an injury, and I had tons of injuries throughout my career, or I didn’t get to compete at an event that I had qualified for and had big missed opportunities, to just have more faith that I will get there.
I just wanted to control everything and make sure I did everything for no regret that I didn’t really allow myself to have that faith. A lot of people, in my career, like my family and my coach, were the ones that would remind me, “Jess, there’s nothing to worry about. I believe that you will get there again.”
I just wanted to control everything and make sure I did everything for no regret that I didn’t really allow myself to have faith.
That was huge for me, but in a way, I was why I could not give that to myself. Then I’d go back to the drawing board and write down a hundred things I need to do differently and do better and how I’m going to do it with my strategy and my routine, which was good.
It got me taking action and feeling like I had control over things, but just having that deep down faith that I was going to be okay, no matter what and just let go of it throughout the career. I think that would have been helpful. I would have enjoyed it a bit more.
Christian: You say once you made progress on the personal growth side, it improves your athletics, right? Do you also think it works the other way around, so once you improve your athletics that also helped the personal growth?
Jessica: Interesting question, but my answer is no, I don’t think so. But it should work that way though. That’s what I’m trying to figure out now that I’m not doing sport. How do I take those tools that I learned through sport and apply them as a high performer in life?
It should work that way, but I think in the athlete’s world, it depends on the personality of the athlete. But when you achieve and you get successful in your sport, sometimes you don’t go to the drawing board so much. You don’t reflect as much and you don’t see how you can improve on other things in your life that can contribute to more success on a track.
When you get successful in your sport, sometimes you don’t go to the drawing board so much and you don’t reflect as much how you can improve.
So actually for me, having success made my personal life worse and I lost focus on the other goals I had in my life because I was holding on to that success. I thought that since I made it here, I would just hold on to it much as possible and not worry about the other things. So yes, it just depends on the awareness of the athlete and I think the combination is amazing if you can do it and not get distracted by success.
Why she made a comeback after becoming a mom
Christian: You mentioned before you became a mom after the Beijing 2008 Olympics and you made a comeback. What kept you going instead of saying I put my spikes on the nail?
Jessica: I didn’t expect to be in that situation. For me, it wasn’t that I planned on having a baby and then comeback to extend my career, which some athletes are doing now. It wasn’t done before in track and field at that moment in time, so I made up my own rules. I said that if my husband was willing to support me, then I was going to go back.
So it didn’t even cross my mind to actually stop track. This baby was coming and I was going to do both. She was going to be on the journey with us and we’re going to make up our own rules along the way.
The baby was going to be on the journey with us and we’re going to make up our own rules along the way.
It was a very exciting time, actually. Whereas before I was very caught up in every detail of my training, when I became a mom, it gave me more freedom to create space between my track life and my real life.
When I went to the track, I was ready to go, this was my free time, I was on my own. I get to be with my coach, who’s giving me all their attention and support to achieve my goal.
So I would be so happy to come to training. I’d be so focused, my coach said that he’d never seen me so focused and relaxed. It wasn’t just like in the intensity, but I was so grateful to be there.
Then when I left the track, I’d go home and focus on my daughter. This gave me that freedom to not think about what went wrong in training or what I could do better and how I was going to show up better tomorrow. I was literally taking it day by day in those times because it was a big balancing act. It was kind of refreshing in a way.
Christian: I believe that.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete or person?
Jessica: Well, I had lots of habits. These are important as a coach and mentor. I did my life coach certificate too. Habits are hugely important in creating new behaviors for athletes.
Habits are hugely important in creating new behaviors for athletes.
What might have worked for them in the past to get them success, may not be working for them anymore. Instead of just thinking they’re not good enough because they’re older now and they’re not winning, they should think about changing strategies.
Several questions should be asked.
- Is this habit still working for you?
- What are your goals now?
- What can get you to your goals in the most well-rounded way?
So, I had many habits, I looked into different ways of doing things and I’d always switch up my routines, I’ve always tried new things. My philosophy was as I read something, I had to try it. I don’t like to read to learn things.
I like to experience things to learn things so I would try meditating before practicing on something specific or I would try a gluten-free diet and people would ask me why I was doing that. And I would totally forget why I started it, but something about what I read, I was curious enough to try it.
I don’t like to read to learn things, I like to experience things to learn things.
In the end, the habits I had were very personal to what worked for me. As an example, I would never say every athlete should be gluten-free because I believe that every athlete should probably try different diets. If you think you’re intolerant to gluten, I would say yes, try removing gluten from your diet for 2-3 weeks and if you feel substantially better, that’s probably what you want to do.
This way, they feel and they understand the feeling of feeling better, so that’s what will change their habit or their behavior. On the other side, if they feel better, but it is stressful and miserable to follow this habit, they probably won’t stick to it long-term and the stress around it will probably cause more inflammation in their body and defeat the whole purpose of doing it.
I believe every athlete needs to develop habits that reduce stress, gives them energy and keeps them on track to consistently make decisions throughout the day towards what they want- their goals.
For me, I knew generally what I needed, but because I had a long career and I like doing lots of disciplines at once and I didn’t like sticking to one thing for too long. If I stuck to what worked for me when I was 19 years old at World Juniors, versus a mothers at 35-year-old, I probably wouldn’t have had such a long career.
The whole discovery process I think keeps athletes engaged and it keeps them accountable. It keeps them thinking for themselves critically of how they can solve problems.
Every athlete needs to develop habits that reduce stress, gives them energy and keeps them on track to consistently make decisions throughout the day towards their goals.
Christian: There’s something I read on your website that piqued my interest ‘It’s about cultivating leaders on and off the field. We learn to lead ourselves first through consistent action and intentional habits. Our daily practices provide a new opportunity to build sustainable success beyond our imagination.’
What would these habits be?
Jessica: Again, the habits would be driven by the athlete themselves. So whatever goals we discussed, whatever challenges and barriers they may have had in the past or they may feel might come up, they come up with some action plans around that, that they can put into their daily habits.
It’s not just like you show up at a track meet and all of a sudden you need to get over this barrier and you didn’t practice. Everything needs to be practice, the tools you get in forms of habits, need to be practiced. Training and technical stuff needs to be practiced. When you get to high-pressure situations or you get to where you need that performance, you are in your default state.
It’s like you’ve done this and it takes no more energy to do it again. You’ve practiced it. An example would be an athlete who is having issues with insecurity or self-confidence. I would ask them what they can do on a daily basis that will help them to practice this.
It doesn’t have to be at practice. It can be at school, it can be with your parents at home, it can be the way you interact on social media. What do they think is going to help them, say 30 days from now, very small realistic goals to help them see that they can improve in this and their self-confidence? If they do things in alignment to themselves and their needs, they will see improvement.
I was very critical and judgmental about athletes when I started making national teams because I thought you need to be persistent and disciplined. I’d get to these training camps before a major competition with athletes that I looked up to and their habits were horrible. They’d be up all night looking at videos or movies.
There was no Netflix or YouTube back then. Anyways they would be up, irregular sleeping hours, sleeping in, just lazing about and eating really poorly. You hear about Usain Bolt eating McDonald’s. I think there is no magical habit for any athlete. The best thing is to get the buy-in of the athlete and let them come up with what they need to achieve their goals.
The best thing is to get the buy-in of the athlete and let them come up with what they need to achieve their goals.
So if you tell an athlete you need to do something, they probably won’t follow through on it. They’ll feel bad about themselves, think they’re just not disciplined enough or they’re not made out to be a great athlete.
It’s not building their confidence. It’s not helping them. As a mentor and coach, I am not helping them. And by the way, these people who had bad sleeping habits and eating poorly before competitions did very well.
So it made me question myself about how much energy I was using to really over-prepare for these competitions. I thought that maybe I needed to change and adjust and see what was really helping me and what I could let go of.
Christian: I’ve seen that in athletes myself.
Her morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine? How do you get ready for the day?
Jessica: Hmm, that’s a good one. Since retiring, I didn’t really have a morning routine. I had no training to go to and I didn’t have a regular job. I didn’t know what to do in my life. But I realized that I really like routine and it helps me. I believe a morning routine is very important because it gets you in the right mindset for the rest of the day.
A morning routine is very important because it gets you in the right mindset for the rest of the day.
2016 was the last time I competed and I’ve done different morning routines, but it’s only until probably half a year ago that I’ve really committed to morning routine and it has made a world of a difference.
It came from reading different things and I guess the timing wasn’t right until six months ago. I read something about the Five o’clock Club or something like that. I forget whose thing it was. I listen to podcasts all the time and it doesn’t really matter who says it, but if it resonates with me and I try and it feels right, then I’ll do it.
So my thing is, I started waking up at five o’clock in the morning and I do 20 minutes of work out right away. For me, it didn’t feel right to lift heavy weights that early in the morning and it didn’t feel right to go for a run because I didn’t feel like my body was awake enough.
What I ended up doing was getting a Pilates Reformer and it was very low impact because I’ve had lots of ankle and foot injuries throughout my years. I was feeling good about it, so I was going to do my activation exercises for my ankles, for my glutes, a 20-minutes full-body routine and no more.
Usually, once I feel good, maybe I’ll want to do more. I may start doing weights or maybe go for a run, or whatever, but I decided that I was going to stick to the 20 minutes. Then I’d go between journaling with a coffee to set my intentions for the day or meditation without the coffee obviously, and then have my coffee and journal afterwards and have a shake.
I used to do intermittent fasting in the morning but I decided to get myself energy. So, I did 20 minutes of movement, set my intentions and do my journals. It’s amazing. Not only am I priming my body for the day to activate and have good movement through my joints and my feet, but I’m priming my mind by setting those intentions and just reflecting on any questions I might have.
Even if I don’t know the answers, I can ask myself, what can I do today that will be in the highest good of my purpose or those around me? The highest good of those that I interact with today? I may not know the answer, but just writing that out sets out what is important for me for that day.
Christian: You said this was half a year ago. Do you think that would have helped you as an athlete as well, having such a routine?
Jessica: Yes, I think so. Maybe not the five o’clock thing so it depends. I had a hard time sleeping sometimes. Sleep is important for athletes, but not too much sleep. We underestimate how much we can get by with.
I had a baby and I was waking up how many nights and still training perfectly well and being able to recover. So I think it’s like the placebo effect. If you think it’s helping you, then do it. For me, what wasn’t helping me when I was an athlete was feeling rushed. That was the worst.
So, I’d keep on pushing my training sessions a little bit later because I didn’t want to rush to training practice. What I found is I was still rushing anyways, so my coach would move it from 9:00 to 9:30 and I’d still be rushing. He moved it to 10:00, I was still rushing.
So a routine like that would have got me up so early that I knew I had the time to focus on what was most important because you don’t want to rush. I wanted to fit everything in. I was still meditating back then. I was still doing these things, but I was feeling very rushed and that again defeats the purpose.
You got to understand. You need to know why you are doing these things and if it’s not serving that purpose, then it’s not worth going through the motions.
You need to know why you are doing these things and if it’s not serving that purpose, then it’s not worth going through the motions.
It’s not worth just saying that you’re in the five o’clock a.m. club. You must be a disciplined athlete. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing or it feels like it’s helping everything else, then it is not worth it.
Christian: It’s clear, I also believe that.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare for important moments?
Jessica: It takes a lot of mental preparation. I was a very physical athlete. My coach was Eastern European and he always believed in training a lot. But he was also open to communicating on how I’m feeling and taking down the volume or anything if I felt like I needed it.
He wasn’t like, “You need to get these reps in. We need to prepare. This is your last two weeks before going to a major competition.” If I was dealing with an injury, he’d tell me that we don’t need to do anything that day and that it was up to me. For me, I kept on holding on to, “I need to do it for me to be prepared.”
I was caught up in getting my full training week and a half a training week before my competition to know where I was at and to know that’s under my belt. Where I think that comes from is insecurity and a lack of trust in the process and in the program. There was a lack of trust in myself and I ended up being injured.
I could tell you I was probably injured for every major competition. So I would probably not take my advice for how I prepared for competing, except later. Well, I’ve always done it, but as I matured and actually became a different, older athlete, I realized it’s more about that trust factor.
I needed to immensely and emotionally focus on eliminating doubts, inner critique and everything. The only purpose of showing up to training to prepare for a competition is to leave feeling good.
I needed to immensely and emotionally focus on eliminating doubts and inner critique.
Shot put practices are supposed to be short before a competition. In the past, if I had a bad shot put practice, I wouldn’t do more reps to prove myself to feel good about leaving that practice. Usually, I would want to do more and more until I felt good.
So as I got older, I decided that I was going to let it go. I understood what it was. Everything was there and I just needed to sharpen up this. To be able to walk away with that confidence knowing that I was leaving the practice because I trusted that it was going to be there when it needed to be there, that’s how I matured as an athlete.
Again, I was keeping the focus on the bigger purpose. What’s the purpose of the preparations before a competition? To have confidence and trust and be able to put it up there when the time counts. So that’s how my mind shifted before competitions.
Christian: Okay that’s cool, really good advice from an athlete for athletes.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Jessica: It’s tough, I had a lot of setbacks, as most athletes do, especially the longer the career you have. Every time I had a setback, even though I knew it was part of the process, I was still really angry that I had to deal with the setback.
It’s tough and even though I knew it was part of the process, I was still really angry that I had to deal with the setback.
Usually you just finished dealing with a setback and you’re finally finding momentum and then you have another setback and you’re thinking that you don’t have the energy to deal with anymore. But you do.
The sooner you can feel the anger or the disappointment or the grief around that setback, have those moments and then again focus on what you do have control over, the better it is. You can’t control over some things. For example, when I tripped over the edge of a track and sprained my ankle, I had to tell myself that I had no control over that.
So what can you control going forward? Okay I’m going to have to change my competition schedule, I’m going to have to focus on getting to see physio. I’m going to have to focus on my mindset, on my visualization and on feeling good again. That way my body remembers how it wants to feel again to help accelerate the process of getting back to where I want to go.
That’s when I’m talking about an injury if it’s about not making a team. So in failing and making a team or having a really bad performance those type of setbacks, again, there is always silver in the lining of those disappointments.
I have never seen it right after. I have always gone through the process of disappointment, anger and grief. And it’s sometimes only until later in your career you realize what you learned from that.
There is always silver in the lining of those disappointments, I have always gone through the process of disappointment, anger and grief. And it’s sometimes only until later in your career you realize what you learned from that.
When you’re at the line and you need to draw deep into yourself and you need to dig deep, you realize you have it in you because you’ve gone through all these setbacks and you’ve always shown that you can step it up. You’ve shown that you will always come to practice, ready to give whatever you can give in that day and meet yourself where you’re at.
There’s something really special about being able to meet yourself where you’re at in those moments of setbacks. I was told by a coach one time, there are track gods out there. It was just a funny analogy. It’s respecting that the track gods are giving you a lesson that needs to be learnt and to respect that this is where you need to be right now in your career, in this moment.
You need to be here and feel what it feels like to experience this and to know about setbacks. I know every setback reminded me of why I’m doing this and why I want to do it again and why I want to get back out there. If I didn’t have setbacks, I probably would have lost interest pretty quick and it just wouldn’t have been the same experience.
But those setbacks always reminded me that I have the fire in me to get back out there. Yes, that’s how I’d say for athletes to just meet themselves where they’re at. They should not be ten steps ahead of themselves when they get these setbacks.
They should be in the moment, experience those emotions and then move forward, day by day, and week by week. They should do so without throwing on more expectations and more pressure to get over injuries quicker or to get on the next team to prove themselves they’re worth it or that they can do it.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Jessica: A role model is one thing I never had and I always wondered why I didn’t have a role model. I think I didn’t like to idolize other athletes because it separated me from them. In a way, it was them being a role model to me because I wanted to be where they were at, but I didn’t want to create that separation between me and them because then it makes me wonder how I am supposed to get there.
I think I never had a role model, because I didn’t like to idolize other athletes. It separated me from them and I didn’t want to create that separation between me and them because then it makes me wonder how I am supposed to get there.
It almost makes it worse. So in thinking about that I thought that maybe I was just selfish and I just didn’t want to have a role model. But I think that might have been a part of it that I didn’t want to see myself as different from them, even though I aspire to be like them.
A lot of their attributes they have are inspirational to me and it may not be just the athlete in themselves, but something specific about the athlete. So I was fortunate to have two amazing superstars during my career that I really appreciate their attributes.
There was Carolina Klüft, who was a Swedish athlete. She was never my role model, but I did admire that she was very authentic, she was very in the moment when she competed, she was a great athlete.
Then there was Jessica Ennis, a British athlete. Both of these athletes were younger than me, only by a couple years. I really appreciated how Jessica [Ennis] always stuck to her own plan, her own energy bubble and that she didn’t get distracted by drama or other things people were saying or needing to prove herself.
I think it’s very important to say, I believe both athletes competed clean. I needed to know that it was possible to be the best in the world competing clean. You hear everything else in the world and I was almost naive, so I didn’t want to hear that this athlete is probably doping and this athlete’s so much better than last year.
If my coach or anyone started talking about it, I always said I don’t want to know. As long as I know there are athletes doing it clean, that’s all I need to know and that’s all I have control over. So to have role models, who are the best in the world, who can be themselves authentically and to not be pulled in different directions by media or expectations or the politics of sports was helpful to have in my career.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What’s the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Jessica: I probably had a lot of good advice, but there is one that stands out, that wasn’t even supposed to be an advice. I recently saw my old coach from when I was in high school. I saw her in my hometown as I was just visiting this summer and I mentioned this incident and she did not remember and it wasn’t advice, but it was something that I remembered.
I went up to her, I must have been around maybe 16 to 18 years old. I was really embarrassed to say this to her, but I needed to tell her because I had a lot of doubt around this. What was helpful was that she was a woman. I probably wouldn’t have said it to a male coach.
I told her that I don’t think I was going to be good in track because I just didn’t have the body type. You look at all these amazing athletes, Canadian athletes, and other track and field athletes. And I just wanted to tell that to someone.
She laughed and told me not to worry, because I would get there. I think a lot of young athletes have a lot of doubts about these things and maybe are embarrassed to talk to someone about it.
So just having her there and not making a big deal about my doubts, but also completely supporting and having complete faith that it’s okay to have these insecurities. I was doing really well at that stage in my life. I was performing very well that stage, but I still had this doubt because of my body that I could never be one of the best in the world.
A lot of young athletes have a lot of doubts about these things and maybe are embarrassed to talk to someone about it. So just having her there and not making a big deal about my doubts, but also completely supporting and having faith that it’s okay to have these insecurities.
Sometimes advice or hearing something from someone else, may be very small. Like for her, she didn’t even remember, but as a coach now, I really realized the way I say something, even as a mother, the way I say something, can have a great impact on an athlete if you just hear where it’s coming from and just reassure them in a way that’s supportive.
Why it matters what you say to athletes
Christian: Yes. It’s a slippery slope because it can also work the other way around. right? We are not aware of what we’re saying and if we can do damage.
Jessica: Yes, or we think it’s in their best interest like you hear it all the time, “Just work hard and you’ll get there.” Well, how many athletes leave sport very disappointed that they bought into the idea? Because they did work hard and they didn’t get there. So how are you going to help them? What can you say to them now?
How many athletes leave sport very disappointed that they bought into the idea of working hard will get you there? And they did work hard and they didn’t get there. So how are you going to help them? What can you say to them now?
You want to give them something to solve the problem. Basically what my coach was saying at that point was, that I was not to worry, because it was part of the process. She reassured me that I would get there and that I would be okay.
I wasn’t like, “Just work hard and you’ll get muscles like that one.” I was like, “Oh no, I thought I was working hard.” So I got to work harder? like It could have burned me out. You never know what these little things could say to an athlete.
Christian: That’s a good point, I’ve recently spoken to Bas van de Goor, who was part of the Indoor Volleyball team, that won at the Atlanta Olympics 1996, and he said that it was one of the biggest insults for him if someone told him he has to work hard. Because, for him, he always felt he’s working hard. He needed some kind of other support to help in training or competition. For me that illustrates the point of how we have to be careful what we say.
Jessica: Yes, and every athlete’s different. I was very similar in that, I was my biggest critic, so if my coach was on me about stuff like if I was late to practice because I was rushing, he was never on me. He’d joke about it because I was already telling myself that I can do better.
So yes, it is important to know how an athlete shows themselves on the outside and how they internalize things to know how to best support and motivate them. That’s why I think we should be creating an opportunity for them to be more self-driven and be more of a leader. Knowing what they want and problem-solving is one way to address that.
A typical training day in the life of an Olympic heptathlete
Christian: So back in the days, how did a typical training look like?
Jessica: Just typical, you’d go to practice and you’d train for a couple hours. Sometimes we do twice a day, but only during certain points in the training cycle. I try to get a massage once or twice a week along with physio.
Then, it’s a lifestyle, so you go home and you eat well and you try to focus on your recovery. It was nothing very special. I’m sure a lot of Cross Fitters probably trained more than me. For me, practice was very intentional. Everything had to have a purpose.
For me, practice was very intentional. Everything had to have a purpose.
It wasn’t just about working hard like we were saying. It was about what do I want out of my time here and how can I grow as a personal athlete with each session? How can I be a better communicator with my coach? How can I be a better role model for my teammates?
A lot of people say “You must have sacrificed so much, you must have worked so hard.” You know what? It was play. I loved it and I loved training. I got to jump in long jump pits and sandpits. I got to throw spears. It was always changing. I loved it. So the training part, there’s nothing much to talk about it, besides that it was typical.
Christian: Okay, that’s good, that it felt like play. We need to enjoy what we are doing.
Her interview nomination
Christian: So we’re getting to the end of the interview. Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Jessica: So there are tons of amazing athletes and I do want to nominate someone. I would like to nominate a coach, because a coach has a lot of perspectives. They’re not so narrowly focused on the outcomes. They see the bigger picture of it and I would like to nominate an Australian coach, who was the first coach to talk about good advice.
I would like to nominate a coach, because a coach has a lot of perspectives. They’re not so narrowly focused on the outcomes and they see the bigger picture of it.
He told me you need to know what to expect from a coach. Because I was in the process of deciding where to go to university. He said you need to know the expected program and to take that leadership role. He’s been a great help.
He’s been a coach, he’s been with Athletics Australia as Head Coach and now he’s working in other sports as well. His name is Eric Hollingsworth and he’s been like a little guardian angel throughout the 18 years that I went to Australia between going to university and my career.
He’s kept in touch here and there, just kind of guiding me very gently. So I think he has an immense amount of wisdom through his roles in sports and he’d be a great person to talk to. I think Eric Hollingsworth is with basketball now.
Christian: In a coaching role or management role?
Jessica: In an advocacy role of high performance, it’s technical role, I’m not entirely sure, it could be managing, but he still has that kind of coaching side to it.
Christian: And he’s track and field background, right?
Jessica: Yes. He actually did decathlon. He was a British athlete and he coached many track athletes.
Christian: Really cool, I’d love to talk to him.
Where can you find Jessica Zelinka
Christian: Where can people find you?
Jessica Zelinka: Right now, the best place to find me is at my website, it’s not very extensive website, but it gives you an idea of what I’m doing and it has my contact info there. I’m obviously on social media as well, but yes, just talk to me. I like interacting with people.
Jessica Zelinka’s social profiles
Facebook athlete page
Christian: Cool. I saw you offering different services on your website. What are these services and who is eligible to it?
Jessica: After my career, I did my Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, I really wanted to do my own programming and to help young athletes, coaches and parents. I’m still in the broad area of offering a variety of things and its always custom to the athlete that you’re with.
After my career, I did my Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, I really wanted to do my own programming and to help young athletes, coaches and parents.
Again, I meet the athlete where they’re at. For athletes who are younger than ten years old, I like to do the mental side of things while we’re doing physical stuff. It’s dryland training and then I kind of incorporate some mental things to consider while they’re doing the training.
Things around frustration or things about how do you want to approach this exercise, what do you want to get out of this practice, things we’ve been talking about, kind of getting that mindset at a young age.
I also do Skype calls. I have an eight-week program for mindset for athletes who want to tackle barriers to challenges that they can’t seem to overcome or to get more clear on the goals. I coached all athletes, but I always incorporate the mindset side in anything I do.
I will not work with an athlete unless they do my mindset stuff on the side. So that’s how it goes. They get two for one with me.
Christian: Okay, that’s cool. Jessica, thank you for your time. That was great.
Jessica: Yes, it was a pleasure to have this conversation with you. Thank you for having me.