Kristin Ihle Helledy is often called upon to share her insights with high school and collegiate student-athletes. Ihle Helledy is a seven-time All-American athlete who competed professionally for Nike and was on seven U.S.A. teams. This three-part series examines the role of self-discipline, integrity, dealing with change, and resilience in high-achieving athletes. In Part 1, Ihle Helledy demonstrated how self-discipline and integrity were key factors in shaping her experience and were essential to her growth. Here in Part 2, she helps us understand how critical it is to navigate change and handle ambiguity.
When you started your freshman year of high school or your first job in the work world, did you know what it would take to be successful? Maybe you had an idea what that might look like — but if you’ve never been there before, how could you really know? That scenario is just a simple example of the unknown. Ihle Helledy tells us, “If people were to reflect on their daily lives, they may find that they deal with the unknown far more than they give themselves credit for. We have more ‘training’ than we know.” She suggests that dealing with ambiguity can create fear: fear of the unknown. She relied heavily on mentors and those who’ve “been there before” for learning, understanding, and determining how to tame her fears.
What about change? It happens every day, and we might not see it coming. Maybe the normal location of your bus changes due to ongoing construction — now you must work that into your routine. Or there’s a rain delay at a softball game — the pitcher will have to warm up again, but might not know exactly when to begin, because the delay’s end can’t always be predicted. These constitute small adjustments, but we know that change and ambiguity can come on a much larger scale.
As a student, Ihle Helledy had to deal with ambiguity and change when she transferred from a large high school in South Florida to a small one in northwestern Wisconsin. “I joined Regis (high school) as a sophomore. All the friend groups were well established by then,” Ihle Helledy recalls. She relied on her sport to level the playing field. She made friends with a teammate who educated her about the teachers, how things work at the school, and the fun places to hang out. Ihle Helledy says, “Athletics often created common ground with others.”
She continues: “As a high schooler, the most daunting ambiguity I dealt with was getting ready to compete in cross-country nationals as a senior. I was a miler who now had to figure out how to train for and compete in the 5K. Cross-country in high school at that time was only 2 miles.
“My coaches and teachers encouraged me to expand my horizons. I remember breaking down in tears while on a run with my high school coach. It was a long country road and we were covering 6 to 8 miles, which for me at that time was a marathon! I told him I was afraid and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to compete at nationals covering 5,000 meters. He reminded me that I was courageous, and I was pushing my own boundaries. He was supportive but also said he didn’t have all the answers. He said we would learn together, and we did. I knew at that very moment I had a choice to make: I could venture into the unknown or retreat to my comfort zone. I made the leap of faith because my coach believed in me, and I trusted him. We broke down the race into segments, studied what systems needed to be trained, and together we explored a new frontier.”
Ihle Helledy concludes, “While this example seems minor, it represented a fundamental shift in my mindset. This theme of stretching myself repeated itself in academics on my journey to completing my Ph.D. I had so much support, coaching, and belief from others along the way.”
Her biggest takeaway is to involve mentors, seek wisdom from those who have been on a similar road, and become a student of your craft. Breaking a big goal into component parts can make the seemingly unmanageable, manageable. Eleanor Roosevelt aptly stated, “I believe that anyone can conquer fear by doing the things he fears to do.”