The following is excerpted from (Don't) Call Me Crazy, edited by Kelly Jensen. Published with permission from Algonquin Books.
I get asked to sign a lot of autographs and when I do, I try to sign Believe in Yourself so that I leave the person with a message instead of just my name on a piece of paper. Many times I am signing for kids who don’t even know who I am, but their parents tell them I am famous.
The point in leaving that message is that to be successful in life, one has to believe in oneself. If you don’t, then why should someone else? But we all know this is easier said than done, and that is particularly true when you are young and trying to figure out who you are, what you want to do, how you want to do it, and the best way to get to where you want to go.
I was ultimately able to work my way through some confusing years, but it didn’t come easily and it didn’t come without a big support group of family, friends, coaches, teachers, advisors, and more.
I was fortunate enough represent the United States at two Olympic Games. I was even more fortunate to win two medals for myself, my family and support group, my fans, and my country.
But that, too, was a lot of pressure and with pressure comes a need for an outlet. And sometimes that outlet can take you down a path that may not be so great.
Everyone reacts to pressure differently.
I must admit, I kind of liked the challenge. My coaches often would tell me I couldn’t do something, and that would just incentivize me to do it better just to show them I could. And I loved competing.
But not everyone does.
My son has a friend who is a very good gymnast, but he can’t stand the competitions and throws up at every meet. Competitions may not be the right thing for him because of how much pressure he feels.
When I was skating competitively, there were girls who were technically good skaters but they didn’t always perform well when the judges were watching. Some of them went on to great show careers and entertained all over the world, but they never made it to the national, world or Olympic podium because sometimes the pressure might have been too great. They may have also known other skaters were just better, which creates its own sort of pressure, too.
Pressure isn’t just athletic pressure. For some people, that pressure could be school. For others, it might be peer pressure. For some, it could just be the pressure of trying to do your best in big events.
Everyone learns to cope in their own way. The trouble with that is that sometimes those coping techniques can lead to trouble.
I have spoken often about eating disorders in sports and, in fact, I am executive-producing a documentary on that topic as I write this. And while I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, there were certainly times when I knew that although I couldn’t control everything in my life, I could control my eating. From time to time, including prior to the 1994 Olympics, I would have eating issues. Fortunately, I had strong people around me who made sure I recognized those issues, worked through them in a healthy manner, and started eating normally again.
But not everyone has a support group or one that has only their best interests at heart. So you have to be careful and have a really good sense of who you are, what you are doing, and the will to please yourself first—again, easier said than done. And it might have been a bit easier for me to focus on skating than it might be for someone else to figure out boyfriends and girlfriends and drugs and alcohol and homework and parties and college and having enough money to go to a movie (not that I didn’t have to deal with a lot of these things, too!).
One of the things I have learned through my own experiences, though, is that people are strong. They are smart. They are tough. We can bend a long way before breaking, and that is probably never more evident than in those vulnerable teen years when we are trying to figure out so much.
I tried to rely on a few actions to help me get through it all, and maybe these can help ease your own life pressures in healthy ways, too.