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Susie O’Neill was in the warm-up pool at the Sydney Olympics when she was overcome with such crippling self-doubt she wanted to flee.
The eight-time Olympic medallist, and champion of Australian swimming, recalled the private moment back in 2000 during a panel discussion on mindset at the Future Women Leadership Summit 2022.
“I remember being in the warm-up pool about to compete and feeling like I couldn’t even breathe when my head was in the water,” said O’Neill, now a co-host on Nova 106.9 Breakfast Show.
“So, to go out and still perform at that level I feel like I was quite proud of. That even though you are really nervous and have self-doubts, to still be about to get out there, even though I wanted to run away, the furthest I could from that event I think shows you have good mindset.”
O’Neill, best known as ‘Madame Butterfly’ for her talent in the butterfly and freestyle strokes in the pool, said when she was competing, she didn’t have a dedicated mindset coach.
“My coach was my mindset coach. He always said to me I could talk myself into believing I could be the best and I could talk myself into being the worst,” she said.
“It was about trying to believe I could be the best, but it’s very difficult. If I think back, probably the most self-doubt I’ve ever had, and the most nervous I’ve been was probably at the Sydney Olympics before a race I was probably meant to win.”
O’Neill said she’s had to “re-write” the script in her mind a number of times over the years, including a moment earlier this year.
“I can very easily start going down a negative path, so I have to pull myself back,” she said.
“At the beginning of this year, I’m on a radio show, and there was a bit of a change in the line-up this year and there was a little bit of publicity around that at the beginning of the year and I accidentally read the comments.”
She said the comment said she was a spoilt brat.
“It really affected me, because it’s actually one value that my parents really installed in me is to not be a spoilt brat,” she said, her voice wavering.
“So, when I saw it written there I actually freaked out and actually started going down a negative path.
“And I thought to myself, why am I even on the radio? I’ve already had a career, I was successful at what I did, what am I doing to myself. I don’t need to be here. I just need to leave.”
Elaine Benson, a certified mindset coach, explained when it comes to the brain it seeks out familiar patterns as a first port of call.
“Our life is run through our unconscious beliefs, our unconscious values and attitudes and our mind is like an iceberg – it’s made up of conscious and unconscious,” Benson said.
“At work, if you’re slipping into patterns, generally what happens is your unconscious is driving that for you.”
She used the analogy of the mind being a sailboat, with ship’s captain being your conscious mind and the boat, the sail, the crew, and the wind being your unconscious mind.
She said despite your best intentions to steer the ship to “salad island”, your unconscious mind is travelling to “Tim Tam island”.
“When you find yourself falling back into these same patterns it’s really important to be compassionate with yourself and know that you’re being driven by your unconscious thoughts and beliefs,” she said.
Benson said one method to help change patterns is reframing.
“Reframing is one of the most important tools that I use. I use it in everyday life,” she said.
“Because we want to filter the positive things in our life, the good things in our life, because we can already rely on our minds to filter the negative.
“Reframing helps you change those filters, so they are not so blinkered.”
Claudine Chicheportiche, a fellow panellist and a high-performance mindset coach, said as well as reframing, it’s important to also understand believability.
“Sometimes we are expected to reframe things like ‘just believe in yourself’ or ‘just be positive’ or ‘just ask for it’, and we hear these slogans that are a little bit surface level,” Chicheportiche said.
“So, before the reframe think how can I stop leaking my performance from the way that I think. And when we can, as a lane set, bring that from the unconscious into the conscious minds and catch ourselves thinking in ways that lower our performance and fulfilment.”
As for O’Neill, she found reading the poem ‘The Man in the Arena’ by former US President Theodore Roosevelt helped her through.
She summarised the poem saying: “basically it says, at least if you’re out there trying and giving it a go, you’re feeling as though you’re succeeding. But if you’re not succeeding, you’re also feeling that feeling as opposed to those critics that sit on the sideline and feel nothing. And how easy is it to just sit on the sideline.
“So, I thought stuff it, I’m going to stay on the radio and if I fail, I’m going to fail greatly.”
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