I was taken immediately by the candor on Network for Advancing Athletes’s website. Finally, I found a brilliant organization willing to address normal athletes challenges few talk about! NAA mentor and Olympian Dotsie Bausch wrote with grace and bravery about reclaiming her life from an eating disorder. Mentors Misty Hyman, Dotsie Bausch, and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg answered an athlete’s question about depression with compassion and empathy.
I connected with Network for Advancing Athletes (NAA) founder, Amber Pierce, through a mutual friend and Sport Psychologist, Dr. Kristin Keim, of Keim Performance Consulting. It wasn’t long before Amber and I found ourselves almost completing one another’s sentences about the challenges of injury.
NAA is a 501(c)(3) organization focused on fostering athlete-to-athlete mentorship and networking among female athletes of all ages and levels of skill, with a focus on the sports of cycling, swimming, running and triathlon.
NAA believes the healthy pursuit of excellence through sport leads to positive self-growth and develops valuable, transferable life skills. They encourage positive, fulfilling participation in sport for girls and women at all levels by offering information, education and support through networking and mentorship from elite female athletes.
I appreciate NAA’s philosophy: 1) Competition is a form of cooperation, and 2) Sport offers an empowering journey of self-realization.
In this blog, I’ve interviewed Amber about her inspiration for founding NAA, who can benefit from working with a NAA mentor, and her experience with and wisdom gained from injury. It’s woven with honesty, insight, and celebrating humanness. ~Heidi
Talk to me about your desire and path to creating NAA.
I’ve been an athlete for as long as I can remember. I began competitive swimming at the age of 10 and eventually earned as scholarship for my efforts. In college, a shoulder injury put an end to swimming for me, but I subsequently found the sport of road cycling. I’ve been racing my bike at the professional level for 8 years now.
What has consistently struck me about the amazing women I’ve had the honor of competing with and against, is that they are not only remarkable role models (excellent athletes, model students, and kind and humble to boot), but also more than happy to take time for other athletes. It breaks my heart that young girls don’t know about these amazing women, and that even other women aspiring in the same sports don’t realize how kind and approachable they are. It’s understandable that it would be tough for any aspiring athlete at any age, to walk up to a pro or elite athlete at a meet or race and strike up a conversation cold. But honestly, most of these top-level athletes would be happy to chat!
I want to eliminate these barriers by making more aspiring athletes aware of these awesome role models, and by showing how approachable and willing to help they are! Our online platform is something of an icebreaker; it gives athletes the chance to question and interact with athletes they might never approach in person, and they can feel at ease doing so, because these role models have volunteered to mentor and are making themselves available because they want to help.
I see so many athletes out there struggling with the universal challenges of sport, and I just think: wouldn’t it be great if those athletes knew that they were not alone, that there are countless others facing similar battles (and even more who have gone before them)? And wouldn’t be even better, if we could all learn from one another?
It can be tough in a competitive arena to see how helping one’s competitors is a good thing. But part of our philosophy at Network For Advancing Athletes is that competition is a form of cooperation. Competitors bring out the best in one another’s abilities through competition, and teach one another how to become a better athlete. So in that sense, your competitor is your ally, because she provides that extra motivation needed for peak performance and at the same time, teaches you what you need to improve. For us, helping one’s competitor is a good thing: if you help your competitor improve, it means you must raise the standard for yourself and rise to that challenge. It creates a positive upward spiral, and after all, improvement and striving toward excellence is the whole point of sport.
On a more personal note, I’ve been through some extremely trying and negative experiences, which I realize in hindsight were in some cases avoidable. I want to help other athletes avoid such potential negative pitfalls, so they never have to deal with some of the unnecessary negativity I faced. I can see this motivation mirrored in many of our mentors as well. We want to help. We’ve all learned a lot through our experiences and want others to benefit from those lessons, so they can have the most positive experience possible in their respective sports.
Tell me about NAA female athlete mentors and how they work with female athletes
Our mentors are all highly accomplished athletes who volunteer their time to mentor through NAA. We have two platforms for mentoring: online Q&A, and our one-on-one mentorship program. Through the Q&A platform, any athlete can submit questions to our website. We have at least three mentors answer each question, so the athlete gets multiple perspectives on their question. We post anonymized versions of the questions along with the responses from our mentors to the website, so that other athletes can learn and benefit from from the questions and answers.
Our one-on-one mentorship program is what it sounds like: we pair aspiring athletes with mentors, based on sport, discipline, interests, and other factors. We try to pair athletes and mentors for the highest likelihood of a long term mentor-mentee relationship. Once we pair the athlete and mentor, we leave it to the two of them to set goals together and find their own rhythm working together.
Both of these mentorship programs are free, because our mentors so generously volunteer their time. We must also be cautious about how many athletes we assign to a given mentor, as we want to be respectful of our mentors’ time and ensure a high quality of interaction. For that reason, we may at some times need to turn away applications for this program, but we do the absolute best we can to include as many athletes as possible.
Describe a female athlete who can benefit from working with a NAA mentor.
I think many women that I would define as an “athlete” would shy away from calling themselves that. With NAA, we define an “athlete” as any female of any age who partakes in a sport at any level. Do you go jogging twice a week, but you never race? You’re an athlete. Just because you don’t pin on a number, or compete in meets doesn’t mean you’re not on a path of self-improvement through sport. Even for those who do compete, the most important “battle” is improving your current and future self over your past self. If you do that, then according to us, you’re an athlete, and we want to support you in a way that enables you to have the most positive experience possible in your chosen sport (or activity, if you prefer). To this end, our Q&A platform is open to anyone who submits a question! Likewise the anonymized questions and corresponding answers from our mentors are all available on the website for anyone to see, so that this collective wisdom of our mentors can be available to anyone with an internet connection.
Our one-on-one mentorship program is geared more for those who are serious enough about their sport that they’ve hired a professional coach to guide them. The program is different in that it requires a great deal of time and investment from our mentors, so we want to ensure that the mentees in this program aren’t just looking for free coaching. The role of a mentor is distinct from that of a coach, trainer, therapist or manager, and we want that to be very clear. With that caveat in mind, we do try to make this program as inclusive as possible and strive to accommodate athletes of all ages and levels of experience according to the availability of our mentors. Again, you don’t have to “race” to qualify for this program, we just require that you have a coach or trainer before applying to the program.
How did you evolve and change through your injuries?
Being injured puts life into very stark, intense perspective. When I’m healthy, it’s easy to feel down about a bad training session. When I’m injured, I realize that even a bad training session is a gift – because I have the health and ability to actually do it! Over and over, injury has helped me to clarify priorities and cultivate gratitude.
That it is not only okay to be human, but that I can celebrate my humanness – in all its fragility and fallibility. My younger self would look up to top athletes and imagine them executing perfect workouts daily, preparing perfectly for every competition, and racing each race to perfection. I’m a perfectionist myself, and perhaps this perception appealed to that part of me. I don’t know. But there is definitely an “image” of top athletes as these superhuman creatures with a robotic ability to perform. What I’ve learned is that is not true.
I’ve trained and raced with and against World Champions and Olympians, and some of them I’m fortunate enough to call friends. I’ve seen firsthand how they struggle with the same challenges we all do.
The concept of an athlete as a robot is a dangerous one. It’s dramatic for the media to portray athletes as machines of precision, but that reinforces the notion that what it takes to succeed to is to ignore and deny the human side – what some might call our human weaknesses. As a result, athletes think they need to live up to this image, or to project that image, so they sweep emotions and disappointments and imperfections under the rug. A person can only do that for so long before he or she psychologically implodes. That implosion can manifest as physical injury, or mental or emotional injury in the form of depression or anxiety disorders. This has definitely happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to many others.
I’ve learned to accept that my emotional well-being influences the quality of my training and performances, and that by attending to my human side – my relationships, my emotions – I can better attend to my athletic goals and responsibilities. My athlete self is not separate from the self that feels down when my family is facing a tough time, and that does not make me any less of an athlete. Taking a more holistic approach to my mental and physical training has shown me unequivocally that being human is okay, and part of being a successful athlete.