When Courtney Frerichs competed in the Olympic steeplechase final on August 4, the event’s American record holder recalled the challenges she overcame to be on the start line in Tokyo.
Before the race, Frerichs, 28, placed a temporary tattoo with the word “belong” on his left wrist. This became her mantra after months earlier, she went through overwhelming anxiety, sought the support of a therapist, and finally reframed her mindset to regain her confidence and joy in running.
And in this race, Frerichs more than proved that she belonged to this Olympic final; she ran the race of her life.
With four laps to go, Frerichs made a brave move to take the lead and eventually crossed the finish line second behind Ugandan Peruth Chemutai, who caught up with the American with less than 300 meters to go and was escaped just before the last jump into the water. Chemutai won gold in 9: 01.45 and behind her, Frerichs finished in 9: 04.79 for silver, the best Olympic performance for an American in steeplechase.
Frerichs’ momentum didn’t stop there. After Tokyo, she ran to Classic Prefontaine in Eugene, Ore., where she was second in 8: 57.77, lowering her own American record in the steeplechase and becoming the first American to beat 9:00 in that event.
A few days after finishing his historic season with a third place in the Zurich Diamond League meet, The runner’s world caught up with Frerichs to learn how she refined her mental game to become what she believes to be the best version of herself on and off the track.
Set goals that aren’t performance driven
Since finishing 11th in the steeplechase at the Rio 2016 Games, her first appearance at the Olympics, Frerichs has focused on improving her result in Tokyo. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced officials to postpone the 2020 Games last year, Frerichs feared her best opportunity to win an Olympic medal would be lost, she said.
“I am really goal oriented and therefore when all performance goals have been met [away] because there were no competitions, it was really hard to get through a lot of these very difficult training and to put the same level of attention on training, ”she said. The runner’s world. “I felt a little lost.
Amid the uncertainty, Frerichs decided she needed to set goals that weren’t related to performance and focus on becoming a better athlete without competitions. For example, she set the intention to improve her attitude during workouts and listen more to her body. In the past, Frerichs often forced the mileage and rarely took days off; this time around, she took days off and found a better balance between working hard and recovering.
She also found motivation by running distances outside of her flagship event in intra-team meets hosted by her training group, the Bowerman Track Club (BTC) based in Portland, Ore.
“I think [intrasquad competition] helped me grow as a versatile runner and not just as a steeplechaser, ”she said.
When she arrived in Tokyo, Frerichs was even more grateful for the opportunity to be present at her second Olympics. “It almost took some of the pressure off because I was just like, wow, we made it here,” she said.
Lean and build on your support system
In 2017, Frerichs won silver at the 2017 IAAF World Championships, his first world championship medal. The performance brought her great joy at the time, Frerichs recalls, but months later she felt weakened by the extreme pressure of accomplishment. “I think I tried too hard to aim for perfection in my training and my races,” said Frerichs. The runner’s world in 2019. “It actually started to get very overwhelming, and I started to have a really hard time training. “
In 2018, Frerichs enlisted the support of a sports psychologist, who helped the steeplechaser overcome her struggle with comparison and practice mental tools to focus on running her best run, not a perfect run. The advice helped Frerichs establish a American record of the time at the 2018 Diamond League meeting in Monaco, where she finished in 9: 00.85.
But Frerichs said she had quit working with the sports psychologist and over time her perfectionist side started to weigh her down again. When she suffered a hamstring injury in the fall of 2020 – the first injury that forced her to miss training with the team – the backhand became too much to bear.
“It was a whole new job for me, and although it was a very manageable injury, it was new stress,” she said. “And I think that put me on my toes in terms of training and performance anxiety.”
During the Christmas break in 2020, Frerichs and her husband Griffin Humphreys were doing a workout together. When Griffin started to pick up the pace, Courtney started to panic, breathing very hard to the point where they had to stop running. She said Griffin, who just got a master’s degree in positive coaching from the University of Missouri, had to calm her down and talk to her for the rest of the session so she could finish training.
“[Griffin] told me, he felt like I was never going to accomplish what I was capable of if I didn’t understand how to deal with training anxiety, ”said Frerichs. “I knew not only from his experience as a coach, but also from the amount of reading and exposure to the subject, I knew [he] came from the right place. He wasn’t the one trying to tell me what to do. He really cared about him. It was the first time that I was told that maybe we should fix this problem.
In January 2021, Frerichs suffered another panic attack during track training at BTC’s high-altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona. After training, she shared her struggles with BTC assistant coach and 2017 New York Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan. Frerichs said Flanagan had helped her find a therapist who was also running, which made a huge difference in her life in and outside of racing.
“[My therapist] could have been a combination of sports psychology, but also just therapy, ”she said. “We take care of everything rather than just being tied to performance. I began to realize how so many of these struggles were present in life as well. I think back to school, to my childhood, there was this innate perfectionism that obviously stood out a lot in running, but which was still there.
Get involved in your mental health
In February, Frerichs began working with his therapist on a weekly basis, a big change from previous periods of sporadically seeing a sports psychologist to help him improve his performance.
“[My therapist] is just a part of my team that I rely on to get to the start line and keep working with it, even though I’m starting to run well because that was the mistake I made before ”, a she declared. “As soon as I started to run well I thought I got it, but you never know when a new stress or something different is going to kick in where you really need that person to help you to go through this. “
In therapy, Frerichs has acquired several tools that help him cope with perfectionism, increase his self-confidence, and embrace the ups and downs of life. Together, they identified Frerichs’ tendency to stop breathing if she becomes anxious or nervous. Now the first thing she does if the pace unexpectedly increases during a workout, for example, is to focus on her breathing instead of going into a panic. She’s also learned to accept that her journey won’t be linear, but now she relies more on her support system to navigate adversity.
“[Therapy] was honestly the most positive change, ”she said. “It was really great to hear the coaches talk about how they could see how much happier I was. You always hear how the most successful happy runners are. I just never wanted to accept how miserable I was, which is sad because I run because I love it and therefore to run to make myself so miserable was hard to grasp. I didn’t want to admit it to myself.
Put these tools into practice
Frerichs also continued to set mantras for running and training, a practice she acquired over the years. This season, “belong” was the word frequently used to remind Frerichs that she belonged to every starting line and could compete in any practice, no matter who was running next to her.
The mantra was particularly motivating when his coach, Jerry Schumacher, asked him to take the lead in the Tokyo final if the pace was slow. Hearing this race plan, Frerichs recalled his BTC teammate Evan Jager executing the same strategy in the men’s steeplechase final of the Rio 2016 Olympics; his efforts led him to a silver medal.
“I just remember being so amazed at the way he went up front, and he took the race and did what he needed to do with it,” recalls Frerichs. “I felt like it showed him that he was the best of himself that day. It was he who didn’t think about what others were doing, but what to do. And I thought to myself, I wanted to have a moment like this in my career.
Five years later, Frerichs trusted his coach and mirrored Jager’s strategy by taking the lead in Tokyo, aiming to be his best in this race, regardless of the outcome. And the effort paid off.
“We think those great times in life, everything has to go perfectly for them to happen. But times happen when you just embrace the ups and downs and all that comes with working towards some really great ones. goals rather than forcing it to look one way, “Frerichs said.” I think that was the really big change from two years ago. I stopped feeling like I had to put it all in one direction. box, and I accepted everything and stood at the start line with gratitude for the opportunity.
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