Redefining Success with Olympian Sarah Wells

Redefining Success with Olympian Sarah Wells

by Chris Tompkins | June 3, 2022

Sarah Wells is an Olympic semi-finalist in the 400 metre hurdles, a Pan Am games medalist, and most recently, a contestant on the Amazing Race Canada. After coming back from an injury to compete in the London 2012 Summer Olympics, only to get injured again right before the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic qualifiers, Sarah is an expert on resilience. She has since founded the Believe Initiative, an organization that helps young people achieve their goals through action.

Believing in yourself has nothing to do with accomplishment

The most valuable lesson Sarah took away from her time as an Olympian in London and then an Olympic hopeful before Rio, is that believing in yourself isn’t based on what you achieve, but rather through the actions you take trying to get there. That’s the guiding principle for the Believe Initiative that sees student leaders build resilience through problem solving.

“Each student group identifies a passion and a related problem they want to solve and they do so with the most brilliant projects,” Sarah explains on the Shaping Our World podcast. “They come up with these really creative solutions that ultimately allow them to see what they are truly capable of.”

The importance of redefining success for young people

In speaking of the pressures facing young people today, Sarah cites “success” as this linear idea with a reward, an achievement, or a result at the end — a thing that we can tangibly show — as putting a lot of undue pressure on kids. Her observation has been that kids will either burn themselves out striving for success from an ever-increasing baseline, or let the idea discourage them from even trying in the first place. So, adults have to help kids redefine success. There’s so much more to the pursuit of that goal that is worth celebrating. Part of a Believe Initiative workshop, aptly called “Redefining Success,” helps kids distil their success down to specific steps they had to take to get there — like showing up to every practice — in an attempt to reframe when they think they are being successful.

Spinning the negative into positive

Sarah highlights the importance of spinning the negative into the positive with an anecdote about her time on the Amazing Race Canada. She and her partner had come in second place but had to keep their result a secret for weeks while the show aired. They made it to the end and invited an auditorium full of their closest friends and family to watch the finale, leading everyone in attendance to believe that they had won. But she actually had invited them there to celebrate their failure.

“It is the shortcomings that you build upon for future success,” she says. “We won’t always get the result we wanted, but we’ll find things in ourselves about who we are and what we can accomplish — things that will lend themselves to our future opportunities for success.”

Want to hear more of what Sarah has to say about resilience and how she helps develop it in the students that come through her Believe Initiative? Listen to the Shaping Our World podcast at the top of this post.

Visit our website to discover a variety of other guests that we’ve had on the show. Shaping Our World episodes are also available wherever you get podcasts.

Transcript

[00:00:09.370] – Sarah Wells
Music.

[00:00:11.930] – Chris Tompkins
Well, hey, I’m Chris Tompkins, and welcome to the Shaping Our World podcast. My goal is to invite you into a conversation that will leave you more confident in understanding and inspiring the young people in your life. Each episode, we talk with leading experts and offer relevant resources to dive deeper into the world of our youth today. Today we have Sarah Wells on the show. Obstacles don’t scare Sarah Wells. As a 400 meters hurdler, Sarah earned a reputation for overcoming challenges and achieving the impossible. Take her debut at the London Olympics in 2012, which came despite an injury that had sidelined her for months just a year before. Outside of competitive sports, this athlete is coaching people to pursue their goals through the Believe initiative, an organization founded on fittingly a message of resilience. Most recently, you would have seen Sarah pushing her limits on the latest show of The Amazing Race Canada, where she was able to apply her tactics in a whole new kind of race. Evidently someone who understands the importance of being resilient and the power of purpose. You’ll want to listen up when this Olympic semi finalist and Pan Am Game silver medalist takes the stage today.

[00:01:33.270] – Chris Tompkins
Welcome to show Sarah.

[00:01:34.810] – Sarah Wells
Thank you so much for having me. Chris.

[00:01:36.550] – Chris Tompkins
It’s great to have you join us today and look forward to hearing a bit more about your story and what you do. But as we get into this conversation today, let’s let the listeners get to know you a little bit better. What shaped your world when you were a teenager or a kid?

[00:01:50.370] – Sarah Wells
So it’s funny because the audience will now know that I’m an Olympic athlete. And I think when people hear that, they assume that I was always good at sports. But the person selected first on any team. When I was in high school, I actually got cut from every single team in the 9th grade. And I tried out for so many teams, like basketball, volleyball, soccer, field hockey, badminton, like, literally every team and got cut from every single one of them. And it wasn’t until the springtime of the 9th grade that a high school teacher saw me in gym class and he saw me, like, run up to the soccer ball, get there, probably do nothing with it because I have no skills. And then accelerated away again. And he was like, you should come up with a track team. And I was like, dude, you don’t want me on your team. And he’s like, no, I want to teach you how to hurtle you can really accelerate. And that high school teacher ended up coaching me. And we stayed coach athlete for the next nine years until we made the Olympics together.

[00:02:54.720] – Chris Tompkins
Oh, wow.

[00:02:55.320] – Sarah Wells
And he honestly shaped my world because he believed in me before I ever believed in myself and helped me find my sense of belonging. Something I was enthusiastic about really helped me see something in myself. I didn’t see at that time. And so I owe a lot to that high school teacher and my eventually Olympic coach. So pretty wild experience.

[00:03:18.400] – Chris Tompkins
That’s amazing. And again, we could probably digress from these first few intro questions to dive into that about the power of positive adults who really believe in kids and young people before they even know they believe in themselves. That’s an amazing story. I love hearing that. Sarah. That’s awesome.

[00:03:36.140] – Sarah Wells
Yeah. Very lucky to have him.

[00:03:37.980] – Chris Tompkins
So what’s shaping your world today? Tell us a little bit about you.

[00:03:41.410] – Sarah Wells
So I am very passionate about building resilient leaders in the world. And what’s been really cool is the way that COVID has kind of encouraged all of us to look at how do we be resilient. And that takes the form of how to be resilient in attending school, how to be resilient in creating camp activities, how do we be resilient in creating a home school that we never thought we would be. And so certainly, I think right now a lot of what I’m doing is finding new ways to help, whether it’s corporate leaders or student leaders or teachers bring this into their classroom, tools and resources that allow them to foster a sense of self belief, but also a sense of resilience so that people can take the experience that we’ve all just been through over the last few years. And not just I think people are over talking about the obstacles and how challenging it’s been for all. And we’re all in this together. That’s very real. But I think people are just over it at this time. And so how do we take that and actually look forward? And so for me, it’s really about finding opportunity right now to connect with students, teachers, leaders in different ways and creating programming that can be really impactful in this new hybrid world we’re all about to experience in full force.

[00:05:01.470] – Chris Tompkins
And this is all kind of done under the Believe Initiative. We kind of mentioned that in the intro. Can you just give us a quick snapshot of the kind of things that you’re specifically doing to do that just a little bit of the work you’re doing right now?

[00:05:14.960] – Sarah Wells
Yeah. So the Belief Initiative is the organization I founded while I was actually still in sport. And that came to be very organically because I was having after made the Olympic Games, I had a story to tell about it where I sat out with an injury, sidelined me for months. I’m using air quotes, shouldn’t have made the Olympic Games. And yet I believe in myself. I overcame that challenge. And then six months later, I make the Olympics and blow my own mind. And so I tell people, if you believe in yourself, you achieve your goals. Like, look, that worked for me. And it started the Belief Initiative with just that story, but evolved because four years later, the Olympics came back around and I was now a medal hopeful, and I was top ten in the world, and I was ready to go to the Rio Olympics, win my medal, and retire from sport. And right before the Olympic trials, I actually ended up tearing my hamstring, and I did everything I could to make a comeback, but ultimately didn’t end up qualifying for the Rio Olympics. And that was really hard to swallow because how does Sarah Wells, the Olympian, who I had been known for for four years at that time, Sarah Wells, the Olympian, suddenly doesn’t make the Olympics.

[00:06:27.230] – Sarah Wells
And that was Earth shattering for me. And when I really took the time to reflect, I questioned everything because I thought, well, for four years, I’ve been telling people, if you believe in yourself, you achieve your goals. But now I just believed in myself four years later, and I did not achieve my goal. So is it a sick joke that people just tell you to make you feel better? And I came to realize that I actually believed in myself more strongly after not making the Olympics even more so than when I did. And so clearly, you don’t build self belief through achievements. You build self belief through action. Because I stood on that start line of the Rio Olympic trials, and I went for it anyways. And it didn’t work out the way I had hoped, but it showed me a strength inside that I didn’t know that I had. And so that’s when I founded the Belief initiative as we know it today, which is really to help student leaders build resilience through action. And how they do that is our usual, like, leadership workshop, training, helping them understand how to build confidence, how to be more empathetic.

[00:07:31.900] – Sarah Wells
What are the different styles of leadership? How can they be resilient on a daily basis but then taking all those skills and actually giving them an opportunity to apply them immediately? And we have the students take a passion that they have and a problem that they want to solve, and they use their passion to solve that problem and ultimately build self belief through action. And the types of projects they come up with are brilliant. They’re all types of things from, like, a passion for sneakers and problem want to solve homelessness or a passion for robots. And the problem they want to solve is mental health. And they come up with these really creative solutions that ultimately allow them to see what they are truly capable of. And so that’s the work I’m doing now. And we’ve impacted hundreds of thousands of students. We are all across North America. We love what we get to do. And I never knew I didn’t sit in a classroom and say, one day I’ll become an Olympian, which will allow me to become a motivational speaker, which will allow me to start this organization. And so I just love the possibility of what’s next for all of us.

[00:08:33.930] – Chris Tompkins
Well, so I got some questions about your work with young people and all this stuff. But before we do so I just want to ask this question. You have this incredible experience learning yourself. Why do you want to share that with young people? What inspired you? I know you work with corporate people, but many of us would just chalk up these lessons and apply them to our own lives and maybe share them with a few friends and family along the way. What makes you want to help young people today? Why are you working with students?

[00:09:03.330] – Sarah Wells
So I love that you asked that question. And I actually do this exercise in one of the workshops I deliver. And I have people truly come up with what is like the fire at the Corey of the thing that you want to take action on. In my case, it was to found the Belief initiative and really help target students to make a difference with them. I did this exercise on myself where I started with like, okay, well, why do I want to do that? It’s like, well, I really want to help people realize that they are more resilient than they may even see. It’s like, why do I want students to see that they’re more resilient than they actually Wells? Because I want them to understand that there may be capable of more. And I forget the exact answers that I would have written down seven years ago, but I did that. And why do I want to do that? And why do I want to do that? And why do I want to do that? Five layers deep. And eventually, by the fifth one down, it came to be that the second, last and the last one were, well, I don’t want people to experience that epic low that I felt when I had this goal in mind of making my second Olympic Games.

[00:10:08.510] – Sarah Wells
And it didn’t come true. And I felt like an utter failure. I don’t want anyone to have to go through that. And the fifth why was and why don’t I want anyone to go through that? And it’s like, well, ultimately, I guess that’s because it allows me to have purpose and deal with my own healing, of having that not come true when I can use that story to prevent other people from experiencing that. And so it really came down to honestly, it helps my healing, and it’s inspiring to be around other people who want to better themselves as well. And so I’m doing it for these students because I really do love the impact. But ultimately, I think there is some part that I reflect back on that is for me and for my own journey in healing, something that has left a very deep scar.

[00:10:56.620] – Chris Tompkins
Thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate. I love that. What’s the fire and down to the next level and the layers. That was just good therapy right there, just a quick anecdote. Our listeners probably haven’t even heard me talk about this, but I’m in my mid forty s and I’m still doing youth work and coming alongside kids. For me, similar to you, it’s like I remember how challenging it was to be a young person. And the more I do research, the more I read books, the more I learn about the brain and puberty and the world we live in today. It’s just like, oh, my goodness, I remember what that felt. And as I sit back and look at it, I have all those fields again. And what kind of adult would I have needed in my life? And I had a lot of great support. So this isn’t like I was out on my own, but what kind of people do I need in my life to help me navigate? Like, not make the pain go away, not remove all the obstacles and barriers for disappointment, but help me become more resilient and process things and think things and cheer people on?

[00:12:03.920] – Chris Tompkins
And it’s like, man, if I can inspire other people to do that and maybe myself do that a little bit, then I think it’s a pretty good way to put your head on the pillow at the end of the day and feel like you have some purpose.

[00:12:15.330] – Sarah Wells
Absolutely. I say all the time that I am who I am, and I’ve been so fortunate in experiences I’ve been able to have through sport and otherwise. And a lot of that started because that high school teacher believed in me before I believed in myself. And not everyone gets to have that person in their life, whether it’s a teacher, a parent, a sibling, a mentor, coach, whatever. Not everyone gets to have that person in their life. And so I often say the Belief initiative was created to be that person for as many people as possible.

[00:12:44.090]
Right.

[00:12:44.390] – Sarah Wells
And so I love your kind of thought provoking question for maybe all of us, everyone listening here today to think about what kind of adult did I need at that time? And then how can you mirror those behaviors that maybe didn’t show up that you needed, that you can now be that support for someone else, like your child, your niece, nephew, cousin, friend, whatever it is?

[00:13:05.130] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah. And we could probably push stop right now on the podcast. And it would be a great place to land just to say, what kind of adult do I want to be in the lives of young people today? What do they need? And who can I be that for our own kids or the kids around us that we care about and just showing up and believing in young people? And anyways, we could digress. But parents, if you just want to stop listening now or say, that’s enough, that’s great. But let’s keep going a little bit because I got you for some time and I don’t often get to talk to Olympians. So this is great. So you do spend a lot of time with young people all across the country and traveling and hundreds of thousands like you mentioned. I want to ask you kind of a two part question. You spend a lot of time with kids front row view. What are you noticing in this generation of young people that really encourages you? And then what are some vulnerabilities you’re seeing that you’re kind of concerned about?

[00:14:06.320] – Sarah Wells
Yeah, no, I love that question, actually. And I would say the thing that I’m most encouraged by, and it sounds sad to say, surprised by, but I think that we’re kind of fed some information from the media that says, like, oh, gosh, this next generation, they don’t know how to be resilient. They’ve had it so easy. What are we going to they’re going to be screwed. And I really don’t agree with it because I’m so encouraged by all these students that we engage with through the Believe initiative when they’re given the task of, okay, let’s create your passion project. And how do you want to connect things that feel so separate of this unique passion you have with this issue or need you see in the world? And how do you want to connect those two things? And they are so creative, they’re so imaginative, they’re so thoughtful in the way that they come up with these solutions. And that really gives me hope for what they’re going to be able to do to solve some of these issues that are a really big deal from climate change and world hunger that we have to solve.

[00:15:13.390] – Sarah Wells
And there’s so many different things. But they’re so thoughtful, so creative in their problem solving abilities that I actually am very inspired and very encouraged by that. And so, yeah, I would say I’m encouraged by that. And in terms of the worry or area of concern I might have is also just the amount of pressure the youth put on themselves, at least in North America, for sure, is where I am exposed the most. So I’ll speak mostly to that. But there are so many opportunities now, and the University application has become, oh, my goodness, like, just absurd how heavy of a lift it is. They feel the need to say yes to everything, and they can’t just join a club. They need to lead a club, and they can’t just be at camp. They got to be a camp director. It’s just so much pressure to be at the top of every pyramid in order to stand out. And they feel this and they wear themselves so thin. And I think that there’s this insane expectation that their highest level of success is their new baseline. And that’s so unfair because success isn’t a linear path.

[00:16:30.970] – Sarah Wells
You hit this checkpoint and you never go back. Like, take my own experience, for example. I made the Olympics in London, but then four years later, as top ten in the world. I didn’t make the Olympics, and so I didn’t end on the pinnacle. I actually ended on what felt like the bottom. And I think that there’s such a pressure on these students to be the best of everything and say yes to all things and find a way to make it work and be better at time management. And if you’re not, it’s on you. It’s not the circumstance, it’s you who can’t figure it out. And so I hope for them that they’re able to see that gathering experience is one of the most important things that they can emphasize. And it’s not about winning everything and being able to put it all on their plate, but instead having a lens of scrutiny of what will make the most meaningful impact on my experiences. I need to gather in order to be the person I want to be or do the thing I want to do because it doesn’t have to be everything.

[00:17:27.720] – Chris Tompkins
Right. Yeah. So let’s talk about that from a bit of attention standpoint and totally resonate with what you’re saying. So the question I would have is how can we encourage young people to aspire to things to set goals? Like, what does success really look like? Because you put out kind of one end of the spectrum and going like, kids are trying to do everything right and being the best at everything, but we probably have some parents of teenagers, particularly, who’s, like my kid, doesn’t really.

[00:17:56.820] – Sarah Wells
Want to do anything.

[00:17:58.150] – Chris Tompkins
How do I inspire passion and movement forward? So talk about goal setting and success. I’m sure you have some amazing tools and things that you would say around that. What can you say to parents or youth leaders or people who want to come alongside to inspire young people in what you’re saying to have kind of realistic understandings of what success and goals can look like in this season of their life?

[00:18:21.870] – Sarah Wells
Yeah. Well, I think on the flip side of a student who feels the need to say yes and does say yes versus the student who maybe tries to just not put anything on their plate is there is a world that exists that the same fear is affecting both types of students, leading to opposite results.

[00:18:40.890] – Chris Tompkins
Right.

[00:18:41.340] – Sarah Wells
And that could be the fear of not being successful. And so that student who doesn’t want to do anything might just say, well, there’s no point in trying. I’m not going to do it well, and I’m not going to get top of the class. And that’s what’s required of me to get into anything. Why even bother? Or I did it last time and it didn’t work out. And so what a waste of time. Like, I can’t believe I even did it. And so there’s two kinds of things of advice I have here which both kind of lend themselves to each other. But the first is to help your young person redefine success and I think many of us, myself included, even all the way through sport. It’s like we see success as award, achievement, outcome, result, a thing that we can tangibly show. Here’s what I did. Here’s what I have to prove for it. This is why I can tell you it went well. And there’s so much more to the pursuit of that goal that is worth celebrating. And I have an exercise in a workshop that I run students through. They called Redefine Success.

[00:19:40.860] – Sarah Wells
And we have them look at what are moments in their lives they remember feeling successful, and that can take on many ways. It can be like when you did win an award or when you felt like a really great friend and you stood up for someone or you won your video game, you went the furthest with your friends. What is the moment that you remember being successful and then have them reflect on who do you think you needed to be in the weeks leading into that or the months leading into that? How did you show up daily? And they may say, well, I had to be really persistent on daily tuning into my video game, getting better and getting and hitting this bad guy. And I didn’t win, but I was persistent. I kept showing up every single day, and I kept trying to fight him to get through that checkpoint. Or maybe if it’s when they won an award or something, it’s like, well, I had to be really disciplined in doing my homework to win the spelling Bee or whatever. And so we have them reflect on those key traits that they showed up, as in the weeks and months leading into that.

[00:20:41.040] – Sarah Wells
And then we have them kind of distill those down through a series of steps where they then leave with a new success criteria that they can see that. Okay, well, if these are the character traits that led me to those successful moments, well, then maybe I am successful when I am and they insert whatever words we end up distilling down to. Like I said, we filter them. So it’s like they start with like 25, and eventually they get down to like three. But it’s like I am successful when I am determined, disciplined, and believe in myself.

[00:21:10.670]
Right.

[00:21:11.160] – Sarah Wells
And now with that new success criteria, they can say every time they go to do something, if they get the result. Cool. Was that these things probably if they don’t get the result, it’s not a failure anymore because they come back to the success criteria. And Sarah Wells, was I disciplined, determined, and believed in myself? Yeah. Every day, the whole time I was. So did I get the thing I wanted? No. Am I successful? Heck, yeah, I was. Look, I was all the things that eventually will lead me to success. And so it wasn’t this time, but this is just a milestone step on the path to the next thing that will be my success point.

[00:21:43.100] – Chris Tompkins
I love that. And whether it’s a formal process, it’s a great reminder for us to parents. I just even conditioned myself with my daughter to say if you’re trying out for a team or you’re doing a test, what’s my questions like around that? Like what grade did you get or how did you do rather than did you put your best foot forward?

[00:22:01.800] – Sarah Wells
Yeah. Who are you leading into that right.

[00:22:04.940] – Chris Tompkins
And so even the kind of questions I ask around something that my daughter is doing, I think feeds into exactly this process that you were talking about.

[00:22:14.480] – Sarah Wells
Absolutely.

[00:22:15.390] – Chris Tompkins
I loved what you said about self belief. And I know that’s something you talk about. Right. The power of self belief. And I’m sure redefining success. And this process you talked about really helps that. Is there anything else you could help us as people that care about young people who are noticing? I feel like my kids doesn’t really believe in themselves. Like, how do I get to that point? Is there anything else before we talk about resilience that you could kind of add in to help us help young people really believe in who they are and what they can do? Yeah.

[00:22:45.780] – Sarah Wells
And I’ll say that this kind of lends itself as the I know I mentioned that in order for a student who doesn’t necessarily want to do all things, how would we get them to take action? And so this answer is both, how do they build sense belief and how do they take action? If you have a student who doesn’t necessarily want to seemingly do anything, and that is to celebrate the shortcomings as often as we’re celebrating the successes. And I’ll use a different example here than sport. But another kind of fun fact about me is that I was on The Amazing Race and yeah, it was a pretty wild experience. I never thought I would do reality TV, but here I am and it was a blast. It was insane. You do crazy challenges. For those of you that don’t know what The Amazing Race is, it’s an epic scavenger Hunt all over the world. You do wild challenges and there’s ten checkpoints. If you’re the last team to a checkpoint, you get eliminated. So you start with ten teams and you Whittle your way down to the winners and I’m going to ruin it for you.

[00:23:42.620] – Sarah Wells
But I’m Amazing Race Canada season seven, and how it ends is that my Amazing Race partner? He’s a training partner of mine. His name’s Sam FA. Sam and I end up getting second. And we were devastated because the winners of The Amazing Race Canada win a quarter million dollars a trip around the world and two cars. And the second place runner up of Amazing Race Canada gets nothing.

[00:24:10.840] – Chris Tompkins
A high five.

[00:24:11.850] – Sarah Wells
A high freaking five. And we were so sad. And the hilarious part is that when we finished filming, we couldn’t tell anyone what had happened. And so the show starts airing, and we make it on and make it on and make it on. And we get to the final episode. And Sam and I decided to rent a 500 person auditorium and invite everyone we’ve ever met to come and watch the final episode with us. We did a social media contest. We did this whole thing. And because of that, every single person was like, Holy Moly, you win 100%, you win. Like, there’s no way you would never do this if you didn’t win. I cannot wait to see you win. And on the day of the show, we are watching it on the big screen in this auditorium. And in the final moments, everyone watches us run up and get second, and it cuts the commercial break. And we had actually hired an MC for the event to ask us questions on the commercial break so that one could get an inside scoop. And so we come up onto the stage during that commercial break, and I’m bawling, and I’m just reminded of all the emotions I felt like in falling short, in missing something that could have been a pretty lifechanging size of money.

[00:25:25.290] – Sarah Wells
And everyone is in the audience. And so the MC says, Sarah, I can see you’re upset. Why don’t you tell everyone what’s going through your head? And I looked at the audience and I said, we made a really big deal out of tonight. And I know because of that, many of you thought we won, but we didn’t invite you here because we won. We invited you here because we didn’t. And it is just as important to celebrate the shortcomings as it is to celebrate the successes, and that will always inspire our next chapter. That will always be the reason we build a sense of self belief because we realize how truly capable we are. We won’t always get the result we wanted, but we’ll find things in ourselves of who we are and what we can accomplish and things that will lend themselves to our future opportunities for success. And so my thought behind telling you this story is really that we can build a sense of self belief by celebrating these shortcoming moments and finding the reasons why they’re going to inspire the next chapter. And sometimes it’s like if I think about things that people I could never celebrate, my kid lied or they cheated.

[00:26:34.650] – Sarah Wells
And it’s like, well, there is something to celebrate in that. You could say, where do you think you went wrong? What were the things that led to this? Was it the people you were hanging around? Was it the attitude you brought to the table? Is it whatever? And if they can identify that, suddenly that’s where we’re celebrating, because now we have identified a thing that we can prevent coming up in the future. And we need to celebrate that instead of only condemn the thing that went wrong. And that’s how we can build a sense of self belief, and that’s how we can inspire someone who maybe doesn’t want to take action into action.

[00:27:11.170] – Chris Tompkins
Man, I talked to a lot of people about a lot of things, and that one is sticking with me.

[00:27:19.390] – Sarah Wells
Go ahead.

[00:27:20.300] – Chris Tompkins
Honestly, Sarah, I’m going to remember that story. Throw a party for second place.

[00:27:24.930] – Sarah Wells
Yes.

[00:27:25.830] – Chris Tompkins
How unbelievably thought provoking and inspiring that is. I’m just thinking back to so many times where we could lean into disappointment or what seemingly is not the measurement of success, to find a gift in it and a learning and a step forward. And, man, that is so powerful. So I do want to talk a bit about that because I think this is a great transition to helping young people believe in themselves, redefining success. Okay. But then what happens when things go wrong and pain and uncomfortableness sets in and discomfort or it doesn’t seem like success, and that’s where resilience really works itself in there. So talk to me a little bit about how do you approach the topic of resilience? Like, we talked about success and setting yourself up to goals and what’s possible, what happens when it all goes wrong? How do we build resilience in young people?

[00:28:25.300] – Sarah Wells
So I think it is a little bit you can build resilience, and that’s celebrating the shortcomings as well.

[00:28:31.580] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah.

[00:28:32.070] – Sarah Wells
But another thing I’ll say in this is one, you need time. When I think about missing qualifying for the Olympics, I actually quit sport for a whole year where I couldn’t go to a track. I couldn’t go and look at it. It would deplete me to even just be at the track because I felt like it hurt me. It burned me. I think we don’t always need to bounce back immediately. And it’s okay to take some time to wallow in yourself pity and feel bad about it and feel sad and cry and talk to people about how garbage this feels and time bound that if you can. And I would encourage DAREarts to say, like, look, I get it. You picture a student sitting in, like the bottom of a well and the parent is up on the top of at ground level. What you don’t want to do is say, hey, down there, everything’s okay. Don’t worry. Just come up here. That’s totally fine. Come on. It’s going to get better. Come up here instead. You want to get in the Wells with them. You want to really say, yeah, I hear you. That sounds awful.

[00:29:44.530] – Sarah Wells
That sounds so hard. And really just listen in those moments, because that will allow them to help process that thing and give them the time to feel those things. And you don’t have to bounce back. They don’t have to get up to the top of the well immediately and maybe talk about it with them of like, how long do you think you’re going to need for this. And I don’t know, it’s terrible. It’s like, okay, can I check back in with you in three days? Yeah. Okay, great. Like, now they know you’re not going to bug them every day. When are you going to get out of the well? You’re going to check back in at the time that you gave them. And then eventually, hopefully, they come to a place where they’re like, I need another week to be sad. And you’re like, okay, great. In another week, we can do this. And then after that, let’s focus forward. Let’s figure out what we can do. And so by crawling into the well with them, you really show empathy. You really hear them. You really try to mirror what they’re going through. And then after you’ve kind of given them time, you can focus forward.

[00:30:35.870] – Sarah Wells
You can celebrate the shortcomings and see what’s going to inspire that next chapter. So that’s one thing. The other thing that I’ll say in terms of, like, when you get stuck in a rut during bad cycles, I feel like they’re just kind of endless. My piece of advice and tactic here would be around journaling. So when I was training, I had bad workouts. Of course, I had bad workouts days where I just absolutely bonked times were way off what I felt like I should have done or I got beat in a race by a girl. I’m like, what the heck? Like, this girl should never have beat me. And we can tell ourselves a story when things go wrong that sometimes is completely untrue. And in this case, in training, it’s like if I had a bad workout on a Monday and then had another bad workout on a Saturday, I would, like, start to convince myself why I’m on a trajectory that’s completely down and how I’m so terrible and how I’ve had a terrible training week and how the whole month has actually been bad. And, like, actually, I’m not even good at sports.

[00:31:32.530] – Sarah Wells
You come up with this whole narrative that’s just so colorful in a negative light. And so when things are going wrong, I really encourage people to actually keep a Journal of each day. What are you working on? What went well and what are the things surrounding the goal? And for me, that looked like writing out what was the workout, what were my times, what was happening in my life? What did I eat leading into that workout? What was happening in my schooling at that time? So then that way, if I had a bad workout, I could look back and say, okay, well, was today a bad workout? Yeah, I did not do a good job. Was this actually a bad week? No, actually, I had two good workouts between my two bad workouts. So this actually hasn’t been a write off of a week. And you know what? Actually this entire month, if I go back a whole month, like, look, I actually have improved quite a bit, even though in this immediate week, it doesn’t feel like I’ve taken a leap and bound. There’s more to this than I even realized.

[00:32:24.610]
Right.

[00:32:25.040] – Sarah Wells
And again, through highlighting some of the steps that we Zoom out, we suddenly realize that maybe that path is more on a greater projection than we’ve previously thought. And now we can suddenly realize that I actually am okay. And I can keep building forward. And I actually feel inspired to show up tomorrow because this isn’t as bad as I thought. And so that’s kind of the second way, I would say is like Journal as a way that we can kind of build up that sense of self belief when things are going awry.

[00:32:55.520] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah, that’s so helpful. And what I found in my own journaling, too, is it doesn’t just help you in the moment, but it gives you something to look back on when you get in, maybe different types of feeling stuck. And you’re like’man, this is the journey I was in and what I was learning. And that’s not where I am today. Right. And so it allows you to kind of go back and reflect on that.

[00:33:21.660]
Absolutely.

[00:33:22.690] – Chris Tompkins
I love that. That’s really good. And I love the time bound piece, too, because I always find the tension, Sarah, of like, getting into the well, I love that I try to practice that and let emotions be emotions. But you also kind of want to start helping. Okay. There’s some good things to look forward to. Like you said, there’s a silver lining in this that we might want to start looking at. And so not going there too soon and not staying too long. And the commiseration is important, too. And so giving it like, how long do you think you need? What do you do with kids who, you know, we’re going through a tough time, but they’re like, I’m fine, it’s not a big deal. They didn’t make the team. And you can tell when kids are kind of like, it’s fine, it doesn’t bother me. But you’re like, no, I know it does.

[00:34:08.120] – Sarah Wells
Right, right.

[00:34:08.940] – Chris Tompkins
Because I know sometimes kids want to communicate on their own terms, too. Right. And so we know they’re disappointed, but they’re kind of pretending it’s okay and wanting to move quickly through it. Or is that okay?

[00:34:20.450] – Sarah Wells
Well, I think it’s a parent’s desire to want to be able to put their kid in the best possible position to thrive and be successful. But unfortunately, a parent can try as hard as they want. But if the kid isn’t in it to do that for themselves, you can only do so much. And so what I would encourage a parent in that case to do is continue to ask questions because you don’t understand what they’re actually feeling when they’re like, it’s okay. And so maybe ask like, okay, and what about this makes you feel like it is okay? Is it because there’s something else going on because you’re focusing actually on somewhere else. Or maybe you don’t even give them the suggestions. Just ask them, like, what about this makes it feel okay, just so I can understand, too. And you really try to come from a place of, like, trying to understand because maybe you yourself as a parent is projecting onto them. You would have felt bad if you got cut from the team. And so you’re assuming that they must feel bad and they’re just hiding it from you. And it’s like, well, you really don’t know that.

[00:35:22.300] – Sarah Wells
And so coming from a place of trying to understand is probably the only thing you can do as a parent in that moment because you can’t force your kid to care. You can’t force your kid to get there if they’re not ready to process those emotions. And so, unfortunately, the best thing you can do is continue to ask questions so that you come to understand. But you also, in that way, do help them come to an understanding of their own feelings as well.

[00:35:48.520] – Chris Tompkins
Yeah, that’s really helpful. So, Sarah, what are some resources or things that you can suggest to parents that are kind of helping their kids do all the things that we’ve talked about today, like even specific to what you’re doing? We have teachers and youth workers Wells us a little bit about what you do and then anything else that would be helpful for parents as they’re defining success or helping their kids overcome some obstacles or work through resilience.

[00:36:12.970] – Sarah Wells
Yeah. So if anyone was interested in learning more about the Believe initiative and the kind of keynotes and workshops that we run, whether you’re a parent who’s on your kids school Council or something like that, then I would be more than excited to hear from you. If you have opportunities where you think my message could be helpful to an audience, you can go to Believeinitiative.com and just hit the Contact US page, and that will head over to our team to try to set something up in terms of if there is a teacher out there. We actually do run Believe chapters at schools, which are where we look for a student leader to be our chapter head. We at the Belief team train that chapter head, and then they launch the Believe chapter at your school and teach their members leadership lessons. And then all of those members do those belief passion projects we talked about earlier of passion and problem, and then they build self belief through action. So we are looking for high schools all across Canada right now who want to launch a chapter at your school. So if that’s something you think your school would be interested in is 100% free for the Believe chapter program.

[00:37:17.180] – Sarah Wells
And so we’d love to hear from you. And again, you can just reach out@bellivenitiative.com and we’ll get you guys set up to become a Believe chapter. And I just want to say Chris thank you so much for having me on because it’s been really fun. Your questions are very thoughtful and engaging and I do a lot of podcasts and I’ve really appreciated your questions.

[00:37:34.730] – Chris Tompkins
Well thank you so much, Sarah and honestly even to take this I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and to quickly summarize it for me it was like man who are the young people that I believe in and can speak into, what does it mean to celebrate disappointments and how do you get in the well with them in the midst of tough times? So even just that is so inspiring. Thank you so much for your Tim, NASA. I really appreciate it and all the best in your work as you inspire young people all across.

[00:38:03.250] – Sarah Wells
Thank you so much, Chris.

 

About the Author

headshot of Chris Tompkins
Chris Tompkins leads the senior leadership team in bringing the Muskoka Woods vision to life. He holds a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Guelph, a teacher’s college degree from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Youth Development from Clemson University. His experience leading in local community, school, church and camp settings has spanned over 20 years. His current role and expertise generates a demand for him to speak with teens and consult with youth leaders. Chris hosts the Muskoka Woods podcast, Shaping Our World where he speaks with youth development experts. He is an avid sports fan who enjoys an afternoon with a big cup of coffee and a good book. Chris resides in Stouffville, Ontario with his wife and daughter.
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