Tennis champ Naomi Osaka, long-distance cyclist Mark Beaumont, and the British Paralympic team all have one thing in common. Laura Penhaul oversaw the mental and physical preparation of these athletes.
Laura understands the mentality of athletes and the challenges they face because she put herself in their shoes. In 2015, Laura was the team leader of the first all-female crew to row the Pacific Ocean, an incredible feat captured in the documentary, Losing Sight of Shore. The journey earned her two world records.
Laura embarked on this journey to gain insight into what her athletes go through when faced with the question of wanting to give up. She joined my “Now to Next” podcast on the fifth anniversary of her rowing team’s successful navigation of the Pacific Ocean to share her insights on human-centered performance.
Begin With the End in Mind
Regular podcast listeners know stories like Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow’s or Kara Goldin’s stories. Both are enormously successful entrepreneurial ventures that emerged over time from a simple, even small idea.
On the other hand, in the world of human-centered performance, you begin with the end in mind. Laura’s vision of crossing the Pacific included making world records with an all-female crew.
The idea took some time to develop. Laura wasn’t a rower, but as a physiotherapist and performance coach, she wanted to put herself in a situation where giving up was not an option– to the point where her crew didn’t have a rescue boat go alongside them, because she knew if there was an easy way off the boat, someone would likely take it. She wanted to experience what she would draw on for strength.
Laura’s journey to the starting line took over three years, with multiple co-rowers and outside consultants to help her see from a different perspective and lead a truly balanced team.
Rather than tell you the whole remarkable story here, I’d rather direct you to the documentary Losing Sight of Shore – Everyone has a Pacific to cross. We’ll dive into what happened after Laura crossed the finish line.
Re-Entry After the Bubble
After nine months rowing the Pacific Ocean, arriving at home to see the genuinely relieved faces of her family and cheering fans, Laura wasn’t ready for the process of re-entry.
At first, she felt tremendous, and life at home seemed strangely normal. Some things had changed—she got on the bus, shocked to discover they no longer accepted cash.
Laura quickly went back to work and on to coach at the Paralympic Games. Then, at three months in, she hit a wall. She couldn’t exercise and had become ill.
From this experience and working with clients, Laura realized after a bubble of intense experience or significant achievement, you have to be disciplined about re-entry. Your life seems the same, but you are different, and your body and mind need time to integrate what happened. In a way, you grieve your old life and move into acceptance of the new version.
Today, she applies the “three days, three weeks, three months” guideline for re-entry for her athletes. For the first three days, she recommends staying at home and getting back into your own headspace with no demands or expectations on your time. By about three weeks, you should be ready to integrate more with friends and family, and about three months is when life really picks up and gets back to a normal pace.
Mindset Makes a Difference
Working as a physiotherapist in a trauma center that aimed to optimize function return, walking mobility, and neurological abilities, Laura’s patients included people with significant injuries like a lost limb. Repeatedly over time, she had seen mindset make the seemingly impossible happen.
Two people can have opposite reactions to the same experience. For example, if an IED detonates and severely injures someone in a military context, one soldier will be relieved, “Thank God I’m alive!” while another will mourn, “Why didn’t it kill me?”
Healing includes a multitude of factors, and mindset is one of them. Family support is another big help to recovery.
Laura has seen people with significant head injuries who could not sit up on their own, talk, or focus, up and walking a year and a half later because of their driven and focused nature and family support.
I love that Laura’s approach has a theme of seeing solutions, not barriers, which is a powerful way to approach mindset because it motivates persistence. You have to see beyond the difficulty to the solution.
I see this in play with my three kids. I want to teach them to be persistent advocates for themselves. I do my best to model that for them, but it’s a hard thing to teach. It’s a balance of being respectful and also continuing to push them to persevere.
Adapt to Survive and Thrive
If you’ve never heard of the Paralympic Games, they are a whole other Olympics that are more mind-blowing, in many cases, because of who the athletes are and what they’ve had to overcome to compete.
Laura works with Paralympic athletes and is inspired and motivated by how her clients adapt to find ways to function—from day-to-day life, like cooking and transport, to the skills that got them on the main stage. They adapt to make the most of what function they have and go beyond just living life to compete internationally.
When you see what these athletes can do, it inspires you to draw more from yourself. Seeing the Paralympic athletes makes you feel like you can’t take life for granted.
Lasting Success Requires a Balanced Life
Laura has found people who have a well-balanced life perform better. Naturally, it depends on what your goals are. Sometimes you have a specific timeline and have to be laser-focused.
However, a balanced life supports you if something unexpected happens, like an injury. You have more going for you than just sport, and your identity is not swept out from underneath you.
As a physiotherapist, she’s also seen how a balanced life can help people heal faster. After surgery or injury, the body needs time and attention to recover. People who are too stressed and intense about returning to their former function tend to push too hard and delay their healing.
On the other hand, patients who have other things that keep them busy and happy, like a family or a business, have enough acceptance to be patient with the healing process.
They Believe It When They See It
I asked Laura how her friends and family supported her when she first told them she was going to row across the Pacific. She said about 10% were supportive, and 90% were doubtful or thought she was crazy initially.
Her mother was outwardly supportive but secretly terrified. Her brother was confident it wasn’t going to happen until about two months before her launch.
Laura’s story and her work are inspiring. You can see her whole journey in the documentary Losing Sight of the Shore.
After her cross-ocean row, Laura founded Adaptive Performance. She helps people optimize their abilities and helps them reach their potential through performance management support. With a focus on human-centered performance, Laura helps people find their inner drive to overcome challenges and obstacles, even outside of the elite sporting world.
You can follow Laura Penhaul on Twitter or Instagram. And you can learn more about her by watching or listening to our full “Now to Next” episode on YouTube or your favorite podcasting platform. And, as always, you can direct any questions you have to me too.