Athletic pursuits can — and should — foster intense feelings of gratitude and joy. There should never be room for fear or desperation. My mission is to help athletes tap into the joy of athletic expression and to teach them to use it to fuel their athletic careers and to live more fulfilling lives.
As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Helwick.
Chris Helwick is a 35-year-old professional decathlete and self-proclaimed “born-again athlete.” He was first introduced to the decathlon by his high school coach at age 17 and went on to become a 7-time All-American at the University of Tennessee. At the end of his college career, Chris’ chances of making an Olympic team looked promising, so he spent the following five years training as a professional decathlete in hopes of reaching the pinnacle of his sport — the Olympic Games.
After finishing 5th at the 2012 Olympic Trials, just two spots shy of making the team, Helwick retired, certain his track and field career was over. But the years following his retirement opened his eyes to a side of sports he’d never seen before: an outsider’s perspective.
Until he retired at age 27, athletics were always at the center of Chris’ life. Chris recalls feeling like he let go of the most significant part of his identity when we walked off the track for the final time in 2012. He spent the next few years reflecting on his experiences as a professional athlete and developing as a person. This period of reflection and transformation broadened his perspective on sports and gave him a deeper appreciation for his own athleticism. This is why he considers himself a born-again athlete.
In 2018, Chris announced he’d be coming out of retirement to make a third and final attempt at the Olympic decathlon. Chris now trains full time at Colorado State University where he serves as a volunteer assistant coach for the Ram’s Track and Field team, passing on the lessons of his own athletic journey to the next generation of athletes. Chris will compete in his third and final US Olympic Trials next June in hopes of qualifying for the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in a mid-sized town in northern Colorado called Greeley. Athletics were always a part of my life growing up, partly because I had a natural affinity for them and partly because they were a family value. My dad was a talented basketball player when he was younger and continued to compete in various sports well into his 40s. He was also a savvy guy who gave me every athletic opportunity I ever had. My mom was a sharp woman, too, but she was more of a source of unconditional support rather than strategic planning. As for me, soccer and track were always the most significant plot lines running through my life as a kid. I first started playing soccer at age four and continued through high school. My track and field career began at age 9 and is still going strong to this day (I’m now 35).
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
I’m currently in my second career as a professional decathlete, and the inspiration this time around is much different than the first — hence the “born-again athlete” title.
Towards the end of my earlier career, I lost sight of what was truly important. I hit a performance plateau during the final three years of my career and wasn’t seeing the kind of success I was hoping for, like making an Olympic team or winning a national title. I was still performing at a high level, but I wasn’t getting any better, and that was frustrating. The longer I stalled out, the more I got down on myself. I was so desperate for that next hit of achievement and recognition that I lost touch with the real engine that drives a major endeavor like this — the love of expressing one’s athleticism.
So, after I retired, I thought it was all over. I had been competing in decathlons for over a decade straight by this point, and I’d been a competitive athlete for as long as I could remember. I knew my life was about to change in some major ways, because the thing that had defined me my entire life — athletics — was now gone.
This was a new and wide-open space for me. Free from the pressure and expectations I’d been lugging around for the past several years, physical activity started to feel playful and inviting again — just like it had when I was a kid. Athletic movements were no longer a means to validation, nor did they pose a threat to my self-image if I didn’t do them well enough. My only measures of success were now health and enjoyment. Intrinsic satisfaction had become the only prize to be won.
Over time, this new way of experiencing physical activity opened my eyes to just how important my athletic expression was to me. Having stripped away the context of competition, I found that I still loved the challenge and the artistry of athletic movement. This desire had always burned inside of me, but throughout my mid-20’s I lost touch with it. Instead, I went chasing after the allures of status and recognition when I should have stayed grounded to the source of what makes all great achievements possible: the love of the work itself.
I’m as surprised as anyone to be making yet another run at the Olympic decathlon. However, the years I spent away from track and field helped me realize the purpose and value of being an athlete, and I feel compelled to serve as an example of how to do it better. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned up to this point in my life, and I hope my rebirth into athletics brings value and enjoyment to the careers of younger athletes everywhere.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My parents have always been my strongest source of support, and it’s them I have to thank for any success I’ve had in my life. Growing up, I was given a wealth of opportunities and the freedom to create my own destiny. My parents are smart, sensible, loving people, and I’m extremely grateful for the way they raised me.
Outside of my family, however, there was one particular coach who influenced my athletic career more than any other — a man named Scott Hall.
Scott was the first track coach I ever had at age 9, and he was also the last coach I had when I retired from the decathlon at age 27. I first met Scott in 1994 when my dad signed me up for a youth summer track program called C.A.R.A. Track. Scott was a college track coach in the town we both lived in, and he and his wife served as the directors of the C.A.R.A. Track program during the summer.
Scott and I clicked right away because we shared an innate love of athletics. Scott was also a born coach, so any pupil who expressed an interest in learning got his attention. This was an incredible leg up for me because, from day one of my track and field career, I was receiving top-rate coaching from a man with an infectious love of sports. I developed proper technique at an early age and learned what kind of attitude it takes to be successful.
The head start that Scott gave me in track and field accelerated my progress throughout high school and opened doors to colleges. The coach I eventually competed for at the University of Tennessee — a man named Bill Webb — was a colleague of Scott’s and was convinced to recruit me based on their conversations.
Scott and I stayed in touch throughout my time in high school and college. We’d even get together for a training session here and there over the summers. After I graduated from college, I decided I needed a fresh training environment to continue my career as a professional, and that’s when Scott and I decided to team back up again. For the next five years, Scott and I worked together in Winston-Salem, NC, logging thousands of hours of training, traveling and competing. Scott was always incredibly generous with his time, and he did everything in his power to help me succeed. I attribute a great deal of my success to his mentorship and expertise.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
One of my biggest flubs occurred at the very end of my freshman year of college. The collegiate season had just wrapped up, and my stamina was running low after six straight months of competition. I could feel the burnout starting to set in, but I was still slated to compete in the Under-20 National Championships, and possibly the Under-20 World Championship, if I placed in the top two at the national meet.
Well, I ended up winning the national meet and stamping my ticket to my first ever world championship competition in Grosseto, Italy.
Despite my looming burnout, my big flub wasn’t the fact that I agreed to compete in the world championships. Rather, it was in deciding when to travel to Italy ahead of the competition.
The full USA contingency — athletes, coaches, managers, trainers, etc. — planned to fly out 10 day ahead of the meet to acclimate to the time change and compete in a small competition as a tune-up. My coach at the time thought this was a bad idea, though. He thought I’d lose my conditioning and technical sharpness if I spent 10 days in Europe before a decathlon. I had never traveled to Europe for a track meet before, so I trusted his advice. We ended up working out a deal with USA Track and Field to allow me to fly out three days before the meet instead of the standard 10.
In hindsight, arriving three days before an international competition was a bad idea in itself — but to make matters worse, my initial flight from Knoxville to Newark got delayed. This caused me to miss my flight from Newark to my final destination in Italy. I had to spend an extra night in an airport hotel and catch another flight to Italy the next day. After a lengthy bus ride from the Florence airport to the team hotel in Grosseto, I finally arrived at my destination about 36 hours before the start of a world championship decathlon. I was so exhausted that first afternoon, I could have slept standing up. But after fighting off the urge to sleep so I could have a normal bedtime that night, I suddenly became wide awake around 10 pm. My body was so confused by the time change. I ended up having a terrible time sleeping that night despite the exhaustion.
On the first day of the competition, I was still a wreck. I felt like I was living in a dream. I could barely fathom the idea that I was about to compete in yet another full decathlon. It was a bitter internal struggle to maintain my competitive drive.
On the second day of the decathlon, I was falling asleep between events. I remember passing out on a massage table during the break between the discus and the pole vault and losing track of time. One of my teammates had to come to wake me up, and by that time the warm-up period for the pole vault was half-way over. To make matters worse, I ended up pulling my hamstring during the pole vault and had to limp through the last two events — the javelin and the 1500m. It was kind of a horrible experience, but one that taught me a valuable lesson about how and when to travel to international competitions, which I did many times after that. The experience also opened my eyes to my own physical limitations and taught me to respect the body’s natural speed limits.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
First, take it slow. Don’t rush into marrying your sport at a young age. For 99% of athletes under the age of 18, specialization is a foolish move. Instead, date around, play the field, and if the sport you think you’re forever in love with continues to be a positive aspect of your life as you get older, then consider putting a ring on it. Specializing too early has repeatedly been shown to give athletes an early exit from sports altogether. It increases a young athlete’s risk of injury and burnout, and it is definitely not a prerequisite for success at the college or professional levels.
Instead, expand your overall athleticism by challenging yourself with multiple sports and activities. Learn many different skills and movement patterns. This will keep your training fresh and your body balanced. It will bring you more in touch with the experience of being an athlete rather than the external rewards of competitive sports. This is the key to long-term success.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
The project I’m putting my full focus into right now is this final year of my decathlon career. I came out of retirement at the late age of 33 to prove that this kind of endeavor — that is, any purposeful athletic endeavor — could be done in a better way. I’m training extremely hard, evolving my strategies, and writing down as much as I can about the experiences as it’s happening. Once 2021 is complete, Olympics or not, I will use what I’ve learned to help the next generation of athletes have longer, more fulfilling experiences in their sports. For now, though, readers can find a good story and a few words of advice on my blog at chrishelwick.com.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
I think the most effective thing an athlete can do to prepare for pressure situations is to understand that the outcome of any one contest will not make or break them. All sports are ultimately elective. They’re for fun and entertainment. Any pressure or stress we feel leading up to a competition is self-imposed. So having a healthy perspective on the game is the number one way athletes can get into a better mindset before major competitions.
However, a healthy perspective doesn’t automatically mean the nerves of steel. We’re still going to be emotionally invested in our performances. So we need to be well-prepared for the situation we’re about to step into.Imagery (or “visualization”) is a great way to rehearse pressure situations so you know exactly how to feel and exactly how to act when the big moment finally arrives. Ideally, imagery is a vivid mental experience that wraps all the senses into it — not just the visual pictures. You can perform your imagery anywhere, but for the uninitiated, I’d recommend starting in a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. Sit in a chair with your eyes closed and allow your mind and body to settle into a state of calm self-awareness. Take a few minutes to feel the sensations of each area of your body and allow your breath to settle into a natural rhythm. Once you’re ready, allow your imagination to construct the world in which you will soon be competing. Make this world as vivid and multisensory as possible. Experience it as if you have literally traveled forward through time. See the spaces and the people you’ll be encountering. Hear the sounds that will surround you. Feel the confidence and the poise you want to exude. Then, perform exactly as you wish to on the day of competition, and do so without fanfare. If you use imagery like this to rehearse a confident and composed performance, you will be much more likely to possess such a mind state on the day of your actual competition.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
I’ve used the Wim Hof breathing method for the past six or seven years, and I like to do a round or two of it right before my morning meditation sessions. Combined with a cold shower, I find this breathing method helps settle my mind and nervous system so I can go deeper into meditation.
For recovery from the physical stresses of training, I use the Live O2 system. For anyone unfamiliar with Live O2, it’s an apparatus that allows you to control the oxygen saturation of the air you’re breathing. A typical session for me is 15–20 minutes on an elliptical machine while oscillating between “sea-level” oxygen saturation and 5,000 ft. elevation oxygen saturation.
For the competition, I’ve developed a habit of continuously coming back to my breathing, just like in meditation. Throughout the day, I will bring my thoughts back to my breath, but especially when I’ve been distracted by something I shouldn’t be thinking about. I’ll then take 3–5 slow, deep breaths whether I feel like I need them or not. Like a lot of people, I have a tendency to take shallow breaths when I get anxious. I first realized I did this during my senior year of college when I nearly blacked out while warming up for the NCAA Championship decathlon. I was so wound up and tense that I was barely getting any air into my lungs, and I didn’t even realize it. So, most importantly, this technique keeps me breathing properly during competition. But it also keeps my mind centered on my body (i.e. present moment awareness) at times when I am susceptible to distracting thoughts.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
There’s really no secret to it, but I think meditation is the single most effective way to live a more focused and less distracted life. However, the funny thing about focus is that it’s a skill we’re all born with — much like breathing. Having a clear and alert mind is something we lose as infants rather than gain as adults. It’s not helpful to train focus in the same way that we train, say, our ability to throw a fastball, or run a mile. Instead, we do things like clear away distractions to reveal our innate focus.
As for distractions, the thing to remember is that there’s no permanently getting rid of them. We are constantly bombarded by distractions, so it’s inevitable that a few of them will get the better of us — especially in competitive situations when nerves are running high. Learn the skill of quickly recognizing when you’ve been distracted, and then have a well-practiced routine to re-center your focus on what really counts.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
The single most important thing I do to optimize my body is sleep well. Athletes and coaches should look at training and sleep as two sides of the same coin because it’s only when we sleep do we adapt to our training (i.e. get stronger). The training itself breaks us down and makes us weaker in the short term. It isn’t until we rest that our bodies repair and rebuild themselves. The two best things you can do for better sleep are go to bed at the same time every night and avoid screens and food during the last hour before bedtime.
I am also a huge believer in Active Release Therapy (ART). ART is a type of massage, or bodywork, that helps activate muscles, expand ranges of motion, and improve overall biomechanics. It’s the equivalent of turning up a race car. If you’re trying to win the Indy 500, but your car’s alignment is off and the transmission keeps sticking, it doesn’t matter how much horsepower the engine has. In the same way, an athlete needs high-quality conditioning and movement patterns (biomechanics) to achieve peak performances.
Finally, one conditioning-specific model that I’ve adopted in the last several years that has been essential for peaking when it really matters has been the TriPhasic Training model for weightlifting. Cal Dietz, a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Minnesota, is the architect of TriPhasic Training, although the concepts in the system have been around for a long time. Either way, TriPhasic Training is a comprehensive strategy for how to use weight lifting to give an athlete a strong base of strength early in the season and an appropriately timedpeak of speed and power later in the season when the most important, high-stakes competitions roll around.
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
One way habits have contributed to my success is through their efficiency. I first caught onto this aspect of habits during my sophomore year of college. The sports psychologist at my school gave a lecture on why it’s important to establish good daily “routines.” His pitch for routines — i.e. the habitual way you go about your day — centered the way they save mental energy. Routines automate our behavior so we don’t have to decide about what to do next. Everyone begins their day with a finite amount of willpower and decision-making ability, so in order to make it through a day full of classes, practices, and study sessions, an athlete needs to be as mentally efficient as they can elsewhere in their day.
Further, for any habit or routine to stick, an individual must truly believe in the habits’ ability to improve their life. If a habit is started for any other reason — such as its popularity or because a coach said to — then the habit likely won’t last. Habits will only become second nature when the act itself feels like it’s your true nature.
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Accountability — or positive peer pressure — has probably been the single most effective tool I’ve used in habit formation. Positive peer pressure is when you allow someone whom you know and respect to watch you do the thing you said you would do. This accountability buddy of yours may not literally watch you in real-time, but they get to monitor your actions in some way. Maybe with a simple text asking, “How’d your workout go?”
For me, positive peer pressure is highly motivating, as it probably is for most people. I hate looking like a schmuck or a slouch to people I respect, so I’ll put myself through just about anything to avoid their disapproval. Aside from my own anecdotes, however, there’s plenty of research backing up the idea that expectations from people we consider members of our “in-group” or “inner circle” are incredibly powerful motivators of behavior.
Scheduling is another simple way to lead your future self into doing something meaningful and productive. By writing down the specifics of when and where you intend to perform your new habit, you are much more likely to follow through with it.
The best way to break a habit is to form a new one in its place. You will likely never be able to break a bad habit by merely focusing on what not to do. This will only keep you focused on the very thing you don’t want to be doing. If you want to stop a bad habit, start a new and better one that pushes the old habit out of your life.
As a high-performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
Flow is all about losing one’s sense of self in an activity. It happens when we are no longer a person performing an activity, but, instead, are the movement of the activity itself. As the question correctly points out, Flow occurs at the nexus of skill, challenge, and meaning. So by thinking about, and experimenting with, activities that meet those three criteria, we are more likely to find something that draws us into the Flow State. Don’t assume Flow is something to be turned on and off at will. It is the product of developing a skill and seeking out challenges that truly enrich our lives life.
One thing that will categorically exclude us from the Flow State is a concern for outcomes. If we start thinking about what’s waiting for us at the end of the activity, like a prize for doing it well or a punishment for doing it poorly, we will not find our Flow. Flow is a complete absorption into the present moment and there’s simply no room for thoughts about the past or future.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
I have a simple daily meditation routine that I consider to be one of the most important things I do to prepare for the day. I meditate for 10–20 minutes every day as part of a longer morning routine, focusing on either my breath, ambient sounds, or on the physical sensations of my body. I believe consistency is the most important aspect of meditation practice, so if you’re just starting out with meditation, pick something that is simple and easy to replicate.
Purely by accident, I also developed a more sports-specific type of meditation that I’ve been using for many years. Stumbling upon this method is actually what brought me back to professional sports, and it all began when a good friend of mine made a jesting comment about the way I walked. Ever since elementary school, friends have noted the peculiar way in which I walk, so these comments were nothing new. But for whatever reason, at the age of 30, I finally became curious to know what exactly other people saw in my gait that I couldn’t feel myself. So I began paying close attention to the way I walked wherever I went. Solo jaunts through the park were the best for this because I could meticulously observe how my body was feeling and moving while I walked. I could sort out which muscles were doing the most work, which muscles were being lazy, and how they all fired in a sequence to produce a full cycle of walking. I eventually came up with the name “mindful movement” for this practice, although that’s not trademarked anything — it’s just the best description I could think of.
Mindful movement is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s any physical activity — ideally a repetitive one, such as walking, jogging, biking, hiking, swimming, rowing, etc. — done with a sustained focus on the inner sensations of the body. The practitioner passively, but mindfully absorbs as much sensory data as possible. They aim to feel the finest details of their movements without concern for anything else. Our best (peak) performances are realized when we lose ourselves in the moment to moment doing of a sport or activity, just like mindful movement, without any concern for what it all adds up to. This is essentially the definition of the Flow State: meditation in motion.
Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
Ironically, the first thing you must do in order to change the channel of negative thoughts is to listen to them. Become aware of them. Watch them pop into your head, run their course, and then dissolve away. This passive, observant posture towards negative thoughts will help neutralize them and make them easier to deal with.
If we forcefully push our negative thoughts away, we give them energy. If we try to drown them out with positive chanting, we give them a solid footing. It is essential to realize that only a watchful mind can become calm. A stirred-up pool of water will never settle if it keeps getting agitated. And in the same way, a muddied mind must be allowed to come to rest on it’s own.
The next step is to simply ask, “is this negative thought or self-criticism true?” Write down the thought that’s troubling you as well as your answer to the question “is this true?” You’ll soon discover that many self-criticisms are unfounded. When we question the legitimacy of a troubling thought, we often uncover a more rational and palatable truth. This ultimately deflates or replaces the original negative thought.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In my former career as a decathlete, I was largely motivated by the attention and validation I received from being a successful athlete. This was a grave mistake that cost me a lot of joy. As my addiction for praise and validation grew, it crowded out my innate love of athletics, making the day-to-day work of training less and less enjoyable. It was only when I won a competition or set a new personal best that I felt fulfilled. In the final year of my former career, when progress slowed or injuries kept me out of competition, nearly all of the joy of being an athlete had vanished.
Sadly, this is the experience of a lot of young athletes. Because they’ve been taught to value external success over self-mastery and self-expression, they miss out on the joy of athletics that is freely available to them. My current career is a rare second chance to demonstrate that competitive sports can be done in a better way. Athletic pursuits can — and should — foster intense feelings of gratitude and joy. There should never be room for fear or desperation. My mission is to help athletes tap into the joy of athletic expression and to teach them to use it to fuel their athletic careers and to live more fulfilling lives.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“In seeking the ideal place to live, the only way I can possibly find it is to be it. If you can find it in you, then anywhere you go is the ideal place to live.”
— Alan Watts
Understanding one’s true sources of happiness are the most important thing a person can do in life. The maxim that’s so often repeated, yet less frequently practiced, is that happiness and fulfillment cannot be externally acquired. You can’t find them anywhere “out there.” Happiness and fulfillment are internal conditions. To be happy, you just have to be it. It’s not an easy skill to master, but it is a simple one.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
That’s a pretty easy one for me — Alain de Botton, Founder of The School of Life in London.
I’ve been a student of Mr. de Botton’s for a long time, and I believe we share many of the same philosophies on how to help people live better lives in the modern world. I’d love to start a School of Sport with the same guiding principles as The School of Life.