How Rugby Pro Phaidra Knight Optimizes Her Mind & Body For Peak Performance

Practice, practice, practice! The more you are in a situation and are repeatedly drilling, the more prepared you will be. Spend a lot of time practicing in a disadvantaged position and working your way out. It’s easy when you are on top, but putting yourself under pressure and working your way out will help you develop the ability to problem solve almost effortlessly.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewingPhaidra Knight.

Phaidra Knight is a former international athlete, sports media talent, motivational speaker, lawyer and business entrepreneur.

For nearly 18 years, Phaidra traveled the globe as a professional rugby player, establishing herself as the one of the premiere players in the sport. She made three appearances in the Rugby World Cup and was selected as the top player in the world in her position in 2002 and 2006. In 2010, she was named the US Rugby Player of the Decade. In November 2017, she was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

Phaidra was born in a raised in the small, decidedly rural town of Irwinton, Georgia. It was there where she learned the core values of integrity, commitment, respect and discipline that have fueled and guided her career. It was on the field, though, where she learned the indispensable attributes of teamwork, leadership and effective communication.

Phaidra earned dual bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Speech Communications at Alabama State University before she went on to study Law at the University of Wisconsin. And just as her studies weren’t limited to one field, her athleticism isn’t confined to one sport. In 2010, she became an avid CrossFit competitor and in 2013, a member of the United States Developmental Bobsled Team.

Phaidra recently founded PeaK Unleashed, a non-profit organization devoted to cultivating youth leadership and development through rugby with an initial emphasis on the incarcerated and sexually exploited populations. She also speaks to many audiences on leadership, resilience, fitness, childhood obesity, and anti- bullying. During other times, she’s working as a Rugby Analyst for NBC Sports, ESPN, and FloRugby. She serves as on the USA Rugby Board of Directors and the Board of Trustees for the Women’s Sports Foundation.

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 grew up on a small farm about five miles outside of the Irwinton, Georgia city limits in a household of four. I have a sister four years my elder. My mom was a teacher, my dad, an entrepreneur and farmer. I spent my summer weekdays (and sometimes Saturdays) from the age of five until I graduated high school, gathering produce and tending to livestock on the farm. We worked very hard for long hours. The first vehicle I ever drove was a tractor. Although I loved fishing with my grandparents, the love of my life was basketball. I started playing when I was five and every day, I would find time to put my hands on a basketball. My dad built a goal for me and put it at the foot of one of our pea fields. I pounded down the red clay dribbling the ball until I had a court. I started playing organized basketball in middle school and played through high school. I was recruited by several colleges to play in the southeast.

When I was six, I had as much of an interest in football as I did in basketball, but that was during an era when girls were not permitted to play. I did not let that stop me. I signed up for “midget league football cheerleading” (as it was formally called back then) so that I could play football at the end of season party, a ritual after the final football game of the season. I notoriously would run through and around the boys. I would also play football (among other crazy things that kids in the country did) with my next-door neighbor, JP. He was four years my elder. But that all ended one day during fifth grade when I tackled him and broke his arm. I thought my time playing football was over. Little did I know!

I was an academic overachiever throughout school. I had to be a part of every organization, from student council to the Beta Club. Every summer, I went to camp at Rock Eagle and traveled around the state of Georgia through my involvement in 4-H.

My childhood experience was pretty different from most kids during that time.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

I found inspiration in many sports icons. Let me preface this with the fact that my sports exposure on TV was limited to what CBS, NBC, and ABC had to offer. We did not have cable growing up. I would watch Magic Johnson and James Worthy with the Lakers almost every weekend during NBA season and then mimicked what I saw them do on my clay court or during practice. And of course, who didn’t aim to be like Michael Jordan? In football, I wanted to run like Tony Dorsett and Marcus Allen. During the time I was growing up, there were few women’s sports that were aired on TV. But even on those few occasions, I remember seeing Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Zina Garrison and thinking, “I can be world class one day, too!” I wanted to be like Flo Jo in every way (except those nails!). I also can’t forget Martina Navratilova. She was super bad ass because not only did she rule the tennis court, but she was openly gay during a time when being gay was not accepted. But the biggest driving force behind my pursuit to become a high-level professional athlete was, and still is, my desire to have a platform that I can share with others whose voices would otherwise not be heard.

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 mother was an incredible source of encouragement and gave me critical feedback that I still refer to even now. She was and still is my biggest fan. However my grandpapa, Dorsey Knight, regularly introduced me as his “granddaughter who could do anything.” He said it so matter-of-factly that I believed it. I have certainly experienced failures in my life and had my fair share of self-doubt, but I have always risen above it when I could reflect back to his words. I do believe that I can do anything in this world that I dedicate myself to. I have found enough encouragement in that to last a lifetime.

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?

In May 2006, just three months before the Rugby World Cup, I fractured my left foot during a match with my club team. The US National Team coaching staff was uncertain about keeping me on the World Cup roster because my recovery time would be very tight. I guess the comedy in this is that I am a World Rugby Hall of Famer who almost missed a World Cup because I fractured a bone that ballerinas break. I mean, who had ever heard of a dancer’s bone? I firmly believe that the big mistake I made that likely caused this break was the fact that I did not take care of my body the way I should have. Sure, I could squat 300 plus pounds and run through people on the pitch, but I did not take time to stretch anything properly. As a result, I was in a perpetual state of tightness up and down the chain. When I made a cut to avoid a tackle, something had to give. Fortunately for me, I remained on the World Cup Team and went on to have one of the best performances of my career. The biggest takeaway for me was that recovery and restoration were as important as strength training and conditioning.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

My first bit of advice would be to make sure that you love whatever it is you are focused on, because in order to truly be great, you’re going to have to do it obsessively. As a student of MMA, I have to devote several hours each day to drilling and training several disciplines in order to get better at it. There are no off days, really, because recovery is a part of training, and I watch film and technique videos on recovery days. It’s a non-stop obsession for me right now.

Secondly, I suggest finding amazing people who will coach, teach, and help develop you. The “right fit” will push you to a level of discomfort often. Even as an adult (aka a “grown ass woman”), I often find myself in situations where people are constantly telling me everything I’m doing is wrong and constantly pointing out what I need to do to get better.

Finally, take care of your mind and body. I am 45 years old and embarking on a professional MMA career. I can’t mess around and over train. I have to spend as much time actively recovering as I do training.

Oh yeah, and eat your veggies and get enough sleep.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I will be launching my clothing line, the PSK Collective, in partnership with The Powell Companies Real this summer in July. I was inspired to create a fully inclusive line that caters to athletic-bodied girls, women and individuals alike while bringing much-needed attention to female athletes. It’s a fusion of activewear and streetwear designed to marry sports and fashion for a greater cause — to empower and inspire the female athlete within each of us, and shift attitudes surrounding fashion and expression. Additionally, a part of the profits will go to the Women’s Sport Foundation to further support female athletes.

I also work closely with the nonprofit I founded in 2019 called PeaK Unleashed. PeaK Unleashed provides rugby and yoga to underserved youth. We are currently working with youth in New York City area detention centers, which we are starting with because it’s immediate. We will be expanding a whole set of services and programs over time to help this demographic of young people.

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?

Practice, practice, practice! The more you are in a situation and are repeatedly drilling, the more prepared you will be. Spend a lot of time practicing in a disadvantaged position and working your way out. It’s easy when you are on top, but putting yourself under pressure and working your way out will help you develop the ability to problem solve almost effortlessly.

If you frame pressure as a privilege and think of it that way, you’ll desire it rather than run from it or fold under it.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

I enjoy box breathing, particularly at night. I practice deep breathing during yoga, recovery (from high intensity activity) and weightlifting sessions, which includes supine diaphragmatic breathing.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

For several years, I have incorporated a 24-hour fast once per week into my regiment. That has been a great aide in developing strong focus. Meditation and breathing exercises also help me to clear away distractions and refocus on the activity I am in engaged in quite easily. I also engage in brain wave activity that helps my body.

I make sure I have ample time to not focus. It’s impossible to focus 24 hours a day, so I often let my mind wonder. Taking a break from focusing enhances my focus later on.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

My job is my body. Everything I do, how I plan workouts, how much I sleep, what I eat, how I plan recovery, my variety of activities, and my thoughts are all about optimizing my body for peak performance. My workouts are designed to maximize output at certain times of the day so that I will have adequate time to recover for the next day’s training. I gave some examples previously that qualify here as well.

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?

In order to turn something into a habit, you have to make a plan. I follow a schedule each week. I know when I need to be working out, when I need to be recovering, and when and what I need to be eating.

Now, the hard thing is learning something new. I am picking up a new sport that consist of several disciplines. It’s hard for something new to be a habit immediately. In those situations, I rely on my coaches to tell me what to do and I trust them. They are going to teach me how to take something new and turn it into a habit.

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?

See above answer regarding making a schedule. It’s critical to developing habits. Plan your day. When I am developing a new skillset, I rely on good coaching as well.

I am not going to say anything mind blowing here. To stop a bad habit, you must first acknowledge it as a bad habit, decide you want to change, and then change it. If you don’t know how to develop a good habit, this is where you lean on good coaches.

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?

For me, it’s about practicing over and over again so that I am able to be present. If I know the fundamentals and have practiced them exhaustively, I don’t have to think about performing them. I can just be presentand let my body respond appropriately.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

There are lots of different techniques that work for different people. I have tried many methods of mediation and different ones work for me at different times. Before bed, I enjoy focusing on my breathing. Between training sessions, I zone out to classical music or chimes, and sometimes do a guided meditation. On my off days, I engage in yin and restorative yoga.

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?

As soon as I am aware of my negative mind chatter, I listen to lectures about overcoming. There are some great inspirational resources on YouTube and podcasts. If that doesn’t work, I verbalize it. I talk to my friends and family. Sometimes I’ll just walk away and play with my pups because I know the negativity will pass. It always does.

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?

As mentioned above, I founded a new, charitable clothing line called the PSK Collective that provides a platform and visibility for fellow female athletes.

I also founded a 501c3 non-profit called PeaK Unleashed. We provide rugby and yoga to underserved youth. We are currently working with youth in detention centers around the New York City area.

Additionally, I donate to charity as much as I can.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I have a few favorites but the flavor of the day is “strength comes from struggle.” It resonates with me because on the hard days, I can focus on the fact that the pain is part of the journey to the ultimate goal. I am going to come out of this better and stronger than I came into it. That is what the pain and struggle is telling me.

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 🙂

I’d love to have lunch or dinner with Oprah Winfrey. Oprah was relentless in building her empire. She is an inspiration to black women everywhere, and she does a world of good for so many people. #lifegoals!

How can our readers find you on social media?

IG — @phaidraknight

Facebook — Phaidra Knight

Twitter — phaidraknight

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