Interview with Shannon Rowbury, 3-time U.S. Olympian
How to be the best in the world at what you do.
“You can't hug money at the end of life and you can't take it to heaven with you, so you sure as heck better make sure you've done a good job loving those people that love you back.”
Life is hard. There are an endless amount of distractions each day that can conspire to keep you from performing your best and achieving your goals. Add a job, family, and kids into the mix and it becomes even more difficult.
Many people feel like they can’t gain traction in life because they are bogged down by an ever growing to-do list full of unimportant activities, useless commitments, and other people's priorities. They focus on the many simple trivial tasks at hand rather than focusing on the few important things that will drastically improve their lives.
However, there is a way to get ahead, to find clarity and achieve your highest goals.
If you want to know how to eliminate distractions and to build an unstoppable life, look no further than Olympic athletes.
The best Olympic athletes engineer a life that is solely focused on one thing: winning. They eliminate all non-essential activities, people, and commitments. They focus solely on what will move them closer to their athletic achievements.
Shannon Rowbury is one Olympic athlete that understands this principle and has built her life accordingly.
She is a 3-time U.S. Olympian, an American and World record holder, and she’s been on top of the track and field world for 11 years (a nearly unheard-of length of time for a professional athlete.)
As an Olympic athlete, Shannon has access to the world’s best coaches, sports psychologists, and trainers. I interviewed Shannon in order to find out what skills, routines, and habits have helped her to become a world-class athlete, how she repeatedly unlocks her best performances, and how she stays grounded.
We all might not have Olympic quality athleticism, but the deliberate process and habits Shannon has developed can easily be incorporated into our lives. Shannon talks about finding your why (your main driving mission), setting effective goals, preparing yourself physically and mentally for high pressure situations, and how to bring it all home with gratitude.
Finding your why:
“If you can't identify what you want it's going to be a lot harder to achieve anything.”
As an Olympic athlete, Shannon has to push herself mentally and physically to the breaking point nearly every day. Without a clear purpose, being willing to sacrifice herself to that daily torture would be impossible. For Shannon it’s always been about being an Olympian. That is her why. Be the best in the world and represent her country with pride. When times are hard, she doesn’t want to get up early for a run in the cold rain, she goes back to her why. Reminding herself of this main driving mission gives her the ability to push through each day.
Setting effective goals:
"There's two types of competition: you versus others and you versus yourself. And you versus others ultimately, that's the one that's going to get us those medals or get you those bonuses you know it's going to make you succeed. But that's something that's out of your control. You versus yourself is something that I can work on every day."
Shannon’s goal setting process is simple: define the biggest goal and then create smaller goals that build her up to the main goal. But having a large goal and several smaller ones are not enough. The key is accountability and tracking. Shannon’s painstaking habit of tracking her daily, weekly, and monthly performance in training and races is what helps her progress and keeps her focused and motivated.
After Shannon clarifies her biggest goal for the year, which in her case is making it to the Olympics and medaling, she goes about setting her smaller goals that work her up to the big goal. Shannon sits down at the beginning of each year and plans out what she needs to accomplish, at specific points in the year in order to prepare herself for the ultimate test. For Shannon this means planning out her race schedule for the year and what times she needs to hit in each race. The specificity of her smaller goals are key to her eventual success.
Unlocking peak performance:
The keys to Shannon unlocking her best performances rely on her mental and physical preparations. She uses training as a dress rehearsal for her biggest races and visualization techniques to prepare herself mentally and to calm her nerves at the biggest stage.
Along with her coach, she sets up her training sessions to replicate the conditions of the race ahead. They replicate the intensity, the speed, and the varying rhythms of the race through her training sessions. Performing this practice consistently makes the day of the race seem like second nature to her. It prepares herself physically and also mentally for the competition.
She also relies heavily on visualization techniques to prepare herself mentally for her competition. Her process involves visualizing the key points of the race from the lead up all the way to the end of the race. Shannon uses this visualization technique often before a nap or bed. By doing this she is training her subconscious mind to take over come race day. What transpires over the course of the race will not surprise her as she already experienced the race many times in her mind. On the day of her competition she again prepares herself mentally with her visualization techniques while she is at the race venue for a last minute rehearsal.
“When I'm ready to go to bed, before I blow out the candle, it's an opportunity for me to reflect on what I'm grateful for and what I want to achieve.”
Shannon’s livelihood depends on her success in competition. That’s a lot to handle and the tidal wave of pressure associated with competition could easily overcome her.
In order to stay focused on what’s important and to release the daily stress associated with training and competition, Shannon relies on gratitude. Each night she ends the day by focusing on what she is grateful for. This simple exercise calms her nerves, reminds her of all she has in her life, creates an environment of abundance, and frames her mind positively for a healthy rest.
These are just a few of the major themes from this interview with Shannon but there are plenty more. As great an athlete as Shannon is, she’s an even nicer person. We are fortunate to have such an incredible person represent the United States on a global stage.
Parker: Looking through your resume a couple things stood out to me. You are currently a Nike Track and Field athlete sponsored from 2007 to present day. You are a three-time Olympian: ‘08, 2012, and 2016, and a World Championship bronze medalist. American and world record holder in the 1,500 meter which you happened to break a 32-year-old record in the process of doing so.
Shannon: Yeah. So, a world record for the DMR [distance medley relay], American, and area records for the 1,500 and 5K.
Parker: The 32-year-old record was an American record you broke?
Shannon: Area and Americans, so North, Central, South America. But yeah it was 32 years old when I broke it, which is pretty cool. It was almost as old as or maybe older than me. Something like that, which was kind of crazy.
Parker: You’ve competed in a wide range of events. 800 meters all the way up to the 5,000 meters. You are a proud graduate of the University of Duke…Go Blue Devils. Here are two of my favorite tidbits on your background. At Duke on the same day at the NCAA indoor championships, you won the mile race and then an hour and a half later you placed second in the 3,000 meters.
Shannon: Yes, that is correct. That was a good day.
Parker: And this is probably my favorite. You are a retired nationally ranked Irish dancer. Did I get that right?
Shannon: That is correct. I started dancing at the age of five and did it until I was 16. Running and dancing overlapped a little bit. And I think my dancing really made me a better athlete in running. But yeah, once I got into high school I needed to focus on one by junior year, so I could get that college scholarship and the rest is history.
Parker: Where did you grow up and how did your childhood shape who you are today?
Shannon: Yeah. So, San Francisco native, fifth generation. My family, good old Irish Catholic working-class family, been in the city for years. And I grew up in the Sunset District of San Francisco in the same house with my grandparents which I feel really grateful for because they were a really positive influence on my life and both my parents worked [and are] really hard-working individuals. [They have emphasized] for me the importance of working for what you want and setting your mind on something. I mean I remember at a young age. I'm an only child and my parents didn't have a ton of money, but they really did a great job of supporting whatever it was that I expressed interest in. The only kind of expectation of me was, “we will support you as long as you earn that support.” […] Irish dancing had this competition aspect and so I loved that I had the opportunity there, […] the adrenaline, the competition, the opportunity to see where I ranked compared to everybody else. The ability to take that information and go forward and kind of improve for the next time. Dancing is more subjective than running but I think I've always gravitated towards those things where I could objectively as possible get that information about where I stood, where I could improve, and take that to go and work and get better.
Parker: When did you first start running competitively?
Shannon: I started running in high school. I had played a variety of sports growing up but had really committed to Irish dancing and was also doing soccer. […] In high school, first day of freshman year I had a friend from soccer who was going to cross-country practice, and I've never been very good at sitting still, […] but I never really thought much about running. I didn't [think] it really existed as a sport. But I thought well you know I'll go to running, how hard could it be? […] And I just ran and was so sore afterwards. I very quickly learned how hard running could be. But I also got really lucky that I had a great coach, who I'm still friends with to this day named, Andy Chan. And it was a fun team environment. And so I stuck with it. […] and my first cross-country meet I ended up coming second in the J.V. race. […] And after that race I think both my parents and my coach kind of looked at one another and were like "Ok, there might be something here." And then I just kind of had success throughout the season by the end of my first cross-country season. I was the top girl on the team and was in the state meet for cross-country and wasn't really sure if I even wanted to run track. Ultimately, I did run track and that's where I had my most success in the 800 meters in high school. That was kind of the first event where I really found what I was capable of or discovered the potential that I had. […] But once I got to high school and I found this sport [running] where I could [get] a lot of the same things that I enjoyed about dancing. In addition to that, the relationships with friends out on a long run or the ability to be out in nature, [which is] a very meditative experience at times too. Most of all the opportunity that running provided to be ranked. Dancing had competitions, but like I said earlier, was much more subjective. With running I knew where I stood in the city, the state, the nation. Now at the world level I know where I stand and I like that. I like knowing there [are] years when you're so far from [your] goal but it's also motivating to kind of be able to take that feedback and feel no excuses, that this is where I'm at. And this is what I need to do to get better. And I think it's a really great way to get life lessons that sports teach people.
Parker: I read a book not too long ago, it's called So Good They Can't Ignore You, and one of the themes of the book is debunking the advice we hear a lot, which is follow your passion. The author, Cal Newport, states don't follow your passion, because you're not going to stumble into your passion. Success is not really about natural talent, rather it comes from tough, deliberate practice which then leads you to become competent in something you're working on, and when you start to become competent in it, that then leads to your passion. So, competence creates passion. Have you found that as you work harder at running and as you became better and evolved that you found more joy in the sport itself and competing?
Shannon: […] I do think that you have to follow your talent to an extent. […] I fortunately gravitated towards the [sports] where I had the natural propensity to excel. And so, I ended up Irish dancing, I ended up in soccer, and I ended up running. And then, 100 percent, it's about the commitment to those things and working to get better. I think it's interesting in terms of my kind of emotional relationship to the sport. Certainly, the highs of success now as a world level athlete are incredible and incredibly addictive, and it keeps you going through the slow period. […] Now I do really love the challenge of seeing how good I can be at something, seeing how my training and my racing compares from year to year, and the progress that I'm hopefully making. And I have definitely fallen in love with running for running's sake. […] For me it's been a slowly developing love affair to the point that now as an adult, I do really cherish those opportunities to get out running in a beautiful place. The opportunity to explore a new city through running.
Parker: Who has had the biggest effect on your career?
Shannon: I would have to say first and foremost, family. […] My parents, my husband [Pablo Solares], and I think the coaches along the way, most especially my high school coach, because he was the one that really laid a strong foundation for me. He saw the talent that I had as a freshman but was able to have the patience and perspective to let me develop over time. And to plant a seed where it needed to be planted. […] I think he knew how to introduce ideas like college running and things like that in the right way, in the right time. But it was never about him and, the kind of glory that he could get. It was about "how do I make this athlete the best athlete she can be, not just now, but in the future.” I see so many coaches, especially now, who just push their athletes way too hard. So many of them get to college and they just never really can run much better. Never. They are injured. And so, I think it does really take a good coach and parents combo to understand that the high school athlete is still a developing person. And to be the best, I mean my American records came from 2015 and 2016 when I was over 30. So, I've […] continued to improve year after year, some years more than others. […] But I mean I think that right there says a lot about how important it is to think about the long term and to take that long vision and that long-term approach.
Parker: Running competitively is a very high stakes environment where your livelihood depends on your success in competition and how well you continue to perform. Have you found that you have a process or a routine that has enabled you to unlock your best performances and make it a repeatable process physically and mentally?
Shannon: […] since high school [I’ve] really tried to use training as a dress rehearsal for racing. Some years I've done it better than others. I've certainly honed in on my routines more over time and I've also realized that those routines, while valuable, also require a level of flexibility. […] I think in training I do try to do simulations both mental and physical to work through some of the kinks that I might [have] in advance of race day. […] As I've become older, it's more about recognizing that the success isn't going to come from an object that I'm carrying, but from the preparations I've done, and I do have those sorts of routines that […] give me comfort that I know work. But I found that when I don’t sweat the small stuff that those are usually the better races. If I get too tense and too perfectionist, about the minutia, then I'm usually not at my most fluid.
Parker: How do you create a race day environment or simulation?
Shannon: […] Mentally I think we try to simulate different scenarios. Sometimes it's just the workout itself and knowing, as a middle-distance athlete, you have to kind of work all energy systems. Everything from anaerobic, more sprint, short quick stuff, to aerobic longer intervals or long runs, and everything in between. And so sometimes it's just knowing what the workout is really like, what part of the race is [the workout] going to be preparing me for, so I can kind of get my head in that [zone]. […] I mean there are a lot of times where I do these workouts and I'm like gosh, why did I pick this profession? Because it is pretty brutal especially the beginning of a season when I'm getting back into shape and I'm like, this sucks. But I think that a lot of it was just with running, probably with anything that you do, you get past that part and say: well I chose to do this anyway and commit.
Parker: Could you walk me through your visualization technique?
Shannon: Yeah. So, the team I'm with now, the Nike Oregon Project, our […] visualization starts by bringing you in to the lead up to the race. So often kind of just visualizing the warm up area. Visualizing the track. Visualizing the process of preparing for the race. And then within the race itself breaking it down in two phases of execution, so you key into points for execution in order to get my best result. […] You can't control that final lap but if you can set yourself up well in the early stages then that competitiveness will take over. […] And then of course, trying to visualize the success whatever that means whether it's a time or place or whatever.
Parker: Are you literally imagining yourself watching yourself run? What's your point of view as you're trying to create these images in your mind?
Shannon: Yeah. […] For me I would say it varies because sometimes it is from that first person going through the race itself and other times it's kind of more from that bird's eye view as if I'm watching the race unfold.
Parker: It's kind of fluid.
Shannon: It depends. I think some sports psychologist that I have […] they want you present in the moment. I mean whatever it is, they want you present in the moment. […]
Parker: When you're trying to get into that mental state, picturing what you're going to be doing, where are you? Are you in a hotel room? Somewhere quiet? Where you trying to do that?
Shannon: Yeah. Usually it's when I'm prepping before a race before I get to the stadium [and] I'm often in my hotel room. Usually before a nap or before bed. And then when I am preparing for the race, when I get to the stadium. Usually it's right before I'm warming up so I'm actually in the stadium itself. […] It's nice because the stadium warm up area can be very busy and very chaotic so it's an attempt to find some calm in the middle of all of that chaos.
Parker: Do you have either morning or evening routines that you take yourself through each day?
Shannon: […] Often times [I] make a schedule for the following day. You know, what are the things that I have to do. What are some of the other tasks I'd like to accomplish and then I've gotten into the routine of [reflecting on the day]. […] I'll get a little candle […] have that lit in the room as I'm winding down for the day. And maybe I read a book before bed to calm my mind, but when I'm ready to go to bed, before I blow out the candle, it's an opportunity for me to reflect on what I'm grateful for and what I want to achieve. And I think that for me that's been a good grounding force in my day to first and foremost give gratitude. And then also have that moment, dream and imagine what it is that I want. Because if you can't identify what you want, it's going to be a lot harder to achieve [anything].
Parker: What you're doing is similar to what I started incorporating each day in my life too, which is journaling. It can be five minutes tops. But just remind myself, why am I doing all this stuff? This is the reason why. And then no matter how good or bad a day you had, if you have that moment of gratitude, it's going to put you in such a better state of mind so that you're not having bad dreams or waking up anxious. If you had a bad day, just saying you're grateful for something makes you feel better.
Shannon: […]I know for me I'm such a perfectionist that I am much more likely to fixate on the things I could have done better than to be proud and grateful of the things I achieved. Usually for me, once I've achieved something it's more of a check, OK, move on and I’ll spend so much longer on what could I have done better? You know, that's what I tend to fixate on. But if you do take a step back, [and realize] wow there's a lot I should be really happy about.
Parker: Yeah. And it's an incredible point. And it's so funny how our brains are wired that we go to "oh, I've got to do better at this, I’ve I got to fix this, and I’ve got to get this.” […] Because, like you said, we're so inclined to forget about what hurdles we crossed and how we improved. We move immediately onto the, “I've got to be better at this now.”
Shannon: Yes exactly. It's really like that is what makes a person achieve a lot and that's what makes a person successful. But you know what is life without joy, and without love and without happiness? […] The people who I aspire to be like are the ones who not only achieve things but have cultivated a family, relationships, friendships, they've cultivated a life of joy. And so I think finding that balance of achieving great things, but doing it in a way that still gives you a community and a family and love and happiness too.
Parker: Yeah, you want to use that to help drive you to always to be improving, but you also have to keep it in check so it doesn't become a self-destructive habit.
Shannon: Exactly. Because then what's life worth? You can't hug money at the end of life and you can't take it to heaven with you, so you sure as heck better make sure you've done a good job loving those people that love you back.
Parker: How do you approach goal setting?
Shannon: Well, so I've always tried to be the best at whatever level I was at. So, when I was in high school I just wanted to be, first, the best athlete on my team. Then it was league, section, state…in the nation. The same in college and as a professional. Then I try to keep it simple, so trying to improve on what I've done before. But I had valuable feedback from the sports psychologist on the Nike Oregon Project Team, Darren Treasure, who said there's two types of competition: you versus others and you versus yourself. And you versus others ultimately, that's the one that's going to get us those medals or get you those bonuses you know it's going to make you succeed. But that's something that's out of your control. You versus yourself is something that I can work on every day.
Parker: When you're looking at your goals, do you start off each year with your biggest goal and then break it down into smaller goals that will get you to that larger goal?
Shannon: Yeah usually we sit down at the end of each season and we reflect on what went well, what we could do better. I'm trying to reflect on the season as a whole and learn from it and then as a part of that, set goals for the season ahead. […] But usually I set that bigger goal and then process goals along the way. And it's often a combo of places and times. […] I think the other thing that I've come to terms with too is that those best races, even if I'm at my most fit, sometimes it does just take that perfect combination. […] I mean the 2016 Olympics in the Olympic final, where I came in fourth, there were just such a talented group of women that also ran that same race. Five times in a row, the result might have been different. And that's just what it is to compete at the world level. You're up against the best in the world and they all work just as hard to be there. But I do try to set those goals, so I know what I'm working towards.
Parker: How do you stay aware of your goals?
Shannon: […] The actual races themselves are really good indicators. […] You take that data and information from training and workouts and that kind of help you see where you're at in terms of those goals. And I think that's my biggest way that I stay in touch with them.
Parker: 11 years as a professional…do you still get nervous or scared before a big race?
Shannon: Yes, definitely. As you know I've only gone to three Olympics in those 11 years. That kind of intensity and focus of each Olympics is something that you just can't replicate. And I think that's a good thing because I've never run my absolute best in a race that I wasn't a little bit nervous. I think that nervousness and adrenaline does give you that extra boost. […] And it can be a challenge in some of the smaller meets because I don't get nervous enough and I'm not that keyed up for it. […I think] embracing that nervousness but finding a way to channel it positively and not letting it paralyze me is an important thing that I have.
Parker: How do you overcome negative self-talk? Is there anything you do or ways you have found to overcome it?
Shannon: When I was in college I remember the first time I really started working with a sports psychologist was around my junior year. […] I remember it was even in my senior year actually that the sports psychologist gave me this advice. I remember it was really helpful thing for me which was that essentially the track for everyone is the same. The weather, all the circumstances are the same. […] Bringing it back down to the reality of the situation. […] Everybody is racing this distance. This idea of controlling the controllable. Focusing on what I could do to execute.
Parker: That's an incredible way to reel yourself back into the present. Here's where I am right now.
Shannon: Yeah and how did I get here? I'm here because I did X, Y, and Z to qualify just like everybody else. […] By the Olympic final nobody got to that Olympic final by accident. […] And so, you know I think giving yourself the credit that you are amongst that group, that you are meant to be amongst that group.
Parker: How do you remobilize and get inspired again after a big win?
Shannon: That's a really tough one. I call it the Olympics hangover. Good or bad, the adrenaline and the focus of the Olympics is something that I personally struggled with afterwards. […] The fanfare disappears, the spotlights turn off and you then need to somehow get yourself back to the basics and do all the same work that you did to achieve that dream over again. There's a sense of exuberance, but then it's like oh my gosh. In order to achieve that I had to do all of the things and put myself through hell to get there. And you need to really set another goal that's worth just beating yourself up for day after day and working for years to achieve it. Because that's what it takes to then achieve the next goal. And you know sometimes I've done better with that than others. Sometimes it's easier to come off of the disappointments because you know you're still working towards that thing you want to achieve.
Parker: Is it harder to remobilize after a big win or after a loss?
Shannon: Yeah. The Olympics, coming in fourth was you know I'm proud of that accomplishment it was not top three so you know you don't get the same accolades that you would if you were gold silver and bronze. So, I was very disappointed. And I came back a couple of weeks later and set the American record in the 5k because, the fitness was clearly there. […]But then after the after that season was done it was really hard to remobilize. To find that drive, because I was in this weird spot of both being totally disappointed, [I] hadn't placed in the top three Olympics, [but] totally thrilled that I had won the Diamond league final and set the American record and completely exhausted from the entire lead up to all of that. It's tough. You have to find that next goal that's worth having, [that’s] worth killing yourself for. You know that's the commitment you have to make if you want to be the best in the world.
Parker: What advice would you give to young athletes?
Shannon: […] If you're going to run collegiately, I always talk to kids and advise them, do your research. Talk to the coach beforehand. Pick a good coach, and a good environment for yourself, and then be all in. […] Really spend a lot of time making that decision. So that once you make it you can fully commit and there's no doubt. […] I see that for a lot of collegiate athletes and I also see it for pros and for a lot of different things.
Parker: What are three training tips that will make anybody a better runner?
Shannon: Three training tips to make anybody better. […] One that is very important is figure out what your weaknesses are and work on those. So, for me I used to be resentful of the fact that I had one leg that was longer than the other. […] I came to the realization that everybody has some sort of imbalance, everybody has some sort of challenge. And those of us who are able to recognize it and figure out how to address it end up having the most success […] [Second], go find yourself the best coach, the best training environment, the best environments for success that gives you the potential for success and then be all in and commit to it. And then I think using each day to fine tune what you're doing. So, like I said, I try to treat my training and workouts as dress rehearsal for the race day. […] Pay attention to the details and start keeping track of the things that work and don't work and use all that information to then help fine tune your approach.
Parker: Pretend that it's nighttime and you have your candle on and you're winding down. What are you grateful for right now?
Shannon: For me it's always been family first and foremost. I think that is the biggest grounding force in my own life. I travel seven months out of the year for work as a professional runner, but I never feel displaced. I always have this really strong sense of home. And that's because of my family that's because of this city San Francisco that I grew up in that I just feel very connected to my roots there. And that for me is what I'm most grateful for. And I that's always the first thing that I give gratitude for whenever I'm at end of the day is I reflect.
Parker: Well this is this has been an incredible conversation. Thank you for taking the time. I know you still have several years left, maybe more in the tank. What's amazing to me is how much you've accomplished already in your life. When you do decide to make that next step into your next career move you're going to absolutely crush it. And I'm excited for that. That'll be a whole another chapter and a lot of fun for you as you go through that too.
Shannon: Thank you. Yes, a little daunting. I know. Another question or another thing you might hear from athletes is this challenge of knowing who I am, if I'm not [an athlete]. You know what we do is so tied in with our identity. I think it comes back to those fundamentals of knowing what am I grateful for what makes me who I am and that kind of confidence that you know for me trying when I get worried or scared at the end of the day bringing it back to the confidence I have in myself and my ability to figure it out and to get the support needed. I think that will help alleviate some of the anxiety for sure.
Parker: What else should we know about?
Shannon: Oh yeah. My husband and I have a nonprofit called Imagining More that supports young women in sports. We try to use art as art as a way to expand the dialogue about what women in sports can be.
This interview has been edited and condensed from one conversation.