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  • Writer's pictureCoach Knickerbocker

Hello Vulnerability, C'mon in.

I'm going to start this post with the assumption that you know who Brene Brown is, and have watched her TED talk on vulnerability. Just in case you don't know who she is, and you haven't watched her TED talk, here's a link Brene Brown.

Whenever I present to a group of masters women one of the first questions I ask is,

"How many of you consider yourselves athletes?"

Usually about 90% of the women in the room will raise their hands.

Then I ask, "How many of you consider yourselves to be competitive?"

Here's where the fun starts.

Usually less than the original 90% will raise their hands.

Why is this? How is it that women who consider themselves athletes, who row and compete as rowers, DO NOT consider themselves to be competitive?

Why is it that women, especially women of a certain age, (for the purposes of this blog I'm going to say over 40 or pre-title IX), shy away from, or sometimes even cringe at the identity of being "competitive"?

For this post I'd like to consider an element that I think is one of the keys to unraveling this mystery. Or at least what seems mysterious to me. A woman's struggle with naming herself as "competitive".

It's not a question of whether you are or not.

Everyone is competitive on some level.

As I've said to many groups of women rowers, you compete for a parking space, you compete for the best line in the grocery store, you competed to get into college, etc.

Again, it's not about whether you ARE or not, it's about whether you own it or not, express it or not, feel good about it or not.


Let's be clear to begin with that there are, of course, many masters women that have absolutely no problem owning their competitive nature. They know it, they feel comfortable with it, and they appreciate the benefits of it.

This post does not concern those women, but I invite you, if you are one, to join me in an academic exercise, in order that you may better understand the women that may be your teammates, teammates who are not talking about this.

Let's also be clear that there are certainly rowers out there who do not compete at all and who have no desire to race in boats on the water against other crews.

Totally cool!

You do you.

But, If you ARE a woman who DOES compete, but shies away from considering yourself competitive, then I invite you to keep an open mind, and dig deep into your own personal experience/history as you read this.

Ask yourself the question of why it is that being competitive turns you off, makes you grimace, or simply is something that you do not like. Just for the sake of, again, an academic exercise of sorts.


One of the challenges of competition is that it can make one feel vulnerable, and no one likes that.

How does it do that?

Here's where Brene makes her appearance. According to her, one of the foremost authorities on the subject, vulnerability is comprised of a combination of three elements: 1. Uncertainty

2. Risk

3. Emotional exposure.

All of these are part of being a competitor. Which is why I think vulnerability is one of the underlying reasons women claim they are NOT competitive.

I mean who wants to actually open the door to vulnerability and say,

"Sure, c'mon in. Make yourself at home. I was hoping you'd stop by."

But that's what competitors do.




What's more uncertain than athletically pitting yourself against another?

The illusion that one can get sucked into is talking to themselves about "winning".

"I want to win."

"I'm going to win."

"We can win this!"

Sure, everyone wants to win. Raise your hand if you want to lose.

But the fact of the matter is, whether you like it or not, you have NO CONTROL over "winning".

All you can control is your training, your preparation, your mindset, your attitude, YOU!

But the uncertainty is still there because you don't know what the other teams have been doing, or what may happen in the middle of the race.

Hence, the presence of uncertainty within the competitor.

There's no certainty you are going to win no matter how "ready" you are. Anything can happen and the other team may be more "ready" than yours.

So, uncertainty is ever present for anyone being a competitor.



How do you define risk?

Exposure to danger, harm, or loss is how risk is defined in an internet search.

Risk is about taking a chance, right?

About being willing to step into something unfamiliar.

Does it feel risky to you to step into a boat and race when you've only practiced in the lineup once or twice?

Does it feel risky to you to try racing a single when you have predominantly rowed sweep?

Does it feel risky to compete?

Of course it does.

Are you risking exposure by racing. Absolutely.

Racing exposes everyone's weaknesses.

Racing brings up anxieties about performance (Oh please don't let me catch a crab), fitness (will I be able to do this?), other teammates abilities (boy I hope Angela doesn't rush her slide), equipment (What if the coxbox goes out).

The list goes on and on.

Once again it circles back to making oneself vulnerable to outcomes one cannot control.

That's risk.


Emotional Exposure

This is probably the biggest of the three vulnerability elements because it is an internal, close to the heart, living, breathing level of exposure.

What does emotional exposure look like in terms of competition?

Let's start with the fact that competing in and of itself means showing your intentions to those around you, which is risky. Some take to this easily and have no problem making it clear that they are competitive, and that they welcome other competitives to join them, push them further, and challenge them.

But if you are a woman who has never had the opportunity to explore her competitive nature, or who was taught that girls are not supposed to be assertive, strong willed, or blatant about their power, especially their athletic power. Then the thought of being competitive may feel off putting and emotionally vulnerable to you.

Or, maybe you had experiences growing up where you saw other girls being competitive in unhealthy ways and you decided that you were not going to be "like them".

Now here you are 30 or so years later and those girls are still in your mind, and your thinking, I want to compete but I'm not a competitive person.

Re-learning how to be competitive in a healthy way, with other women who are also being competitive in a healthy way is, I believe, one of the most powerful experiences a masters rower can have.

But it takes being willing to show some vulnerability in order to have that powerful life changing experience.

Being outspoken about wanting to be competitive is a clear demonstration of emotionally exposing yourself.


Let's review.

Uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure are elements of vulnerability.



These are also elements of being competitive.



Ergo, being vulnerable is inherent in being competitive.

Knowing this on a conscious level, looking at it, rolling it around a bit in your head and in your heart, can result in feeling more connected to your natural competitive self. Consciously looking at what your experience was as a young girl around competition can be enlightening. What messages did you get and what internal self talk messages are you continuing to say to yourself?

Talking with the other rowers around you, your teammates, and coaches, can also help unearth some internal conflicts around being competitive, and is also a demonstration of vulnerability.

This is why no one likes talking about it.

No one wants to be exposed as having any conflicts internal or otherwise about being competitive because you might be seen as vulnerable competitively. In other words, one who might be easily picked off when it comes to making it into an important race or top boat.

But here's the thing.

Facing the vulnerability of being competitive makes you a stronger competitor. Because, the thing that was getting in the way before is now exposed and getting aired out in the light of day.

Here's the other thing.

Once you own it, feel the power of it, and internalize it, no one can make you feel bad about being competitive. Therefore no one will be able to hold that over you.

One more thing.

EVERYONE experiences a level of vulnerability as a competitor so you're not alone in this.

But Coach, even the toughest competitors on my team, the ones that have all the bravado, the ones that seem untouchable, and undefeatable?

You better believe it, rower.

Here's the secret...that's their Achilles Heel.

They will never admit to feeling vulnerable as competitors but believe you me it's there.

Now that you know it, you can use it to your advantage, but ONLY if you own your competitiveness!

Gaining a better understanding of your self-imposed limit on owning your competitive self means clearing a path to a level of mental strength and competitive power never before experienced by you. It is exactly the conflict between being an athlete, (training, rowing hard, lifting weights, getting stronger) and not owning your competitive self that can and will limit your competitive success.

Ask yourself if you feel comfortable saying to others, I'm a COMPETITIVE rower, or not.

If the answer is no, I don't feel comfortable with that, then ask yourself why, and let the games begin!

Now go open the door and welcome in your competitive self, along with vulnerability.

It's a party!

Have fun with this stuff.

Nothing bad will happen.

I promise.

Coach Knickerbocker

Row Hard, Row Well, Compete, Have Fun!

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