Two-time Olympian, Canadian heptathlete, and 100m hurdler, Jessica Zelinka, was a shining light of clean sport at the 2012 London Olympics. In this episode of ZoneTalk, Jessica discusses her Olympic experience, the balancing of her roles as both a high-performance athlete and mother, how competing against talented opponents is the only way to reach one’s potential, and the absolute necessity of the Zone mindset for training, performing and coaching, especially in today’s environment of the Covid-19 crisis.
Training, competing, and coaching in the Zone
Enjoy the video version of "An Olympian's Mindset" as Bob talks high-performance with two-time Olympian, Canadian heptathlete, and 100m hurdler, Jessica Zelinka
"Let athletes make mistakes and also learn how to figure it out for themselves."
Read the transcript of Bob Palmer's ZoneTalk podcast with Jessica Zelinka, two-time Olympian, Canadian heptathlete, and 100m hurdler, Athletic Coach & Mindset Mentor. Jessica was the gold medalist at the 2007 Pan Am Games, won silver in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and repeated her silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
JESSICA ZELINKA: AN OLYMPIAN'S MINDSET
Training, competing and coaching in the Zone
Welcome, Jessica Zelinka to ZoneTalk. Jessica is a Canadian heptathlete, 100-meter hurdler and coach. She was the gold medalist at the 2007 Pan Am Games, won silver in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and repeated her silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She finished fourth in the Olympic Games in Beijing, and sixth in London. Between those two games, she gave birth to her daughter, Anika. Welcome, Jessica.
Hello, Bob. Thanks for having me.
I'll set the stage. London Olympics. Name - Jessica Ennis. What memories does that conjure up to you?
Wow - those games were in London and Jessica Ennis was the British athlete - basically the face of the Olympics, the sweetheart of the Olympics. And the stadium was full - I think it was an eighty thousand person capacity stadium, and the first event was a hurdles, the 100 meter hurdles.
And, that was my best event. Jessica Ennis was in my heat. It was the fastest heat. And the crowd was going...Go Jessica! And I was like, OK, I can pretend they're cheering for me. But it was great. It was the fastest race in the history of heptathlon 100-meter hurdles. Jessica got me at the line and she got the Olympic record for the heptathlon and the hurdles, which was Jackie Joyner-Kersee's record, which has been untouchable over the years. And I also got the record. So although I've got a personal best and usually I'm really excited after that, I was like, come on, Jess, just give me something here. But she was an all-star that competition and she got the European record and it was really great to compete with her in London.
So how do you deal with that moving on? How do you get over that? What did you have to do to pull yourself together to get rid of that self-talk?
Well, I'm not sure if I quite did, because my next event was the high jump. And there were so many circumstances that came into play that I knew I had the tools to deal with at the time, since we were the last heat, the fastest heat. Everyone was already at the high jump pits warming up. Our bags were not there. We need to change shoes and spikes, so we can't warm up until we get our spikes. So everyone is already going over the bar.
They've got their marks down and we're waiting for our bags. They're saying - we'll have to escort you guys back to the change room to get your bags. They were put there instead by accident. It's a huge stadium and we walked all the way to the change room. The bags were not there. We walked all the way back - bags are there. Everyone is sitting down waiting for us to warm up. And so that was the one thing. And then my coach was there and he's saying, "Jess why are you stressing out?"
I didn't think I was stressing out. I'm actually pretty fine. I don't need much of a warm-up. And now we have the pits to ourselves and we can just get it down and get going. And then when it came time for me to start jumping, it started to rain, and raining in high jump, and taking that sharp curve into the pit isn't the most ideal. But again, I've done it before. I've done it in my career many times since high school.
So I thought I was equipped but I ended up not competing well. And, you know, maybe after the fact, I realized that I did get caught up and see myself as wanting to be in the Zone, but not actually being in Zone. So I was like, no - I tried to convince myself instead of actually being in the Zone, which is a very different thing.
So you regrouped and just about pulled it out of the ashes. I mean, what did you do? How do you do that? You must have had a talk with yourself and finally got yourself to a position where you started to excel in the other events.
I did. With heptathlon, you really have to, and I learned this from you, Bob, in our sessions where you've got to put the new hat on, right? So you go to hurdles, you have the hurdle hat on. Then you go to high jump - you are a high jumper now. You're not a heptathlete pretending to play high jump. You are a high jumper. You physicalize that. You feel it, you are it. The next event is the opposite of high jump. It's shot-put - it's strength, it's power, it's being as big as possible in the circle. And so for me, I just put the other hat on and I said high jump's over with. We're going to chop it and I'm going to bring all the resources that I can to this event because I know I can be very strong in this event. And then that event was followed by the two hundred meter, again, another strong event for me. I just was proud to put the hat on and I just went for it.
So the more you can let go in the heptathlon, the more you can actually leave it behind and go into the new position, the new role and step into it, so that by the end of the day you don't feel as drained. You have energy. You know, [you have] four days of highly competitive events in the day where you warm up, cool down, compete, and then you have to compete again. The next day is really important for a heptathlete to manage their energy. So the next day you feel good starting the day.
So winning is clearly important to you and in many sports they've taken that out of it. They just want it to be a skill thing. And for me, growing up, I loved sport. I didn't win a lot, but I loved working at it and trying to win. And I think it saved my life, in a sense, that it gave me access to strategies I might not otherwise have had. Why is winning so important to you? How did you get into that?
Well, I kind of got into it because at a young age, not every athlete has this experience. But the way I understood winning from a young age was that if I do my best, I will win. So I was kind of in the position where I knew that no one could touch me if I focused on doing my best.
It was a great place to be in because I didn't need to worry about the competitors. I didn't look at them. I didn't even think about them. And I just focused on what I needed to do, and the results showed. I'd always come first. It would be a very different experience, Bob, than you would have had if you weren't good, right? So that was the relationship I had with winning. If I focused on doing my best, I would be up there in the top.
It sounds a bit like the Zone to you.
Oh, it's all the Zone. It's all Zone. It's focusing on you and your energy and what you're bringing there and being prepared to compete. And I love that. You know, when you get to a higher level and that no longer was a truth for me. It didn't mean I'd get first, but I'd still be at the top. I saw the competitors as being there to bring my game up. There's no way I can compete and get the results of personal best or breakthrough performances without other competitive athletes.
This was to such an extent that my coach would actually not even put me in low-level meets because I would just perform very low. I needed the excitement of competing with people and knowing that they bring their best as well. There's nothing great about competing with people that aren't bringing their best. There's something to that.
Well said. I know at that level, some people try to get an advantage. I always feel that when I work with an athlete it gives them an advantage. But other athletes go to illegal means, and I know recently working with some Olympians or want-to-be Olympians, the meeting's cancelled at the last minute because someone's come by for a urine test. So what does drug testing mean to you? How did you deal with it? How do you deal with cheaters? Did it did it change the way you thought of the game?
Yes, I get the question a lot from people. To me, it was just the norm and I didn't really think too much about it. I really like the Canadian system because they were very on top of their athletes. But as soon as a Canadian athlete goes and competes in the US at a college, they're not under the same kind of standards that the Canadian system has, so I felt proud to be Canadian that way and that even though they're waking me up at 5:00 in the morning when my baby's sleeping and I need to train that day and I'm not happy, I think... I get it.
The other side to that is that athletes in other countries who are not only not getting tested like that, their system is protecting them. And for me, as an athlete and even my coach, you know, he is Eastern European and he's skeptical about some other countries and the athletes, for me, I couldn't control that. That was outside my control. So I would really just tell him sometimes..."Les, I don't want to hear it. I don't care if you think this athlete is on drugs. It's not going to help me when I line up against them at the start line. Me thinking they're on drugs is not going to help my performance. So in that way, I kept myself very naive to it and didn't think about it. I didn't get caught up in the drama. And the funny thing is, on forums, especially like cycling forums around the Olympics, when people start to pay attention, people were actually talking about me about like, oh, she she's on drugs. She must not get her period. They don't know me... like I had a baby and everything. I was shocked to see that because I take so much pride in doing things cleanly. And just because my physique shows that I'm in great shape doesn't mean I'm taking drugs. So even though athletes are clean, a lot of people think that we're all taking drugs, you know, like the whole Ben Johnson thing. Like everyone in the finals was taking drugs. As an athlete, I couldn't believe that. I did not buy into that belief. I believe some of the best athletes I competed with, like Jessica Ennis, and Carolyn Clutes, over the years...they were clean. And I believe that is what kept me going, thinking I could be one the best.
So there was that person in the lane next to you who's got a reputation for cheating the system. Besides just trying to block them out, what was your strategy? How did you deal with that?
Not only do they have a reputation, but some athletes actually were caught doping and then they only had a two-year ban, so they came back. So there were athletes whom I knew had the reputation and have done it and still are benefiting from doing it even two years ago. And I think I just focused on myself. I felt like the trigger, you know, seeing them and saying, you shouldn't be here. You cheated. You shouldn't be here. It does affect you. You can't just ignore that. But going into it, I knew who I was going to compete against. I knew they were going to show up again, and I knew my best was going to beat theirs, even if they're cheating.
And there's something to that, to beat people who cheat. Come on!
Bring it on! So, at this high level of competition that you're at, injuries happen. And I know you have a story about plantar fasciitis or injury that you had that just provoked you to even try to work harder. How do you deal with that kind of stuff happening all the time?
Yeah. So all athletes deal with injuries and, you know, my biggest injury was my torn, ruptured plantar fascia the year before my first Olympic Games. I had not qualified for the 2004 Olympics and almost quit. I was devastated but committed to another four years. I was still pretty young and naive and thought it was supposed to be easy, I guess.
And the year before, I tore my plantar fascia, at that point, it didn't faze me like it would have maybe in 2004. I knew I was going to be at the next Olympics, and I had to forget everything I had planned ahead of time in terms of the physical and focus on the things I could in the moment. So that was my rehab and revamping a plan, focusing on the mental game of things.
And that, too, like when I'm competing against people who may be on drugs, it's not all physical. It's so much more than the physical. So I know I can look at them and I'm like, well, I do other things that are “like taking drugs”. So, oh yeah, but in terms of that, I think there's still needs to be a major shift in the sporting world where there's so much focus still on the physical and not realizing how much can be done off the field that can enhance that. That can make all that hard work less difficult, more in alignment, to you as an athlete, more with flow and seeing results quicker.
I remember one of your 100-meter hurdle races and right at the beginning you were in the Zone, which I can tell. And you let out a "kei" - like a little karate kei (yell). You jumped up and let out this kei. Well, the result was, and I doubt it was intentional, I mean, you were just in the Zone, but the result was that there were two false starts by some of the other competitors in the race. And with both of those false starts, you didn't even flinch a muscle.
No. There's something really neat when you are not only in your Zone, but at the race you're talking about was when I won the Olympic trials and against Olympic hurdlers and I was a heptathlete, after doing a heptathlon a couple days before. And it was a bit of a surreal experience where I was in the Zone, but I could play within it. And it's not always like that. Sometimes you are in the Zone and you get the performance, and then you just kind of made it through, right?
This time I felt like I could play in my Zone, so I was aware of the people around me, and I saw that this girl was not going to do well. And I was almost anticipating a false start. I knew that things were off, and I knew that I had this amazing bubble that extended out. I was protected within it, but it was extending out and affecting the other athletes because the other athletes didn't have their bubble protecting them. You can call that Zone. You can call that energy. For me, it just felt like my bubble was out, but I wasn't being affected by other people's energy. So it was really fun. That was such a fun race. And I won. I got a personal best and I made it to the Olympics in the hundred meter and I made it into the finals in my hundred meter. So, once you get really good at the Zone, you realize that you don't need to hold on to it for dear life. The more comfortable you get with playing with it, and even in day to day life, the more you realize that you can tap into it without the trying and without the effort. That's the whole point. Without the effort.
So you had a comeback after having a daughter. A lot of women listening to this podcast are career athletes and they're thinking ahead, thinking of families. How did you work that into being a professional, really?
Yeah, I had to add another hat to my roles, which was mother, and what ended up happening is it almost happened, first of all, by survival. Just in trying to maintain my energy between motherhood and training, I took time to get back to training. But when I went to the track, I was the track athlete. I wasn't even like the "mother coming back from a baby " track athlete. It showed in my training when I couldn't even do two pushups the first day I was back! But because I had the experience of being a high-level athlete, I wanted to remember and tap into that to accelerate my progress. So when I was there, I was the athlete and it came back quick because I remembered.
And then when I went home, I focused on my daughter and focused on being the mother and left the track behind. Now in the past, I usually would take the track home with me and over-analyze, over-deal with myself, overthink things.
It was more draining in the end. And in this way, my coach commented, "I've never seen you so focused in practice before". And for me, I'm just like, oh, but I need to focus on track all the time. I'm not doing as much as I can. But it wasn't like that. It was me being able to shut it off and turn it on – it actually improved my training and got me back winning a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games a year later.
I remember talking to you about that time and you were heading off to the Nationals and you were still at the house, and I suggested that you were getting too emotional, that, you could look at it as if it was a movie, from a man's eyes and saying, you know, get the heck out of there - go get a hotel. You said, OK, but never did. How do you make that transition, especially that this was a local event? And you might also sometimes be going halfway around the world to an event and leaving your daughter behind.
I actually did get a hotel - that was for the Olympic trials in Calgary. And I got a hotel and it was the best advice I ever got! It's hard to be in that mode - when you're a mother, and she was a baby still...She was three and under when I was going back to Olympics, so when she cries for me, I get that sense of instinct to nurture. So she was there watching from the sidelines. But even so, I was able to separate this. Once I'm in my Zone, once I'm competing, I'm in Jessica athlete mode. So it's very different. But when I'm at home, I don't really want to be in that mode with her.
So that was the big thing. Most of my competitions are overseas. They weren't at home, but that was a very important competition. So, yeah, going to a hotel and just focusing on not feeling bad if I can't give her the attention or if I can't be patient with her because it's very hard to be patient sometimes when you're ready to give it your all on the track.
Let's switch you to coach mode. And an initial question really is around self-coaching. I've worked with a number of people, and at your level, it's really interesting that you almost have a strobe for a brain because you can take a single event that most people take for granted, that takes a few seconds with you. You can break it down brilliantly and analyze each microsecond. How do you learn to do that and what does that give you?
Well, I noticed that it's all about experience. I know some coaches who haven't even done track and field, but they study it and they're very knowledgeable and they are very great coaches. But my style of coaching can't be like that because I didn't study the biomechanics. I did [in a way] but from a visual and kinesthetic way, not from an academic way. I absorbed everything my coach told me. But he always communicated in a way that I understood, which was based on seeing him do it and doing it for myself and getting feedback.
So I do the same thing. When I see an athlete go down the long jump runway, I actually go peripheral and I see the flow of it, and, like what you were talking about, I see the detail of it. I see the peripheral and I actually feel what they're feeling. And if I was them, since I'd been there before, how would I change that? What would that feel like for them so I can help correct it.
A lot of athletes enjoy that perspective because it's based on how they are, but how they learn things as well. But on the other hand, some athletes really want, "Tell me exactly what you're looking for."
I'm looking for you to do it again. Just do it again and feel it. Feel through it. You tell me what you're feeling, what you're experiencing and what needs to change at your end. So it's not always about do this, do that, do that. It can be, but I think with the self-coaching thing, I know when I was a younger athlete, I relied on my coach so much for feedback. And it gets you out of the Zone. It gets you out of understanding that body self-awareness and what's going on and problem-solving for yourself.
So later in my career, my coach and I developed a relationship where, when he saw me, he knew when to speak and when to not speak. And when I was working through something. And when I heard something from him, I had to internalize it and make it mean something for me.
You're a high-level coach. You're looking at that athlete. You've broken it down. You can feel where they're making mistakes. What would you encourage other coaches to do to learn that kind of basic methodology?
It's changed because I'm such a newbie as a coach and I don't feel like I have the credibility to even speak to other coaches. I'm learning all the time and I'm making mistakes all the time. What I do see, though? I haven't been coaching too much in the organizational club system. But what I see is, you know, although I'm trying to feel what the athlete is feeling I'm actually really detached from them as well - it's a combination.
I see a lot of coaches really attached to the performances of their athletes and feeling like they need to make them feel good all the time. Oh, you did good. You did good. Or that's OK. Oh, come on. Come on. I don't feel the need to encourage them in that way. I feel like I need to empower them to be able to make mistakes and recover from them...getting better, not worse, and not relying on me to feel better.
I would suggest to coaches to allow their athletes to make mistakes. Give them more space in the training period to figure things out. To ask questions instead of you telling them answers all the time or asking them better questions for them to think for themselves. And if they’re feeling down, you don’t need to feel down with them. You don’t need to make them feel better. That’s OK. That’s part of the process.
You have this ability to break down their technique, but you also have a kind of a natural way of building rapport with your athletes, something that I've been very impressed by. You told me a story about going into a school where they weren't high-performance athletes, and boy, you had to scale back your program, but you did it amazingly.
That was an amazing experience for me as a coach, especially early on, because I realized that coaching is more than just giving technical advice and trying to get athletes to do things properly. And I ended up working with the Phys Ed. teacher in the gym classes. I was there to integrate a track and field program for after school. I ended up in the gym with people who did not want to be in Phys. Ed. class and where the teacher also allowed them not to participate.
And so I came in and my only goal was to get everyone to participate and to allow them to feel things out through rhythm, through posture, through connecting with their bodies in a safe place. And it just came down to the fundamentals. Okay. Let's start with our posture, how are we going to show up today? And then our breathing... and then let's find a little skipping... rhythm... skipping... rhythm... and then increase that speed and increase the coordination. And in the end, basically all I was trying to do was getting them into flow, getting them into some mirroring my Zone and having them move. And it was amazing results. And I got their buy-in and I didn't know what I did, but it definitely came from my experience. What I had planned was not going to work out. The best thing I could do was get into my Zone and also feel what they're feeling and respond to that in a positive way, not go down with them and not feel like I don't want to be here either. No, I'm here and I want to bring them up to my level.
So amongst that kind of skill and other skills that you've learned, is there any take away from the work we've done together?
Yes - the biggest takeaway in the work that we've done together is so much more than performance - it's performance in sport, it's performance in life. I think a lot of us experience our best selves or when we feel at our best in sport when we're athletes and we love something and we're seeing improvement and we know that feeling.
Skills that will make you a high performer in anything you do, including school, including academics, including being a parent, a daughter or a son. There's so much you can do to create a better environment to thrive in. And you don't need to wait until you get to the track trying to get feedback from your coach, and to wait for them to tell you if you're doing good or bad.
Do you have any advice for coaches that are trying to make a difference in the lives of young athletes like you did at that school?
Yes. My advice would be to go outside of your box and keep learning. Learning different tools. The sporting world is shifting. I'm telling you. And it's going towards more than just physical. So working on how you present yourself, how you talk to your athletes, how you communicate, how you show up and the words you use, the messaging you give and the tactics that are more than physical.
Athletes don't get that anywhere else unless they seek it out on their own. And I think everyone should have access to how to perform in training, practicing training so they don't show up to the competition, crossing their fingers that some magic is going to happen. The coach needs to bring that all in, in training.
It's called planning.
Intention. Yes. So, I'm an organization. I don't have track athletes. I have a hockey team. I have a soccer team. What might be the benefits of bringing someone like you into that realm?
I can't believe that I've got you speechless.
No, I just have so much to say. I'm trying to say it eloquently. OK. I think I should approach by the angle of nowadays athletes get so sport-specific because the organizations really do demand a lot from competitive athletes. The time, the energy, and all that goes into competitions, to winning titles and all that good stuff. Because let's face it. Athletes need to stay engaged in the sport. And if they did fundamental work all the time, they would not be engaged. They would not make it through to the next year in sport.
So bringing someone in like me, you know, I have SportExcel training. I'm technically certified.
Very well certified!
And that is not about hard work, though, those days are over. It's not about repetition and hard work. If you're not doing it in the state, the performance state, the ideal performance state for the athlete, then all you're doing is reinforcing mediocre performances in training. So you can do that for two hours and training all you want, you'll get the same result. Bringing someone fresh in and kind of giving that perspective, and that person, that coach, be able to hold the Zone for them so they can really see what it feels like.
And they can mirror it, you know, make it easier for them to kind of pick it up at first and then doing some basic things that they can start implementing it and then they can see the results they will get. So it's less technical, less sport-specific and more...How do we apply these tools to training, to our daily habits, to our daily mindset? So it becomes our default state. That's what we're looking for.
Right now we're going through a crisis that won't be here forever, but there are a lot of athletes that are, you know, confined within four walls. What would your advice be to them in terms of getting through this and putting in some training within those four walls?
We have a global issue going on. At the athlete level I don't think it's a crisis. I think it's the best thing that can happen to them right now. You know, I mean that sincerely. I came into the track club only recently and they just finished their indoor season. And I'm looking at the athletes thinking - if they go into the outdoor season like this, they're going to injure themselves. They need some real hardcore fundamental training to get the basic fitness level up. And right now, because, you know, again, athletes want the quick, with the easy and to be motivated. This is the time to use other things for motivation. This is the time to commit to a longer process, to the bigger picture, knowing that, with pure excitement, if you do the work now, you will be in a better position than you'd ever be if you had a competitive season this outdoor season. You'd just be doing the same things, the same patterns, the same results. But if you really commit to this...like we have time now...if you commit to it without the ideal conditions of needing to being in your spikes on a track with a coach and you see results, that's confidence-building right there.
On that note, I think we're going to thank you for this interview. I am motivated. I'm psyched by that. I think that last little speech of yours is going to show up on YouTube as the motivational piece of the decade. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much for having me. And thank you for all the work you do for athletes. And this is the time. This is the time to do the work. And this is the real work right here, right now. Not in your sport-specific environment.
Love it. Thank you.
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