If you never choose that big goal, it can’t happen. Having that big picture vision will guide all your actions throughout every hour of every day. You’d be surprised by how incredibly these tiny actions add up over time.
Asa part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Cole.
Emily Cole, author of The Players Plate, All-American track athlete, social media creator, and health advocate whose passion for sports nutrition began after a near-fatal brush with hyponatremia at age 17. This condition, where one becomes dangerously low in sodium due to overhydration, caused her to understand that fueling for athletic performance is much more intricate than many people realize. Connect with her on Instagram.
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?
Looking back, I know that everything I’ve been able to do is because of the support my family gives me. My two older sisters and I are similar, but unique in our own ways. As a young girl, it was like I got to see two different versions of myself go out into the world, and then pick and choose what I wanted to do. One of my sisters is now a country music artist in Nashville, and the other works in finance and has lived in both New York and London. Obviously with me focusing on running and nutrition, all of our paths are divergent, but what’s cool is how we all started our lives largely centered around athletics.
I think because my dad didn’t get a boy, he encouraged us to play sports even more. My sisters are older; by eight and nine years, so growing up it was like having two extra parents. Now though, they’re my best friends. Having them to look up to always set the standard high for anything I took part in. We grew up in a suburb of Houston Texas, and went to a large 6a Texas high school. There, I played volleyball, basketball, cross country and track. I was really proud of that because there are so many incredible athletes there and it’s really hard to make those varsity squads.
I never felt any pressure from my parents regarding what sports they wanted me to play or grades they needed me to get, and this really allowed me to feel like everything I was chasing after was fully of my own accord. I’m infinitely grateful for the support and love I get from my family — we are such a tight unit and
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
I would definitely say both of my sisters. As I mentioned before, they are always striving for excellence in the avenues that they undertake. My whole life, I’ve essentially just been trying to keep up with them, and I love it. It’s never felt competitive in an unhealthy way. We all know we are a part of each others success and love to celebrate eachother. I know that running 60 miles a week and racing the steeplechase would be considered crazy to most people, but so would the hours and dedication that both of my sisters put into their craft. They’re incredible role models for me that just happen to double as my best friends.
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 sister, Julia, who is a musician, has helped me a lot with social media. She’s taught me a lot about creating content, and what to do when it isn’t engaging new followers. Being a social media influencer isn’t why she went into music, but it’s become essential for artists. When it came to me promoting my Name, Image and Likenesss (NIL), I really looked to her for guidance. It’s been a lot of fun creating videos and sharing my passion for sports nutrition with my followers, but she’s helped me to always make sure I keep my identity and self worth separate from how my pages are doing. The media world can be very dangerous for mental health, and I’m grateful I’ve been lucky to have such a positive experience with it.
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?
It’s definitely not funny, but I actually wrote my introduction in my new book about a big mistake I made that I see a lot of other young athletes making. Many people think that eating super healthy food is how they are going to achieve their goals as an athlete. But what society tells us is “healthy” doesn’t come even close to fitting the needs of a high level athlete. I made that mistake by drinking too much water and not eating enough sodium — and it was extremely dangerous. I went into a coma for two days, and almost lost my life due to this condition called hyponatremia. My passion for writing the players plate definitely came from learning that lesson. Having survived, I’m actually grateful i had that experience — so i can use my position to help other athletes have to endure going through it themselves.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
Surround yourself with people that are driven in the same ways as you. For me, that’s my family. When the people around you have passion and love for the work they are doing, it keeps you motivated to continue pursuing your own passions as well. If you want to be a great athlete, surrounding yourself with other athletes, especially within your sport, can help you all accomplish those goals together. Everything is easier with a team.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Well my book, The Player’s Plate, releases in October and I’m very excited to share it with the world. Additionally though, I’m super excited that I’ve started a podcast called The Player’s Platform, with Kristi Dosh. She’s an incredible woman who has worked with ESPN and writes for Forbes, and is basically the queen of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL). She has great connections within the whole world of NIL and helps students understand the new laws that allow them to profit off of their NIL.
Kristi has been an incredible role model for me and doing the podcast together is so cool. She has the professional experience and I have the personal experience from eing a student athlete having taken advantage of the NIL opportunities myself. We’ll be interviewing all the top athletes that are making a brand and a name for themselves during this era of the new NIL laws. We’ll cover their stories and their lives, but also their brands and how they are ulitizing NIL. Mainly, we will be giving these players a platform to speak about a cause they are passionate about, or something they want to bring more attention to.
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?
This is a great question and finding ways to deal with pressure is something that I have really had to embrace and work through. I had figured it out by the end of high school, and then had to refigure it out once I got to Duke. For me, it’s all about finding calm in the face of pressure. And it can be really hard with a sport like track, because you have such an incredibly small window of time to prove the months and years of hard work that you’ve put into it. And so many variables can come into play in that small moment. This can be really anxiety inducing and nerve racking, especially for younger athletes.
Here are 4 strategies I use to find calm:
This past track season when I was able to do really well, something that I really embraced was to find calm. I actually ordered these little temporary tattoos that I would put on my wrist to remind myself to be grounded in the moment. One of them said, “Just breathe. ” It reminded me to take deep breaths, whether that’s in the form of meditation or just consciously taking deep belly breaths for a couple of minutes.
2. Listen to music.
If I do listen to music with my races, I’ll listen to really chill soft or slow music. I know this is atypical, but it really helps calm me down.
Before a race, I will journal about all the training that I’ve done up until that point, and manifest feelings of confidence. I’ll write down like phrases over and over again, focusing on what I believe in like, “I am strong, I am capable, I will be an All-American” I’ll write these things even if I don’t fully believe it because the more you focus on those thoughts, the more they’ll become reality.
4. Visualize success.
I read a book called ten minute toughness this year that was fantastic for helping athletes find the right mindset. It really helped me understand that visualizing my success was key to accomplishing my dreams. Jason selk shared a lot of different practices and techniques that I could go through to help me figure out how to step on the line calm and confident and give my best performance.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
I love to consciously breathe through my nose as much as possible. Even when working out, if you’re able to do this, it is greatly beneficial for your performance and recovery.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I’m super passionate about sleep techniques. I first got inspired after watching a TED talk on sleep. The talk shared how significant the difference is even just from six to eight hours. When you go down to six hours of sleep from 8 even for just one night, your immunity is decreased by 50%. Not only that, but the quality of your sleep is affected as well.
For me, avoiding distractions and stepping on that line calm and confident is so dependent on sleep. Sleep is akin to the most powerful, legal, performance enhancing drug you can use. It’s essential athletes get on a consisten routine.I have a chapter in my book about how to optimize your nutrition for sleep too.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
I’m really intentional about muscle recovery. I visit my trainers a lot to work on this. Cupping can be painful, but it really works. I also use recovery leg sleeves everyday and those make a huge difference. Overall, though, the biggest pillars for me to achieve peak performance have been sleep and nutrition.
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?
Habits have played a huge role in my success. There’s a professional athlete named Colleen Quigley, who also ran steeplechase. She is very big on social media, and she has posted a lot about using a habit tracker. Essentially, she created a grid where she lists out all optimal things you can do in a day. Then there is a row for each day, where you check off the boxes for each habit column you did that day. It’s a really great way to see your progress. Maybe there is one thing on your list that you’ve only checked off once in two weeks. Seeing that can help you change your behavior.
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?
In high school, I read The 4-Hour Workweek. It helps you become really clear on what you want. A big part of that is setting goals. If you don’t figure out what your big goals are, there’s no way you’ll ever be able to achieve them. And that was something I was thinking about when I was reading this book four years ago.
A lot of people are too scared to name that specific goal, because it seems too big. For me, the Olympics is a big goal. One of the concepts In The book was that people might not name their goal because they are worried about all the little things they need to do along the way to get there, so they don’t think it’s achievable.
But here’s the thing; if you never choose that big goal, it can’t happen. Having that big picture vision will guide all your actions throughout every hour of every day. You’d be surprised by how incredibly these tiny actions add up over time.
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 something that definitely is just fascinating. In general, I think that everyone wants to learn more about it. Getting into the flow with running is hard. Running is an enigma to most people. They don’t understand it because it can be so painful. But I promise that when you do find that flow, it feels incredible.
I had one race in high school towards the end of my high school career regionals where I ran the two-mile and I just felt great the whole time. During the last 200, I even ran past the regional champion. It was a really big moment for me. All I can think about looking back on that race was how amazing I felt.
Honestly, that day inspired me for the next three years of training at Duke. It got me through the hard days because every single race I did at Duke was so hard and so painful. I didn’t see that flow state again for a long time. Everyone is different and it takes time to figure out what will get an individual there. For me, it finally clicked in my junior year when I discovered I had celiac disease, and that I couldn’t have gluten. It was the final piece of the puzzle that helped me to really feel like I had done every single thing that I could have to prepare for the moment at the line.
When we hosted ACC on our home track at Duke, I was finally able to have another race where I really felt that flow state. I paid attention to my breathing, I listened to slow music during my warmup and I felt so focused. I remember being in the middle of that race and just feeling confident and like I was holding myself back. To be able to achieve that flow state I think you’ve really got to be at peace with all of the different variables that come into that situation. It’s when all the aspects of nutrition, sleep, training, and breath all come together.
In that race, when I came down to the last two laps, I was closing in on the girl ahead of me. Everyone in the stands was going crazy. I was quite literally sprinting and didn’t even feel pain — it was definitely a moment of flow. The best part was that I had really earned it, because I had spent three years trying to figure out what I needed to do for myself to get into that flow state, and it worked.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
Being more intentional about meditation is definitely something that I want to do more of this year. Because my life can get so busy, I’ve known that finding a fixed time every week to do my practices is super important. So, I am now signed up to do “yoga for athletes” every Tuesday and Thursday as one of my senior classes at Duke, and I am so excited. On top of this, Duke athletics actually has a partnership with the Calm app where we all get a free membership. I love to go on the app and just do short breathing exercises during stressful days. There are so many different free practices and videos on the internet — even free versions of some apps have great exercises for anyone to get started.
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?
We’re human. We are going to have negative thoughts. Because of this, it’s super important to literally force yourself to think of positive thoughts and affirmations, and really focus on those. For me, that’s forcing myself to visualize myself running well. It’s really hard to be able to visualize something and put the effort in and really believe it. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it.
Another way to change our thoughts is to get the negative thoughts out of your brain. Write them down. Then force yourself to think positive. Everyone deserves to be proud of themselves, no matter who you are. One of the techniques I’ve learned says to imagine the best thing your coach or your best friend could say to you before a race. And then obviously, you’re basically saying that to yourself, because you’ve just thought of it, but it makes it easier to figure out what that reminder would be.
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?
I think the biggest thing that I’ve done so far is to bring goodness to the world is in writing The Players’ Plate. I’m really hoping that it can be life changing for the next generation of athletes to help them understand their needs, both as an athlete and a human. One of the biggest things our society does is tell us what we should be eating. And it’s interesting that I would write a book on sports nutrition that actually doesn’t give very many guidelines. Rather than instructions, the players Plate gives you a lot of background and knowledge, and helps you understand how to determine your personalized guidelines for yourself.
For me, understanding nutrition has been life changing in my career. Hopefully, over the next few years, I’ll be able to reach different athletes and people and make a difference in their lives as well.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I have two. The first is; don’t let the urgent overtake the important. I think that that one really ties into our instant gratification society. No matter what journey or passion or movement you’re trying to get behind, you need to stay focused instead of geting sidetracked by projects that don’t fully align with your values and what you’re trying to accomplish.
I keep my second one on the back of my phone. It says:
But what if I fall?
Oh my darling, but what if you fly?
For me, it really ties into the concept of having negative thoughts. I run the steeplechase. For those that don’t know, it’s a seven lap race with four cement barriers on every single lap and a water jump. You have to adapt a lot. If you hit one of the cement barriers, you are going down. Early in my college career, I would go into a lot of races really fearful just picturing myself falling, or picturing myself not doing the water jump well. This past year though, I really changed my mindset to using the water jumps to my advantage, and ultimately mastered the water jump.
Yes, I could fall. But what if instead, I don’t? How amazing would it be if I do more than not fall, what if I fly? Focusing on the positive helps you take that stress off of yourself. Positive thoughts make it easier to step on the line confident and happy — which are each vital to being able to perform at your best.
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 would love to meet Karly Kloss. She’s a fashion model but she’s also created Kode with Klossey. It’s essentially a camp that helps younger girls learn how to code. It’s near and dear to my heart because I’m a computer science major. Coding is essentially a whole new language. Whenever kids are getting exposure to that at a young age, it really helps them be more comfortable to be able to do it later on. Encouraging young girls in coding is something that can really help close this gap between men and women and inequality.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at [email protected]. To schedule a free consultation, click here.