We have certain beliefs in us that are so rooted in our minds, that they are sometimes mistaken as part of our personalities, and we end up taking them as facts. We don’t question these beliefs because for us, it is obvious that they are true. Many times they are, but many other times they are not. I can mention beliefs that humankind had for ages, but were later proven wrong: that the Earth is flat, for example. (Modern flat-Earthers excuse my ignorance!)
In a time before mathematics, geometry and telescopes, that was a given fact. You look at your environment, all around you, you see flat, so why would you even consider something different? It required us to glance beyond our surroundings, to analyze the shadows our planet casts on the moon, and to observe changes in the positions of the stars and seasons around the year to get a glimpse of reality: the Earth is a spheroid!
Symbolically speaking we had to take a step back from our narrow field of vision, to see the whole picture. We also believed that humans would never fly until the airplane was invented. In the beginning of the 20th century, it was common sense that a woman could not run a marathon, and if she did she would probably die. The good news is that the vast majority of our beliefs were taught, so we can replace beliefs and thoughts that are not helpful for new ones that will aid in reaching our goal.
A lot like knowing what shape the Earth is, our beliefs about what we can or cannot do are intimately tied to our culture. For example: a woman born and raised in Finland has vastly higher chances of believing she can be a great scientist than a woman raised under the Taliban. Yes, I know a lot of women in that condition don’t even access to basic school, but that’s not my point. My point is that if you are constantly being told you cannot, you will believe in it.
In Brazil I met this 7 year-old girl who loves pole, who told me she wanted to compete with me and win! Her mom asked me if I thought that her daughter could ever achieve that living in Brazil. I told her that after my experience living in the USA (I’m Brazilian born and raised), I noticed that the real difference between the sports programs in both countries is simply the mindset. Brazilians have what I call the “stray dog mentality”: we always think we’re not as good as the “gringos” (soccer and MMA excluded!), that we don’t have what it takes or the means to get there. But Americans not only think they can do it, the know they can, and they believe they deserve it. The mother’s reply to what I’d said confirmed my theory: “Yes, you are right, there’s no way she could do it here.”
My intention was exactly the opposite! I was explaining that yes, she could be a great athlete living in Brazil, but that the lack of faith in oneself is so big in the culture, that she had no idea of what I meant until I explained it again. Even then, she understood me but did not fully believe me. In my personal experience, the training facilities I used in Brazil and in the USA were quite similar; the real difference was the motivational aspect. My fiancé Robby grew up practicing and coaching wrestling, so I asked him to help prepare me for the IPSF world championship in 2016. He knew nothing about pole, but he knew plenty about how to keep someone motivated to work hard. I also started working with a sports psychologist. They made me believe I could do it, and I did it. I won 5 gold medals in world championships.
It seems the biggest lesson I have learned by living abroad is that I never had to leave. It took me moving to another country to realize that I always had it in me, that I could have been the world champion no matter where I lived. But the move was a necessary phase for me, simply so I could deconstruct the belief that I was inferior to all North American and European athletes.
Whatever your difficulty is, there is a way to overcome it, or at least to work around it. Whether it is lack of money, physical shape, age, work, whatever. Believe: there is a way. It probably will not be exactly like what you want, but what is? Where would the fun in life be if things always went like we planned? Maybe your struggles might take you higher and further than what you imagined. The great gymnast Simon Biles, comes from a very troubled family history, and ended up being adopted by her grandfather and his wife. During her practices she started feeling pain in one of her ankles when landing a double layout. To work around that problem she decided to try to add a half twist at the end of the skill, which made her land facing the other way, therefore changing the angle the ankle was in when absorbing the impact. Not only did she solve her problem, but she also created the “Biles,” a new move that will forever carry her name in the gymnastics code of points.
I remember the very first world tournament I qualified for, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth in 2010. I was training and teaching pole in São Paulo, and one of my students who had lived abroad for a long time told me the same thing I told the 7 year-old girl. I had only been poling for 18 months, and I was going up against all my idols. She told me: “Rafa, do you know what they have on you? Just their name!” I don’t think she realized it but that phrase changed my life! I started to believe I could do it, after all they were people like me, had difficulties and fears just like me. I started training with a lot more confidence and discipline. Knowing I had a chance motivated me immensely.
I was getting ready to compete against the very person who had inspired me to start pole: Felix Cane. In my mind she was the only way a person could be good at pole: long lines, extremely flexible, and delicate. I trained insanely hard to be as much like her as I could in every possible way, but I came to the conclusion that it did not matter how much I trained I was never going to have the hip and back flexibility she had, I was never going to be like her, because I am not her! I have always been the strongest girl in the room, never the most flexible. (Excluding some very small, sad rooms!) So I started thinking what I could do that no one else could. If I was going to war I had to take my best weapons, my unique characteristics that made me stand out. I started investing more in strength and dynamic moves, as well as more acrobatic moves. That year I finished 3rd place and also got the “best tricks” award. For all this to be possible I had to deconstruct, tear down, wreck, kill, obliterate, my beliefs about how a good pole performance was supposed to be, and adapt it to myself.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is essential to determine your work plan. We need to show off our strengths and balance out our weaknesses. Let me develop this using my example again. Since I knew flexibility did not come easy to me, my base training — this is the phase of your yearly preparation where you develop capabilities and abilities — focused a lot on gaining flexibility. I worked on my weakness to bring it to a good level, but I always knew that a Rainbow Marchencko was nowhere in the near future, and that is not a problem. Now when we talk about strength training I don’t need much conditioning for it, since just repeating the moves I was working on was enough to allow me to move on to harder ones. This of course is extremely personal and each athlete must find their path along with their coach.
Another limiting belief we see in pole is that a certain move is too hard and you’re never going to be able to achieve it. Once again, lies! Maybe you cannot do it yet. I like to use the starfish as an example. I always thought this was a very impressive move, but I thought I would never be able to do it. I started to “play” with it with no real intent of ever doing it. I Thought “if I cannot do it, no big deal, at least I will roughen up the skin on my foot and that will help me in other moves.” At first I would place one foot at the base of the pole and the other one up against the pole. I would help my foot to stay on the pole by pushing with my hand. When that became easier I was able to lean away from the pole. Before I realized it, I was leaning away and not needing my hand to push my foot. The next step was trying it off the ground, with both feet on the pole. I fell countless times, but one fine day, it worked! That day I learned that if I could learn how to do the starfish anything is possible! Some of my transitions took me 2 years to achieve. In the 2017 POSA world championship I performed a Russian split on stage for the first time. That was another “I will never be able to” move for me, but not only I was able to do it, I did it in a combination I had never seen before.
I would say the best way to learn a move is to not judge: not judge yourself or the move. Think in small steps to reach the summit of the mountain. Worry about each individual training session and not the final result. And of course above all believe you can do it.