Competitive sports and science not so different after all

The Winter Olympics are one of the most exciting athletic events—it’s a culmination of the world’s top athletes putting on their best performances after years of hard work and training! Not to mention, the sports are so intense and dramatic: big air, big wipeouts, big tears of sorrow or joy… It’s not surprising that I love the Winter Olympics since I have been a competitive figure skater for over two decades. The sport is more than just the beauty, grace, and drama you see at the Olympics (but of course, there’s plenty of that too). I’ve learned a lot from being a competitive athlete, particularly a figure skater. As with most sports, to become a competitive athlete, you must learn perseverance, resilience, and the value of hard work. I didn’t realize until midway through my PhD that I had subconsciously been applying many of the skills I acquired from being a figure skater to my research and training as a scientist. At first glance, it may seem ridiculous to compare figure skating to science; however, they are not so different after all!

Selfie during long hours of image collection using cryoEM; Right: Competing at the Adult Figure Skating Championships in Ann Arbor, MI.

I will focus mostly on the parallels I’ve drawn between the two, but I think many of these skills are transferable from other sports or hobbies. So hopefully you can draw similar parallels from any sports or hobbies you practice. Especially on tough days in the lab or when facing difficult scientific experiences, it’s good to keep in mind that success doesn’t happen overnight and that it’s worth it to keep trying!

Get a good coach

To be at the top, you need some good training. As a figure skater, I made sure to find a coach who was qualified and worked for me and my training style. The same applies to science. If you’re considering a lab or institution to join for your PhD or postdoc training, pay attention to your needs and desires, and pick a lab accordingly. Pick a science coach, or mentor/PI, who will help you achieve your goals. For more advice on picking a mentor, check out this post.

Take the time to learn the basic skills

As I began learning difficult elements, I was grateful that I had taken the time to establish a solid foundation in the basic skating elements. Things like bending your knee properly, or having good posture become incredibly important when attempting more difficult maneuvers in this sport. In doing research, it is equally important to gain proficiency in basic skills like pipetting accurately, organizing a lab notebook, or doing a proper literature search. It’s worth spending time and effort to establish solid habits in the lab so that as your research and experiments get more complex, you will not have to worry about those details.

Perseverance and self-motivation are critical

Even as a non-figure skater, you can probably appreciate that landing difficult jumps takes a LOT of time, effort, and training. The amount of hard work that goes into perfecting an element and then being able to perform it reliably during a competition is huge. It will take months, even years, of falling and falling before being able to land a certain jump. Importantly, it’s not about that one moment of success, but more about all the effort that went into it in the background. As they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Just like science, it takes a lot of perseverance and self-motivation. Your coach, or PI, is there to help, but the drive to improve and excel must come from you. To get that grant or paper accepted, you must put in long hours of “training”—hours in the lab perfecting that experiment or time spent sifting through literature preparing a grant for submission. Sometimes, when an experiment is particularly difficult, or reviewer comments are particularly tedious, it’s useful to remember that it may take a lot of time to get through a difficult problem, but small incremental steps will eventually lead you to accomplish your goal.

Failure sucks but is OK

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve fallen on jumps, failed at competitions, and missed the podium. Nothing feels more defeating than falling in front of the judges and the audience during a competition. And each time that happens, it’s a terrible feeling, no matter how many times it has happened before. Failure sucks, and there is no good way of saying it. But failure is a necessary part of training and growing. Experiments and hypotheses fail all the time. The important thing is to get up (as we say in figure skating) and try again. Learn from the mistakes, and become stronger. Use the failed experiments to guide your next steps. Use the paper rejection to inform future experiments. Use the critical comments of committee members to improve your research plan. Failure and rejection are an integral part of becoming a better and more successful scientist (and figure skater).

Take a break

Training and hard work are critical for improving, but overworking can lead to fatigue and injury. In science, we can think of injury not as a muscle strain, but as mental fatigue, depression, or apathy. Breaks are good and necessary to rejuvenate and recharge. It’s important to take some days off from doing science, especially after a tough deadline or extremely taxing set of experiments. It’s also important to take little breaks throughout the day. If I’m sitting at my desk writing, I like to take a 5-10 minute break every hour just to refresh and reset my mind. Don’t underestimate the power of taking a short break!

Put yourself out there

Be confident. Don’t hold back. Take charge. Competing in front of a panel of judges is one of the most nerve-racking experiences I’ve ever had to endure. It’s just you and your skills out on the ice, waiting for the harsh criticisms of the judges. Months and months of hard work and training comes down to 4 minutes on display. The easy way out is to not compete at all and not put myself out there, but nothing is ever accomplished from that. I found that during my PhD and postdoc, putting myself out there was always more rewarding. Go ahead and ask that question you are afraid to ask during the seminar, suggest that bold experiment to your PI, try the new but challenging technique, and volunteer to host a distinguished professor during their seminar. If you don’t have the courage to try, you will definitely fail. But if you put yourself out there, chances are, you’ll learn something about yourself and hopefully achieve one of your goals.

Put on a show!

I always give myself this pep talk before giving a seminar, journal club, or even a lab meeting. Put on a show! The top figure skaters always make their performances look effortless, elegant, and entertaining. Internally, I may be nervous or tired, but on the outside, I always put on a good face and tell myself I am excited to perform. An important aspect of science is communicating and presenting your work, and I have always thought of these occasions as mini-competitions. It’s a performance, and you have to go out there and impress the judges (or your peers, or colleagues, or esteemed faculty, etc.). Tell yourself that you are excited to present your work or explain your science, and it will show! The more excited you are about your work, the more interested your peers will be.

Be happy with yourself and be your best self

The most important thing is to be happy with yourself and your accomplishments and to strive to be the best that you can be. There are times I’ve skated my absolute best, and ended in fourth, just missing the podium. You cannot control how your competitors skate or how the judges will score. Similar to science, you cannot control how efficiently your competitors work or what kind of comments the reviewers will give you on your manuscript. It’s important to focus on your work and make sure it’s something you can be proud of, and something you’ve given your best effort. In the end, with any sport and with science, you have to work hard to do your personal best and be proud of what you’ve learned and accomplished along the way!

Check out Pinar Gurel’s figure skating skills here!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.



About the Author:

Pinar Gurel is a postdoctoral fellow in the Alushin lab at Rockefeller University where she is investigating the role of actin structural plasticity in mechanosensation using cryoEM and other biophysical tools. Pinar earned her PhD in the Higgs lab at Dartmouth College where she studied the mechanism of actin filament severing by the formin, INF2. She is currently the co-chair of COMPASS. Email: Twitter: @pinar_gurel