The Cons of Being Pro: The Inner Worlds of Professional Athletes

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I’m a professional mountain biker, my prowess on a bike resulted in a fifteen year career with earnings of close to two million and an unlimited supply of the finest bicycle equipment available. I performed thousands of stunt shows in front of millions all over the world, was featured in dozens of mountain bike films and media, a Cirque du Soliel show, and television commercials.


As a nicely packaged example of what our culture strives for, measurable results, I was celebrated and praised. This starlight was disorienting, my inner-sense of identity became elusive, leaving me in autopilot-mode—a muddled inner-experience juxtaposed by my smiling public-image.

In this article I want to expose and explore the rarely spoken about or even acknowledged interior worlds of pro-athletes.

In my attempt to more deeply understand the ‘pro’ lifestyle, I, equipped with heart-open curiosity, interviewed some 20 plus Professional and Olympic athletes–my perspective expanded almost as much as my compassion.

Though each athlete’s life circumstance is unique according to age and career-phase, the same themes of struggle emerged over and over.  I want to take you through these themes, bring you into some of the complexities and challenge, and then conclude with a vision that will entice athletes, trainers, media, and spectators to value the inner-world experience as a key factor for assessing athletic success.


escapeSport can provide much needed solace and therapy from the strains of life. However, when used to avoid challenging “life-stuff”, it can become a form of escape. Athletes, like everyone I know, have many unaddressed issues; sport makes them go away temporarily, but if left unaddressed, over time they will make themselves known through distracting thoughts, tight and retracted bodies, and clouded judgment. This follows us into sport compromising our performance and enjoyment.

My riding regime was steady practice, smart diet, and plenty of sleep. When reality presented a hard challenge that I didn’t accept, I become more rigorous about my regime, it was the only way to escape the discomfort - I convinced myself that riding was more important, a convenient excuse. My escapes remained mild however compared to many I interviewed who resorted to alcoholism and drugs.

The escaped issues that yearn attention will continue to call even during a game or performance, so the typical sport psychology band-aid solution is to utilize mental techniques to trick our minds back into focus and away from what really matters. Yes, winning that title may not be what really matters; in fact, a title may further separate an athlete from the truth inside.


As my reputation grew, a tension grew between my passion for riding and that which I felt my reputation required of me. Eventually the reputation won and I desperately protected it; a ‘casual fun ride’ now felt like a test I had to pass in order to maintain my reputation, that reputation was who I knew myself to be, so the stakes were high.

Without a steady cultivation of their true self, it is no surprise that athletes begin to believe more in the image created by fans, sponsors, and media. Athletes routinely miss the joys of their sport and the life it affords during their “dream years” because they are so busy trying to sustain their public persona. When the attention stops, the lost soul becomes painfully present and not even memories of Olympic Gold can remedy this reality.


monkeyIf power is defined as having control over the direction of one’s life, then my sense of power decreased the more my reputation grew. People admired me for doing what I love for work, this felt good to hear, so I wanted to reinforce this perception, which made me respond by consulting their expectations rather than my own inner wisdom.

As my body began complaining about the long-term damage from high impact bike tricks I began to feel trapped: all I had to offer the world were my tricks, but they brought me pain so I didn’t want to perform any longer. I felt more like a monkey than human being–jump Ryan, jump! However, psyching myself up to do something that deep down I knew was a bad idea was easier than facing the demise of “Ryan Leech the Pro Rider”–I didn’t know who “just Ryan Leech” was, as far as I was concerned he was a nobody and I didn’t want to go there.



Whereas escapism is using sport to avoid a certain feeling, dependence is using sport to seek a certain feeling.

As a pro, I had very quick access to that incredible high of being in the zone or in flow–all worries, fears, and judgments dropped and I felt as if I was the moment--bike, body, environment all became one with no separation, riding became easy even on the most difficult terrain. This high often stayed between riding sessions due to the constant movement of the “rock-star” life of travelling, partying, dining, and being catered to. One Olympian told me, “Nothing in my life will ever top the experience as a competitive athlete”.

I began expecting these standards. When I didn’t get in the zone, I became frustrated, when my every need wasn’t catered to I got mad, when someone else received attention instead of me I felt jealous and lonely.

Dependence can be bred from counting on old experiences to re-occur or from desired or imagined futures to arrive, both of which zaps the athlete out of the current moment which is the only place the “high” can be found. So the desperation with which athletes begin seeking these experiences is proportional to the elusiveness of them, this is often the beginning of a downward spiral preventing them from delivering the performance results necessary for the rock star lifestyle to continue-fueling their desperation.

As I unconsciously became dependent on this stimulus the ‘regular’ world became very humdrum.


graphDue to the long-term narrow but intense focus it takes to excel in sports from a young age, athletes, when successful, are considered role models. This status isn’t just reserved for their sporting precociousness however, but often and quite suddenly for their entire approach to life.

I bought into this assumption that sporting success equals life success. Why not? I was getting a ton of praise and appreciation and was succeeding in realms that are culturally put on a pedestal. I thought I had life figured out! So when interpersonal issues arose that I couldn’t solve despite my reputation and status, I got frustrated and confused. It was only until I began understanding the various developmental categories that humans develop through that I could begin making sense of things and take responsibility. The image below is a guess at what my psychograph might have looked like in my prime years as a pro.

Development in certain lines can get postponed during the years of intense training that it takes to become a professional; and just like athleticism, these lower capacities require time to develop and become necessary to handle the demands of stardom in an elegant way.

Professional athletes also bump up against this lack of development during retirement, often expecting that any new endeavors will match the success of their sporting life. For me it was a slap in the face when people didn’t line up to take my yoga class and when clients didn’t knock on my door to be coached.

I realized I had a very low ability to take on another person’s perspective, it was difficult for me to understand my emotions let alone those of others, and I felt vulnerable with other people interpersonally when the conversation didn’t revolve around the bike industry or my success. Development in these lines takes practice, just like in sports, it can’t be gained by just reading a book.

Risk Addiction

A nice side effect, whether conscious or not, of an athlete exposing themselves to dangerous situations is the silencing of relentless and often cruel internal dialogues. The risk also creates fear, and when conquered, there is a high. Similar to addictive drugs, this risk/fear process releases a flood of dopamine into the brain and diverts blood away from the brain compromising our judgement.

thoughtI repetitively put myself in risky situations knowing it was a bad idea but couldn’t say no. When I pulled off a line against all odds the high stayed with me for hours and could be relived by thinking about it. To get the next dopamine and endorphin rush I had to increase the dose of danger; this resulted in some incredible video segments receiving peer praise and attention. This human-to-human validation perpetuated my risky actions because I craved the attention.

Adrenaline junkies will burnout or become seriously injured, the number of friends I have in wheelchairs is unacceptable. Most of my friends, myself included, are already paying the physical price at a young age, but we’re lucky, you see, athletes are dying. These aren’t freak accidents. Peer praise and validation feels like love and humans will do anything to receive it; the tragic thing I’ve discovered is that when the tricks stop, so does this so-called love.

Spectator Influence

Have you ever felt strong pressure from friends to do something such that you couldn’t say no?  For pro athletes, multiply this performance pressure by the number of fans watching and you can begin to get a picture of the power of spectator influence.


doitWatching a high-performance athlete can free us from our own mental pre-occupations and put us momentarily into the athlete’s inner experience of focus and poise. Spectators can vicariously become addicted to this thrill thus the thrill-hit becomes more important than the athlete’s well being.

I am often a guest rider with cycling groups when visiting a new town. When we are out riding the faces in those groups are lit up with excitement and anticipation of the magic they are about to witness from me. Before a performance I will often receive emails from excited fans saying they can’t wait to see me. I feel the pressure of this excitement and anticipation; then I appear in front of the audience and before I even do anything they are cheering enthusiastically based on my reputation and the pressure builds again. Now this can be a wonderful experience, however, many athletes are compelled to do things they’d rather not; NHL enforcers come to mind - they’re paid to start fights because they’re good at it, not because they want to. The inner turmoil this creates can be unbearable and lead to suicide as we saw three times in 2011.

A breathtaking discovery I have tuned into through my career is the alignment of audience enthusiasm with my authentic desires as an athlete. The audience feeds me such that I have access to a level of skill, precision, and focus that I know is possible but can’t manage to access on my own. The perquisite is that I have dreamt of these performances and practiced accordingly; then when the audience energy hits, it cycles through me, I feel unbound and without limit and am left shocked at what I have accomplished and feeling deeply nourished. This process I believe is a co-creation, and thus the results don’t belong solely to the athlete. Athletes can become very egocentric when claiming full credit for their performance, and thus vulnerable to audience pressures when they’re not tuned into their true athletic desires.


forestThere is no doubt that the lifestyle of a professional athlete brings rich rewards and unique experiences, I wouldn't trade mine for anything. But as you’ve seen, there is an equal and opposite potential for struggle. For athletes to explore ego-shattering vulnerabilities takes courage and support, but the rewards from doing so can be life saving.

I realize now that whenever I overrode my inner-wisdom in a way that caused me pain, mentally or physically, I was sentencing the next generation to do the same. For the healthy evolution of sport, pros need to transmit not only their physical skills, but also their honest inner experiences; this will empower the athletes and require coaches, fans, and sponsors to respond from a similar level of depth and responsibility.

Athlete introspection and contemplation is desperately needed to navigate the superficial result driven orientation in sports today. Though many coaches and trainers consider this risky as it may lead athletes to quit, for others it will do the opposite, it will allow them to find greater meaning and thus direct the passion-within to drastically improve the results. Coach Phil Jackson (NBA Lakers) uses introspection and meditation with his teams and his career results show he’s on to something.

Another bonus about introspection is that athletes who know themselves beyond their public persona will be precise in their retirement decisions and coaches will no longer find themselves stuck dealing with washed-up pros who have nowhere else to go.

Emotional intelligence takes practice, athletes who can routinely witness their emotions such as fear or anger, and do so with trust, accuracy and honor will prevent the emotions from hijacking their performance. This ability requires athletes to address the seemingly unrelated messy and uncomfortable aspects of their life. This will not only optimize their athletic ability and enjoyment, but allow them to be better role models for their fans and better representatives for their country.

globeAthletes need to better understand the influence from spectators so they can untangle their own sense of self from their performance results. As an audience we can help too - our cheers, praise, and facebook ‘likes’ are votes, as we begin to develop our ability to step into the extended reality of another we will sense whether an athlete is performing inline with their purpose or is seeking validation in harmful ways.

Many people take up sport because they intuit that it offers something unique. The realization of this uniqueness is often hijacked by a blind and habituated striving for results and thus missed forever when athletes quit from burnout, injury, disappointment, or boredom.

This uniqueness is the feeling sensation and experience of the body and mind being in harmony while deeply embedded in the present moment. When it is experienced by chance it is described as “The Zone” or “Flow”, but when the whole human being is nurtured and grows in all her glorious dimensions, it can be entered into by choice and what a brilliantly sacred choice to have the capacity and freedom to make. Professional athletes who awaken to this rare potential have the influential power to gift this new way of engaging and being to the masses.


Edited by: Chela Davison, Andrew Baxter and Bergen Vermette

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  • Comment Link Patrick Thrift Monday, 14 May 2012 14:54 posted by Patrick Thrift

    Jaw-dropping awe-inspiring and much-needed honesty. I'd say you've found the "zone of life", as well as another way to share what you know.

  • Comment Link Kelly Owens Monday, 14 May 2012 16:24 posted by Kelly Owens

    this is awesome Ryan. Well done! I am so glad to read that you are taking care of yourself and setting a new standard and professionalism for sport. You really are admired, respected and appreciated by your community of fans- so great for you to show such strong leadership in a very neglected aspect of athletic performance and success
    way to go!
    Hello to Karen!

    Kelly Owens

  • Comment Link Ryan Leech Monday, 14 May 2012 17:52 posted by Ryan Leech

    Cheers Patrick, there were some "zone" experiences while writing this, that feeling ain't just reserved for sports ;-)

    And Kelly, the article was a different kind of risk than I'm used to taking, but it felt right, so I really appreciate your feedback, Thank You!

  • Comment Link Dana Starritt Monday, 14 May 2012 20:08 posted by Dana Starritt

    I think your message is truly incredible, Ryan. It's so admirable that you have been able to stretch yourself as much emotionally as you have physically, and I'm so glad you're also able to pass on these thoughts so eloquently to others. I hope people listen. Cheers to always pushing the boundaries!!

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 14 May 2012 21:05 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for your piece. I thought it was brilliant. I don't know if you have thought about this but the theme would I think be very powerful one for something like a TED talk. Something you might be able to give to sports groups or teams or schools or something. A way to form relationships and lead towards bringing this awareness and legitimation of the inner worlds of athletes to larger audiences.

    I think with some video visuals of you doing your thing plus your clear articulation of various points (risk addiction, escapism, etc.), it could be a very powerful and healing forum for people, especially athletes, to connect.

    Great work.

  • Comment Link Sean Verret Monday, 14 May 2012 23:38 posted by Sean Verret

    Great stuff Ryan as always.

  • Comment Link Sean Verret Monday, 14 May 2012 23:40 posted by Sean Verret

    Chris, Ryan gave a "TED-talk" style talk on this at FEAT Canada back in February.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 15 May 2012 00:06 posted by Chris Dierkes

    thanks Sean. That's great.

  • Comment Link Ryan Leech Tuesday, 15 May 2012 01:08 posted by Ryan Leech

    Chris, THANKS! This material does need to be spread to a wider athletic audience, it's needed, so thanks for the ideas, I'm open to them, and will be on it!....And Indeed, it was the talk I gave in February that prompted Chela to ask me to develop and refine the article for Beams and Struts. And thanks to your teams peer edits, they managed to pull a more personal tone out of me for it...

  • Comment Link Elyza Maennlings Tuesday, 15 May 2012 16:24 posted by Elyza Maennlings

    Dear Ryan,
    as a discoverer of spiritual truths, I welcome your insights on this matter. As a stay at home mom, I would like to add that none of us are immune to performing for the masses at the expense of ourselves. It is just as easy to fall into the "people pleasing" trap imagining that no one can get along without that brand of whatever it is you have to offer. It takes guts and true commitment to happiness to be as objective and honest as you are in this article. I'm sorry for the struggles that led you to this understanding but we all have them, in all walks of life. In as much as your talents and stardom can be enviable, it is your commitment to the truth that I hope my children will want to emulate.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Tuesday, 15 May 2012 22:14 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    Thanks for the telling, the doing, the being and the meaning... Great stuff.

  • Comment Link Rachel Tuesday, 15 May 2012 23:18 posted by Rachel

    So awesome to hear a sense of balance from a pro. Refreshing indeed. Spoken in an honest voice that tries to reach the deepest levels of human connection - rare among elite level athletes.
    This is what I like to call 'shreditation'!!
    Thank you.

  • Comment Link Rochelle Fairfield Wednesday, 16 May 2012 04:45 posted by Rochelle Fairfield

    Hi Ryan,
    Reading your article here after also seeing your video, I'm just struck again that you're really on to something that's so needed in sports and for anyone who's been very, very devoted to a pursuit - even the arts, (dance, rock-stars for eg) politics, and performers of all kinds, I imagine, could relate to this. I do hope it gets out to them!

    I don't know if you're familiar with Theo Fleury, Calgary Flames and Canadian Olympic hockey player who told his story in a biography - Playing with Fire - quite vividly of how the 'life' side of hockey life was too much for him - he coped through drug use etc. His struggles with meaning and identity beyond being a pro-athlete really resonate with what you relate in your piece.

    I especially was intrigued with how you describe the presence of the crowd as giving you a capacity to perform in ways you might not be as capable of without them there. I've been interested in attention, how we transact it, what it does for us, and the ethics of attention (ie, in how we use it) The way we as fans give attention to performers is a kind of co-creative event as you say. And hence, how we give attention (to what, whom, for what, etc) is a kind of power that as you say, we can take responsibility for. Paying attention is actually an active contribution, participation even, in the situation not just a passive, receptive activity. . . there's a real exchange, it seems, and I appreciate how you point out that there is power and responsibility in spectating as well as in performing.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 16 May 2012 18:57 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi Ryan,

    I'm so glad we could help. It's a great piece and I think you'll do great spreading this message and working with other athletes.

  • Comment Link Ryan Leech Thursday, 17 May 2012 05:51 posted by Ryan Leech

    Elyza, yes, the commitment to truth, writing these things is one challenge, living it another-but joyously working on it always ;-)

    Shreditation-love that Rachel-gonna do some of that tomorrow morning for sure!

    Rochelle, I'm so glad you mention the audience attention piece, it is extraordinary to think of the co-creative possibilities when athlete AND audience is conscious of this dynamicl-and I'm also curious of this in applications beyond the sports realm and beyond competition. It's a fascinating exploration and under explored. Do you have experience with this that has triggered your interest?

  • Comment Link Oliver Wihler Thursday, 17 May 2012 09:35 posted by Oliver Wihler

    Good quote on escapism by Abraham Lincoln: "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today"!

  • Comment Link Kris Holm Thursday, 17 May 2012 21:05 posted by Kris Holm

    Ryan - you managed to convey with clarity and tremendous honesty something very important that is rarely said. It was great to chat with you and and the challenges you describe are all too familiar. It's all too often that we only see train wrecks in hindsight - how cool it is that coaches like you can help thwart that and turn these challenges into opportunities for growth well beyond a pro career.

  • Comment Link Galen Volckhausen Tuesday, 22 May 2012 02:23 posted by Galen Volckhausen

    Man... Well said.
    I am a white water kayaker. I would not call my self a pro mostly being that there are not really any pros in white water kayaking.
    However i spend most of my time running 50+ foot waterfalls and i can identify with everything you wrote.
    When i look at myself i know i have everyone of these characteristics but they are also what i love about the place i am in the sport.
    Hopefully i can find some way to be able to work it out so i do not have a lot of problems when i come out of my adrenaline haze.

  • Comment Link Gini Tuesday, 22 May 2012 03:09 posted by Gini

    I love how you don't seem to care if what you have to say is expected and/or popular. Not sure if it has always been the case, but your writing is refreshingly honest, personal, and generous in the sharing of the wisdom gained by experience.

  • Comment Link clay wright Tuesday, 22 May 2012 03:14 posted by clay wright

    As a pro-kayaker we make tens of dollars instead of millions but the thrills and thirst for approval is the same. It's a game changer when people are upset that you choose NOT to run something...then the media goes elsewhere and the sponsors stop calling...and there is a temptation to call back and say ''hey, I'm gonna do something huge!'' just to get back the attention. But the risk is real and however however desperate the persona is for attention it is never going to be enough for the self and there is a real chance you might never perform at any level if things go wrong. I focus on the fact that when no one is around and I'm too old for anyone else to care I still want to be able to go enjoy the motions and sensations of kayaking to whatever ability I am able. Strong motivation to preserve your body comes from a realization of it's limitations. Find an old man who still gets after it passionately on his own for his own personal sensations. Visualize that as a goal to help balance the one's immediate desires for attention with those of the simple enjoyments of the future. Thanks for sharing.

  • Comment Link Peter Sunday, 27 May 2012 23:38 posted by Peter

    This is some of the most insightful writing I have seen. I really appreciate your honesty and intent. Your ability to feel the energy from the audience should be heightened as everyone who finds this article reads it. There are many ways to find that energy and that flow. I've always been impressed by athletes who continue with their sport because they want to, not because someone is watching. As an instructor I can appreciate that you know what you have is great but finding students can sometimes be difficult. It seems like you have found a way to both find new students and satisfy your need for FLOW. Awesome!

  • Comment Link Melanie Saturday, 02 June 2012 23:13 posted by Melanie

    Ryan, thank you so much for writing this. As a competitive athlete myself and having competed at a World Championships, I can relate very well to many of the things you describe. Unfortunately I am one of those athletes that had injuries steal their career and I've been struggling ever since. I've thought about many of the things you mention but you make it all much more clear and understandable in my mind.
    Haha, don't let all the audience praise on your writing affect you negatively either..

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