An Olympic Athlete’s Guide to Transforming a Setback Into an Opportunity

Over the past several years, U.S. Olympian Colleen Quigley has completely revamped her training to focus more on her mental fitness. With the postponement of the 2020 games, she’s using her mental fortitude to transform a set-back into an opportunity.

The 28-year-old from Portland, Oregon, competes in the 3,000 meter steeplechase running event. Since the Olympics have been postponed to 2021, Quigley is finding other ways to break records: She ran for her personal best time in a 5K, and her club team broke a world record in the 4×1500 meter relay.

Beyond breaking records during this Olympic off year, Quigley is taking this time to rest her body and refine her mental training with the help of a mental health coach.

Here, Quigley shares her process to build a mental fitness routine and how you can develop your own.

[READ: Mental Benefits of Exercise.]

Identify Your Pain Points

As a young athlete, Quigley would show up to training or a race without a psychological game plan. How she felt mentally was left up to chance — or the outcome of her race. And over time, the grind of being a full-time Olympic athlete started to wear on her psyche. About four years ago, she came to the difficult realization that the sport she loved was no longer making her fulfilled and happy.

“I was feeling stressed and feeling tight and tense coming into a workout and just not enjoying the sport as much,” Quigley says. “I should be looking forward to workouts. I should be looking forward to races. Not dreading them.”

[SEE: Mindfulness Exercises to Reduce Stress or Anxiety.]

Morning Meditation and Walking Routine

Quigley decided to try meditation, and with practice, she started to unpack her mental obstacles and became more relaxed. Quigley started by using an app, which made the process for her convenient. This is key for someone just starting to work on their mental health. It was so effective, she continues to do it daily.

“I used an app called HeadSpace, so I didn’t just sit there in silence. It’s a guided meditation, so it helps you figure out what to do.” Quigley says you will know it’s working when you’re able to breathe through stressful situations and not be impulsive.

After she meditates, Quigley rewards herself with an espresso doctored with vanilla collagen creamer. She sips her drink while taking her morning walk in the fresh Oregon air with her two-year-old Bernese mountain dog named Pie.

[See: 8 Ways to Relax — Now.]

Bullet Journaling

Shortly after starting a meditation practice, Quigley added bullet journaling to her mental health toolbox. It helps her get organized, keep track of her habits, boost productivity and hold herself accountable.

It requires a notebook that contains blank dot pages or grid paper. You use it to map out your life by setting a daily and monthly log of tasks. It has other utilities that allow you to customize it to fit your needs.

“My favorite tool is something called a habit tracker,” Quigley says. “The idea is that you pick a few habits that you want to track over the course of that month. Each has their own column on the top of the paper. Running down the side of the paper is a different day of that month. Each habit has a different color. I like to make it very color coded.”

To avoid getting overwhelmed, Quigley suggests picking five or six meaningful habits you want to work on or bad habits you want to eliminate.

“The point of the habit tracker is to see when you’re falling off the horse,” Quigley says. “You could just see so visually how you’re doing. The point is not to be perfect. It’s just really beneficial to see trends. It could be really fun when you’re getting on a roll.”

Mental Coach

Within two years, Quigley was thrilled with how effective her inner health had improved every facet of her life that she decided to level-up her mental game. And about a year ago, she decided to bring on a mental health coach.

“I just wanted to step it up a notch,” Quigley says. “I felt like I was making progress, but there was even more to do. It’s one of those things that the more you get into it, the more you realize there’s more work to be done.”

She started weekly online therapy sessions with a doctor. When she can see them in person, she works on a technique called brain spotting and narrative therapy, where she has an honest conversation to figure out where she is holding trauma.

For instance, in 2017 Quigley was disqualified from the World Champions in London in the steeplechase event for stepping out of bounds. Her disqualification sidelined her for the final, where her teammates individually finished both first and second place. First place winner Emma Coburn broke both a Continental and Championship record and became the first American to win the event since 1952.

“It was a very cool moment for them, and a very disappointing moment for me,” Quigley says.

Her mental coach helped her traverse the hardship of this disappointing event.

“Now I can talk about that, and I can think about that experience, without feeling like it’s so emotionally triggering,” Quigley says. “I tied so much of my self-worth to that. It’s not like I don’t remember that it happened, it just doesn’t feel as emotionally raw anymore.”

“I have a running coach, I have a hurdles coach, I have a strength trainer, I work with nutritionists and now I have a mental coach. Just the same way that I’m good at hurdling now, if I stop practicing hurtling, I will probably become bad at hurdling. Now I feel like my mental health is good, but if I stop working on it, I will go backwards in my progress.”

Going it alone while working on your mental health is beneficial, but there’s an added value to having a personal interaction with a professional that you trust.

“It’s definitely good to start with some journaling and meditation, but there is just something different about talking to someone one on one that you trust,” Quigley says. “To have someone else not in your immediate circle of friends or family who you can talk to about it is just so different and so meaningful in a whole other way. I always recommend people not to be afraid of that.”

Nighttime Self-Care Routine

Quigley winds down at night with a grapefruit CBD sleep tincture with melatonin. She often takes an Epsom salt bath and applies soothing gels to her muscles to alleviate soreness and for muscle relaxation.

“My ideal evening relaxation would be a CBD bath with epsom salt and a relaxation tincture,” Quigley says. “Take one of those and 20 minutes in an epsom salt CBD bath and that’s going to be the best sleep of your life.”

Quigley also uses warming gels before a workout on tight muscles when it’s cold out — and cooling gels after a workout for any sore spots.


Quigley’s mental fitness is rounded out with community outreach. The former Wilhelmina model empowers young women to be confident in the way they look and feel with her #fastbraidFriday campaign. Whenever she steps on the starting line, Quigley’s hair is woven into a braid — part of her “look good, feel good, run good” mantra. The campaign encourages other female athletes to share a picture of their braids and a story of the challenge they accomplished while wearing them.

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