Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 105 - Toyin Augustus - CONSIDER THE JOURNEY

I would encourage athletes on every level to reconsider what the win is, and to find other wins and we do it in education too. Did I get the A? No. Did you learn something? Probably, you know. I just failed at this relationship, right? Like it ended.
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 105 - Toyin Augustus - CONSIDER THE JOURNEY

TOYIN: [00:00:00] I would encourage athletes on every level to reconsider what the win is, and to find other wins and we do it in education too. Did I get the A? No. Did you learn something? Probably, you know. I just failed at this relationship, right? Like it ended. Did I learn something? Did I gain something? What was really the purpose? And if the journey is the purpose, then I think there’s a lot more wins than there are losses.

[Intro Music]

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JESSE: [00:00:57] Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse funk. My very special guest today is a two time African champion 100 meter hurdles. She was also a 2008 Olympian if you had watched that game and you watch track and field like I do, you may have seen her there. She is an educator at Phillips Exeter Academy where she’s also coaching soccer and track.

She has a new nonprofit she’s working on called Just Heroes. It is to support athletes in high poverty schools in the US. Currently attending graduate school at UPenn where recently, she was awarded the Penn Wharton Innovation Fund. She’s a proud mom of an eight-year-old. And hopefully, I’ll get her name right. Welcome to the show, Toyin Augustus.

TOYIN: [00:01:38] Thank you so much, Jesse. And I really appreciate you and your effort to say my name properly and also for inviting me into this space. So, super excited to talk with you today.

JESSE: [00:01:48] Absolutely. Like I was talking about — we were talking about before we get going, I always try my best. I can’t always promise that I’m going to be a hundred percent on the mark, but I’m going to give a hundred percent effort. And that’s the best I could do.

TOYIN: [00:02:02] All good.

JESSE: [00:02:04] Yeah. So, it’s sometimes it’s hard to restart. So, if you’re listening, we’ve already been talking for like 20 minutes. So, we always have to restart the conversation. And I’m always like where do we go back to from here? So, let’s try to back up to maybe something we haven’t already touched on the not recording section of our conversation.

And so I’ll ask like I ask many people, I haven’t talked to a hurdler yet, let alone an Olympic hurdler. How do you decide? That’s your discipline? You know, I guess I’ll say the most hurdling I did was I did the 100 meter hurdles in the eighth grade when I was 12-years-old. I was not good at it and I moved on. So, where’s your entry point and how do you get going with that?

TOYIN: [00:02:54] Yeah, thank you for that question. Actually, what pops into my mind right away is as a coach, sometimes we say the event chooses you. So, you think you’re going to come in and you’re going to be a sprinter. I’m going to run the 100. And then it’s like, yeah, no, you’re not. Like, your body wants to run the 800 and that will be what you run.

So, sometimes that’s the choice. I did actually intentionally choose the hurdles. I thought it was fun and exciting. And I think there was something in my mind that like to take on obstacles. So, that was a choice that I made. And we also had a pretty decent High School hurdle coach, which don’t always come by those very easily. So, my coach, Coach Williamson, was pretty amazing.

And he taught us how to hurdle and so I was very fortunate to have someone who had that technical expertise. And I learned that I was kind of fast. And so as I, you know, kept developing and excelling, I was like, this is, you know, I’m good at this, so I’m going to keep going.

JESSE: [00:03:56] It’s one of those things where — the only thing that stucks in my — I guess I lied. And I didn’t think about this because it’s been such a long time. I did a steeplechase in college so I have a little more experience with hurdles. But they’re not the same thing.

You can get away with much worse form in the steeplechase than you can in the 100. You can even step on them. You cannot step on them in the 100. And I just — Even doing that and we were doing, you know, we’d be doing like 400 or 800 meter repeats on the track with the hurdles or barriers on the track and just — the coach yelling at us about stride over the hurdles.

It’s not a leap, stride. Like, that’s the only thing that’s stuck in my head. And probably the biggest misconception or like when people talk about it and maybe this has happened to you, I’d like to see if it has, I guess is where I’m getting, is whether people ask you about jumping over the hurdles and you have to be like I’m not jumping, like I’m just lifting my legs out of the way.

TOYIN: [00:04:59] Yeah, so absolutely. So, I’ll just make like a distinction. With the women’s hurdles and men’s hurdles, that height discrepancy is pretty big. And there have been some talks about raising the women’s hurdles on the collegiate and professional level to that 36-inch height. Whereas right now we’re running 33 inches to supposedly make it more comparable with male hurdling.

So, I mean, I don’t know. I could throw in some ideas about male dominant culture there. But I’ll leave that maybe for another time. But I felt that it’s not for women and it is not jumping, right, like you said, we are actually attacking the hurdles and stepping over it as much as possible, that our inseam, right, so the length of our legs allow at that height to be able to just attack over the hurdles, and kind of step over it. And for men, the hurdles are actually much higher.

So, there is actually more of a jump over the hurdle. So, they do have to attack and raise their hips up. Whereas girls, we often draw a line across where the trajectory should be and your hips really shouldn’t lift too much above that.

Now, I’m kind of a short hurdler. So, when I was starting hurdles, my coach is like, “Oh, you’re too short to hurdle.” Actually, not the coach I was talking to you about before. The other coach, the head coach, was saying that maybe I should just sprint. And I wanted to hurdle and so it was kind of fun kind of proving him wrong as well.

But yeah, so for women it’s definitely this attack over the hurdles and overcoming obstacles in that way. Whereas for men, there is a jump, there’s a distinct jump, where their hips have to rise and then come back down and get to sprinting.

JESSE: [00:06:42] So, that leads to the question, I hope you don’t mind me asking, how tall are you?

TOYIN: [00:06:46] I am all of a very strong 5’’4. Maybe 5’’3 and three quarters. I don’t know. But at this point, I think I’m shrinking.

JESSE: [00:06:57] That’s fair. But I don’t think that’s unreason– Like, we did not have Olympic level hurdlers at my school. But I mean, we had women that were about your height that did hurdles, and were competing for conference championships. And like, I don’t think that’s an unreal — Like, if you were 4’’11, I might be like, maybe we need to have a conversation.

But you know, as you mentioned, that the event choosing you rather than you choosing the event. I don’t know. Like, sometimes and obviously, I have no clue who the coach is, I’ve never met them. But I think sometimes coaches get too much in their head about like, this is the way things are instead of just being like — more like, we’ll throw it against the wall and just see if it works.

Because there are always exceptions. Even if it was like, there’s never been a hurdler under 5’’5, it’s like, okay. I mean, if you watch the NFL now, I can’t remember the guys name, but there’s a couple of guys that are like, my height and shorter, I’m 5’’10. And they look absolutely tiny, but they’re like bulldogs. You can’t — you know. So, it’s like there was this preconception of you had to be six foot and taller. And then now, they’re coming in and doing their own thing because they worked their own game. So, I’m off on a diatribe. But it’s just — [crosstalk]

TOYIN: 00:08:27] No, I love that.

JESSE: [00:08:29] I just don’t understand. You know, I don’t know, hopefully it was well-intentioned, I guess is all I’ll say.

TOYIN: [00:08:35] Yeah. No, I think it is. I think it is. And there are some — there’s value to thinking about how parts of hurdling will be easier if you’re taller. And if you’re explosive, you can overcome that. Right? So, what someone sees as a deficit, another person can see as an opportunity.

So, I turned my — Well, I wouldn’t say I turned it. I think that I had a skill and a talent in terms of power that I developed in order to make that difference work for me. And I think — I love what you’re saying about don’t get stuck into this box of this is what an elite level hurdler should look like or a thrower or a distance runner because we come in all different shapes and sizes. And we often say like, athletics is 90% mental, right?

So, if we truly believe these things, then what are we doing in order to show that there is opportunity and possibility? And I think that goes across the board, even as an educator, and we’ve just come through COVID and trying to figure out how do we manage with this difference? And I’m like, well, how do we even build opportunity and innovate in this difference?

And how do we make this difference not be like the one thing we can’t wait to get over and be done with? But it turns into, hey, we actually have discovered some really cool ways to learn and teach. And so why don’t we maximise on that, and hold on to it as we move forward. And I’ll just say that Gail Beavers is 5’’3. There weren’t many five three hurdlers, but Gail beavers slayed fire and continues to be one of my all time favorites.

JESSE: [00:10:16] It’s this thing where like you said in education and in athletics, it’s like there’s these ideas. You know, I come from a distance running background so it’s like, there’s this idea that you need to be rail thin or — it’s like, well, how many times — Yes, there are definitely rail thin runners that do very well, but they’re also ones that are not. And I am one of them that is not.

Not that I’m not lean, but just, I’ve never been like a pole. And that’s something I talk about where it’s like, there’s — and I don’t want to put words in your mouth here. And I am making an assumption so I’ll say that up front. I’m assuming you, as a woman, have probably come under more fire for how you look. Because that’s typically what we do is we put women under a microscope about how they look as an athlete, and just as a woman than I ever have.

But there’s also a culture of like athletes are supposed to look this way or look that way or this preconception and even inside of the disciplines themselves like you said. Like in my perspective with distance running, it’s like you got to be so tiny and it’s like — which leads to this whole culture of like under-fed people, basically. And then you end up with hormone problems.

I just — again, I hope it comes from a well-intentioned place from the coaches that get stuck on those things. But it’s like, I don’t understand why you can’t just go, well, like they’re performing. It’s fine. Like, why are we being like, oh, you’re not tall enough or you’re not skinny enough or you need to do the exercises, do the work? Are they performing? End of story. It baffles me that we have to focus on that so much, and then disqualify people because of that. Because as I said, there always are exceptions. And you’re going to miss out on those if you’re just like, this is the lane and that’s it.

TOYIN: [00:12:28] Yeah, yeah, for sure. For sure. Gosh, you said so many really great things in there, Jesse. You know, definitely don’t want to limit people. And then just athletics, in general, as an avenue to learn to overcome,like adversity, whether it’s mental or physical. So, that’s coming to mind for me as you’re just talking about fitting into boxes.

And then just the idea of the socialization, right? I think there’s socialization that happens to all of us. And so as coaches, we’re not exempt from that. As adults in the educational spaces, we’re not exempt from that. So, we carry these ideas, these beliefs, these assumptions, these values with us, as we’re making decisions, and as we’re interacting and behaving interpersonally. And they, all of those actions together, like build culture. And then through all of that, like we’re creating systems, right?

And so I’m thinking about athletes who may — potential athletes who may have been left out of those spaces because they didn’t fit into the box. Which kind of brings me to an experience for me in high school where I wanted to play volleyball. I was like, I want to be a volleyball player. I was so down for that. And I didn’t make the team because I was short.

So, again, it was this disqualification based on my body and like, I’m kind of good at volleyball, Jesse. I haven’t won any awards or anything for that because I was never really a part of a team. And I feel like that could be my next sport. Might catch me on the beach somewhere, like trying to play volleyball. But I do think about where would I be if I’d actually got to be on the volleyball team, right?

And so there’s others who I know have probably been disqualified from different spaces based on coaches or others believing that that’s not a space for them. And you also mentioned socialization in terms of body image and how that is much, I think, more direct and poignant for females than for men. Although, I think in athletics, like we’re constantly looking at bodies.

And also just, I think, also as a black woman, just being in different spaces, it’s like, track works for you. You’re black, you’re probably fast, right? Whereas volleyball — [crosstalk] Right? So, well, the assumption that black people would be good at volleyball, right? It’s a — I would say, in the US context, it’s a sport that is predominantly white. Or let me say, definitely not a sport that’s considered a space where black people have gravitated. And there’s systems that are in place, right?

Like these are systems working to say, whether it’s systems that are already in place that we’re just interacting with, or systems that we put in place as individuals and say, from our beliefs, you’re not tall enough, or I don’t know why you don’t really fit in this place. Like, what are you actually saying? Let’s talk about that.

JESSE: [00:15:31] Right. Yeah. Well, so I’ll say that I’m a systems builder in the sense that I’m building a company, you’re working on a company, and you try to put systems in place so that you can step away and like your employees can do the things and things operate without you.

And I think what’s — as you’re touching on, what’s difficult to conceptualize sometimes is the systems that are placed in society. And there’s a whole ongoing conversation about that, especially in regards to black people. And the systems that have been in place for a number of years, the exact number of years I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head, but a long time. But what’s difficult is when you are, at first, just one individual. So, you’re only one perspective, you’re only one mind, you’ve only lived your own experiences.

I think, if you haven’t been affected by noticed or touched systems that affect other people, sometimes it’s hard to recognize the scope of them. Like, as much as I can try to empathize with you and your experience, I’ll never be a black woman. It can’t happen. And so I always feel like at a core level I can empathize, but I will never, like deep down inherently understand your life.

I just can’t. I can try my best but there’s no way to bridge the gap, you know, because we all live these different experiences. So, that’s what I think. I don’t know if bothers me is the right word, but just — I’m not sure how you deal with it. Because societally, we put in systems. We have governments, we have private enterprises, we have people volunteering, we have people building nonprofits, like you; all of these systems in places to affect different people in different ways. And because our scope as individuals are so limited, I think just having a broad enough perspective to understand those things is simply difficult.

TOYIN: [00:18:01] Yeah. No doubt, no doubt, especially if we’re trying to do it as an individual, right? So, I think that’s part of the challenge is that we have these systems and we recognize that these systems have all these different spokes and they’re connected in all these different ways. And yet, then we in our one individual body want to be like, how do I change? Right? And it’s not possible, right? And that’s why we talk about bringing more people to the table.

So, if we have multiple perspectives that are seeing the system, and given access to seeing the system, then more minds can start thinking about what might be shifted within the system, right? So, I think that that’s one way that we can kind of make a situation that feels so big, and so like, I don’t know, like unreachable, to make it a little bit smaller, and to make sure that the pieces of the system are actually talking to each other. Right? And I think what we’ve done is we’ve created hierarchies.

And so it’s like, these people are in leadership, and sure they see everything. And so we let them make all the decisions. But we don’t invite other people to the table to say, actually, you know what, this system isn’t working for me. Like, what might we do differently? And I think part of that is this idea that too many hands in the pot is going to make it really messy and then we’re not going to be able to get the thing done. And we got to get it done today. And here’s our deadline.

And so these ideas of like resource scarcity, we talked about that before the podcast started, and these ideas of time scarcity, really limit our ability to create and innovate. So, when we talk about socialization, about like, how someone sees my body or how I see someone else’s body, there’s socialization in how do we attack problems? What does leadership look like? Who should be leading?

And you know, it’s actually really fascinating because I was — I don’t remember who I was speaking to, and I really don’t remember that culture so I’m like crap, I can’t even cite this. But there’s a culture somewhere where part of their governing process is to not have people stay in leadership roles for extended periods of time. And it’s also not a voting situation.

So, instead of voting people into power and then those people stay in power, and you have to, like try to influence people to vote for you, and that kind of thing, it’s that everybody gets to rotate. Everybody gets to do the planning at some point, right? Like, it will at some point be your turn. And that, for me, created a situation like a mental theoretical situation where, of course, I’m going to be accountable to you. You will also be accountable to me, right? Of course, I’m going to think about the least of us, because that could be me.

And so what it does for me is connects us in an empathetic way to the ways in which we govern, and the ways in which we treat other people. And we feel compelled to do it in our kind of being as opposed to compelled to do it because we might get paid or we might keep our power, right, all those things. So, it’s a shared way of being and of dealing with power that I think is crazy and novel, and oh, my gosh, let’s try it. You know? Like I’m so down like let’s blow it up.

JESSE: [00:21:13] I think the difficulty with that, and we talked about this before we got going, is that like, there are underlying assumptions that people might have, that would prevent them from wanting to try something like that, because there are two ways that you can go with that.

So, if you’re going to rotate through everybody, there is the idea, as you mentioned, where we can say, well, I will govern with best intentions, because I will one day not be here and could be subject to somebody else’s governance. And then there’s the other way that you go, well, they did this thing, so now I’m going to do this thing, because they suck. And so I’m going to punish — and there’s this like vindictive cycle.

And it’s like, as I mentioned, before, we got going that the underlying assumption is that this zero sum mentality, where if you’ve got something, it was taken away from me. It’s like, if somebody has that mentality, you first have to convince them that that’s not the case, before you can get them to a place to say, we can all work together.

I don’t think it’s enough just for me to say, no, it’s possible for us all to win. Like, it doesn’t have to be if you have something, I don’t have something. There are definitely cases where that is the case. But as a universal, I don’t necessarily think that’s true. And I think that’s part of what makes some of these conversations difficult is when our underlying assumptions are all called — I’m a mathematician by trade. That was one of my undergrad majors.

So, axioms. So, it’s like the basic principles of your beliefs, these axioms, things that underpin your worldview, when the basis of them are different, or conflict. So, like, say — I can’t even think of a good example. But you know, say, for some reason, I think the sky is red, and you think the sky is blue. Those are fundamental differences in how we view the world.

And if we’re trying to decide on what kind of shade to put on the window to block the light coming in, those underlying assumptions are going to screw everything up. And we’re not going to get anywhere because we’re not even on the same page to start. And that’s what I feel like is the thing that isn’t really talked about is those. We talk about the issue, whatever the issue is, we don’t get to those the heart of the matter of what brings us to our perspective on the issue.

TOYIN: [00:24:00] Yeah, for sure. I think we don’t get to the heart, enough period, right? The heart, you said the heart, and to me that was like, yeah, we’re constantly thinking and thinking and we’re very emotional beings. And I think part of the socialization is to pull us away from that emotional space and pull us into this very cognitive space.

And so you know, and I think that we make decisions based on how we feel about something more than what we think. And we can rationalize our feelings all day. Right? So, it’s like, at the core of this, I think you’re feeling something and you may not want to tell me your feelings. You know, you don’t want to be like, you know, get your — I’m sad today.

You know, that’s not always something people feel comfortable saying. And we’ve kind of taught ourselves that. Like, don’t be too emotional, you know, those sorts of drivers within our culture. But when we get to the heart of like, why do you not want to do this? I think we get to the emotions, we get to the fear, we get to the scare, we get to the anger.

And you spoke about that and why someone might make a decision to behave negatively in leadership based on getting back at someone. And so there’s a restorative approach, I think that we could take, a cooperative approach to healing those mishaps and misses, that would have to be incorporated into a new process, right? Like we can’t keep being hurt and not get to the heart of what’s going on.

And we’re wired to connect. And I think that at the core of us, as we are thinking about what connects us, like I’ve watched on a fundamental level with my students like, their desire to like not make waves and to like be cooperative, because they actually do think about what will this person think about me, what will I think about them. And then we start teaching them like, well, don’t care what people think. And I think there’s a both and there.

We do have to care what people think and you should be able to think independently as well. So, how do we bring those things together? And how do we deal with the challenges that come? And not be afraid to do something different because there’s a possibility that it might be hard or that it might not work out. Right? I’m like, Is it working out now?

Because if it’s not like we might could try something different? Yeah, yeah. And this idea of like, zero sum, and it makes me think about competition. And so as an athlete, I’m like, yeah, let’s compete. I’m trying to win, right?

JESSE: [00:26:35] Well, yeah. In athletics, it is zero sum. There’s one winner, and that’s the winner, like it is zerom. But that’s where I think it’s difficult because it’s easy to conceptualize. It’s easy to conceptualize zero sum. They won, I lost, End of story.

TOYIN: [00:26:53] Yeah. And as a coach I have kids who will finish a track event, and I felt this way too. It’s like, ugh, I just lost. I didn’t win. Right? I didn’t cross the finish line first. So, then it’s my job as a coach and as an athlete internally to think, well, what was I — What was my purpose? Was it only singular? Because if I’m only thinking about one purpose and one endgame, then yeah, it can be very zero sum.

But I could run a race and if I’m running against Usain Bolt, then if I run my best race, I feel like I was still winning, you know, what I mean? Like, I still raced this guy, right, and I didn’t win the race. I didn’t cross the finish line first. I just ran my best time, or I just executed my best attack out of the blocks, or my third hurdle’s been kind of shaky and now I just exploded through that and I pushed through it.

And actually, you know what, I laced up next to Usain Bolt. Shoot, that’s a win, you know? So, these are things that I encourage my students to process, because if the only thing that you’re hoping to do today is cross the finish line first, then you’re missing the journey.

You’re missing the big picture, right? And I need you to see that whole thing. And also for my athletes, like if I think about my 400 runners, when you’re running the 400, if you’re only thinking about that last stretch and finishing, oh, your race is about to be botched. You have to execute your race strategy in order to, hopefully, cross the finish line first in order to get your next race better.

So, yeah, I just — I would encourage athletes on every level to reconsider what the win is, and to find other wins and we do it in education too. Did I get the A? No. Did you learn something? Probably, you know. I just failed at this relationship, right? Like it ended. Did I learn something? Did I gain something? What was really the purpose? And if the journey is the purpose, then I think there’s a lot more wins than there are losses there.

JESSE: [00:29:03] Well, it’s — we’ll get to this at the end — my question for this year involves failing, but I’ve talked about this other times. So, I asked a question to everybody for a given season, one question for an entire year. Last year’s question, so this was kind of along those lines is what’s the purpose of sport?

You know, and everybody has a different idea about what the purpose of sport is, but I don’t recall — of the 46 answers I got last year, I don’t think anybody said to win. I don’t think anybody said that. And so it’s like, what is the purpose of sport there? There are different purposes, obviously. It’s why I asked the question because I have my own purpose. I mean, Through my journey, I’ve won one race in my 20 years of racing. And it was just a little little thing.

Which it was a big deal to me. I almost cried at the end, because I did — it was 16 years coming. But part of my journey was like, I want to keep leveling up as far as I can go, and just keep getting my ass handed to me as much as I can, as high as I can go. Like I knew I didn’t have the physical capability to ever be world champion. But I was like, we’ll see how far we can take the ride.

And part of that is just the journey of self-determination. Like, how far can I take it? You know, what am I capable of? I don’t know until I do it. And I feel like, even though like I said, I have one once in my 20 years of racing. I still — I take so much away from it. And I talk about this on the running show I do on the YouTube channel.

So, if you’re just listening, you can go to the YouTube channel,, S-O-L-P-R-I. I talked about the things I’ve learned in running me that have nothing to do with winning or losing where it’s like, the things I love to talk about people — like people with you about where it’s like, well, can we take anything we learned from our journey and apply it to the rest of our life? Or is it just like, no, in your case, I was champion a couple times. I’m not anymore. So, now I’m not worth anything. It’s like, I don’t think that’s accurate.

TOYIN: Right, right.

JESSE: [00:31:43] Like, there’s so — if you’ve looked at the parallels, I always say running is life. Like, you can talk about it in the terminology that comes with running it and apply it to life as a metaphor, but I feel like if you open your mind a little bit, there’s so much that’s applicable in terms of being reflective, not viewing failure as a final resting place.

Even changing failure to be something else. Like, when I was speaking with Aquil Abdullah, I keep coming back to this, because he was such an awesome guest and he was a rower, Olympic Rower. I can’t remember if it was 2004 or 2008.

He said now — he’s in his, I think, mid-40s — if things don’t go well, he’s not so hard on himself. He’s just curious. Why didn’t it go well. And I feel like taking that perspective to just what we’re doing every day. Whether it’s athletically or like in both of our cases, launching a company trying to reach people or reach — I’ll call them customers, and that’s not necessarily the right terminology for you — reach a new audience. It doesn’t go well. Well, why didn’t it go well? You know, being curious.

TOYIN: [00:33:08] Yeah. Absolutely. No, 100%. Like I said, I agree with you, you said running is life and I think it’s very much a journey. And like, the purposes have changed for me, and they have evolved and developed. And at one point, it was like confidence and self-esteem.

And I was getting that. And then it was like — and that continues to be a piece of it. It’s always about learning, learning about myself, learning about other people. For me, like being in community, right, like teamwork, like working together towards a mission. Even though track is arguably an individual sport, I’ve always done it with teams.

And so there’s almost always been like a team aspect except just one of the times I’m competing independently. But still, I have Nigeria next to my name, right? Or I have my training group when I was in California competing with Evo Track, and there was people who would grind with me in practice every day. They’d be like, let’s go Toyin. Let’s go. Get up. We’re doing this.

Or I would say, all right. I’m doing this last one with you. Last one, best one. Let’s make it work today. You know, we got to put in the work so we can see results so we can feel better, so that we can know that we’re doing something.

I have athletes who will get sore after a hard workout and they’re like, “Oh, coach, I’m so sore.” And I’m like, “Oh, you got evidence. You got evidence of the work you put in.” Like, “Wow.” And they’re like, “Oh, my God, I hate you. Why do you talk to me?” You know? And I’m like, “Because I need you to change your perspective. I need you to see things in a different way.

And you will carry these lessons with you outside of athletics and into the world.” And what will you do with it? What will it mean to you when you’re facing an obstacle outside of this space? And how might you leverage it? And that’s absolutely what I’m trying to do with Just Heroes is allow for student athletes to leverage these lessons, these mindsets, ways of being within athletics into other spaces.

And particularly for these students who are in high poverty communities to leverage those mindsets for social justice, to think about their identities and to have some self awareness and to recognize how that plays within a system. And then how might we change the system so that it does work for you? Right? Like, why is your community high poverty? Like, what?

Why is there a whole community? Why are there whole pockets of spaces with black and brown kids, unfortunately, that are really disadvantaged? And what might we do? Is it about mindset shifts? Is it about coming down to the core, to the heart of it and considering how we build empathy and just share stories? And is it also about sharing power, and shifting the hierarchy and laying that hierarchy on its side so that we’re more collaborative, and we’re working together? How do you envision it? Because you know what, you’re in it, you’re living this.

And I can’t come to you and tell you this is what’s going to make life better for you? You know, and we do that, we do it. We’re like, oh, if you get that A, and if you go to college, and you know, this is the path for success. What does it look like when they define for themselves, and then we support them as educators, we support young people in developing innovations, initiatives, programs, policies, systems that work for them where they show up.

Because I heard somewhere like, I’ve never met a kid who did not love learning, but I have met kids who did not love school, something along those lines. Where the school, the institution, is the problem. The learning isn’t. We’re running through life learning all the time, learning about you, I’m learning about you today, Jesse. I’m learning about how you see things and who you’ve talked to. And that’s exciting.

But to have rote memorization and pass a test, maybe not, not so much, not very exciting. So then this desk, because it’s how you see me learning best that — no. To police my language, to police my body, to police my movement doesn’t feel like learning. It feels like — it feels confining. So, these are questions, I do think that we can take sports, and we can think about how liberating sports can be, and consider how we can be liberated in other spaces as well. And I’m excited to do that with these young people, hopefully, soon, one day, as I continue to pilot this program.

JESSE: [00:37:47 And you’ve said a lot, so I’m seeing if I could try to bring it all together — all of my different thoughts, all my taking feverish notes. Talking about changing mindsets with the athlete talking about being sore and it’s a problem. I love your enthusiasm about you’ve got evidence? It’s like, yeah, you put in the work, so now you’re sore.

But it’s just like that’s the exact point, right, where it’s like your brain governs so much. I mean, you said at the beginning, I think this was on the recorded part, I can’t remember if it was the recorded part or before recording now, but about athletics being 90% mental that we say that. And it’s like, your brain governs what your body is doing. It’s not just you got to get your body to do it. Like, your brain’s got to tell your body to do it. And it’s much easier to make that connection when you have this positive association and it’s not just like —

So, we — I convinced my coach in college to do this trick I read about from another coach who took his collegiate cross country team and brought them back to become their conference champions. And it was to run hills and at the top of the hill, you have to say, I love hills. Because we have such a strong positive association with the word love that if you repeat it enough, at the top, like because people don’t like hills, people don’t like doing hills, especially doing hill repeats and they don’t like doing it.

But if that is part of the program for you to say, I love hills because you have such a strong association with the word love and it’s so positive, that if you do it enough, it helps break down that like icy interior of disdain for hills, and they become like a more positive experience, which makes you able to run them harder, and with less fatigue, because it’s now a positive thing instead of this, oh, I got to get over this — it’s this negativity inside your brain dragging you down. It’s, you’ve changed it into something else that is going to propel you forward, or at least not hinder you instead of pulling yourself down.

So, it’s like that mindset shift is so crucial in why, like your role as an educator and a coach is so crucial to intervene in those early days with athletes when they’re still young, when it’s like, all right, let’s take care of this now. Even if — say we’re talking 12 to 13 to 18-year-olds, roughly. I mean, in some ways, that’s still 13-18 years of experience. But if you think about, and I like to do this, I think about what would the 80-year-old me think. And I try to think in that perspective. It’s like, okay, well, if you’re 13 you still got 70 years to go. Like, this is still early days.

TOYIN: Early, yeah, I agree. Yeah.

JESSE: Like, if we get that fixed now, like what kind of trajectory can you go on for the rest of it is 70 years, you know? So, that’s why it’s like your role in making that intervention is so critical at such early stages, even though looking back at that age, it doesn’t feel like early stages. You’re like no, I’m a big shot. I’m in high school.

TOYIN: [00:41:33] Yeah, they think they’re grown. They think they’re grown. Yeah, I mean, and in younger grades too, right? So, when kids start sports at seven, and however old, and you know, from my eight year old right now, she’s like, “I’m tired, Mommy.” And I’m like, “Okay. You’re tired. What does that mean?”
“I don’t want to do it anymore.” And then I’m like, “Okay. So, let’s see if you can get just to that next hurdle or just to that next cone.” Right?

So, push a little further. See, your body could do it. Let’s celebrate that. Right? So, there’s lessons, I think, all the time. And so I’m constantly coaching her low-key, without being crazy, like track mom. Just crazy track mom in my mind, as like, think about like, how do I allow this to still be exciting for her and fun for her and not like a drag, right?

Like, she’s tired because what she’s chasing feels too far, or feels unattainable. And so if I make the journey a little bit easier by creating benchmarks, then she doesn’t feel as tired, right? She still has some motivation. And soI’m thinking about how do I do that? How do I get her to run a little further? How do I re-motivate her and not make this like, so boring? And like, just don’t kill the sport for the kids, please. Because there’s so much they can learn out of it.

I mean, something you said about the hills like really made me think about have you ever done that — I don’t know, if it’s like a — you hold your arm and then like you think — someone pushes your arm down while you’re trying to hold it out straight or something like that, and you think — Oh, I think it is arms out to the side straight, and someone pushes down on your arms. And then they ask you to think about something positive, like think a positive thought, like I got this, I got this, I got this and you’re actually stronger than when you’re like, I can’t do this.

So, there is actually this like connection, this mind body connection that is very real. So, to your point of affirmations and positivity at the end of a hill to kind of reprogram and to make us stronger and allow us to be able to do that hard thing, I totally believe in that. Like, it’s so spot on. So, I appreciate that.

JESSE: [00:43:53] It’s just like interjecting with the negative self-talk and cutting out the negative self-talk. I even catch myself doing it now. I mean, you’ve got to come back to it and be like no, let’s be mindful and get rid of it and get over it. But I want to ask how — so you kind of touched on this in I don’t know what your daughter’s doing. But how do you keep crazy track mom in check?

You know, obviously, I don’t know you that well. But I’m just saying like, you’re so, you know, at such a high level, you’ve spend so many hours being like, there’s so much of the fiber of your being that’s been like a very competitive hurdler. Like, how do you keep that high level in check and make sure it’s still fun?

TOYIN: [00:44:43] Yeah. I actually don’t find it that difficult, partly because my parents were like, you can run track if you want to, but those As better come through. So, the model that I had was, this isn’t your life. Like, you have priorities. And their priority was education. And I could have gone the other side and been like, crazy, you know, what we call it like helicopter parent in terms of academics.

And they didn’t go to the extreme there either. And they recognize the value, I think, of athletics. So, for me, I think that I had in my upbringing, kind of a balance with my parents not showing up to every track. In fact, my coaches were like, “Where you’re parent’s at? You just won states.” And I’m like, “I don’t know…” And so it did hurt my heart a little bit because I wanted them to show up and celebrate me and all of those great things.

And it kind of kept it like a — this is fun, I’m good at this. It’s exciting. And there’s other parts of me that are very important. And my mom is at home talking about some, you know, I really want you to remember that you are a Nigerian, and I want you to go back and take care of home. So that was a priority at home. And then at school it’s very academic. And then on the track, it was like, “Hey, you can really be great on the track. Do you want to go to the Olympics?”

And I was like, “Whoa, Olympics?” And someone introduced that idea to me, I didn’t come up with it myself. So, I do think that I’ve been pretty balanced so I’m appreciative of that. And so when I start getting all how much better can she be, I start thinking I didn’t need that. I did awesome. I’m happy with how it all ended and the journey throughout and I didn’t need to kind of obsess.

And there was time. You know, I think sometimes with parents, it’s like, we got to do it now or we’re going to miss out on the next stage, and we’re going to miss out on the next stage, and we’re going to get left behind. And again, these ideas of scarcity of time, scarcity of resources, they are oppressive.

They’re oppressive to you, they are oppressive to your child, they are oppressive to society. And we really need to like back ourselves up and be like, we have time. I’m okay. I’m okay. My child will be okay. And so those are — and I actually think about how it hurts kids. And I don’t want to hurt my kid, right? Like, I want to obsess so much that she’s not having fun, that she’s not joyful.

And I also recognize and this hurts a little bit, but I’m okay. I think I’m okay, I’m working on being okay with it. Like she’s like butterflies and fairies in like woodland and — she says, “I’m a woodland fairy, mommy.” And I’m like, “Girl, okay.” So, this is where her heart and her passion is. And she is like, she’s a little engineer. She loves building and creating and innovating all this like — She’s got these great ideas. And I’m like, oh, I really want to honor that. And I want to hone in on — I want that to grow.

So, I am so excited for all of her possibilities outside of athletics. And it would be nice if she got that scholarship. And it’s okay if she doesn’t, right? So, she is very athletic. She’s really good. And she’s hearing it a lot because other people in the world are like your mom’s an Olympian.

Are you going to be — you know, it’s like, oh, my God [inaudible 00:48:01] And so I’m not going to do — she’ll hear it from the outside that might be supported, but I’m not going to do that to her. She’ll get it enough. And if she continues, and I expose her, she’s on the track. She’s hurdling. I’ve taught her a little bit about hurdling with her friends. So, we’ll see how she — if she bites, great. If she wants to be a woodland fairy, then we’re on the stage. And that’s okay, too.

JESSE: [00:48:26] Yeah, yeah. All right. We’re starting to wind down on time. I know you got another appointment to come up here soon. So, I’ll get to my question for this year for you. I’m asking everybody, how do you stay motivated after failing to reach a goal?

TOYIN: [00:48:44] Oh. How do I stay motivated after failing to reach a goal? What I do is I look to what’s next. And part of that is reflecting and coming to terms with that failure to reach a goal and another piece is, let me say this, failing often. So, as an entrepreneur, there’s going to be several, several failures throughout. So, I would say practicing failure beforehand by taking risks and trying new things on. And the more we put ourselves out there and we fail —

So, I feel like I’ve built that muscle. I’ve built the failure muscle in all of the times throughout my career and throughout life where I’ve put myself out there and I failed and it hurts and it hurts every time to be able to build the muscle to accept the failure and then shift my mind to move on to what might be next, what door might be open that I’m not seeing. And so reminding myself of those things, the lessons, the open door that I might miss if I’m stuck on the failure. Yeah.

JESSE: [00:49:59] Thanks. Toyin, where can people find you? Where can people connect with you, see what you’re up to, all that kind of stuff?

TOYIN: [00:50:07] Yeah. So, I am on Instagram, @HurdleMama. That’s H-U-R-D-L-E M-A-M-A. And I am kind of on Twitter, I’m sort of on there. There’s an account, there is an account. Probably can’t find me there very often. I’m also on LinkedIn. And I will be on the web at — with my new venture very soon. So, it will launch on the Hurdle Mama account and we’ll keep plugging from there. And I’m here at Phillips Exeter Academy coaching and teaching. And we’ll see what the world might have for me, what the universe might have for me in the future. But I thank you so much for this time, Jesse. It’s been great chatting with you.

JESSE: [00:50:52] Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for hanging out with me. I always appreciate having awesome conversations with people like you.

TOYIN: [00:50:59] Thank you.

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