Interview with World Class Freediver Sara Campbell Success and Failure
As one of the World’s deepest women, the UKs Sara Campbell knows a thing or two about success. Not only is she a former World Champion and World record holder for the Constant Weight (CWT) discipline, following her retirement from competitive diving, she is fast building a reputation, and a business, for herself as a coach, trainer, and entrepreneur. More-or-less unique amongst top level coaches in Freediving, Sara - known affectionately as “Mighty Mouse” in the Freediving community, has consistently emphasized the importance of failure over and above success in her development as an athlete and, it seems, as a human being.
This week sees the release of the final installment (erm, not quite - see my final answer!) in her ground-breaking online coaching series “Yoga for Freediving”, aptly entitled “Success & Failure”. We caught up with her at home in Dahab, Egypt to find out more.
Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed Sara, I’m sure you’re quite busy at the moment, how has the series gone so far?
Haha! I've transitioned from athlete to creating my coaching program rather organically so it's funny to hear you talk about me like that. But yes, I guess it's true. I'm really really happy with how the Yoga for Freediving courses are being received by the freediving world. As soon as I started coaching I knew that I'd been doing things drastically differently to most freedivers. Since then, working with hundreds of freedivers over the years, I've heard again and again that the way I approach freediving, and the Discover Your Depths coaching methodology, fills the gap left by the standard certification or training programmes, where instructors are excellently equipped to teach technique and basic relaxation techniques, but not to understand the mental and emotional issues that come up when we dive, or how to resolve them for their students. I really feel - and hear from many of my students and online course customers - that the Yoga for Freediving series and my Discover Your Depths coaching system is the element that has been missing from the market all these years. Being able to offer it in these six online courses is a great way to spread this methodology further than I'm able to physically reach through teaching myself.
What’s it been like for you putting everything together, shooting all these beautiful videos, trying to distil thousands of years of Kundalini wisdom into a 21st Century format?
Phew, it's been a massive journey! The idea grew out of a Distance Coaching project I launched via Facebook back in 2012 after attending the Worlds in Villefranche where I offered twice daily meditation sessions for the athletes for free. The feedback blew me away and I knew that I had to do something to share the technology of Kundalini yoga and meditations that had benefitted me so much, with the greater freediving community. My original plan was to write a case-study-based book and over the course of between six months, to a year, I worked with 20 freedivers around the world, to coach them through a personalised meditation programme to help them understand and break through the blockages they were experiencing, not specifically in their freediving, but in their life. When I realized that many of the students were benefitting from the short videos I would often record of their specific practice for them, the idea of creating something online was born. I have a lot of people to thank for their collaboration along the way though. Vincent Sparreboom, who has since set up Adventure Freediving in the Philippines, was there at the conceptual phase, and was invaluable in helping me crystallize the initial idea into something concrete - often by helping me realized what I didn't want, as much as what I did. I have a fabulous team in Dahab, and a massive thank you goes to my editor and his wife (who is also the graphic design genius behind the artwork) who sat through literally hours, and hours, and hours of my raw files, turning them into the beautiful finished product you see on your screens today.
I think as with all creative projects as large as this, there have been massive moments of crisis, doubt, fear, and frustration. For instance, just as we'd finished editing, the master hard disk that ALL the videos were stored on (over 80 videos and hundreds and hundreds of hours of work) was corrupted, and it seemed I'd lost the entire project. I'm not exaggerating when I say the loss felt almost as powerful and traumatic as the death of my mum! Thankfully, somehow we recovered all of the files - and then spent a massive amount on back-up disks to ensure it could never happen again!
As for the actual creative process that I went through to design and create the videos, it felt very intuitive and natural. Once I sat down to think about the cornerstones of my teaching, the practices that I share, the lessons that I learned and what I know to be the most important and powerful teachings I share with my students, the content pretty much created itself. With hindsight, perhaps I would do it differently, starting from a vision for an end product and working back from there. But then again, if I'd done it that way, maybe I'd have fallen victim to the perfectionism I teach about and warn against, and never have got beyond the initial idea for fear of failing and getting it wrong. The fact that it was a very organic process without a clear outcome for the end product (other than knowing what I didn't want), meant that I remained open and in a creative flow to allow things to develop step by step. This is very much how I achieved my freediving records, and continue to teach and this is a huge part of the lesson in Success & Failure that I'm delivering in this latest course. These lessons go way beyond the water, and I'm constantly learning and growing from applying my own teachings to different areas of my own life. It's a fascinating journey and process. This is what yoga really is all about!
Has running a business been a natural transition for you from being a competitive athlete?
Yes and no. I feel very drawn and motivated to create programs and share the insights that I gained through my own diving and yoga and meditation practices. It's been over 15 years now and counting since I started yoga, so there's a huge amount still to share, even more to learn and so I still feel ideas bubbling up and I'm constantly in a creative process in one way or another, as we all are, whether we recognise it or not. Right now I'm working on my NEXT BIG THING, which will stay under wraps for now, but there will be some more news coming shortly. And of course, that book, which I started but that got sidelined by the Yoga for Freediving videos, still needs to be born. And maybe that's just perfect also - divine guidance as opposed to having been sidelined - as I've recently met some exciting people who might collaborate to make it way better, more profound and more important, than I could ever have done on my own. Life will always work out the best possible way when we trust it!
I struggle with aspects of running a business, as I'm sure most people do. We all have strengths and weaknesses. I love being creative and teaching, but the admin side of things is necessary but way less exciting. Working on my own has benefits in that I have free rein to make decisions, but when I have great people around me, such as my editing and artwork team for the videos, and my fabulous social media and personal assistant right now, and the people collaborating with me on my newest project, I really appreciate the interaction and feeling of creating something together - it is so much more powerful, and has far greater potential, not only because we can simply do MORE, but because I get told when my ideas are shit, and can get out of the way of blocking something truly great being allowed to happen. That's a huge lesson, also for freediving and life - knowing when we need to act and co-create, and when we need to get out of our own way and allow a process to unfold organically. It can be terrifying, but exciting and is hugely rewarding. And the best thing is, that when we can really do that, a whole other energy takes over the project and we achieve results we couldn't even have dreamed of (a bit like setting world records with only nine months of training! :-)
The last installment of the series is called “Success & Failure” and in it, you talk a lot about the importance of failure. For most of us, failure isn’t something we would associate with a professional athlete. Why do you put so much emphasis on failure in your coaching?
I'm far from being the first person to recognize the value of failure as part of the learning, creative and sports-performance process. But I see that it comes up again and again - and AGAIN - in my students when they are training, or facing challenges in their lives. We need to look at it in two stages; firstly, the fact that our fear of failure often prevents us from even starting or trying and this paralysis can be the end of our dreams before we've even begun. That in itself is a massive tragedy and one that people who suffer from this problem need to recognize as a fear that is blocking them in all areas of their life. These people are often perfectionists, who set huge and lofty goals but struggle to put them into action and bring them to fruition. Even if we are not perfectionists, most of us carry a fear of failing, and so the next step is to understand where that comes from.
For most of us, brought up in modern societies, which value high performance from the toddler to the grave, we live under the shadow of expectations - our own and those of others. These expectations are what cause the fears - if I don't make this grade at school, I'll be a failure (and for many people anything less than an A* is a failure these days - since when was a B a fail????), if I don't reach 50m/get a national/world record/master the mouthfill I will never be considered a real, respected freediver, if I can't touch my toes I can't go to yoga... the list is endless.... But, all of these expectations are simply PROJECTIONS! They are not real, they are benchmarks which we CHOOSE to set for ourselves based on our upbringing and the amount of pressure we were put under to live up to expectations that were set for us as children. When we start freediving, we're ecstatic when we hit 20m. But very soon, that is a shallow dive and, if we've been aiming for 30, 40, 50 or beyond, 20m very quickly becomes a 'failure'. This is true of all expectations and projections we set ourselves. We need to set goals but remain flexible as to the journey that we take to get us there. When we take a flexible approach to our end goal, if something happens along the way (a cold causing blocked sinuses, a squeeze, personal issues that affect our training), then we can adjust our training to look for the lessons each and every step of the way. For example, if we had a squeeze, what can we learn so that it never happens again? If we see a squeeze as a failure rather than a lesson, the chances are we will take too short a rest, and then push ourselves harder to stay on track to ensure we reach that end goal within the original deadline - an inflexible approach which will for sure end up with repeat squeezing and moving further and further away from the goal.
I have had many great teachings from my failures over the years - one of the greatest was my attempt to be the first woman in the world to 100m less than a year after my mum's death. On my first attempt at Vertical Blue 2009 I touched down at 100m, came up with the tag but blacked out on the surface because I didn't hook breathe. You can see my response upon waking up from my short black-out in the artwork for the Success and Failure course; euphoria, because I'd never attempted 100m before and was delighted that I'd been able to equalize to the bottom. That in itself was a massive plus point in terms of my learning and refining what I needed to work on to get there next time. The lesson of course continued; on my next attempt outside the Blue Hole in Dahab in June 2009 I blacked out one metre below the surface, so my hook-breath training wouldn't have helped me anyway - the ultimate lesson that I took from my second failed 100m attempt was that I wasn't yet emotionally ready to be doing those dives and to take a year out, go travelling, put things into perspective, handle my grief, and return to freediving with a completely different approach. Pretty big stuff! Double failure gave me the insights I needed to stop pretending everything was alright on the inside, and to face up to what I needed to process and resolve on an emotional level. I consider this a great blessing from the ocean to have been shown what I really needed to invest my time and energy into, rather than numbers and records. Only failure could have shown me that - success would have given me another world record, a huge title, and a whole truck-load of denial that anything deeper and more important was wrong and needed looking at. I would have continued on the media carousel, giving interviews, going to photo shoots and pretending all was rosy, and ultimately, some time in the future would have learned the lesson in another way - through a breakdown, or a serious accident in my diving, for example.
Have you always seen things this way or was there a time in your life when you put a lot of emphasis on success?
The person I am today is drastically different from the teenager and young woman I was when living in the UK. I came to yoga as a result of a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis when I was 30, a stress-related IBS condition that had been causing me immense pain, not to mention embarrassment, over many years, which I had managed to ignore and pretend wasn't important. I was so focused on how I was perceived by others; my family, my peers, my colleagues, my bosses, that I thought it was more important to put up with a little bit of discomfort and treat it as 'normal'. I was all about keeping up appearances so as not to be deemed, or to feel, less-worthy than others. I felt trapped in a cycle of over-working, over-exercising, over-performing, over-drinking, over-spending just to keep up with what I considered to be the 'perfect image' of what I SHOULD be. My illness was such a blessing in that it eventually reached such a serious level that I HAD to stop and take a good, hard, honest look inwards. I didn't do this on my own - an incredible, intuitive, and gifted acupuncturist was my first guide and support, and through him I found a wonderful nutritional therapist to help me rebalance my body, and I also finally found Kundalini Yoga, which put me back in touch with my inner self, the part of me that I'd neglected for many, many, many years in my quest for perfection and keeping up appearances from my teens to my late 20s. The journey to healing was long and painful but instinctively I knew I was on the right path finally. There was never any question of turning back and reverting to my old, unhealthy patterns.
The yoga was my first real realisation about how far removed I'd become from myself, who I truly was, and how I needed to be living for myself, and since those first classes, where many tears were shed over many months, I have continued to learn and be so grateful for the lessons that the practice has shown me. The addition of freediving to my life, felt less like a whole new world, and more like taking my yoga practice into a new environment, one where I couldn't bullshit myself at all anymore. In meditation, I can still sometimes kid myself that I'm focused while daydreaming about all kinds of things - my next meal, sex, walking my dogs, the email I still need to send etc... In the ocean, if I lose my focus for a second, the ocean immediately shows me that I'm not showing up, not being my best version of myself, not being fully present, in the moment. And in that moment, my dive is highly likely to 'fail' so that I can see where I was going wrong - the failure is the blessing of honest feedback in order to grown and learn. So, to answer your question, no I wasn't born or brought up with this as my instinctive or inherited wisdom; all that I teach now, is based on my practice and training, but I can also look back at those earlier, painful years and use them as lessons too - how not to live, how wonderfully the body shows us our truth, and how important it is to listen to it and follow what it is trying to tell us so that we area always, or as often as possible, living honestly, authentically and following our own heart, not the heart of expectations of others.
Is this transition something that’s available to everyone?
Of course. As much as we are individuals, each with our own history and destiny, each one of us is part of the fabric of Nature, part of the big picture, and as such, on the deepest level, we all adhere to the same rules. Our hearts beat and our lungs breathe thanks to the same life force energy within each of us; our nervous systems function exactly the same way to allow us hear, see, feel, taste and smell; our digestive systems all function at the same level, irrespective of how intelligent we each may be; our hormones are all cruising through our bloodstreams right now, at the right levels according to whether we're awake or asleep, eating, resting, having sex (I hope noone's having sex RIGHT NOW! :-) ); and our minds get triggered by fears, some of them small, projections rather than real dangers, some of them real and very valid, and our bodies respond to these fears in exactly the same way. It is important for people to understand that the top freedivers are just human beings who learned how to learn. Nothing more, nothing less. They found their way through mental stresses, and somehow understood how to address their fears, and turn their failures into lessons, and ultimately successes. So, if I can, along with Herbert, William, Natalia and all the latest and up-coming stars of the deep, then so can you!
I know a lot of our readers will have experienced problems with reaching what we might call a psychological limit, and there have been a number of high-profile stories in recent years that paint freedivers as a group of “daredevils” who will habitually put themselves in danger in pursuit of success. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to Freedivers at the beginning of their competitive careers?
Ah, this old chestnut. Actually the most important piece of advice I would give to everyone, not just those starting out, is that if you're not having fun, then there's no point. Go home, take up knitting, cycling, curling or anything else. Once the fun is gone and the numbers become all-consuming, you will be stuck in a cycle of stress, frustration, and failure, from which you are unable or unwilling to learn. Keeping it fun and light, being curious about what the next dive will teach you about yourself, is the best way to keep training and keep progressing without getting injured, burned out or both.
So the series is finished… What’s next for you?
NO! The series isn't finished. This is number five of six! We still have Pre-Dive Preparation coming later this summer! Stay tuned. As for what comes after THAT, well, I'm already working on it, but it's under wraps for now. But I'm super-excited about it as it's something I've wanted to achieve for at least four or five years now. I'm not sure exactly when we'll announce it, but you'll be among the first to hear, I promise!
More details on Success and Failure course right here:
Thanks very much for talking to us Sara, and good luck!