“What you’re doing isn’t working!”

The stern words of my coach are still fresh in my memory. It was 2017 and I had just finished dead last in the shot put at the SEC conference championships. This defeat was devastating to me. I felt a sense of guilt, regret, and anxiety deep in the pit of my stomach. I’d let my teammates and coaches down.

This was not how it was supposed to go. I was a top-rated athlete through my high school years and I had expected to dominate the university scene. The NCAA had quickly proved a more difficult challenge than I’d ever imagined.

Humble Beginnings on the Track

My name is Joseph Maxwell and I come from a rural place in Northern Ontario, Canada called Manitoulin Island. The biggest freshwater island in the world, Manitoulin provided me with many memorable and unique childhood memories.

Although I played almost every sport as a kid, track and field was easily my favorite. Inspired by an elementary school coach, I became determined to earn myself a scholarship at a top NCAA university.

By high school, I realized that I would have to specialize in a particular event and showing the most natural ability for it. I began to focus my training efforts on the shot put throw.

Without a proper shot put circle or a weight room within 90 miles of my parent’s home, I invested all my savings in weight-lifting equipment which I set up in the basement. My dad also helped me build a regulation size, concrete shot put circle on our 92-acre property.

The NCAA

With unwavering enthusiasm and above-average parental support, I trained hard, traveled around Canada for competition, and began to succeed. I won several Canadian championships and garnered the attention of NCAA coaches. After several official visits around the US and a lengthy decision process, I signed with the University of Tennessee on scholarship during my final year of high school.

Due in part to where I grew up, I never faced much competition during my high school years. Even at the Canadian national level, I was easily winning by 3 or 4 meters, sometimes more. This gave me a false sense of security, a feeling that I would walk onto campus and easily dominate the competition just as I had done back home.

Circling back to 2017, my first collegiate season hit me like a punch in the face. At every meet we traveled to these huge, strong 300+ pound monsters were kicking my butt. My sense of security was instantly destroyed, and I realized in a very short time just how competitive the NCAA is.

The Turning Point

Being an athlete has taught me a lot about myself. Perhaps my greatest strength is the ability to bounce back, turning very negative, dark experiences into huge positives in the future. After the big defeat in 2017, I was determined to never let such a thing happen again.

Right away, I knew I did not have the physical strength to compete in the NCAA. Within the first three months of my second year, I remedied this and gained 30 pounds of muscle.

Next, I needed to revamp my mental game. It had become obvious to me in 2017 that I was grossly unprepared mentally to compete at a high level. I met with a sports psychologist and told him what I wanted to do. I talked to my coach at length about the issue and between the three of us, we formed a game plan. I began “practicing to compete.” We created training sessions to mimic the competition as closely as possible.

My Success as a Rising Champion Moving Towards the NCAA

Within a year I began to reap the rewards of this new training approach. Through the 2018 season, I improved my PB by almost 2 meters and finished 8th at the SEC championships. The following year I took an even bigger step forward with a surprise 2nd  place finish at the same event. That year I also qualified for the NCAA championships and beat my ranking by over 10 spots, finishing 9th.

Determined to add an SEC gold to the silver I’d already received in 2019, I won the championship this past February; The very event I had finished dead last in only three years ago. Although I did not get the chance to compete at the NCAA championships this year due to COVID-19, I expect I would have finished in the top 3.

The Importance of Failure

The biggest thing I hope you take away from my story is the importance of failure. One of the biggest defeats and worst feelings in my life led me to my greatest victory.

If there is an area in life where you are struggling, I urge you to examine the situation, make any necessary adjustments, and work every day to be better. Hold on to that feeling of inadequacy and let it fuel you. Sooner than you think, you can be at the top of your field.

Read: My Journey to Become a Professional Women’s Footballer