Sarah Williams is the brains behind the fantastic Tough Girl podcast. She is currently studying for a Masters in Women and gender studies and goes off on her own adventures when she gets the chance. Through her podcast she has interviewed over 150 female athletes and adventurers and has created over 100 hours of content. The podcasts have been downloaded 400,000 times and are listened to in 172 countries. Sarah shows great skill at not just teasing out the women’s incredible stories but helping them acknowledging what they learnt about themselves through the challenges they have taken on, and highlighting how they have helped to inspire and empower other women.
Here we turned the tables. The interviewer becomes the interviewee. We learn more about what inspires her, what she has learnt from these 150 women she has interviewed and which elements of sport psychology she uses in her own adventures.
What inspired her to start tough girl…
“I was going into schools to give motivational talks and chatting to the girls about their goals and aspirations for the future and it was just disheartening. These girls were wanting to be wags, to be pretty, to find a rich man and this was 2015. I was thinking why, you can be so much more than what you look like and who you marry. And then I was looking through a newspaper and it was all just men, men, men – all football and rugby – I was thinking where are the women? There were no women at all. Where are all the role models? If these young girls can’t see it how can they become it. How do they know they can go out and be adventurers and explorers and swim the channel? When I started looking into what challenges I could do I started coming across all these amazing women. I like to think of myself as a connected person; I read a lot but I just didn’t know about any of these women or any of these challenges they had done. So how would a 15 year old girl know about this?
With a podcast, when you hear someone’s voice and you hear that passion and you hear that doubt, it really connects with you mentally. To share that, to get all those voices heard and out there, to increase the amount of people who are role models, podcasting was a good way to do it. The feedback is amazing. So humbling. One today almost made me cry. It just arrived this morning. I think a lot of people don’t know who to talk to and to reach out to but because they have heard my voice they’ll reach out to me.”
Why role models are so important…
“There is a ripple effect. For everyone going out running, your friends and family see it and suddenly others see it is possible and so they feel it may be for them too. I remember my first London marathon. My sister was doing the London Marathon, pretty much every friend I have was doing the London marathon. I felt left out. Everyone else was running and training and you want to get involved and do more of it.”
What has she noticed about her interviewees…
“That everybody is just normal and anybody could do it. It is just that they DO go out and do it. Fear is something we talk about a lot. It is all the fears; the fear of success, failure, all of them. There is one lady I interviewed called Kat Davis (listen here) and she was sharing about the time she hiked the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). She was saying I’m scared of bears, I’m scared of snakes, I’m scared of the snow. I’m scared of being by myself and scared of failing. I’m still scared of all those things but I still go out and do it. And I think that is a really big thing. It is worth talking about more and more. Doing it and the fear. That is the common theme. Everybody is scared and has their own personal fears. The worst line I hear is I could never do that. I’m not like you. Actually you could. You just have to try and just have to give it a go.”
Any triggers she has spotted making people want to take on these adventures…
“I think sometimes people do have those live changing situations happen to them. But then sometimes I think it can be a very gradual build-up in the case of just starting for a walk, then it is 5k, then 10k, then a half marathon, then a marathon, then an ultra, then a 100 miler. This trigger is always one of the key things. What can make people take those key steps? How do you get people to do it? I do think about that first step a lot.
The mental skills she has spotted her interviewees using…
“Visualisation, being really specific about goals, having accountability and needing to tell people what they are doing and why they are doing it. Once a goal is out there you’ll be asked and that is very very powerful for getting people to the start line and giving that motivation and incentive. The other thing around mindset that comes out a lot is about gratitude and positivity. I see people realising they cannot control the environment so if someone is climbing Mount Everest they realise they have no control over the weather and what is happening on the mountain but actually what they can control is their internal emotion.”
“You’ve heard about the Egg and the Potato? It is Jasmijn Muller’s mantra. So Jasmijn got that from the podcast from a triathlete called Parys Edwards who shared a story about how the same boiling water which makes a potato soft, makes an egg go hard. The circumstances will be the same but how you respond to them gives a different outcome. So if you can, then ‘be the Egg’, and for a lot of women this just clicked for a lot of them. It was like when situations are overwhelming I can give in or can I be positive so even when I was doing something like Marathon De Sables I’d be thinking I can’t control the heat, or the distance, or the terrain, but what can I be grateful for? The sky is blue, I’ve trained for this, I love the temperature etc and actually that can shift your mindset in a powerful way.”
“Mantras we talk a lot about. Sometimes they can almost get a little bit complicated. Depending how far you are in when you are doing an ultra, at one point for me it got down to a point of just saying ‘Step’. ‘Step.’ ‘Step.’ Just keeping me moving as I was slowing down so much. Even counting helped so much. 10 minutes running but I would break it down into 3 minutes and then to 5 minutes and then 8 minutes. So even a 10 minute block I would break it down even further. But even for these big overwhelming goals that people take on it works as well. So a marathon isn’t running 26.2 miles, it is running 1 mile 26 times. There are so many ways of breaking things down but most people don’t even start because they get so overwhelmed by the big challenge. But if you just take it down to the very first step, it is ‘what do I actually need to do’. I don’t think it is complicated but sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Once you start going out and doing these events you start picking up these little tricks that work specifically for you. It is also rewarding yourself and celebrating what you have achieved.”
On the adventures she is planning….
“One thing I’m looking at the moment is basically rowing an ocean. I’m looking at what can I do my Masters thesis on and there has been a lot written about female mountaineers and female mountaineering but I look at trying to find academic research about female ocean rowers and there really isn’t any. So Roz Savage has rowed the Pacific and then the coxless four women have also done it and that is it for the Pacific. There is quite a lot more for the Atlantic and I think for the Indian there is Sarah Outen and Roz Savage and another group of four women who have done it and I think that must be fascinating to look into that. When I was chatting with Mollie Hughes she said one of the reasons she started climbing Mount Everest was because she started doing her dissertation around the mental preparation around climbing Mount Everest and obviously got so into it that she ended up going to climb it twice. So I think that rowing an ocean would be incredible. I think I’d like to do it as part of a team; in a pair or a four. I think there would be a big difference being by yourself in the middle of the ocean in a boat than there is being by yourself in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. It is very very different.”
“I’m definitely now more interested in the longer challenges. I could not motivate myself to train for months for an Ironman for it all to be over in one day. That literally has no interest for me at all now. Running a marathon doesn’t really interest me, anymore. That is not to say it isn’t amazing and not fantastic, but I can’t really psych myself up to go and do four months training for four and a bit hours. For me it is about the experience. It is about making it more of a lifestyle choice and making it a longer challenge and making it more interesting. I think when I hear about Elise Downing who ran the coast of Britain. I think I’d prefer something like that to put yourself under that pressure at the end of the day.
What is the biggest thing she has learnt from 150 interviewees…
“That you can always do more. What I mean by that is I interviewed Stephanie Case who inspired me to go and get my masters in women and gender. She works for the UN and runs a charity called free to run. She trains for these incredible events even when she is working in places like Afghanistan and living in a compound and only had the top of the roof to train and she would run for hours and hours and hours in a circle round the compound. And I’m sat there thinking she has got a full-time job working for a global agency, she’s training for a marathon and running an international based charity and I’m thinking I can do so much more.”
“I can dream bigger and I can do it. And even when you are pushing yourself on the Appalachian Trail even when you might be mentally or physically exhausted after 20 odd miles I listened to someone who says you can always do 40% more than you think you can. So when you think you are at the end you are not. You can push yourself another 40%. You can always do more. You can always achieve more. My sister is very inspiring to me. I think you have one life. What can you do with it? How she makes use of her time is incredible. Most people just don’t. Do more. Dream bigger. Time is going to disappear anyway and I think sometimes you’ve just got to do it. There will always be people who comment on your choices and your decisions, but you’ve just got to be comfortable with you and not with what other people think cause actually, in 20 years’ time, you won’t even remember who these people are.”