Leanna Carr on Mental Health, Identity, and Realizing Your Potential

Leanna, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I know you have a completely full schedule, and on top of that, are currently in grad school. What are you studying? Is it related to lifting?

Yes, I’m in grad school for Sports Psychology, which is something that I didn’t even know about until a couple of years ago. My powerlifter friend was suffering from performance anxiety, so she went to see a Sports Psychologist. After hearing about how helpful she found it, I started thinking about how it could help make me a better athlete, and then I found a program that I really liked! It’s been fascinating.

So you’ve begun a new path that you weren’t anticipating! Would you say your studies have helped you already?

A lot of the things I’ve been learning in school have helped me as an athlete, but really moreso as a coach. I’ve definitely tapped into a passion that I didn’t even know I had. It’s all fell into place, and was completely unexpected.

At first, I was most interested in how I could utilize mental health and mental performance in order to make myself a better athlete. Then I began wondering how I could apply this to the women that I coach. Women can feel a little crazy, but that often comes from our experiences and how we viewed our bodies when we were younger, and when we were going through developmental stages. A sport like powerlifting can be intimidating to get into, and build to confidence in. It’s dominated by men, and although that is changing now, it can feel like a lot. Being able to learn the science behind confidence and motivation has been great. We invest so much time into our training and our nutrition, but if the mental aspect isn’t there, then we aren’t going to be able to perform to the best of our ability on game day.

Do you have an important example that we could pass along to our audience? A benefit that they could apply to the stage, the platform, or just everyday life?

I view the entire journey as important. I don’t know anyone that got into this sport and immediately decided they wanted to be a world champion. Many people get into lifting simply because they enjoy it. Lifting all of this weight makes you feel strong, and empowered, and confident.

Then as you get better at your sport, the motivation changes. Initially you started lifting just because you love it and enjoy it, and you want to continue getting better for yourself. Soon, you lift in order to reach other goals, like winning your weight class at a meet, competing in nationals, or maybe even getting a sponsorship and performing well for it.

Initially you’re being pulled into you goal. Then, it changes from a pull motivation, to a push motivation. You’re afraid of failure. You’re afraid of what people are going to think of you. You’re afraid of not being the best that you can. That’s probably one of the biggest downfalls that I see in athletes, and people in general.

There are going to be little things along the way that can make or break your career. You have continue to get better for yourself. You can go into the gym and never have another powerlifting meet in mind, and still love the training and the experience. That’s one of the biggest things. Looking at the whole picture, and continuing to have that pull motivation.

Like so many things with powerlifting, there are a few very obvious parallels there to everyday life. In order to achieve great things, there has to be internal motivation.

We wouldn’t be the people that we are if we didn’t have this pressure, or internal expectations, that we’ve created for ourselves. It motivates us to step outside of our comfort zone and to become better, and I think that is great. Having a little bit of pressure can create good performance and a go-get-it mentality, but it also creates stress. Your body views all stressors the same, whether they come from training or nutrition. This is why it’s important to focus on mental health, and not stress about things that are out of your control, or becoming preoccupied with what other people think of you. That’s hard to do! We’re all human. At the same time, it’s important to try to stay calm, and work on becoming as mentally healthy as possible with a healthy perspective and outlook on everything. Having a mental health focus is something all of the best athletes do.

I did want to ask you about how you handle pressure, and how you support your mental health under so much stress. 

I used to be the type of lifter that would get incredibly nervous. My very first meet, I balled my eyes out after missing a squat. It was an absolute train wreck. That’s common, and you’re not a human being if you’re not nervous on game day!

Everybody experiences the physiological aspects of nerves, like a racing heart, or a rush of adrenaline. But, those feelings can be interpreted as good things or bad things. The best athletes feel those emotions and think; all of these things have come together for this day, and yes I’m nervous, but it’s a good thing. As opposed to letting the nervousness negatively affect your mindset, freaking out, and letting it influence your performance.

It’s very much about perspective, and how you’re able to stay calm and channel whatever your feelings are, from anxiety to excitement. Go with it. That’s the best thing you can do.

I saw on your Instagram that you recently did some work with Smart Fit Girls. Their mission statement is very much in line with ours, and we are hoping to work with them soon on something. I’m curious what made you volunteer with them, and what was your experience like?

Smart Fit Girls was founded by my friend Chrissy Chard, and Kellie Walters. It’s an after school program that works with adolescent girls. There’s an educational component that demonstrates proven techniques to improve self esteem and confidence, as well as teaching them anatomical information about their body coupled with body awareness. Then, there is a portion of the program where you essentially just lift weights!

It’s the first time I’d ever heard of a program dedicated to adolescent girls that incorporated resistance training. Growing up, I was always under the impression that we exercised with the goal of weight loss. My mom walked the track after school every day to lose weight, and was always on a diet. I watched my sister, who was five years older than me, talk about how she had to lose weight for prom, or, she would go on some crazy fad just to lose weight. Resistance training, or lifting in general, is one of the only forms of exercise that focuses on how strong you are, and focuses on putting on muscle. I think that’s a very empowering thing to be a part of.

Chrissy had told me a little bit about Smart Fit Girls, and I just thought, “Oh my gosh! Why haven’t I thought of that?“ It would have really benefited me as a young girl. Adolescence is a very weird age. You start seeing changes in your body, and you start caring what other people think of you. It can be really hard, especially with everything in mainstream media that is dedicated to weight loss for women, or an ideal body image. When she told me the idea, she had only done one session with four or five girls at that point. She was so dedicated to sticking with it. 

I was immediately on board and wanted to help.  This past February was my first time hands-on working with them. I was one of the head coaches. I never imagined it would have as big of an impact on me as it did. I thought I’d be going in and trying my best to be a good role model to the girls, to influence them, but I left the 12-week-program with a completely different mindset. It was these twelve- to thirteen-year-old girls that made the impact on me.

That is so inspiring! I really hope they are able to grow into other schools, and that we can collaborate with them on an event.

Absolutely. One of their goals is to expand. Right now they are in Colorado and South Carolina. Kellie, who just finished her PhD, wrote her dissertation on Smart Fit Girls. They were able to analyze the girl’s self-perception through questionnaire and observation, and see the ways in which it improved through the course. It was cool to see that the program is actually working. The educational components and the resistance training (which teaches them how to properly move weights) is improving their self esteem and their body image tremendously. It needs to be spread! The more people that are willing to take part, the better.

It’s crazy to think that something like powerlifting or weightlifting can have such a huge impact. Four years ago I started lifting just because I wanted to, and somehow I’m here, with this incredible platform. How did this happen? At the same time, I think I have the same mentality as you: I lift weights, it makes me feel good, it makes me feel empowered, and I want to use that to help other people.

I love making other people happy. I wanted to be a doctor in college, and I was a pre-med because that had always been my goal. Obviously, my life changed quite a bit! So I want to take what I’m doing now and use that to positively impact other people. What you guys are doing is absolutely amazing and I respect that.

I recently expressed a similar sentiment! All I really want to do is create something that people can participate in that makes them happy, while helping others. It’s a difficult feeling to explain, but it’s contagious and helps make communities stronger.

That’s something I’ve recently learned, having had a few life situations that were completely out of my control. I’d stress about it and think about how things weren’t going my way, but, your impact on other people is something you have control over. You realize, when relatives pass away, how short life is. No matter who you are or what you are doing, you are a mortal person. You’re a human being, and our time on this earth is so limited. You can either stress about things that are out of your control or you can focus on the things that you have 100% control over. Like smiling to the person standing on the line next to you, or complimenting them. Or going as far as what you do, hosting events in order to raise money to benefit other people. It’s an incredible feeling to have a real impact. More people need to realize that!

Wow, I really could not agree with you more. Time is so valuable, and so limited! Every moment we have is important, we need to make the most of it, and really, use what advantages we have to help lift others up. You’re right. How we treat other people, and the efforts we put into bettering ourselves and others, is absolutely under our control.

When you talk about stressing over things that are out of your control, it brings to mind the injury you’ve been dealing with for quite some time. Are you comfortable talking about that?

Yes. It started in 2014. I partially tore both of my patella tendons. At the time I was really on a roll with competing.

That was my last very competitive year for both figure and powerlifting. I was under the impression that I had to do meet after meet after meet. I didn’t want to take any rest days. On top of that, I was competing in figure as well. I was dieting strenuously, and not getting the proper nutrients I needed to recover. Trying to juggle being competitive in both sports simultaneously was my biggest mistake, the goals require a lot of work. It’s a lot on your body.

I started to get pretty severe tendonitis in both of my knees. I had to ice them after every squat day. I was way too stubborn to take the necessary time off to recover, or really do anything about it. That continued for about a year.

In 2015, if I walked down the stairs it was constant pain. I wasn’t able to continue progressing the way that I wanted to. I finally went to get an MRI, where I found out that it wasn’t just tendonitis: I had partially tore my patella tendons. That made sense. I was obviously very depressed about it initially. No athlete wants to go through an injury, especially if it’s something that literally prohibits you from doing what you love doing. Lifting was an outlet for me. I enjoyed doing it, and it was a stress release. It was at a time where powerlifting was starting to become a more recognized sport, but I wasn’t able to participate.

Since I couldn’t actively compete, I started coaching more. I found that it was something I loved doing, and that I had a passion for helping other people. 2015 to 2016 was kind of my off season from competing. It made me realize that my identity laid too much in being an athlete. For a couple of years, that was all that I did. Whenever I wasn’t able to compete, I’d think; “Who am I? What am I doing?”

That time off forced me to grow, and realize that I have a lot more to offer than just competing. That’s where I’m at right now! I don’t have a powerlifting meet in mind, but I am squatting again.

I’d taken an entire year off squatting, which was hard for me, but I did find ways to actively make progressive goals and full rehab. More so than that, I fell in love with so many other aspects of my life. I’m not just an athlete; I can be a really impactful coach, I can be a good friend, and a good daughter. At one point in my life I would ignore my family. If my mom was calling, I’d just ignore it because I was “too busy.” It make me realize there are so many other aspects of my life that I was neglecting while in full-on competition mode. I honestly think that the injury was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I’m getting back to where I was strength-wise. It’s crazy how strength comes back just like that. So, it was a bummer, but the situation can always be worse. Perspective has helped me a  lot.

It can be easy to get wrapped up in an identity that you’ve created for yourself. When something happens that breaks the script and takes that identity away from you, you’re forced to realize your worth or your potential in other areas. It’s very challenging.

Just because something happens that throws you off the path that you’ve created for yourself, doesn’t mean you won’t arrive at the destination you want. There are often multiple roads. Take things as they are, and appreciate the things that you have in control. From there, find a way around. That can be applied to so many things in life, not just powerlifting.

Agreed. For a long time, a lot of my identity was wrapped up in being a certain size. Being depressed and feeling aimless left me wanting to have control over something, which is common with eating disordered behavior. Being fixated on just one thing as your defining characteristic is dangerous, and a shortcut to fully realizing your potential.

Do you think that getting into powerlifting helped you recover from your eating disorder?

Yes. That’s one of the reasons I started the Women’s Strength Coalition. We are developing a few programs right now to address these goals, and looking for funding. It’s a long road, but we are committed to making it happen. Powerlifting has made such a huge impact on my life. Hearing you talk about Smart Fit Girls, I wish I had that when I was younger. I thought I had to be quite small in order to matter in the world.

Absolutely. It’s sad to hear that, because just from our brief interaction, I can see your heart is in so many good places. It’s hard to think about a time when you didn’t feel worthy, or that your body was worth being loved. That’s something I see so much in women. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to go to the more clinical sides of my studies as well. I coach, and I have so many women come to me with a history of disordered eating. Or, they have low self esteem or low body image. It carries with you into your adult years. There’s still a lot of women well beyond their thirties and forties who still suffer, and I just want to reach out to every single one of them and help them realize they deserve to feel good about themselves, or to feel confident. That’s been one of the most rewarding parts of continuing school right now. I want to have the knowledge to help other women, with disordered eating habits and other issues as well.  Smart Fit Girls starts that at such a young age, and that’s imperative.

I have a twin brother. When I was in school, he was the skinny athletic one, and I was a little chubster. I had people call me names and make fun of me! That’s why I got into sports at a young age. I started cheerleading because I wanted to lose weight, and I though this extracurricular activity would help me feel better about myself. It did to an extent, but it wasn’t until I started lifting weights, doing something performance-based that was for myself that I finally started feeling good about myself and realizing what self worth was. That didn’t come until four years ago.

I think you and I have very similar goals in terms of how we want to impact the fitness industry. A lot of my female friends are powerlifters, so I’m surrounded my strong, bad ass, confident women. But if you look at the fitness industry or the health industry as a whole, we are still the minority. We have to stick together and tackle this together.

Yes! We have to stick together! If we all collaborate with each other, we can really change things. I believe that, and I can tell you do, too. You know, I don’t follow many “fitness insta-celebrities” anymore. I feel they contribute to unrealistic beauty standards and send the message that being a strong woman with muscles is only acceptable if you are lean. Your posts, however, are consistently honest and genuine. Can you talk a bit more about what you choose to share on social media, and how social media can potentially affect young women entering the gym for the first time?

Social media is crazy in that you can have an impact and a following just because you work out. I started my instagram maybe 4 or 5 years ago because I was proud of my progress and I wanted to do document it. Then I started having random instagram pages repost images of my body, because I had capped delts, or grew biceps, or I was showing off my abs. Obviously it feels good to get compliments from other people. I wasn’t used to it, and I was enjoying the attention that I got from social media, and from being a female that lifted weights and cared about my physical appearance.

That’s where I was initially. I did a figure competition and got even more followers. It’s crazy. If you have abs, and you post about them, people will flock to that. It’s absolutely insane. I realized I started basing my self worth on the way that other people saw me. If I didn’t get a certain amount of likes on a post, I thought, oh, maybe I shouldn’t have posted that, or, maybe I don’t look good. It became a very unhealthy way of thinking.

Like you said, I also used to follow so many “fitness inspirations” on instagram and I’d look at Michelle Lewin and think, “Oh my gosh, I have to look like her someday.” I’d look at so many women and strive to have their body goals. Once I started powerlifting, I saw that being lean and looking good may be something that other people like, but I like getting strong. I like being able to lift 300+lbs. My instagram was no longer as popular, which is to be expected. Over the last year and a half my following has been stagnate. Then, a lot of what I was seeing on instagram was discouraging. Some women that I used to look up to sold out to detox teas. I started realizing there wasn’t much authenticity behind their posts. There’s nothing wrong with posting a selfie, but the approach I wanted to take to social media changed. I don’t care about “growing my following” anymore. I’d rather have a higher female to male ratio following me, because I know these women are learning from me, or benefiting from me, as opposed to men just finding me attractive.

That’s been my approach the past two years because I got so sick of seeing the BS on social media, and seeing my friends idolize these women who had no credentials, or nothing educational to offer. My friends, these people I care about, would just compare themselves to these women, and I just wanted to tell them: “Do you not see how awesome you are just being yourself? Why would you try to be like anybody else?”

Body image was one thing that we talked about with one of our Smart Fit Girl Assignments. We showed the adolescent girls an image of a popular fitness model and asked them, “Does seeing this make you want to look like her?” The majority of the girls would say yes. We dug deeper into how it made them feel, and some said they still loved themselves and their bodies. But some girls expressed that seeing these women with a perfect physique made them feel self conscious and it made them feel that was the ideal standard. I have felt that way about myself, but this twelve-year-old girl does not deserve to feel that way. It made me change the things that I wanted to put out into the world. I like making more educational posts, because people actually benefit from them. They’re never going to be the most popular posts, but at the same time I’d much rather people see me as someone who is educated and who wants to share her knowledge. As opposed to having a popular platform where I pimp out every discount code I can offer, and just not being very authentic.

We may not realize it, but there are little girls that look up to us as women every single day. I’d rather be a good influence and a positive role model. I want to show them that you can be strong without being a size 00. You can feel good about yourself without being a physique competitor. I want to show girls that they have a lot to offer, that they have their brains to offer.

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