Abirami Shanmugaratnam is an elite athlete who plays sports like badminton, rugby, cross-country, ice-hockey, netball, soccer, track & field and flag football and is currently a Chiropractic student. She is also a personal trainer & coach, starting a business called Skyhigh Performance which she started as a result from being turned from opportunities for being “too overqualified” or “not having enough experience”. She is looking to expand her influence through her role as a educator/mentor especially to Tamil youth in athletics so they won’t be faced with as many barriers to performance as she was.
You were and still are quite the athlete (sports including badminton, rugby, cross-country, ice-hockey, netball, soccer, track & field and flag football) – what was your favourite sport to participate in and why?
My favourite sport to participate in currently is flag football recreationally. This is a sport where I am able to excel and push my sprinting capabilities, along with my soccer footwork, my hand eye coordination nurtured through football along with the combined technical elements of rugby (although I do miss the feeling of tackling and contact sport). Flag football is a great sport to transition into post varsity which really requires the athletic capacity of an all around athlete.
Why are you so passionate about strength training as a personal trainer, especially as a female? Common misconception around strength training specifically for women, is that they should minimize this and focus on cardio – how do you address this?
As a Tamil women of colour growing up with little to no guidance in sports, I faced a lot of challenges along the way, for example a lack of resources. I only was formally introduced to weight lifting and Olympic lifting in university where I was already behind in comparison to other athletes who were provided opportunities and resources to build their strength windows. Being a student to the game and weight room helped me build my repertoire and knowledge. As a result I started to see how this elevated my performance on the track and in sport.
A very common misconception around strength training for women is the idea of “getting too big” or “looking too masculine”, and rather focus on just cardio which is a very negative mindset. As a sprinter, I use my experience to educate my clients, friends and family that this is an ideology that limits us from true holistic health. I feel from former client experiences, the fear of the unknown and societal standards along with main stream fitness culture, that strength training gets a bad reputation as “weight loss” is the standard that is sold. However, this has been changing over the last couple years as women in sport is gaining momentum and as more women start to tap in performance over aesthetics or “weight loss” goals.
You’re currently a personal trainer, coach and chiropractic student. How do you view all these things fitting together or will you be focusing on just one of these moving forward?
I take pride in all of these roles and as I progressed in my professional career, I started to see all of these roles becoming interconnected as I searched for answers in my journey on how I could better serve my clients and community at large. I’d like to think each role as a thinking hat I would put on which not only offers a unique perspective when problem solving, but also in having a range of tools which helps me to be a more critical thinker whether that is in the health & wellness or fitness industry.
Have you ever felt like you got treated differently as a female as a trainer or coach, especially when you work with athletes? If so, how did you address those situations?
There have been several instances where the colour of my skin and gender identity played a role especially in a male dominated industry. However, I strongly stand by the idea that knowledge is not gender-based nor does it discriminate, which is why I have been able to excel in this field and given opportunities to work with professional athletes and network with world-renown coaches. Some of the first athletes I worked with were male varsity athletes, who respected the very technical skillset I brought to the field as a coach and they saw this through my ability to analyze, and coach them to improved performances. Having the capacity to showcase/demonstrate exercises and drills were definitely an asset, but more importantly listening to and understanding my athletes played a huge role to being accepted by athletes. I have been fortunate enough to work with respectful and hardworking athletes early on in my career from a personal training and coaching perspective.
What do your family think about the work you do as a coach and personal trainer? (as being a chiro is more of a known/acceptable career choice in Tamil households)
I can safely say my family is proud of the work I do as a coach and personal trainer with all the people and community I serve whereas early on this was questionable because it was a foreign career path. They have come to realize that coaching and personal training can be a career as I can overhear my parents proudly tell their coworkers, family and friends “my daughter is a coach who works with professional athletes”. It is very true that being a chiropractor comes with the prestigious ‘doctor’ title which definitely is an added bonus; however, they have come to understand the work I do as a trainer and coach is just as important.
How do you find the learning process (being a chiropractor student) during the COVID-19 pandemic?
There are definitely benefits to online learning such as saving money and time from the commute to school, watching lectures at 2x speed which gives me some free time to squeeze in a mid-day workout + run and being able to enjoy fresh homemade curry & rice in between classes! However, as technologically forward virtual schooling may be, taking 14 courses at once online which is over 40 hours of school and all of life being online from school to work with virtual coaching has made all this screen time along with sitting major stressors. However, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to attend practical classes in person where I am able to build the practical skills to help me excel as a chiropractor as well as safely connect with my peers and mentors for support.
What has the impact of social media been on your work?
I officially branded my small business Skyhigh Performance in 2016 to share my knowledge for health and strength education with the larger community after being turned down from opportunities for being “too overqualified” or “not having enough experience”. I was told this early on in my career which left me feeling like there was no space for someone that looked like me in the industry. It was probably one of the best decisions I had made from lack of opportunity, failure, and passion, as I felt I needed to take up space in a male dominated industry. Since then, I have been able to network and connect with a larger target audience from beginners to elite athletes. Through my content and drive for learning, I have been able to connect with professional athletes and coaches who engage with my content which has led me to opportunities. Social media allows me to now connect with, inspire and be inspired by other women like me who continue to take up space in this industry and I do believe it is here to stay.
What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 3-5 years that you’ve learned the most from?
I would say that being selective of the environments you choose to place yourself in has a huge impact on your focus and direction. Coming out of varsity athletics, I was in a search of finding a recreational space where I would fit in, but it was a challenge as I started to see how sporting spaces became a social grounds for social exclusion and status. I am highly critical of sporting environments having negative experiences as a youth athlete early on in my community. Fortunately, I learned to find my voice in a system that is not designed fairly and learned to advocate for others as a leader whereas I once took on a more passive approach. In my Tamil community, we often revere sports leaders as the one who has the loudest voice and can argue the loudest (have the most influential status aka who you know to be able to maneuver the system). However, certain experiences have taught me that being true to yourself, not following the crowd and most importantly having the desire to help someone feel included especially in developmental sporting spaces is leadership.