Dr. Michael Koehle on managing self doubt

Career Highlights

  • Lead Physician at Whistler Olympic Park for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games
  • 2014-15 Killam Teaching Prize
  • School of Kinesiology Professor: KIN 471 and KIN 562
  • Selected by the Canadian Space Agency as one of 32 shortlisted individuals in the 2017 astronaut recruitment campaign
  • Multiple medical and research missions with the Himalayan Rescue Association in Nepal

Dr. Michael Koehle, Professor with the School of Kinesiology and Physician at the Allan McGavin Sports and Exercise Medicine Centre, is not one to boast about his personal or professional achievements. In fact, when we sat down to talk research and exercise, and how each informs the other, Mike was almost sheepish when asked to elaborate on these successes. “I don’t want to highlight any of my accomplishments,” he jokes, as we begin to get down to business.


Teaching and research

Mike teaches KIN 471 – Prevention of Sports Injuries, and KIN 562 – Bioenergetics of Physical Activity here at the School, acts as the new Director of Sport and Exercise Medicine in the Chan Gunn Pavilion, and is actively engaged in his own research. “I’m looking at how the environment (meaning air pollution, high altitude, heat, or deep sea diving) affects the human body,” he says. “And mainly, I want to understand how these environmental factors affect us while we exercise – what the health consequences are, and ultimately how we can prevent them.

“I started down this career path because I like being outdoors. I’ve always been interested in how the human body functions, and I wanted a job where I could be working outdoors and looking deeper at human movement.” This interest has taken him all over the world, including Nepal to work with the Himalayan Rescue Association, Kenya to study respiratory limitations in Kenyan runners, as well as the Arctic as part of his rural and remote medicine training, for which he also trained in South Africa and Australia. “There’s a quote in science – and I didn’t make this up,” he laughs. “It goes, ‘if you can study a fish in Cleveland, you should study a different fish,’ so that’s part of the reason for the altitude stuff, but studying air pollution is pretty important to me, and it’s a big wide-open area,” he says. It’s also especially relevant now, considering the wildfires that rage through British Columbia during the summer months. Mike fields lots of questions about whether or not people should be exercising when air quality dips. “It’s a complicated question that needs to be answered, but what we’re finding is that sitting at home and not exercising doesn’t help,” Mike says.

Mike hopes his research will lead him to create some concrete guidelines for minimizing the health effects of air pollution and optimizing the benefits of physical activity, as we head toward more pollution problems in the future. “Pollution is bad, but exercise is good. This is a message I want to really get across.”

Managing self doubt

Regarding his research and academic career, Mike speaks at length about his biggest challenge: self doubt. “I spend a lot of time questioning myself, and feel often that I could be a better researcher, a better teacher. The doubt comes up when I face rejection, for example. And there’s a lot of rejection in academia. Grants may only have a 10% acceptance rate. You could always have more publications in better journals with more funding – always. I think you’ll find I’m not alone in this feeling either, a lot of faculty are really driven by self-doubt.” Mike says that he wished, at 18, he’d heard a message like this.

“The Impostor Syndrome never goes away. I’ve learned this speaking to friends who are far better researchers than me – they still struggle with it too. But I think learning how to face rejection is an important lesson – it’s that lean and hungry feeling that works for people and helps you strive toward improving every aspect of your job.”

As we talked about his career, Mike stressed the importance of sharing these challenges. “I think of undergrad students reading about faculty members’ careers and thinking everything is perfect and how could they ever achieve something like this, and in reality, it’s really a house of cards, and we’re all trying to keep all aspects of our jobs together. That self doubt is normal, and even healthy.”

A typical work week

When asked to describe a typical work week, Mike laughs. “It feels like it’s all emails these days.” Despite this sentiment, Mike expresses gratitude about the variety his day-to-day holds. “One day a week I’m in the Allan McGavin Sport and Exercise Medicine Centre working as a Physician, and this really feels like a little holiday, because here I really get to shut everything else down and focus on keeping people moving.” He dedicates another day each week to working with his grad students – he’s currently supervising one post-doctoral researcher, two PhD candidates, four Masters students, and clinical fellows that conduct some research as well. The rest of the week he carves out time to teach; conduct his own research; author papers, articles, and book chapters; and finally, he puts on his program and building director hat to look after all the administration work necessary to successfully run the sport and exercise medicine program and clinical facilities.

The most exciting thing for Mike about the new space he shares with his research and physician team at the Chan Gunn Pavilion is having everyone together. “It’s the first time in 10 years that I’ve been physically near my closest collaborators. Previously, I’d go months without seeing them,” he says. “What I really like is seeing the grad students and grad and clinical trainees interact – that’s priceless. They all have vast amounts of knowledge that compliment each other.”

Making moves outside of work

Outside of his professional portfolio, Mike makes exercise a priority in his calendar. ”I do a lot of physical activity,” he says. “All of my commuting is active commuting, whether it’s running or cycling. And then I augment that as well, every day.”

Mike says he’s usually training for something, whether it’s Ironman triathlons, or extensive cycling routes. Right now, he’s training to ride in the Haute Route bike race in the Alps this month, which covers 800km of distance and includes a 20,000m elevation gain. “I do all of these things for myself,” he says, trying to skip past the details of these achievements.

Aside from the obvious health benefits, this physical activity outside of his clinical practice and research gives him some necessary time to think. “All my work is about trying to remove barriers to physical activity,” he says. “To practice sports medicine, you need to know a thing or two about every single sport.”

If he really needs to get away, Mike pulls out his pilot’s license and takes his plane out around the Lower Mainland. “This plane, if you saw it, you wouldn’t want to fly in it – it’s so old,” he jokes. “But this is another chance for me to really escape and think. I’ve been flying for the last 10 years.” When asked if he had any advice for other young researchers or students who struggle to find this time to get away and think, Mike answers, “I think you need to schedule exercise in your calendar and defend it and don’t feel guilty about it. Because it’s critical.”