One of the areas I have found profoundly moving in this research journey so far, has been the honesty of the men I have spoken with. I am grateful to have heard the deeper layers of what's really going on. And this is from men who in the past I would have been intimidated by because of their outwardly vast knowledge, experience and success. But as you'll see in this weeks newsletter reflections, many of these men have limited space or feel isolated to really open up and talk about how they feel or what's truly going on for them in their life.
I resonate with this immensely and recall the time I was at my first team meeting when I worked at the English Institute of Sport. I was asked to introduce myself and back then I was paralysed by anxiety in situations like that. For some reason I began describing the loss of my father at 16yrs and then made a quick segue into my academic "achievements" and my previous role at Fulham F.C.
I remember cringing at myself for exposing that "weakness" of the loss of my father. In hindsight and with some wisdom on my side, I see how much that event defined me and how there was an attempt to be authentic. But I had no frame of reference of what authentic should look like. I was also under the influence of a western male culture of hiding feelings to not look weak by "manning up." This is one of the key areas I'm exploring within this research process and my work.
I had no male role model to guide me in my youth and I am very lucky to have gone down the path I did. I looked to men that were successful in areas I gave value to such as money, popularity, women and achievement. This formed my "true north" of success and worked to start with, but very quickly became the basis for a very unhealthy lifestyle.
I share all of this because you're about to read accounts of men in high performance sport struggling - despite their outward success.
One theme that has been consistent with the men I've spoken with has been their ability to get lost on their path. They've been so focused to achieve that they've lost themselves along the way:
"I didn't really stop to think at all of what I was trying to achieve or how I was feeling. I've just been head down towards success trying to get validation from other people, such as success in education then success in career."
"I find myself making excuses and say I'll get to the next Olympics or get this cycle done, and then the next cycle starts and I haven't thought about it. From a personal and emotional investment it's been a battle to do basic things well, I'm tired of the flexes of authority because it's not how I want to operate."
"The high performance system doesn't always cater to allowing me to live to my values of humility, honesty, openness and doing what's right and fair. I've spent the last couple of months thinking "what next what do I want to do, what do I need from high performance sport, what do I want from it, have I achieved it, why do I want that?" I think I know my values but I want to be able to live them rather than just saying them, I feel very vulnerable to be honest and open."
"I feel frustrated and bitter and keep wondering when I'll feel fulfilled. I feel like I haven't fully scratched that itch within me of whatever it is I want to do in high performance sport. I'm not very good at talking about my feelings... I've never looked at it from the perspective that maybe the reason I'm unfulfilled professionally is because of something more emotional or spiritual within me... I've just not thought of it like that before."
What marker of success are you aiming for? A common discussion point in the conversations I've had with these men has been what appears to be a separation between success and happiness. Of course each of these are highly subjective, yet without true reflection there seems to be a default aim to focus on what other people perceive as success. Whether that's in academic circles, practitioner peer groups or from the social validation gained. Happiness is assumed will occur when "success" is achieved. Yet as you can read it rarely does work out that way - for the men I've spoken to nor did it for me in my career.
Without question it takes a huge amount of vision, dedication and skill to get a position in high performance sport. As well as a healthy dash of knowing the right people. Something no amount of networking as a new graduate can get you - in my opinion.
And this devotion to vision, dedication and skill creates a huge blind spot. I was so caught up in "up-skilling" myself on the latest trends of Bosch or the like that I never gave any thought to developing myself as a human being. To me that means understanding:
This is something that echoes with the men I've spoken with:
"I have a lack of clarity around the ways I think and the ways I feel and having someone to help me understand what these feelings mean - like having a sound board. I worry about what someone might think or about something that might or might not happen that I don't have any control about, which increases my anxiety."
"Trying to understand my own identity is where I'm struggling, I sometimes feel I have control but many of the external pressures especially professionally weigh me down. What we've spoken about today has made me understand a little more of why I'm yet to really find happiness. I don't know who I am and where I want to go, something that I've only thought about through the lens of my career. Never from the lens of me as a person."
"I still catch myself trying to demonstrate I'm billy big balls and how much I know. I feel like I've reached a crisis point and I've had enough of being a bloke. My wife and I have split up and only now do I see where we have grown apart, which makes me ready to work on myself and make significant changes in my life."
"I worry about what is desirable rather than what I want. I feel as a man I have a lack of ability to go to mates to complain - it's just not the done thing. I feel pressure to be perceived as the happy successful one... I just don't know where to find a safe soundboard. I've been plugging over and masking a lot of the feelings and sadness."
"I've been too focused on my career and now I'm paying the price. All of my eggs have been in my professional identity basket, I've never had a personal mentor or coach to support me working on myself - it's all been focused on cpd and being better in my career. I've put myself in this hole because I haven't had the life experience or tools to manage myself - I've lost myself. I feel like I just want to be able to breathe."
"I'm really really bad at switching off, I overthink things and am often neurotic."
I had no skills or tools to manage my anxiety or to truly understand who I was, what I needed emotionally or spiritually and how to be aligned with my values. I repressed those parts of me and puffed up the parts that I had become a master at inflating - physical strength, a pleasant smiling mask and my ability to be a people pleaser.
If this resonates with you there is a different way. And this is what sits at the core of what I do now. I guide men to truly understand themselves so they can find peace with who they are away from titles and achievements, so that they can enjoy the present moment and cultivate healthy happy relationships.
Every single man I have spoken with has achieved a great deal within academia and within the realms of high performance sport. In the early part of our lives this energy we focus towards success pays dividends. But life changes and although we have so much proof in our brain that "this way works," the uncomfortable truth comes when admitting that it's not working anymore. This was clear to see when I was in sport, and these men also have the awareness that their achievements don't provide emotional or spiritual nourishment:
"From the outside looking in I'm very successful at my job. But I don't have any hobbies or areas of interest away from watching my athletes play. I don't have anything outside of my work that inspires me, it's hard because when I finish work I think what do I do when I get home... if I don't work I think too much and then I get lonely."
"Something is missing in my life and I don't know what it is, I realised work was unfulfilling so now what. I feel trapped by my own expectation and that my career would equal meaning. I thought that when I got my dream job everything would click into place and that I was going to get validated in the way that I had been seeking - yet I got my dream job and had none of those feelings which made me so angry, I know work is not going to get this done, I don't know what's going to make me fulfilled but I know it's not my career."
"I have this longing within me, I have a secret longing for spiritual connection but I feel it has no place to go. I feel like my peer group and partner wouldn't be onboard with my spiritual curiosity. I am so afraid of living a life that didn't mean anything, I assign my success with the success of the athletes I work with and I chase money to try and create meaning but it never lasts, I substitute real meaning with superficial achievements."
"I love working in sport but I have found out the hard way that it is the core of my identity. I feel now that what I'm doing from a work perspective, it's actually completely insignificant in the grand scheme of life."
"I've sacrificed my spiritual side. My career clashes far too much with what I want and value in my life. I'm over worked, my partner and I are ships in the night due to my hours and my inability to be fully present. I bend with things that simply don't align with me as a person, sport gets in the way of me spending time with the people I love."
This is a powerful exercise. It allows you to really distill what is actually going on for you at a core level. We are story telling beings, and every emotion and feeling we feel leads to a narrative to fit.
Our physical perception, otherwise called Interoception by Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett is a sense that helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body. Having trouble with this sense can also make self-regulation a challenge.
The research in this field shows that as beings, we feel first and then make our narratives fit the feelings of our body. So it’s important to build that awareness of what our bodies are saying so we can begin to focus on regulation, rather than getting lost in our narratives.
Interoception in the domain of neuroscience is the Western objective way of saying what has been practiced in Eastern wisdom traditions like Vipassana meditation for thousands of years: emotion is the physical sensations, the physiological state in the body and we can observe it directly, subjectively.
And so here’s an exercise that I still use and find it exceptionally powerful:
Round 1–3 minutes, eyes closed, and you’re paying attention to which of the 5 primary emotions you feel — love, fear, sadness, anger, joy… that’s it. Record what you find.
Round 2–3 minutes, eyes closed, and you’re paying attention to what secondary emotions you feel. (guilt, shame, excitement etc). Record what you find.
Round 3–3 minutes, eyes closed, and you’re paying attention to what you physically feel and where you feel it. Record what you find.
What has changed for you after doing this practice?
And if you would like to participate in this research I’d love to talk. Simply book a time that suits you using the link to My Calendar.
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