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The Man Behind Sport

men in sport Apr 09, 2022

Do you ever consider and question what blueprint you have within you that governs the type of man you show up as on a daily basis?

Or does your blueprint run in the background whilst quietly influencing your actions each day?

"As a man I feel like I've had to sort my own problems out and self soothe, I can't talk to anyone about it as the roles I take on include provider and protector. If ever I feel like speaking up it's such a brief moment. If there isn't anybody there that isn't sympathetic then I'm just going to have to expect not a great reception or just shut up shop."

As I'm now learning as a parent to my 4 year old, everything I do both verbal and non-verbal is being taken in by her and laid down as her blueprint for how to be in this world. My wife and I are absolutely doing our best in any given moment, and we also realise that we are fallible human beings still finding our own way in life. So I have to accept Gabor Maté's theory that everyone will experience trauma in some way or another as a child, including the shadows my daughter will form.

The “shadow” is a concept first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung that describes those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. For one reason or another, we all have parts of ourselves that we don’t like—or that we think society won’t like—so we push those parts down into our unconscious psyches. It is this collection of repressed aspects of our identity that Jung referred to as our shadow self. As Carl Jung said:

"We must learn to accept our own darkness if we want to overcome our own neurosis."

Without checking our shadows I believe many of us are led by an out of date map of what it is to be a man. And I feel this is also the case for much of the suffering these men I am grateful to now know are encountering.

The True Cost of Performance

This series so far has focused on highlighting the real nature of how highly successful men in high performance sport and academia are feeling and suffering. These feelings come at a significant cost.

"The cost has been my emotional breakdown and to see how challenging that has been for my partner to deal with. The fretting, lack of sleep and probably constant hormonal state I was probably in for months at a time I imagine has done some damage to my physical health."

"My relationship broke down, I'm always away, I'm always down on energy, unable to see friends and family, I feel guilty that it's my fault and I'm tired of every human interaction being a transaction... I am lonely."

"I've become aggressive, confrontational, desperately unhappy, I wasn't receiving any benefit or gain from anything I was doing, I'm obsessed with work to the point where it took over and affected everyone around me, I don't like the person I've become, my wellness and wellbeing is in the gutter, I'm not doing the right things for myself and I'm a bit of a mess."

"I was so into that dream job that things have passed me by, I didn't go on a summer holiday for nearly 20 years. When I was sacked it took me a long time to get over it. For those 2 years I was useless, I didn't want to work, my long term relationship finished... from all the stress I ended up in hospital with a ridiculous blood pressure."

"I don't spend enough time with my daughter, I leave the house at 7am and then rock up between 5pm-6:30pm as a rough day - I think am I doing my daughter an injustice with regards to our time."

"It's taken a huge toll on me which took me a long time to understand why that was, I was sick for a year with a post viral continuous problem. I was at a point of an absolute injury cycle of having no trust in my body."

The Man Behind Sport

In this series there have been common themes that have come through. On a surface level there have been challenges within the roles these men hold.

But as we've gone deeper many of the darker emotional layers (shadows) have shown what's truly going on for the men behind sport related to self worth, validation, over striving, held back by identity and pleasing others at the expense of themselves.

For me personally my shadows were significantly influenced by my father. My father was tormented with emotional pain and as far as I can tell never worked on it. That showed up within him as a barely functioning alcoholic. This was part of the reason he was paralysed by a severe stroke when I was 13yrs and then subsequently died when I was 16yrs. He was doing his best with the tools he knew.

So my models of being a man were not set on solid ground, something I never questioned until my destructive patterns in adulthood became a problem for me and the people in my life. This is what began my investigation of my shadow. Through understanding these unseen layers I learnt what it truly is to become a man. How to own my anger without shame, how to open to my emotional wounds, how to show up authentically in my integrity, how to stand true to my values and how to hold space to understand who I am.

Many of the men I've spoken with feel like they have less control over their thoughts, feelings and emotions than they would like. On a deeper level I sense a despair at their own personal suffering. Much of this maybe due to just not being aware of the root cause of why they are suffering in the first place.

"I've woken up in the morning with absolute dread and anxiety, no desire to get out of bed and almost wishing I hadn't woken up. I ask myself why do I feel like that and not really being able to get an answer to that."

Beginning the journey towards understanding self is something we all will come to at some point in our lives. The only difference is based on what will be the catalyst to initiate that journey. As you know from this series, for me it was grief that broke me down to open me up. I can safely say these past 7 years have been a powerful rollercoaster. Yet I wouldn't ever choose to go back to my old unaware self. This journey is profound and quite possibly the real path to life that continues to unfold, challenge and liberate me. As one of my great inspirations Pema Chödrön says:

“Interrupting our destructive habits and awakening our heart is the work of a lifetime."

One of the many things that stands out to me from connecting with these inspirational men is that there are 4 male personas or archetypes showing up that appear in many of them - including myself. These personas match up to the four main male archetypes first defined by Robert Moore and Douglas Gilbert. The power of knowing how these archetypes and your shadows play out in your day to day, is that you then have a map to work with towards freedom.

1) Action Taker (Warrior)

At the heart of the action taker is the desire to take purposeful action to achieve goals with a sense of drive. They want the ability to set and protect personal boundaries. When boundaries are crossed it brings out frustration, over focus and a sense that they are unable to make an impact. There is a deep need for them to stop seeking acceptance and people pleasing and to understand themselves better. Shadow traits involve being driven to prove, find it hard to say no and set boundaries.

"My biggest frustration is getting balance between family and demands of work."

"I want to do a job that matters and more than anything I want to go home."

"I don't know what I want which is linked to the nature of insecurity in high performance sport."

"I began changing myself to get away from confrontation, I find it very difficult to say no without upsetting people."

"I'm stuck where other peoples choices are made to be my choices. The male thing comes in where I want to be strong, supportive, provide and the voices that tell me I need to do and be more."

"I feel stuck because I can't change people - maybe I don't understand their point of view enough or really understanding why they are the way they are. I'm a people pleaser through task. When I'm in most environments in my life it always feels like there is an aspect of performance."

"I question myself all of the time and whether this is really for me anymore. I feel like I don't have enough clarity and I am anxious about fitting in. Will I look stupid? Am I good enough? Sport is an addictive bug because of the camaraderie between different groups on the world stage and events. Will it be a regret that I haven't pursued more? I get stuck when I don't set my boundaries early enough. I set myself personal expectations that I should be adhering to this or that and I'm tired of it."

"I am a terrible people pleaser. I'm not an aggressive person and I shrink back from conflict which has led to me being bullied at times. I felt that environment was't one in which I could voice my concerns to people. That's been an issue I've carried for probably my whole life one way or another. At school I was horrifically scared of ever being in trouble, I don't ever want to be late for something because it's all about people pleasing."

2) Decision Maker (King)

At the heart of the decision maker is to lead authentically in all aspects of life. They have the ability to form good relationships and can be a model for younger men. They know what they stand for, they know their worth and are committed to bettering themselves in a balanced way. There is a deep need for them to be accepted as good enough just as they are. Their shadow traits include a lack of direction, lack of purpose and in general a lack of clarity about what they believe. This shows up in low self worth, a perfectionist striving and comparison to others. Not feeling good enough allows Imposter Syndrome to take control.

"I have a constant feeling of not being able to be my best, I feel like I have invisible chains on and I always have to justify and adhere to someone else's standards."

"I don't think I've ever felt fulfilled because there is always something to chase or get bet better at."

"I think what if people don't like me or think I'm not good enough, I'm afraid of not being enough."

"I've lost touch with value in this industry because I've never been valued in my life."

"I'm the type of person that likes to do everything 100% flat out, I literally only think about how can I make my athlete perform better and be better."

"I've always been chasing something, I call myself Mr more and better, I feel nothing I ever do will be good enough."

"I believed quite naively that I've been quite special and better than others but then at some point I realised there's always someone who has done more or achieved more, so I really struggled finding peace with this and myself."

"I have this massive imposter syndrome. I've worked and achieved so much at the top level and at the same time I feel like I don't know much and everyone is looking at me thinking this guy must be really good. I used to do a lot of comparison which is probably the root of all evil and I realised that (discipline) wasn't what got me up in the morning - which really fuelled the imposter syndrome. I've felt that I'm head of (discipline) so I should know all the answers and feel the pressure to deliver."

3) Intuitive Leader (Lover)

At the heart of the intuitive leader is a desire to connect with their loved ones, the people they work with and most importantly themselves. There is a deep need for them to honour their desires to be vulnerable, express their grief and nurture their emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Their shadow traits show up as a sense of lack of control, feeling joyless and more focussed on thinking than feeling.

"I miss the interaction and feeling that I've helped someone directly."

"If I don't work at night I think too much and then I get lonely. If work is going bad it's hard to step away from it."

"I only follow logic and I felt so sure dismissing anything to do with feelings, emotions or spirituality... classic male hard outlook. I'm a complete angry person with tiny patience."

"I want to go from a position of being out of control to a position of control, I'm a control freak, everything has been crushed from confidence to self worth."

"I want to have my friends and family around me, I want to have stability around me, I want a sense of ease and happiness."

"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."

"I worry about what someone might think or about something that might or might not happen that I don't have any control about that increases my anxiety."

"I want to move from the space of reacting to life to being aware of my emotions and reflecting on them. When my brain is on auto-pilot I slip into cognitive bias due to the expectations I put on myself."

4) The Transformer (Magician)

At the heart of the transformer is the ability to reserve judgement and to see things from many different points of view. They can work things out and provide solutions to problems. There is a deep need for them to let go of their limiting beliefs and fears. Their shadow traits show up as being extremely self critical, weighed down by guilt, anxiety and just stuck in their head.

"I feel I can't connect with anyone because I'm so clocked up in my head."

"I never celebrate my wins either small or big and I have next to no self compassion and I'm incredibly self critical."

"Because I'm always chasing something better I'm never fulfilled with what I've got. It has a knock on impact on my confidence and enjoyment of my life. I'm only ever one mistake away from coming from a high to crashing back down."

"Sport has made me question my choosing ability, others people choice is what I have to choose, it's a sticking point and a point of resistance for me, I get very myopic with sport - lose a greater perspective."

Action Step - Reflect

I believe it is possible to maintain your career in high performance sport. As long as you are aligned with your values, integrity so you can stand each day in your authentic power for yourself.

Have you done any form of shadow work or inner reflection before? A great place to begin is to:

  1. Sit and feel what elements of this article really resonate with you.
  2. If they do then ask yourself why do they resonate with you?
  3. Create some undisturbed space (at least 30 minutes protected time away from distractions) and reflectively write. Just write what comes to mind. The hardest thing about that is to not judge what you write. Easier said than done, it just requires you nurture your ability to be kind and compassionate to yourself and allow what comes to land on your paper.

The work I do with men addresses very practical steps to allow them to understand themselves on a deeper level. As this journey continues to unfold, I'll share more and more practices with you to help you accelerate your process of understanding yourself through inner work.

If you are finding this series helpful and inspiring please share these articles with your network and friends.

And if you would like to contribute to this research I’d love to talk. Simply book a time that suits you using the link to my calendar.

In Kindness,

Richard

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