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If So... So What?

men in sport Mar 31, 2022

In this series so far you've seen some of the results from my research looking into what's truly going on for men in high performance sport. These men inhabit roles including practitioners, performance coaches, sport scientists, performance directors, sports coaches, head of performance and head of academic programs. You've learnt how highly successful men that have achieved a great deal within high performance sport and academia are quietly suffering to maintain the perception of being successful and happy. This of course was my reality as well and one of the main reasons I left my career in sport to do what I do now.

This research has brought up some key themes shared by many of the 50 men I've spoken with so far, including:

  • Successful but unfulfilled
  • The ego stroke is always short term
  • Head down... Just one more cycle
  • Too much CPD... Not enough me
  • Achievement... But not meaning
  • Chasing the… Thing
  • Better never stops… At the expense of you

This process is still unfolding and I am deeply enjoying the connections and conversations I've had and will continue to have. It seems to me that the bravado that comes with the western male archetype is at a flexion point. From my understanding this male archetype has been trying to find a way to be accepted. But these dysfunctional traits have reached their limit. My sense is that men are craving to talk about this unseen dimension to the world of high performance sport, because they are seeking an outlet for their emotional and spiritual expression so they can truly heal and become who they are meant to be now.

All of the joy, connection and inspiration that is at the heart of sport seems to have become lost to the money, politics and seriousness that surrounds the "performance impact" focus, suffocating my beloved former career. With those very powerful forces in control of the sports industry, it's no wonder men have got lost along the way. And you could say that it isn't going to change anytime soon, despite what we know to be going on for the men in sport.

I see my role in this complex situation to be a simple one. I aim to:

  1. Be a voice for those quietly suffering by feeling self doubt, anxious, hiding themselves by people pleasing and lost in the guilt of having the need to always do more and be more.
  2. Be able to shine a light on a path towards a new way leading to calm, clarity and freedom in knowing what they want so that they can recalibrate their identity into balance to live authentically to their values and be happy with who they are. Helping them to find a more direct path amongst the trail and error of experience.

If So... So What?

These men are aware that they are suffering, but right now they don't feel they can do much about it. There are three common reasons for this. Firstly they feel that if they do they'll lose their job. There are so many people waiting in line for a "top" job to come up, and I remember having over 100 people apply for one position that was advertised.

From this perspective it seems there are limitations to what can be done by each individual. For me though this comes down to understanding your values and how aligned you're willing to make your boundaries to keep to these values. Also I think it's an important question to ask what assumptions are being made? What if people knew how you were feeling?

"I feel I can't speak up about something I feel isn't right there's a connotation that if I don't like it then lump it. There is high job insecurity with not being able to speak up about something I feel isn't right, I feel like a lot of my worth is not associated with me, from what I see high performance sport run from a political stand point is very frustrating."

"I had my dream job but it ended when I knew they were replacing me for 3 months, I knew who they were offering the job to and they didn't know that I knew. I think we (profession) are a neglected breed, there has never been a real campaign about helping us (discipline), there is the matcho boasting of how many hours someone has done, preciousness around the jobs, there are only 12 people who have got my job in the country, pressure to show I'm putting the effort and time in."

"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."

Identity and Being

The second common reason is one of identity. From this perspective many of the men feel so tied up in their identity of working in high performance sport that it seems impossible to think of another way. This was very true for me and kept me trapped and unhappy despite looking successful on the outside.

"A lot of identity tied up with what I do."

"I feel trapped and pigeon holed in my professional identity."

"I'm stuck in a routine of what I'm doing, I feel like a mini hero in my group of friends, I feel scared to let me career in high performance sport go."

"What keeps my in sport is the external validation of telling people I've worked with a world champion."

"External validation hides and masks whats driving me to do this stuff."

"I'm afraid to step aside from sport because I don't feel I would have any identity, that would be a very very surreal experience."

"I've got the track suit and initials on I've thought wow I've done it, I joined that crew that glorifies being at work all day, I had nothing else and that was my whole identity and being."

Clarity - A Limiting Factor

The third common reason is that many men just don't know what they want. There seems a separation between what drives their actions versus the feelings these men seek. Most men want clarity, they want peace from the constant need to keep doing and achieving and they want to live their life for themselves. But until now they have been following a path that has been defined by the perception of what other people think or by their own lack of self worth and compassion. And it was exactly the same for me in my career too.

"I don't have clarity, I have a fear that I have wasted the past 10 years on study and CPD, the older I get I become more and more aware of the time constraint we all have in this life, I don't want to get to 60 or 70 yrs old and be totally on my own"

"I've worked with the top guys on a world level but I don't get more enjoyment working with that level, I just feel I don't know where I want to be."

"I feel stuck in understanding in what I want, I feel stuck in getting the right balance for me between juggling my work and what I enjoy in life and what I want life to look life."

"I have a lack of clarity about what it is that I want so I end up and drift into something I don't want (relationships, jobs, e.t.c.). I'm being driven away from something rather than towards it, sometimes I've thought I wanted something and then get it and think... is this it? Why aren't I happy."

Action Step - The Path Ahead

The process of change is complex and sticky because our minds are hard wired to maintain balance. Even if that balance means to stay in suffering by liking and lumping it. As long as that pain and suffering is less than it would be to change, we will continue in our state of familiarity.

When pain hits we pay attention. In my journey grief left me broken and I can safely say that was my lowest point of my life so far. For all the pain and tragedy that comes from caring from a loved one at the end of their life, in my experience there also comes a doorway to personal transformation. That change happened in real time for me but I couldn't see a wider perspective of the journey I was carving out. That perspective came when a mentor of mine introduced me to the Satir Change Model. It seemed to describe the exact path in which I had followed to begin healing those parts of my personality that was keeping me unhappy and limited within my life.

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The Satir Change Model says we navigate significant change by moving predictably through seven stages.

1) State of Familiarity

Simply put this is our comfort zone. This doesn't mean things are easy, they are simply at a level that is bearable and life "feels normal."

"I've lost track of what normal people feel, I always feel that I'll leave sport and go do something for me but I don't know what will finally make me make that decision."

"I'm stuck knowing when to leave my career in high performance sport, when will I feel content to say I'm done working in sport, I don't know if I am working in sport for the right reasons."

2) Pain (I can't)

Pain is a powerful teacher and will grow bigger and bigger until we finally pay attention and listen. If the pain is big enough it triggers chaos in our life by stirring our state of familiarity and challenges our comfort zone.

"Costing me stability in my life, I'm missing out on social experiences, my relationships are shallow and don't go deeper."

"I'm drained and I bring that home which impacts my home life as well as drains me physically."

"I limit my own opportunity of enjoying other aspects of my life away from work, I'm always focused at the things that frustrate me, I have no practices to lean on to help me when I'm angry."

"It's costing me my happiness because I hate going into work, It's costing me my health because I've developed panic attacks with all of the stress meaning I can't exercise either."

"The biggest thing my job makes me miss is the quality time with my daughter, I beat myself up, over sensitise my lack of self doubt, expel a lot of emotional energy so I have a lack of clarity, the athletes and staff I manage don't get the care and attention or support they need because I'm dealing with the shit in my head."

"I can't enjoy time with my friends anymore because I feel like I should be working, I find myself not wanting to be around my friends anymore because I feel so jealous of the joy they have in their life, I'm frustrated with my job because I can't take a weekend off because I told myself "you don't do that in high performance sports", I feel I can't connect with anyone because I'm so clocked up in my head and I can feel it in my breathing - like I'm uphill running even at rest, I'm physically fit in my body but not my head."

3) Chaos (I scramble)

In the Chaos stage, we are suddenly in unfamiliar territory where life is unpredictable, and the usual ways of doing and being do not work. People can react to chaos through random or sometimes erratic behaviours. They may be compulsive in their decisions and quick to try out solutions as they try to seek stability and re-establish their sense of normalcy.

I really felt the need to re-establish a sense of normality so much. I'd left my position for EXOS in China to be with my mother in the U.K., my mother had passed away and I'd split from a relationship because of my own doing. My normal was to look for a new job in sport and to immerse myself again in papers and research so I wouldn't be left behind.

But something had shifted for me at such a fundamental level that I had no interest at all looking at performance research. I was fortunate to get a job in the months afterwards but again that same feeling of lack of interest was there. My only avenue of interest was towards a deep spiritual questioning of life, what this life is all about and the fact that I am going to die one day. This was something I had pushed away and not given any thought to previously. For the first time I felt panic and fear at the possibility of not working in sport again. It was a sobering realisation to think "who am I" if I don't coach athletes.

4) Transforming Idea (I surrender)

The chaos stage is a very creative time of exploration and trying out different ways. People come up with lots of new ideas when in Chaos. Eventually, one will be a Transforming Idea, an idea that helps you make sense of the pain that's made you change your normal.

At the heart of this stage is the ability to begin self-authoring your life. Self-Authoring helps you figure out who it is you want to be, make a plan and get clarity on your past. It develops a self-narrative that helps stabilise negative emotions and experience more positive emotions.

There is a huge element of surrendering to the process in this stage and this is the stage where many of the men I work with begin with me. They're open and willing to ask deeper questions of themselves, try new ways and most importantly of all they commit to doing the work.

"I went through a break up that destroyed me, it forced me to get help and opened up a lot of thoughts to what I'm doing."

5) Integration (I see)

Once there is a Transforming Idea, you start on the road out of Chaos and toward integrating and practicing new ways of knowing, doing and being. The purpose of this stage is to embody your new skills, mindsets and knowledge, and integrate them into your daily life. This can be likened to a "honeymoon or birth period" where there is a sense of excitement, uncertainty and experimentation - all at the same time and with varying intensity. There may be periods where rejection to change happens that can bring you back to chaos.

This is important to understand and to accept. It's difficult to make changes in your life and that's ok. With self compassion, kindness and an awareness of your actions you can gently return to inquiring about a new way of being. It's a dance and an art and never progresses in a nice linear graph. This is life and we are multifaceted on so many levels, which means recalibrating takes time and consistent practice.

6) Practice (I do)

The benefits of the new practices are now apparent and motivate us to pursue this course. This deepening process is important for us to embody the new mindsets, skillsets and heart-sets that we've acquired.

In my journey this showed up by really standing in my integrity, practicing acceptance of where I'd come from and living my life heart-centered. Heart-centered means that you are aware of what you desire in life. You know your values. You know how to take responsibility for yourself and your emotions. You make choices that honour your needs, values, and beliefs.

7) Your New Way (I am)

This is where you now have some degree of familiarity with new ways of being. New vocabulary, mental models and belief systems have emerged and are part of the daily practice. Eventually, these new skills become second nature, and with time, the newness fades and you can settle into a sense of familiarity. This then becomes Your New Way. And the change cycle begins again.

This is an expanding journey and we are never back to where we were before.

Reflection Points

  1. Where are you in this pathway?
  2. What patterns do you notice from your lived experiences? (Repeating behaviours, common frustrations and complaints e.t.c.).
  3. What tendencies hinder you from moving from one stage to another? (Fixed mindset, holding on, pretending not to know e.t.c).
  4. What challenges can you identify? (Fear, overwhelm, lack of clarity e.t.c).
  5. What needs shifting or letting go in the space of chaos? (How do you practice surrender in your life?)
  6. What have you tried in solving these challenges? What other actions can you take?
  7. What other insights, curiosities or challenges came up?

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

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.

In Kindness,

Richard

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Discover where you currently are in the 7-step process of change, the problems that keep you trapped in frustration, the path of moving from "I can't" to "I am", and the powerful guided reflection to support you in taking the next steps in your life.