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The Tracksuit and Badge Isn't You

men in sport Mar 27, 2022

I have been humbled by the confidential conversations and connections I've gained so far from my research. This has included performance practitioners, coaches, performance directors, head of science and Olympic medal winning athletes.

On paper all are considered highly successful and are in experienced and senior positions many people are chasing - they've made it! Yet when they are allowed to open up in a safe and private space, a different story shines through. There are many consistent themes of a deeper unhappiness and I aim to share a few of them in this article. There is also a starting action step at the end for you to take, if any of this resonates with you.

Successful... but Unfulfilled

The most common feeling these men have expressed is one of being unfulfilled. It's not because they don't enjoy their role. Many I've spoken to do enjoy their work and have "achieved" success with their athletes. But that success has just highlighted a deeper sense of something missing:

"I had a tough time after athletes I supported achieved Olympic success. I felt directionless and aimless, in my mind I thought that having an athlete winning gold was the pinnacle of what we do and why we do it - but after they had won I was waiting for some kind of feeling of achievement to hit and it just never did."

"I am very successful in my career and financially but I don't feel the happiness I expected, I have complained a great deal about my working conditions but have come to the realisation that maybe my problems are not my work - but within myself."

When I look past the shine of results, there is a subtlety and balance of knowing yourself and what makes you truly happy. I've come to know that this is personal mastery, which becomes the real work. Personal mastery is simply about your inner work and outer action. Living and working purposefully towards a vision, in alignment with your values and in a state of constant learning about yourself and the reality in which you exist. 

And this is no more obvious than with my own story. On the surface I shared many elements to the men I have already spoken with.

I was good at my job, I’d supported athletes to reach world-class medal success and I was travelling the world earning a very good salary. I was proud of my repeated achievements, basking in the comfort of the validation I had created for myself.

But this superficial success hid the elements within me that were in need of real nurturing. I was unaware of many of my negative behaviours towards myself, in my relationships and with my actions in the world. It took incredible pain for me to wake up.

This pain came when I gave end of life care to my mother who died from cancer. That experience and then the following grief ripped me open, and for the first time I could see beyond my own delusional stories and identities. This is the start point and essence to what I now see as true personal mastery — simply put it’s the practice of understanding your thoughts, feelings and actions.

I consider myself lucky to have had such a large wake up call. It's more of an insidious breakdown for the men that have shared their story with me, and has left some with broken relationships or a feeling that they've wasted time:

"I feel I've wasted a fair few years of my life manning up not being authentic."

"I get lost in spending my time looking at the technical work in my bubble of performance that I don't spend quality time that I intend to with my family."

"I'm inhibited in what I do because I cling onto things that should take a backward step."

"Part of the end of my relationship was because I was so invested in work, I wasn't spending quality time with my partner because I was tired. I wasn't aware how much the pressures of my job was affecting me. I've taken my family life for granted, used my family to get my stress out, I look back in frustration at what I've lost because of a lack of understanding and awareness of how my mind works or how I deal with pressures."

The Ego Stroke

Most men have expressed that each new role has provided the sense of pride and achievement of having "the badge" and "the tracksuit." This was certainly a major factor for me in my career. My role was my veneer to protect me from showing up authentically. Each time I said what I did people would tell me "how cool" or "wow you must be really good at what you do."

For me personally I struggled so hard to retain all of the technical and scientific knowledge that "underpinned" what I considered a great coach. I'd assigned such value and meaning to being able to spout off the latest research, or offer evidence to tell "my" athletes what they should and should be doing. Yet this was an area I felt I always fell short, which played perfectly into my, unknown at the time, lack of self worth.

What made me good at my job wasn't technical knowledge or presenting at any conferences. For me it was the connection I could make with the people in front of me. But at the time I didn't value that and was always looking for the next "role" because then I could show people I was an "expert." Little did I know at the time that it didn't matter what role I was in or what I knew, until I became aware of looking at myself as a man and the places I needed to heal.

This is also a common theme in the men I've talked to:

"I worry about saying I have a normal job and people looking at my lower. The more time I spend working in sport the less fulfilled I feel. It's great you get the track suit and say you're doing all this - I get a buzz working with Olympic athletes, but it's just a job, and then chase the next role or promotion to say you're a lead etc and get another buzz until you realise it's still just a job."

"What keeps me in sport is the external validation of telling people I've worked with a world champion. I'm on a trajectory and I don't know if it will be fulfilling which is why I feel stuck. My agreeableness, my teamshipness come at the cost of saying yes and putting me second."

Action point - Personal Myths/identities

Firstly, if any of this resonates with you I want you to know you're not alone. You may feel like you are and one aspect of my mission is to create an environment that supports you and others that feel similar to you.

Personal myth is a constellation of beliefs, feelings, images, and rules — operating largely outside of conscious awareness — that interprets sensations, constructs new explanations, and directs behaviour.

Personal myths speak to the broad concerns of identity (Who am I?), direction (Where am I going?), and purpose (Why am I going there?).

Examples — Fit, strong, reliable, I am a coach, I am a parent, I am a partner…

For me, my identity of working in Olympic sport kept kept me locked in a profession that had become a trap. I was shielded by the persona that people put on me when they heard what I did for a living. This led me to maintain a role in professional sport to protect this image, despite being deeply unfulfilled and unhappy. People ultimately knew what I did for a career, they didn’t know who I was.

When I finally realised and had the courage to leave, I became free, happy, fulfilled in the projects I wanted to do. And I had nothing to prove to anyone anymore. And this is why I do what I do for a living now. It’s a heart centred business rather than one protecting an identity of perceived “success."

Actionable Steps:

  1. Identify the myths that appear and shape your life.
  2. Which of these myths/stories limits you?
  3. How do each of these stories limit you?
  4. How do they shape your decisions; What do they have you do or not do?
  5. What would you do if you shattered that myth?

If you’re still reading this then that tells me you are searching for a new way. Allow that in, be kind to yourself and recognise more and more of us are not happy with the current status quo.

As this process continues to unfold I'll share it with you. 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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