I just returned home from an extremely successful week at Canadian Championships and I feel accomplished, exhausted but above all, I feel relieved!
You see in my 13 years as a national level coach I’ve been blessed with a high success rate. 45 National Champions, 15 national team members, a few World team medalists, a World Age Group champion and a World Games medalist. All of this before the age of 35. This success I’ve been blessed with is starting to feel like a curse in my well being… hear me out.
With every successful season comes the expectation from athletes, parents, other clubs, provincial and national governing body employees to produce high level results and continue the trend. An expectation to show up with a high caliber team that makes few mistakes and challenges for podium finishes at all levels.
I remember being younger and being genuinely elated when I watched an athlete nail their passes and accomplish their set goals. Now I exhale a sigh of relief, relief that they kept it together, that they delivered to their potential and of course that I contributed to the final picture.
Last week, when I walked into the first training session at Nationals, I was more nervous, scared and on edge than I’ve ever been in my life. The stress, pressure, expectations felt heavier than they did even in the World Games final. It was greater than any stress I’ve ever felt as an athlete or coach. My heart beat was a little quicker than usual and my ability to catch my breath was slightly compromised. Even now as I type about the experience these two symptoms return. I’m stressed just picturing the event and it’s already over. (By the way, even just rereading this paragraph brings on those symptoms)
I remained insanely focused throughout the event. Trying to rest a lot, having lunch alone a few times just to collect my thoughts and prepare mentally for the next group of athletes. I needed to be able to breathe, be able to not answer questions about current standings, questions about what I though would happen etc… it was important for me to do this so that my athletes couldn’t feel that I was stressed, so they couldn’t feel me second guessing myself or questioning my training plans. Doubt doesn’t inspire confidence and believe me an athlete can tell when a coach is freaking out. For me to contribute negatively to one of my athletes performances due to personal, unmanageable stress would be the ultimate failure.
My senior athletes were the conclusion on the competition and they all hit solid and ended up on the podium. Out of a possible 6 medals in that category, my athletes took home 5. Did I feel happy for them? Absolutely! Did I feel proud of our work as a team? Definitely! But above all that was the overwhelming thought of “thank god they hit”.
Following awards, I got in my rental to go “for coffee”. I really just needed to get leave and let out a stress relief cry. I couldn’t contain it any longer and I’d rather get it done in a car than at a gym in front of people. It had to be a short lived moment. I had to call my boss to give an update, get back to gym to work on some team selection and of course had to be ready to manage my team of 18 athletes, 17 of which were my personal gymnasts.
Now no one has ever told me that I needed to produce to be employed, it’s never even been a joke topic. But I know the opportunities I have received in the last decade are due to the results I have produced and the reputation that has come with them. It’s stressful to know that athletes drive 45-60 min for you, that some have moved across the country for your coaching. It’s stressful knowing that families spend $3000-$8000 a year on training and competitions that you prepare their kids for.
It’s stressful trying to sort out how much attention each athletes needs and who needs to be the priority at each stage of the process. It’s stressful having parents watch you work 2.5 hours a day/4 days a week, noticing the amount of attention you give, listening to the words you use and questioning whether a competition is a waste of their money. It all leads to ridiculous pressure to continually create high end results in a sport that is unpredictable and unforgiving. And that stress comes to boiling point when an athlete salutes the judge at a major event.
The need for excellence is hard to understand, comprehend and relate to for many. Excellence is all I’ve ever known in sport life and it leads to a solitary even lonely existence at times. The amount of sacrifice it requires seems unnecessary to most. Coaches don’t take sick days, they can’t work from home or remotely. They have to work certain evenings and weekends. It changes your entire social game if you are someone who is insanely passionate about it because those big competitions become your focus and tired coaches can’t be as effective. It becomes very easy to imagine and picture burn out. The idea of having nothing left to give due to emotional exhaustion. It’s a position I never want to be in.
This year I relinquished a lot of control in the work place, made decisions based on the suggestions of others rather than on my gut instinct. I think that will be the first change I make going forward. I’ll go back to my way, all day, everyday. I’m the expert, I’m the one responsible. I’m the one that’s held accountable. I’m hopeful that will help me have more confidence in the process rather than fear of the outcome.
The expectation I feel to continue to produce is palpable. The pressure is becoming insurmountable. Failure in this career or lifestyle isn’t uncommon and isn’t easy to avoid. Eventually all great empires must fall and I enter each competition wondering if my empires time has come.
Ok time for me to slow this breathing down and move on.