The high school cross country season began three weeks ago. The blazing sun, and high humidity has made it feel like we’re training in a sauna. Miles on end, it seems obvious that this sport is not for the weak.
Except to some, no matter how hard the work, how relentless the effort, it’s still not enough to quiet the mental gremlins.
Yesterday was our first meet of the season. It was relay style, not at all your typical cross country event. Batons and exchange zones, it’s all a bit odd. Guys and girls in partnered pairs, there’s an element of ‘team’ that rises above the normal team score. While some athletes felt a frenetic joy from this unique event, others felt the pressure cooker dial turn an extra notch. The boiling point reached for one.
After her second 1.1 mile lap, tired and drained from the demanding course, one of my top female runners crossed into the exchange zone, handed off the baton and said, “I’m sorry”.
My coaching soul ached. Because, in that moment she wasn’t saying, “I’m sorry for a poor exchange”, or “I’m sorry I stepped on your foot” (none of which she did, but would have explained the need for an apology). She wasn’t even saying, “I’m sorry my performance was slow.”, which it wasn’t.
The truth is, in that moment she was actually saying, “I’m sorry I’m me.” Because even if she’s not fully aware of it yet, that’s what she was feeling. Shame. A feeling of ‘less than’, to the deepest extent.
She hadn’t done anything wrong.
She worked hard and gave her best effort.
Her teammates and coaches were proud of her.
But in her mind, none of that mattered.
Because when you feel like you aren’t enough, then no amount of work ever is.
It is our responsibility as coaches to understand this space. To know its depths, and attempt to be a resource for our athletes’ healing. Because otherwise we may very well be exploiting their struggles for our own gain.
These are often our most vulnerable athletes. They are the ones everyone wants to coach because they are the work horses. The competitors. The relentless ones.
And if we choose to ignore the true source of these efforts, these athletes can quite easily also become the sick, the anxious, the depressed, even the suicidal.
As coaches it’s important we understand that mental and physical efforts towards over-achieving is not what we should be promoting. Even if it scores us points. Even if it wins us championships. Even if the parents say it’s okay. Because this is what it is to exploit an athlete’s deepest vulnerability. And while the short term success may feel good, the long term damage can be devastating. We owe them more. We need to shift.
About the Author: Sandra Gallagher-Mohler is a mind-body performance coach based out of Baltimore, MD who coaches youth, elite, and professional athletes to reach peak athletic performance using a custom, multi-faceted, and holistic approach. To learn more about available individual and team focused mind-body performance coaching options, please visit www.15degreeshift.com.