Performance Staff Career Path: A Rite of PassageApr 13, 2023
Do you ever stop and consider whether your role in performance sport will be a lifelong career for you?
This is one of the primary questions I support performance staff to answer, and it's not a simple yes/no answer.
It's a primary question because we are at a time of evolution within the high-performance sports industry we love.
The reason is that, more than ever before, we are hearing the real accounts of the cost of high-performance sports on the men and women supporting athletes at their own expense.
The evidence shows that the proportion of coaches and performance staff reporting mental health symptoms at a level that would warrant professional treatment was approximately 40%. This rate is similar to that previously observed in a comparable elite athlete sample (35%).
The result of this is that we’re at a tipping point where significant numbers of performance staff are leaving the industry to protect their own well-being due to:
- Burn out
- Physical illness
- Mental illness
- Saving their marriage/relationship
- Be present as a parent
- To live their life
Young coaches starting out in their careers rarely consider this. The only vision they have is of where they want to work (team, organisation, institute) and the level of athlete they want to support. It's the shiny stuff that allures all of us at some point, leaving us blind to the realities of what's ahead.
At the other end, senior staff inevitably come to a crossroads in their career. Suddenly they realize that their drive and focus, which have got them so far, become a hindrance to the other facets of their life - such as serious relationships, potential parenthood and deep personal fulfilment.
Therefore, I want to lay out for you the rites of passage that the majority of performance staff pass through, whether they know it or not. This maps my own experience and also many of the 150 performance staff that I've interviewed for my research.
My intention is to offer you a perspective that will allow you to accept the idea of creating your own life on your terms. Rather than be defined by what is considered the myth of "normal."
Performance Staff Pathway: The Rites of Passage
Phase 1 - Student/Internship
It's important to highlight that this phase is usually following time as an athlete on some level. Although not the case for everyone, many of the men I've interviewed describe themselves "as a failed athlete." It's important to recognise, because for those that it does describe it seems to set the tone for the drive to "succeed" at all costs.
This is a daunting phase because it's what separates those that "succeed" and break-in, with those that don't. I certainly wouldn't want to be at this phase again, and I look to those that are in full respect for having tenacity and drive, no matter what.
"I didn't really stop to think at all of what I was trying to achieve or how I was feeling, I've just been head down towards success trying to get validation from other people such as success in education then success in career."
- Take up the call to adventure in your life, to break into performance sport
- Single (very few commitments)
- Highly driven (at all costs mentality)
- Sacrifice, long hours and a willingness to do all you can to break into this highly competitive field
- First paid job
- Focus only on upskilling through technical CPD
- Have minimal boundaries
- Say yes to most opportunities (very often without real clarity on what opportunities are worth taking, and which are not)
Separation means that this phase leads to many people separating themselves from their social life, due to the demands of balancing study, internships, and making a desired first impression in their first role. In a way, this is required in order for us to develop our unique capacities and talents as a high-performance practitioners.
In many cases, it also means separation from ourselves. Values, needs and wants get sacrificed without question for the golden chalice of a full-time role in a prestigious team or organisation. This golden chalice quickly turns into a poisoned chalice. This is not a poor me story, it's simply describing the reality for so many. In two previous articles, I've laid out solutions to this problem. To learn more see part 1 and part 2.
This is where I see the dysfunctional traits being established that most often result in the real issues that appear in later phases. I feel that this is where the leads and senior staff must support up-and-coming staff in this phase, because if not, this cycle will continue and great practitioners will continue to leave performance sports maintaining the high turnover of staff.
Phase 2 - Senior Role
Simply put, this phase is most often why we get into performance sport in the first place. We're feeling more settled, we've "proved" ourselves which brings with it a sense of pressure to keep progressing. With more seniority comes more workload and responsibility above and beyond the delivery of the technical requirements of the role.
Very often relationships are serious with the potential for marriage. This brings with it more pressure because we struggle to maintain the quality of our personal life as our career still takes priority. On top of that, we feel that we should be happy and successful, but many don't necessarily feel it.
"I'm a manager and people see me as the example of work hard/play hard and the pressure to maintain that is difficult, I've struggled with authenticity because I'm quite outspoken and direct, I began changing myself to get away from confrontation, I find it very difficult to say no without upsetting people."
"The image of myself as a coach consumes my life, all the conversations I have outside of work stems back to work, I'm either at work or I'm at home reading up about stuff to do with work, I'm in the gym on my days off lifting, I don't really do much else, works great but I don't do a lot else and I feel lonely."
- Objective "success" e.g. winning athletes, papers published, conference speaker e.t.c
- Entry into leadership positions
- Recognised by your peers as "successful"
- Defined by your role in sport
- Career takes priority
- Serious intimate relationship/marriage
- Struggling to maintain quality in personal life
- Enter into personal development work
Separation is still very present at this phase but often we are called to step into our initiation. But phase 3 is really where this truly opens up.
Phase 3 - Work:Life
This phase is where the culture and our self-imposed demands of high-performance sports are driving us to lose balance in our life. The cost of this is massive, including short-term relationships, divorce, being absent parent, and physical and emotional illness.
As performance staff, our success is so often solely defined by external results, such as win-lose, KPIs, and other objective markers of success.
But underneath these external measures are our own stories within us that lead us to self-sabotage our own life. It seems unlikely that we would intentionally sabotage ourselves, yet we do, and the consequences can be caustic.
Here are 3 common reasons:
- Many find it hard to be alone with their thoughts.
- Many expend great energy in sustaining an identity that no longer serves them.
- Many seek validation by overworking, overly self-critical, and people-pleasing BECAUSE there is a sense that they "aren't good enough" and a sense of lack.
Chronic self-sabotage depletes drive and motivation and leaves us sad, anxious, and deeply unfulfilled.
"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'm lonely."
"I have been fulfilling the requirements of a contract for someone else’s benefit, without actually taking much for my own sense of purpose or wellbeing. Everywhere I have worked I’ve experienced this, and it’s only since I went through some tough times, that I recognised I need to take more control of every situation I am in based on the qualities I can bring to the table. I'm tired of the nonsense, I'm tired of the politics, I'm tired of the backstabbing people."
"As an intern I was worried about what people thought because that's what I was conditioned to think, I feel like I have to impress people all the time, always an appraisal and assessment of my performance in the job role and I'm tired of it."
"I felt panic that I didn't know what else I needed to do to try and be achieving the thing. Panic of not knowing how to be where I was supposed to be, world-class and respected of the thing. How do I stop myself being on this endless chase and also feeling like a failure and just not good enough?"
- Career progress
- Significant leadership positions
- Potential parenthood
- Significant overwhelm
- Realisation things must change/can't continue like this
- Feeling the toll of missing out on social life (low energy, overwhelm & feel potentially trapped)
- Felt sense of pressure to "keep progressing" (focus still solely on technical CPD)
- Beginning to seek new ways of understanding yourself/life
To undergo initiation is to make a major transition in ourselves as a whole person, not just our role in sport. It often involves going through a powerful experience. For me, this experience was giving my mother end-of-life care. Grief catapulted me into initiation.
As we confront challenges, such as relationship breakups, losing our job, and mental or physical illness, we get the opportunity of connecting with deeper parts of ourselves. Very often these are the parts that we have repressed.
This could look like reflecting on our career through a new perspective. We're aware for the first time that there is a large cost to working in performance sport. This leads to us feeling a sense of being lost or unfulfilled, which creates confusion because we're "achieving." But all of a sudden we realise that these benchmarks of achievement have been defined by culture or other people - not by us.
Phase 4 - Crossroads
To be at a crossroads is a point in your life where you have to make a decision. This decision will determine which path you will take - either positive or negative. It's a time of opportunity or a time of crisis.
This doesn't mean it's obvious, and not everyone is aware of this immediately. We have a tendency to cling to our known situation even if it keeps us unhappy.
"I've lost track of what normal people feel, I always feel that I'll leave the sport and go do something for myself but I don't know what will finally make me make that decision."
The starting point of a transition can be complex. Multiple aspects of your life are affected. The crossroad can creep up on you or hit you like a ton of bricks. Emotions like anger, disappointment, frustration, plummeting self-confidence, and resentment are common reactions to feeling stuck or lost without direction.
Another sign pointing you to a crossroads could be resenting having to go to work or self-medicating to cope with the demands of your job.
"I want stability but I catch myself always looking for the 'next' thing, I find it hard to really vibe with other coaches who just want to talk about work, I want more depth in life, I ask myself am I blinkered by my career in sport, am I lacking the ability ot make the decision to step out of sport so I can begin to live my life how I want. Success in life is much more valuable than success in profession."
"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, and my teamshipness come at the cost of saying yes and putting me second."
"I didn't really have anyone within the network there that I actually had support really. Again the work was really good. And I felt like I was being successful, leading a successful program etc. But outside of work I had nothing. I mean, I bought a house, lovely house, bought a nice car, you know, all that kind of nice stuff to try and fill a void."
In my life, I began to rethink my decisions. I began to look at the people I chose to associate with. I began to educate myself as a man, not as a coach. I looked to others for help with understanding life. I began to ask critical questions. I figuratively died and went in the opposite direction of everything I knew and understood.
This process has defined the last 8 years of my life, career, and path. I learned to think critically at a time when most of my peers were still reinforcing a lifestyle and habits that would come to haunt most of them.
My work is focused on those that are aiming to break away from that lifestyle.
- Priorities changing
- Entered into the process of reassessing your current identities that guide your life
- Seeking more to life outside of sport
- Been through significant life challenges that initiate reflection (e.g. grief of a person, a job, a relationship e.t.c, physical/emotional illness e.t.c.)
- Realisation decisions affect both personal and professional life, but until now always favoured the professional
- Choosing between applying to ‘random’ next-stage jobs and carving out a job and income to allow you to live in a way you want to, where you want to
- Seeking to understand if your challenges of wanting to break away from your career in sport are because you need to take stock of and remodel yourself to get the best out of your adapted career
- Reflecting on if it's time to progress into another related area in sport or have a complete change of career
- Reach out to coach/mentor for guidance
"I basically need my head straightening out and some guidance to help me make up decisions in a different way that I’ll be satisfied with."
"If nothing changed I would still have a feeling of guilt and low self-value as I never feel like I’m doing a ‘good enough’ job. Which then at times leaves me feeling flat in my personal life and my mental state/the energy I bring there can be dictated by my work."
Seek Guidance/Life Mentorship
Seventy-six percent of people say that mentors are important, but only 37% actually have one.
Why the gap?
In my experience, it’s because most people are afraid to ask for that initial meeting. Reaching out to someone you may not know so well can feel a little intimidating.
To take some pressure off of yourself, remember that the people you want to reach out to have most likely had various mentors throughout their lives who have helped them to get to where they are today, and would jump at the opportunity to help others in the same way. This is what makes my job so amazing, I love being able to support performance staff in a way that I didn't have when I was in sport.
In my case, I have a career mentor and life mentors made up of actual people I've met and people I've discovered online through recommendations.
A good mentor can make a huge imprint on your life, and it is thanks to not one, but many, that I was able to make that very challenging step away from my life as a performance coach. To create a lifestyle and career that now allows me to be a present father, be a present husband and do a job I deeply enjoy and love.
In my experience, it's important to not be fixated on just one person or one source. Whomever you actively choose to work with, it has to be natural. There are mentors I've found very helpful to start and then I have moved away from them and their specific guidance as I had received all I needed. The differences between me and them were an important guide for me to step away. They helped me refine my path by showing me what I didn't value or agree with.
There are many different forms of mentoring, including peer mentoring (someone who has been there and done it) and group mentoring (where you share your journey with peers in similar situations).
This leads to 3 clear options:
Option 1 - Adapted Career
Simply this is where you've taken the advice and reflected on what's truly important to you. You've realised being present and enjoying life outside of sports is a value you hold in high regard. You've made the necessary changes to create new opportunities that allow you to live authentically and more aligned with your values.
In other words, you've integrated new perspectives and ideas. And you've sat with yourself to get crystal clear on what your inner drivers are and what makes you truly happy.
- Adapted role in sport
- Role is less challenging but more flexible
- You have many more options to be autonomous in your life and career
- You have more flexible hours
- Your focus is on family & quality of life
Questions to ask yourself:
- Where does family first fit in the progress v settled?
- What fears do you have about settling in your career, and progressing your family life?
- Is burnout a certainty by the end of the season?
- If yes, how long are you prepared to suffer this?
- What questions do you need to ask, and of whom, to allow you to get a better work-life balance?
- What does an ideal week schedule look like for you?
- What do you need to not burn out?
- How much of your burnout is down to: i) physical hours worked ii) Energy drained by colleagues iii) Too many commitments (how much clarity in your role do you have?)
- How could you find an outlet for you?
- In a plane we are told to put our oxygen mask on first, before we help others. What's your oxygen mask and how can you access it on a weekly basis?
Option 2 - Bottleneck & Pigeonholed
You either can't see the crossroads you're at, or you may well be choosing to ignore it. There is no doubt, it can be terrifying to even think about making changes to your career. After all, you've worked so hard to get the roles, experience and successes along the way.
It may seem very hard to see other options because the higher you've gone in seniority, the fewer options there are to move up or even laterally. It can feel like you're stuck in a bottleneck, keeping you stuck in a situation just to maintain the high salary you're on that is rare in our field.
But when the signs are there, and you choose to ignore them the costs can become exponential:
"Every night I came home to an empty house, every night I was eating dinner on my own. I got to the point where after Rio, I’d had enough. And I probably should have walked away then but I hung on in for another 12 months. And by the end of that 12 months, I was just totally burned out. There were some days where I just didn't want to get out of bed. And that's a classic sign of depression. I started to rely more heavily on alcohol to switch off and to help me sleep and stuff like that. I lived on my own and just couldn't see. No one could point it out."
“The cost has been my emotional breakdown. To see how challenging that has been for my partner to deal with has been very hard. The fretting, lack of sleep and constant hormonal state I was probably in for months at a time, I imagine has done some damage to my physical health too.”
"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."
- Take on more senior roles with higher responsibilities
- High workload
- High "achievement"
- Feel great pressure
- Potentially very well-known in your field, which carries the perception of being judged and watched in every step you make
- You've become distant from the actual reason why you got into sport in the first place
Questions to ask yourself:
- What are you pretending not to know?
- What assumptions are you making?
Option 3 - Exit Strategy
From my experience, this is the most daunting option. It can be so hard to see what skills you have that can translate into a different field. This leads to the initial, and I believe limiting beliefs, that our exit strategy should be based on our technical expertise.
I'm not saying ignore it altogether, but know there are many highly valuable skills you have gained or are gaining from your work in performance sport. The only issue is that you take them for granted because you use them expertly each and every day unconsciously. It just takes space to be able to reflect on.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Why do athletes/coaches/friends come to you?
- What are your unique attributes as a person? (don't include technical skills)
- If someone needed to ask for your help - what would they generally come to you for vs. going to anybody else?
- Is there anything you’ve overcome that has inspired others?
- What is your zone of genius from their perspective? What are you the "best" at?
- What fears do you have about settling in your career, and progressing your family life?
From what I see there is a rite of passage that we pass through in life and career, you can't separate them. I do think performance sport can provide a lifelong career.
As long as you are constantly reflecting and adapting your roles and situations to align with your personal values. And that you're clear with a vision of the future of what you want your life to be.
If not it's a fast-track one-way ticket to feeling lost, unfulfilled & broken.
This is clearly going to have nuances for each individual, but this maps my own experience and also many of the 150 performance staff that I've interviewed.
Where are you in the performance support staff rite of passage?
And this is why my focus is looking at the man behind the role because it's these hidden limitations that govern the thoughts, feelings, and actions, which so often make it challenging to maintain harmony in life.
The work I do at men behind sport addresses very practical steps to allow male performance staff to understand themselves on a deeper level.
These practices help you accelerate your process of understanding yourself through inner work.
If you are interested in working with me you can learn more about The Lost to Liberated Blueprint and book a call here.