Published April 26, 2020
I recently read a great opinion piece in the Globe and Mail on how altruism can help people overcome what appear to be insurmountable challenges. The author compares two different shipwrecked crews and how the one that shared food, nurtured sick members, were cooperative and caring, fared better “than those whose ethos was every man for himself.” In over 30 years of working in sport and in my own lived experience of having participated on exceptional teams, I too believe that altruism and cooperation are effective predictors of a group’s performance. I witness this every time I watch our amazing national women’s soccer team step onto the pitch. They might not be known for technical or tactical superiority, however what rings true is their belief in each other and their willingness to do whatever it takes to make the team better. This might help to explain why they have been able to outperform other, seemingly stronger teams, during the last two Olympic Games.
We know from science that doing good for others helps to release feel-good hormones such as oxytocin when we engage in actions that build trust and strengthen relationships. The term ‘inclusive fitness’ pioneered by biologist William Hamilton describes why altruistic groups fare better than selfish ones. In a world that is currently disrupted by an invisible adversary that is threatening our assumptive worldviews, I am seeing evidence of how altruism is supporting various groups in managing through this complexity with grace, humility, and compassion. A recent example is the awe-inspiring leadership of Ringette Canada. I have been humbled by the heart-centered people that are driving a collective response to helping athletes, coaches, officials, parents, and leaders deal with the accumulation of losses since the cancellation of their season, the National Ringette League, the Canadian Ringette Championships, and eventually, all ringette activities. Their desire to come together as a ringette nation to offer support to each other has been deeply moving. Their care of each other is reflected not only in the acronym behind their values (ICARE) and their commitment to living the True Sport Principles, but also in their actions since the Board and Staff gathered virtually on March 13, 2020 to work through how they were going to suspend activity to ensure the safety of all ringette participants.
I’ve often been asked by Ringette Canada to provide strategy sessions, leadership training and Integral CoachingTM services to staff, Board members, athletes and coaches. Each time I walk away feeling like there is something special about this group. I will share one recent example that I hope serves to inspire you as we all look to map out ways to learn from this global disruption.
The week after COVID-19 shut down Canadian sport, the dynamic duo of Frances Losier and Stephanie Laurin, contacted me and asked if we could host Zoom calls for athletes to talk about the grief of not participating at the Canadian Ringette Championships (CRC). They knew of my deep desire to bring more grief literacy to the sport sector and thought this might be one way they could help. What started as a one-time conversation quickly expanded into several Courageous Conversations with athletes, coaches, officials and parents. These 90-minute sessions included a primer on grief literacy… essentially giving them permission to name their experience as grief … and provided a safe refuge for them to share the sadness that was setting in.
One athlete shared: “I didn’t know that this was the last time I would be practicing as a national team athlete.” It was gut wrenching for those on the call to realize that ‘what could have been’ will no longer be. And here’s where the value of altruism sets in … there was nothing for anyone to do when someone expressed the rawness of their grief … but just being together in the shared experience was enough. I know this to be true because the words that were shared to reflect how people were feeling included “gratitude, connected, united, relieved, supported, appreciated, accepted, still sad … and a little more hopeful, feeling better, not so alone.” One of the gifts that this temporary pause is presenting is the compassion that I am witnessing during these sessions. I am experiencing deeper listening, enhanced presence, and more vulnerability. In these ordinary moments, during this extraordinary time, I personally feel moments of grace, where people can show up, be real with each, and express what it means to be human. Frances, Ringette Canada’s Director of High Performance, shared that it’s difficult to find the right words to describe the range of emotions that are constantly arising within us. “I share this loss on many levels and even though there are larger world events impacting our lives, I want my community to know it’s ok to not feel ok. For me and for them, it’s not just sport. It’s not just ringette. It’s our community and I want them to feel supported and heard.” By naming this experience as grief, she is giving her community permission to not dismiss it as a fleeting emotion. Grief is an all-in, full body experience to a severed attachment. As one of my grief teachers Rachelle Bensoussan shared with me recently, grief is no more of a feeling that childbirth. Consider that the next time someone urges you to put it behind you, move on, focus on what’s next.
As a result of Ringette Canada stepping into its full, caring self, with a deep desire to serve its community, in a way that aligned with its values, the expressions of gratitude from their community has been overwhelming. One coach paused during her busy day to share the impact that these conversations had on her and those she cares about: “I wanted to drop a quick note to say thanks to Ringette Canada for organizing the Zoom session for athletes to gather and work through the cancellation of the Canadian Ringette Championships with their peers. Thank you for providing that opportunity for them to see that the national body still has the athletes top of mind during this incredibly difficult time for the organization. Some of these athletes may never get the chance to play at a CRC again...which is devastating for them and part of what they are working through...but Ringette Canada has demonstrated that they still want to find a way to connect with these athletes this season and to let them know that they want to support them. I do believe that Ringette Canada has shown that this is a community that looks after its own. Thanks to you, your staff, and the board for showing the best of what it means to be a part of this amazing Ringette community...especially when it counts.”
Stephanie, Ringette Canada’s Manager of High Performance and Athlete Services, is so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of these important conversations with her community. “It has been incredible to connect with ringette participants from coast to coast and feel safe in naming what we are all feeling during this unprecedented time. It's ok to not be ok. There is no perfect recipe for coping with our new reality, but we will get through it together."
What is your way of showing that you care about your members? When you reflect on your values, what is one action that could reflect your higher purpose? Let me know what you come up with, and the impact it’s had on your organization at DBL@sportlaw.ca.