Lightening our Load

This blog is dedicated to the care professionals … the ones who go the extra mile, who put the needs of others before their own, who feel compelled to do whatever it takes to help others achieve their full potential.

Know anyone who fits this description?

Over the past year, the team at Sport Law have been working extra-long hours to support those that support others. We have worked alongside the Chief Executives in addressing policy gaps to ensure fairness in decision-making. We have hosted ‘courageous conversations’ to grapple with some of the difficult topics related to safe sport, maltreatment, exclusionary practices, and stigma. We have defended ‘right action’ when required and elevated the discussion to shared values to reduce unnecessary conflict.

These are trying times, during which we, too, have bumped right up against our own very human limits. As caregivers ourselves, we have tasted the downside of not attending to our self-care, and thankfully have had the capacity and access to a community of support to avert serious negative consequences for ourselves. But make no mistake, the act of self-care requires a daily re-commitment to putting the oxygen mask on self. We are in this with you.

What we have learned along the way could be captured in a book so instead, we are offering a few pearls of wisdom that have surfaced as we emerge from this extraordinary world event to consider where to from here and how we might forge a healthier environment for athletes, coaches and leaders.

Through our work, we have recognized that ‘self-care’ is not a luxury or something that we get to periodically to re-charge our depleted batteries. The act of ‘self-care’ is an ethical imperative. Something shifts when we consider the act of caring for self as an act that builds resilience. In the care profession, it is common practice to ensure regular self-care as good, ethical practice. But in a world dominated by ‘the extra mile’, ‘doing whatever it takes’, and ‘medals as the most important performance indicators’, we have heard our clients share that there is simply no time to pause, put the oxygen mask on, and take time out for themselves.

Activist Audre Lorde famously once said “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” We can feel how this incredible woman knew even back in the 70s how important the caring of herself was to the cause of righting wrongs and standing up to systemic bias and injustice.

How might we be inspired by her call to action as we look to minimize the risk of burnout and secondary trauma/compassion fatigue? To ensure sport leaders have a shared understanding of these complex phenomena, here are the definitions:

  • Burnout, as defined by Gold & Roth (1993) is “a progression of unsuccessful attempts by an individual to cope with a variety of conditions that are perceived to be threatening.”  Burnout is workplace related and can create emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment. We have heard coaches share with us during our sessions that they are “so emotionally fried” or “feeling like they are no longer making a difference.” Some leaders have tuned out, sharing “I don’t really care what happens anymore” or “it feels like I’m a hamster on a wheel”. These statements are a reflection of potential burnout that is often brought on by long-term emotionally-demanding situations, where people feel helpless, a sense of entrapment, cynicism, and denial of their feelings. Important note to sport leaders … according to Everall & Paulson (2004), burnout can ‘result from working with any client group who is troubled.’
  • Secondary traumatic stress (also known as compassion fatigue) can be experienced by sport leaders, athletes, and coaches who are witnessing others struggling from a traumatic occurrence. “It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person,” as shared by Figley (1999). While professionals such as nurses, doctors, police officers and firefighters are commonly exposed to traumatic events, we feel that an increasing amount of sport professionals (leaders, coaches, athletes) are also at risk of vicarious trauma given current issues coming to the fore. What is important to note about secondary traumatic stress is that the symptoms are similar to PTSD and can include hyper-arousal, re-experiencing, nightmares, avoidance or numbing of reminders of the events, diminished affect, and loss of interest in activities, to name but a few. Left unattended, vicarious trauma can result in depression, insomnia, loss of intimacy, etc. It is important to note that secondary traumatic stress can emerge suddenly and without much warning … a single episode can lead to a secondary traumatic response, which is why becoming trauma informed is so important.

Some of the things that can increase burnout and secondary stress/compassion fatigue include:

  • Lack of training
  • Personal experience with trauma
  • Stressors in our personal life
  • Typical coping style
  • Increased workload
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Working in a culture that rewards being ‘brave and stoic’ in the face of adversity.

Learning how to cope differently allows us to enrich our worldviews and creates the capacity for us to experience our lives from a place of self-compassion and courage.

Ways to lighten our load as caretakers and caregivers:

  • Take care of self. The sport sector needs leaders who are healthy and resilient, and so it is essential to find restorative daily practices to ensure that we are tending to our own physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Meditation, breath work, yoga, body movement, and journaling are all examples of ‘self-care’ practices that support our overall health and wellness. And if this feels like a stretch, we also know that micro-practices like mindfulness, gratitude, listening to music (and many more!), when practiced in micro-bursts on a daily basis, can help build our resilience muscles and yes, expand our capacity to care for others.
  • Connect with others. Our loads can feel especially heavy when we feel like we are carrying them alone. Sport Law has created Peer 2 Peer groups where like-minded and like-hearted people can join together to share, connect, and explore what might be keeping them stuck. If you feel that hosting a restorative circle will help you help others, please let us know. We’re here to help.
  • Get a thinking partner. One of the challenges of the pandemic has been the need to continuously adapt and ‘be in new’, which has significantly impacted our cognitive load. Added to that a pace of work that involves little transition time between online meetings to process and integrate, it is no wonder that leaders are feeling overloaded.  Finding a ‘thinking partner’ can help untangle the cognitive mess and create some space for reflection. As Integral Coaches, we are increasingly supporting clients through single coaching conversations to trouble shoot, consider alterative options, have someone challenge our assumptions safely, and connect to deep rooted values. These focused coaching conversations help leaders work through sticky situations in the safety of a coaching alliance that helps reduce risk and broaden perspective. And perhaps most importantly, these conversations serve as a safe way for leaders to unload and share with someone who is in deep listening and receiving mode.
  • Maintain healthy boundaries in the relationship. Part of lightening our load may be finding ways to take less on. For sport coaches, this might mean encouraging athletes, other coaches, or your staff to seek additional therapeutic help. For sport leaders, you may need to step away and set boundaries of when the Board can contact you. For teammates, this might mean you need to speak to a Mental Health Provider about your own internalized experience as you try to be a supportive friend to other athletes.

We hope that this blog supports you so that you can continue to support others. Please let us know how we can help by connecting with Dina at DBL@sportlaw.ca, Rosie at RMT@sportlaw.ca, Lauren at LLB@sportlaw.ca or Stephanie at SMP@sportlaw.ca.

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