Published November 12, 2021
As a femtor, I have made a commitment to say ‘yes’ when I get asked to have a conversation with an emerging sport leader or an athlete. It’s one way that I can ‘give back' and more importantly, fulfill my deep-seeded desire to support others.
A few months back, world sprint kayak champion and three-time Olympian Mark de Jonge reached out to chat about sport, the future, and ways he might be able to stay connected to a sector he has been a part of for the past two decades. Newly retired, Mark was curious about opportunities to re-purpose the knowledge he had acquired as a high-performing athlete and to put his engineering degree to beneficial use in sport. Two conversations later, we have committed to keep the dialogue going. Both of us walked away enlightened by our experience, so much so, that I was inspired to put pen to paper and share some of what Mark and I explored.
High-performance sport is not for the faint of heart. It demands all that we have to give. That is true of athletes, coaches and administrators. I’ve written about grief, loss, and the singular way sport deals with pain in a previous blog you can access here. This blog aims to get underneath some of what is keeping sport stuck and provides a way through … a more holistic and healthier approach to navigating the unchartered waters ahead.
Mark had lots of positive stories to share about his time in sport. Supportive coaches encouraged him to have balance in his life. Extraordinary moments where he accessed higher states of flow through a profound sense of mind-body-nature connection. Life-long friendships were forged through the daily grind of early morning practices, sweat, and the highs and lows that come with the territory. Life as high-performing athletes has moments of greatness … and more frequently, and perhaps more poignantly, thousands of what seemed like insignificant occurrences at the time, but taken as a whole, have created a tapestry of interconnected experiences that bind people together. His teammates and their shared journeys were stitched into the fabric of his life. They understood his lived reality, his passion for sport, and what gets lost when you put that much on the line. They understood what it takes to be at this level. And there’s nothing quite like the feeling you can rely on someone who gets you.
So, what happens when that chapter in your life comes to an end?
In bereavement theory, we learn that people become attached to people, objects, and ideas. When that attachment is severed, voluntarily or not, grief is our natural and internal response. Grief is our way of making sense of the pain that is naturally produced when something we care about or have become attached to, ends. The keyword here is ‘natural.’ Too many times people come to me feeling that something is wrong with them. And my response, trauma-informed, is always ‘tell me what happened to you.’ As Gabor Maté, a world-leading authority on trauma, says “addiction is not a choice that anybody makes; it’s not a moral failure. It’s a response to human suffering.” I say the same thing about grief. Grief is not a choice that anyone makes. It’s not a moral failure. It’s a natural and internal response to human suffering.
Sport demands everything of the people that play within her boundaries. I’ve been around too long to not see the tangled web she weaves. While publicly we share the bright side of the sport experience, there is also a shadow side to the demands that sport places on participants. I see this both at the community level and in a more systematic and militant way at the higher performance levels.
The management by results ethos is not a recipe for sustainable success. The system is crumbling. Athletes are pushing back. Coaches are scared. Administrators are depleted. And yet, I remain hopeful.
A conversation like the one I had with Mark gives me hope that we can get through this. During our ‘walk and talk’, he shared one example of a loss that he was still carrying. Neither of us knew at the time where the story would take us but in hindsight, it felt like a breakthrough … a way of reframing a moment that mattered from a different vantage point. “Having the language to make sense of the complexity of sport and life is a powerful tool and one that I’d love to develop,” shared Mark. “Understanding that what happened to me back in 2016 created a sense of loss helps me now understand and appreciate what I was going through. I wished someone could have shared with me then, what you are helping me see now.”
Mark recounted an experience he had in 2016 when he qualified for the Olympic team but his teammates did not. Mark described the camaraderie he felt with his teammates and the community they had built together. When their dreams of not making the Olympic team were shattered, he felt a sense of loss and in that moment, everything changed. “I could no longer access my ‘performance on demand’ capabilities that had made me a world champion. I am not sure what happened, but I went from being able to perform like a machine, on cue, to ‘I hope I can win this race'. Until now, I’ve been left wondering what happened. How did something inside me just break? Now I feel like I have some answers.”
Mark and I spoke about his need for community and how his Olympic experience included being able to compete with his teammates. At the time, despite the best efforts of his coach, wife, IST, and sport psychologist, no one could get underneath his failure to perform on demand. The easy answer was he was getting older, and his body could no longer ‘fire at will.’ But during our conversation, something else was revealed. Mark felt a deep sense of loyalty to his teammates. When their dream died, a part of him died with it. In high-performance sport, we don’t use rituals to acknowledge the ‘ending of something’ the way we do with other endings like death. My theory is that we need to normalize the losses that athletes and coaches carry throughout their careers … the hundreds if not thousands of losses that are accumulated over their performance lifespan. Losses like telling an athlete they have not made the team … losses related to my teammate making the Olympic team and me not getting selected … losses related to a poor performance when the world is watching … losses related to my body breaking down or injury … or a loss when we did our best, and we don’t have a medal to show for it. We speak about resilience and the power of pressure, but we fail to ask the other questions … what happens when after 12 years, we leave the team because my body couldn’t sustain the load? Or … what happens when my sense of joy just dies. Or … when I no longer can find the spark that drove me to get up at 5 AM every morning to train? Sport tends to reward the stoic and the ‘brave’ without fully acknowledging the human side of the experience. Is it fair, ethical or sustainable to expect young people to devote their entire lives to a ‘calling’ that may not be supported by humanistic and emotionally intelligent practices?
Might we do better?
Mark and I left our conversation feeling hopeful. We acknowledged that more needs to be done to restore health into the high-performance experience of sport and as with all good strategies, it starts with grassroots. I shared with Mark my dream of every coach and athlete becoming grief and loss literate. A vision of a sport system that is driven by values both in the office and on the field of play. A sport system that rewards humanistic qualities that will give rise to a sustainable and flourishing sport experience. With people like Mark wanting to give back to sport I am hopeful. I have had too many conversations with world-inspiring athletes over the past few years to feel anything but hopeful.
The time for inaction is behind us. Our rallying cry is simple … find the one thing that inspires you and commit to bringing it to life every day. Make these moments, matter. Our world will benefit as a result. Would love to hear your thought – you can reach me at DBL@sportlaw.ca.