One Message I Wish I Heard On My Way to Olympic Gold

 
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A couple of weeks ago, I spent time with a group of athletes, coaches, parents and other key stakeholders inside the competitive swimming arena. In the coach + parent session, I asked two questions that stirred up some feelings and subsequently, rich dialogue. Dialogue that’s connected in every way to the mental health crisis we’re facing.

Prior to our discussion, I shared my journey to Olympic gold through the lens of mental health. While I walked them through my progression from 8 year old dreamer to Olympic gold medalist, I also shared what you couldn’t see from the outside looking in, including images straight from the journal of my 18 year old self - just days from my race in Sydney.

And that’s just it. One of the biggest themes from my journey is that — on the outside, it looked like I had it all. In many ways that was true. I achieved my childhood dream at 18 years old, graduated at the top of my class and earned myself a full scholarship to a top division one program - which made it that much harder for me to share how I was really feeling. Who was I to feel these things when I had just accomplished all of this?

Knowing what I know now about the impact of abuse, toxic team culture, perfectionism, shame and mental illness, I can see how + why my brain interpreted the messages the way it did. Twenty-twenty, right?

I don’t stand in front of rooms filled with coaches and parents to lecture or blame. I stand with them - because we are stronger together. And sometimes a bit of squirmy discomfort can lead to beautiful discourse that helps us all grow.

So I asked them to pause and reflect for a moment — to do the brave work of asking themselves,

Is what I’m saying, what they hear?

How do I know? 

Like I shared in that room, I really believe parents, at their core, love their kids regardless of outcome. I also believe that almost all coaches do too.

And.

I’m not sure our kids KNOW this.

What I’m finding when I spend time with groups of athletes and in my 1:1 work is a disconnect,

“I have to be perfect. Anything less than a 100 and my dad will kill me.”

“Getting a B isn’t an option.”

“I can’t lose to her. She has a lower rank than me. My mom will be so disappointed.”

In the session prior, I broke athletes into groups to discuss and name challenges and struggles that they and/or their peers face, especially the ones that aren’t always visible.

What they named is consistent with what I’ve seen over the past three years - across all ages + sports.

Pressure. From parents + teachers + coaches + peers. And, themselves. To be perfect.

Stress. School. Social media. Sport. Time. Balance.

Anxiety. And all the APs.

Among a lot of others including, but not limited to, depression, substance abuse, family problems, self-harm, panic attacks, comparison, and on.

In their words.

Some of the coaches and parents were surprised by some of the things they read - especially around pressure.

Sometimes, when I’m working 1:1 with youth athletes and their parents, I am too.

Because what I hear from their parents is that they love their kids fiercely. And what I hear from the athletes is that they believe that love is conditional.

{ Let me pause to say, I am IN THIS too. As a mother of four girls. Although I’ve learned a lot and carry what I teach into our home, in no way have it all figured out. I’m always a little cautious around those who say they do. }

As parents + coaches + educators + mentors, our work isn’t in refining our communication skills to the point of perfection — because, that doesn’t exist.

We’re going to miss the mark; it’s part of being human.

As we worked our way through the exercise, a group of coaches were talking about ways to really know what their athletes were hearing. One coach in particular started squirming into a bit of a shame spiral for the way he’s been showing up on deck.

He recognized that he was great at giving feedback, but had no idea how it was landing. He also recognized that he was giving feedback without a clear separation of human + behavior - which can be harmful.

His courage in sharing inspired all of us, truthfully. Because we have all showed up in ways we wish we hadn’t.

That doesn’t mean he’s a bad coach or bad human.

In fact, in that moment I saw how much he cared.

For most of us out there doing the best we can with the tools we have, the slide from guilt to shame is instantaneous, especially when we don’t know the difference.

The former is behavior-focused and it’s a heavy and hard feeling to navigate because we can’t go back and undo what we did. It’s also a motivator for change — we can’t go back and change how we showed up, but we can learn from it.

The latter shuts us down. Shame is a powerful, master emotion that silences and isolates.

Guilt says, I made a bad choice. Shame says, I am bad.

Guilt asks us to change our behavior. Shame tells us we’re not enough.

Just as this recognition of separation of behavior + self is critical for our kids, it’s also critical for us too.

Because research tells us that shame is connected to and a driver of mental illness and suicide.

The coach recognized that his behavior - the cutting up + leaning into an athlete - was / is damaging.

“When we know better, we do better.” Maya Angelou

We talked about a different way to show up + how to respond differently if (not when) we step outside of alignment again.

Because, we all do.

Navigating feedback is an art. A dance.

There are amazing guideposts by Brené Brown — and an incredible body of work by Kristen Neff. And unfortunately, or fortunately, there’s no clear RIGHT way.

One of the most critical pieces in all of this is making sure our kids KNOW that they are loved, exactly as they are. And for some of us, that may mean shifting how we show up.

Let me be clear: This isn’t about going easy on our kids - or trying to show up in a way that protects them from pain - or remove all accountability; it’s just the opposite.

When we use shame as a mechanism to deliver feedback, we miss in big ways.

They can’t hear us. And it corrodes their mental health.

If we want our kids to thrive and achieve AND feel fulfilled, they need to know that their worthiness of love isn’t contingent on any things out there.

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It’s an easy message to miss, especially in the athletic area — and in school + business + a world that is so highly performance driven.

When I was at my sickest — battling an eating disorder, depression and suicidal ideation — I internalized this message as YOU ARE NOT WORTHY OF LOVE unless you hit that weight, achieve all As, win all the things. And even then, even when you win a gold medal at the Olympics — that inner voice was there to say, ‘it’s still not enough.’

As someone who’s always been a dream chaser, this is the message I wish I heard on the way to Olympic gold:

 
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Which is why I’m doing the work I’m doing today - and why I’m starting these conversations.

Because, we can make a difference.

One more thing — there’s another piece to this earned, not given that continues to emerge — and that’s the idea that just because we work hard we are owed an outcome. Not so.

Ironically enough, though perfectionism + entitlement seem to be at two ends of the spectrum — they are actually deeply connected by the illusion of control.

{more on that later}

Tackling national crises is big work that can often leave us wondering if our small, daily actions even matter. To that I say, YES. They do.

Navigating our way through this mental health crisis is going to take all of us.

We can do this. We are stronger together.

And our kids are counting on us. ✨

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Personal note: I recently became an official instructor of Mental Health First Aid —a certification course (think, CPR for mental health) for adults who work with youth (12 - 26). I’ve never felt more called to do this work - to help our kids (and the adults who are raising them) develop the supports, skills and tools to positively cope with pressure and stress and other hard things. They are capable. We are capable. And. It’s going to require all of us.

I encourage you to download the free, Control the Controllables Deep Dive that I’ve created to start a conversation. And then let me know how it goes! I love hearing from you.

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Samantha Arsenault Livingstone is an Olympic Gold Medalist, high-performance consultant, speaker, educator and mental health advocate. She is the founder of Livingstone High Performance, providing pillars of support to athletes, coaches, parents and organizations to elevate mental health and improve performance.

In addition to private and group coaching, Samantha consults with teams and organizations on athlete wellness initiatives, leadership, strategic planning, rising skills and developing high-performance cultures. She is a certified instructor of Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE) and a certified instructor of Mental Health First Aid. 

Samantha is the founder and facilitator of two, multi-module online courses, the Rise Free Academy and Ride the Wave: A Bootcamp to Strengthen Our Emotional Agility — inspiring, empowering and equipping athletes, coaches and female leaders with the skills they need to become more mindful, courageous, resilient leaders.

Take the five day I AM CHALLENGE and join Samantha’s private community space to link arms, connect + participate in her free challenges.

Samantha and her husband, Rob, live in the Berkshires with their four girls. To learn more about her offerings, go over to www.samanthalivingstone.com