From Abuse to Accountability: Shifting the Cultural Current in the Athletic Arena

 
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Have you seen this? It’s been making its way around social media:

 
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I believe messages like these contribute to the toxic culture of abuse that is deeply woven into the athletic arena.

While I think I understand the sentiment behind the message, as an Olympic gold medalist, sports mom of four, and high-performance coach who's back in the athletic arena doing work to shift the cultural current to one that supports the growth and development of the WHOLE athlete, I feel like there's a lot to unpack here.

When we know better, we do better.

We know better.

A ton of my work centers around the intersection of high-performance and mental wellness. Like many of my peers on the Olympic team and fellow high-achievers, my story includes a long history battling mental illness.

I wrote this piece the other day - More Than Swimming  and encourage you to read what I shared about my coaches.

I don't blame my coaches for my battle with depression, suicidal ideation and an eating disorder.

I DO hold them accountable for (knowingly / unknowingly) contributing to my illness. In major ways.

So many of our kids are suffering in silence. The surge in suicides and self-harm is real. It’s absolutely soul-crushing.

The rising rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness are real. The sexual harassment and abuse that’s flown under the radar for way.too.long is real. The declining rates of happiness are real. And it’s not because our kids are soft or weak. Or because social media did this to them. It’s not so simple.

If we want to change this, we must move toward the pain and not look away.

The thing is - we have the tools. We have the data. We know what helps.

And, as ridiculous and over-the-top as it may seem, it starts here. With this photo that’s circulating the internet. With these words - being internalized by our children.

We must ask ourselves if what we’re doing is working.

We must collectively come to the table. To listen and be heard. To see and be seen.

And that’s gonna take a whole lot of courage.

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Back to the photo…

What exactly is an ‘uncoachable kid’ and ‘unemployable adult’ — what do we mean when we say that?

My question is partly rhetorical. Because, I’ve spent time in the coaching arena.

And. I’m asking for real.

Is there even such a thing? Or is this an issue of control?

Two months after winning a gold medal for Team USA, I was in a darkness so dark, I couldn’t see any way out. One of the first - and most powerful lessons my mentor shared with me was that I was not a swimmer.

Swimming was something I did - it wasn’t who I was.

He taught me that I am not my successes. I am not my failures. I am not my mental illness. He taught me to say, I am Samantha - I swim instead of I am a swimmer.

My first reaction was to balk and write it off as semantics. And every time my eyes rolled in G’s office, they’d land on the photo of my mentor with his arm around the Heisman Trophy Winner, Desmond Howard. And next to that - a picture of Tom Brady. So, I’d play along.

In my two years working with Greg Harden, he helped me to see that our self-concept matters. The difference saved my life.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as an uncoachable kid. I think there are kids who are at times, uncoachable. There’s a big difference. A critical difference.

And, honoring this difference doesn’t mean we toss out accountability and ownership. Just the opposite.

Once we start to separate the actions from the human underneath, the research tells us that we’re more likely to be accountable, own what’s ours and rise. Because, when we separate the two, we take away the power of shame:

I didn’t swim fast enough (behavior-focused) vs. I am not fast enough (shame , sense of permanence).

We (humans) are so fast to cast each other into categories. We are dynamic, living, breathing, constantly-evolving humans. The idea that there are people who are uncoachable / unemployable screams fixed mindset, meaning there’s no room for growth. Or the power of YET.

Ironically, the fixed mindset is actually a driver of behaviors we attribute to humans who are deemed uncoachable / unemployable.

And, who's to say that the coach isn't communicating effectively?

It’s not so black and white.

OK. So let’s say we’ve shifted the language and we’re faced with the challenge of kids who are behaving in a way that we define as uncoachable (which by a quick Google search for the ‘definition’ means, they aren’t listening / acting how we want them to). What’s a coach supposed to do?

”Let your kids get used to someone being tough on them. It’s life.

To which I ask, what does tough mean? What does that look like? 

If tough is chucking kick boards at my child because they aren't doing what coach says, like mine did, I say no thank you.

If tough is telling athletes to shut up and listen, because coach says so, I say no thank you.

If tough is cursing, belittling and shaming athletes, like mine did, I say no thank you.

If tough is using our kids' physical body and beating it down in an attempt to gain power over, I say no thank you. 

If tough is telling athletes to lighten up after talking about their bodies in a sexual way, I say no thank you.

If tough is running our kids until they puke to 'train' their mind or ‘teach them a lesson,’ I say no thank you.

I know I’m swimming upstream in a cultural current that believes the militaristic-style coaching is OK. I wholeheartedly disagree.

At. What. Cost.

What do we mean when we say toughness?

If by ‘It’s life’ we mean that our kids are going to face struggle, I say YES.

If the sentiment is that we’ve gotta help our kids learn HOW to rise, I say YES.

Because, struggle is universal.

There’s no better place to learn HOW to rise than in sport - where we’re constantly pushed past what we think is possible. It’s a place where we are forced to face failure.

We don’t need our coaches to be the ones pushing our kids down.

We need them to be part of the village. Inspiring. Empowering. Equipping our kids with the skills they need to SOAR.

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I think this picture is striking a nerve with so many because we're living in extremes - and it’s time to find our way to the space between.

On one side:

There are coaches abusing athletes. Abuse that leaves permanent scars. Abuse that feeds into toxic stories about who we are - and our worthiness.

Our coaches have an ENORMOUS amount of power. Their words + actions matter. In order for our kids to succeed athletically, they must stay open to feedback from their coach. Feedback about their physical bodies. Sometimes that feedback can lay the foundation for deeply troubling beliefs about who we are in the world.

And. Coaches are human too. They're not going to nail it perfectly, because there just isn't such a thing.

There’s a powerful difference between calling for accountability and ownership, and driving with shame and this belief that in order to be successful, we must be beaten down.

It’s old-school thinking that’s quite frankly, not backed by research.

And, the other side:

There are parents refusing to allow their kids to fall, fail and feel. Parents who desperately trying to pad and protect their kids from pain.

Instead of preparing their kids for the path, they’re wanting to prepare the path for their kids.

Both sides come with a high cost.

And, it’s our kids who are losing out.

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I really believe, the overwhelming majority of parents and coaches want what’s best for their kids. It's going to take effort on all sides - by all stakeholders - including our kids.

If we want our kids to become brave, mindful, resilient leaders - in and out of the athletic arena - which is what I think is behind this photo, we must help them develop the foundational skills necessary:

 
(C) SAMANTHA ARSENAULT LIVINGSTONE, OLY. 2018

(C) SAMANTHA ARSENAULT LIVINGSTONE, OLY. 2018

 

Which means, we must cultivate these skills for ourselves first.

Our kids are humans who need to space to be challenged, believed in and pushed past what they think is possible. 

Sport is a vehicle to tap into the magic inside of us.

Sport is something they do - it’s not who they are. And they can learn so many valuable lessons - about hard work, grit, compassion, resilience, mindfulness and courage. 

I just don't think that we need to 'beat it into them' - the cost is too high. I know for me - and many others, it almost cost us our lives. For some of my peers, it did.

What’s it going to take to shift the cultural currents?

Navigating hard conversations. Turning toward. Moving in. Call all stakeholders to the table. Unifying over shared values. Paying attention to what we’ve learned from the researchers who study courage, resilience and high-performance.

It’s hard work.

And, it’s work we must do. For our kids.

We can do hard things. Especially this kind.

There is a space between - and I challenge all of us to move toward it.

P.S. Nike, I’m not sure how your logo landed on this sign. And, I’m looking at you too.


Learning how to Turn Toward. Feel. Tune in to what we want. And learn how to shift to this space of intentional, aligned responding. Helping our kids to do the same.

Next week, we launch the beta-version of our mini-course, Strengthening our Emotional Agility. I’d love for you to join us. It’s a course designed for parents, coaches, teachers, leaders and mentors. To learn more and apply for a spot, this beta-round is free with the ask for authentic feedback, head over here.


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Samantha Arsenault Livingstone is an Olympic Gold Medalist, high-performance coach and consultant, transformational speaker, educator and entrepreneur. She is the founder of Livingstone High Performance, LLC. and the Rise Free Academy - inspiring, empowering and equipping athletes, coaches and women who lead with the skills they need to cultivate high-performance - to achieve AND feel fulfilled along the way. 

In addition to private and group coaching, Samantha consults with teams and organizations on athlete wellness, Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE), leadership, courage building, rising skills and creating high-performance environments. 

A mama of heart warrior and mama of twins, 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