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Emotionally Connected: Wellington Festival

I had the pleasure of joining the panel recently at Wellington Festival with England Rugby coach Eddie Jones, former Bath player Peter Short, Senior Lecturer in Sport Coaching Dr. Ed Hall and talented compere/RFU coach/Chief Wizard of The Magic Academy Russell Earnshaw. We spent two hours chatting to coaches about all things rugby, psychology and sociology. It was fascinating and I'm going to be sharing in this blog some of my take-away messages of the evening:

Coaching - Find a mentor

Eddie shared the importance of finding a good mentor, those who are well experienced, perhaps even nearing the end of their career. He talked about them being more willing to share their knowledge, seeing co-operation as the way to shape the game of the future, rather than competition over resources, players, and tactics. If you think about it, story-telling by elders to younger generations is how we have passed down legacy, influenced culture, and continued tradition throughout time.

Interestingly, it's something Stan Collymore recently tweeted about:

"Not having a mentor. Didn't have a rule book which taught me how to behave, react, deal with being "the man who'll make the difference" at one of the world's biggest clubs."

Some of my most profound moments of learning have come from peers & mentors. In fact, having internalised some of the advice and knowledge from them, I can say it continues to influence my approach today and is what I draw upon in my times of uncertainty. It is not to suggest that we are not self-organising and capable of excelling in our endeavours, but we should recognise that we often make sense of ourselves in relation to others. We use others' responses and reactions to alter, adjust and reflect back our sense of self.

This reflected appraisal was a key feature in research I undertook about identity; despite having a sense of self, the reflected appraisal (how others viewed you) was integral to healthy identity formation and self-esteem. Various characteristics affect how much these reflected appraisals impact the feedback such as: credibility of the appraiser, consistency of feedback from multiple sources, and whether the appraisals support or dispute your self-beliefs. But, finding a mentor that can give this feedback is fundamental to self-growth & developing the whole person of the coach.

Yet, in the current culture of 'work more, live less' there is less permission to say "I'm not sure" or "I don't know". Of reaching out to seek this feedback or to be vulnerable to ask for help.Yes it takes courage. It takes bravery to be uncertain and unsure; to reject the pressures of the environment that demands you have the answer, rather than seeing the richness and opportunity in 'not knowing'. Obviously, competence in your role is a crucial factor to building trusting relationships with colleagues, parents and athletes, and yet as soon as we fix ourself into a 'knowing' position, we shut down curiosity. This will damage the flexibility of future generations and is something we need to be actively conscious of. In order to learn we need to give up our sense of knowing.

Under the premise that we all have something to learn, and equally, we all have the capacity to share our experiences, I suggest we don't wait until you are nearing the end of your career to do this. I encourage you to ask of yourself how you collaborate, how can you create enriching conversations that lead to growth and development, and where are your opportunities to be mentored and mentor; what legacy do you want to leave?

Mental health and gender ideals

Peter and I shared our experiences about the stereotypes and expectations of males within sport, and I found his candid openness inspiring and authentic. From his perspective, he shared the expectations of him as a "macho" rugby player, and the multiple levels this exists on: the internal expectations, the locker room, the public perception and societal values.

I shared that in my experiences, I often come across men being 'allowed' certain emotions and forced to suppress others. Typically reserved for male expression and expected is anger. Anger is a healthy and adaptive response; enabling you to protect boundaries and assert your needs, autonomy and survival, we are forcing men down a one way street if this is only the emotion we give permission to.

We also unhelpfully get into these misguided ways of communicating about emotions: "he's too emotional" or "those emotions are bad". These just aren't true: emotions have been selected through evolution, preparing you for the highest likelihood of survival. Humans are nuanced and complex, designed to adapt to our environment and have an innate capacity to overcome trauma, something I have witnessed working with people who have endured severe trauma and abuse. It is often through removal of obstacles getting in the way of expressing emotions, whether that be societal judgements and values, self-imposed sanctions, unhelpful ways of avoiding difficult feelings (alcohol, sex addiction, gambling, self-harm) that we begin to process and heal. Emotions aren't problematic, but the way in which we try to cope with them can be.

For example, emotions such as anger, grief/panic, care, fear, lust, seeking, and play are fundamental for wellbeing and guide us to respond to what we need. When facing life's adversity, pursuing our passions and connecting with others, being allowed to fully express our feelings means we can thrive, tapping into our potential and creativity. Emotions are essential to driving our behaviour- they are not a weakness or vulnerability. In fact you become more vulnerable psychologically and physically when emotions are blocked, often leading to medically unexplained symptoms (see Dr. Francis' blogs) , burnout, & mental distress.

So it's heartening to see movements such as #ballstothat from Sale Sharks promoting men to speak out, creating a space where these crucial issues can get a forum. In later blogs I'll be discussing common mental health experiences- after all mental health exists on a continuum, we all have periods of good and bad mental health. But, we cannot ignore statistics that the leading cause of death for men aged 20-49 is suicide, and over 75% of suicides are male. This is a gendered issue.

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