I want to tell you a story. So often as coaches, we find ourselves poring over research articles, attending conferences, and getting into Twitter arguments with each other, and sometimes we need to step back and read stories. We need stories because they remind us of reality: that coaching is a human endeavor, not just a scientific one. Stories remind us that we can suffer hard times, battle with mental health issues, and overcome.We need stories because they remind us of reality: that coaching is a human endeavor, not just a scientific one, says @litt_strength. Click To Tweet
Strength and Conditioning and Burnout – My Story
On July 6, 2019, in a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina, I got out of bed with the full intention of taking my own life. I would say I woke up with that intention, but to be honest, I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. I don’t think I had slept well in six months.
Thankfully, by a coincidence I am more inclined to consider an act of God, that intention was thwarted by the fortunate presence of someone at the camp I worked at. In the following weeks, like someone who nearly falls off the edge of a cliff, I tried to catch a mental breath and understand how I wound up there in the first place. I went from coaching full teams, clubs, and groups on a weekly basis to a boy’s camp tucked away in the mountains, lacking the desire to live.
While admittedly, I was likely at higher risk for depression based on family history, this is not a story about depression. And it is not a redemption story either. It is a reminder of the nature of what we do as coaches and some of the issues we face.
By anyone’s thought process, I was “too young” to burn out. I was only 25, and I hadn’t been considered a “coach” for long enough. What happened?
When I finished my bachelor’s degree in 2016, I blindly entered a field in which I thought I knew what I was doing. Right off the bat, I got turned down for job after job, and I realized that I was unprepared for the true nature of strength and conditioning.
I had no experience. I had only done one internship and coached weightlifting at a few CrossFit gyms. The first door that opened was working as a personal trainer at a big box gym chain, so I jumped at the chance. I started putting in 10- to 12-hour days trying to accumulate clients and continued to throw my resume into the wind.
I got out of corporate fitness about as soon as I got into it, moving to a job as a performance coach at a youth training facility in November 2017. What I failed to realize was that I was replacing not one individual at the facility, but three, all of whom had resigned their positions in a span of three months. I quickly dove into 60- to 70-hour weeks at the facility, for much lower pay than I had been earning at the big box gym. I entered the facility at 9:00 in the morning and left some time after 7:30 in the evening.
This is not unusual for strength and conditioning coaches. In fact, it seems to be an odd bragging point, showing that they are “committed to their athletes” or that it’s a sign that they “love what they do” so much. Because of this, I thought I was paying my dues in the profession.
Additionally, it did not help my situation that I was in a long-term relationship with someone who was emotionally dependent upon me. And to add fuel to that fire, it was a long-distance relationship. As I’ve continued to meet more coaches, I’ve come to realize that the best coaches have the best life-partners on the home front. Thankfully, caring people in my life intervened and pointed out the disconnect. I ended the relationship, which led to expanding my work hours even more as a poor coping mechanism.
Continuing Down the Same Path
I then continued adding more poor coping mechanisms to my repertoire, first by picking up my endeavors on the weightlifting platform and then by starting to earn a master’s degree. To put it simply, I fell for the game of tight t-shirts, big lifts, and an endless list of initials after my name. In the space of five months, I ended a serious relationship, began competing in weightlifting meets, and started a master’s degree program. I was also still working at the sport performance facility 50-60 hours per week and training a team at a local school five days per week at 6 a.m. I was doing what I thought every coach was supposed to do in their climb up the ranks.I was doing what I thought every coach was supposed to do in their climb up the ranks…I constantly fought boiling over like a whistling kettle, says @litt_strength. Click To Tweet
As this was happening, I became the go-to guy in our facility for cleaning up the mess made by the frequently poor decisions of mid-level management. The more time went on, the more often those decisions led to more pointing fingers in my face than I should have accepted on behalf of my director. I constantly fought boiling over like a whistling kettle.
By the time May 2019 hit, my life felt like it was becoming a movie playing on a screen in front of me. In three consecutive weekends, I travelled to a sibling’s graduation, competed in the USA Weightlifting National Championships, and was spontaneously given tickets to three days at SummerStrong at Sorinex headquarters in South Carolina. I remember sitting there, listening to coaches tell stories of passion and hardship, and feeling completely alone in a packed room. It was a good experience, but even in a sea of people, I had never felt more anxious or lethargic as I did then.
A month later, I quit my job and disappeared into the woods to work at a boy’s camp as a cook. That was June 30, 2019.
Now, at this point, you might wonder where this story is going. Perhaps this is where I share the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel moment or the moral of the story? Well, I would, but the story doesn’t stop there.
As fate would have it, I found purpose in my pain that summer when the man whose presence prevented my self-harm had his own near-death experience three weeks later. That purpose gave me time to heal, reflect, and formulate a plan for how I could avoid burning out again.
Several weeks after I came back out of the woods, I got a phone call from one of my former coworkers at the training facility, asking if I’d be willing to come meet with them about something. It turned out that the former director’s poor decision-making led to his eventual firing, and in seeking changes to how things had been done, they offered me his position.
Admittedly, I laughed inside when they handed me the job description and the pay associated with it. They were asking me to do almost everything I had previously done for the former director, but at double my pay from before. On October 4, 2019, I started back at coaching in the same facility I had left only three months prior. But I had no idea what was in store…
Job Loss to Life Gain
In the early stages of 2020, the world as most of us knew it turned upside down.
In the U.S., March 13 became the day that I’ve noted as the “Oh crap moment” for what would become a very difficult time for gyms and sport performance facilities. I was in Orlando at a coaches’ summit when the pandemic started to spike, causing the U.S. government to declare a state of emergency. The talk among coaches quickly became the best process for dealing with restrictions on gatherings and how they would adapt their own facility’s policies. The final day of the conference was cancelled, and many coaches headed home to start prepping for the forecasted storm of shutdowns and social distancing.
I prepared for the worst when I got home. However, things didn’t start getting bad until late that week, when I was told that we needed to cut back some of our staff’s hours. The next day, in the meetings with those coaches, I was blindsided when our GM laid them off instead. To date, that was the hardest part of all that has happened this year. Sitting in a meeting and watching two individuals, who are like family, lose their jobs felt like a gut punch. And because the directive to our GM was given by our ownership, I knew there was nothing I could do. I don’t drink often, but admittedly I did that night.
On March 23, the North Carolina governor issued a shelter-in-place order that closed all businesses deemed “non-essential.” This included gyms and fitness centers statewide, though our isolated area in the mountains would not see a single COVID-19 case for another two weeks. The owner of our facility, both the sport performance business and the sports complex in which we were housed, was generous enough to keep us on staff as we navigated online training with our athletes and clients.
As I kept up to date with information from sources that my sister, a lab coordinator with a PhD in infectious diseases, suggested to me, I started to come to terms with the thought that this would be the final nail in my coaching coffin. That what ended my chances of coaching was something so small you’d need a microscope to see it. But the tides would eventually turn in my favor…or so I thought.
We barely pulled through the shutdowns. Despite attempts to provide as much opportunity to continue training as we could, business was slow. When the governor allowed day camps to open in Phase One, we quickly took advantage of the fact we worked with kids and labeled every training group a “day camp.” We went through all of the sanitation steps and even started to grow again. As the program director, I kept an eye on the numbers and knew we still had a long fight ahead.
At the end of August, I got the text that I had been dreading from our GM, asking if I could meet the next morning. In our meeting, I was told that we would be temporarily closing the facility. Due to the economic impacts of the shutdowns and lack of interest in our program, they could no longer afford to pay the staff. We were effectively dead in the water, and in the end, the remaining staff would be without jobs. This leads to today, as I sit at my desk typing away on the first day of not having a job to go to in the morning.
So, where do we go from here? Every story has to have a moral or a lesson to learn, right? Perhaps. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there is something to be learned here. But what can be taken from a story where there is no hero, or where the traveler winds up in the wrong location? Well, hindsight is 2020.
A Road Map to Hope and Recovery
First, I need to acknowledge that we are not Supermen (or Wonder Women). We have weaknesses, and we can be prone to struggling with our mental health. Coaching is like being an oil wick candle, and if you don’t take the time to put more oil in the base, you eventually burn out. Take time off when you can, spend time with family, invest in hobbies, and be present outside of the weight room. Burnout also does not have to be the death sentence for your coaching career. You can get back in if you want to, or you can choose to move on.Coaching is like being an oil wick candle, and if you don’t take the time to put more oil in the base, you eventually burn out, says @litt_strength. Click To Tweet
Second, the light at the end of the tunnel is more blinding than you may think. I would have never thought that I would have two “last day of work” moments at the same job, but I did. And yet, within 48 hours of being told I would be laid off, I was asked to interview for a PE teacher’s position at a middle school. A few days after I learned that I wasn’t selected for that position, I got an email from a professor at a local college with an invite to guest lecture in their exercise science department. A week later, a coach I met at SummerStrong called me out of the blue, offering his advice and some opportunities to learn and develop as a coach. This light at the end of my tunnel made me realize that most of us have a light shining brightly for us, but we often shield our eyes from it.
Third, in the past year and a half, one thing has become increasingly clear to me: We should hope for the best while preparing for the worst. Burning out was, and likely will be, the lowest point in my coaching career. But even with the mental stress of the COVID-19 shutdowns and the eventual loss of my job, I am the happiest I have been since I started coaching. I attribute part of this to mentally preparing for the worst: the loss of my job and the closure of the gym. This is not to say that we should dwell on negative thoughts, but rather embrace the multiple outcomes of a situation.
If I leave you with anything, it would be to not give up hope. While we should be prepared for the worst, we should also hope for the best. Have hope that doors will open when others close, have hope that our roles will remain intact, and have hope that there will be a stronger future.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF