In my work with individuals and teams I have the privilege to hear many people open up and tell me their stories of how they got to where they are. Some stories are longer than others. Some have great tales of overcoming challenges, others talk about a big obstacle or failure that they perhaps still struggle with to this day. Whatever the narrative is, it takes a great amount of courage to be able to reflect and share with others the story of one's life.
During these conversations I try and personally adhere to a philosophy of vulnerability. This means I myself will open up and share a personal anecdote of something similar in my own journey. Some may see this as changing the dynamic of the client relationship in a negative way, as it opens you up for risk of looking different in their eyes. But I feel this is necessary for a productive and empathetic dialogue. After all, dialogue can only take place when two or more people are interacting in the conversation. So therefore I find it fruitful for myself as a participant in this process to share some of my own stories of doubt, insecurity, success, failure, and everything else that lies on the journey of mastery.
In this way, it becomes a blending of worldviews and experiences that can diverge and come together to form a clearer path to understanding for both parties. So in light of this, I feel it beneficial to share some highlights of my own path, and perhaps show you that everyone is fighting their own battles, in their own way, in their own time. Just because I study the mind, does not mean I am immune to negative thinking, anxiety, and a lack of confidence at times. These are all part of the journey of becoming good at anything. Life doesn't come with a manual. We do something, we fail, we learn, and repeat the process until we succeed. I like to use the example of learning to walk. No one was born being able to walk, we all fell down as babies trying to learn how to take our first step. But each time we didn’t go “well, this is not for me!”; we just got back up and tried again. So, with the risk of opening up too much, here is a shortened version of my path as an athlete to a professional in the field of performance psychology.
The mental game is something I always struggled with growing up playing soccer. I always knew that technically I was decent enough, but when it came to high pressure moments I struggled to deal with the stress of performing, and would lack confidence to perform as well as I know I could. There would be times though, where everything fell into place. Moments of flow, where I felt like I was unstoppable. Confidence would be through the roof, and I would play without thinking. These “peak experiences” were the type of performances I would strive for each and every game. But as it is with chasing flow, the more you try and attain it, the less chance you actually get it.
However, these rare flow states would keep me chasing my dream of playing professional one day, despite the lack of confidence at times. It greatly depended on the environment I was in. I remember having amazing supportive coaches, who with one word could make me want to run through walls for them. I was always the type of player who needed a pat on the back, and have someone tell me I was doing OK and to just keep going. So when I was placed in an environment where the coach was less than supportive (I have had plenty!) I would crumble in self-doubt. A lot of coaches go for a one size fits all method to training, but as it is with most things every individual learns and perceives things differently. I always wished I could have been the type of player to use criticism as a motivator, but I was definitely not one of them.
"No one was born being able to walk, we all fell down as babies trying to learn how to take our first step."
Despite having environments and coaches that hindered my confidence most of the time, I still somehow found a couple ounces of it in order to keep the dream alive. This led me to move to Poland (where my family originates) after high school to tryout for the youth team of WKS Slask Wroclaw a club playing in the first division, as I had a connection with a coach from a previous trip when I was younger. I was told I would be given a shot if I went there and so I left family and friends here in Canada to move abroad. Things got off to a pretty good start as I made the team after a few weeks, and even scored a goal in my first game.
17 year old Marek pursuing a dream. So young!
Things took a different turn a few months in though. Despite speaking the language and having family there, I still felt a bit alienated. I felt unaccepted by my teammates, and I spent the majority of my time alone as a result. I was also not used to the different coaching style and level of play, which caused an increase in performance anxiety. This of course led to decreased confidence, and then to poorer and poorer performances. Combined with a number of different factors, I was not in a good place to say the least. I was not getting any playing time, and was even dropped down to play with the younger reserve team which as you can imagine can take its toll on the ego of a 17 year old. I did not have the coping skills to deal with being away from home, not being accepted, and lacking the confidence to perform. It all came down on me in one particular game which I very much remember. I was taken off at halftime during the reserve game for a bad performance, and the coach said in front of everyone in the locker room that I was having a shocker and that he was going to replace me with another player. As the second half was about to start I remember everyone leaving the locker room, and I just sat there devastated. Am I really that bad? Was this all for nothing? I was so embarrassed. So I took off my gear and left to go home, deciding then and there that the dream has ended. I didn’t even say goodbye to anyone.
So after a rough couple days going over everything that had gone wrong, I had one of those moments where I had to decide “now what?”. Maybe I was making excuses. Maybe I could of stuck it out a few more months and worked harder. But I decided that after 5 months of being there the dream was over, and now I had to decide what to do with my life. After some soul searching (and google searching), I came across the field of sport psychology. And so I thought to myself that perhaps my experiences with the struggles of the mental game could be of use to other athletes, and thus I set out to make it my next mission to help others not go through the same thing I did, or atleast cope with it in a more effective manner.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
I came home soon after, and began my journey towards education. However, I realised that there was only one problem; my marks were not up to par with University standards. I needed to upgrade a few courses that I neglected in high school due to my mind being elsewhere at the time (playing soccer in Europe of course!). But I had a renewed hope, and so I spent some time upgrading the required classes, eventually completing it as quickly as I could. Once this was done, I could finally apply to the program I knew I was destined for.
After not getting accepted the first time, I finally got in my second time around. This started a new chapter, starting on the path to learning about the mind and high performance. But the doubt did not stop there. I made the varsity soccer team my first year, but the mental skills were still not in place. The same lack of confidence and performance anxiety would resurface, and I was not the player I thought I would be. It was a struggle getting playing time, but hey at least I had a scholarship funding my studies, so I had that going for me!
MacEwan Griffins Soccer
Heading into second year of my undergraduate degree, I thought things were looking up. I was actually feeling more confident going into preseason with the team, thinking that the rookie year was behind me and I would be playing a more prominent role in the team. Coaches had other ideas though, as I was cut after the very last pre-season game. We will leave out my thoughts about it all, but it was another devastating blow to an already fragile athlete. I spent that year in denial, not admitting to others that I was not actually on the team (pretty awkward when someone asks you when the next game is…). I had such a strong athletic identity, believing that this was who I was. It was always something I struggled with, as I tied my identity with the sport too much which resulted in any mistake on the field equating to my failure as a person. Not an ideal mindset to have growing up.
I have since learned to detach what I do, with who I am. Soccer was just something I did, and does not define me completely. I am so much more than that. This was probably one of the greatest lessons I have learned that has helped me not only become a better athlete, but a happier and well-rounded individual. But looking back at all these other “failures” and setbacks, I now know that they too were all learning opportunities. Through these challenges I have gained the right experience to help others in their own struggles. We all have something that holds us back, whether it be physical, mental, or social. There is no use in denying this fact. The more we fight our insecurities, the more control they have over us. The goal of mental skills training is to become more aware and acceptant of these barriers, and have the right tools to deal with them. After completing my undergraduate, and then masters degree specializing in the minds of athletes and performers, I have tremendously improved my own skills to cope with the inevitable stress of life and sport. I have improved my mental game where now I can perform with confidence, and not let one silly mistake torment my mind for weeks, or months on end. I can let go quickly, and bring my attention to what is in my control; my effort, and my attitude. And these skills are most definitely trainable. I have renewed that fun and passion I had for the game as a child, and now I can apply it to learning other sports.
"Soccer was just something I did, and does not define me completely."
So this was a quick run down of my own journey of challenges that have helped shape who I am today. Hopefully some of you might resonate with the story and know that life itself is a performance and we all have something that is holding us back from reaching our potential. But we won't know what that is until we step out of our comfort zone and do the hard introspective work to learn and grow. So be vulnerable, open up, even if to yourself about your fears. We are never fully complete, and in a way we are still that baby learning to take its first steps.
And remember, feel the force, don’t force the feel!
Enjoying myself with a renewed mental game