Summit Musings – Rick Cotgreave

Our opening speaker, Rick Cotgreave shares his thoughts after last week’s Summit

What a privilege to be involved in the CTL summit,  a landmark event in Sydney – the chance to be with such a wide variety of athletes willing to share their stories with such honesty.

Rick Cotgreave in flow at Crossing the Line Summit

Listening to athletes talk about the truth of their experiences in sport and in the transition to a life beyond sport is a reminder of the vital role that Crossing the Line plays in providing a forum for athletes to feel safe and respected so as to reveal the emotional highs and lows of the reality of being an elite athlete.

Navigating the complexity of transition can be a challenge, there are a number of frameworks that have been useful for me to make sense of the journey. Whilst models and frameworks don’t provide the ‘truth’ of an experience which is, ultimately, unique to each individual, they do help in recognising that other people have travelled similar paths before. It is part of our humanity to experience reactions to change.

The Kubler-Ross change curve provides eight stages of change, each of which have their own characteristics:

Shock – surprise at the injury, deselection or even that age has caught up with us

Denial – looking for evidence that disproves the new reality

Anger – the frustration at the unplanned for reality

Resistance – low moods with energy spent looking backwards rather than forwards

Acceptance – coming terms with, and stopping the fight with the new reality

Exploration – the first engagement with the new situation

Commitment – making real steps to embrace the new situation and see a positive future

Growth – full integration of the new situation, forward facing and real steps towards a new identity

Whilst real life may not follow a simple step by step process of one stage to another it can be a useful reminder that change takes time and may include some darker times as we attempt to adapt to new circumstances and develop a new identity.

LR: Dene Halatau, Chris Mordue and Rick Cotgreave.

Another framework that can be useful in recognising natural reactions to change is David Rock’s work on the neuroscience of anxiety and the SCARF model. We heard several stories over the day that pointed to each of the emotional triggers:

Status – many of the athletes spoke about a change in identity and stepping down from the pedestal that being a sports star had placed them on. Moving away from being best in the world to being “average” brings inevitable challenge as we move down the pecking order or enter a new environment.

Certainty – the predictability of the Olympic cycle or domestic competition schedule provides a sense of comfort in knowing how to plan. Retirement removes the black and white world of a competition structure and definitions success and failure. Coming to terms with shades of grey can be unsettling.

Autonomy – over many years of a career an athlete develops a sense of control in knowing how and when to apply effort for reward, in retirement this can be more complicated. The rules of engagement shift and with it can be a loss of control.

Relatedness – we heard many athletes talk about how useful it was to be around like-minded people. Athletes, even from different sports, have similarities in mindset and experiences that make it easy to connect and feel part of a community.

Fairness – some athletes talked about their disappointment of unfinished business or opportunities being taken away from them without adequate explanation. Others talked about having to get used the definitions success and reward that didn’t have the clarity of the meritocracy of sport. Fairness appears to be a fundamental requirement to our well-being.

As I begin to make more sense of my own transition from sport and learn from the research a picture is beginning to emerge that helps me recognise the choices that can lead to new ways to experience success and fulfilment beyond the sporting environment.

Most of an athlete’s career is focussed on getting better – faster, stronger, going up the rankings or even getting more likes on your Instagram account. Making progress towards goals and the external validation of success is rewarding and undoubtedly drives behaviour and performance. However, the seduction of ‘better never stops’ hides a shadow side of ‘not good enough today’ which can be exposed when progress is more difficult to come by or in retirement when the inevitable decline is seen. For an athlete self-worth and happiness is often strongly linked to these narrow definitions of success. The loss of progress and subsequent loss of recognition can in some cases lead to destructive behaviours. An over dependence on focussing on ‘better’ may lead to burn-out and stress.

I have spoken to many athletes who, like me, have found some of the answers in yoga or mediation practice. These disciplines bring with them the concept of contentment which during a competitive career is a totally foreign reference point. It took me several years to come to terms (or travel the change curve of shock, anger and resistance) with the yogic term Samtosa, the deliberate act of contentment. Initially this was a way of thinking that I associated with mediocrity, stagnation and boredom. Over time I begin to explore it in more detail and recognise the value and sense of fulfilment that can be found in cultivating this mindset. Appreciating what we have, and developing a deeper sense of gratitude is a powerful tool in finding calm and building self-belief and confidence.

Section of the audience at the CTL Summit

Trying to make sense of the paradox of happiness being found both in progress and contentment was initially a challenge but I then recognised that we find it when we ‘play’. As athletes, we spend so long becoming an expert that it is easy to forget that magical moment when we first got hooked, of being a beginner and knowing there was so much learning ahead of us.

When we get the balance right we thrive, we can experience the holistic opportunity of both personal and professional growth. Recognising the choices we are making and where we are putting our focus is a useful mechanism to learn to truly embrace the world beyond sport.

The CTL summit is a great opportunity to share and learn from each member of the community. The stories from Sydney event help galvanise ideas and find better ways to understand the challenges we face making our own way through the very human experience of a life that has been enriched by our involvement in sport.