The Toll Road to Glory

Dr. Yolanda Bruce Brooks

This is the last of four articles in series on managing a family within the ever-changing lifestyle that is the constant in elite and professional sports. Here’s a brief overview of each article:

“Uncertainty and Change are Constants,” the first in the series, outlined transitioning from a parenting perspective, expressed primarily by coaches’ wives. We learned how wives with a variety of backgrounds and duration in the world of professional sports adapted to their situations and circumstances while raising their families.

The second article “Transitioning During a Crisis” dealt with every parent’s nightmare – a catastrophic and potentially life threatening illness in a child. Two wives of coaches bravely invited us into their worlds as they described their dramatic and frightening journeys in painful detail. We learned how they managed, coped and parented their stricken daughters, while simultaneously relocating their families and base of operations in response to their husbands’ new jobs in distant cities. They described how “the game must go on” while they are dealing with these stresses and trauma behind the scenes and out of view of the teams’ fans and spectators.

Cheers and Tears”, the third article in the series, provided candid thoughts from coaches’ perspectives on their work as coaches.  We knew coaches understood the sacrifices their careers place upon their families, however we learned how they are affected by it.

The focus of this fourth and final piece considers the insights and experiences learned from the first three pieces. It highlights situations that challenge us to keep moving forward when we want to stop and catch our breath. It’s called Life and how we learn to live it as we strive to achieve success and what happens when we do.

As stated in the previous articles, sports is a high energy, emotionally charged industry. And often in sports, as in life, the more success achieved, the more challenges develop to undermine that success.  In order to sustain that hard-earned success one must learn to overcome a host of ever growing distractions and to avoid obstacles and pitfalls that can instantaneously undermine that success. Although the fruit of success is invariably access to more resources and opportunities, careful filtering is essential. It becomes difficult to discern positive, supportive people investing in enhancing and sustaining your success versus those who are toxic – invested in riding on the coattails of (and, in some cases, undermining) your success for their own personal gains.

While there is no singular definition of success, goal achievement is a common thread weaving through all descriptions. If we incorporate health (mental, physical and behavioral), success is highly correlated with function which includes a purposeful, fulfilling life with good health and well-being. If it works, we feel good and we do well, then we are successful. Some might say call success ‘‘living the dream.’’ It’s something we’ve created in our minds, visualized it, set goals and ultimately achieved it.

Few of us have the opportunity to attain the pinnacle of success in our respective industries or careers (CEO, head coach, starting quarterback,…). Achieving that elusive position requires ability, preparation, sacrifice (and more than a little luck) along the way. One obvious requirement for on-field or on-court success in professional sports is athleticism. Without a certain degree of athletic ability success is impossible to achieve. However, athleticism is not enough and it is often not the best athlete who carries the day.  Indeed, the history of sports is replete with examples of preparation trumping athletic skill.  Planning, practice, motivation – and again, a little luck – have on many occasions allowed David to topple Goliath.  And fans usually love an underdog; their cheers of support can be powerful motivators.

Fans often want to do more than cheer others on.  Those who dream but know the limitations of their reality still embrace opportunities to ‘’live their dreams’’, even if only for a moment. Professional sports is one industry that invests significant time and resources into fan engagement. Activities and opportunities are created to provide fans and spectators the opportunity to live their dreams – vicariously as well as experientially.  Whether it’s an opportunity to hang out in the locker room, to travel with the team, throw out the first pitch or toss the coin, being a part of the game can be an unimaginable thrill for those who are usually relegated to the stands. There are dream camps which allow fans to participate in work outs and drills. These cleverly crafted opportunities allow everyday people to participate in their favorite sports side-by-side with their favorite teams and players.  These experiences have also been carefully vetted and filtered to remove the work, stress and potential for injury so that these one-in-a-lifetime experiences can be extraordinarily fun and enjoyable with little chance for mishap. Participants embrace their “10 minutes of fame” by being in the mix, in the midst and in the spotlight – enjoying the time of their lives. ‘’Did you see me?” they exclaim – breathless from exhilaration as if having won a championship!  Life-long memories are created from these experiences.

Fueled by supportive families and friends, coaches and players are living their dreams as well. They have achieved the pinnacle of their careers – doing what they know and love. However, unlike fan engagement experiences, real life is not filtered out. Players, coaches and their families are forced to deal with life circumstances which can interfere with or overshadow the game. This fast paced, high profile, high intensity and high stress industry takes mercy on no one.  While those outside of the sport see only the idyllic, “living the dream” scenario, the reality for many is that achieving and living this dream comes with huge personal sacrifices. Life has no road maps, and life in professional sports comes with no guidance on the “right” way to go or how to get there without affecting one’s health, family situation or other circumstances.  But one thing is clear; there will be a price to pay.

Few employees are subjected to the incessant scrutiny experienced by those in these high profile positions. Imagine millions of people around the country (or in some cases, the world) commenting on your job performance or demanding you be fired or cut because you are not meeting THEIR expectations. At the time of this writing, the NFL season is months away – yet as many as 9 head coaches may already be fighting to keep their jobs. Coaches hot seat predictions – 2017

In today’s society, managing stress has become a health issue of epic proportions.  Inputting data into the Life Change Index Scale (also called the Stress Test) based on public information provided by a professional sports coach and a professional athlete (different sports and teams), indicated that each had an 80% likelihood of illness in the near future. The higher the life change score, the harder one has to work to get back into a state of good health. Yet, the pressure to perform (fear of losing their jobs, playing for a better contract or fighting to keep a position) will most likely force these individuals to push themselves even harder, worsening their life change score and possibly their long term health. This is another paradox of success. The harder one pushes to sustain function and success, the more vulnerable the body becomes to stress-related conditions. We know from research that stress is linked to 6 of the ten leading causes of death in the U.S. American Psychological Association PDF / Stress in America.  But in spite of the challenges and risks inherent at the top, the hardest thing to do for most who achieve this level of success is to leave it.

However, the good news is that we can achieve and sustain good health – even in professional sports. Like most things in life, it will take work. Professional sports is a health-driven occupation. Most in the profession are highly conscious of their physical health – working out, eating healthy, etc.  And it’s not just the athletes that try to stay in shape; many of the coaches and even front office staff are motivated to stay physically fit based on the behaviors they witness on a daily basis. This mentality can help to establish a stronger foundation to thwart vulnerabilities to illness and injury (aside from sports-related injuries to players, which are an ever-present concern). Few of us could sustain the workout regime of a professional athlete. And the most successful athletes have not only intense exercise regimens, but bring that same level of discipline to include finely tuned diets and other health routines (massages, rest, sleep, etc).

Each of us must take responsibility to learn, understand and design our own road maps to sustainable health – our ultimate success. The following activities are based in a preventive stress management model called Positive Psychology Intervention researched by Dr. James Quick.  These suggestions* can serve as a guide to health focused countermeasures to avoid or minimize the impact of selected stress-related conditions:

• Develop customized activities and interventions appropriate for each individuals unique circumstance including:

          ◦ Improving work-life balance

          ◦ Strengthening positive, healthy social supports

          ◦ Learning to think positively while diminishing and avoiding a negative mindset

• Assist the individual in regulating stress-induced energy, emotions and physical fitness through activities such as:

          ◦ Relaxation activities such as massages, meditation, positive visualizations and fun activities

          ◦ Exercise including joining fitness programs and fitness challenges

• Improving emotional and psychological health by having healthy outlets to express stress inducing thoughts and emotions by engaging with a life coach, therapist or wellness specialist  to enhance well-being

• Engage in activities that promote a sense of purpose, is meaningful and provides a sense a satisfaction. Volunteering, civic and socially responsible community oriented activities, philanthropic activities and those that instill hope in others may fit in this category.

While we understand the degree of stress in the workplace can create costly consequences to the individual and the organization, there is much that can be done to thwart the extent of harm. It behooves us to consider our roles in proactively pursuing preventive measures for ourselves and our loved ones.

(* adapted from suggestions in the article Occupational Stress: Preventing Suffering, Enhancing Wellbeing by James Campbell Quick and Demetria Henderson published 29 April 2016 in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health)



What should we do?


If you don’t have a personal umbrella policy, run, don’t walk to get one.


“…I hate to say this, but it looks like you’re running from the law.”
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