The coach who saved my life
We don’t normally publish blogs anonymously, but when you’ve read to the end of this powerful story, you’ll understand why we have protected the identity of the author. She believes her story isn’t unique, but it may help others avoid some of the mistakes that she and her coaches have made.
The coach who saved my life
It wasn’t until senior school that I discovered a sport I was good at. I’d always been at the top of the height chart and was seriously lacking in the fundamental movement skills required for school sport. It was a chance meeting with a visiting coach that changed my life. I was delighted to find a new sport where I could succeed. More importantly, I had found a coach who filled me with confidence that my giraffe-like body could help me to win medals. I learned to enjoy sport. As my confidence grew, I began to make friends at my local club and benefit from all the positive aspects of club sport.
That first coach helped me fall in love with a sport that would consume my life and that of my family. It has shaped my career, my relationships and my coaching philosophy. Little did I know then that my first coach was also going to save my life.
As I progressed, I won regional and national titles and reached a point where my first coach couldn’t help any further. I wanted to compete at the Olympics; he didn’t have the skills to help me reach my potential. He identified another coach 30 miles away who had ongoing success with his athletes on the international stage. And so a new relationship began. My coach was tough but I was grateful to him for pushing me to a level I never thought I was capable of. I worked hard for him. Less than a year later, I was selected for the GB Team.
Being selected to compete for your country should be an exciting prospect but I didn’t feel it. I was 17 years old and going through multiple life transitions - a new coach, the independence of passing my driving test, new academic demands with A Levels looming and new friendships with a new training group.
Having been in the safe environment of my local club with a coach who had known me since I was 11, I was now training and performing in an environment where I was first and foremost an athlete, rather than a person. That’s where my coach could have helped. He could have got to know me better and understood my insecurities about training in a group of incredible athletes. He might have realised how exhausted the 60 mile round trip for training was making me. He might also have learnt that each time he told me I was “starting to look more like an athlete every day”, the reality was that I’d practically stopped eating and was giving myself just enough calories to get through training.
I don’t know how it started, but I do remember desperately wanting to talk to someone about the fact that calorie-counting dominated every waking hour and was making me miserable. My coach was always approachable but I became disengaged from the training group. While my performances improved, every other aspect of my life was suffering. Having been on track for a place at Oxford University, my grades plummeted as I couldn’t concentrate. When I wasn’t training, I was in bed trying desperately to restore some energy before the next session. My parents got frustrated but my coach continued to praise both my performance and my physique.
That year, my season ended with selection for the GB Team once again. I went, performed, narrowly missed out on a medal and then came home. I tried to talk to my coach and parents about how I felt but just couldn’t find the words. I became more and more withdrawn until Mum told me she’d made an appointment for me to see the doctor. I hadn’t realised how worried my parents had been and totally at a loss about what to do.
I told my doctor what had been happening. As far as I was concerned, I had an eating disorder and all I needed to do was eat. In fact, I was suffering from debilitating depression (which often goes hand in hand with eating disorders). I was prescribed anti-depressants, referred to a counsellor and that was that. All I had to do was take my pills, talk to someone, start eating properly and I’d be back on track.
Just as I found my ‘fix’ it was time for another transition. I moved away from home to university. Not Oxford as originally planned due to some very poor exam results, but to a city where I would have another new coach, make new friends and discover a social life I’d never known about. By the time the appointment came through to see a counsellor, I had moved away from home and my new GP was happily prescribing my anti-depressants. Ironically, they reduced my appetite so I would sometimes go for days without food without feeling hungry.
My previous coach hadn’t discussed my eating disorder or mental health with my new coach, who thought I was naturally slim. If he’d known the full picture, perhaps he wouldn’t have made some of the remarks he did about my weight. I tried to keep up with the new training programme, but I had also made the transition from junior to senior level and was struggling to keep up with the tiny amount of food I was consuming. My confidence took a battering as I was no longer at the top in terms of performance. I was a 19 year old competing against people who were older, more experienced and stronger, both physically and psychologically.
The new training programme was brutal. I tried to eat more so I could keep up. Slowly my performances improved to the point where I was selected for the GB Team once again. I was enjoying my sport and even let myself have the odd night out with my student housemates. I could feel the dark cloud lifting and was beginning to love my sport again and recognised how lucky I was to have supportive friends and family. Then one day everything changed. During a training session I suffered a serious injury. Numerous specialists and surgeons gave me the same message: “You can’t be an athlete any more”.
I rang my coach to give him the message and still shudder at his response: “I’ll see you around then”. Nothing about how he could support me, no invitation to go and help him coach. Just a brutal ‘goodbye’ and the entire focus of the previous 13 years of my life had disappeared. My Olympic dream, my daily routine and my reason for living were all gone. I was no longer an athlete, so what on earth was I going to do? I didn’t know anything else and I was completely lost.
For the first few weeks I hid in bed and then slowly got more involved in the social side of student life. I discovered alcohol and put my efforts into being the best drinker I could possibly be. It wasn’t the answer but it was a release from the years of abstinence. I didn’t have any reason to get out of bed apart from the odd lecture; I had no end goal apart from getting through the day.
My party lifestyle lasted a couple of months until one night I bumped into the rest of the training squad. They were on a team night out with my old coach and they asked me what I was up to. “Nothing” was my answer. That was all I could think of, my life was full of nothing. When I got home, I went to my drawer of painkillers and prescription drugs and took them all out of their packets. I had been considering this for a long time but that night was the trigger. I swallowed them all and washed them down with more alcohol, praying it would take away the constant feeling of all I had lost. I’d hit rock bottom. I didn’t think I deserved to be on this planet any more.
The next few months were an ongoing rotation of visits to doctors, psychologists and A&E after a number of suicide attempts and episodes of self harming. The final straw was a long stay in hospital and a call from my housemates to my parents. They were at my house within a couple of hours, packed up my belongings and took me home. It was time to get myself better and discover a life beyond being an athlete.
It wasn’t easy getting used to living with my parents again. After a night out with some of my oldest friends, I again tried to take my own life. I didn’t wake up until three days later; on the fourth day I had a visitor. By chance, Mum had bumped into my first coach and told him what had been happening. His first reaction was that he had a responsibility to me and he wanted to help. He sat on my bed and we talked for hours about how lost I was, with no idea what to do with my life. Being an athlete was all I could do as far as I was concerned. I was consumed with grief for the life I should have been living. I just couldn’t drag myself out of the pit I’d fallen into. What was the point in living if I couldn’t do the only thing I thought I was any good at?
He showed his amazing coaching skills and we set some short terms goals. I was struggling to see beyond the end of the day at that point, so we set one goal that would get me to lunchtime and another that would get me through to dinner time. I didn’t think recovery was possible until my coach talked to me like an athlete rather than a patient. He drew on my competitive nature. We referred to my recovery as a competition and looked at strategies for how to cope with both success and disappointment.
After a few days I was transferred to a psychiatric unit where I spent four months. I was only allowed visitors for an hour once a week so my coach wrote on an almost daily basis with ideas for future projects, goal setting tools and an invitation to go on a coaching course when I was well enough. He helped me to build a vision of life beyond being an athlete. One thing I was really looking forward to was trying out coaching. Once I was ready to face the world again, I went back to my club and began coaching some of the juniors. At first I really struggled with not being able train with them but soon began to find it incredibly rewarding to see them improve and fall in love with the sport the way I had.
Doing a coaching qualification was the catalyst to a new phase of my life. I went back to university and finished my degree, got a job in sport and now, 15 years later, I’m still coaching on an almost daily basis. My first love is still sport and my journey has made me a better coach than I could ever have hoped to me. I still battle against depression but I have ways of coping and the good days heavily outweigh the bad.
Two years after I left hospital, my first coach sadly passed away. At his funeral, the church was filled with athletes he’d supported through their lives. He continued to be a friend and mentor to many for years after he had stopped coaching them. I was incredibly blessed to be one of those athletes and credit him with being the coach who saved my life.
It’s not an easy story to tell and I don’t think I’m unique. My key messages as an ex-performer and a coach are:
- If you recognise a significant change in behaviour in your athletes, help them identify the underlying cause
- Recognise significant changes in physique in your athletes; seek advice and support from appropriate sources
- Identify the key challenges relating to an athlete’s life transitions, so you can support them and prepare them to cope
- The way you react to the challenges your athletes face will have a direct impact on their future performances
- Both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ coach has a role to play when an athlete moves club or coach
- Once your athlete has moved to a new coach, it doesn’t mean you no longer have a role in supporting them
- If an athlete has to stop competing, whatever the reason, you have a key role to play in supporting them into retirement.