Gentle Honesty in a Brutal Game
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
Quitting is for sissies.
Everyone knows that... or at least everyone who's ever been subjected to playground bully culture, which is probably most of us.
Though I'm not nearly as avid of late, I've been a lifelong sports fan. I keep track of my favorite teams and hold a loose attention on the major headlines in the sporting world. One of the biggest stories that is repeating itself lately is the early retirement of star players in the NFL. From legendary Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to Colts franchise quarterback Andrew Luck and others, these men are taking a bold step to walk away from fame and fortune because they are ... being gentle? (I bet you didn't see that coming.)
This story is so interesting to me that I have reluctantly dialed up my attention to sports commentary around it the past few days. While listening to a Boston sports radio station in my car yesterday I heard a caller complaining to the hosts about Luck's retirement, which comes mere weeks before the start of a season in which he was a key to their championship aspirations. The caller was beside himself that these guys were quitting in the middle of their athletic prime (and their lucrative contracts), saying "It's FOOTBALL, for crying out loud!" It wasn't hard to interpret his sentiment. In football, like other "manly" pursuits, you TOUGH IT OUT.
Quitting is for sissies. Tough it out. Suck it up. Be a man. Our culture shouts out these messages routinely to reinforce the "ideal" masculine identity. No wonder men brutalize themselves so much in our culture. NFL "heroes" play through unimaginable pain, all the while risking their ability to life a normal, healthy life after their playing days are done.
But they're not alone, just an extreme example. The man who works 60 or 80 hours a week to maintain his status in the corporate world, all the while leaving himself empty of life energy to spend time with family, friends, or spiritual connection? He is being harmed, too. It's just harder to see than an athlete with a broken down body. His stress, his fatigue, his mental strain are just as hard to handle.
I know this. Firsthand. After 20 years of climbing corporate ladders I achieved a top position in a company I loved. The problem is I had been ignoring signs of burnout and stress for a long time, all in the name of achieving what I thought would make me the "star player". Barely a year into that pinnacle role, I walked away. I wish I could say that it was purely with "gentleness". It wasn't. There was also a strong sense of guilt and shame. I felt like a failure.
Jumping back to the present day, I am 100% satisfied with the decision to make a big change. I worked my way through the transition, shame and all, to realize that I was finally taking care of myself in a way that felt life affirming. It was not easy and I had to ask for way more help than felt comfortable. But it has changed my entire life outlook in positive ways that I couldn't have imagined.
I am also so heartened to see what's going on in the sports world. This morning I read about another football player, Doug Baldwin. While not a superstar, he has been an excellent player on successful teams for several years. In the article, he explains how the pain he suffered while playing the game was becoming scary for him, especially in thinking about his future ability to hold and play with his children. Talk about gentle!!!
In the piece on ESPN.com Baldwin hits on a key challenge that comes up when faced with the life-altering decision he made. When asked if the hardest part of retiring would be missing the game he responded with this:
"It's more so that my identity has been wrapped up in football since I was 6 years old. Navigating not having that, not having the instant feedback and the false affirmation of what my value was in the world because I had caught touchdowns on some days, I'm navigating that as a human on a very human level. That process has been challenging, to say the least, but it's also been a rewarding one because it's allowed me to refocus my passions but also to reunderstand who I am in the greater scheme of things and how I fit into the world."
In a sports culture that amplifies the "Man up" message to its highest levels, I find a statement like this to be true heroism. Look at some of those words, starting with "the false affirmation of what my value was in the world because I had caught touchdowns". Here is a man who sees that he has more important things to do in the world than just his work. He goes on to explain a few of them. They include cuddling his children when they are babies, playing with them as they grow up, and building a community/health center for underserved youth. Doug Baldwin decided to get gentle with himself so he could live a more fulfilling life, even though it meant loss of status, wealth, and fame. That's bravery, my men.
As an avowed Gentle Man, and a coach who helps people through transitions, I am delighted to see professional athletes like those I named above, and others, who are showing the world that gentling it out is a mainstream option. They, like I and so many other men, have toughed it out for too long. Taking care of ourselves so that we can show up for our children, families, and communities isn't always the easy path. We have pressures to perform, increase our wealth, achieve ever higher status, and do so no matter what it takes. It becomes an identity, one that feels hard to shed.
Are you a man who is feeling trapped in the identity you're supposed to have?
What are you enduring that you wish you didn't have to?
Be honest here - where are you toughing it out at your own expense?
You don't have to keep doing it that way. Even superstar football players are choosing to be gentle with themselves and the world around them. And to be clear, you don't have to quit your job to break that cycle, like they did. You might quit saying yes to things that don't honor your values. You might quit workaholism to rebalance your life. You might quit being stressed out and having a shorter fuse than you'd like to have.
You might also quit going it alone and ask for help with these things. If you decide to get help, I'd love to talk with you. My job is to help with these things - to help people see the identities they are stuck in, define those that they want to inhabit, and help move them into their better self. I happen to do that gently, just like star football players.
Quitting is not for sissies. It's for you. So is gentling it out. I'm here to help you with that.
For a free consultation to hear about how a coach like me can help you find a more fulfilling life, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.