Vulnerability. Authenticity. Courage. Nice words? Uncomfortable words? What do they even mean? How could those words ever be related to sports? You must be out of your mind, you soft and smooshy lady from Finland, if you think those soft words could ever be installed, represented, discussed in the sports world? Sports is hard, a super competitive world where only the tough ones prevail.
Yes, I am out of my mind enough to say that athletes, coaches, and teams might actually become their best when they can express vulnerability, be authentic, and be courageous. If you think of those as soft values, as something that is not part of elite athletes or certainly not part of courageous leadership… would you let me tell of a couple examples where I could show why those qualities are what makes them tough and prevail?
WHAT IS VULNERABILITY?
Amazing, I appreciate that you’re still here! Ok so hear me out on this…
Think a situation where you would be a coach and you would need to fire/let your athlete go for some reason, let’s say it is a financial decision. How uncomfortable are you in this moment especially if you care about the athlete? Do you think it is a sign on weakness to feel uncomfortable when walking into that room knowing you are going to ruin her/his day?
Think of another situation. Let’s say you agreed to have certain rules and standards on the team. Do you think of a person as weak and soft who speaks up when he/she says something to his/her teammates if they are not holding up the agreed standards and rules?
What about just simply receiving and giving feedback? Going on a date after a break-up? Knowing that you might fail or fall but still decide to show up?
Are these scenarios expressing weakness to you? Hello. Hell no.
The vice versa. Sorry I answered for you. But I know you are smart and will come to this conclusion by yourself too… Maybe you just feel confused now: you said you were going to explain vulnerability, but you just described brave actions?
Well I don’t wanna brag but the soft lady here might have an answer to that one too.. Because the definition of vulnerability is “an emotion we experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. It is the courage to show up without having a certain end result.” (Brene Brown, Dare to Lead)
So that is vulnerability. It is badass, powerful stuff. We just seriously have this very wronged connotation with that word that it would for the wimpiest wimps in the world.
If we take vulnerability in sports under inspection here, what does it look like? I think vulnerability definition is very close to sports. The definition is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure that requires courage to show up without having a certain end result. BINGO! That IS sports!
The end result in sports is unknown, should be unknown at least. But we still need to show up. We take a risk when we show up in the arena. We are often also emotionally invested because it is our bodies that are performing in that arena. And we cannot put the body there without our mind and feelings. Therefore, we are invested. And there is a risk.
We could feel more proud about the fact how much sports really is playing with the feelings of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Facing failures, disappointments, harsh critique, injuries, setbacks and still, still 99% will show up day after day. That is courage folks. You are being courageous for living with that risk and uncertainty. Give yourself a little tap on your shoulder. You are pretty awesome.
If we take that thought a little further… The outcome is something that is out of our control. Still some people go all in, they invest everything, they are away from their families to do sports, they are chasing the dream to get to the Olympics, they want to achieve a medal in the next national championship etc. Whatever it is, the end result is not guaranteed, no matter how much you train and give. If it does not happen, there is a lot on the line, and emotional exposure for sure as well. Yaiks is that vulnerability again? Daring to step into that life shows courage. I think we agree?
Then it is pretty important that the last five seconds of that life journey is not the only ultimate defining factor of the whole process, of it is successful right? We should not be living that life, risking it all if we haven’t really put the full potential of us in it and/or if we don’t like what we are doing but we are just hoping to win at the end.
AUTHENTICITY IN SPORTS
So another wimpiest of wimps word winner is about to sneak in when we enter the sub-topic of vulnerability! Authenticity! So just to be clear, the definition of authenticity is, according to Harvard Business Review, “being true to yourself, maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say you do, and making value-based choices”. There is something very brave about this wimp.. 😉
Authentic athlete and coach know what they stand for. They know what it means to them to do things from the heart and to make choices based on that. There is no need for armor. And when we think about the potential we all have, we are not being optimized as human beings until this authentic part of us is flipped on.
Authenticity also certainly helps us in building meaningful relationships. How many would love to have that authentic, caring team around them?
Meaningful relationships lead to having a sense of belonging and having your own squad you can trust. Loneliness is on the opposite side of belonging. Loneliness is often mentioned as one downside to being an elite athlete but how often are we truly talking about it in our teams or with our coaches and athletes?
That is one example of these tougher discussions that I feel like we are often missing from sports. We are rather nice and polite than tough and honest, with ourselves and with others. I am not saying that team settings should be like therapy sessions, but I am saying that this culture where we avoid the talk about difficult stuff is often just leading to problems underneath the surface. Then all the energy goes to trying to solve some issue on the surface level when the solution would be underneath.
So we need authenticity. We are human beings and our brain is built to yearn after connectedness, authentic relationship, and authentic being. Sports is not an exception, instead quite the opposite. It becomes even more important if we truly wish to reach our best. Sports is a realm where we lay it all on the line. If we are not feeling safe, not able to show up authentically – it is super hard to be all-in. I would say that it might be impossible because our unconscious mind might hold us back and protect us to some extent even if we want to be all-in.
Now we come to the crossroads where daring and being safe are pointing in different directions. You gotta choose. Choose daring. Dare to dive into that tunnel of vulnerability and show that you trust even if the environment has not exactly exposed their emotional vulnerability yet. By diving in you might see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There might be someone who cares. There is someone who appreciates. Someone who saw what you just did. You took the leap of courage!
While you’re in the tunnel, I would like to suggest that you look around. We often use that phrase that there is light at the end of the tunnel but I have learned something ridiculously awesome about that. The light at the end of the tunnel is not an illusion. But the tunnel is. The tunnel describes how we often perceive the situation. It does not automatically exist but we create it. If we are a bit more open, trusting, authentic to our true self, courageous, the tunnel gets bigger and bigger all the time and at the end, you might realize that the tunnel was just our own fears that were holding us back from being authentic. We can be the light. Not at the end of the tunnel. But in this world. Maybe we lighten up somebody else’s tunnel so they can take the leap of courage.
SELF-AWARENESS AND SPORTS
I will take one step back from this because this authenticity onion is being peeled and my eyes all always crying because of onions. So being true to yourself, knowing what that authentic you is, requires self-awareness and some self-discovery. My favorite quote around this topic is “Who we are is how we lead”, by my idol Brene Brown once again haha.
Not to dive too deep into the onion’s heart in this post, I just want to highlight how important role self-awareness plays with authenticity. We need more people who can commit to leading wholeheartedly, and not from the place of hurt and fear. Self-awareness is the key to recognize when the fears and hurt take over, when the armor emerges, why that armor comes up and therefore, works also as a solution to work to solve it. Basically what you do when you feel vulnerable.
By learning to be self-aware you also enable the willingness to listen to feedback, so you are aware of your possible desire to argue, defend, apologize, whatever it is. The goal is to let go of those little defensive mechanisms and just listen carefully, caring. Self-awareness also helps you to learn to tolerate your failures and disappointments with the same idea. No blame, no defensive acts, but toleration and working to get better. Dare to lead from your heart, with your values.
And don’t please get too stuck with the leading word and think that it only considers the head coaches or managers in sports. Leader is anyone who takes “responsibility for finding potential in people and processes and who has the courage to develop that potential” defined by Brene Brown and I agree 100% with her on this.
Thus friends, it is time to wrap this vulnerable burrito with its onions up, and that happens with some words I summarized below from Authentic Leadership, (p. 67-68) about authenticity and growth because that is the core of development, whether you are an athlete or coach and you want to get to the top, reach your best. So.
Your identity can absolutely evolve and get better, meaning that your authentic self can change over time, it can get bigger and better. The only way to grow though is stretching those limits. Doing new things that make us uncomfortable but that teaches us through direct experience who we want to become. Such growth doesn’t require a radical personality makeover. Small changes – in the way we carry ourselves, the way we communicate, the way we interact, often make a world of difference in how effectively we lead. Boom and amen. Until next time.
Thank you for reading <3
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SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:
Dare to Lead, Brene Brown daretolead.brenebrown.com(opens in a new tab)
DISCOVERING YOUR AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP, HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW https://socialscience.fas.harvard.edu/files/socialscience/files/discovering_your_authentic_leadership_-_harvard_business_review.pdf
Authentic Leadership book (and the collection of emotional intelligence) by Harward Business Review, https://www.amazon.com/HBR-Emotional-Intelligence-Boxed-Books/dp/1633696219/ref=sr_1_1?crid=I15Z6R7OJ2MA&dchild=1&keywords=emotional+intelligence+harvard+business+review&qid=1594238307&s=books&sprefix=emotional+intelligence+har%2Cstripbooks%2C171&sr=1-1
The Truth About Authentic Leaders by Bill George https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/the-truth-about-authentic-leaders
How emotional intelligence became a key leadership skill by Andrea Owens https://hbr.org/2015/04/how-emotional-intelligence-became-a-key-leadership-skill