Psychological Tales of a Sports Nomad
I was asked by João Frigerio from iWorkinSport to be interviewed and talk about the psychological challenges of looking for work during a crisis. He asked me in particular due to my formation as a sport psychologist and experience as a professional always moving from event to event in the sports world. The link to the interview is : Psychological Challenges of looking for a job during a Crisis. In preparation for that interview I started writing a few notes. Those notes became this essay.
I have been a Sports Nomad for 10 years, encompassing 2 Olympic Games, 2 Paralympic Games, 2 Commonwealth Games, 2 FIFA Football World Cups, 1 Pan American Games, 1 African Youth Games, 1 African Beach Games, 1 World Beach Games, 1 Para-Swimming World Championships and now I am moving onto my 3rd Olympic and Paralympic Games. It is a great career with constant challenges and stories, but it also means I always have an end date of my contract and frequently need to be on the lookout for the next job.
There is an adrenaline rush in working these big events, there is a slow buildup of the months planning and preparing. Then soon teams start arriving, official training begins, things seem to run smoothly, but in the background few people see the operational plans falling apart and the last-minute solutions to fix them. Opening Ceremony days are a day I usually don’t eat, mostly because I forget, there is so much going on that eating becomes secondary. Athletes and fans unaware of the sleepless nights of all the people that made sure that they had beds ready for the athletes to sleep or the sports equipment that was delivered late and set up overnight for competition the following morning. Then things come together, the competition flows, medals are won, stars are born, I forget to eat on closing ceremony day... and then it's over.
After the rush there is a crash, the athletes and officials disappear, fans are gone, each sports nomad goes back to their own home country and the locals go back to their pre-games life. Some might have lined up another event or a permanent job, others will indulge in Fun-employment and travel around for a few weeks while others will send out CVs and wait. That waiting could be 6 days, 6 weeks, 6 months, it could be longer. And while you send out your CV you talk to other sports nomads and find out they have applied for the same job, and suddenly the smallest difference is the biggest difference, what language do you speak? Do you need a visa to work somewhere? Do you have the right contacts? And then it doesn’t matter if you did a particular event; because so did hundreds of other people.
When people hear about my career experiences they think I have the best job in the world, but they only see the events and the different countries I work in, they don’t see the gaps and what happens in between. The waiting is the worst part, you go back to your hometown where nothing has changed, you are happy to see your family and friends but soon after itch to leave again.
With sports nomads it is not FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, but FOME or Fear Of Missing Events. Because like an athlete, we always need to stay moving, active, relevant, and the longer we stay out the harder it becomes to go back in. But there are too many events happening to be involved in all of them, yet too few to accommodate all the sports nomads floating around the world.
In addition to this burden of unemployment at the end of an event, especially a big, all consuming one like the Olympic and Paralympic Games, there is a sense of losing a bit of your identity, of your purpose, you miss your peers, the action and chaos of the event, and you go through a certain period of loss and grief.
Reacting To Grief
In a general sense grief is a reaction to a loss, this can be loss of a person, a job, an opportunity, or like the pandemic days that we are in now in 2020; loss of control. This sense of grief is commonly illustrated by the Kubler-Ross model of 5 Stages of Grief; Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I recognize this model but only use it as an example because the stages don’t necessarily happen in that order and don’t necessarily all manifest themselves, however, it is a good illustration of some of the emotions a person can go through while experiencing grief. One part I do not use is acceptance as an end point, because it is difficult to accept loss or accept a certain situation beyond your control. Acceptance is not an action; it is a consequence of action.
- You don’t have to accept your situation but you should adapt to it.
What should be done is adapt and adjust to the new situation. To adapt you have to be proactive and solution focused rather than passive and problem focused. If you find yourself in one of the stages of grief such as anger or depression, finding adjustments and adaptations can help you work through those emotions in a more positive manner.
- To adapt to your new situation stay busy, personally (physically, mentally and creatively) and professionally.
Surfing Through The Feeling Of No Control
The environment around us can also cause grief by the feeling of loss of control like what we are experiencing now with Covid-19 where you feel like you have fewer options due to a lack of control of your circumstances.
A good example of the areas of control I take from Surf psychologist Richard Bennet who talks about: Mind, Body, Equipment and Ocean in his book The Surfers Mind. We can use these principles in a surfing analogy to look at our careers: if we look at the ocean as the environment we're swimming in (an industry we work for or want to work in) and equipment as the experience or degrees we have attained to interact with this environment.
Mind - One thing always worth remembering is that we can have control of our minds and what we are thinking. However, it takes practice to unlearn what you have learned and prevent some of the negative or repetitive thoughts that come to our heads. But ultimately you can gain control of your thoughts, your attitude and how you react to circumstances.
- You might not be able to control a situation but you can control your attitude towards it.
Body - Sometimes emotions and thoughts can be so strong that they cause physical reactions, like the sensation in your stomach of anxiety before a job interview, that shout of happiness when your team scores a goal or that groan when your food arrives from a restaurant and looks completely different than what you had imagined. The initial reaction might be uncontrollable but you can control what happens after. The physical feeling of anxiety is very similar to the feeling of excitement; the only thing that differs is how you label it in your mind. If you imagine it as anxiety it will start to spread as anxiety, however if you think of it as excitement you can use it to energize yourself. Imagine yourself about to go Bungee jumping, in other words; jump off a cliff with only a giant rubber band tied to your ankles. Your body will start reacting by producing adrenaline and a feeling in your stomach. You can choose to interpret this as anxiety of nervousness and think about all the things that can go wrong in the jump. Or you can choose to think about it as excitement and the prospect of momentarily flying through the air in a new experience. Same action; different reaction.
- The same action can cause a different reaction depending on your attitude towards it.
Equipment (Education & Experience) – Your equipment is something that needs to be acquired, taken care of and improved. This can depend on your means and opportunities; can you afford the money to buy the equipment? The time to build and care for it? Or do you have the talent to get a sponsor? And in thinking in terms of career, can you afford the money for a degree? Can you get a scholarship? Or do you have the time for volunteer work to gain experience? It is important to equip yourself, and equip yourself with something that fits with your mind, body, environment and future goals. Sometimes you have to improvise, could a surfboard work on snow? Potentially; but it depends on what your goal is. Are you just trying to get to the bottom of the mountain (make do), perform some tricks (show talent) or win a race (find sponsors). Like your current degree or experience, it might not exactly match with what you want or have to do, but you can adjust like a surfer on a snowy mountain.
In relation to control of your equipment you have some control such as where you attain it and how much work you put into it to improve it. You might be able to predict how your equipment reacts to your body, but sometimes you cannot predict how it reacts to the environment like a bicycle tire hitting a rock.
- Find the best equipment you have available and appropriate for you and your environment.
- Expand on your equipment (experience/education) so you can surf (work) in the ocean (career) of your choosing.
Ocean (Environment) - No one could have predicted the impacts of Covid-19 and many people suddenly were unable to work or look for jobs due to the abrupt change. Our work environment, like the ocean, is uncontrollable. You can choose to go in and swim or not, depending on how comfortable you are with the current conditions, however once you are in the ocean you have no control of the ocean itself. What you can do is use your mind to evaluate the environment and then use your body to control your equipment to interact with the environment. Remember to constantly re-evaluate the environment and make adjustments when needed. So if a certain platform or program becomes important in your working industry make sure you update you knowledge to keep up with the tide.
But what do you do if something unpredictable happens? Or you misread the wave break? You fall in and get caught underneath and start tumbling around. You have no control of your environment, no control over how your equipment is affected by the environmental change and little control over your body that is still tumbling around the ocean floor.
What can you control here? Until the wave passes all you can control is your mind and your reaction to the situation. Recognize that you have no control over what is happening to you, no control over your environment, that your equipment won’t help you, and that your body is overpowered by the tons of water crashing on you; but your mind is intact. Keep calm, regain control of your mind and start adjusting.
- Once you are in a crisis situation start by regaining control of yourself.
- Keep calm and (insert necessary action here).
Once the wave passes, assess the new environment. Can you touch the floor? Are you upside down? Where is your board? Use your experience to remember that there is likely another wave coming, use your experience to swim up for air and evaluate the situation. Adjust and adapt. Are you okay? Is your experience and education still relevant and up to date? How has the environment changed? Is there another wave coming? Is there anyone around that can help? Should you get off the beach, change careers? Or can you get back on the board and back to surfing? What is the wave you are facing and what can you control once it goes over you? Right now we are literally in between waves of the pandemic, this is the time to evaluate. Do you stay with your usual job-hunting strategies or do you re-think your tactics? Is there an opportunity hidden in the crisis? Do you get back on the board or do you hold your breath and go under because there is another wave barreling down on you? If opportunities are slim take the time to develop skills, learn new perspectives or volunteer. Use the time to improve or acquire new equipment to enable you to successfully surf your work market once the wave passes.
- Constantly re-evaluate your environment and situation and adjust as needed.
My Career Ocean
After graduating with a sports psychology degree in the end of 2004 I struggled to find a full-time job. I supplemented my income through bartending and acting and applied for any job with the word sport or psychology in it but no one wanted someone without experience; it was a catch-22. I had no experience, and without experience I couldn’t get experience. And after many failed attempts at finding a paying job I decided to volunteer. In the sporting world in particular there are many volunteer roles, amateur sports especially depend on volunteers. In 2006 I applied to be a sports development volunteer through the Commonwealth Games Association of Australia and was sent to the National Olympic Committee of Zambia with nothing but a couple of handbooks on Sports Development in Australia (which don’t really apply to the reality of sport in Zambia). It was a valuable experience but frustrating at times where I learned a lot about sports Organizations and the Olympic movement but also felt I was limited in how impactful I could be. Little did I know that a few years later that experience would change my life completely by giving me entry in my current career path.
- Frustrating experiences are still valuable; it might just take some time to see their real value.
- Volunteering is an important way to stay professionally busy.
I went back to Australia thinking I finally had the experience I needed to get a job… apparently I didn’t, and I went back to bartending and acting. I rarely talked about my part-time jobs in my job interviews at that time because I did not think they were relevant. Now, years later, I can reflect and realize that there is a lot to learn and talk about in terms of professional and personal growth in any job.
I was a bartender in a backpacker bar by Bondi Beach in Australia loosely based on the movie Coyote Ugly. On the weekends and Wednesdays the place was packed from wall to wall and people danced on the bar and table tops. I had to serve in between dancing patrons legs while at the same time remember the order in which people arrived at the bar to keep everyone served as quickly as possible, pay attention to the crowd to make sure no one was getting too drunk or rowdy and keep an eye on any stock that was getting low and needed replenishing. It was my first experience dealing with complete chaos, and staying calm while doing so. A handy skill for events that can become organized chaos and require creative multi-tasking.
As an actor the backstage experience of being in a cramped space while frantically changing costumes and at the same time switching characters in my mind was probably my first hands on experience of quick adjustment and adaptation.
This also helped me as a sports event professional in knowing what to leave backstage (stress, frustration, fear, doubt, mistake from the previous scene) to ensure all goes well on the main stage.
- Every job has something to teach you, be open to learn those lessons.
In early 2007 I went to Brazil to visit my family and brought my then girlfriend with me because we were only staying a few weeks. There I found out that Brazil was going to host the 2007 Pan-American Games and I contacted every Brazilian Federation and offered my services as a sports psychologist, some already had one, some had no interest and some could not afford one. Then I offered my services for free and two accepted my offer, the Badminton Federation and the Baseball & Softball Federation. Here was where I faced my first major career versus life crisis. Should I stay in Brazil working for free but potentially getting the experience I need for future work? Or do I go back to Australia with my girlfriend with no job prospects? I stayed in Brazil, I got the experience I thought I needed but also two other things happened; my relationship started to fall apart and I became disillusioned with the state of sport and sport psychology in Brazil. Because of that I applied and was accepted into the FIFA Masters Sports Management Program effectively ending my relationship.
What does this have to do with career crisis management? Sometimes crisis resolution requires sacrifice, in this case personal. Part of the reason why I wanted to move forward in my career was to be able to ask her to marry me and I did not think that repeated failures in getting full time work would have helped my proposal. Could I have gone back to Australia with her and found a job in sports there? Maybe. I could also just as easily have gotten back to Australia and ended up breaking up with her or her breaking up with me. In other words, don’t dwell on the past and what could have been; because even though the best outcome could have happened there are chances that the worst one could have happened too. So if you imagine that everything would have gone right if you made a difference choice imagine how things could have gone wrong too. Looking back and idealizing an alternate decision or alternate reality is actually very unhealthy for your happiness because you are comparing yourself with something that you cannot compete with.
- Don’t dwell on the past sacrifices that you imagine you lost, but in the actual things you have gained.
- There is no crystal ball to look into the future and there is also no crystal ball to look into alternate realities.
- Don’t glorify a past that never happened.
I graduated from the FIFA Masters in 2008 when the market crashed. My whole class struggled to find work and many of them resorted to low-paid internships.
For those that don’t know the FIFA Masters the last assignment is a group research project called the Final Project and we have to present it live to a group of panelists, our classmates and many guests, some of which are potential employers, so it was important to make an impression. I had my suit and tie although I hate suits and ties and I was rehearsing my part of the presentation for hours with the notes I had prepared. Just before our presentation I threw all my notes in the bin, standing still reading notes didn’t feel natural to me and I improvised my presentation. It must have worked because a few weeks later I was contacted by someone that had been in the presentations and liked what he saw of me, he was the owner of a St. Louis based women’s soccer team so there I went. You might say that it was a lucky break, and I agree, but only because I believe that luck is when preparation and opportunity meet. An opportunity presented itself and I was ready and willing to take it.
- Always be yourself.
- Luck is when preparation and opportunity meet.
St. Louis was a great experience to put into practice what I had learnt about player contracts, trades, loans, logistics, and administration; but it wasn’t for me. So after a year there I left and went back to Australia to try it there one more time thinking I had the experience and education under my belt to finally get a sports job and hoping on the off-chance that I could get back together with my ex-girlfriend. I ended up bartending, acting and landscaping.
The lack of career advancement in my chosen field and the complete collapse of the relationship I tried to re-kindle took me into a downward spiral and a personal crisis resulting in a lack of motivation, lack of joy in things, troubled sleep and eating patterns. I went into severe depression.
I needed a change so I stepped out of my comfort zone and accepted a teaching job in a small city college. It was teaching “sports” but it had a curriculum limited by the local education board as the diploma could grant student visas so most students were more interested in keeping their visa status than learning the subjects. To keep my mind off of everything else in my life and also to have something to look forward in my new job I became creative within the limits of the curriculum and assignments to make it engaging for the students and interesting for me. I ended up enjoying that creative process and I would easily teach again if given the opportunity.
- Try something new, you might find something you enjoy.
- Be creative when you can and give projects your own flair.
Although I had made the teaching role my own it was just above tolerable and there were many things about the job that frustrated me so I was still actively looking. Then I saw an advertisement for ‘the’ job: National Olympic Committee Relations Coordinator for Africa in the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The title was three mouthfuls but I felt it was the job for me especially after I read the description and desirable skills and experience:
- Education in sports related field. (check)
- Experience with the Olympic movement. (check)
- Experience in Africa. (check)
- Speak fluent English and Portuguese. (check and check)
- Right to work in the UK. (check)
Since I was living in Australia my first interview was online and I thought I had done pretty well. At the end of the interview I was told that the next round of interviews was in person in London but I would be excused from attending since I was so far away. I didn’t know if that meant that I was excused because they were leaning towards hiring me already or if they were likely not to hire me. It was not a chance I was willing to take so I weighed the pros and cons of spending money on a last minute plane ticket halfway around the world and thought it was worth the risk to attend the in-person interview.
- Measure the risks and potential rewards.
That risk paid off and I spent 2011 and 2012 working for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in an interesting, intense and incredible experience. I finished that job exhilarated and was sure that after working the Olympic Games and being able to put that on my curriculum everyone would want hire me.
Nope, I competed with the other 5,000 people that also had London 2012 on their resume and that also just became unemployed.
I went back to Brazil and into a crisis of my own creation because I thought I was entitled to move up in the career ladder and was looking for forward movements only and dismissed any job I considered to be a lateral move. I had interviews but I was not getting the jobs and my self-confidence started to suffer especially after I lowered the standards of the positions I was willing to accept and was still not getting offers.
To keep emotionally distracted while I rummaged through the sporting world looking for a career opportunity I wrote and self published a book of short stories, "Dead Dodos Tell no Tales". That process ignited a creative fire in me and helped me think outside the box and look at lesser-known Games, specifically the 2nd edition of the African Youth Games in Botswana. There was no role advertised but I knew I could help and I ended up there as Technical Advisor. On paper it was neither a forward nor lateral move; because a continental Youth Games could not be compared to the magnitude of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. So it was a diagonal move, with a massive learning curve.
- Re-think what makes you unique and re-evaluate your strategy.
- The size of the fish is relative to the size of the pond.
After Botswana I went on a bit of a hot streak of events mostly coming from personal contacts, during London 2012 I helped two FIFA Masters Alumnus get interviews for the Games, they got the jobs and in 2014 one of them needed someone to help him during the Brazil World Cup. He called me up.
- You are not in it alone.
- Those who help others are helped by others.
Even though personal contacts were starting to pay off I was still actively searching through job websites and applying to different events. I joined the Toronto 2015 Pan-American Games as Sport Manager for Judo, Wrestling, Karate and Taekwondo through the normal route of application and interview. It was a different role to the ones I had before, but I believed, and could demonstrate in the interview that the experiences and skills I had in different jobs would allow me to learn the intricacies of the job quickly and then perform it successfully.
Once Toronto 2015 finished I went back to Brazil again looking to get into Rio 2016 and this time I was approached by two departments, one was for a Manager position and the other was for a Coordinator position. Considering I had already been a Coordinator at an Olympic Games and had just been a Manager at a Pan-American Games going back to Coordinator would have been a backwards career move. I took many factors into consideration; it was only for a year, the manager role was in a department I was not particularly keen to join despite the higher salary whilst the coordinator role was for the same department that I had worked with in London and I knew it was a job I would enjoy with a good team, and could potentially help me with future opportunities. Believing that the coordinator role would fit better with my long term goals I accepted the position.
- Being cocky can get you bigger rewards but being humble can give you more constant rewards.
After Rio 2016 I joined the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games then had an extremely busy 2019 with the African Beach Games followed by the World Para-Swimming Championships, World Beach Games 2019 and African Olympic Boxing Qualifiers and in early 2020 joined the organizing Committee for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Amidst all these different events I learnt to differentiate between stress and frustration. I have started to look at frustration as the feeling of something that affects you because you cannot control it, whereas stress is what happens when you let those feelings of frustration overwhelm you. So while you can be frustrated with a situation you should not let it stress you, because after all, if you cannot control the situation there is no point in being stressed about it.
I worked in one event that was particularly frustrating, maybe because I was in a position to make decisions, but at the same time had many things out of my control. Teams were dropping out, I wasn’t sure if I would have enough athletes for 3 of the sports, the rowing boats were scheduled to arrive the month after the games started, and the shipping company had no idea where the basketball flooring was. Rather than let the frustrations overwhelm me I gave myself a personal challenge of overcoming those frustrations; that event was either going to make me or break me, and I refused to be broken.
- Think of frustrations as challenges to be overcome.
I was ready to cancel the rowing event because there was nothing I could do about the rowing boats that were scheduled to arrive after the competition started. But if necessity is the mother of innovation, then frustration is its father. I thought of an intricate trading plan then made a series of phone calls and was able to exchange the boats we had, that would not arrive in time, for another set of boats destined to another event that were built in a nearby country and the other event would receive our boats as they were not pressed for time. It was still a risky plan with no guarantee of success, yet the boats arrived the same day as the athletes.
- Complex problems are puzzles that require creative solutions.
To solve the basketball floor issue I came up with a plan B and a plan C. Our plan A already included a wooden staging on the beach which was already prepared as we had used it for the karate competition, so plan B was to paint the basketball lines directly on the wood but as it was supported on sand it did not have a good bounce. So in preparation we had plan C of moving basketball off the beach and onto a schools court far away from the other sports.
- Always have a plan B… and C.
As a psychologist I have always said it is okay, even helpful, to cry, it is a release of something that is inside you that needs to be expressed. The third day of competition was the toughest one of the schedule, we had 5 events that day including the 5k Open-water swimming, which was our riskiest one and we still did not know if the basketball floor would arrive for the competition to start the following day. I went to sleep at around 1:30am and woke up at around 3:30am to set up the half-marathon course. I was sharing my apartment with the athletics manager and as soon as I saw her having breakfast I started crying. She asked me, "Are you okay?".
After a few seconds of tears coming down my eyes I smiled, "Now I am." I needed to get that built up emotion out to function properly. I had been holding back the frustrations so much that they were starting to become stressors and because I was in a leadership role I could not appear flustered or nervous, so despite many things going wrong I maintained calm and control in front of everyone to ensure they also stayed calm and controlled.
However that accumulated emotion was starting to create a knot in my throat and I was spending too much energy controlling my emotions rather than thinking of solutions to the challenges we were facing. So when an opportunity presented itself to release that emotion in front of someone I trusted, I did it, and it felt fantastic.
- If you don’t control your emotions your emotions will control you.
I cried for maybe only 20 seconds, but it made all the difference in the world. If you are a frustrated, stressed, angry, sad or confused and you feel like crying; do it. But afterwards take action, adjust and adapt. Think of crying as lubricant for your eyes and your mind to see things in a different light. I knew it was going to be a difficult day and without the burden of built up emotion I tackled the events challenges with purpose. The half-marathon only needed minor last minute adjustments so after it started I went to the Open-water swimming venue and found it to be all in shambles, everything that could have gone wrong was going wrong.
The tide had ripped off some of our buoys, the finishing line had to be changed from the water to land, we didn't have enough anchors for the new buoys, the officials tents had been blown away by wind and the rescue boats hadn't arrived. We were an hour away from being declared unfit and canceled.
The continental federation technical delegate asked me, "How did this all happen?" I just replied, "It doesn’t matter now; it happened, we are going to work on a solution." Then he asked me, "What are you going to do about it?" I smiled and calmly said, "Improvise", and then I set off running to give people instructions and start finding solutions. I told my aquatics sports manager to get on a boat and start solving everything he could in the water while I grabbed a handful of volunteers and started fixing all the issues we could on land. In one hour we went from being unfit to viable, in another hour from viable to okay and in the final hour from okay to good. By the time the event finished it had become excellent.
- Be solution focused rather than problem based.
And while the swimming event was happening phone calls were being made and we found out that the container with the basketball floor was on a nearby island. We made various phone calls and transferred the basketball floor onto a rickety banana boat that was bound for our island. The flooring arrived at the beach at 10pm, we finished setting it up by 3am, competition started at 8am. That was the most difficult and frustrating event I have worked in so far. But it has also been the most fulfilling and satisfying.
- There is a great sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from overcoming a challenging situation.
Two weeks after I joined Tokyo 2020 the Games were postponed to 2021 and like most people in the sports world went into a period of uncertainty. At the moment the Games are still happening in 2021 and we are working towards that goal.
Currently I am still surfing the wave but this year is very unpredictable and could crash at any moment. So while I am still focused on staying steady and controlling the board under my feet I am well aware that I could fall and be taken under the wave at any moment.
Which brings me to my final point. At this moment, with social isolation, quarantines and restricted travel, there are few job opportunities due to the financial burden of companies and also due to geographical restrictions. So the moment is to prepare yourself for when jobs become available again. This is done by staying busy and having a story to tell. You can say how you improved yourself by taking online courses, learning a new language or becoming more creative by playing an instrument. Or how you helped out the community by making masks, doing shopping for at risk groups or making Tik-tok videos to show to children in local hospitals.
After Covid-19 passes many employers will be asking in their interviews: “What did you do during the pandemic?” because this is a situation that everyone around the world is going through and even if they do not ask that directly, if you have and opportunity, be prepared to tell your story.
- Adjust and adapt to your new situation.
- Stay busy.
- Have a story to tell and tell it.
Gabriel Behr Andrade – Sports Psychologist, Sports Nomad.
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