Dark Times and Bright Futures

By Remington Steele, Head Coach, Bucknell University  @Bucknell_WLAX

I really shouldn’t be here right now. I shouldn’t be sitting in this office. I shouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet such amazing people. I shouldn’t have been able to represent my country or play college lacrosse (or even high school lacrosse, for that matter). I shouldn’t have been able to travel the world, or experience world cups. I shouldn’t have this incredible life, filled with opportunity, joy, and reward. And I owe it all to this sport, that was never supposed to be a part of my life. This is what I know, and what I truly believe… but the mind doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to.

   Photo courtesy of University of Vermont Athletics.

I’ll start from the beginning. I am genetically inferior, that’s how my friends describe it at least. We aren’t talking about the fact that I’m a “grown” man that stands somewhere around 5’5’’ tall, although the genetics clearly aren’t great there. Thanks Mom and Dad, your combined height of 10’8’’ really did wonders for my basketball career. No, we are talking about something that popped up when I was about five. I remember being in Dallas, TX where I grew up, at a Stars vs. Kings game, watching Wayne Gretzky (my childhood hero). I started to shiver and shake uncontrollably and couldn’t get it to stop, I was getting sick and we had to go home. My parents got me home, took me to the doctor, and a few days later we found out I had pneumonia. No big deal, nothing a couple days in the hospital can’t fix. However (this is the VH1 Behind the Music “but then” moment), while I was there, one of the tests showed that my right kidney wasn’t working, it never had. Because of this, my left kidney was doing all the work and had grown to the size of three normal kidneys (picture The Rock, but in kidney form). The doctors discovered that righty was retaining fluid and if it got too big it would rupture and likely kill me. The doctor decided it was kill or be killed, and launched a mutiny against my right kidney, removing it from my body. The operation was a success, I got a sick robot toy afterwards (you remember the one from the early 90s that threw a ball and you could play ring toss with?), and to this day, I don’t have any major health problems or limitations relating to my kidneys. Now, this story really doesn’t have much to do with the real point of this blog, I’m just laying the groundwork because at this moment in time, I’m a journalist and it is my journalistic duty to tell a story.

The only limitations I was really given were: don’t do anything to endanger your kidney. Because of this, heavy contact sports were banned by the doctor, primarily: lacrosse, hockey, rugby, and football. I remember crying when the doctor told me I couldn’t play lacrosse, even though there was no reason for me to be upset, I had never even seen a lacrosse stick in person. Lacrosse was just something that I always wanted to do, that I always knew was for me, despite it not really existing in Texas at that time. I had seen old MILL/NLL box lacrosse games on tv and just fell in love with the sport. My mom got me a stick (ironically it was a women’s stick) and I would throw around with it from time to time, but that was about the extent of my lacrosse experience until I was 13 or 14. In 8th grade, I moved to a new middle school and a bunch of the kids in my class played lacrosse, I knew this was my chance to guilt trip my Mom into letting me play under the veil of “fitting in” and “making friends.” She later told me she begrudgingly agreed, hoping I wouldn’t like it and move on to something else, jokes on her, I guess. I played attack and eventually became a goalie. I played at Robert Morris University before transferring to Limestone College, and I represented Canada in the 2008 U-19 World Championships. The gamble payed off. During this time, I always played with passion, with an edge, with intensity, and I think a lot of that was because, subconsciously, I was just grateful to have the opportunity.

You know those moments that completely change the trajectory of your life, but you don’t know it at the time? That happened to me when I was a senior at Limestone. I had to do a coaching internship, and unfortunately, I had put it off for way too long. Not having time to help at the high school or being allowed to work with the men’s lacrosse staff (due to me being a current player on the team), Scott Tucker agreed to let me shadow him and the women’s team for a semester. Like a lot of college men, I didn’t get women’s lacrosse. I didn’t understand the rules, or the tactics, I just didn’t get what I was watching. Tucker, Lauryn Wise, and the players on the team changed all of that. They taught me the rules, the tactics, and the differences from the men’s game, I grew to understand and love the game. A year later, Tucker hired me as a full time assistant and I dove head first into the world of college coaching.

I loved everything about coaching from the very beginning, I still do. I loved being on the field, working with players, recruiting, watching film, writing scouting reports, all of it. But most of all, I loved that I got to be around lacrosse, and I got to bring the same intensity I felt as a player to work every day as a coach. Here’s the thing about intensity and working in a results driven business: It wears on you. When you have a compulsive need to be the best, it leads to: over analyzing every situation, going weeks without a good night’s sleep, pushing away people that are close to you because “they just don’t get it,” and a level of obsession that would make any therapist grow dollar signs for eyes. I had huge dreams and aspirations, I told myself I was going to be the best coach in the sport and I was going to do everything I could to accomplish that. I wanted to be a Division I Head Coach and compete for championships. Because of this, I thought every win was going to take me closer to accomplishing my goal, and every goal against, missed shot, and lost draw was going to take me further away from it. Every time a kid was being lazy, or not running a drill properly, they were getting in the way of me accomplishing my goals and reaching my dreams. This all started to catch up with me during my second season at Limestone. I started to get high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. That anxiety and depression would slowly start to spread to other aspects of my life. I had always shown small signs of those things, college was especially hard. Because of my kidney situation, I didn’t drink in college and was constantly the only sober person in a sea full of drunk students. Weekends were the worst, every weekend I would pray for our coach to say we weren’t allowed to drink, that way I would be able to hang out with people on the same level as me. But that rarely happened, and every weekend was pretty much the same, me hanging out at some party, feeling no way to connect with the people around me. It is a really weird feeling being surrounded by people everywhere you look but feeling completely alone. For all of the amazing things that coaching brought out in me, it also brought some of those feelings back.

I didn’t give these warning signs the attention they deserved, instead I chose to ignore them, pushing these dark thoughts further towards the back of my mind, hoping they would disappear. At first it worked, they would disappear, for a day, a week, a month, before something would shoot them back to the forefront of my mind, hitting me harder than ever before. Around my fourth year of coaching, my second year in Division I, the depression and anxiety stopped going away. It was hitting harder and more frequently than ever. I wasn’t a good coach. I was constantly on edge, angry, and depressed. I was sleeping three or four hours a night, often forcing myself to stay awake, because I knew if I went to sleep, I was going to wake up and have to go to work and deal with this all again. Our season wasn’t going well, I was having mental breakdowns every single night trying to figure out how to get things back on track, I was destroying relationships, and I was so mentally exhausted I didn’t know how I was going to get through the season. But I did nothing. I didn’t get help, I didn’t talk to anyone or see a doctor, I didn’t admit that I had a problem, for fear that if people knew what I was dealing with I wouldn’t accomplish everything I dreamed of. I fought my way through the season and felt an unbelievable sense of relief after our last game, I could finally relax. However, that was short lived.

Within a few weeks of our season ending: our head coach resigned (which left me unemployed), my girlfriend broke up with me, my parents got divorced, and the dark thoughts were back. I locked myself away from the world, and completely shut down. I didn’t talk to anyone or leave my apartment for weeks, unless it was to get food or go on a job interview, and I watched the entire series of The Office a couple times through (that part was awesome). A few weeks later, the summer camp circuit started, and I had to get back to work. Steve Wagner (College of Brockport) did make me briefly feel better when we were cruising around a mall in Buffalo, NY. He asked me how I was doing with everything and I told him about all the changes that were going on in my life, he paused for a second and then responded with: “HAHAHA! Holy shit your life is terrible!” I still laugh about that, and at the time, amazingly, it helped. But I wasn’t better, I wasn’t really improving, and I had still done nothing to help myself. The depression and anxiety were up and down for the next year and a half until my first season as Head Coach at Bucknell. We were losing a lot of games, and since this was my first college head coaching job, this was the first time it was all my fault. The stress I felt as an assistant was amplified, every loss was taking me further away from being the best, and I felt I had let everyone down. After a loss I was afraid to look at people in the hall, I was afraid to face the team, I was afraid to go out downtown, for fear that someone would ask me about our season or what happened in the last game. I had accomplished one of my goals, I was a Division I Head Coach, but I wasn’t happy. I still didn’t get help. Instead, I thought “if I work more, and put in more time, that will lead to results.” I started sleeping in the office a couple of nights a week, I was more intense during practices and games, and I started morphing back into a person I didn’t want to be and a person I didn’t like. I let everything affect me, and I would over analyze every little thing that happened. A comment from a parent or player would play over and over in my head like a horror movie, literally burning a vivid picture into my mind every time I closed my eyes.

The end of the season came, but I didn’t get a sense of relief. Things continued to hit me hard, I was still obsessing over things that happened weeks and months before. I had so much anxiety before going to recruiting events that I don’t know how I got any work done. I didn’t want to see anyone, or face anyone, or talk to anyone, I wanted to be invisible. I would be at the fields recruiting, finding a spot as far away from people as I could. Then, realizing how isolated I was, I would get self-conscious about it (for fear that people would know what was going on) and try to overcompensate by talking to everyone. Summer started to wrap up and I didn’t want the kids to come back to school, I didn’t want to start practice, I didn’t want to face the team. Three months later, I still felt like I had let them down. I still replayed those scenes every time I closed my eyes. I thought about getting out of coaching, like I did two years earlier, I just wanted to be happy. I looked at sales rep jobs and asked my Dad if he could get me a job selling cars where he worked, I figured I was a pretty good recruiter and that is basically the same thing as sales. What my Dad told me that day (the same concepts were echoed by close friends and colleagues) stuck with me, “Remington, there is nothing wrong with selling cars if that’s what you want to do, but that’s not going to make you happy. Giving up on this isn’t going to make you happy.”

I finally got help. I started talking to our department’s sports psychologist, and he helped me put things into perspective and become motivated in a more positive and less stressful way. I saw a doctor and got on medication for my anxiety. I started making more time for friends and trying to do things that I enjoy outside of lacrosse, and I changed my approach to coaching and interacting with the players. I feel like a new person: I’m happy, I’m better at my job, and despite the normal stress and the occasional anxiety flare up, I’m mentally healthier than I have been in a very long time. I get frustrated because I think to myself: why didn’t you do this years ago? Why did you ignore this problem for so long and let it get to this point? Why couldn’t you face yourself? But at the end of the day, what’s important is that it happened, I learned from it, and I’m better off for it.

So why did I write this article? Why did I expose what I have been trying to hide for years? As coaches, we are constantly looking out for other people. We are looking out for staff members, players, recruits, our families, really everyone but ourselves. We are constantly talking to our players about looking out for themselves, and making sure they are practicing self-care, etc. but how many of us can honestly say we do the same? Clearly, I didn’t. So, when a fellow coach and close friend of mine texted me a few weeks ago and asked me what medication I was on, I knew I wasn’t the only one. After talking to them recently, discussing how getting help had benefited their life in every way (like it had mine), it confirmed that no one can help you until you help yourself. Coaching can make you feel like you are on an island, but it doesn’t have to. If you are having these issues: reach out to friends and colleagues, use your departmental resources, talk to a doctor, whatever you are comfortable with is fine… just do something, don’t suffer when you don’t have to. We have the most amazing job in the world – you deserve to enjoy it!

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