Moving Past “Stuck”

May 17, 2022 | 2021-2022, Blog

By Stephanie Bernthal, Beyond Sport Coaching, LLC

On December 28, 2020, I had shoulder surgery to repair a tear and some cartilage issues. Let me walk you through how a very normal experience in our sporting world (addressing a physical injury) ignited some extraordinary changes in me​.

I’ll set the scene: This was my second surgery on the same shoulder, my first one being over a decade earlier during my collegiate field hockey days. I knew what this process entailed. My college surgery came after several years of coping with pain, rehabbing, and adapting movements to get by, something all of us become very adept at as athletes. No pain, no gain, right? When rehab was no longer stabilizing my performance, I reached the point of accepting the pathway of surgery. I was exasperated. I remember feeling I was failing my team because I was increasingly limited in conditioning and lifting activities, something I felt was important to my role as a team leader. I also got tired of the distraction pain brought to competing and being my best. It was exhausting to devote hours to rehab and feel like things were only getting worse. Humans are built with great resilience to adapt and make the most of challenges, but we also need hope that things can be better too. Surgery was the first step on a mission: lead my team by example as a senior and win a conference championship together. We ended up achieving that championship together the following fall. It was a storybook way for me to finish my career:  experience a setback, respond with “mental toughness” and “selflessness,” win a championship. As coaches, we’ve embraced a calling of reinforcing this in our athletes and teams, because we know how pivotal and rewarding it will be in the long-term. As time goes by in coaching, we realize how rare those storybook endings are, but the pursuit certainly keeps us coming back repeatedly.

Fast forward to January of 2020 (the beginning of the year that changed us all), and I’m sitting in my university’s training room. This is pre-pandemic and I am now a 10-year veteran in the college coaching world. As many of us in field hockey do, I had been hopping in and out of drills and scrimmages my whole career when roster numbers dwindled due to injuries. It was taking its toll on me as mid-thirties were approaching. Our team’s athletic trainer had been trying to persuade me to get my shoulder checked for some time and artfully tricked me into chatting with a team physician: “I got you an appointment, he’s just going to take a look at your shoulder for an update, it’s no big deal.” I sat down thinking I would get some continued strengthening recommendations, something I rarely made time for. My mentality: “I’ll get to this when I have built up the program more and things are more stabilized.” However, there always seemed to be more to do for the team, growing the game, and recruiting.

The mood in the room wasn’t what I expected. The doctor, looking piercingly into my eyes with a serious demeanor, stated, “I think you need to seriously consider getting an MRI. I know your athletic trainer has been encouraging you for a while now and it’s time to face it or understand what things could look like moving forward.” As we all do, I responded automatically and stubbornly, “I understand, but I’ve been dealing with this for a long time, I’m used to it and I’m sure it’s not a big deal.” He got more serious and asked me about several basic activities and whether I could do them, to which I responded sheepishly, “Well no, but I’m used to that.” I used to be a mental-health therapist, so part of me respected the brilliance of this approach: he had poked just enough holes in my perspective. But he was NOT going to sway me! Then, the gut punch from him, “Well here’s where things are at from my vantage point: It sounds like you have gotten used to a pretty low quality of life. You have very limited ability to do basic things, and either have stopped doing them or spend a great deal of time coping with pain afterward. Your lifestyle and job are active. If you ignore this conversation at best, things would stay the same, or most likely they will get worse. You could also face this and address it. I’m not saying that process will be easy, it would likely mean surgery to repair the damage, but you need to think about what you want long-term here and what you’ve been accepting as normal.”

I was speechless, and to be fully honest, I was mad. It’s not very often that, as a head coach, you get confronted and called out. You sometimes forget what it feels like, though ironically, we coach others and do it daily as a part of our role. I left the room, fuming, got in my car in the parking lot, and then suddenly tears started streaming down my face. What in the world was happening? Now…full disclosure, I rarely (if ever) cried as an athlete or kid growing up, even when injured. The irony is, I have probably cried more as a coach in moments of being proud of my student-athletes, gratitude for the ability to compete and grow together, or passion for serving my team and institution, than in my whole life combined before. Coaching has given me perspective like nothing else has. It has also given me blind spots, like anything can. In this moment, the tears were coming from somewhere else, somewhere deep inside of me and I had no idea what to make of it.

After some time, I realized the root of the tears was fear of the unknown. I had been living in denial. I pride myself on being afraid of so little in life. In fact, faith is something that has always anchored my life in every way. In this moment, I had to be honest that I felt like 20-year-old-me again, getting news I knew was true, but I didn’t want to face. And to be honest, it felt unfair to be back there. I had a choice: dig into stubbornness, which can be a great attribute of mine (and an important aspect of success in sport), or to surrender to the expertise of others, and face the unknown. I had to accept lack of control and trust these people around me to guide me into a place I couldn’t picture and that I knew had no guarantee. This time, there was no championship to train for, this was about me prioritizing a better quality of life. The reality: I had lost track of doing things to care for myself in the busyness of serving and leading student-athletes for so many years. I knew what I would have advised an athlete or coach sharing this with me, and it was a moment I had to walk out my own advice.

So, you would think I got on the phone and scheduled an MRI and then got surgery once a tear was confirmed, right? Nope, it took me going through a pandemic, more denial, justifying my actions in saying well it probably won’t get any better with surgery, and then realizing welp, I might as well face this in the last few days of 2020 before a new insurance year. Once I grudgingly took the leap and embraced guidance and support into the unknown, the journey that followed was amazing. I had to relinquish so much of the control and routine to which I had been accustomed. I needed people’s help for the simplest things. I had good days with pain and sleep, and of course lots of bad ones too. I worked on rehab right next to student-athletes who were in the same process, and it humanized them in a way that I had been missing (as I have gotten older and further away from those formative years and experiences). I slowly re-learned how to use muscles and complete movements in new and healthier ways, not compensating or protecting from pain. I learned to be patient with the baby steps and celebrate small victories. I learned to take the process slowly this time around. More wasn’t always better, I looked at it as a journey that was going to teach and change me, regardless of the outcome.

The biggest thing: I was humbled, completely. I always say being humbled is a good thing to embrace as a coach because we so often play the role of inadvertently humbling others. It’s a part of our job to push and pull greatness out of athletes. We challenge and hold people accountable. We see things in people that they don’t always see in themselves. Sometimes it requires pointing difficult things out to our athletes. We ask them to trust us to guide that growth. What we give, though, we must be able to receive. Easier said than done at this stage of my coaching career and life, I learned. I was stuck and I hadn’t even realized it.

I came to a conclusion in processing all of this: toughness is not always gritting through challenging things and going it alone. Sometimes it is letting go of what we know and taking a leap into the unknown. I am now in the transformational coaching and consulting profession, working with coaches and athletes – I’ve walked out that realization by taking my own leap of faith, leaving college coaching: a career I took nothing but joy from. A large part of that has to do with what I learned from the process I just walked through and wanting to support others’ growth in or beyond sport.

The process of addressing my shoulder shed light onto how those of us in the sports world can get so stuck in how we evaluate our lives, values, paths, thinking, priorities, and our well-being. If it is that much of a challenge to address something obvious, like a shoulder not working, how much harder is it to be honest with ourselves about jobs, habits, philosophies, and thought processes that may have fit with us at one point but aren’t serving us anymore? To be clear, I don’t think this is about making decisions around momentary “happiness” because that is a fleeting feeling. And guess what, rehabbing a shoulder daily after a surgery was not something I “enjoyed” in the moment. Maturity and life experience told me it was necessary to embrace for things to change in my daily life. Foolishness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Also, it got worse before it got better, for sure. Most growth isn’t easy or smooth. Finally, I couldn’t do this alone — I needed the help of people with expertise and ability to help me see what wasn’t working at its fullest potential. I needed to believe more was possible and to take real steps to get there. This winter, January 2021, I shoveled snow and afterward realized, wow, I haven’t been able to do this without gritting through significant pain for over a decade. I didn’t even know that was possible! It was so simple, but in that moment, I wondered:

How much longer would I have continued on the same road, stuck, if people hadn’t had the courage to intervene and confront me?

How much pain could I endure and justify as normal?

Why was I afraid to address something that was so clearly not working?

At what point does our concept of toughness turn into unproductive stubbornness or foolishness?

Why was relinquishing control and accepting help such a challenge when I would compassionately recommend that for anyone else?

Do any of those questions make you stop and think? Or are you on autopilot as a coach? Everyone is different, and we are all on a journey. Life brings things our way that challenge, teach us, and sometimes confront us with the need for internal or external change.

So, as you read this, I challenge you to:

  • Give yourself permission to reflect upon and assess your personal and professional life. Are you fulfilled by what you do daily in this profession? If so, take time to enjoy this season of life and be grateful! Are you unfulfilled, yet doing the same things and somehow expecting different results?
  • Listen to the people and situations in life that are confronting you in uncomfortable ways: What are the things you don’t want to hear, but need to (valid criticism)? What criticism do you need to leave behind (our job is NOT making everyone happy, that is unrealistic and impossible)?
  • Recognize opportunities to celebrate vulnerability and individual growth: Do you fear relinquishing control or being vulnerable? If so, where is that coming from?
  • Critically think about what you consider personal and professional success and failure: How do you handle failure?
  • Recognize the frustration that comes from feeling “stuck” and be willing to do the hard work of thinking in new ways about yourself, your career, and your student-athletes: The pressures of winning are never going to change! However, the rest of our world is. We can spend time resisting that or find trusted resources and people to help us grow while holding true to important core values

About the Author

Stephanie Bernthal is a field hockey coach, professional counselor, and founder of Beyond Sport Coaching, LLC for coaches, athletes, and professionals in sport business with the goal of helping clients ignite personal and professional growth and empower their authentic path in (or beyond) sport. Beyond Sport Coaching also offers mental health education designed to equip institutions and groups with tools specific to their role in the sport world.

The NFHCA is excited to host an Instagram Live Q&A session with Stephanie on May 18, 2022 at noon ET covering coach mental health.

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