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Coaching burnout- how the system got Chris Petersen, Mark Richt, and maybe even me

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‘Canes fans know the perils of coaching burnout, but so do other programs.

Pittsburgh v Miami Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

“A man has two lives to live, and the second one begins when he realizes he only has one.” Chris Petersen delivered this quote at his press conference after announcing that he would be stepping down as head football coach of the Washington Huskies. Miami fans just endured the stepping down and transition from Mark Richt to Manny Diaz. Petersen (55 years old) and Richt (59 years old) have had long, extensive, 30-plus year coaching and playing careers that included multiple stints as head football coaches.

Mark Richt had spent fifteen seasons at the helm of the SEC’s Georgia Bulldogs before his three seasons at the ACC’s Miami Hurricanes. Both of those head coaching jobs come with big expectations, and those conferences come with extra weight and expectations, too. Richt never missed a bowl game over his illustrious head coaching career, which makes for the piling on of championship dreams and caviar booster events.

For Petersen, he spent eight years as the head coach at Group of 5 Boise State before six seasons with the Power 5 Huskies. While the WAC and Mountain West aren’t quite the SEC or ACC, he then coached in the Pac-12 (also a little less hectic) while at Washington. Petersen made a playoff run and pulled in a couple of Fiesta Bowl wins, and has always coached in a bowl game as a head coach, too. That’s not just an extra game, but extra weeks of practice which can take a toll on a coach’s body.

A year after Mark Richt retired post-Pinstripe Bowl, we have a more clear picture of the situation in Coral Gables, and around the country. Mental health and wellness is an important topic for me. It’s something I think about every day and trying to manage my own mental wellness in the coaching business has been hard. Coach Richt looked to be suffering both emotionally and physically coming into his retirement. I have feared the same fate for myself, or worse.


Motivation

Many people ask the question, how can someone pass up all of that money? Well according to Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, after finding our baseline wealth the rest of the payoff is just more stress in our lives. Motivation 3.0, according to Pink, is about finding our purpose in life. According to football and community building guru Joe Ehrmann, our purpose is defined by the strength of our positive relationships and our commitment to a cause greater than ourselves.

For many, coaching and athletics are a great way to change the world we live in. They provide toughness, teach grit and accountability, and are a source of community. But in the ever competitive world of college football- purpose gets clouded by press conferences, recruiting visits, and the endless meetings coaches endure. I’ve recently seen an official visit in action and on the same week a coach is preparing for a conference game, he’s also going to lunch and dinner with recruits’ families, shaking hands and taking pictures while DJ’s blast tunes in the locker room, and managing his staff as recruiting personnel caters to a 17 year old’s every whim.


DENNIS ERICKSON MIAM

The sacrifice

It’s a high stress, high reward life. But if we have learned anything from Mr. Pink’s Drive- it’s that autonomy, purpose, self-actualization and social justice far outweigh fame and paychecks. Mark Richt is a man of many interests, much like Mike Leach and Lloyd Carr. Chris Petersen has always come off as reserved and almost dull. However, he seems to be someone that values family and relationships; I hope that he can take the vacation he’s always wanted and enjoy just being a husband and dad.

As coaches we often sacrifice our physical and psychological health in our constant quest for championships. However, does one more hour of film, or 20 more minutes of meetings really change the entire fate of a football program? Probably not. Sun Tzu once said stop working so damn hard, you idiot (he didn’t really say that, but he basically did)! I know that during the season I: exercise less, take less time away from a screen, read less, and spend less time with my family. The Saturday after the season is over I’m almost overwhelmed with the free space in my brain and on my calendar (insert Jack Daniels).


Why we coach

So why do we coach football in this ever kaleidoscop’ing world that fights an ongoing struggle between social media turds (I guess I’m one, too), street agents, and unhappy community members (read: boosters, parents and admin)? A lot of it is ego, some of it is fear, and most of it is habit. Much like Petersen said in his outgoing press conference, it’s just what I’ve always done. I fear not being on the sideline on Friday nights if I do really step away. It’s also just what I have always done. I belive that we are what we do as much as we do what we are. And another big part is ego.

Miami v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The ego

If we quit we’re admitting we are “weak” in some twisted world. Many feel Coach Richt was admitting he was a bad coach when he stepped away, just like I would be admitting it was too much for me to handle. As coaches our egos often get in the way of our mental, emotional, and physical wellness. That’s why stigma surrounding mental wellness and sexual orientation runs rampant in the NFL. It’s why coaches and players aren’t open about their mental health, and why coaches and players self-medicate to the levels of danger and misuse.

When fans wonder why Coach Diaz is hesitant to fire Coach Enos it’s because coaches establish relationships. Their families get to know each other, and they tell them “you have time to get this right,” just like the athletic directors promise that to head coaches. Does that mean a total disaster is allowed to take place? No (I’m looking at that 3rd down conversion ranking). But I don’t wonder why there’s hesitation. The same way that when a coach is in over their head they hardly ever walk away, they’re often fired. That’s ego... and the buyout, of course.

The relationships

But we don’t just coach for the ego. We coach because of the relationships that we create and the purpose driven lives that we lead. I love the bond that coaching creates with the young people that I come in contact with. I have relationships with former players, co-coaches and other staffers that would not exist without the blood, sweat, tears and beers shed over the game of football. If my purpose is relationships and commitment- this game has allowed me to live out my purpose.

Through coaching I have found out my strengths, weaknesses, I’ve established my self-esteem, concept, efficacy, awareness, and actualization. I’ve driven the non-compliant students into compliance, and the compliant into being elite. I’ve also facilitated the elite into learning how to hang loose. I have been in player’s weddings, toasted graduations, taken them to court dates, and seen the smiles on a mama’s face when her baby gets a scholarship to college. Were the hours and lost holidays and weekends worth it? I’m not sure. But there are massive community and purpose-driven benefits that come along with the sleepless nights and 80 hour work weeks.


The second life

There was a fluff piece on Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly in Sports Illustrated in 2017 (click here to read it) and how he was doing yoga and trying to find his mindfulness. With how angry and red faced Kelly gets during games I’m sure many felt it was a total crock of crap but I completely belive it. Almost all Division I athletes are required to do yoga as part of their athletic performance model and I’m sure that wasn’t lost on Kelly. Also, doctors love it and the ones that don’t prescribe pills for every ailment typically prescribe yoga and meditation.

How do I stay grounded during the hectic football season? I carve out time to put away the screen, to lift weights (I skip JV games), to do yoga, to meditate, a little time to read, and just lay around doing and thinking about absolutely nothing. It helps, it works, mindfulness and mindlessness are real. I have other interests outside of football like NAMI’s Ending the Silence presentations, yoga, and rasslin’. We coaches have to keep other interests or we turn into Larry Fedora and Gary Patterson in the Coaches Film Room from ESPN.

Through all of the fun, even I can admit, I want to live that “second life.” I hope Chris Petersen, Mark Richt, and even old grumpy Nick Saban finally sit down one day and are satisfied with what they’ve achieved. Football is merely a vocation that allows someone to get paid (and for some, paid well) to deliver their purpose. But we can definitely branch outside of the game to better our community and perpetuate our reason for being. The question is, will more coaches start to step away from the stress and spotlight to lay on a beach or a yoga mat?