This is part 4 of a series featuring local leaders sharing their experience with sport, and how the skills learned through sport and active recreation impact their professional roles and life.
I believe there are no greater experiences for connecting youth to positive influential role models, nor for creating growth towards confident and competent leaders as is found in sports participation; further, there is no greater way to teach life skills that have a more positive impact on a child's development, contributing to a healthier community, than is provided by sports. For those reasons and many more, I choose to give my time and energy to sport. I do this so I may pass on lessons that help carry me through life.
I’m no longer an athlete. I’m the Program and Event Coordinator for the Lethbridge Sport Council and a paid wrestling coach. I’m fortunate enough to do what I love and call it work. I have been able to earn and sustain these types of leadership roles in large part due to personal qualities instilled in me through my experiences in sport. Sports have shaped my life unlike anything else. I’ve identified myself through sports, which has proven detrimental at times but has also been very rewarding in my lifetime. At 32, my career is still based around sports, and I’ve been emotionally and physically invested in it since I can remember.
I didn’t always feel as strongly positive about sports as I do now. I struggled in school because of my slow physical development and my inability to focus in the classroom setting. I still set goals for myself that may be unattainable in my lifetime, knowing that the true rewards are the lessons learned in pursuing those dreams.
I was raised by a single mother of two. She worked hard to produce opportunities for my sister with special needs and me. She always kept us busy with extracurricular activities, including sports. She believed we needed to “run the stink off of us”. I learned that I could focus better when I had run the energy off. Initially, she saw sports as a means to teach me discipline. She enrolled me in Karate at the age of 5. I excelled at it and, before long, was encouraged to enter competitions. I sparred at a young age and earned medals in both the sparring and routines. Those medals represent my earliest experiences in the relationship between work and reward, which I have instilled in me since.
I started my journey in team sports when I was invited by my best friend to join his minor hockey team. It was a recreation league, and we were defensive partners for a couple of years together. The lessons I learned from that coach are still remembered and applied to my life today, including how to be a better student. He once arranged for a few players and me to watch Sidney Crosby play when he was bantam-aged playing in the midget AAA finals.
Coach had us take note pads and record details about his play. I remember Sydney got 7 points that game, two goals, and five assists. He had no line/shift partners; when the coach touched his shoulder, he would hit the ice and was usually already on the bench when a goal was scored from his pass. I observed at that game that Sidney saw things differently than other players; he wasn’t scared to play differently or without a specific line or group of players.
Sidney knew hockey so well that he could think outside of the box and make plays that others could not imagine possible. Being able to know a game so well that you can be innovative in your strategies to win was inspirational to me. I eventually gave up on hockey in pursuit of other opportunities but never forgot the lessons learned from that sport and those coaches.
Shortly after leaving hockey, I started picking up every sport I could imagine; the addiction to sport as a means to self-medicate my overactive mind began. The fear of competition left me, and I was open to just about any game that someone invited me to play or had opportunities to aspire to. I played volleyball, wrestling, cross country, and track and field events, including javelin and rugby. I swam semi-competitively for a while, too, earning my lifeguarding certification. My mother grew up afraid of the water, so this was for her more than it was for me.
When my mom was looking for a summer activity to keep me out of trouble, we landed on a ‘sprint canoe/kayak’ program. Mom could drop me off each morning at the paddling club, happily named MicMac Amateur Aquatic Club, and pick me up on her way home from work. Eventually, I would bicycle the 10.5kms to and from the club so I could practice longer than her workday and get some extra cardio in.
She said it was great for me to be outside all summer, just running, paddling, swimming, and being with friends. I have never been in better shape in my life than when I was paddling my summers away. The training was out of this world. Paddling was a perfect summer sport for me.
I went on to be quite successful in paddling. My wrestling coach had to call and discuss what was best for my future openly with my paddling coach and ask him if it was worth it for me to pick one over the other in my grade 11 year. I was medaling in both at national events regularly. The big difference maker was that my national medals in paddling were in team boats and not individual performances. I won several dragon boat, war canoe, and 4 person canoe medals at our national championships and had some potential to go further but nothing like the opportunities that had been presented in wrestling. Another deciding factor that eventually led me to pursue senior wrestling over paddling was the opportunity to study a post-secondary education while competing for a varsity wrestling program. There are no varsity canoe/kayak programs in Canada and that reality ultimately led to my final decision.
Wrestling was the sport. I started it in grade 7. I come from a rather large family and was the second youngest of 7 cousins who all competed in wrestling. I couldn’t wait to be able to practice and train the techniques of wrestling so I could protect myself against family members who were almost always roughhousing. We were a rough, tough group of kids and wrestling was/is our natural form of play.
For me wrestling was and still is life. My coaches presented it as such, always exclaiming that it was a metaphor for life and that after wrestling everything else in life comes easy. Now in my retirement I couldn’t agree more. We are taught to embrace uncomfortable situations and to learn to work through them like a problem that just needs solving. We were taught to be students of the sport and to have a growth mindset that I still apply to everything I do today.
A growth mindset learns from criticism or failure, a mindset constantly evolving and expanding. All of my lifelong friends have come through wrestling. I can honestly say that no matter where in the globe, I can rely on wrestlers to be there for me when I’m in need. I say this with confidence because I’ve put it to the test over the years.
I’m a paid wrestling coach now, which isn’t common in Canada. It makes me proud to say that, not just for myself but for my sport that is considered niche here. Amateur sports are viewed as extracurriculars in Canada. We treated it as anything but extracurricular in my wrestling club. It was a lifestyle, a job, and a religion. Wrestling is a way of life. In my career, I medaled in and won several national titles. I wrestled at the varsity level and won several CIS nationals (now U Sports). I was taught to think of the CIS nationals as a stepping stone to my true goal. I wanted to be an Olympian, and in order to accomplish that, I damn-well better accomplish the other first. My most recent international performance earned me Bronze at the Senior Pan Am Championships in Lima, Peru.
Wrestling is most popular in the oldest cultures and countries, especially around the middle east and ex-soviet nations. The Olympics is the pinnacle of the sport; that’s why it’s traditionally referred to as ‘Olympic Wrestling’. In each Olympics, only the top 16 competitors/countries in the world in each weight class get to compete. This means you can be the best in your country named to the Olympic team and still not compete at the Games. I was in that boat. I was named to the Greco-Roman national team and was an alternate for the Freestyle team. In Greco, I made it to the final qualifications for the Olympics, where the top two countries at the pan am qualification event qualify their country for a spot at the Olympics in their weight category. The only other way for a pan-American country to qualify for the Olympic Games is to place top 8 at the world championships the year before the games or at another open qualifying tournament, which are both difficult to do.
Canada Wrestling had decided that we would be represented at the pan am qualifiers by the number one in each weight class from our country. I had made it to that position twice in my career, earning the role for both London and Brazil Olympic qualification events. The closest I ever came was 5th at the Olympic qualifiers. Two matches away from earning my spot in the finals and an Olympic berth. I wish more than anything to go back to those moments and make different decisions in the matches to lead me down another path. But just like in life we don’t get second chances and the lessons from failure are ours to live with, learn from and improve on.
It is these lessons that shape us. I believe that anything we want in life is attainable if we put enough time and effort towards the goal. We all know that some things take longer for some people than others, and that’s okay as long as you keep working, developing, growing, and learning. We also know that some people have more to give than others, that’s okay too if you’re doing your best to improve. Sports will help people come to grips with these lessons or realities early in life. Lessons on failures and honoring or celebrating your failures through learning and growing. This creates leadership qualities in sport participants that are hard to find elsewhere.
To be a good leader you must know where you’re going. Shaping your identity around attainable, tangible, logical, and process-oriented goals is a great way to live and keeps us in the growth mindset. I encourage anyone with a bucket list to get started and don’t wait, life’s far too short. Sports have given me everything I’ve ever had, or rather sport has gifted me the tools to go out into the world and earn whatever I desire. I still have much to learn in my career but the fear of failure is one hurdle I won’t steer away from, I have sports to thank for that.
To see all the Sport For Leadership stories, please check out the e-magazine below.