Why coach?

There are two elements to that question – one, my nickname is Coach McFi because at an old workplace there was another Fiona and she was already there when I arrived, so having a surname that started with Mc, I became McFi and when I am coaching, some people have extended that to be CoachMcFi. The second element is why do I coach? For that readers, strap yourself in because I’m not sure I’ll be able to give all the reasons!

Let me give you some examples of why not to coach – which is what is often used as a topic opener for people talking to me about this. Marion Jones, Mike Tyson, Diego Maradona, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and others have all individually brought sport into disrepute. The AFL and NRL teams with their salary cap breaches, the current issues with the Australian Swim team’s performance in London after poor athlete behaviour disrupting the camp, the four doubles badminton teams that were thrown out of the London Olympics for match fixing – something that was described as cheating on the holiest of sports events. The ongoing investigation into drugs in sport in Australia which has tarred us all with a dark brush is something I have to admit makes me very cautious as to my next steps in a field of work that I love so much – I should graduate next year from a degree in coaching and exercise science but do I really want to make the jump out of my current career into one that is much less stable and will at best halve my pay?

If people are going to be so underhanded, if the pay is so crap unless you’re at the top, if the hours are so long and for many it’s done on top of working at their primary income source, if you face abuse (despite not being tolerated in sport) from parents/partners/athletes/spectators, why be involved at all? Let me share some stories that are my why’s….

Last week a colleague of mine at work posted a basketball video on facebook that made me cry. Happy tears, not sad ones because the video was so touching (if you have a couple of minutes just now, please watch it before reading on). Moments like the one in the video where all barriers life presents us with are completely torn down often give me the strength to get through the tough times that arise.

Bilbys Civic Squad

Three ladies I recently worked with on their swim technique – I got back as much from them as I hope they did from me and I’m really looking forward to now taking their squad long term again.

Two weeks ago, I was filling in for another coach with triathletes doing swim training (my strength as a coach). In one of the lanes was the three ladies pictured below – mother & daughter on the outside who had just started with our club and one of our graduates from this season’s novice program. They can all swim, they all race and they can all get through a 90min training session with us. All of them though have the hunger for self improvement (and let’s face it, if you can spend less time swimming in the lake in Canberra, all the better!). Without wanting this to sound like an advert, I know I can help them. I don’t know how I know the best way to communicate to them refinements in their technique, it just happens but as you can see from their cheesy grins (lucky you can’t see mine behind my iPhone) they were willing to also help me by posing for this post.

I have met many people along the way through our novice program and I feel very privileged to have been an element of their successes in life. My last house mate and my current one I met through swim clinics for triathlon and like many of our friends, they are like family to me now. There are also people who inspire me – a few years back, Phil started novice 6 months after giving up smoking which he’d done I think for over 20 years. As if that achievement wasn’t enough, he went from not being able to swim five meters in the pool (roughly from the wall to the flags – I honestly remember at one point thinking I was going to have to dive in clothes and all to assist him) to competing in sprint triathlons which have a 750m swim.During the program he was posting some really funny blogs (you may need to click on the blog tab) on our old club website which I’m not sure if he knew but it’s helped not only novices in his program who were facing the same challenges, but also ones since who went looking for information to see if they were doing something wrong and that’s why they were finding the program so challenging. At the end of his program, Phil posted an article titled “SAD”:

…I will post later about future goals for me – this is just a start I hope – but at this time sincere and heartfelt thanks to all the coaches who have taken us this far – Garry especially! The others are too numerous to name, you are all great – but a personal thank you to Fiona for teaching me to swim – i owe you a beer when you return from sunny Europe   Cheers to you all, Phil.      

It still swells my heart and gets me all full of pride. Phil lost an extreme amount of weight over the program and the following years, went on to longer distance triathlons (pretty sure he even did a half ironman) until his progression in his professional life took off with the new found zest he had for his whole life. When Phil gave up smoking and started this journey, I doubt he had any idea of where it would take him and the impact he’d have on other people.

Another story is of a female triathlete (I won’t mention her name because I am conscious she doesn’t like limelight despite how incredible she is), who came into our program barely able to walk because of her size. She told me she took on the challenge of the program to shut her mother up – her mother was badgering her to make friends. This lady was in her 40’s, single, introverted but happy – or, as she told me later, so she thought. The program was based around helping people from all walks of life to complete a triathlon. In that year, we had people who were ex-pro athletes from other sports and the age range was from late teens through to early 60’s. Possibly the most diverse group we’d had but that is one of the many reasons I love coaching it.

By the end of the program, this lady had not only completed her first of then to be many triathlons, she’d made friends outside her work. She was getting out more and her mother was relieved to find she was having to call her on the mobile rather than house phone to get in touch. I am so not claiming it was all me, but I’m happy to know I helped facilitate a change that led to this lady leading what she described as a self imposed oppressed life into one where she felt like she now could try out many more things. She now races at events up and down the coast – she always thought she was too fat to go to the beach but when she’s racing she’s part of something and feels she has a place there and has even now tried snorkelling, surfing and sailing. 

This is just a few examples of how becoming physically active has positively altered the lives of others. Not everyone is nice but I figure they’re just different to me and they will find a coach somewhere that is perfect for them. Just like the volunteer work I’ve done with Cure Cancer Australia, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army or serving in the Royal Australian Navy and soon I will serve the community in the Rural Fire Service, coaching for me is about serving others to help them in their life journey and in return I gain self satisfaction and learn so much from them….this last part, is a whole other post!

Always looking over your shoulder…part 2

The first six weeks of your time at ADFA is spent doing an insanely fun variety of new things (there are videos and info provided by ADFA now available here). Things are a little different now to when I was there but it basically runs as orientation week, single service training (i.e. in your respective military groupings of Army, Navy or Air Force) for two weeks, then common military training for two weeks and then a week of nearly non-stop marching getting ready for CDF Parade day – the day you are presented to the Chief of the Defence Force and where you kind of move from an officer candidate to a real trainee. Marching in that parade is very important for every first year – it’s when the Corps of Officer Cadets accept you into the fold.

Over the six weeks, it doesn’t necessarily always feel like fun – you’re often being yelled at and things are all very serious but how cool is it that over a six week period, you are having free fitness classes, free food, free lessons in weaponry (specifically 9mm hand guns and semi-automatic machine guns), those in the Navy get to go to the Navy base on the coast and learn fire fighting on ships, damage control (mostly standing in a replica of a section of a ship with holes where at different times water floods out – it’s a big exercise in getting flooded).

We also learned NBCD – nuclear, biological and chemical defence where you get to quickly put on chemical defence suits and masks, you get to experience tear gas and purging the gas masks out that you’ve put on after entering the gas filled room without it….one word, snotty! We also got a day trip on a Destroyer from Sydney down to Jervis Bay which was great, especially when they did a firing display – in less time than it takes to say the word “beep” as fast as you possibly can, the CIWS (pronounced sea whiz but it stands for Close In Weapons System or also called the Phalanx) fires off about 1000 bullets – ok, maybe we can say it fater than it fires but it’s the last line of defence for a ship and we were told that if it needs to fire you’re in trouble. For a crazy video of how fast it fires, have a look here – this video was shot on a US Navy Amphibious Boat and the firing demonstration here is about the length we were shown when we were onboard one of our ships.

As an active person who cannot get enough of life and new things, the first six weeks should’ve been soooooo cool but I was sick. While I was down at the Navy base, I’d gone to “sick parade” – where you see the doctor instead of going to roll call. They’d run more blood tests, stool samples and other delightful tests just as had been done at ADFA but before the results were back, it had been decided that my condition was psycho-somatic: all in my head because my Mum had terminal cancer of the pancreas and so I was displaying the same sort of symptoms.

I was devastated. Two years of working to join the Navy and I was ruining everything because I was screwed up in the head. I cried like I’d never cried before in my life. I was booked in to see a psych at the nearest military hospital (45mins away from our base) and until I was there I just lay in bed bawling until there was nothing left in me. I couldn’t speak, I just stared. I wanted to tell my friends who were all so worried about me but how do you begin to tell them you’re problems are only mental and because you’re a nut case you’re making yourself physically sick.

I was taken up to the hospital the next day and the psych started interviewing me. After an hour of questioning he offered me a cup of tea. When he came back he told me that he’d before he helped me with a coping strategy for when the time came for my Mum’s death, he needed to make a phone call and he’d like me to listen and take note of what he said. I was emotionally and physically drained (although the tea was soothing) so I didn’t anticipate what was about to happen.

The psych rang the doctor at the Navy base I was at – he was far from polite but didn’t raise his voice nor swear or anything inappropriate. He was just blunt and very clear in his choice of words. The ones that meant the most and now 16 years on pretty much to the day, still ring clear in my mind “…There is nothing wrong with this girl mentally or emotionally. If anything we need more strong minded and strong willed people like her in our Navy. It is clear her problems are physical and you need to do your job to find out why she is so sick…”

As good as it felt to be cleared from ruining my career because I’d caved mentally, I really didn’t want to see the doctor after the bollocking she just got. By the time I’d been transported back to the base, some test results were in and they had found I had giardia – a stomach bug. It was likely that I’d picked it up on the flight stopover in Bangkok (I remember drinking from a water fountain in the airport) and it had gone untreated for several weeks so it’d become a mature parasite and required a heavy hit of medicine.

Having a diagnosis was awesome. Now I had direction and a reasonably clear indication of when I could get on with life. I returned to ADFA and, still under medical restrictions, got on with it. After our Navy training time, we moved into common military training – obstacle courses, rope climbing, fitness assessments, drill work, weapons handling and field training. WAHOO! My appetite for food was coming back but I was still wiped out – I had lost 20% of my body weight afterall! I had to get medical clearance before I was allowed to go “out bush” for field training, so on the morning we were due to leave I went into see the medics.

They took my blood pressure, then swapped machines then took it again. There was no indication there was anything wrong, so I wasn’t alarmed when they said “OK, lay back and we’ll get the doc in to see you.” A few minutes later there was a doctor and a woman who I knew was the matron of the hospital – a rather prickly/nasty Army Warrant Officer who already thought I was faking being sick in the first week. I didn’t like it that she was there but she took my blood pressure again, got a second machine, then a third. All three showed my BP as 60/40 (these days my BP is nearly a consistent exact 120/70).

For the first time I saw compassion in her eyes as she asked if I felt ok. I said yes and asked if I could go bush because I was really looking forward to being painted up in camouflage paint and clothes and run around the field. The stoney eyes came back and she said “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re staying here”. She smartly turned and walked out telling the medic to find me a bed. The medic was sympathetic handing me tissues and explaining that my blood pressure wasn’t quite normal so I’d have to stay for the day so they could monitor it. The Doctor was also great – he ordered more tests and said he’d come back once I was settled to talk and try see if he could figure out what was going on.

It was 2 weeks before CDF parade, 2 weeks before I would see my family again and 2 weeks before my 20th birthday but here I was back in hospital, terrified and alone.

Part 3 coming to a computer screen near you soon!