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Topic: Pro Athlete Story - March 04 2024
Learning to Put Faith In Myself Over My Leadership

I always questioned whether I was good enough or strong enough. So, I began relying on my coaches, wholeheartedly trusting what they said would lead me to greatness. This is where it all went wrong. This is a story on why, regardless of experience and what you want so badly to believe, you are in charge of your journey.

Jennifer Casson

VIS League™

Topic: Pro Athlete Story

March 04 2024

As both an athlete and a person, I hold great pride, admiration, and appreciation for the people in my close circle. That being said, I am now much more careful about who I let in. At a point deep into my athletic career, I was blinded by what I believed to be a safe athlete-coach relationship. What I thought was a healthy, genuine relationship with someone who I believed had my best interests at heart was far from the truth. My loyalty and idolization for this coach meant that I couldn’t see that I was being influenced. I was being used like a dispensable pawn to be played as needed and without hesitation, while my self-respect and confidence were sucked out of me. 

When I started on the Canadian national rowing team, the leadership I believed would help me succeed were instead betting against my success. Quite literally, bets were made between coaches on if I would make weight and whether I could even be competitive at this weight. Our environment allowed these behaviors to happen, becoming our training environment standard. Looking back now, it is so clear that the environment we had grown accustomed to was far from acceptable. Instead of helping athletes reach their full potential and succeed, those responsible for creating a high-performance training environment laid down a foundation of fear, lies, and manipulation.  

But I came back, and I am still here. So, what changed? I did.

Where It All Began 

I was raised to respect authority and listen to my coach. I loved learning and always wanted feedback. I understood that my coach was to make me a better athlete, and I trusted that this would happen. 

Truthfully, I never cared too much about winning in sports. I was just there to have fun, be active, and hopefully go to Dairy Queen after practice. Sports were the best play date I had come to know and, be it practice or game day, there was nothing I liked to do more than play with my friends. Being a part of a team was special to me. Playing sports at a young age was as it should always be (in my opinion), for fun. That being said, once I started rowing, this outlook on athletics began to change. The environment I started rowing in was encouraging and welcoming. It’s no wonder I kept going back. My teammates and coaches were awesome and there had been Olympians who had once been in the same position I was now in. As awesome a feat as that was, the Olympic Games were a bit of a stretch, but with my coach and teammates’ help, I knew rowing would be a part of my future. 

“With a toxic leader at the helm, we soon realized that long gone were the days of trusting your teammates, having a motivating team culture, and being there for each other.”

Jennifer Casson, VIS Mentor and Team Canada rower

Small Fish in a Big Pond

My idea of sports for fun continued to evolve once I got to college. It became clear that “fun” was no longer the top priority. Race results became the be-all and end-all of every effort. I should not have been surprised. I was on a rowing and academic scholarship and was essentially being paid to go to school while having the opportunity to pursue what I loved. That being said, I never expected to have a coach make it so abundantly clear that our results determined his paycheck and that we were part of a dictatorship, not a democracy. During these years, I oftentimes turned to the leaders on the team, girls I could look up to and learn from. These junior and senior athletes had years of experience with this coach. They knew what to say, how to say it and when to say it. I relied on how they trained, behaved, and acted as lessons for how to get better and work with my coaches. 

I cared a lot about what my coach thought of me as an athlete and a person. I believed that the coach knew what was best for me and was going to make me into a better athlete and person. With this in mind, I took everything he told me deeply to heart. Upon reflection, it is clear that the line between acceptable and unacceptable feedback was oftentimes blurred, and sometimes downright crossed. Looking back, I wish I had stood up for myself a little more. When my coach pulled me aside before practice one afternoon and told me to “shut my mouth and close my legs,” I listened. I should have acted in outrage over such a vile comment made to hurt and belittle me.  Instead, this comment shook me to my core, and I was desperate to never have it happen again by upping my obedience as his athlete. In working to meet his demands, my results improved. I got better, but not because I wanted to and not because I loved it, but because I was being told to. I needed to do it. I followed the rules and I was told I was being relied on, so I obliged. I obliged so well that I got pretty good.

But Was Getting Better This Way Worth It? 

Nearing the end of my university rowing career, I was not ready to say it was over. I wanted to see how far I could take my sport. To do this, I knew that I would have to make some changes. For one, I did not believe that I was tall enough to be a competitive heavyweight. I figured that if I wanted a shot, I was going to have to be a lightweight and that meant I was going to have to learn how to scull. 

I had a lot to learn. I was about to try out for the Canadian National Team, the highest aspiration one can have when training as a competitive rower in Canada. As I transitioned to the national team, I remained the same agreeable athlete I had always been. Without critical thought, I relied on doing everything I was told. This was the only way to improve: Listen to your coach and learn from everyone around you because they know more than you ever will. 

In 2017, no Olympic-level lightweights were training at the center. The program did not have any experienced role models and there were no veteran lightweights to help guide us newcomers. Unlike heavyweights, we only have the double sculls to compete in at the Games. While heavyweights have twenty-one seats and six boats (both sweep and scull boats), lightweights only have two seats. While there are pros and cons to this, vying for one boat changes the complexities of your environment and everything becomes a lot more delicate. 

“I don’t want to be successful for someone else’s happiness and approval.”

Jennifer Casson, VIS Mentor and Team Canada rower

With a toxic leader at the helm, we soon realized that long gone were the days of trusting your teammates, having a motivating team culture, and being there for each other. Our environment was designed to pin us against each other and question everyone’s motives for being there. It was a world in which no one was on your team but everyone was on your team. A world in which no one had your back, yet you were supposed to have everyone's back. Our coach thrived watching his mind games unfold and would all too quickly turn around and gaslight you to the point that you would question your reality. He picked and chose who he liked, and disliked and what he did with them, which did not necessarily correlate with what they deserved. 

In 2018, I started to perform well on the ergometer. Unfortunately, he got to like me a lot after that. It was at this point that I felt myself become the target of his attention. I pulled a 2km world record that year, and that was when I believe he decided that I was all the more worth his time and attention. In me, he saw a young, impressionable asset. I had now gone from a university coach who routinely reminded us of our responsibility for their income to a national team coach holding me responsible for their daily overall well-being. 

My Road to Recovery

During the 2017 to 202(1) quadrennial, our lightweight group was never  focused on bettering ourselves as athletes, or evolving ourselves as rowers. We focused on petty situations, irrelevant drama, hurtful comments, and political and bureaucratic nonsense. I felt that I was without true direction and lacked any understanding of what it meant and looked like to be committed and pursuing excellence. The growth mindset that I lived and loved as a young girl was long gone. It had been replaced by a desire to be the last one standing rather than the first one thriving. 

And then we had the Olympics…

It took an epic failure at the Tokyo Olympics to appreciate  just how far I had let myself go down the wrong path. I had lost all control. Physically, I was secretly and shamefully fighting my bulimia while ignoring that both hips ached in pain. Mentally, I was dealing with an exponential onset of anxiety. Socially, I had pushed everyone out of my life thinking and believing that it was the right thing to do. I trusted no one, myself included. We missed the A-final and finished in twelfth overall. You can’t argue with the clock, and we had nothing to blame but ourselves. Our technique was not good enough, our fitness was not being utilized, our mindsets were not succinct and above everything else, I was empty – body, mind, and soul. 

Having to Repair and Return to the Start Line

Then, I went back home, to the other side of the country. It had been six years since I had spent a great deal of time with my family and it was like we had to meet again. I went back to my first rowing club and remembered what it was like to love rowing again. I got the surgeries for my hips. I addressed my eating disorder and worked with expert nutritionists and psychologists to understand why and how I had gotten to such a low place. I worked with a psychiatrist to get the medication I needed to help me recover from years of negative signaling. I worked with a psychologist to understand why my control issues and loss of confidence were presenting themselves in how I starved and hurt my body. I leaned into my team of professionals and we began to unwind my mind and integrate meaningful change into how I approached my nutrition. These experts helped me understand how it was never about food, but rather the what, when, and how I was eating. It was about control and my lack of sense of control. Things were at their worst, but also they were at their best. 

“If I stay clear and purposeful with my goals and keep those who lift me close, I know I will never be broken again. ”

Jennifer Casson, VIS Mentor and Team Canada rower

How I Started to Feel Like Myself Again

I was slowly escaping the grip of what had been holding me stagnant and sick for so long. It was time to be vulnerable and sit in all the discomfort I had run away from for so long. I started to build my team around me again and admitted that I needed help. I also started to care about myself and my self-worth again. I no longer attached it to what someone else thought of me, and I wasn’t going to do that ever again. 

When I first returned to rowing, I was in my worst physical shape since before joining the team in 2017. However, mentally, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so strong and free. As time went on, my physical strength started to match my mental strength. As I started back training, my driving factors no longer had anything to do with what anyone said or did but what I said and did. I chose my values and commitments and stuck to them, and continue to do so today. I am not perfect and still need a good amount of tough love and hard conversations, but I am careful as to how much I lean into what I am told and how much weight I give them. I am careful to ponder the short and long-term outcomes of the advice I am being given. I now ask myself how it applies to me and if it is helping me with my goals. I associate success with the joy I feel inside and the benefits I reap from my training and outside of sports commitments. I don’t want to be successful for someone else’s happiness and approval. I know now that those who love me understand me. If I stay clear and purposeful with my goals and keep those who lift me close, I know I will never be broken again. 

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Check out our other Pro Athlete VIS Story by VIS Mentor Maggie Coles-Lyster, What I Wish I Knew Before I Was Sexually Assaulted. And check out other articles on our Feed, Dear NCAA, Educate Your Coaches and It Starts With A Voice to read more about using your VOICE to speak up against toxic coaching and leadership.