By Ben Skutnik

All of my life, those that sat in the role of coach or mentor have described me as someone who was “driven”. Whether it was in the high school weight room, competing as an All-American swimmer in college, or as a graduate student.

A strong internal drive is often seen as a successful trait. In the current lexicon we talk about “grit” or the ability to persevere through tough times in order to attain something desirable. As a coach I strive to instill some sense of internal motivation in my athletes, as a faculty member I make every effort to inspire my students to be life-long self-learners. But when I see a student or athlete who seems driven, I can’t help but wonder what is driving them.

Growing up, like many kids from small town Nebraska I played a plethora of sports. And when I reached high school, thanks to a well-timed growth spurt, I found a decent level of success. And by that time, I had acquired a lot of “X factors” that coaches seemed to love. Disguised under the colloquial “team before self” ideal, I was nothing more than a kid looking for acceptance.

Without belaboring the story, I was a kid who was bullied and was outcast for much of my youth. I say that only for context because, while important, it is not the focus of this piece. The outcome of this childhood is the focus.

It’s something we hear often, but as I grew, the sporting arena was my outlet. I was now a 6’3”, 235lbs young man with relatively good hands, decent speed, and a few other qualities that made the kid who used to get picked last for school yard football into a Division I prospect. But what got me there was not grit, rather it was fear of the loss of acceptance.

A torn ACL, MCL, and meniscus brought the football dream to a halt. And, while still driven by fear, I fell back to my off-season sports. Injured on Friday night, I was in the pool on Monday morning. Driven.

On the bum knee I was able to find my way on to a small college’s swim team. Having only swam for two years in high school that might seem impressive, but it only added to my internal feeling of inferiority as all of my teammates had been swimming since they were kids. So, once again, I was the first-in last-out teammate. Driven.

By my Junior year we had qualified for the NCAA for the first time in over 20 years, had been three-time Conference Champions, and seen more success than the program had seen in all its history. By this time, I had been voted “Most Inspirational” for three years in a row and would be tapped as Team Captain. All great things, but the reality began to sink in: this was it. My entire identity had been in athletics.

So, as I realized my career was coming to an end, the depression sank in.

My senior year was the most successful year we had, and the team hasn’t matched it since. Seven All-Americans on the men’s team, four-time conference champions, completely reset the record books. At the pre-meet banquet before the NCAA Championships my coach took me aside and thanked me for being so driven and inspiring everyone else. Everything was great from his view, but he couldn’t see the destruction that led there.

Because mental health was still very much taboo, I self-medicated my depression. And there is no better place to fit self-medication in than college. I was seen as the life of the party, always willing to have a good time with whoever wanted to whenever they wanted to. But when the party stopped, I was just the guy drinking until blackout alone in his room. Self-sabotaging relationships with my teammates, roommates, girlfriend, and friends outside of the team.  After the season, through a connection with my coach, I was invited to train with an elite club in the south. I missed the flight due to oversleeping and blew that opportunity.

Despite the self-destruction, I found my way into graduate school and the story remained the same. With a heavy substance abuse issue and no sense of identity outside of competing I drove myself further down while being seemingly productive. Two publications and a master’s thesis later, I was accepted into PhD program where the problems continued to compound.

Finally, after four years of burning bridges and isolating myself from everyone around me, my advisor sat me down and asked the most pivotal question I’d been asked: “What has Ben done for Ben lately?” In short: nothing.

Internal motivation…”drive”…”grit”…whatever name you give it, this is arguably the most important quality a person can have to find success in life. And I’m not here to discount that. As I opened up with, it’s something I make every effort to help cultivate in my athletes and students to this day. But more important than cultivating this quality, I find it our responsibility as coaches and educators to ensure that the catalyst for this drive is self-serving.

In my case, what drove me for a majority of my life was an external factor. Someone else’s acceptance of me. It was not because I actually wanted to be better rather, I just wanted someone’s stamp of approval. Whether that was medals or publications, it was always in an effort to please someone else.

Bettering oneself first requires an understanding of self, of identity. And when your identity is tied to something as fleeting as athletics, something that has a guaranteed lifespan shorter than your own, you are bound for disappointment. Athletics, academics, your career…these are all things that should enhance your identity, not be the sole component.

There is a thin line between drive and destruction. But that line can become clear through conversation.

If you are a coach or educator, recognize the role you play in helping your athletes or students identify themselves. They are more than their sport. They are more than their academics. They are bigger than all of that but sometimes that is too big for them to see. Help them see the big picture.

So reach out to them. Create a culture of trust and open dialogue that embraces all sorts of conversations, including the conversation of mental health. Don’t be afraid to ask your athletes how they are doing, and when you get the simple response of “good,” know that you might have to dig a little deeper.

If you are willing to accept the challenge, these conversations lay the roadway to go from being a coach to being a mentor. It’s a subtle difference, but one fills a role for the career of an athlete, while the other fills a role for the lifespan of a person.