Learning to Overcome Opinions and Criticism
“Don’t waste your time trying to explain yourself to people who are committed to misunderstanding you.” – Shannon L. Alder
I was recently contacted by someone who I admire who was looking for advice on how to handle hurtful negative comments and opinions. This brought me back to thinking about all the times in my life where I have been impacted by similar situations and how I ultimately overcame those situations. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have struggled to overcome a lifetime of perfectionism, fear of failure, and people pleasing. None of these characteristics line up with a true self-confidence or an ability to let opinions “roll off the shoulder,” so to speak.
Although I have admitted that fear of failure previously held me back from really going after big things in life, I have still managed to experience my fair share of success. A need for perfection and a desire to please others fuels a pretty serious work ethic and commitment level to whatever it is I’ve been brave enough to pursue in life. Unfortunately, success also comes with a great deal of criticism, which can be difficult to handle when you’re not completely sure of yourself in the first place.
Coaching has been a vastly significant part of my life and has taught me more professionally and personally than anything else I've experienced. I began coaching competitive dance team at the age of 19, and after two years of coaching and doing choreography as an assistant high school dance team coach in the school district that I lived in, the head coach position at my alma mater became open. I was terrified and very uncertain about whether I was ready, but after some convincing, I decided to apply. The process of getting hired was anything but easy as I was just 21 years old and only three years out of high school, but once I got started, I hit the ground running.
My first year as a head coach was a learning process, and by my second year I was a little more confident in taking chances on the things that seemed to work for my team and letting go of the things that didn’t. I had massive goals in that second year for my team of twelve girls from a school with an enrollment of about 160 students in the entire high school. We had our sights set on the program’s first ever State Championship title, which seemed laughably unrealistic to the vast majority of people, including some of the girls on my own team (at first). Once we had a goal defined and a specific plan in place for what it would take to achieve that goal, our following of believers grew slowly but surely each week.
Week after week, the team was earning qualifying scores and first place trophies at regionals. When we ultimately did end up completing our lofty goal and finishing the season with that first State Championship title, the believers multiplied, but so did the cynics. Year after year during my time as a coach, our teams had a very specific vision and thoroughly defined plan for how we would achieve that vision and the season goals that we set together. My teams experienced a lot of successes and earned a lot of championship titles over the years, and I personally was recognized and rewarded for my achievements as a coach and contributor to the state dance organization via a surprise Hall of Fame induction in 2016. Our fans who knew our vision and understood our process were countless; but to those who weren’t even in the arena or to those who were in the arena but didn’t fully understand the level of work and commitment it took to get there, myself and my teams were a huge target for criticism.
Coaching is a lot like running a small business and the behind-the-scenes work that goes into coaching a program with a 10-month long season is endless. (Plus, the two months of "off season" are spent extensively planning for the following season.) In any coaching position, or really any type of leadership position, the pressure for your team to succeed weighs heavily on your shoulders. Success looks different for everyone, but once my teams had defined success as being "the best," there was really no going back. The climb to the top is incredibly difficult, filled with sleepless nights and constantly questioning yourself; but no one prepares you for what it’s like to fight to remain at the top once you’ve reached that point. At the top, your competitors are vying for that same spot where there’s only room for one, and the critics who aren't even part of the climb are seemingly hurling things at you with whatever desperate attempts they can come up with to try to knock you off that top spot.
The other problem with being "at the top of the climb" is that the expectations are undoubtedly raised to an even higher level once you've reached that point. You cannot continue to do what you already did to get to the top and expect to stay there. Instead, you have to work harder and smarter and constantly search for new ways to improve the creativity and strength of your team and stay several steps ahead of the game at all times. Though it is ultimately an extremely rewarding experience, it can often be an unbelievably draining and lonely journey.
In what I now refer to as "my first go-around with coaching," in addition to focusing every waking moment and every last ounce of my energy on what my teams needed to do to improve and build on the level of success they had previously achieved, I was worried sick about every single decision I was making as a coach and how that would affect everyone else’s opinions of myself and my team. I was burning both ends of the candle, and it was unbearably exhausting. Not only was I taking constant criticism from others on a regular basis (whether uncompromisingly direct or just hearing it through the grapevine), I was also beating myself up day in and day out to simultaneously find ways to push my team to become better and to teach my dancers to not focus on any outside opinions or distractions while personally trying to find some way to earn everyone else's approval. With every stone that was hurled from the cynics, I did my best to stand still, working silently with my head down and desperately praying that they would just somehow change their minds and see what we were really about.
In 2015, after my seventh and most successful season as a coach, I made the extremely difficult choice to step away from my coaching position. I was devastated to leave a program and people that meant the world to me, but I felt a sense of relief because the pressure melted away and I could finally refocus my energy on the really important things in life that had hardly received any of my attention prior. I took three years off from coaching and experienced my marriage fully, as well as pregnancy and motherhood, during that time. A lot of things in my life profoundly changed over that time, including my maturity level and my perspective.
At the end of 2018, I unexpectedly found myself filling a coaching role that started as an interim position right smack in the middle of the competitive season. After just a few short months with that team, I decided to continue coaching through a full season to see it through for the kids, and to coach with a truly open heart this time around. The kids on the team this season have been nothing short of amazing, and I have been blessed to co-coach the program with my best friend who helped me fulfill a vision and create the program from the ground up eight years ago.
This program is still notorious for its level of continued success, which I’ll admit was slightly intimidating when I stepped blindly into the role mid-season in 2018. There were moments that I definitely had to take a step back and talk myself down from feeling the pressure of it all and remind myself of the circumstances and the reasons that I was filling the role for those kids. During my much-needed break from coaching from 2015-2018, I invested in myself and got a chance to experience the “real world." I learned so many things that I hope to be able to instill in the kids that I coach and that I will someday share with my daughter.
First of all, with dance, like every sport, every season is brand new, which means new team members and new routines. The pressure of having “bigger and better” ideas is always there when it comes to choreography and how to stay ahead of the game. No matter how many awards a program or a coach has received in the past, the reset button is hit at the beginning of every new season. The humility always remains as we all wait with the same anticipation, sweat, and nausea at every awards ceremony with every other team on the floor that works hard and has their own set of goals. We appreciate our competitors as they challenge us to continually grow, and we respect the different sets of goals that each team may have. This thought process should be applied in any competitive situations in the "real world."
Second, attempting to please everyone in life is impossible and any efforts to do so are exhausting beyond belief and a huge waste of precious time. There will always be people who will never approve of you, and may even make up malicious fallacies about you, even if they don't know you personally and no matter how hard you try to change their minds. The reasoning behind it all doesn't matter, so don't waste any time trying to figure it out. Quite honestly, it’s not within our power to define others' opinions of who we are. We can only control our own actions and how we treat and react to others.
Opinions are just perspectives based on the knowledge, or sometimes lack thereof, that one has available to them. Our responsibility should be to define ourselves by the type of impact we are making in the lives of others. I found that once I could be truly confident in who I am and the decisions I make without needing the constant approval of everyone else, I began to let go of the need to expend energy trying to convince others of who I really am or what my intentions may be.
I understand the significance of the roles that I play as a wife, mother, coach, working woman, and any other roles that I may find myself fulfilling throughout my life, and I am the only one who can truly define those roles. I will do my best to lead by example and will continue to make choices that align with my values without losing myself in the opinions of outsiders. I hope to impart in my daughter and the kids that I coach that “winning” or “losing” at anything does not ultimately define us, and neither do the opinions of others - especially those who don’t even know us. What defines us is how we treat others, whether we always give our absolute best effort and are a supportive “team player” throughout all aspects of life, and how we rise after we fall. In my humble opinion, success and a true sense of self will be achieved, regardless of the outcome, when we live by that definition.