One day in the early part of the pandemic, one of my friends sent a group message to me and some coaching buddies of ours and told us about a webinar that was happening the next day, run by some people he really respected in the coaching world and told us to check it out.
I checked my super busy, under lockdown schedule, and I told him I would squeeze it in.
And so the next day I logged in and started listening.
There was about 70 or so people in the webinar and I did what I usually do when I walk into a room in the coaching world and scan the faces. I saw my friend Amy in there and shot her a text: Guess what we have in common in here I jokingly wrote her. The text came back quick: Surprise! We’re the only females.
As the webinar started, I realized that I hadn’t even asked my friend Paul what the subject was about, so I shot him a text and asked.
“Managing up” was the response.
What does that even mean? I wrote back.
Basically when you’re dealing with a difficult head coach or someone in a position above you and having to figure out how to work with him.
The first thing that popped into my head as I read the message was a thought that has stayed with me since, especially as I’ve spent the last couple of years reflecting on the entire sports system:
Instead of talking about how to deal and work around coaches that are assholes, why are we not talking about the frightful impact that they can have on the staff around them and their players, and why are we not focusing on eradicating them and their negative effect instead.
It felt telling that instead of questioning the problem, a large number of people listened intently for an hour on how to deal with them.
The one thing that has been clear to me from the day I wrote my February 2019 viral blog is the emotional carnage and trauma that Bob Birarda caused.
Although I couldn’t see his impact in my own life outside of how stuck and blocked I felt and how light my life became once the truth was set free, I saw a very clear representation of the damage he caused the night that I wrote the blog. In fact it was what spurred me to finally publish after years of writing and shelving it.
For those that haven’t heard this wild story it goes like this.
I spent 6 hours writing the blog in a Whole Foods in North Vancouver, BC, February 18, 2019. I had written the blog many times before and didn’t have the courage to post it, and I had told myself that this was the last time I would write it.
I didn’t know if this time I would have the courage to do it.
I was on my way out the door but had a sudden urge for a cookie on my way out of the Whole Foods and so I went back in, grabbed the cookie and stood in the checkout line. A woman was looking at me intently as I stood there. Of the ten or so checkout lines we had to choose from, she was standing behind me in line.
After looking at me intently for a couple of minutes she said to me, sorry if this is weird, but are you Ciara McCormack?
I said I was and asked her who she was.
She told me that she was on the Provincial Team and youth national teams 10 years before. I knew who she was and we started having a spirited chat like old friends, as we knew the same people and had lived a similar life.
Suddenly I stopped her mid-conversation, as it felt just too weird running into her the day that I had spent so many hours writing something so heavy about people I figured she would have known or played with at some point, and so I asked her:
It’s so weird running into you. I just finished writing a blog about Bob Birarda, did you ever have him as a coach?
And in the push that I needed to publish the blog, I watched a grown woman, 15 years from her experience of having him as a coach start to tear up.
Ciara I’ve been in therapy for the last two years because of that guy. She said. We used to joke around that he either wanted to f you or destroy you and I was on the side he wanted to destroy. He controlled everything and he did everything he could to make my soccer life a living hell.
Over the last two years since I wrote the blog, I’ve seen countless women become emotional describing their interactions with him from over a decade ago. Countless women that like me, have just started processing what their interactions with him did to them. How him weaponizing something that meant so much to us against us was so incredibly psychologically damaging.
How it broke them both mentally and even for one of my friends, physically, as he bullied her to continue playing through an injury to the point that she’s done irreparable damage to her body that reminds her of him every day when she wakes up (her words).
And just when I think that my inventory of his carnage is complete, I have a night like I did a couple of evenings ago when an old friend and teammate who I haven’t seen in person in 15 years reached out to me to say thank you for writing the blog. Someone who I had no idea he had impacted in such a negative way.
I listened quietly to yet another woman who was an innocent young player who loved the game, describe how passionate she was about the sport and following her dream, and watched through the screen as she broke down crying about the trauma she has carried for the last 15 years because of her experience with him.
I was speechless as she told me that it wasn’t until she read my blog that she fully understood the seriousness of what she walked away from and how she was able to release the feeling over the last decade and a half that she was a quitter for removing herself from his toxic environment. She was miserable being bullied in his environment and when she got the courage to leave, he told her that if she left, she would never play for Canada again, a promise he followed through with.
In numerous conversations with women I played with over a decade ago under Birarda, I am left breathless every time I see just how damaging a toxic coach can be and how raw the emotion is so many years later.
And yet we continue to have conversations on how to “manage” these people, without talking about the incredibly damaging impact toxic people in positions of power can be.
During the pandemic I had a small, informal group of 11-12 year old girls that I was training.
These poor kids had not been in school for months, spent their entire days on Zoom and one of their only bits of social interaction for the week with kids their age outside of their siblings was at my sessions.
One day when we were getting ready to scrimmage one of the girls piped up:
Coach Ciara, could we play Mafia instead?
As the girls around me cheered and begged, I looked suspiciously into the hopeful face of an adorable 12 year old.
Um, by any chance does Mafia have anything to do with soccer? I asked in my own brand of hopeful.
Um, no but it’s super fun and see everyone wants to play.
I looked around at the excited faces of the girls and said to them in a quiet voice.
We will play Mafia, but you guys have to promise me that you won’t tell anyone that we played Mafia instead of scrimmaging because you all are killing any street cred I had left as a coach.
They barely let me get through my speech as they were excitedly dictating who was the murderer, the angel and a bunch of other characters and stories that made up this mysterious 12 year old game that had absolutely nothing to do with soccer.
I can see clearly, how my experience as an elite player has changed me as a coach.
For me every single day I walk off the field now, my barometer isn’t if the kids became better soccer players. Instead it’s if I made them feel good and their day better by being in my environment. And if I ever coach at the elite level again, I will carry that same mentality with me, because if you don’t leave people better than when you met them, what is the god damn point?
If those days sometimes include playing Mafia instead of scrimmaging in the middle of a pandemic, then so be it.
There is a saying, hurt people hurt people. And despite toxic white men getting a lot of airtime as being a massive problem, I can’t help but believe that behind every toxic white man is a little boy on the inside who has never gotten the chance to deal with whatever their trauma was.
I have empathy for these men. And that includes our shitty coach.
The problem is when these people take their trauma and use it like a fire hydrant to spray their damage on to other people, the system allows them to, and others stay silent and enable them to.
Which is why I believe therapy is so important for coaches and why I think our coach development courses are so flawed. Yet it makes sense because they have been cultivated likely by many toxic, white men who don’t see or understand the impact that a coach has on a person because they have always been blinded by their own positions of power.
Standing in front of so many women who’s emotion and brokenness from an experience with a coach 15 years ago still is so raw, has made the lifelong impact of a good or bad coach so clear. And these were some of the top players in the country in their age at a time with all the soccer knowledge in the world.
And yet the legacy from their soccer experience is trauma that has had such a negative impact on their life so many years after their time in the sport.
And the deeper I go into my own healing in therapy, and the more I unpack childhood trauma and modeled patterns of behaviour, the more I am realizing personally how many of us are on autopilot just manifesting behaviour that kept us safe and seen at one point. Behaviour that many of us are blind to because it’s the normal patterns we have operated on for longer than we can remember.
For the bully coach? Maybe they were picked on, and they escaped harm by making themselves the bully of the sandbox in kindergarten. And so they continued to seek power positions as they got older and replaying patterns of behaviour by bullying others that made them feel safe as a kid.
I could write many blogs about what therapy has taught me, but one thing I know for certain is the impact that coaches have on other people, possibly more than any profession on earth. This is because most that are pursuing sport at a high level are doing so from a deep passion that causes immense vulnerability.
I truly believe we need a massive revamping on coaching courses so that webinars such as “Managing Up” are eradicated.
I hope for a day where shitty, toxic coaches who have a negative impact on people around them don’t set foot near a pitch because it is seen as much as a flaw as showing up to training late, or being disorganized or unprofessional, a flaw seen as big as not knowing a thing technically or tactically about the game.
You can only emote from the level of your own self-awareness, and this is why I believe with every fibre of my being, in a profession that has the level of impact on humans as a coach does, that every coach as a requirement to step on a field, should go to therapy and get self-awareness for their own patterns of behaviour.
We all can only impact others to a capacity that reflects how good we feel on the inside and how well we understand ourselves.
And for the record for those striving to make a positive impact as a coach, playing the odd game of Mafia with the kids doesn’t hurt either.