Jeff grace from Jeff Grace Yoga joins us today. Jeff is an experienced swim coach. Jeff has coached at the highest levels, he has built swim clubs and worked the swimmers and triathletes for the last 20 plus years. Today, we talk with Jeff about his time in coaching his career as an author and his wellness journey as well as being an advocate for mental health.
What we're going to get into today is Jeff's history as an author, his connection with swimming, and his journey dealing with and playing a supportive role for those with mental health challenges. You can find Jeff at https://www.swimmingspecificyoga.com/
The text that follows is an excerpt from our hour long conversation. The full video interview can be found on our youtube channel and by the link here. The full audio can be found by Clicking here
Jeff, your story starts in Ontario
So my swimming journey started and Regina. I swam for the Regina Optimists Dolphins from the time I was eight years old to 15 years old.
Unfortunately, I got to learn from two men who passed in the last year, Murry Drudge and Kevin Thorburn and really specifically Kevin Thorburn, who was my coach for three years while I was there. He had a huge influence on my life and, that's where I learned club building, I learned a passion for the sport, and it is where I learned a lot about what I bring to my coaching now and where the foundation was laid. It was a culture that fostered the that we were only swimming with a team but excelling with a team.
Kevin liked to say; we were the mouse that roared. A team from Regina that ended up being the best age group team in Canada.
From that point forward, you moved West. Tell me about that. Was it purely swimming that brought you West? I know that you attended Douglas college to attain a degree in coaching. Was that the main driver to bring you West?
I started my coaching in Toronto I had a great experience with my first coaching job at the Dorado Stars in Caledon Robwell Ninez talking about another person with, uh, with a lot of passion and, uh, learned a lot from him. From there, I went off to Laurentian University to study kinesiology with the thought in mind that at the end of it, I did want to be coaching. The West Coast's draw was a wonderful thing, but the biggest thing that drew me out was Douglas college. The program allows you to have mentors or apprentice under different coaches in the area. And especially at the time that the coaches that were around that I had the opportunity to mentor under were great, which was a really unique program at the time.
You ended up in Calgary got to apprentice at the national training center in Calgary at a very exciting time. Penny Hanes, Curtis Myden were there as well as Jan Bidrman, Mike Blondell. Talk to me a little bit about that.
It was a fabulous experience. Not only the experience, I mean, it was a culmination of a lot of tremendous experiences because there were some major emotional ups and downs with our team that year.
When you say your team, are you talking about the University of Calgary?
Yeah, the opportunity that I had there was fabulous—taking advantage of the Petro Canada and their Olympic torch fund, which actually allowed me to take on that year at the national coaching Institute financially. One of the great things about both of the formal or structured coaching programs that I took is that it had coaches from all different sports. As one example is one of the high-performance coaches who were there was we had Clara Hughes's coach as another student in that class. We had speed skating coaches, short track, speedskating coaches, badminton coaches & hockey coaches. There was great peer learning and collaboration that would happen. For example, the cross-country ski coach, speed skating coaches and I could all nail down physiology and periodization. All those aspects were not a natural discussion for the hockey coaches but then got to team building and the hockey coaches would take over.
You got to learn the different areas from coaches in different sports. That is one thing that you can learn from so many different peoples in so many other areas. Additionally, there was the mentoring experience under both Jan and Mike, who are very different coaches, and other coaches in the program like Bill Humpy, & Dean Schultz.
Jan gave me some great responsibility, one funny story that I like to tell; Jan said We are going to go to the Canadian Swim Coaches Conference, and you're going to take the group for a couple of hours.
Jan left me with the most boring practice in the world. It was like 6 x 1000, and in the group, I had Penny Hanes, Joanne Malar, Curtis Miden, Shamek Pietucha, Collin Sud, Tara Sloan. I mean, it was a who's who, two Olympic medalists, one double Olympic gold medalist. They looked at me like, yeah, you got to be kidding me. And after the first one, ask "Jeff, can we do a get out swim?"
I say no, and they go on with the second one. After the second, they ask again Can we do a get-out swim? I respond at least give me half of it, and then sure we'll do it. So we do three. And at the time, I did not know Colin's best times, and he is one that we got up to do to get outswim.
And I may have made the time a little bit easy. He may have smoked it by a couple of seconds, pretty easily. (100 Fly)
I was a little nervous about just having given them a get outswim.
When Jan comes back on Monday, I tell Jan that I gave them a get out swim. So they only did 3 x 1000. He said that's okay. So that was morning practice. I come in at night and when I step on deck Jan looks at me, he says, "you!, you!", and I'm thinking, What the hell did I do? I walk over, and he's sitting with Curtis. I sit down, and he goes, "you know, if you give them a, get out swim, I expect you to, make it kind of hard. How about this, Curtis, if you go under 30 seconds for 50 free today, we all get out."
The art of coaching, empathy and perspective
I can't remember quite when it was probably January Jan says to me, Jeff, what will you do when we, we go to nationals? I replied that unless you're flying me out, I'm staying here and going to school, he asks for me to take care of Penny while he was away. And this was Penny Hanes, who is getting ready for a short course, world championships, where she's looking at breaking at least three world records. I thought this was so incredible. Unfortunately, right before they left for nationals, one of our teammates, Tara Sloan, got into a car accident and ended up in a coma.
From the team, there's only three of us who were still in town. Tara was dating a very, very good friend of mine at the time. And with Penny, Penny is a deeply religious person, and she was spending hours at the hospital every day. And so that week, without going too far into this, it was one of the biggest learning experiences I've ever had. Unfortunately, Tara passed away at the end of that week. It was extremely hard to work with Penny through this. She was at the hospital, hugely supporting Tara's mom. Obviously, being there for Tara at the same time, her best friend from Sri Lanka, who she only got to see, like maybe once a year, was in town and only in town for a short period of time.
That was the first time that I got to experience the art of coaching. Penny was supposed to go to Banff with her, with her best friend. She was having trouble balancing, swimming, life & the reality of Tara's accident. I like looked at her and said, if you step foot on this pool deck, I'm going to take kickboards and throw them at you until you leave; you need to go and have this time with your friend. I just said that more important things than being in the water right now, especially being in the water for one day.
This was when I gained the greatest respect for Jan and really understood how he understood the big picture. Penny and I were on deck, and Jan came in after being at nationals, and we're talking. Penny says to Jan, "Jeff's a really good coach." Jan replies, "yeah, yeah, yeah. " Penny followed up "I don't think you understand. Jeff's a really, really good coach," Jan says I know. But now he's got to find a swimmer.
If it wasn't for you, Penny. I'd still be some schmuck in Nebraska."
That's Jan to a T, isn't it?
Yeah. He was able to accomplish a lot of things as a coach, but understood the opportunities he had and was humble about what he did and; the art of coaching with Jan is understanding people and not having to think that he needs to stick to structure and a plan.
Jan Bidrman featured in adjacent photo
Throughout your life, you've had no shortage of opportunities and moments like you kind of just described. You've also had challenges. Those with mental health in general for a long time have dealt with the stigmas of mental health. People suffered in silence; it's only recently that it's come to the forefront of popular culture, and people feel it's okay to talk about and deal with. It's permitted people to seek the help & support that they need. How did you seek that help? What did you do to get what you needed? Talk to me about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and what you've done to make sure that you can lead the life that you lead
It's interesting; it's just fantastic, for lack of a better word, where the movement has come too.
I self-identified pretty early on what was going on. I remember being in a hideable manic phase. I was working full-time as the assistant head coach at Pacific Sea Wolves. I was also the co-founder and assistant director of Langley. I was full-time at Douglas college. I was climbing four. During my hypomanic phases in my life, two to three hours of sleep is no big deal and I could go on with that for a month. Obviously, that has repercussions. Anyway I was starting to go down. I asked a family member, "do you think there's a history of mental illness in our family?"
They validated my question with a resounding yes. I responded by saying that "I think I'm bipolar."
It took a long time to for me to come to that and then be willing to go and get diagnosed.
I guess it was 2001, I came back to the University of Calgary as a varsity coach and the manager of the team. I had a breakdown at work. I mean, I came to a point where I got maybe a sentence out of my mouth before I, I was crying uncontrollably. I was extremely lucky that I had resources at the university after going through the national coaching Institute, a person named Kimberly Amirault who is a tremendous sports psychologist, was a huge support. I was able to go down to her office and literally cry on her shoulder. She directed me to the right places and got me the help right away. Mike Blondell, who was my direct boss at the time, was extremely supportive as well.
That's when I got diagnosed as, as bipolar II. I went on a first round of medication. I stopped after a couple of months with the medication, it was a little bit of denial; I just didn't want to be medicated. Then about a year later, I knew I needed to be proactive with what was going on. I started seeing a therapist. I went back on my meds and. It was really good for the end of that year in Calgary. I then moved to Vancouver, specifically in Langley, where there was not the greatest support system.
As the support system was not as good, again, I struggled quite a bit. I don't mean friends; the mental health treatment system was not as robust. After a couple of years there, once again, I realized that I needed to be proactive again and started seeing a great therapist.
I moved to North Vancouver to take over the Hollyburn Swim Club coaching job after. A couple of months in that position, I went through the same experience I had in Calgary, where I couldn't get a couple of sentences out of my mouth at work without crying uncontrollably.
And once again, I was tremendously lucky and can't stress enough how grateful I am to the people in my life and how lucky I have been.
It eventually got to where I had to go to the hospital on boxing day of 2005. I ended up in a psychiatric care facility for three weeks. I was lucky that I was living in North Vancouver and that the system that they have here in the way of support is incredible.
I don't know what I would have done without it; I was able to be part of a bipolar support group, which has been a huge thing in my life. That was really kind of the turning point in everything for me and my mental health journey. It's definitely not been smooth since then; there's been a lot of ups and downs and, and, you know, really until I was forced to take a medical leave from coaching because I had to have spinal surgery as a result of a car accident. I took out - I don't know how many books on Bipolar disorder and how to deal with depression and bipolar coping strategies and different mechanisms. I'd go to that coffee shop for hours each day and just study it. Yoga has been a huge part of this journey and the aspects of mindfulness.
Now, getting to the actionable things you asked me about, one thing is mindfulness. Whether that's been through yoga or whether that be through any type of other practice such as meditation. I just identified things that made me happy and brought me energy; I believe if you don't have the energy, you're probably not going to be happy.
So I focused on things that brought me energy; if I'm not physically active every day, I'm not going down a good road. Sleep is another thing I try to take care of. I can't say that. I'm great at that consistently, but it's something I know that is a huge part of my wellness plan.
I put together a structured wellness plan. My coaching came out of me, and I actually did a periodization of my mental wellness and coping strategies. So, when you look at it, the things that I try to do regularly that helped me is yoga and mindfulness practice, as well as making sure that I am active every day.
Jeff wellness plan points for living with Bipolar disorder
- Identify things that make you happy
- Be physically active daily
- Practice Mindfulness
- Monitor Sleep
- Family & Community support
Talk to me a little bit about the experiences you've lived through & worked through; what advice would you give to Jeff Grace in 2001?
It goes back to something you said when I talked about the University of Calgary experience and what Penny. Penny and I worked through really was a hell of a lot more than swimming. The biggest thing I would tell, tell my younger self that swimming is just swimming and that's all it is. Something that I love about yoga and hope that people get from my teaching of it is the idea that you can take what you do seriously, but never take yourself too seriously.
I can say without a doubt that I took myself way too seriously for too long. I'm not over that quite yet and probably never will be, but at the same time, I believe that I have learned a lot in that area. I tied my complete identity up in my coaching, and it wasn't healthy.
In fact, it was to the detriment of not only my physical health and my mental health, but it was a detriment to a lot of relationships in my life as well as to a lot of fulfilling things, things that I missed out on because I thought I had to do A, B and C as a coach, and never, never thought the balance was an important thing. One of the things with dealing with the bipolar aspect was I always thought if I went and tried to temper the side of the hypomania that I experienced, I would lose something from my coaching that I would lose some fire that I would then lose some passion and drive that I had, that wasn't true. But that's what I was scared of. So taking myself too seriously as a coach and tying up my entire identity into that was not good in any way, shape, or form.
If that attitude or that that wisdom was there at that time, that would change everything. Looking at life if you try to identify the things that are going to have the most impact on every area of your life and take care of those that will make an impact
In the same vein, can you separate results from experience or, better said, an exceptional result versus enjoying an extraordinary experience as an athlete? In the shoes of an athlete, um, is it worth sacrificing one for the other? Would you sacrifice the totality of an awesome experience for the result?
I don't know why you'd have to sacrifice one for the other. One of the things that I have bought into and truly believe in is developing habits and habits will culminate into something great. I watched a documentary on Tony Robbins; something that I love that he said is that we all overestimate what we can do in a year, but we all underestimate what we can do in a decade. If you focus on developing habits, you can't help but have greater experiences. It's a culmination of your moments that are going to wind up creating success and creating happiness. I'm also going to give Kevin Thorburn an ode; something he always said was "you're always developing habits. Are you developing a good one or a bad one?" Are you always going to get what your definition of success is? No. I will share another quote from the movie Days of Thunder with one character saying to another, "when are you going to grow up and realize what the rest of us have; and that that control is simply an illusion." It's that culmination of moments, and if you can develop the habits to have better moments, then you are moving in the right direction.
I've truly appreciated the opportunity to chat. This has been insightful Jeff, thank you very much. I want to end off by looking at the totality of an athlete's experience, from the time a kid is kicking a soccer ball for the first time at four years old or jumping into the pool for the first time at six. They may choose to stay involved and progress to a youth-adult level, and then into masters or adult leagues; through that journey, there is a lot that they are going to experience along the way. You talked about the necessary tools to learn, much of which happens outside of sport, but a lot of the stuff you learn in sports supports that. Can you share your thoughts on how an athlete's lifetime experience in sport can support their experience in life and how their experience in life can aid their development in sport?
I think you put it exactly right. Everything is going to influence everything else. As coaches, we are responsible for building an environment where an athlete can thrive as an athlete and as a person. One of the biggest things that I feel someone can gain from a sport that they can take across to all areas of their lives is understanding the difference between person and performance. I've always show athletes is that we also are open to accepting feedback and learning and growing because if we take everything that we're told personally, we build up a wall, or maybe there are no walls, but then we don't develop any self-compassion. If we have a combination of both, then personal growth is going to be hard. I think yoga & mindfulness brings anyone the opportunity to learn self-compassion.
We can beat ourselves up if we're not somewhere we would like to be, or if we haven't performed the way we want, and that is a detriment to our mental health, which is a powerful thing, and this is not going to help you performance-wise in any way, shape, or form.
I've learned a lot from Samantha Livingston. She was, um, an Olympic gold medalist for the US on the 4x200 relay in 2000. Her mission is to affect in a positive way as many athletes mental health as possible.
She's going about that by offering mental health first aid, which is an incredible thing that I would recommend everyone to look into. So when she looked at it and asked how am I going to influence the most athletes?
She decided that if she educated the coaches and got them to take the lessons to the swimmers, it would give them the tools to succeed in life. I very purposely get afterlife skills, and I find it way more important than performance. I'm inspired by what she's doing
and getting these skills to as many athletes as possible through coaching education. The separation of person and performance is the piece that positively affects everything else. Realize that you've got a center, that you've got a core that you should believe in. Your performances may be good at times or bad, but nothing takes away from the core of who you are.
I really liked that answer. It's not as easy as, as just saying I need to employ self-compassion. From a society point of view and a cultural point of view, it's something we need to offer others to help them learn and receive intern ourselves to help ourselves learn.