Jory Elliott is a goalie coach for the Waterloo Warriors women's hockey team and one of our first Canadian #LiftTheMask Ambassadors. Over the past year, Jory has taken his mental health advocacy to new heights through his work at SHFT Hockey. He makes monthly donations to Lift The Mask through our Coaches Program and was gracious enough to open up and share his personal story, which he hopes will help goalies, coaches, and parents become better mentors. He can be reached at any time through our website.
At the age of 34, I quit my full-time job in the hospitality industry to pursue a hockey coaching career.
After dabbling in the sport as a coach in varying degrees since my playing career ended in 1999, that decision led me to the University of Waterloo, where I am now the goalie coach for the Warriors women’s team. That took place in 2015, so I made the move to Waterloo in late-August to prepare for training camp and to get my bearings in my new surroundings.
Little did I know that, in less than a year, I would have sabotaged my own success to the point where I ended up in my parent’s basement seriously contemplating suicide. The year started out quite well by my then-existing expectations for performance. Those went something along the lines of, “Fake it till you make it”, “Act and look tough and people won't ask questions about what you don’t know”, “Getting angry when things don’t go your way shows you care”, “Don’t open up to anyone about what you’re feeling, because it shows weakness”, “You know what’s best for you and don’t let anyone else tell you different”, and “First impressions are everything.”
I also added some contradictory self-talk, which eroded any confidence I did have in my new role. Phrases like, “You’re nobody, why would anyone listen to you”, “Who do you think you are to become a full-time coach, you never amounted to much as a player”, “There are hundreds of people who had a more successful career that could do this way better”, and many more. You get the picture.
The fact is, there are many who amounted to far more as a player by all the standard measurement criteria, because I didn’t start playing the sport until I was nearly 14 years old. I did have success over that short period of time, playing an important role on three minor hockey regional championship winning teams, and being just on the cusp of cracking some junior hockey and AAA lineups, all in just five seasons of competitive play. And there’s no denying the fact that those experiences are what came together to ultimately lay the foundation for the passion I now have in my coaching endeavors. Let’s return to Waterloo, though.
As part of my duties with the team, I was responsible for creating, staffing, and delivering weekly on-ice skill development clinics for the university’s affiliation with the Waterloo Girl’s Minor Hockey Association. Each week, I planned two 60-minute station-based sessions catered to players from nine to 15 years of age.
Truthfully, I had never planned anything like this before in my life. And remember those preexisting performance expectations from before? Well, they were about to become my worst enemy. It started with weekly distress calls to my dad. I would rehash the same complaints and worries week after week while trying to plan the sessions. I was clueless as to the level of anxiety I was exhibiting during this time. And besides, I always pulled those sessions off as though I knew exactly what I was doing. So why change anything, right? There was one particular instance that I remember very vividly, early on in the season. I recall a male parent questioning my grouping of players based on skill level or team. As a perfect example of how my mental programming had me pigeonholed, I snapped back at him immediately, with very unpleasant language and a highly uncooperative tone, just to ensure I didn’t have to defend my lack of knowledge. After all, didn’t he respect me and the role I was in?
That’s actually the way I used to think. From there, life got worse. The anxiety became crippling. I’d spend hours each week in turmoil, with every day being a little different as to how it would pop up and for how long. That generally included pacing my apartment for 30-40 minutes at a time, unable to decide if I could perform simple tasks such as getting groceries, doing laundry, or taking a shower. Still, I got the sessions planned, made it to the rink for team practice every day, and supported the five additional teams I was serving without really missing a beat. I was still getting results, so why change anything?
This must just be the way it feels to be a full-time coach, right? Fast forward to the end of the season and I was flat-out done. Depression had taken over the anxiety at this point, so I dragged myself into the Head Coach’s office and quit on the spot. Inwardly (and outwardly to those who would listen), I was blaming everyone and everything I could for my failure in that first year. Granted, the support I received in my role wasn’t nearly what I had hoped for going into it, which in many ways fostered my preexisting performance expectations.
All that being said, with the perspective of what I’ve been through since, it also wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own. Crushed that the career I thought I wanted so bad didn’t want me, and with my tail between my legs, I moved back in with my parents. Feeling defeated and having no direction, I spiraled out of control. I started partying more often, started showing more disrespect for others, and generally flipped the entire world the middle finger.
That summer, I sustained a major neurological injury while coaching. It was caused by my piriformis pinching my sciatic nerve, and it did so much damage that I couldn’t sit down normally for weeks. It took more than two months to be able to even walk without a limp. This injury was no doubt compounded in severity by the poor condition of my health, both mentally and physically.
It was also the thing that pushed me over the edge.
The suicidal thoughts - although I had a few in the months prior - came on strong, 2-3 times a day without relent.That's when I had the revelation that I needed help, and fast.
I told my parents what was up.
As in many cases involving mental health struggles, there was no surprise to the ones closest to me, as they had witnessed the unraveling of my life first-hand. The next day, I had an appointment with the family doctor. A seemingly kind and caring man, he knew the minute I started opening up that this was serious. He suggested I start taking meds immediately to help me deal with the dangerous thoughts. But, for reasons I am still unsure of to this day, I thought better of that and asked him to refer me to a therapist instead.
Despite having one of the best health care systems in the world, this wasn't something he could do in Canada if I wanted financial support during the process. That alone is why I’m so deeply involved with, and believe wholeheartedly in, the importance of the #LiftTheMask mission. Finding a therapist was no easy task, either. The demand far exceeded the need. I was told by two friends (who had both worked through their own traumas with therapists) that it could be a real challenge to find someone capable of helping me. Another hurdle I was more than ready to overcome, but again for reasons still unbeknownst to me. I got lucky and hit the jackpot on the first try at the agency. It was recommended by my friend, and someone who would become one of my greatest allies over the next two years of healing. Sally was my therapist's name, and what an amazing woman she is! I visited Sally weekly at first. Then bi-weekly. And then on a need-to basis. It was a major challenge to find the money to pay for those sessions, but I believe that was the beginning of life showing me that, if I really wanted something, I was going to have to figure out how to get it in a way that was much healthier than anything I had done before. I was far from being in the clear though, and the worst of the self-destructive behavior was yet to come, as I started to purge and rewire my mental programming.
I was lucky enough to have the Head Coach at Waterloo recommend me as a replacement for the departing goaltending coach of the University of Western Ontario Mustang’s Women’s Hockey team.
Looking back, I was in no condition to take on this role. But I knew it was a crucial stage in my healing and growth process. And strangely, having been torn down to the point of suicidal thoughts, it had also led me right to a place I had dreamed of being since I first moved to London in 2004.
I had always thought, if I could ever coach at UWO, that would be the greatest! And man, would people ever respect me as a coach then. Of course, that was the "old program" running, feeding me that thought process for all the wrong reasons. I survived and hung on that season, and I did what I'd call an admirable job of forming relationships with the goaltending trio. Coming in almost two months after training camp started, I helped them improve at their craft enough to earn a playoff berth. But I was still partaking in reckless, self-loathing behavior, which in the end led to my demise with that team.
That equated to the first time I can recall being let go from a job I wanted, for sheerly being too irresponsible to fulfill its requirements. Another low point.
I caught a great break though, and was offered the opportunity to reprise my role with the University of Waterloo the following season.
After some very deep soul searching and consideration as to whether I was ready to take on such an opportunity, and after having failed so hard on the last two attempts, I accepted the offer. That was in the summer of 2017, and I haven’t looked back since, serving in that role until the spring of 2019.
That's when I made the decision to move on and form my own business, SHFT Hockey.
SHFT Hockey focuses mainly on goaltender development, but I’ve expanded my role with the Waterloo Girl’s Minor Hockey Association. As the Director of High Performance Goaltender Development this past season, I supported 15 teams across four organizations. There have been bumps along the way, but the work I've done and continue to do - to promote positive self-worth and a can-do attitude regardless of the situation at hand - not only led to the opportunity to redeem myself, but an improved ability to learn and share as a coach. Something that would have never been possible had I not gone through what I did. In the end, struggling through a mental health challenge has been the single greatest teacher I could have asked for. It empowered me to understand and flat-out be better at things like: exhibiting patience during analysis of situations, communicating emotions and choosing direction effectively, understanding the value and role that making healthy choices can have on performance, and how to act both as an athlete and human being on and off the ice.
Most of all, it taught me that acceptance of ourselves and others, through humility and perspective, is the single best skill we can possess.
And for the record, acceptance doesn’t mean that you do nothing about the obstacles you encounter, both internally and externally. Instead, you acknowledge their existence and do whatever necessary to ensure they don’t impact your success beyond that point in time.
Simply put, don’t let the things you encounter on your journey become the end of the journey. When you apply consistent and purposeful effort towards being the single biggest influence over your performance in the future, you will find success that meets your expectations, with only your very own expectations as the true measurement of that success. I wish you all the best on your journey and offer my support to anyone who wants it. We’re all in this together. Be kind to each other, and most importantly yourself.
~ Jory Elliott