The Voodoo Factor

keep-calm-because-i-m-out-of-ideasAthletes, coaches, and often the public in general often have a lot of assumptions about what sport psychology is and what it is that a sport psychologist does. And understandably, a lack of knowledge frequently results in hesitation or even fear in reaching out for help with mental skills — even when it is glaringly apparent that what you have been doing is not working and you are fresh out of ideas on how to fix it.

Miami’s Angel Rodriguez was kind enough to illustrate this dynamic beautifully. (And yes, I have had athletes refer to me as the “Voodoo lady.” Which is weird, I don’t see myself as having that kind of mystique.)

Luckily for Rodriguez, he had coaches who were willing to push the issue, encouraging him to get extra help, and believed in what sport psychology has to offer. Of course, Dr. Bob Rotella is HUGE name in the world of sport psych and mental skills training. He literally wrote the book. Or was it that other book? No no, it was THIS book. Honestly, just google the guy. I could be here all day otherwise.

But do you want to know a tiny secret? You don’t have to be able to get Dr. Bob on the phone in order to get benefits from a sport psychologist. Handy, really.

I recommend that athletes regularly read about sport psych topics, both generalized across the field and specific to their sport. Actually, I even emphasize reading up on sport psychology for other sports and seeing what you can apply to your athletic ventures. This stimulates critical thinking skills and helps you better encode the information that you’re reviewing. That is to say, you understand things better after you’ve picked them apart and re-organized them — just like you know where all of your belongings are after you clean your room and put everything away piece by piece.

Secondly, be willing to talk to a knowledgeable professional if a problem persists despite your best attempts to resolve it. This is making a decision based on functionality (“is it working to solve this on my own? Nope? Ok then….”) and values (“is it more important for me to get better or avoid feeling uncomfortable? Ok then….”). Likely most of what you will discuss with a sport psychology consultant will be things you already know. However, the process of talking through the issue and having them reflect back to you what they hear can be amazingly beneficial.

#NerdAlert

#NerdAlert

I liken it to teaching. If you are going to teach or tutor a friend in calculus, it forces you to really understand the concepts involved. You even discover yourself learning as you teach this person about calculating derivatives. Similarly, when athletes explain their concerns to me, they are in essence teaching me about the problem. More times than I can count, an athlete has stopped in the middle of their discussion to observe “well, that’s silly. Why am I doing X when I know that Y works so much better? I’m going to go back to Y. Thanks!” I have long said that I am an expert question asker – not necessarily the purveyor of all knowledge.

Lastly, sport psychologists help athletes (and teams and coaches) refocus on what’s important and what works. During a hectic season, lots of pressure on surviving the travel, rehabbing the injury — all of that can be mentally consuming. In my experience, just talking about mental skills, not necessarily teaching or learning anything terribly innovative, is an invaluable refresher and focusing tool. Your coach helps you focus on X’s and O’s, your strength and conditioning coach helps you focus on body maintenance, and the sport psych talk helps you focus on that 6 or so inches between your ears. It’s a pretty important 6 inches, wouldn’t you say?

True Story.

True Story.

A final word of encouragement: while I would sell my granny for an invite to Hogwarts and one of those flying broomsticks, I actually have zero magical abilities. Well, my sense of humor is pretty magical, but I don’t think that counts. So fear not!

Until the next time, stay awesome!

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Fixing the Don’ts

As a sport psychologist, there are times when I would consider myself a “language specialist.” A lot of times, actually, when I stop and count them all up. This is because language, how we talk to ourselves and others, has a huge impact on our lives. Language – AKA “thinking” – influences our choices, our emotions, our ability to respond to stress, really, everything. And so it is with great persistence that I help athletes become more aware of how they are thinking, how they are talking to themselves. And when it’s appropriate, we make some changes!

My favorite time to make a self-talk or language adjustment is for what I lovingly call “Don’t Statements.” You’re probably really familiar with Don’t Statements, but just never thought to categorize and call them by such a label. For instance,

There's a lot of don'ts going on in this picture.

There’s a lot of don’ts going on in this picture.

“Don’t freak out.”

“Don’t get distracted.”

“Don’t get gassed.”

Is it hard to see what the problem is with this way of talking and thinking? If you guessed “it’s negative” you’re partly there. But in full disclosure, I don’t put a lot of emphasis on someone being “positive” or less negative. There are extensive reasons why I think a constant focus on being positive may not be useful all the time. For another blog, another time. Pinkie swears.

The full answer, I believe, starts with realizing that our language is a reflection of what tends to take up the most space in our minds. And as a general rule, people are really good at focusing on what seems scary, unwanted. And paradoxically, we end up reinforcing these uncomfortable possibilities by talking and thinking about them more.

Want a super easy demonstration of this?

Don’t think about a red balloon.

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.

.

.

.

.

99redballoons

Crap. What just happened? Yeah, telling yourself to not think something actually puts that thought at the forefront of your mind. So it would appear that Don’t Statements just don’t work. At least not in way that gets rid of the unwanted thought.

Additionally problematic is that these statements are often thought (or shouted at the athlete) during a time of intense practice or important competition. They don’t provide a lick of useful information. Why would you want to do that? When it really counts, you need to make use of every moment available to you. Don’t Statements are ineffective AND inefficient. When it really matters, athletes need to be thinking (and coaches need to be shouting) something that gives guidance, a helpful reminder, something to get/keep that athlete on track.

Working from the statements listed above, you could change them (and there’s lots of options, these are just a suggestion) to:

“Use the relaxation skills you’ve been practicing.”

“Focus on your task in the moment.”

“Trust yourself to make smart decisions about how you expend your energy.”

Ok, they can be a *bit* wordier. Use a cue word to shorten it up if necessary. And they force you to really think, really focus on what you want, which may not be the first thing that comes to mind. That’s where effort comes in.

While it isn’t complicated, it IS tricky to undo years of talking and thinking a certain way. And even when you fix your Don’t Statements, you still need to work on helping those around you change their’s. It won’t happen overnight and it will require intentional effort. But if you’re going to be thinking anyway, why not think in a way that stands to benefit you? I promise, it gets easier with practice! Plus, with all that journaling you’re doing you might be able to record some of your favorite Don’t Statements and more quickly recognize them the next time they come up. Nice!

Remember: frame your self talk in terms of what you DO want to see happen, instead of what you want to avoid.

manifesto-focus

Performance Consulting for a National Title

The Leadership coach for the the Ohio State Buckeyes, Tim Kight, is the subject of a piece by the Wall Street Journal detailing some of the work that he has done to help prepare the team for the 2014 season. (You can read more here, and even more details of how the program is applied here). With a national title on the line and several big factors in play – that’s a heck of a depth chart you have at the QB position, OSU! – it’s interesting to examine what components of their program may be influential in the outcome.

From the Wall Street Journal:

“Tim Kight drilled Ohio State’s players over the past two years and redoubled his efforts with its coaching staff this season at Meyer’s request. His message—that a successful reaction isn’t impulsive but a skill that can be taught—has hit home with the Ohio State players who have harnessed a power of positive responses to every imaginable event.”

I really liked many of the points made by all three of these stories. In determining what would make for a successful performance consulting relationship – be that person a licensed psychologist, sport psychologist, consultant, or any other sort of “coach” – there are similarities in what makes it work or (not work).

  • Being a good decision maker is a HUGE skill on and off the field. Ohio State won’t have to deal with Oregon’s Darren Carrington because of a failed drug test. Decision Making Fail – can’t imagine having to miss the national title game for something so avoidable. Kight’s emphasis on making “positive decisions” is excellent in bringing attention to the element of the equation that the athlete controls. When competing, athletes simply do not have the luxury of time to become distracted by problematic weather, their opponent being successful, a teammate making a mistake. All of this has to be taken in quickly and a response given.
  • Coach buy-in. Performance enhancement services are becoming more and more common at all levels of sport. Not surprisingly, there are no guarantees that the program a coach tries to bring in will seem relevant to all/any of the athletes. Coaches who are involved in and excited about a program often make it more likely that the athletes will at least consider what is being offered. Furthermore, coaches can almost always benefit from practicing what is being preached – coaches need mental skills, too. Coach Meyer echoes this sentiment exactly, claiming that he has “learned learned more from those leadership classes than the players.”
Coach Meyer could totally pull off that hat/overalls combination.

Coach Meyer could totally pull off that hat/overalls combination.

  • Making time for mental training. “The garden grows where you aim your water hose” and many teams, athletes, and/or coaches are guilty of not aiming that hose at mental training. Athletes can only become proficient at a skill if time is spent developing it. Ohio State clearly made leadership training a priority for their staff and athletes, and this is incredibly important. Despite the “duh” reaction this observation might create, you would be unpleasantly surprised to learn (at least from my perspective) how often this isn’t the case. Kudos to them!
  • This program has likely been useful for athletes (to some degree) because it makes sense. If a performance enhancement plan is theoretically sound but doesn’t appear applicable or practical – if it doesn’t feel relevant it’s just not going to work. And it’s not going to fly just because the head coach likes it and wants the athletes to partake. There needs to be buy-in top to bottom.
  • The program was offered for a significant period of time by a consistent consultant. It is not unusual in the sport psych world to have people work with teams for a very brief period of time. A consultant could be hired and after spending little if any time observing the team, offer a talk for the day or weekend, leave, and maybe never come back. Now, if Michael Jordan agrees to show up and do a one-hour motivational talk, I’d probably recommend saying yes. But if a team is interested in real change or the development of actual skills, they are going to need to have someone become part of the team. Mr. Kight clearly accomplishes this and I’d hazard a guess that the time spent with the team is a significant contributing factor as to why athletes bought into the program. Athletes, particularly those in the well-known sports and teams are extremely hesitant to open up to outsiders – and pretty much everyone is an outsider. The successful consultation is one that is earned through diligent time and attention given.
No, no, no. Not those kind of outsiders.

No, no, no. Not those kind of outsiders.

There were also a few points that, as they were covered by the media, felt they deserve a word of caution in case awareness of OSU’s program inspires other coaches and/or teams to seek out similar services.

  • The world of performance consulting and sport psychology is open to an array of professional disciplines and educational backgrounds. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology offers certification to those consultants who meet specific criteria (education, applied experienced supervised by a qualified person, continuing education requirements), but obviously a team is free to hire anyone to improve performance. Because working with sports teams can be a highly desired position, individuals with questionable education or applied experience may attempt to gain entrance to a team with whom they have no business working. Perhaps sometimes the net result is benign, but no coach would want to find out the hard way that they introduced a counter-productive element into their team. So I always recommend double checking a person’s background to ensure that they are qualified to offer the services they are selling. (This recommendation also applies to hiring a psychologist, that while being licensed and educated in providing therapy, may not have experiences working with sports teams and would be practicing outside of their competency).
"Tesla's telephones, I've done it! I've isolated the 'makes crappy decisions in the red zone' molecule!"  Sport psych science does it again.

“Tesla’s telephones, I’ve done it! I’ve isolated the ‘makes crappy decisions in the red zone’ molecule!”
Sport psych science does it again.

  • Evidenced-based, scientifically supported programs are best. For many years, the field of sport psychology has been working hard to provide rigorous evidence of the usefulness and benefits of mental skills training programs. The media may have neglected to include specific details about the program OSU is using from a presumption that such a detail was unimportant, the information wasn’t offered, or because the program is the creation of Mr. Kight and not an officially recognized and/or researched entity. Another HUGE recommendation from my desk to yours to ask questions regarding the nature of the program and/or skills a consultant wishes to provide. It’s certainly anyone’s right to use any type of program, be it mental skills, leadership, or otherwise focused. But inquire about data that supports these interventions. Be a smart consumer!
  • “Positivity” receives a lot of attention in pop media, self-help, etc. Athletes are frequently told to “think positive” and for reasons that deserve a whole other blogpost, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Stay tuned for that one! OSU’s program seems to use word in a different manner, referring to choices that result in a proper/desired outcome and those that do not. I prefer to use the continuum of functionality – does a particular choice function or work to achieve a desired end? This wording choice comes from my background in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is very well researched and growing exponentially in popularity in sport psych applications. It may be a silly personal preference, but given the difficulties inherently tied into the concept of positivity, I am very selective about how I use it.

I hope these reflections help you, my Driven reader, think more critically about how the best performance consultation can come together. I also hope that if you are in the market for a consultant of this sort, you feel more encouraged to ask questions about supporting evidence, training and background of the consultant.

As for me, I don’t believe I have a favorite team to cheer for in the national title game. Although I grew up in southeastern Michigan, which would dictate cheering against the Buckeyes on a matter of principle, I’ve lived in Missouri long enough that I think I’m supposed to hate Kansas now. Except Kansas and Mizzou don’t play in the same conference any more, so I’m actually feeling a bit lost in Know Your Rivalry department. Honestly, it’s my hope to see both teams play spectacularly and impress all who shall spectate. And eat copious amounts of buffalo chicken dip.

Not sharing, doesn't care.  Photo credit: Closet Cooking
Not sharing, doesn’t care.
Photo credit: Closet Cooking

I’m just just that kind of girl.

CRAP for your New Year

Happy New Year to all of my Driven peeps! And welcome to 2015!!! I hope that it is an awesome year for us all 🙂

NYears

I’m a fan of the New Year brouhaha. It is a time when lots of us start wonderful initiatives. We will change! We will grow! We will dominate 2015! Woo-hoo!!! Just some playful snark over here, I’m really not too cynical about resolution making. I see the intent as positive, and I have a hard time being grouchy about an honest try even if it is statistically likely doomed. To me, it seems to be human nature to want “things” to be better and there’s nothing awful about that.

Of course athletes and the general New Year Resolutions Creating Public are very similar in this make #allthethings better mindset. Athletes, however, have many more designated occasions to “set resolutions” each and every calendar year. There’s a lot to be said on the topic of goals specifically, but since I’m already fully proficient in writing absurdly long blog posts, we’ll save that for another day.

For those athletes pursuing important resolutions or goals, at any point in the year, I make the following suggestion:

START A TRAINING JOURNAL.

Nothing fancy. Nothing earth-shattering. The same suggestion that is made to anyone embarking on any goal – write that sucker down! A training journal or training log can also be a place to record a host of other information useful to the successful athlete. Here are some of The Why’s that I think demonstrates how a journal can be helpful.

What Google will suggest for your training log. Clearly, what I'm suggesting is much, much better. Smaller. Something.

What Google will suggest for your training log. Clearly, what I’m suggesting is much, much better. Smaller. Something. What were we talking about?

1. Athletes who are serious about their performance are constantly setting and need a place to organize new and/or old goals. It can be tricky keep tabs on what you are truly trying to accomplish without a little organizational assistance. So record the daily or weekly goals that support your aspirations for your mental training, the next 1/2 marathon, injury rehab – whatever you have on your plate. Big picture, day to day picture – have a plan for all of it!

Sounds about right.

Sounds about right.

2.  Athletes improve in the achievement of their goals when they can assess their progress with precision. If you are making progress towards your goals, you know when rewrite or create new goals. Training journals next help you objectively measure what goals or parts of goals you are reaching. This is the scientist in their lab, recording accurate and specific data. Who could use more awareness of new skills and consistent strengths? Go be your own mad scientist!

3. Figuring out what approaches do or don’t work for you can take careful analysis. Unless you’re Sheldon Cooper, you’re not going to be able to do this off the top of your head. Training logs make patterns more apparent. You can look at data from a month, a year, or more ago – things you would have otherwise easily forgotten. I’ve had more than one athlete decide to make changes to their training programs because of what they’ve seen working/not working from a training log.

4. Competing creates nervousness, and nervousness can cause a variety of not-so-helpful pre-competitive thoughts and feelings. Reviewing the hard work you’ve put into preparing for game day is an easy way to solidify your self-efficacy (the knowledge that you are skillful and trained for the opponents, course, or routine ahead). This doesn’t mean that you always feel great right before competing, but it does mean that you can access the “voice of reason” reminding you that you are ready.

5. When athletes make a point to share observations made from using a training journal (to a coach, teammate, or sport psychologist), this journal then becomes a facilitator of accountability and communication. No need to journal solo, finding at least one person with whom you will share your insights is really useful. Trust me, there is no such thing as being too good at communicating.

Being a competitive athlete is a very challenging and at times highly emotional endeavor. Intense feelings can often cause glitches in our thought patterns and or encourage problematic behaviors. Journaling as many people think of it can be a time to vent and diffuse strong emotions in a safe place. Training journals replicate that purging of feelings (like a diary), but in a way that supports athletic goals and improved performance. If you are upset after a practice or disappointing performance, it can be easy to tell yourself or others that you “did really bad.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t give you any information to work from to make improvements for next time. Without knowing exactly went off-track, how can you possibly hope to fix it? Furthermore, we know that humans are particularly lopsided when it comes to assessing situations that have a mix of positive and negative outcomes. If 20 things happen in a day and 19 of them are positive, many people still find themselves fixated on the ONE thing that stunk.

There is no place like the 7 or so inches between your ears where really crazy thoughts or over-board reactions seem utterly plausible and appropriate. Writing out (or verbally expressing) your thoughts forces you to really listen to the content of your thinking. It slows your thought process so you can better monitor what thoughts you are buying into. I even recommend hand-writing over typing/electronic journaling for this very reason – some of us can type without really considering what we are saying. “Hearing” thoughts outside your head can prompt you to reconsider or retract a thought or reaction that just moments ago seemed so very real and totally awful when it was inside your head.

believe:think

For instance: several of my athletes have been able to share examples of feeling terrible disappointment about how an event had just gone BUT they sat down and recorded the details of what happened. After writing out what actually had occurred in the performance they recognized that they had actually successfully achieved an important performance goal that had been set. Oops. Glad we didn’t miss that tidbit!

Journaling for training and competition does not need to be overly in-depth. If it is too time-consuming you may be quick to lose interest or tell yourself that you’ll “do it later.” Two minutes of brief journaling done when your thoughts are fresh is probably more effective than 20 minutes a week after an event occurred. I recommend that you start with an idea of what could work for you as a training journal or log and make regular adjustments and changes as time goes on.

I think I need to buy these in bulk.

I think I need to buy these in bulk.

Considerations, Reflections, And Perspectives. A relatively sad acronym, but all the good CRAP you need to start writing about in 2015!

Consider your values and goals.

Reflect on your progress, adaptations or changes that would be beneficial to make.

And!

Perspectives can shift depending on your thoughts and feelings at the time. Journaling helps you assess what your perspective is and determine if you should keep it around!

Like most things in life, what you get out of journaling will be reflective of what you put in. You don’t always get what you try hard for, but you pretty much never get what you didn’t try for at all!

PS: Looking for more reasons to just write for the sake of writing? This is an informative place to start!

The Athlete’s Perspective: Casey Buckman

It’s a chilly day in November and while we celebrate his birthday, Mr. Casey Buckman has graciously agreed to let me pepper him with questions about his experiences as a serious recreational runner. I’ve intentionally kept the initial questions broad because I’m a relatively curious person, learning anything about a topic or a person is rewarding investment of my lunch time. But also because I’ve discovered a new wealth of curiosity about the experiences of recreational athletes. I find myself wondering how the field of sport psychology understands and supports the mental training of these athletes. Do we need to teach the skills differently? Design the interventions more specifically? And vice-versa, how do recreational athletes understand mental training and sport psychology? For those who aren’t training for the Olympics or professional sport, but still take their athletic pursuits very seriously, is mental skills training useful? Necessary? Sought after?

This topic was not covered in great depth in my graduate or subsequent training; it’s not an area about which I find much additional discussion when I attend larger conventions or professional gatherings. As it would happen, my favorite way of learning is by talking and sharing stories. And D. Rowe’s has excellent sweet potato fries. Sign me up!

Casey’s history of entering the sport is similar to others who run for fun and not profession. After “dabbling” in 5K’s, he found a growing appreciation for the challenge that comes from increasing milage. He joined the Columbia Multisport Club; in 2007 he followed up with the idea to train for a 1/2 marathon, then a triathlon in 2009. He laughs as he tells me that he didn’t own a bike or know how to swim – at least not laps – when he agreed to try it out.

Hmm... Something feels off. Could be a learning moment of some sort going on here.

Hmm… Something feels off. Could be some sort of learning moment going on here.

Although he considers himself at one time a decent high school athlete, it’s easy to appreciate that perhaps there’s more going on than he allows. It takes a certain amount of adventurousness, openness to do things that have been never been previously done. And certainly agreeing to run a marathon involves agreeing to a decent slice of physical discomfort. While a professional athlete might tolerate physical (and mental) pains in service of a paycheck, the recreational athlete seeks out these challenges largely just for the experience of it. Sometimes it might be hard for those around the serious recreational athlete to appreciate why they do what they do. Casey has one brother who’s active in similar ways and another brother who maintains that he “doesn’t do K’s,” (as in 5K, 10K, etc). Never fear, Jay, no one who has known you for more than five seconds would ever accuse you of such foolishness…   🙂

Now it’s 8 marathons later and Casey has a wealth of knowledge on training, outlining in clear detail what works for him to adequately prepare for all of those miles. He pragmatically talks about the significant changes he makes to eat and properly prepare his body to run a marathon. Casey isn’t the type that just wants to finish – but to really push hard for drops in time. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is the next adventure on his list.

He also has two (utterly adorable) boys and an extremely successful photography business. Should you check it out? Of course you should! http://www.caseybphoto.com/wp/ . Like many other recreational athletes, time management is essential. Training has to fit around time for family and work; it’s a balancing act that sometimes results in having to skip training runs or work around less than ideal circumstances. Casey’s attitude about a sub-optimal training routine is equanimous. For someone who says and genuinely seems to enjoy “suffering for a purpose,” he also possesses the highly desirable attribute of maintaining perspective and composure when things aren’t going as he had initially planned. Being highly invested in an activity while still not getting your feathers overly ruffled when you have to do something else in its place is obviously a critical skill.

Casey’s belief (and my shared observation) is that work and kids are also a protective factor. Not every race has gone smoothly. In the months leading up to a marathon earlier this fall, he was working through a niggling knee injury that required several weeks of complete rest. I’ve seen the exact same look on the face of my collegiate athletes when they talk about how quickly months of training can seemingly disappear in the space of injury. But there’s not a lot of time for self-pity when he feels invested and balanced by other activities. In more psychological terms, Casey’s self-identity is not solely tied to his athletic achievements. To further emphasize the point, he shares that it is scarier to attempt new ventures in photography than it was to sign up for his first triathlon. “What’s the worse that can happen?” he asks.

Of course, there are other potential obstacles. Casey relates that when he first started running competitively, it was easy to have uncomplicated fun. As he became a more experienced runner, expectation crept in. While he emphasizes that every race is a learning opportunity (how much does Renee love that?!), he also has to work a little harder to remind himself about the importance of just having fun – despite the improvements he wants to see in his performance.

It's what fun would look like if it went for a run.

It’s what fun would look like if fun took up running.

He also speaks throughout our lunch about the friendships and connections that running has brought him. The CMC and other organizations help create teams out of otherwise isolated individuals. Undoubtedly, teams like this help support the achievement of athletic goals because training partners create accountability and encouragement for the rough patches. Athletic pursuits, in turn, help like-minded people find each other. For Casey, the people that join him for those crack-of-dawn training runs are a secondary family, just the same as any professional athlete might hope to experience.

When I inquire into what other specific types of mental skills training he might regularly utilize, Casey shares that it’s an area about which he could learn more. Suggestions like creating a pre-competitive routine or learning more about visualization work make sense, but obviously it’s difficult for people to know how to do this without some sort of educational opportunity. Understandably, recreational athletes may not have funds to pursue individual work with a sport psychologist, unlike professional athletes as teams and athletic departments are more often hiring people to work with athletes.

As lunch winds down, Casey wonders if there will ever come a time when he doesn’t want to devote himself to training at this level. And I get the sense he’s not the type who can do things “half-arsed” if he knows that he’d be capable of doing better. For the time being, he allows himself time off after big races to eat whatever he’d like – a treat! – and waits for The Itch to return. Although he ponders the possibility of burnout, he also lights up when talking about the possibility of spontaneously leaving for a weekend race without planning months in advance. We briefly calculate how many days it would take for him to run across the state of Missouri. Or, even better, run some absurdly grueling race like the Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley.

Knowing this guy, I’m not ruling anything out. Another year older, another year of learning under that water belt, especially now that he’s got that whole helmet-facing-the-right-way thing settled.

Failure & Success

Not to start off on a total bombshell, but this may be the topic considered most important to athletes, teams, and coaches at almost every level and type of sport in existence. Although commonly discussed as two distinct entities, it is useful to think of success and failure as different sides of the same coin. The Outcome Coin if we’re going to be specific. (Not the Process Coin, which, IMO, is an awfully important coin, too.)

If we are going to be really honest about it, assessing the number of hours spent agonizing over past events or imagining what will happen next, I’d say that the sport and sport psych crowd are much more focused on failure (mostly avoiding it of course) than we are success. Perhaps it is human tendency to zero in on the experiences deemed to be unpleasant; they simply tend to take up more of our mental and emotional space. If 20 things happen in a given hour and 19 of them are neutral to “positive” most people are going to find themselves thinking about the one that felt negative. A lengthy dissertation on the reasons/guesses/suggestions on why this is is beyond the scope of this ‘lil blog, but most of us would agree that if we feel adverse to something, we discover that it follows us around incessantly. More persistent than a golden retriever who wants to play fetch after rolling in something that died last month.

Golden

Most athletes have a pretty predictable response to a perceived failure: THEY HATE IT.

Just anticipating the likelihood of failure can cause some of the most deplorable behavior to occur. Think: last two minutes of a football game when there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that a turnaround could happen. Frustration. Throwing equipment. Altercations with opponents. Plenty of colorful language. Sometimes you can actually witness as people descend into the abyss of Giving Up and This Sucks.

Which is sorta funny when you really think about it. I often remind my athletes that failure and loss are “the nature of the beast.” If you intend on pursuing increasingly difficult and more competitive realms of sport, it is not reasonable to expect that you will always succeed. Cognitive reality: Duh. We all know this. Emotional reality? No thank you, I’d like another helping of success, please.

*SIDE NOTE* I often talk with athletes about the importance of separating their emotional and cognitive realities. Respecting that these are two different but equally important ways of knowing the world. Neither is right or wrong. But frequently the head and the heart give us conflicting messages. Learning how to exist with both emotional and cognitive realities is a key skill. More on that another time.

So why are we so adverse to experiencing something other than success – particularly when we completely understand that it is going to happen? Part of what seems to make failure so darn hard to work with is how closely we get wrapped up in it. When a person is experiencing a failure they are totally enveloped in the awfulness of the situation; a Snuggie of Suffering might be an apt metaphor. The realization that life is deviating from the “script” they had envisioned in their mind creates pain and distress. Athletes are highly motivated and Driven people; absolutely this drive results in the creation of expectations. Expectations, particularly when they are not met, are pretty powerful stuff.

Picture in head

So what is an athlete to do? Theoretically if you didn’t care, losing wouldn’t really bother you. Sorry *obvious alert,* but we can’t just rid you of the desire to do well. Expectations will grow. We also can’t guarantee that you will always perform at your best and that this best will always net you the first place finish at every competition. Finally, I don’t know how to (nor would I if I did) turn off the feelings that come up when a failure is imminent.  Have you ever been able to successfully change the feelings that accompany a really impactful experience? Absurd and impossible. So I’d suggest we try something else entirely:

Instead of trying to change the experience, try relating to it in a different way.

Take a moment to carefully observe how you are reacting to the situation, what you are thinking and feeling. Notice how you are struggling with the situation. See the disappointment, anger, sadness, or disbelief that may exist. How are you running from these feelings? How do you notice or see your experience of aversion to these difficult emotions? Can you stay with the feelings for just a little while longer, breathing into them, without reacting to them? Can you recognize that beyond being uncomfortable, your feelings aren’t actually going to harm you in any measurable way? Crappy choices you make in response to unpleasant feelings can certainly mess up your life (push an opponent? scream at a teammate?), but the feelings themselves don’t DO anything other than make you feel uncomfortable. Maybe very, very, very uncomfortable – but still.

Next, try paying attention to what you are thinking. At this point, it might be wise to call it a Hamster Wheel of Doom instead of your mind. It’s probably saying a lot while saying nothing really at all. Can you notice the thoughts without buying into them? Like watching late night infomercials without calling in to buy any of the products – just sit and observe.

Seriously. This thing. It is The Awful.

Seriously. This thing. It is The Awful.

“I can’t believe this is happening!” (hmm, that’s an interesting thought.)

“WHY!? I trained so hard!” (ah, yes. More thinking.)

“This is BULL! The ref/coach/competitor should have never ______.” (yes, little thought. I see you there.)

“This is awful. I am awful. This is so devastating.” (my thoughts and emotions – yes, coming together nicely).

And so on. The ticker-tape of thoughts is going to be running at full-speed. “Now Renee,” you may be saying. “This sounds nice/confusing/completely unattainable. How in the heck is this realistically supposed to happen?” Glad you asked.

PRACTICE.

Practice being aware of your thoughts and emotions and your reactions to pleasant/unpleasant situations long before you enter a highly-charged, intense experience. For most people, I find that regular meditation practice is incredibly helpful to this end. Meditation and overall improved mindfulness helps us to stand in the midst of whatever experience we are having without making choices that could make the situation worse and without reacting to the experience in way that increases our suffering. We can better appreciate our reactions to situations, noticing how our attention is sucked away from the experience itself when high emotion presides.

Phil Jackson and Pete Carroll can’t seem to stop talking about meditation these days. And a brief Googling will net you plenty of other supporting evidence. And for good reason – athletes stand to benefit immensely from improved mental awareness.

If Pete and Phil aren’t all that inspiring, maybe you can appreciate the reflections of a mom watching her newly minted toddler taking on all of the glory and anguish that is learning how to walk. Children, especially the very young, are often wonderful models for mindfulness and the natural tendency for growth if we can stop freaking out about “what just happened?!?” long enough to just try again. Baby Man toddles around, he crashes into something – or nothing – and falls down. Sometimes this results in tears; a little over a week ago it resulted in his first stitch. But I have yet to catch him increasing his suffering after a fall, wondering “why me? why did I have to fall today of all days?” or ruminating for too long on how upset he is. Lucky for him, he’s not yet able to engage in this kind of mental Hamster Wheeling.

Meditation won’t make failure fun. I do not recommend mindfulness practice in hopes of making you feel better/calmer/whatever. But being more mindful can help you interact with your life in a different way. Maybe even help you get back a little piece of your lost toddler wisdom if you’re lucky.

And this is important because (Truthy Moment): if you are going to be an athlete, you are going to need to figure out how to cope with and work with feeling like you have failed. And while failure is a GREAT teacher (more on that later, too), we can usually only appreciate this learning when we get a little distance from the moment when everything falls apart.

Want to learn more about the thinking mind? http://www.audiodharma.org is a wonderful resource. This talk on thinking, in particular, might be a dandy place to start.

And maybe one of my favorite talks EVAR on the topic of failure. Just in case. Because this post isn’t quite long enough. And thus far lacks a reference to Harry Potter. Did you know JK Rowling gives great commencement speeches? Now you do.

JK Rowling failure

http://www.ted.com/talks/jk_rowling_the_fringe_benefits_of_failure

Memory Lane

Over 10 years ago, I attended my very first practice as the resident “sport psych student.” (Technically it was March 1st, 2004. Yes, I think I will remember that date for forever). After several meetings with the coach, planning sessions with my supervisor and mentor, and I’m sure a night of slightly ruined sleep, I walked into the wrestling room and proceeded to observe athletes doing what they do.

Except when it’s Division I wrestling, athletes “doing what they do” takes on a whole spectrum of awesomely-weird-mind-meltingly-tough that you never knew was possible. As a neophyte sport psych PhD student, I wanted to work with wrestling because I wanted a challenge. I had (and still have) unending respect for the sport and the athletes who train and compete in it.

I introduced myself to the team (perhaps a pointless exercise as many would tell me later that for the longest time they had no idea what I was doing at practices/wondered if I was dating someone on the team. Sigh.) and found a perch just right for recording my highly insightful, meticulous observations.

Not all observations are game-changers.

Not all observations are game-changers.

It was a week or two before conference, and Nationals were right around the corner. The intensity – and a few tempers – were hovering right around “11:59 AM at the OK Corral.” Two fiery souls may have transitioned from wrestling to boxing match mid-practice on that first day, but I was told “don’t write that down” and etched the memory forever in my brain instead.

Time passed, a few more hours spent watching practice from that slightly lopsided folding chair (you know, just 2500 or so hours), and you found the team doing a Hatha yoga practice in the days leading up to conference. Oh, don’t be fooled; these serene yogi’s once got into a shouting match trying to determine if the sounds of nature CD we were listening to featured tree frogs or crickets. And in all fairness, that can be a tough call to make.

frog closeup on white

Yoga is about to get all shout-y.

But the important point here is to say that we all had an effect on each other; that I think working together to improve concentration skills and mental toughness brought out the best in us far beyond the number of matches won or lost. And they won – a lot.

Years later, I still recall those experiences as being some of the best any sport psychologist could ever hope to have. Many of those wrestlers are still athletes who inspire fans and other athletes today. I was lucky enough to get to say a few hellos this weekend at the MU wrestling vs Alumni event. The best part? They are STILL hilarious. And talented. And really great people.

And this is important to share with you because being an athlete, likely part of a team, is so much more than win/loss records. The camaraderie and memories made are often what my athletes say they feel the best about many years after the final competition ends. So I want all of the athletes I work with to develop excellent mental skills; but even more importantly, I want them to have a great life experience. I hope that whatever sport you are a part of, you have time for fun and silliness. I hope that coaches find appropriate times and ways to encourage such shenanigans.

And just in case you need more reasons: athletes who have fun at practice and develop positive relationships with their teammates tend to be more energized for the next challenging practice. They work together to solve problems and navigate through hardships that inevitably occur. They experience less “drama” amongst each other (and less drama = less distraction from the work at hand). Eventually they pass along the love for their sport to the next generation of athletes – and  really, I can’t think of anything that would make me happier than that.

Jesse Owens

Salsa Verde

I’ve been feeling just a tad guilty about the lack of time I’ve committed to researching and writing for Driven lately. There’s so much I’d like to do and say! And on so many topics! Where in the world will I find the time? This post in particular is getting started at 12:29 AM.

Which leads me to ask “where does the time go?” And the last few weeks (and months) it’s the garden. Yep, I’m one of those seed planting, pickle it, jam it, sauce it types.

The fruits (and vegetables) of my labor.

The fruits (and vegetables) of my labor.

The strawberries, the cucumbers, the tomatoes and tomatillos, and these days a disconcerting number of peppers with which I need to find something to do…. But this isn’t a gardening blog. Or a blog about making your own hot sauce (too bad. those are my new favorite blogs). Nevertheless, I think my need to escape to the dirt is related to performance.

Most athletes that I work with tell me that they are much busier than they would like. They tend to have little to no time to do activities outside of their sport, school, or spending just a little time with friends and/or family. It seems that fewer college athletes are graduating with work experience outside of participating or coaching their sport. Many of my high school athletes are regularly choosing to compete and train instead of go on spring break or other “normal” high school shenanigans. In college, you really don’t get as many choices and in-season obligations frequently overlap with major holidays, breaks, and time when everyone else is off having fun. Think wrestlers cutting weight during Thanksgiving festivities. And I understand – when you love competing in your sport, want to earn or maintain that spot on the line up, or make it to the next level it’s hard to think about wanting to do anything else with your time. But it’s also possible to have too much of a great thing.

Athletes (and sport psychologists alike) need to take a break from being all they can be on a somewhat regular basis. Key question: besides your sport, what do you talk about with closest friends and family? If you’re drawing a blank, you may want to make adjustments!

Even for athletes who love their sport and want to be working at getting better as much as possible, an unbalanced life – too much work and not enough play – can have negative effects on mood and motivation, overall health and freedom from injury. In the worst cases, someone might become burnt out (Read about models of burnout here. Or if you really wanted to geek out over here. But this actually isn’t a post about burnout, so we’re just going to move along…) or decide to leave their sport early because they just need a break.

Paradoxically, sometimes in order to do as an athlete you need to stop working so hard.*

In my 10+ years of experience working with athletes, the very best – the most successful who also have a positive sport experience – are those individuals and teams who have interests outside of their sport. And it’s not just about avoiding burnout, it’s the realization that sometimes we make gains when we try very, very hard and other times we see progress when we stop pushing for it. In Kobe Bryant’s words, it’s about “understanding the importance of shutting down and unwinding.”

So here are a few recommendations that I’ve put together to summarize what seems to work for many. **

  • Make and maintain friendships outside of your team/sport. These are the people that can help keep you grounded in the “real world” outside of your sport. They help remind you that you that being an athlete is ONE part of your identity, but not all of it.
  • Develop hobbies or leisure activities outside of your sport. Athletes – at least the ones I know – actually tend to suck at being leisurely. Which is fine! But not a bad idea to see if you can find something fun and engaging that involves using a different “gear.” If you really only have the one gear, definitely find another activity that challenges you in a different way than your sport. (And guess what, you may have to work at it for a while before you know what works best for you.) I tend to encourage creative ventures – art, music, writing – or being outside enjoying nature.
  • Take breaks from your sport when the season ends. Ideally, a break should be measured in days or weeks, not hours.
  • Maintain the fun while you are in practice. Work with your coach to have an occasional day for playtime instead of the usual practice or enjoy the dance-off warm up. A little goofy goes great with a lot of hard work.

Listen to the All-Knowing Gut! If things are feeling off-balanced, what can you do differently? Why wait until practice dread is upon you? Be willing to make small changes today if you believe it would be helpful – even if it isn’t easy at first.

In the interest of my own down time and self-preservation, I’ll end our conversation for now. Oddly enough it’s 12:29 AM AGAIN why in the world am I still up? I’m hoping to get home early enough tomorrow to pick a few more peppers before it gets dark and we all know that hot sauce isn’t going to ferment itself. (KIDDING! Of course it’s going to ferment itself! Ah, behold the magic of gardener’s jokes.) And just in case my peach jalapeno jam isn’t very inspiring, the wonderful people over at Flowrestling present to you some of the Best Creative Goofiness you can buy with absolutely no money.

http://www.flowrestling.org/coverage/234324-JourneymenBrute-Northeast-Duals/video/86368-Hotel-Blues#.VEE0ldTF93o
* I’m working on following my own guidance.

** Be willing to try new things, but always trust your instincts if something doesn’t seem to genuinely fit. No single approach will work for everyone, but a well-timed experiment (ie: not 2 days before a big competition) can help you increase personal awareness.

David and Goliath and American Gymnast Warriors

Making the rounds on the ol interwebs the last few weeks is a kick ass video featuring Kacy Catanzaro’s performance on American Ninja Warrior. Which is, apparently, a thing. I may need to watch more TV. You can enjoy all of the kickass-ness here. In addition, Kacy gives an interview where she talks about her sport background and her competitive drive, recorded before she hit that buzzer in Dallas.

Now I’m sure it would be fun (and easy) to devote an entire blog post to just Kacy. After that insanity ladder, she’s likely earned it. But as I watched the video of her finals performance and listened to the commentators’ reactions to what they were witnessing as she completed the course, I knew I had to write about a lot more than Mighty Kacy.

The key point that stood out to me was the degree of surprise, maybe even disbelief that people seem to experience in response to her performance. Not just being impressed with what is justifiably an amazing performance, but continually emphasizing that they just didn’t expect that she would be able to complete different elements of the course because of her size. “Just 100 pounds!” must have been said about 10 times (ok, honestly, I didn’t count). Which puzzled me. Why would her weight – specifically a low weight – be an issue or hindrance to completing the course? Height and wingspan seems to be much more of an issue, undoubtedly. But my no-PhD-in-physics self seemed to think that her low weight would be a huge benefit in completing the course.

Which leads us to Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. Gladwell makes many interesting, stop and ponder a minute observations about the tendency inevitability of people to make mental errors. Honestly, we do this constantly. And where it gets important for athletes to take note: the trouble people often have in accurately assessing what constitutes a strength or benefit. In the story of David, we assume that Goliath’s size is the strength of which we are supposed to take notice. But Gladwell (with the help of some historical assumptions that are impossible to prove but seem pretty believable) points out that David’s skill with a rock and a sling are far more beneficial, particularly when David forces Goliath to “run his race” instead of meeting in the usual manner for hand to hand combat.

There are multiple points discussed in the book that are worth reading regardless of athletic goals or background. Go. Read. Prosper. I don’t want to over-share and ruin it for you. Also, this post is long enough already.

For athletes, learning how to pay attention to how you think about your strengths and assets is an indispensable skill. The next step? Questioning and perhaps rewriting how you’ve assessed strengths or weaknesses. Doing so creatively earns you bonus points. Given your sport, your body type, your skills (and a host of other variables) you will likely benefit from reviewing how you evaluate your ability to be successful. Because here’s the thing: Mighty Kacy knew she could slay that course. And Goliath would have made a crappy ninja.

Sacrifices

The universe seems to be talking extensively on the subject of sacrifice lately. Fourth of July celebrations always hum along this theme; and along with other adventures (the details of which are unimportant here) I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the sacrifices of athletes. Sacrifice and its bestie commitment, are some of the most fascinating sport psych topics to me.

It has long been my theory that one of the most defining characteristics separating elite athletes from the rest of us is the ability to tolerate such total immersion in one activity.

In my opinion (I don’t believe that there is specific research out there offering evidence to support this, so just an opinion at this point), all other variables being equal – talent, coaching, conditioning, physical health and freedom from injury – the person who would be successful would be the one with the ability to accept the need for sacrifice and tolerance for the discomfort that this brings. It would be the person who could withstand making the same sacrifices over and over again for years. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that this is a very unpleasant thing to do at times; most of us could not cope with it.

Humans by nature struggle to accept discomfort. Buddhist teachings talk extensively on this subject: we typically want what we want and in the most expedited manner possible. We search out short-term comfort without thinking of the impact on big picture goals. We itch for new and novel experiences; too much of the same thing becomes tedious, prompting us to abandon the half-completed project long before achieving completion or mastery. But not so with successful athletes (and by extension, often coaches and other support staff).

After a decade of observing some of the highest level of sport, I have witnessed untold numbers of sacrifices made in the name of sport. While typical students escape for rest after a hard semester, many athletes only take a few days to go home or miss out on holidays altogether. Those who are able to take a day or two for fun often have to make arrangements for workouts and must avoid indulging in holiday revelry so that they can make weight or stay on track with their training program. They make decisions about injury management not according to pain scales or even the best long-term outcome, but often what works best with their athletic schedule. While many enjoy semi or fully funded college educations (although not nearly as many as you would assume), it is not unusual for athletes to spend less time considering what they would like to do for school and a future career because they are busy being athletes. And travel/competition schedules often mean missing out on class, having no time for office hours, and taking tests on the road. Trust me, there are nerdy athletes out there for which this is a real dilemma 🙂

For better and sometimes for worse, being an athlete often demands sacrifice for just the hope of a reward. And because rewards are never guaranteed, my encouragement to athletes is this: be intentional about the sacrifices you are making and why. Take that extra minute – or ten – to determine what values are prompting your choices. Sometimes these sacrifices will not end as you wished. Clarity about WHY you chose plan A, B or C, can help you feel less resentment towards your sport or the people around you (who often pressure athletes intentionally and unintentionally to make certain choices). Understanding your WHY also helps you cope with any regret you might experience later, reconfigure your plan, and move forward.

Being able to make and tolerate sacrifice, to delay gratification of what you want now for a more meaningful later, is a tremendous strength. Most of us would likely benefit from further refining this skill. No time like the present! Get out there and do not just what comes easy, but what matters most to you!