Month: November 2014

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.

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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