Athlete Life

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 ūüôā

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 Рwhatever you have on your plate. Big picture, day to day picture Рhave 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!

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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… ¬† ūüôā

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 Рdespite 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.

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

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 ūüôā

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!