We are NOT Superheroes. Saddle Up and Prioritize!

Screen Shot 2013-08-25 at 8.13.09 AM

By Dr. Allison Belger

This is a re-post of an article I originally wrote back in August of 2013. 

Recently, in my circles, there has been quite a bit of discussion about the levels of stress experienced by our kids, tweens, and teens, mostly due to high expectations, pressure to perform, over-scheduling, and not enough sleep.  Private high school admissions, college admissions, soccer tryouts, auditions for plays pile on in areas where teen suicides abound.  Certainly, as adults, we often ourselves beyond reasonable expectations, and it’s no wonder that we seem to struggle not to do the same to our children.  Perhaps some of the science in this article will motivate you to help your children dial in priorities and let go of some of their extraneous, plate-filling activities and obligations.  There really is only so much we can do before significant, and sometimes life-altering, negative consequences abound. Deep breaths, Everyone. 

You know how memories are clouded by photographs?  Sometimes what we think are memories from the reality of our past are actually mental constructions based on photographs and stories.  Likewise, sometimes our memories are psychological constructions based on defense mechanisms or other aspects of our psyches.  Here’s an example:  When my brother (older than me by two years), came with my father to pick me up from college after my freshman year, he took one long, hard look at me and said, “What the hell happened to your face?”  You see, like so many college freshman, I had packed on a few pounds over the course of the year.  But the thing is, I’m pretty sure this story isn’t true and my brother never uttered those words.  Instead, I think that was my own projection; I was so afraid that people at home would notice the change in my appearance that at some point I put all of that fear (and loathing) into my brother and made him the bad guy.

This post is actually not about memories or psychological effects on accurate reporting.  This post is actually about will power, self-control, and the personal resources we possess to attack our goals and stick with our intentions.  So why the story about my weight gain in college?  It seems to me that the phenomenon of the Freshman Fifteen—the tendency of first-year college co-eds to gain an average of fifteen pounds—is quite understandable when we know a little more about will power and about the effects of difficult emotional demands on our capacity to make sensible choices.  Assuming that most first-year co-eds don’t actually set out to gain weight and would prefer not to, there is likely some mechanism that makes this such a common outcome.  I’m not interested in the easy answers here:  beer drinking, binge eating, less exercise.  I’m interested in the role of ego depletion—how our self-control resources become limited and impact our ability to make good choices.  You see, will power–the ability to exert self-control,–is a finite resource.  When it has been depleted on any given day, subsequent functioning can be compromised.

Nowhere is will power more obviously implicated than in the realm of dieting.  The thing about dieting that we’ve heard a million times over but seem to ignore, out of desperation to fit into a dress for our best friend’s wedding or look better at the beach on vacation in Cabo, is that there is something inherently defeating about the simple act of “being on a diet.”  Once we proclaim—whether in our own head or publicly—that we are on a diet, our psyches register deprivation.   When we force ourselves to be deprived of something we want, we are engaged in a mental conflict that costs us energy, not unlike when we argue with a friend or family member.  There is a psychic toll when we are forced to grapple with conflicts within ourselves or with conflicting goals.  We both want to lose weight and to have cookies. We both want to be more muscular and to lie on the couch eating bon bons.  We both want to win the race and to socialize the night before.  With each run-in, we must choose an outcome, and the cost of doing so matters.

During the 1990s, there was a boon of interest in the field of social psychology in self-regulation and self-control as human resources.  A pioneer in the field was Roy Baumeister.  In 1998, he and his colleagues published a seminal paper discussing the finite nature of self-control and the concept of ego-depletion.  According to the authors, “The core idea behind ego depletion is that the self’s acts of volition draw on some limited resource, akin to strength or energy, and that therefore, one act of volition will have a detrimental impact on subsequent volition. (p. 1252).” Their article told of four clever experiments, each of which demonstrated that we possess a finite amount of self-control capacity or energy.  With each episode of depletion of that resource, we are left to face subsequent situations with a less robust level of self-control.  Baumeister et al’s (1998) first experiment involved subjects who were left in a room with plates of radishes, on the one hand, and plates of chocolate cookies and candies on the other.  Some subjects were told to eat a certain number of radishes but refrain from the chocolates, while others were told to eat the chocolates.  Both groups were then asked to complete a geometric problem-solving task that was secretly unsolvable and to alert the staff when they were done or when they wished to stop trying.  It turned out that the chocolate group persisted more than twice as long in their problem-solving efforts than the radish group.  The authors concluded that something about the initial deprivation from eating chocolate had depleted subjects’ self-control and persistence resources, so that they were less able to work through the challenging geometric task.

Baumeister et al (1998) conducted three additional experiments, the results of which suggested that different kinds of challenges to our self-control resources lead to lower levels of persistence in subsequent tasks.  In a similar vein, other studies have demonstrated that suppressing our emotions or engaging in challenging group interactions can negatively impact performance on subsequent, unrelated challenging tasks, in both the cognitive and motor domains (Muraven et al., 1998; Richeson & Shelton, 2003).  It turns out that will power is a finite resource.  Try as we might, we may just come up short in our efforts to repeatedly exert such power.  And, beyond will power, emotionally draining and cognitively challenging endeavors also impact subsequent self-regulation and other aspects of our performance.

This ego-depletion model has been studied rigorously since the 1990s.  According to Jamie Holmes (2011), more than 100 experiments have supported Baumeister et al’s (1998) results, indicating that we do, indeed, have a limited supply of will power or self-control, and as it is taxed, we are less likely to exert it subsequently.  Inzlicht and Gutsell (2007) demonstrated that suppressing emotions made subjects less adept at detecting their own errors on subsequent tasks.  This is fascinating stuff.  Emotional restraint actually inhibits our brain’s ability to detect errors in our actions and inconsistencies between our behaviors and our goals.  Seriously?  This gives a whole new meaning to the term “emotional eating,” doesn’t it?  Maybe we need to add “emotional laziness” or “emotional ineptitude” to our cultural lexicon!

Holmes (2011) applied the ego-depletion theory to the epidemic of poverty around the world.  The point here is that poor people are forced to exert self-control regarding finances so often that they are then left in a state of depletion for all other challenges in life.  With each financially-driven decision, they are forced to choose between competing goals or desires, a state of affairs that depletes their ego resources in ways people with money can escape.  This might help people with relative financial wealth understand something more about how challenging it is to be poor.  Maybe, I’m now thinking, there’s a legitimate analogy to those who are chronically obese; getting out of that category is exponentially harder than it is for an average-weight person to drop a few pounds, since the opportunities requiring abstinence in obese people might not even hit the radar of those who are average in weight.

For you athletes in the audience:  A number of researchers have sought to apply the ego-depletion model of will power and self-regulation to athletic performance and exercise adherence.  For example, Bray, Ginnis, Hicks, and Woodgate (2008) found that subjects who completed a taxing cognitive task exhibited significantly higher electromyographic activity during a subsequent physical (hand-grip) task, compared to controls who were not cognitively depleted prior to grip testing.  These results show that people who are ego-depleted must recruit more muscle fibers to perform the same amount of work as those who are not.  Likewise, Bray, Graham, Ginis, and Hicks (2011) showed that cognitive exertion led to a linear decrease in maximal voluntary muscular force production (also a hand-grip task), indicating that cognitive depletion affects muscular endurance.  Dorris et al (2012) performed two experiments demonstrating that completion of challenging cognitive tasks prior to exercise diminished performance for competitive athletes.  In their studies, competitive hockey players and competitive rugby players performed fewer reps of target exercises after completing difficult cognitive tasks than they did after working on simple, non-taxing cognitive tasks.  Seriously?  Maybe the whole “dumb jock” thing isn’t such a bad idea.

Hagger et al (2010) also discuss the physical/physiological implications of the ego-depletion model.  They reviewed countless studies showing that when self-control resources get depleted, there are negative effects on subsequent physical performance and lower levels of adherence to exercise programs.  The authors thus advise that people should “initiate exercise programs at times when they have few demands on their self-regulatory resources (p. 79).”  In other words, it’s probably not a good idea to expect long-term success from committing to a new workout regimen during finals of law school.   No wonder it can be so hard to get to the gym after a long day at school or a long day of decision-making and problem-solving at work.

The above review is a mere glimpse into the significant research on this fascinating topic, and you can dig deeper on your own if you’re so inclined.  Just be sure you don’t have plans for a super-intense workout afterwards, as you’ll probably be a bit taxed.  My goal here is to raise our collective awareness to the reality that various types of ego depletion affect not only our will power with regards to diet and exercise choices, but also our actual physical capacity to perform.

The reason I started along on this topic in the first place is because a long-time TJ’s Gym member named Rip emailed me asking for my take on the idea of finite will power and its impact on our ability to perform at the gym.  Rip was also interested in how cognitive and emotional depletion can impact workouts, and how pushing hard through intense workouts can impact our functioning throughout the rest of our days.  Thanks to Rip, I ended up knee-deep in the literature outlined above, depleting my self-regulatory and cognitive resources, and negatively impacting the quality of my workouts ever since.  That’s right, Rip.  I blame you for my crappy week of training and the extra treats in which I indulged while writing this article.

In all seriousness, Rip’s questions got me thinking about all sorts of applications of ego depletion.  Through all of my years of schooling (and there were plenty), I’ve always found it amusing that some kind of comfort treat accompanied me and my computer and my textbooks, as though hot tea and cookies or a bowl of cherries could fuel my mind.  I’d always sensed that this was some kind of self-reward process meant to soften the blow of all of that mental will power and tenacity.  Turns out, I was kind of on to something; proactively providing a food reward somehow fended off the depletion of self-control and will power that might have happened, had I deprived myself of the treats that crossed my mind.  In other words, I was finding a way to make sure that my will power and self-control energy was directed towards studying and not deprivation of yummy things.  Of course, all behaviors are multi-determined and there were surely other reasons I would eat when I studied, but I’m quite sure this is part of the picture.  I know I’m not alone—remember those days of college finals when you’d eat extra helpings of ice cream and bring candy bars to the library?

A similar phenomenon happened for me in my twenties when I was running marathons.  Having no coaching or sensible training plan, I would pound the pavement day in and day out, often sixteen miles at a time.  Much as I loved running, this kind of repetitive pounding often wasn’t all that much fun and required quite a bit of mental fortitude for me to carry on.  Guess when in my life I ate more junk food than at any other time? During the times leading up to the marathons I ran.  With this new understanding of will power and ego depletion, I feel sure that I was trying to provide some kind of prophylactic buffer against the mental challenge of will power it took to persevere during some of those training runs.  But this state of affairs also begs one of Rip’s questions: How does physical training and intense exercise impact our will power in other areas?  Perhaps the relationship goes both ways.   This would mean that fatigue from physical work might negatively impact our subsequent self-restraint and cognitive and emotional functioning.  Indeed, we know from the research above that if we force ourselves to persevere through a difficult workout–assuming that exercising rigorously is consistent with our long-term goals of health, wellness, and aesthetics–we are utilizing resources that will then be depleted as we go about our lives outside the gym or off the playing field.  We know that the mental part taxes us; perhaps the physical aspect does, too.  That can be a subject for a future article; there’s plenty here already to take in.

So what can we athletes and others take away from all of this?  For those of you whose training is rigorous and whose workout routines are intense (e.g., CrossFit athletes), it might be a good idea to check in with yourselves as to the realities of the benefits of that peak level of intensity.  If we think that constantly pushing our limits at the gym is wise and likely to set us up for greatness in the rest of our lives, we might want to think again.   I have written about the post-exercise high and how we can harness it to attack goals in our lives.  I absolutely believe that the fitter we are, the more likely we will be to tackle with grace and success the challenges we face.  However, while we bask in the glory of the post-workout high, let us be mindful of our limited psychological and cognitive resources and recognize that there might be a psychic cost involved with the mental fortitude and discipline inherent in intense training, day in and day out.   If you are doing a CrossFit AMRAP (as many reps as possible) workout during a particularly stressful time at work, those extra ten reps might cost you in the form of an hour of lost productivity at the office.  Or those thirty seconds you took off your 5k run time just after a fight with your girlfriend might translate into a glazed doughnut and glass of wine later in the day.  Remember, your stores of will power and mental fortitude are finite.  Emotional stress affects those stores.  Making tough choices and sticking with goals affects those stores.  Make sure you are spending your self-regulation chits wisely, and don’t get too greedy with them.  Short-term, you might be able to do it all, but long-term your stores are likely to get depleted.  (see “Money Zone” article for more on the importance of saving your best self for your highest priorities.).   This all sheds light on the phenomenon of burnout for athletes who train hard for long periods of time.  Paying attention to our bodies is not enough—we need to pay attention to our minds, as well!

That’s right.  There’s always that looming underbelly—your psyche will find a way to catch up with you if there is bubbling content to be dealt with.  It will wreak havoc on your stores of will power and deplete your ego faster than refusing a bowl of your favorite ice cream ever could.  Which brings us back, full circle, to those Freshman Fifteen.  Given the emotional demands on new college students who are forced to regulate themselves outside of the watchful eye of parents for the first time in their lives, it is certainly understandable that deprivation from food and drinks might go by the wayside.  As we have learned, there is only so much fuel in that tank of will power, and with every act of self-control we must exert, that tank is depleted.  Having additional psychological challenges on top of the usual only makes the task that much more difficult for college freshman and for the rest of us.  It behooves us all to be aware of these phenomena and do what we can do monitor ourselves appropriately.

REFERENCES:

Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., and Tice, D.M.  (1998).  Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265.

Bray, S.R., Ginis, K.A.M., Hicks, A.L., and Woodgate, J. (2008).  Effects of self-regulatory strength depletion on muscular performance and EMG activation. Psychophysiology, 45, 337-343.

Bray, S.R., Graham, J.D., Ginis, K.A.M, and Hicks, A.L. (2011).  Cognitive task performance causes impaired maximum force production in human hand flexor muscles.  Biological Psychology, 6740.

Dorris, D.C., Power, D.A., Kenefick, E. (2012).  Investigating the effects of ego depletion on physical exercise routines of athletes.  Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(2).

Hagger, M.S., Wood, C.W., Stiff, C., and Chatzisarantis, N.L.D. (2010).  Self-regulation and self-control in exercise: the strength-energy model. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3(1), 62-86.

Holmes, J. (2011).  Why can’t poor people escape poverty?  New Republic Online Magazine.

Inzlicht, M. and Gotsell, J.N. (2007).  Running on empty: Neural signals for self-control failure. Psychological Science, 18(11), 933-937.

Muraven, M., Tice, D.M., & Baumeister, R.F. (1998). Self-control as limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 774–789.

Richeson, J.A., Baird, A.A., Gordon, H.L., Heatherton, T.F., Wyland, C.L., Trawalter, S., & Shelton, J.N. (2003). An fMRI investigation of the impact of interracial contact on executive function. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 1323–1328.

Quick Tips for Managing Performance Anxiety in Sport and in Life.

perspectivearticlephoto_2

By Dr. Allison Belger

Stress and anxiety are so much a part of our lives.  Even for those of us who don’t suffer from clinical levels of anxiety and are not under duress due to extreme life circumstances, worry and concern creep in regularly, can affect our emotional and relational lives, and can wreak havoc on our performance if we don’t develop effective coping strategies.

During the past few weeks, I’ve been approached by a number of different people asking for help in handling anxiety, and it occurred to me that putting together a list of strategies might be of benefit for my readers.  These stress-ridden individuals are a diverse bunch — from the 30-something professional seeking a new job and worried about the interview, to the 13-year-old competitive soccer player having nightmares about club tryouts, to the 24-year-old CrossFit athlete preparing for the upcoming CrossFit Games qualifiers, to the 16-year-old student anticipating taking the SAT.  Each is looking for ways to settle his/her mind in order to navigate tense situations as optimally as possible. Below are some tips and strategies that can help manage anxiety and performance issues that permeate our busy lives.

  1.  4-7-8 breathing techniques: When we are anxious, we tend to have shallow breathing from our chest, which means we get less than optimal levels of oxygen intake.  4-7-8 breathing allows us to increase oxygen intake and leads to a calming effect.  The gist of it is to sit down, place your tongue behind your front teeth, and breathe in through your nose for four counts.  You then hold your breath for seven counts and actively exhale for eight. (Lightheadedness can occur in beginners.) Repeat the process up to four times in a session, up to twice daily, or based on your levels of acute stress. This is a great strategy to implement in anticipation of a stressful event or for performance anxiety.
  2. VisualizationI’ve written about this longstanding and well-researched sports performance strategy many times before. The idea is to engage in a regular practice of walking yourself through the steps of an anxiety-producing scenario.  Lying on the floor in a dark, quiet room without distractions, mentally run through the steps in an upcoming competition, presentation, or exam.  Be relentless about the details: see your clothes, smell the air, imagine the way the ball feels as it touches your feet, or the way the pencil feels in your hand.  Imagine your audience laughing, smiling, reacting positively to you, and feel that response. Visualize things going according to plan and force yourself to experience the details of how that looks and feels.
  3. Education:  Learn about the physiological realities of arousal and performance anxiety. Knowledge is power.  Being able to recognize that adrenaline is meant to increase performance and has real benefits when appropriately channeled will allow you to embrace its effects when you’re anxious.  Understanding the Yerkes-Dodson law of arousal and optimal performance will give you perspective on the importance of being jazzed enough to perform well while being calm enough to make sure that happens.
  1. Allow your body (and mind) to do its thing: Don’t over-think things during a performance.  I’ve written in great detail about the role of conscious processing theory in learning new motor patterns and sports skills.  The application for today’s article is to remind us that once our bodies know how to do something–having practiced movements at great length via training–we should just allow the body to follow through and do its thing. Verbally mediated processing, on the other hand, may hinder performance. Unfortunately, when we are anxious, we tend to rely on the kind of language-based, analytical thinking that actually gets in the way of our success. This approach can also be applied to test taking and public speaking; don’t over-think something you’ve practiced or completed multiple times in training versions of the real thing.
  1. Engage in positive self-affirmation leading up to a stressful performance or test.  Studies have shown that reminding ourselves of our positive attributes (e.g. “I’m a charitable person” or “I am a great friend and loyal confidante”) prior to engaging in a stressful task allows us to take the edge off our performance and leads us to be more open to feedback and personal growth. In a nutshell, if we enter an anxiety-ridden evaluative situation feeling good about ourselves and recognizing the totality of who we are, we are less likely to experience the situation as do-or-die.
  1. Create a mantra: It should be a short, simple phrase that works by blocking negative thinking while focusing our minds in a positive process.  Such phrases as “I’ve got this” or “I belong here” or “No worries, keep going, do your thing” or “It’s hard, but I’m tough” are examples of simple mantras that can redirect the mind when tempted to go down a slippery slope of negative thinking. Without this tactic, if we miss the first ball that comes to us on the soccer field, we might start telling ourselves that we have no business being on this team, and everyone is going to know it.  Or, we might feel excessively clumsy as we do our first trick in a dance routine or seriously unprepared when the first question on an exam is a stumper.  If we have a quick-and-practiced way of reeling in these negative thoughts, we can avoid the unwanted downward spiral.  Having a go-to mantra can serve this function.
  1. Spend time leading up to the performance or competition doing things you enjoy with people who make you feel good; avoid negative thinking about possible failure. Instead, occupy yourself and your mind with thoughts and experiences that make you feel positive and energized.
  1. Reflect on your performance when it’s over; this is a helpful tool for facing future challenges and scenarios. Be sure to take time to consider how things went for you—jot down notes about which strategies worked best and which didn’t seem to work as well.  Learn from experience so that you become an expert in managing yourself and your levels of negative thought and anxiety. Stressful situations are a part of life, and it behooves us all to get a handle on what helps us calm our minds and perform at our best.

While this is, by no means, an exhaustive list, it is a great start and hopefully includes some helpful, practical strategies as you confront anxiety and the next challenge in your life.  One caveat worth mentioning: if you suffer from extreme anxiety and feel burdened by negative thinking much of the time, you should reach out to a mental health professional for assistance.

Making Sure There’s a Forest in Your Trees: Taking Stock of Your Personal Pursuits.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 7.24.49 AM

By Dr. Allison Belger

The idiom,“You can’t see the forest for the trees,” reminds us that sometimes, if your vantage point is too close, it is difficult or impossible to take in the whole picture. We often use this to describe what happens when people get so consumed by details that they can’t appreciate the totality of a situation.  Like viewing a painting from so close that your focus is on the individual brush strokes or fine lines, taking in an experience from the inside, only, might prevent you from making sense of the overall image.

It’s been almost three months since I posted my last article on this blog.  Although it wasn’t a conscious decision to take a break from writing, I followed my gut and didn’t push a new topic until one came to me naturally. Yes, the chaos of the holidays and some significant work events played a role here, but mostly I write when I feel like writing and/or when an idea with legs surfaces on its own.  When that didn’t happen for an extended period of time, I went with it; doing so gave me a renewed conviction that I should only write when I am inspired. Since starting this blog three years ago, I have come to realize that I write for pleasure and to share ideas with my readers; this is not my “job,” nor do I write in order to sell a product or build a brand. Were I never to allow myself to go with the ebb and flow of ideas and drive to write, I’d likely force the writing, and both my enjoyment of the process and the quality of my content would suffer.

As I’ve written before, it can be quite difficult to take a few steps back and evaluate a pursuit in which we’ve become personally invested.  Discussing the process of considering a break from training for a particular sport or physical challenge, I wrote the following in 2013:

Having the capacity to make changes in our lives is critical.  Having the courage to shake up our own status quo is hard.  Familiarity is comforting, even when imperfect.  The idea of stepping away from something to which we’ve given a solid chunk of ourselves is frightening.  Maybe it’s the feeling that all of the time, energy, planning, we have put into the endeavor will seem like a big waste if we leave it behind.  Perhaps we are afraid that we won’t find anything else to fill the void…Then there’s the addiction element: perhaps something about our training and physical pursuits serves a function far greater than fulfilling our competitive drive or helping to keep us in shape.  Maybe, like any addiction, it has become a way to prevent ourselves from feeling something we are afraid to feel or from knowing something about ourselves that we are afraid to face.

This analysis, I think, applies to far more than physical training. If we are so immersed in the day-to-day of any pursuit—be it a relationship, a job, a hobby-turned-obsession—that we can no longer see the forest for the trees, it might be time for a new perspective.  Many of us, as parents, encourage our kids to do this all the time: if you’re playing a sport five out of seven-days-a-week year round, perhaps it’s time to check in and be sure it’s still rewarding and fun.  Has that spontaneous and joyful experience of jamming with some friends become a tedious band practice every day?  Maybe it’s time to put down the guitar, and listen to that inner voice about what you find positive and meaningful. Most likely there’s a balance to strike or a change to be made that invites the joy of the pursuit back in.

As adults, we are just as easily consumed by our projects and habits and hobbies and commitments. The trees may seem lovely enough, but how’s that forest doing? My message this week as I come back from my own brief hiatus is this: Be sure to step back from time to time, take in the big picture at the expense of the details, and assess your relationship to the ways you are spending your time, finances, energy, and precious psychological resources. Have your activities become automatic, lacking in spirit and resonance?

The good news is that there’s always time for change.  But, like almost everything in life, making something different happen will likely require an open mind and some emotional fortitude.  Stick with it; the process and outcome are worth it

In Defense of Youth Sports in America.

HollisMagicU10goofypicstatecupWoodland

By Dr. Allison Belger

Lately, there has been an abundance of articles in social media documenting what is wrong with youth sports. Parents, coaches, doctors, and bloggers alike are focusing on problems with organized sports for young people in America. These articles often show up in my news feeds, shared and promoted by some of my closest and most respected friends. While I frequently agree with what I read, part of me is left thinking about how different and positive my experience has been as a coach and parent of children actively engaged in organized sports.

My daughters are 10 and 12. They both play soccer and have since they were five. I’ve coached my older daughter’s recreation league teams since she was in first grade and also coached my younger daughter’s rec team from grades one to three. In fourth grade, this daughter made the leap to competitive soccer (known elsewhere as select soccer or club soccer). The main differences between competitive and rec teams include tryouts vs. open enrollment, professional coaches vs. parent coaches, and long-distance travel vs. local games. The intensity and commitment of competitive soccer is often more significant than that of rec soccer, and, as a whole, the kids who choose the former are more serious about the game than those who choose the latter. Of course, at the youngest age levels, it is often the parents driving the decision to try out, and, therefore, it is the parents who are more serious.

I grew up playing soccer and played for many years, all the way through to my time on a Division One college team, complete with nine-hour bus trips for games. I was also a serious field hockey player throughout high school, and the majority of my most powerful and emotionally laden childhood memories are of time spent on one field or another—playing, practicing, or whooping it up with my teammates. My goal for my own daughters is that they, too, will make lifelong memories through experiences that are uniquely created in sport, regardless of the “eliteness” of their level of play. So far, so good.

These days, there is much talk about the importance for young girls of making meaningful connections that foster their self-esteem; the goal is to encourage young women to have a strong voice and the capacity to be heard and to make a difference. We are told that girls need to develop their physical selves in order to be strong and healthy, better able to combat the pervasive media messages that threaten to make them sexual objects. We are told that friendships made in the context of shared, meaningful pursuits will help them resist negative peer pressure–including experimentation with drugs and alcohol–and make good decisions as they navigate the challenges of adolescence.

While there are many avenues that can provide such connections for our daughters, to my mind there is no substitute for the connections girls make when they are part of a sports team–a view rooted in my own childhood as an athlete. In my years of working as a psychologist specializing in assessments of children, teens, and young adults, I saw the benefits of group membership and shared pursuits—from music groups, to chess clubs, to debate teams.

However, there is something particularly transformative about what can happen when physical effort is at the root of human connectedness. Sharing the rigors of training, the triumphs and losses, the fatigue and grit, and so many other aspects of team sports, can truly make magic happen among team members. To be fair and clear, my own daughters have found similar reinforcement through their commitment and involvement in a tight-knit performing arts community. Even here, the physical aspects of dance and movement on stage are part of the positive group experience, much as we see with sports. Still, I stand by my story that, as a rule, sports reign along these lines.

No doubt about it: there are things wrong with today’s youth sports scene. As mentioned above, I have read the articles highlighting the premature selection of “talent;” the physical and psychological downsides of early specialization; and the obvious negative impacts of parents who infuse into the experience an intense and misguided drive for stardom, college scholarships, and even careers as professional athletes. I have witnessed firsthand the politics and drama that can permeate both recreational programs and competitive clubs. I have seen kids in tears after games, while their parents stomp off from the sidelines, clearly disappointed in their child’s performance or the bad call of a ref.  I have, myself, been guilty of less-than-optimal emotional involvement in a particular game or outcome.

However, I’m here to say there is a whole lot that is RIGHT with youth sports if my girls’ experience is any indication of what can take place across our fields and towns. My daughters are making friends and sharing common ground with girls they might not otherwise know or connect with at all. They are learning that things don’t always go their way, but they can still be engaged while working toward a goal. They are learning that coaches (myself included)—like teachers, parents, and others in positions of power and authority—are not always perfect. They are learning how to push through fatigue, how to fight when they’re feeling defeated, and how to access parts of themselves that they didn’t know existed—attributes that can only be unveiled and revealed through competition.

They are learning that people come to the field with varying abilities, and that each can make a contribution in some way. The girl who struggles with the short passing game might have the strongest shot. The girl who is bigger and slower just might be a human wall on defense. The girl who is shy and reserved might find her powerful voice on the field, helping to direct traffic and make things happen. The girl who is challenged by academics just might be a star in the game and might inspire others to try harder. The list of positives goes on and on.

There is nothing incredibly special or unique about the teams on which my girls have played; their stories are just like those of your kids. There are ups and downs–moments of elation and moments of defeat and sadness. There are times when everything seems to click and times when it all seems pointless. Sounds like a pretty real and fabulous tool for dealing with most events in our lives, doesn’t it?

Parents, coaches, and those in charge of youth sport organizations need to behave well as positive role models, no doubt about it. But I think it’s important that we continue to acknowledge all that can be good about having our kids play: the forum still provides an opportunity for meaningful human connection, increased self-confidence, along with physical fitness and the empowerment that follows. Let’s not throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. With renewed attention to what is “right,” we can continue to provide opportunities for our kids to thrive while participating in youth sports in America. I, for one, am in the game and hooked for life, regardless of whether my own girls take the field. Of course, I hope they will!

The Slippery Slope of the “Things Could Always be Worse” Perspective.

lylehollisbeach2_Fotor

By Dr. Allison Belger

The other day on Facebook, a good friend posted something that had happened to her kids. One of them, a pre-teen and budding photographer, had lost a file of treasured pictures from his hard drive. The other, age eight, had melted down after discovering that his Legos had been unexpectedly tidied up in his absence, though he was in the midst of a grand building scheme.  As parents often do, my friend was reflecting on the events and the meaning she and her kids had each made of the losses they’d suffered.

So often, we talk about how to help our kids (and ourselves) maintain perspective when they, or we, encounter loss or endure an insult of some kind. In the example of my friend and her two boys, the parental message was one of a splash of empathy mixed with a big dose of perspective: bottom line? Nobody has Ebola, so it’s time to move on, right?

Yes, but…

I am fortunate to have been raised by hardworking, successful parents who could afford some of the finer things in life and made a point of encouraging new experiences and opportunities for me and my brother.  Their work ethic and desire to provide for their kids trickled down to me, and my resulting M.O. is to raise my daughters to have a work ethic and drive of their own, an inner sense of civic responsibility and the importance of giving back, and a childhood free of serious financial burdens.  Sounds perfect, right?

Well, things aren’t always so streamlined and clear. Many people in our social circles struggle with the same questions my parents faced decades ago: How do we raise children in relative comfort without a sense of entitlement or tendency to overreact when confronted by minor adversity? How do we develop in our children an appreciation of their good fortune compared to the challenges faced by so many in the world around them?  How do we instill a work ethic and solid values, while giving them so much “stuff”?  These questions have been debated for years, but my focus here is slightly different: how can we provide genuine empathy when our kids hit bumps in the road—acknowledging their disappointments and distress while maintaining perspective and helping them stay grounded.

I’ve written on this topic before, dealing with the “it’s just a game” mantra when things don’t go our way in sport:

For those of us fortunate enough to have been raised within a loving family where basic needs were met and fundamental aspects of childhood were sustained, the “things could always be worse” mantra can loom large in our psyches… But what if we are never allowed to feel pain or disappointment because the message we continually receive is that we are fortunate and that others suffer more?  What if things literally could always be worse and, therefore, our problems are never legitimate enough to warrant attention or sympathy?

So when our budding photographer loses his cherished photographs in middle school or our eight-year-old comes home to find his Lego village destroyed, our instinct is to remind them that it’s important to keep perspective.  We tell them that “it’s not the end of the world,” that they can always take more photos and build a new Lego city.  In fact, we might add in frustration how lucky they are to have fancy cameras and hard drives and Legos, which 90% of the world’s children can only dream about.  And, besides (we might pile on), many kids with cancer or who’ve lost a parent, or who are in foster care, would give up their cameras and Legos in a heartbeat for a chance at health and stability.  Indeed, when my nine-year-old daughter had moments of fatigue this summer while juggling her soccer ball to raise money for the kids at St. Jude Hospital, you can be sure I whipped out the “suck-it-up-because-you-don’t-have-cancer-message” one time too many.

Our intentions are good. We are doing our best to create grounded kids with a sense of appreciation and perspective. But here’s the problem: it can be all too easy to go overboard and raise kids whose cuts and scrapes never get acknowledged, because someone else lost a limb. We can create kids whose psyches resonate with the message of “things could always be worse,” and are never allowed to acknowledge any loss in their lives.  Their dad might be away on business trips five out of seven nights a week, but at least they have a dad.  Their mom might be starving herself to fit into her party jeans, but at least she makes their lunch every day, and it’s packed in a monogrammed lunch box. They may have lost their championship soccer game, but how lucky to be able to pay for the traveling team, to be healthy and have the experience of competitive soccer in the first place.

It’s a slippery slope, the perspective one, and I’m here today to give voice to the importance of having our little “owies” acknowledged, bandaged, and cared for. We all need to feel that we are heard, seen, and nurtured, no matter the big picture.  And while this strategy refers mostly to parenting, it also applies to how we treat ourselves. If we grow up being told over and over that things could always be worse, that we are so fortunate to have what we have and be who we are, we just might end up trying secretly and desperately to find a REAL reason to be taken seriously and cared for, with outcomes that are far from ideal.

The lifelong message is to keep in mind the importance of acknowledging and validating the pain and disappointment of our everyday losses while also understanding and appreciating the big picture and the positive aspects of our lives. This balance is as tricky as life balances get, but with all the self-help and parenting advice that gets thrown around these days, especially in circles of privilege, it is well worth remembering.

 

.

From the Mouths of Babes; Sometimes the Best Content Comes from the Youngest Minds!

JugglingforJudeonbeach

By. Dr. Allison Belger

It’s nice when you’re super busy, and your 9-year-old can do your writing for you! That’s what happened this afternoon. The article below is written by my daughter, Hollis, who worked her tail off this summer juggling her soccer ball and blogging about her efforts in order to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.  As of this post, she has raised more than $31,000 for St. Jude, and is going strong through September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.  A Psychologist/Mom, I encouraged her to take some time to reflect on her experience as she prepares to head back to school tomorrow.  Below is her post in its entirety. If you’re interested in more on her summer effort, please visit http://www.jugglingforjude.com.

I’m going back to school tomorrow, and since my mom is a psychologist, she suggested that I take some time to reflect on my summer experience of raising money for St. Jude Hospital.  I’m not done yet! My donation page is still open till the end of September, and I plan to keep asking for donations!  But the daily juggling is done and now it’s time to get back to school.  Juggling for Jude has been a GREAT experience, and I have definitely learned a whole lot. I think I look at life in a different way now.

*I’ve learned that you can always make a change in the world.

*I’ve learned that small people can be capable of wonderful things.

*I’ve learned that I’m a good soccer juggler.

*I’ve learned that you can really do anything you set your mind to. It’s not just a quote–it’s really a true story! :)  (My mom likes this one the best)!

*I’ve learned that St. Jude is a great hospital and every kid should feel thankful that St. Jude exists. Even if you don’t have cancer, because they work to find cures, and really you never know what the future holds.

*I’ve learned that kids with cancer at St. Jude are the ones really doing the hard work. 

*I’ve learned that you should always set your sights and goals high.  The more you strive for, the more you will accomplish.

*I’ve learned that if you push through the hard parts in life, even when it feels really hard, there’s usually a light at the end of the tunnel.  You just have to keep with it.

*I’ve learned that there are amazing people in the world and many of them donated for Juggling for Jude. People can really come together to make a difference, and I am so lucky that people did that for my fundraiser.

Thank you for your support and your donations so far. And don’t forget, I’M NOT QUITE DONE YET!  My DONATION PAGE will stay open through the end of September in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, so please donate if you can and tell ALL of your friends and family to donate.  I really think we can get closer to $40,000, and that would mean more help for the kids at St. Jude who are fighting every second of every day! So, let’s go for it!

Oh, and one last thing: I still want to be on The Ellen Show. I think it would be super fun (I mean she’s funny, and I’m funny!), and I could juggle, and we could raise more money for St. Jude. So if you know how to help make that happen, please help!

Thanks for your support!

~Hollis

There’s Hard and Then There’s HARD.

Hardarticle
By. Dr. Allison Belger

If you follow me on social media, you know that I’ve spent much of my time and energy this summer supporting my nine-year-old daughter in a fabulous fundraising event called Juggling for Jude.  For those of you who don’t know, the gist is that she has been juggling her soccer ball daily to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  At the time of this article, she has raised nearly $30,000 in two short months, and her most recent juggling record is 461, alternating feet.  No small feat, and not your average summer lemonade stand!

As one often does when being personally invested in a significant venture, I’ve learned quite a few things during this summer of Juggling for Jude.  One of the themes that has surfaced for my daughter is how to fight through the times that are “hard.”  During a recent conversation about it, as I reflected on her tenacity and hard work, it occurred to me that I’ve learned much about what “hard” means in the past couple of months.  Here’s a sampling:

*It’s hard to juggle a soccer ball hundreds or thousands of times every  day. This is especially true if you if you are nine and have a broken toe.

*It’s hard to ask friends and family to donate money, even if it is for a great cause.  It’s even harder to ask them more than once.

*It’s hard to make your kid juggle a soccer ball when she is feeling tired and has plenty of other things to do.

*It’s hard to (cold) contact celebrities and news organizations in an effort to spread the word about a fundraiser, in hopes of increasing donations.

*It’s hard to be sure your other child isn’t feeling left out.

*It’s hard to add a new project to a family’s already packed schedule.

*It’s hard to juggle a soccer ball when it’s windy.  It’s also hard to juggle a soccer ball when it’s 100 degrees outside and you’ve already been to dance camp and soccer practice.

You know what else is hard?

*It’s hard to be a middle schooler who sticks up for the kid getting bullied at school.

*It’s hard to tell someone you love that you are worried they drink too much.

*It’s hard to say no to your high school peers when they offer you a shot of vodka.

*It’s hard to take a risk on hiring an employee who lacks the credentials for a job but whose work ethic, commitment, and capacity for growth seem legitimate.

*It’s hard to not join in when all of your friends are giggling about the fat kid and what she’s wearing.

*It’s hard to approach someone who is awkward and shy and invite him to eat lunch with you and your “cool” friends.

*It’s hard to organize meal deliveries for a friend whose spouse is fighting cancer.

*It’s hard to change your lifestyle in order to improve your health.

*It’s hard to train for your sport five hours each day.

*It’s hard to ask for help when you need it but are usually the one people seek out when they are in need.

Each of us encounters hardships in our lives; it’s how we attack these challenges that comprise our character and make up who we are. Sometimes we drop the ball–we quit juggling too early or we pretend we don’t hear our friends giggling as the fat girl walks by.  We act like we don’t see the awkward student sitting alone, or we choose to hire the person who has the “right” credentials, even though our gut tells us that the other candidate might be a better fit for the job.  We accept a cup of vodka punch to avoid being teased, or we put off confronting our alcoholic family member, convincing ourselves that he will stop on his own or that it’s not our place to step in.

Sometimes, though, we gather our strength, harness our determination, and fight our battles with tenacity and perseverance.  We acknowledge the challenges, perhaps even engage in some self-pity, but move forward with the task at hand.  If we are lucky, we may be able to tolerate the time between the positive action and the reward for having done it.  Sometimes, we even have to accept the fact that the only reward we will receive is knowing we did the right thing.  There will be no trophy or medal or party.

You know what’s REALLY hard?

Being told your child has cancer and watching him or her go through a battle that makes any other battle seem like a walk in the park.  And being a child with cancer?  Harder than we can fathom.

Keep fighting when faced with your own personal hard, and always keep in mind the continuum of what challenges exist in the world.  Commit to yourself that you will push through challenges and stick with the hard times, but be sure to keep perspective.  Should you ever be faced with the unfathomable, the hope is that your training will guide you.

If you would like to donate to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital on behalf of Juggling for Jude, please do so here.

Back to Basics: Taking Care of Your Psychological Self

LandHpurplebeach

By Dr. Allison Belger

Serious athletes training for sport often seek the services and guidance of a variety of specialists. From massage therapists, to chiropractors, to running or gymnastics coaches, it often “takes a village” to keep athletes going strong in their sport of choice.  Perhaps you can relate: you may pay a specialty coach or follow certain blogs or consult with experts you hope will propel you to the next level of awesome.

In our pursuit of optimal performance, both in sport and in life, we often forget a critical factor affecting us in profound and complex ways: our psychological profile and functioning. While sport psychologists are increasingly included as part of an athlete’s team of advisors–a good thing–what I am referring to here is a different kind of attention given to caring for our psychological selves.

Many athletes at all levels–including the serious, elite, and everyday–fail to address the fundamental aspect of who they are.  Since our psychological functioning affects everything we do, it behooves us to take a good look at what’s going on inside and to take seriously the impact of our personalities and emotional standing in all areas of our lives.

We hear it all the time: train your weaknesses.  We are told to be sure to attack physical skills that challenge us most, so that we may be well rounded and efficient in our athletic endeavors.  But we sometimes ignore the biggest weakness of all—the one that affects us most profoundly, both on and off the field: our psyches, the foundation of who we are and how we function. Our psychological vulnerabilities are present in all we do–from our training and performance in sport, to our jobs, to our hobbies, to our relationships.

This week’s post is meant to serve as a reminder to explore your psychological self, possibly with the help of a psychologist. If you are struggling with any aspect of your life, do yourself a favor and address the foundation of all you do. Get back to basics. Deal with the forces that make you tick.  Like a smart coach who pushes you to rework the technique of your front squat, deadlift or pushup, a savvy therapist will help you address the most fundamental aspects of who you are.  You’re in this for the long haul, after all, and the sooner you do the work to create a stronger foundation, the more likely you are to achieve your desired goals, both in sport and in life.

Related reading from the archives:

http://psychologywod.com/2013/06/30/heads-up-your-latest-and-greatest-pursuit-just-might-be-a-decoy/

http://psychologywod.com/2013/07/21/mental-illness-mental-health-and-the-in-betweens-the-beginning-of-an-open-discussion-with-drew-canavero/

http://psychologywod.com/2014/01/17/life-in-the-in-between/

****PLEASE VISIT JUGGLING FOR JUDE to find out how you can support St. Jude Children’s Hospital via a 9-year-old’s soccer juggling skills! Every bit of money helps children with cancer receive cutting-edge treatment at an amazing place.  Thanks for your support!

Peeking Behind the Curtain: It’s not ALL Fun and Games!

IMG_3048

By Dr. Allison Belger

I’ve seen some funny posts circulating social media about the discrepancy between the perception we might have of someone’s life based on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts and the reality of their life in true form. While there’s humor there to be sure, we might find ourselves a little bummed out if we are inclined to chronically compare our own reality to the social media version of the lives of others.

I spent the weekend spectating at the CrossFit Games, specifically as a “Filly Fan,” rooting on my good friend and business partner, Marcus Filly. When you’re a spectator at the CrossFit Games, you get to witness amazing feats of human performance by athletes like Marcus who are pushing themselves to the limits. You are privy to the “thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” as ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to say.

If you follow me on social media via Psychologywod or simply as Allison Belger, you know that I am currently committed to a fundraiser called Juggling for Jude. My 9-year-old daughter, Hollis, is juggling her soccer ball to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. She is keeping a blog about her experiences, and she posts videos of her daily personal bests, as well as pertinent photos. At the time of my writing this article, she has raised nearly $13,000 in five short weeks. Her juggling skills are legit, with a record of 326, alternating feet. In the photos and videos we post, she is usually smiling (case in point the photo below with her holding a newspaper article about her efforts).  While she does acknowledge the challenges of her daily efforts and the fatigue that sometimes sets in–especially after a long day of camp–her blog content is mostly positive.

holliswithpaperJFJ

Does this mean that Juggling for Jude is an endeavor marked only by good times, wide grins, and a happy camper? No. The truth is that behind the scenes, Hollis experiences moments of doubt, of not wanting to juggle, of feeling pressure to perform, and of simply being tired. The pressure is especially significant because she knows that most, if not all, of the kids at St. Jude for whom she is juggling would trade places with her in a heartbeat; she is lucky to have her health, let alone her talent for soccer. This is quite a bit of content for the psyche of a nine-year-old to manage.

At the CrossFit Games, the general aesthetic of the athletes, indeed of the entire event, is one of human beauty in motion. We see tan skin, defined muscles, bodies that move gracefully and skillfully while taking on the most demanding of physical challenges performed on visually pleasing and perfectly constructed stages.   The Reebok apparel worn by the athletes is lovely and colorful, highlighting and neatly showcasing the physical specimens. Athletes are often smiling before, during, and after their workouts, and even when things don’t go as well as planned.  A hallmark of the Games is that it is a showcase of considerable sportsmanship; there is rarely a public display of anything but appreciation for participating.

Like Juggling for Jude, this is all something to celebrate. However, since Psychologywod is about digging beneath the surface for personal growth, I’m here to suggest that, like Hollis who is juggling for sick kids, even the graceful athletes at the CrossFit Games, the gifted soccer players we watched at the World Cup, or the elite and sponsored athletes in your sport of choice, have behind-the-scenes moments that aren’t often reflected in their social media streams and public displays.   Beyond the obvious moments we might imagine that involve draining training sessions marked by physical pain and mental challenges, there may be moments of anger, irritability, and a desire to quit. There may be feelings of having been cheated by a judge or referee and a resentment of others who weren’t. There may be self-doubt and questioning of a coach or training plan. And there’s always the possibility of burnout, when the drive and desire all but disappear. These moments don’t “sell” well in social media, so you won’t see them often. But I’m here to say that they are likely experienced at least some of the time by every one of your favorite athletes. Like you, they are human beings with complicated systems.

So the next time you’re struggling with training for a sport or your daily grind at work, or your relationship, or your fight to be fitter, keep in mind that you’re not alone.  Most people don’t post photos of their bedhead or their look of disdain when arguing with a loved one. Don’t be fooled.  You are simply privy to the parts of your own experience whose counterparts in others you don’t get to see. Like you, they must fight to be better and to persevere through tough times. Like you, they feel pressure and pain; they just might not tweet about it or post an Instagram photo expressing it. And that’s ok. Just be sure you realize that your personal, internal social media stream is authentic and complete, unlike the published, filtered versions of others you might see on your computer. Keep fighting the good fight, and know you’re not alone.

 

*If you’d like to donate to St. Jude on behalf of Juggling for Jude, please go here to do so.  Thank you in advance–every bit helps this amazing place!*

Related reading from the archives:

http://psychologywod.com/2013/11/24/how-well-do-you-really-know-those-joneses-anyway/

http://psychologywod.com/2014/04/13/hanging-in-the-here-and-now-you-cant-always-be-your-personal-best/

http://psychologywod.com/2013/08/04/face-your-dark-side-and-move-on-you-are-not-the-sum-total-of-your-imperfect-thoughts/

http://psychologywod.com/2013/03/25/had-a-bad-day-now-what/

 

 

Be Like a Celebrity, and Make Someone’s Day.

marcushelping_Fotor

These days, with so much happening on social media and so many work and social connections being made instantaneously through the click of a mouse, networking has become increasingly relevant in our world. It’s long been true that having connections in a certain field was helpful to propel you forward and that knowing people “in high places” gave you an upper hand socially and with work aspirations. However, with the greater level of access we have to people via the internet nowadays, it seems that upper hand might be within reach to more of us.

I’ve always thought that one of the coolest parts about being a celebrity would be the ability to make a difference in the lives of others. Notwithstanding all of the challenges, complications, and hard work that comes with being a famous person in our culture, the upside to me seems to be an increased capacity for helping others. Celebrities can help fundraise for great causes, and they can visit sick kids and make wishes come true (if only they could heal them, too). I’ve reached out to some stars in the world of professional soccer these past couple of weeks, in order to help my daughter’s Juggling for Jude summer fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. So far, the response has been great, and each time I’ve gotten a retweet or a Facebook post promoting her fundraiser, I’ve felt the same way: it’s so great when people in a position like that of a pro athlete step up and help when asked to do so, even if by a total stranger like me.

I’m writing about this to encourage us all to keep in mind that we can ALL be helpful to someone. It doesn’t take celebrity status to make a difference. I’m not talking charity here—that’s a topic for another article. I’m talking about the kind of networking and support or encouragement we can all provide to someone who, relative to ourselves, could benefit from the position we’re in. Maybe you have a friend whose kid is interested in science, and you’re a science teacher. You might offer to bring that kid to work with you one day, to see what it’s like to be a science teacher. Maybe you run a chain of grocery stores, and you know of a young person trying to get her product into the market. Talk to her about the industry. Know a friend struggling with getting a publisher for his first novel? Hook him up with your college roommate, now a publisher, via Facebook. Drive by a lemonade stand on your way to work and have that moment of guilt that you don’t stop? Next time, stop. Throw in an extra dollar and be on your way.

From the smallest gestures at the lemonade stand to the biggest connections that land people in movies or the job of a lifetime, each of us can make a difference for someone. Make use of the skills, personal connections, and other resources at your beck and call, and you just might make someone’s day. Come to think of it, you might change the trajectory of their future so they become a celebrity one day; hopefully, they’ll remember those who helped them, and they’ll pay it forward with an even greater result.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,564 other followers