Cheers to our Kids: Why Posting Photos of your Favorite Drink Might not be the Best Parenting Move

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By Dr. Allison Belger

This is one of those articles that might ruffle some feathers, but I’m still willing to write it, because I feel pretty strongly about the message.

About two years ago, I went to a talk at our local high school where my older daughter will matriculate in August (yikes!). The talk was about the increase of alcohol use and abuse by teens in our county, and it was given by a local woman who had learned the hard way how teens in families with the appearance of normalcy can go off the deep end with drugs and alcohol. For me, as a mom of a young teen entering high school–with peer pressure looming large–the subject is particularly timely now.

When asked what the number-one thing parents can do to prevent their children from drinking too much, this speaker stated, without hesitation, that parents should carefully monitor their own drinking habits. She emphasized that parents need to be aware that every time they drink in front of their children or talk about drinking in front of their children, they are modeling the behavior of drinking and reinforcing its presence in their lives.

Earlier in my career as a psychologist, I worked with many populations of teens, from juvenile detention centers to a private setting where wealthy families brought their kids who were getting in trouble in school—the big kind of trouble, not the B+ kind of trouble.  There is no doubt that when problematic teen drinking was involved—to be clear teen drinking is inherently problematic—there were almost always parents at home who over-indulged.  The kids knew it and talked about it.

Think about it. When you celebrate a birthday, do you make a bunch of margaritas and toss them down with your friends in your home? When your best friend gets a raise, do you go out for celebratory cocktails and tell your kids what you’re up to?  When your 15th wedding anniversary rolls around, do you crack a bottle of bubbly and make a toast in front of your teens?  When you’ve had a long day at work, do you come home and pour a glass of wine before you cook dinner for your family? Have you finished the bottle by the end of the night?

I’m not interested here in judging social behaviors or trying to get people to drink less. I understand that individuals from all walks of life enjoy alcohol with varied frequency and for various reasons and with varying consequences.  However, I do feel quite strongly that social media posting by parents, hailing the beauty of alcohol via carefully edited photographic images, takes a mixed message to another level. While telling their kids that drinking is not okay for them, many parents display and endorse quite publicly their own use of alcohol.

We all know the usual dangers of drinking, hopefully discussed with kids in school, at home, and via public service announcements: alcohol poisoning, breaking the law with permanent record, drinking and driving, date rape and other bad behavior when losing control, group psychology and peer pressure, the list goes on. But what I’m focusing on is the more subliminal effect of glamorizing and romanticizing parental drinking through social media images. Here’s the deal, (keep in mind this is simply my personal opinion): adults on social media who have children with access to social media should not repeatedly post photos hailing the loveliness and pleasures of alcoholic beverages.

Not unlike exposure to violence or to pornography, teens are inundated with images of alcohol on social media and receive the message that “everybody does it, eventually at least, so it must be OK.”  The fact that the artistic shots of cocktails with sunsets in the background or the selfies of hands rising in toasts, or the photos of groups of friends chugging beers are being posted by THEIR OWN PARENTS makes it largely impossible for them to ignore; indeed, the consumption of liquor becomes routine, the norm, accepted, and cool.

This is a slippery slope. Next time you’re tempted to post a photo of that gin and tonic or your favorite beer on tap, imagine your child clicking “like” and then heading to the store to grab a bottle for him or herself (with a fake i.d., of course). Easier still, the gin and tonic is probably readily available in your home; he or she can whip one up real quick and take a selfie, inspired by you or his/her best friend’s parents.  Maybe you’ll even be tagged and get a few more likes on Instagram.

Forgive my sarcasm. I’m just concerned by how saturated my social media feeds are with these posts by people I like and respect, whose children socialize with mine, and who, I’m quite sure, would prefer that their own kids do not take up drinking, at least not any time soon.  To think that there’s some magical, implied, and clear-cut differentiation between adults and kids/teens indulging in alcohol is misguided, at best.  One of the most challenging aspects of adolescence involves the push-pull between childhood dependence and emergent independence.  Teens have freedoms they once did not, but are restricted in ways their parents are not. It’s a confusing time, to say the least, and there are very few clearly defined behavioral codes enabling them to steer clear of complex and stressful social choices.  Parental glorification of alcohol on social media adds an unnecessary element to this longstanding and already challenging scenario.

Just my two cents, but I think it’s definitely worth considering, and being increasingly mindful of, what NOT to post on ubiquitous social outlets.

You’re Better Than That: a Quick PSA on the use of Language Conventions in Social Media

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I haven’t written a blog post in a few months, and I’ve always vowed only to write when a topic organically drives me to the keyboard. I’m driven there now, but not for an article typical of what I write on this blog, having to do with sports or psychology, or both.

This is more of a quick PSA regarding use of language conventions in our posts on social media. In short: it’s important to pay attention to the simple rules of grammar and punctuation when writing posts to accompany even the cutest of pictures documenting the most wonderful moments of our lives.  Like the execution of personal hygiene, attention to the rules of grammar and other conventions of the English language is a must. You might have something super smart to say, but if you say it poorly, your message is diminished. I promise. Actually, one could look at this as a sort of self-help topic, after all.

I have many super smart, creative, generous, knowledgeable friends—the real-life kind and the social-media kind. Because they are so great, it makes me uncomfortable when their writing is filled with mistakes so easily corrected with a little attention to detail, or, perhaps, a brief little reminder of how certain rules work. A former Learning Specialist, I know that it can often help to make explicit rules of grammar that are assumed to have been picked up implicitly.

In that vein, below are the top 5 mistakes I see ALL THE TIME in my social media feeds, with corrections and explanations.

  1. Your versus You’re. This is by the far the most common error I see on a daily basis.

Rule: If you can sub the words “you are,” then you must write “you’re.”

Trick: Something’s missing. The apostrophe stands for a missing letter or letters. In this case, the missing letter is “a” at the beginning of “are.”

Example: “You’re better than your mistakes make you appear.”

  1. Than versus then. A simple one, but so many mistakes are made.

Rule: When comparing, use “than.” When denoting sequence, use “then.”

Trick: Then has an “e” in it like “when,” which also denotes time or sequence.

Example:  “First, you should put on sunscreen. Then you should go out in the sun. This is better than waiting to put on your sunscreen till you’re outside.”

  1. Her versus She and Me versus I.  This one’s a tiny bit more complicated, but fixing it will make a HUGE difference in how you present, in both spoken and written language. It’s mindblowing to me how many fully functioning and intelligent adults don’t do this correctly:

Rule: Her and Me are OBJECTS.  She and I are subjects.  That means that when the other person is the one doing the action, use “She.” When the other person is the one being acted upon, use “her.”

Example: “She went to the store. The store manager helped her.” Easy, right? But what about this:

She and I went to the store.” Correct.

Her and I went to the store.” Wrong, and yet so many people say this!

Trick: “Take out the other guy.” In other words, you would never say: “Her went to the store,” so why would you say: “Her and I went to the store.” Don’t do it. It’s “She and I.”  If you take out the “other guy,” in this case the I, the sentence is clearly:

“She went to the store,” so stick with she. Make sense?

Example: “The teacher told her and me that we did a great job today.”  Seems clear to me. But even my smartest friends say or write things like: “The teacher told her and I that we did a good job, or “He helped my team and I succeed.”

Remember the trick: Take out the other guy. You would never say, “He helped I succeed,” so don’t say “He helped my team and I succeed.” If something is being done TO you (object), use ME.  If you are doing the something (subject), use I.

So…”He helped my team and me succeed” is correct.

  1. Who versus That.

Rule: People are who, things are that. When you are talking about people, refer to them using “who.” When you are talking about things, refer to them using “that.”

Example:  “The person who helped me through a difficult time was my mom.”   “The jacket that was left on the floor belonged to me.” Those are correct.

But saying: The person that helped me the most was my mom” is not correct.  Your mom is a person. She is thus a who. A jacket is a thing. It is thus a that.

  1. To versus too.

Too is for an excess of something: Too much, too loud, too funny.

Too is also for also.  “I like broccoli, too.”

To is a preposition. “I went to the store.” “He talked to me.”  Most people know the difference between these two, but often don’t take the time to correct their social media work.

And of course, two is a number, but that one isn’t typically a source of error.

  1. (I lied about the top 5 thing) One more:  Use a comma to separate the name of the person you are addressing.  So, it’s “That’s a great post, Michael.” Versus: “That’s a great post Michael.”  Pet peeve.

Those are my top six right now. I’ll do another installment soon, addressing other ones, including they’re/their/there and other such offenses.

The thing is, our writing is a reflection of us, whether we like it or not. In my opinion, racing through a social media post is no excuse to throw grammar and attention to detail out the window. Mistakes and typos happen, and believe me, I proofread this post more than once in hopes of not missing any of my own. I think it behooves us all to make these errors fewer and further between.  Which reminds me of the elusive fewer  versus less rule (think: fewer cups of coffee versus less coffee.) I’ll save the details of that one for next time!

 

 

 

What Parents want People Working with Their Kids to Know.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I recently attended a talk given by an author who writes about how parents can best help their kids by backing off and allowing them to fail and work through setbacks on their own. Her message reflects current thinking in social media that we, as parents, are doing this generation of children a disservice by being overly involved in their lives and preventing the development of resiliency, a necessary character trait as they move into college years and young adulthood.  While some of this resonated with me, I found the author’s overall negative view of parents to be disturbing. In her talk, parents were blamed for being excessively intrusive and protective, emotionally illiterate, and overly involved in their children’s academic lives. For the most part, parents were portrayed as being adversaries and rivals of their children’s educators and the root of all their kids’ problems.

I’m a parent of two; I’ve practiced as a psychologist working with countless kids, adolescents, and families; I was a classroom teacher and learning specialist for years; I’m a youth soccer coach going on 20 years; and I used to be a competitive athlete with parents, myself. I’ve diagnosed kids with major mental health problems and learning disabilities, and I’ve sat with overwhelmed parents staring at me in the wake of such diagnoses. I’ve managed the tricky distribution of playing time in championship games, and I’ve stayed late after lessons to help a struggling child whose personality drove everyone crazy. I know what it’s like to work with children and deal with their parents, and I know what it’s like to be a parent working with the people who work with my own kids.

Following that talk I attended, I’ve been feeling somewhat defensive of the group called “parents” to which I firmly belong. In light of some recent discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues, I’ve decided to jot down a list of things I think most parents would like the people working with their children to know.  Of course, it’s neither comprehensive nor representative of the feelings of all parents, but I think it’s a good starting point for teachers, coaches, tutors, music and dance instructors, counselors, and the like.

  1. We know a lot about our kids. Just as you want to be respected for the knowledge and experience you have in your line of work, we want to be respected in our role as parents. We have spent a ton of time with our kids and love them more than anyone else in this world. Of course we don’t expect you to love them as we do, but we do want to feel that our experience with them and our knowledge about them is valued. Living in the trenches with our kids gives us pretty good insight into their functioning, and we often do have a sense of what’s going on with them and what’s best for them.
  1. We don’t think our kids are perfect or the best at everything. In fact, we are often acutely aware of their weaknesses, and this can make us anxious–sometimes without our realizing it. And when we get anxious, we might get pushy or appear to be meddling. Actually, we are just trying to help our kids, occasionally out of a feeling of desperation.
  1. Sometimes we mess up. We might get angry when it’s not warranted, or get too involved, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Know that our intentions are almost always good, even if our actions appear misguided. We are usually sorry when we are out of line.
  1. We are often novices, no matter how old our children. With each new activity, school, or social scene, we are parenting through a totally new set of challenges. Since the game changes constantly, we might seem confused and ask “silly” questions. We are just trying to navigate unknown waters, so please bear with us.
  1. We talk to each other. We know when the rules for one kid are different from the rules for another. We hear from other parents what’s going on in classes, on teams, with our kids’ social lives. We also hear what you say to our kids, so please don’t say anything you wouldn’t want us to hear.
  1. We care about other kids, too. We might step in to help our kids’ friends or even kids we don’t know. Part of our parenting instinct is to protect the kids around us.
  1. Despite what people sometimes say about kids sharing with their parents, many of our kids do tell us a lot of what goes on for them. See #5.
  1. Even if we spend a lot of money on an activity or lessons or tutoring, please don’t assume we are “loaded.” More often than not, that money is hard earned, and we are making many sacrifices in order to prioritize our children’s needs and desires. We find it unproductive and hurtful when you act surprised or irritated when we question or lament the finances involved in the activity you’re leading.
  1. Like any demographic, we have outliers. Please do not treat us all as though we are one and the same.  For example, while some parents may live and breathe their college alma maters in hopes that their kids will end up there through years of exposure and osmosis, most of us don’t have single-minded college aspirations for our children. In fact, many of us don’t want to think about college yet and rush the process, preferring to let our kids be kids without premature pressure. So when we ask questions about how our fourth grader is doing in class, please don’t assume we are part of the small percentage who are recording your answers in secret college-entrance journals; we might legitimately just want to understand what and how our kids are learning.
  2. If you are coaching our kids in a sport, please refer to #9 on outliers. While there are certainly some of us who will do just about anything to further our kids’ chances of playing on the US Men’s National Soccer Team or rowing crew at Harvard, the majority of us just want our kids to have fun on the field, stay active, enjoy the camaraderie of a team, and grow to love a sport. Even the most well-intentioned among us slip up from time to time–screaming on the sidelines or overly investing in tryout results. For the most part, though, we, too, are distressed when a parent consistently acts out during sporting events. What we want is for our kids to appreciate the power of hard work and dedication and know how to overcome loss and frustration. We recognize that our kids aren’t going to be the next Michael Jordan, but we want them to feel appreciated, encouraged, and cared for while they’re in your hands.
  3.  We want to give you the benefit of the doubt, and we’d like you to do the same for us. When our kids go off to school, we want to believe they are in good hands and are safe. We want to trust that their teachers have their best interests at heart, will teach them well, and will develop their self-esteem throughout the learning process. When our kids go off to band practice or dance rehearsals or baseball trainings, we want to believe that the adults responsible for their growth will be attuned to their emotional well-being and will help them develop as musician or dancer or player. We don’t want to worry, and we don’t want to meddle. In fact, keeping in mind the outlier rule of #9, most of us would prefer to have some rare time off while our kids are occupied with activities. But if something goes wrong or we have cause for concern, we will engage; that is our job as parents.
  4. Parenting is a humbling—and daunting—experience. If you don’t have children, yourself, it might be more difficult to understand us at times. We might seem overly protective on one day and then overly inaccessible on another. We might be brought to tears at what seems like a run-of-the-mill parent-teacher conference, and we might take pictures of our kids doing basically nothing. We might send our kids to school without lunches five times in one school year, and we might help them a little too much now and then with their homework. We might call them childish nicknames in high school, even while we expect them to act like adults. We also might dress up a little too much for back-to-school night.
  5. Just as in your own life, there is often much going on behind the scenes in our lives. We might appear to have it all together, but our two-year-old may have just had a major meltdown right before our meeting with you, our spouse may have just lost his/her job, and we may have just found out that our nanny is leaving or that we have a suspicious breast lump. Keep in mind that there might be a backstory. Through it all, we try to hold it together for the sake of our kids (not to mention our dignity), but sometimes it feels like a house of cards, and we may falter sooner than you’d expect.
  6. No matter the circumstances, there are certain interactions with our kids that we feel are unacceptable: demeaning a child on the volleyball court for missing a serve, or scolding a kid at school for talking out of turn when it really was another student at fault, or yanking a kid completely from a performance for a single missed rehearsal. These are examples of hurtful encounters where we might (we should) approach you, and you may need to dig deep and apologize or rethink your behavior for next time. We know people slip up (see above), and we want to give you another chance, but we need you to show us that you care.
  7. When our kids have problems (medical, educational, psychological, social, etc.), we can become very concerned very quickly. We might pressure you for answers and information sooner than you’re able to provide. Acknowledging the challenges of the situation and communicating with us that you understand how hard it is to watch our child struggle can go a long way.
  8. You hold a great deal of power and have a massive impact on our children. What you say to them sticks with them—the good and the bad. A simple “way to go” or high-five can make all the difference in the world, as can a negative “what the heck is wrong with you today?” said in a moment of frustration.  Please be as kind as possible, despite the enormous challenges you face in your important and meaningful role.
  9. Remember that our kids are little human beings with all sorts of complicated emotions and traits. Keep in mind that your role in working with children is to be sure they are feeling as good about themselves and their experiences as possible.  Don’t take out your frustrations with us on them, and please don’t forget to keep in mind their emotional wellbeing, even as you try to develop their skills.
  10. Our number-one goal, despite all of the distractions, is for our kids to remain happy and healthy.  Period. We want them to be encouraged and appreciated. We want you to be honest, gentle, and sometimes firm with them when they need to know something, and we want you to expect the best from them. Ultimately, we want them to feel good about themselves and enjoy their time with you. There are no redos. This is not a dress rehearsal. They only get one childhood, so the stakes are high. We truly do appreciate your efforts with our kids, we recognize the significant challenges you face, and we hope that we can work together in the vital process of developing and enhancing their young spirits.

THANK YOU FOR ALL YOU DO!

The Tough Job of Being Defending Champion, in Sport and in Life.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

You entered the race/competition/tennis match last year as a relative unknown.  You had nothing to lose and everything to gain by making your mark on the playing field. You crushed it—the “kid” from out of nowhere, creating a buzz and fueling chatter of spectators and competitors, alike. This year, you want to try again, but being in the position of defending champion feels quite different from being the underdog or the unknown.  You’re afraid you’re not at the top of your game and know for sure that others are.  The pressure of a repeat top performance looms large, and you wonder if it’s worth competing at all.

Your high school or college reunion is fast approaching, and you’re not as smokin’ hot as you were ten years ago when you last attended.  You’d worked your tail off to get fit and look great then, but now the toll of time and some significant negative life events have you looking less lean and radiant than you’d like.  You consider bailing on the festivities.

Your first child’s graduation from high school was a rewarding and inspiring experience. A gifted student, she had won numerous academic awards along with several trophies for prowess on the lacrosse field. She’d been a star in community service, as well, and she’d fallen in with a great group of friends captured in the many photographs you proudly took throughout the weekend’s events. As your second child’s graduation approaches, you’re plagued with fear and sadness. Unlike his sister, your son has struggled in and out of the classroom, and it’s a wonder that he’ll be wearing the cap and gown at all. You’re engaged in some serious internal dialogue about how you will handle this very different parenting role both in the public domain and privately, within the family.  As defending parenting champ, you feel that all eyes are on you, and you know that you must face this battle in a different way.

For the past few years, you’ve enjoyed a level of success in your field that has led to accolades, media attention, and financial rewards. You’ve been on top of your game, enjoying the fruits of your hard work and talents.  Recently, though, you’ve endured some personal struggles and your work life has suffered.  The timing is bad, as there’s a conference of big-wigs and heavy hitters on the horizon, and you’re supposed to be one of the key presenters. You wonder how your message will be received with your status of defending champ in question.

The position of defending champion requires us to rise above pressures to perform in what may appear to be two possible scenarios:

1. Win again and feel relieved that we’ve done what was expected or

2. Fail to win again and seem to prove that our previous victory was a fluke or that we don’t have the goods to stay on top.

As I’ve written before, the expectations for future performances on those who have succeeded in the past can be paralyzing. In contrast, the beauty of the underdog position is freedom from expectation and permission to go out and give it our all. Win or perform well, and we’ll be the surprise talk of the town.  Struggle or fall flat, and it’s likely nobody will even notice. We might be considered a hero just for trying.

Doing something on a grand scale one time is one thing, but having the guts to come back and go for it again is quite another. Try to remember that much of what you perceive others to be thinking is actually your own expectations projected onto the world. Keep in mind that you may have inspired your competitors to up their own game, and that your history and the mark you’ve made will not be erased, even if you don’t reach the podium this time.  As I’ve said before:

Appreciate your history of success, but don’t be trapped by its hold on you.  Be open to the effort, uninhibited by the prison of your own rigid expectations.

Like so many psychological challenges, this one is easier said than done–but not showing up at all shouldn’t be an option. Get yourself to that reunion and shine in spirit and personality. Show up for your son even if it means crying while you’re there; perhaps it’s not all sadness if you let in the rest. Enjoy your sport and compete with passion and humor. You can gracefully pass the torch if your time as champion has come and gone, and your legacy will live on in the others you’ve inspired along the way. Rock that speech at the conference by being honest about your struggles and inspiring others to overcome their own. Maybe you’ll even surprise yourself and repeat history. You’ll never know if you don’t try. Besides, often the most meaningful and memorable growing experiences come when we push through self-doubt and struggle a bit.

On a final note, I’d like to highlight a repeat attempt / defending champ scenario that is close to my heart and home.  Last summer, my then-nine-now-ten-year-old daughter, Hollis, took on a fundraising project for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She juggled her soccer ball every day, posted videos of her daily records, wrote a blog about her experiences and why St. Jude is such an incredible place, and ended up raising an impressive $35,000. She worked like crazy to increase her juggling totals, knowing that higher numbers would attract attention, always mindful of the kids facing far bigger challenges than hers. Ultimately, she reached her goal of 400 consecutive juggles, ending last summer at 461.

The inaugural year of JUGGLING FOR JUDE was a huge success, and the idea of repeating the effort comes with a set of daunting emotions: can Hollis sustain the passion it took to pull off year one? Will people who donated last year want to donate again, and will new donors be found? Will she tire of juggling every day when she has so much else on her plate? Will the pressure of reaching a new goal of $40,000 and 1,000 consecutive juggles be overwhelming and make anything less feel like a failure? So far, despite the pressure, Hollis has come back fighting like a champ and is on path for a repeat performance.  On day six of Juggling for Jude 2015, she blasted past her original summer goal of 500, juggling 660 consecutive times! (video here)

The fundraising has just begun, and while Hollis has only raised a little more than $2,000 so far, she’s optimistic that people will step up in support of St. Jude, where doctors and researchers continue to treat kids with cancer, seeking cures for catastrophic childhood illnesses. If you’ve ever been motivated by my writing or are inspired by defending champ Hollis’s efforts, PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING TO ST. JUDE HERE.  Every dollar helps save a life!

THANK YOU!

Where has all the Playdough Gone? A Father’s Day Reminder to Stop and Smell the Roses.

IMG_1339Grandfather bliss. New York.  Winter, 2005. 

By Dr. Allison Belger

*This article was originally posted in June, 2013.  It is reposted here in its entirety, in honor of Father’s Day 2015.

Happy Father’s Day to my wonderful father, whose poignant insights appear at the end of today’s article.

“Impromptu pep talk today: live it up, you guys–there’s no playdough in first grade.”

This was a status update posted on Facebook last week by Sarah Buckley, one of our gym members who is a kindergarten teacher.  She was recounting her directive to her soon-to-be first-grade students during their final days as kindergarteners.  The message was this: enjoy the unstructured playtime inherent in kindergarten while you can.  First grade’s a bitch (that part was my interpretation, but you get the idea).  She was telling them to soak in the ease of kindergarten, because different expectations and challenges will kick in during first grade, and things like playdough and free time may be a thing of the past.  Later that night, my older daughter, age ten and heading into sixth grade, was lamenting the impending doom that will be classroom travel in school next year.  This is a kid who loves stability and the comfort of a home base at school; the idea of class travel and teacher differentiation for academic subjects does not thrill her.

These two things got me thinking about why we have such a difficult time appreciating what we have in the moment; it is only when goodness is gone that we realize how fortunate we’ve been.  One of the points of childhood, in my mind, is freedom from recognizing the goodness of our situation.  Indeed, a sign of a healthy childhood is the absence of thought about how things are going and how “good” one has it.  If a child wonders frequently about whether or not he or she is having a good childhood, chances are that he or she is not. A good childhood simply exists.  It does not need to be determined by the child in question.

But beyond the bliss of childhood freedoms, there’s the real notion that we, as adults, are often challenged to appreciate ourselves, our situations, our talents, our possibilities in the moment when they are with us.  All too often, it takes the loss of one of these things to force us to acknowledge how well we had things previously.

Physical appearance is an easy example of this scenario.  How often do we find a million faults with how we look—our weight, our hair, our height, the size of our breasts, the way our knees gather fat?  But years later, we look back at pictures lamenting that the good looks we once had have slipped away.  In the moment, we find fault, but later, we reflect with a sense of loss, acknowledging our former beauty, our vibrancy, our appeal.  I can remember meeting a woman in her late 70’s at a school pick-up (my daughter was five and this woman’s grandson was in her kindergarten class).  The woman gave me a nice compliment about my looks, and I made some kind of self-deprecating remark about how tired I looked–the result of having a five and three-year-old at home–instead of responding with a gracious ‘thank you.’  She quickly and rightfully took the opportunity to school me in the appreciation of beauty and youth and cautioned me that some day I’ll look back at a picture from a day like today when I look “tired,” and I’ll be able to see how beautiful I was.  Smack-in-the-face life lesson, and I’ll not soon forget it.  Of course, it was about much more than appearances.

These days, I’m in the throes of planning the Nor’Easter Masters Competition, a weekend fitness competition for athletes over 40 who do CrossFit.  In my experience as an aging athlete (aging used relatively as I’m 43) and with other Masters athletes, the concept of seizing the moment and making the most of what we have is part of the Masters gig.  Nagging injuries and the fear of a significant setback are omnipresent.  The balance between pushing to one’s limits to get stronger, faster, and better while recognizing one’s limitations and stepping back as needed, is a tricky one to navigate.  What strikes me in the context of this article is how challenging it often is for older athletes to appreciate how much we are able to do.  There is so much focus on the “What if’s” and the “I used to’s” and not enough focus on the “How cool is it that I can’s.”  It often takes a debilitating injury or major surgery for someone to appreciate what they had, just days earlier.  I’m guilty of this, myself.  One strategy that has helped me do some good-old-fashioned appreciating is to note a positive takeaway after each time I workout.  I’m not a journal person, but if I were, I’d write it there.  For me, it’s enough to make a mental note of one thing that went well for me at the gym, on the trail, or at the track.  For you, it might be on the golf course or the tennis court or in the water.  Whatever your domain, make sure you’re not focusing solely on the things you wish you could do better or on how much better, faster, or stronger you were when you were younger.  Make a note of a positive each day, be thankful, and move on.

Seizing the day is an age-old challenge; the struggle to live in the moment and appreciate one’s current blessings is part of being human.  It often takes getting to the next stage in our lives before we can appreciate the goodness of the current one.  Like the kindergartners who will later appreciate their playdough time, athletes often appreciate the health and abilities only after that wellness and those capacities have diminished.

Maybe this struggle is all a function of the need for comparison—we can’t possibly know the abundance of what we have until we have less of it.  We cannot understand the gift of a healthy body until it is compromised by age or injury or illness.  We don’t truly appreciate the joy of a steady paycheck unless we have lost it.  We may take for granted the devotion of, and attention from, a lover until we long for a similar connection later, when we are alone.  We can’t fully comprehend the freedoms of childhood until we look back as adults, tethered by adult responsibilities.

Perhaps the richest example of moments slipping away, only to be cherished at a later date, comes in the realm of parenting.  Human beings start life hopelessly dependent on caregivers.  Unlike many species, we are born far from possessing independent ambulating, feeding, and general living skills.  The complicated human psychological/emotional element adds an intense dimension that makes the rearing of children an incredibly daunting task—rich and rewarding beyond measure, but also heart-wrenchingly challenging.  The overwhelming challenges of parenthood, I think, make full appreciation of the moments involved nearly impossible; there is simply too much to do.  We are up at night, bleary-eyed while nursing and feeding, yearning for a full night’s sleep, only later to crave a late-night cuddle when the teens are out with friends.  We bitch about the demands of homework and driving from one activity to another, only later to long for even the slightest window into what our kids are actually up to at college.  I can’t even begin to imagine what a parent goes through when something goes very wrong for a child.  That kind of yearning is beyond comprehension and the scope of this article, but even when development and the life cycle go as planned, there is much we wish away, only to want it back in later years.

In honor of Father’s Day, I’ll end this piece with some unedited thoughts from my father, now in his mid-seventies, whose own father died suddenly at age 52, when my father was 18.  My parents live in New York, while my family lives in California:

“Your grandmother always would tell me how wonderful the school years were – despite homework, test and papers.  She told me I would long for those days.  Never believed her.  Never lived in the moment.  Would count down on the calendar the last days of school each year.

One year, my father died during the countdown.  Never counted away my life again.  I think it is permissible to count down to seeing my grandkids, though.

Major lesson: This all cannot be taught — empirical evidence required.”

Yes.  But I do think we can all speed up our learning curves a bit.  Today is as good a day as any to start:  Enjoy the accomplishment of your workout (even if you don’t hit a new PR), relish the hug of a loved one (even if he made you angry yesterday), soak in the smell of your infant (even if it’s 2 am and she is screaming), be thankful for your paycheck (even if your boss drives you nuts), and enjoy running your fingers through your hair—it may be frizzy, but at least you have some.

Step Away from the Snap Judgments. Gather Information, and Check in with Your Own Anxieties.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with my daughters (ages 10 and 12), and the subject of an eighth-grade girl at school came up.  She regularly wears quite a bit of makeup—the thick foundation kind—and has apparently gotten a dicey reputation around this.  My older daughter was saying how nice the girl is and how the story goes that her wearing so much makeup has caused her to have a really bad case of acne.  I agreed that this girl seems like a nice kid, based on my exposure to her over the years.  Then I grabbed the teaching moment for what it was:

“Did you ever wonder,” I said, “if the acne actually came first, and that’s WHY she wears so much makeup? My guess is that she’s embarrassed by her acne, so she tries to cover it up with makeup. I’ve watched her grow up, and I’m pretty sure that’s the case.”

It was one of those “Aha” moments for my girls. We talked about how stories about people get created, told, and retold, so that the stories end up being believed and socially accepted in a seductive and powerful way. These are the stories that follow people and become their lore, in spite of what their actual and true experiences might be.

Every once in a while, we read a quotation or saying at just the right time, so that it resonates and sticks with us, gathering evidence and momentum along the way. This recent one from my Facebook feed was spot on:

“Don’t judge my choices when you don’t know my reasons.”

How often do we make judgments based on limited information, not knowing or understanding the full picture? How often do we say things like, “I can’t believe he did that,” or “How awful; I would never do that.”

Few situations in life are black and white; mostly, life is nuanced and grey, and what can be seen on the surface is but one part of a complex, mostly hidden equation comprised of a variety of experiences and emotions.

If we think we can make legitimate and fair assessments of another person’s choices based only on what can be seen on the outside, we are doing both ourselves and others a disservice.  In general, we need more information about people in order to assess something significant about them. But don’t be fooled; one source of information might not be enough.  Much like information we might find while searching the internet, stories told by others, about others, are not always accurate. If we are invested enough in a person to make a judgment about his or her actions, we should also be invested enough to find out more. Demonstrate your capacity for critical thinking and empathy; investigate further and avoid making judgments.

That girl with the thick coat of makeup? In truth, she is tortured by her acne-pocked skin and has been since fifth grade when the hormones hit, earlier than expected. The makeup is but one attempt to fit in during a particularly challenging time. Instead, her story has been written backwards by the young authors of social lore.  Now, she not only suffers from acne, but (so the story goes) she even caused it, brought it on, herself, by using too much makeup. Poor, pathetic girl.

No doubt acne scares lots of middle schoolers. Nobody wants to be the one with the spotted face.  It’s likely that the anxiety associated with being puberty’s next victim fuels the fire for those who blame the makeup—and, therefore, the girl.  It makes the other kids feel better; it reassures them that if they don’t wear too much makeup, they will be spared. We often calm our own anxieties by convincing ourselves that we won’t share the suffering of others, because we don’t do what they do. This gives us a sense of control, however fleeting and tentative.

Delve beneath the surface, if you care. And if you don’t, then why are you judging? Maybe you’re trying to make yourself feel better. Don’t go there; you are better than that.

Related reading from the archives:

Who are We to Judge?

What’s Your Story?

We are NOT Superheroes. Saddle Up and Prioritize!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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