Hanging in the Here and Now: You Can’t Always be Your Personal Best.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

My family came through for me this week.   Last week, my husband, TJ, gave me an idea for an article based on recent conversations he had with some gym members. Then, this morning, as if on cue, our younger daughter worked through the same issue TJ had mentioned only days before.  Sometimes, when the stars align with compelling, overlapping ideas, it behooves us to listen.  And so I did.

Back in November, our nine-year-old daughter was in the midst of her first soccer season on a competitive (as opposed to recreational) team.  She’s a solid little athlete blessed with great coordination, and it became clear during the course of the season that she had a knack for juggling the ball.  A headstrong kid, she tends to work hard when she wants something, so when the seed was planted that she might reach 100 juggles (alternating feet and not using thighs, which significantly increases the difficulty level), the switch in her brain was turned on.  In between soccer practices and other after-school activities, she’d grab the ball and get to work.  Some days she’d be frustrated that the juggles weren’t as smooth as usual, and we’d talk through the importance of sticking with it and just getting in some practice.  Long story short, during her Thanksgiving break, Hollis nailed 104 consecutive juggles. I captured it all on video, including the joyful screech at the end.

As mentioned above, TJ’s idea for an article was similar: A few of our gym members had communicated to him that they were frustrated with their fitness, feeling they had lost progress they had made previously.  These were members who had been with us for a long time, who had made great strides over where they were when they started.  One complained that he can now do fewer consecutive pull-ups than he could a year ago.  Another was aggravated that his mile time was slower than it used to be.  A third lamented some weight gain, and a fourth felt sluggish and awkward on the golf course.

The thing these athletes had in common?  They all had endured a challenging few months with jobs that took them on the road more often than normal, coupled with large doses of family stress. Understandably, they had been to the gym, the track, and the golf course less often than usual, and had allowed their attention to nutrition wane, along with plenty of sleep deprivation. No surprises here; when life intervenes, it is often difficult to keep up with our best practices, no matter how good our intentions.

These folks were aggravated and annoyed, verging on angry.  While they could understand their setbacks with rational thinking, they had difficulty wrapping their psyches around their losses.  “I mean, just a few months ago I could do it,” and “Seriously, it’s ridiculous:  I used to be able to run faster, and it hasn’t been THAT long since I’ve been training less frequently,” and “I swear, a few months of eating poorly and I gain back everything I’d lost and more; it’s not fair.”  My guess is that many of us have shared these sentiments at some point in our lives.

This morning, Hollis and I went out to the high school field with her soccer ball.  Spring soccer season started last week, and she hasn’t been juggling much since fall season ended in December.  The few times she’s tried in the past month, she’s become frustrated and has given up. We’ve talked about how you need to keep up consistent practice in order to retain a skill.  The bottom line: she didn’t care all that much about the numbers, and once frustration and her busy life set in, she would stop.

My expectations for today were low; I just wanted her to get out there and try to enjoy the ball again. It was a beautiful morning, and she had asked to go outside.  A few attempts at warming up suggested that she was a little more rusty than I’d anticipated.  Normally in control of the ball and her body, she was moving around more and struggled to find a rhythm.  After a few sub-20 attempts, she was pissed.  She said she could barely get ten in a row, and wondered what was the point of even trying.  I encouraged her to relax and just see what happens. I reminded her that she’d had days like this back in November, too. Within a few minutes, she’d gotten to 48 juggles.  After a couple of breaks and the clear realization that progress was being made, the kid went for it.  You could see her body relax more, and she nailed 76 in a row–not a personal record, but enough to get her excited about juggling again.  It was also enough to give her the perspective that, with focus and some consistent work, she will likely surpass her personal best in no time. “Classic me,” she reflected as we left the field, referring to her cycle of struggle, frustration, relaxation, success.

Yes, kids are resilient, and they aren’t fighting the forces of decline inherent with aging later in life.  In many cases, they are spared the global stressors and curveballs that so often accompany adulthood.  Their young systems can manage inconsistencies in nutrition and lapses in physical activity in ways that adult systems can’t.  Still, this little piece about Hollis fits the bill for today’s topic: if we allow ourselves to get bogged down in our losses and to fret over comparing our current abilities to ones we had in the past, we can become overcome and burdened to a point of throwing in the towel.  If we look at old photos and lament our wrinkles, our thinning hair, and the paunch in our bellies, we may never be able to appreciate how fabulous we really look, given our age and the very real demands of our lives.   If we constantly compare today’s version of who we are to our personal best—be it how we look, how fast we run, how much we weigh, how many pull-ups we can do, or how well we do on the golf course—we are almost sure to succumb to failure and frustration.

Try this on for size: consistent training, good nutrition, and optimal sleep patterns will lead to positive results over time.  Control what you can, because you will inevitably be derailed along the way.  Throw in the realities of aging, and the course becomes even more challenging. Be realistic. Yes, if you don’t train, your numbers will decline.  If you eat poorly, you will gain weight.  If you don’t practice, your skills will fade. But you must be able to ride out the storms, show up when you can, and forgive yourself for not exceeding your best past effort. Accept the ups and downs, and keep plugging away at the big picture. If you lighten up a bit about those pull-ups or that golf game, your determination to stick with the overall program will be of benefit to you. Keep at it.  Weather the storms. There will be still be ups–new achievements to celebrate–and the downs only mean that you’re alive and human.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Vaughan Allen says:

    Lovely piece (and as a Dad of daughters, had to watch that video). Interested in the strategies you used to get her to relax. This seems very hard when they’re in the middle of a frustrated crisis. I know my firstborn (five years old) is an incredibly fast runner when she’s relaxed (so when she’s playing). But, put her in a race, she tightens up, over-strides and gets almost nowhere.

    Seems that teaching the ability to work through the frustrations is key to so much with kids, given all the evidence that ‘grit’ and perseverance is a direct correlate with achievement in life.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Vaughan! I think you have to know what works best for your kids. Some kids respond really well to tools like deep breathing and a quick visualization of success and a relaxed state. Others might need something more active, along the lines of a structured physical “routine” that helps them release some nerves and prep for a more relaxed performance. Whatever the strategy, the most important component is that it’s something they can eventually do on their own. Giving them tools to calm themselves when they are nervous, anxious, or frustrated is a gift, and, as you say, will apply to many more parts of their life than just sport. Feel free to email me for more suggestions!
    Thanks again,
    Allison at Psychologywod

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