There are no Accountability Police.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Last week, a friend of mine suggested that I write an article about accountability.  A mom of four children ranging in ages from five to twenty, she’d been pondering the topic as it related to parents being accountable to their children, no matter the developmental stage.  Days later, as I was doing community outreach with some teams in a competitive soccer club, accountability was on my mind.

Since graduating from college, I’ve coached a number of youth sports teams and have worked as a strength and conditioning specialist, which was my role earlier this week.  In training for team sports, athletes often have the opportunity to be competitive by measuring their workouts against others: sprints, skill work, endurance trials, you name it. One of things that has often puzzled me is how and why some kids complete the prescribed movements and number of repetitions and others “cheat” on the range of motion, number of reps, or both.  If you tell a group of 24 U10 soccer players to do 10 air squats, 10 burpees, 10 toe taps on the ball, and then dribble down and back twice, you would think you’d get from each of them 30 good reps and a dribble the full length and back, two times, every time.  But you’d often be wrong.  There are some kids who simply won’t do the full numbers—they are far too concerned about being first, or at least not being last.  They are less committed to doing the movements well, even when they are told that their improvement as a player lies in following the prescription.

A similar phenomenon can be witnessed in school.  A former classroom teacher and learning specialist, I’ve watched plenty of kids try to skimp on assignments, hoping to finish first in their class or avoid the dreaded last-place position.  No matter how many times they are told that the magic is in the process, the finish line looms large.

Developing accountability in team sports is a critical element of success: teammates must all pull their weight.  If eleven of fourteen players show up for pre-season camp in great shape and ready to roll, the three who haven’t done a thing to prepare have failed in their role as responsible team members.  If a coach brings low energy, a lack of preparedness, or a negative attitude, he has failed to be accountable in his role.  In youth sports, parents have responsibilities, too, and failing to provide support means a lack of accountability to the child and her team.

Accountability permeates our lives.  In each of our roles, we are accountable to someone, for something.  Whether you’re part of a management team at work, hold a leadership position in your religious community, are part of a book club, have children or are someone’s child, or are a member of a band, accountability is part of the gig.

How are you accountable to the people in your life?  Do you ever make choices for yourself that are different because of how they will affect those around you? Do you push yourself harder and persevere when the going gets tough, in part because you owe it to someone else?

Let’s say you’re training for an individual sport.   The accountability that is inherent in being on a team may not apply. However, when you’re struggling through a challenging session–straining to catch your breath at the track, gritting it out to stand up in a heavy squat, or working on your weak backhand in tennis–you might think of the people who’ve helped you get this far.  You may have coaches, fans, or family who have sacrificed something or supported you along the way.  They may not be present, and they will never know if you don’t give it your all, but you will know.  And if you continue to limit your efforts, eventually, they will know too.

Perhaps you’re not in training for anything; your fitness pursuits are health and wellness driven.  Choosing the harder road–going faster, pushing harder, completing the reps, refining the movement–sets you up for better outcomes and allows for increased accountability.  As I busted my butt doing a stair workout today—training for nothing other than life and overall fitness—I realized that my accountability to keep up the intensity related to the fact that I was away from my kids on a weekend morning. If I’m going to take the time to care for myself (and be a better mom for it), I’d better make it worthwhile.  Doing one less round on the stairs or letting my speed decrease with each round means I’m not holding up my end of the bargain—I’m not making the most of of my time away from my kids.

If you’re a teacher and you cut corners on lesson planning once or twice, your students might not notice.  Do that repeatedly, and they will.  If you’re a coach and you show up one morning tired and lacking conviction, your athlete may not be affected.   Do it regularly, and she will pay the price.  Doctors, lawyers, bankers, no matter; your clients need you to give your best effort.  Pet owner, spouse, grandson?  Yep, you get the idea; they all require accountability. Parenting? The top of the accountability food chain.

The tricky thing is that, more often than not, we can cheat the process. Most of the time, there are no accountability police; we must rely on our own internal cues. Even for those U10 soccer players training in a group, accountability is up to each individual. The other players are too busy counting their own reps and running their own race to take note of whether or not their teammates are playing it straight.  In the end, being accountable to ourselves is the best way to know for sure that we’re holding up our end of the bargain. We may need to act as our own surveillance camera: ever mindful, ever watchful.

 

 

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How Badly do You Want It?

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Maybe you want to be able to do five unassisted pull-ups in a row.  Or perhaps you would like to run a mile in under eight minutes for the first time in your life. Maybe you’ve been coveting a certain car ever since you graduated from college.  Maybe you’re hoping to lose a couple of inches from your belly, which has become significantly more challenging now that you’re in your forties and have two children.  Would you like to have a larger home, so each daughter can have her own room?   Maybe you’re in your thirties, wanting that dream job, or perhaps you’re in your twenties, yearning for that elusive graduate degree.  Perhaps you’re in your sixties, hoping to finally earn a lower handicap, after all of these years of golfing.

Sometimes, goal attainment is as simple as deciding you want something and going after it, with a clear plan of action and a reasonable amount of work.  More often than not, however, wanting something and making it happen is not a simple straight line from A to B.  With goals that require significant effort, time, focus, and other precious resources, the path from A to B is more of a long and winding road marked by detours, missteps, and plenty of frustration and self-doubt along the way.

Coming to terms with our desires and acknowledging that we really want something is never easy and often requires a dose of self-awareness.  But let’s assume you’re there: you know for sure what you want to accomplish. The question then becomes:  How badly do you want it?  Because, if you haven’t gotten it already, you’re likely going to have to work your tail off and make meaningful sacrifices along the way.

You will no doubt have good days and bad days, and you may have to push through many more of the latter in order to be rewarded with a paltry few of the former.  You’re going to come up with all sorts of creative reasons why you don’t really want the end product, after all.  It’s just not attainable, and you simply don’t have what it takes.  You really do love the things (foods, drinks, free time, etc.) you’d need to sacrifice, and life is just too short for that.  So, what’s the point? You’re also likely to run into some self-other comparisons that easily derail your focus. You may envy the acquaintance—the trust-fund baby who never had to work a day in his life and can buy whatever he wants.  If you’re shooting for pull-ups, you may covet the ease of the “natural athletes” at your gym who glide over the pull-up bar. Then there’s the friend whose parents are paying her graduate school tuition, and the neighbor who barely has to crack a book to sail through the program. You have neither parents to pay your way, nor enhanced intellectual prowess to succeed without putting in the time. It’s just too daunting!

So, how badly do you want it?  Are you willing to do what it takes to get what you want?  Are you willing to bust your butt at the gym (or at the track or on the golf course), day in and day out?  Are you willing to work long hours to prove yourself worthy of that coveted job?  Are you willing to opt out of relaxing vacations while you save your pennies so your girls can have their own rooms?  Are you willing to avoid cookies and milkshakes for as long as it takes to modify your midsection?  Can you handle the sore muscles, the late-night studying, the feeling of missing out socially? Are you willing to mix tears with sweat, always keeping the goal in mind?  Can you deal with the fact that there are no guarantees of success, despite your hard work?

No doubt about it: life isn’t fair.  We are not all dealt the same hand when we’re born.  We can’t have someone else’s body, or intelligence, or bank account. But we sure as hell can make use of what we’ve got and make alterations to what’s been given.

The question is: How badly do you want it?  Only you can decide!

**Related reading from the archives:  How Well do You Really Know Those Joneses, Anyway?**

Never Say Never (Toss out the Rules), and Happy Mother’s Day!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

*Happy Mother’s Day to my amazing mother/editor/adviser/teacher/friend.  Thank you for setting and breaking your own rules in the manner you have!

These past few days, I’ve had reason to reflect on the massive role of parenting, as I have many times before. While having children allows one to understand more about parenting than one could prior to having children, being a parent does not allow us to understand or appreciate what it’s like for each individual parent in relation to each individual child. Despite having a background as a psychologist in the field of special education, for example, I can’t possibly appreciate what it’s like to parent a child with significant special needs.

We often have “rules” in our lives—codes of conduct we set for ourselves and aspire to follow as we make our way. Set with the best intentions, these rules may work for us in theory but may be difficult to put into practice as we encounter unanticipated challenges.  And while it’s easy to assume that our own rules would be optimal for everyone (judging others when they stray from our personal code), it’s best to refrain from this unproductive pastime. As I’ve written before, everyone has a story to tell; our rules simply might not apply to someone else’s history or set of current challenges.

In honor of Mother’s Day, I encourage you to reflect on your own hard and fast rules, either in relation to your role as a parent or in your life in general.  Remember that hard and fast rules are often unrealistic and unsustainable. In fact, our own set of rules will change with new obstacles and realities in the life of our own family. If we continue to say NEVER, even internally, we will set ourselves up for feelings of failure and defeat when we stray from our rigid rulebook. And, until you walk in someone’s shoes, it’s best not to assume that you know how you would behave if you did.

Being a mother is a profound undertaking and experience, when I realized I was my babies planet and universe, it changed me forever.  Despite the best intentions, things don’t always go as planned.  In celebration of mothers everywhere, toss out the rules and judgments and embrace the intentions—as they’re mostly good.  Moms (and dads) are usually doing the best they can, given the complexity of the human experience. In fact, most people are doing just that. Keep this in mind, too, when you’re judging your co-worker who chose to have plastic surgery, or your neighbor who doesn’t compost, or the obese man you see at the market buying cookies, or the guy at the Globo gym doing bicep curls in the mirror.

Listed below are examples of some common parenting rules in our modern, enlightened, organic world. Many of these were/are my own, either created before I had children or after I’d already become a parent.  Some of these are rules other parents in my life have established for themselves.  All of these have gone by the wayside at one time or another—many of them more often than not! I confess to having broken the majority of them many times over. Indeed, they are here, in large part, to make parents among you chuckle.

I’ll never curse in front of my kids.

I’ll never let my kids watch TV all day.

I’ll never feed my kids pizza for breakfast.

I’ll never make my daughters wear a dress when they don’t want to.

I’ll never bribe my kids with treats.

I’ll never let my kids go three days without brushing their long hair.

I’ll never let on that I’m frustrated when my kids don’t have a good game.

I’ll never let my kids see me change outfits because I don’t like the way my first choice looks.

I’ll never be the parent yelling a bit too much from the sidelines of a game.

I’ll never curse AT my kids.

I’ll never let my kids eat sugar for seven consecutive days.

I’ll never ask my kids to change their clothes because I am worried about how their outfit reflects on me. 

I’ll never forget to pick my kids up from school on early dismissal days.

I’ll never buy a toy for my kids just to keep them from melting down in public.

I’ll never drive my kids around to get them to fall asleep.

I’ll never forget to pack my kids’ lunch.

I’ll never bail out my kids when they forget a homework assignment and want me to bring it to school in the middle of the day.

I’ll never NOT bail out my kids when they forget a homework assignment and want me to bring it to school in the middle of the day.

I’ll never volunteer at school in order to get in good graces with my kids’ teacher.

I’ll never go a full year without contributing to a volunteer project in my kids’ classes.

I’ll never sign my kids’ reading logs when they didn’t actually read the full 20 required minutes. 

I’ll never let my kids have pasta and pizza and doughnuts on the same day.

I’ll never give my kids juice or Twinkies.

I’ll never let my kids see me drink too much.

I’ll never buy my kids a cell phone before age 13.

I’ll never let my daughters get their ears pierced before age 13.

I’ll never spend too much money on my kids’ birthday parties

I’ll never feed my baby formula before age one.

I’ll never spend too much on an outfit for my daughters for a party just because it’s trendy.

I’ll never raise my voice at my kids in public.

I’ll never pack my kids’ backpacks for them once they get to high school.

I’ll never completely rewrite a sentence in one of my kids’ essays. 

I’ll never let my kids go home with a parent I don’t know.

I’ll never leave my kids home alone before the legal age minimum.

I’ll never check my work emails or Facebook feed during a school concert.

I’ll never leave my kid in the car playing video games while I run into the store to get ice cream. 

I’ll never snap at my kids because I’m managing a frustrating situation at work.

I’ll never say anything but “I love to watch you play” after my kids’ sporting events. 

I’ll never say anything but “I love to watch you perform” after my kids dance, act, or sing. 

I’ll never let my kids watch Modern Family before they are old enough for the mature content.

I’ll never gossip with my kids and their friends.

I’ll never get so caught up in a moment that I miss something important my kids are trying to tell me.

Never say “Never,” and Happy Mother’s Day!

Related reading from the archives:

Who are we to Judge

There is Not One Right Way

We are NOT Superheroes. Saddle Up and Prioritize!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Originally posted in August, 2013, this is one of my favorite articles and holds an important message. It’s filled with in-depth research and analysis that should make you reassess your conviction that you CAN do it all, if you’re inclined to think that way.  Perhaps the bottom line is that the truly most disciplined of us all are the ones who can choose priorities most wisely and allow other pursuits to take a back seat. This can be far easier said than done!

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.

There is not One Right Way: Acknowledge Your Influences and Appreciate that Yours is but One Perspective.

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Yesterday I was driving our daughters to a rehearsal, and the word “irony” came up.  Our nine-year-old wanted a refresher on the meaning of that word, which we’d discussed before.  This led to a conversation about genetics and the nature / nurture conundrum.  Beefy stuff.   It was one of those conversations that left me fully in awe of my role as parent, one of the times when I realized that my daughters’ world view–their understanding of critical concepts, their opinions about social/cultural phenomena, and their belief systems in general–are all informed first and foremost by mine and my husband’s points of view.  Teachers, grandparents, friends, coaches, and others will all have an impact, but the reality is that our lens as parents has a profound and lasting impact on the worldview of our children.

My job as a psychologist for many years was conducting assessments of children, adolescents, and young adults who were struggling in some way.  Not surprisingly, in most cases the difficulties in the presenting client were embedded in a family in which others also struggled. Day in and day out, I was privy to the significant and immeasurable effects of parenting on children.  The point wasn’t (and isn’t) to blame parents; rather the idea was to appreciate the enormity of the job and the myriad ways things could go wrong and lead a child astray in some important psychological way.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  I’m not a big bumper sticker lover, but this one always makes me pause and read it twice.  I like the message.  It’s a good reminder to acknowledge that our belief systems–our opinions and perspectives—are just that: OURS. They are not facts or truths, even if we tell ourselves they are.  They are the outcome of a number of influences, starting with the perspective and psychological standing of our parents and earliest caregivers. Having a stance and firm beliefs is important, and developing a point of view is one of the great gifts of the human experience.  However, it is important to keep in mind the subjectivity of our lens and view, lest we convince ourselves (and our children) that our opinions and ways of seeing and doing things are the only true and final ones.

As I’ve written before, it is important to be able to sift through the many influences available to us in order to come to an informed decision that works for us.  Choosing anything–from a workout program or specific methodology for learning a new skill, to a school for our children, to a healthcare provider–is a critical undertaking that forces us to call upon our own convictions in conjunction with the opinions and influences of those around us. And once we make such choices, we invite the influence of these providers (our kids’ teachers, our coaches, our doctors, the news reporters we watch) who will contribute to the way we view the world and the choices we will make in the future.

As you arrive at the big, tough decisions, it’s always a good idea to check in with yourself and acknowledge the long and winding road that has led to where you are. Don’t get trapped into accepting the advice of an “expert” without stepping back and evaluating the decision-making process. There is almost always not just one answer to a question, one definition of a word, one theory to espouse, or one way of training for your sport of choice. Appreciate the in-between: hang out there long enough to come out the other side with a course of action that works for YOU, for now. There will always be time to revisit your choices with new information and experience—and, in fact, it behooves you to do so lest your beliefs become your dogma.

Welcoming Vulnerability: The Importance of Being at the Back of the Pack

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By Dr. Allison Belger

In my early twenties, I went on a couple of serious backpacking excursions with Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).  I had never been backpacking before and had never camped or hiked for more than three days at a time.  I was a lover of creature comforts and, though always active in outdoor sports, at the end of the day I preferred running water and a warm bed to the alternatives in nature.

My second outdoor adventure was a semester of mountaineering and sea kayaking in the rugged, cold, and wet outback of Patagonia for 75 days with no access to civilization.  I was about as far out of my comfort zone as possible: no running water, no heat, no phones, no hairdryer.  What I had that served me especially well was solid physical fitness and some attributes of mental toughness—persistence, grit, sheer stubbornness, and a high tolerance for discomfort.  These qualities made life in the extreme as tolerable as possible and allowed me to keep my sanity, despite being soaking wet for most of the 75 days and without food for many of them.

Today I went to a sing-along version of the Disney movie Frozen with my family and some friends in celebration of their daughter’s birthday.  On the ride over, I asked my older daughter to sing one of the songs, just for kicks.  Singing’s her thing.  As she sang, I daydreamed about what it would be like to be able to sing like that (I’ve always wanted to be a really fabulous singer), and what it would feel like to try to develop a singing voice at this stage of my life.  I thought about how different it is to participate in an activity at which you excel—or at least feel competent–from attempting something in which you lack talent or are a complete novice.  This line of daydreaming brought me right back to Patagonia.

At one point on the trip, I injured my knee during the glacier travel, and while I could continue, I was not able to take on extra gear or be in front navigating and leading–the way I had in the days prior as one of the stronger and fitter members of the group.  In fact, with a bum knee, I became one of those who needed help with my pack and who held up the pace traversing difficult terrain.  While my status as a “straggler” lasted only a few days, the impact of it stayed with me for quite some time.  I didn’t like the feeling of incompetency that came with falling behind and slowing down the pace of the group.  I much preferred to be the agile, fast, and able participant who could lead the way when the going got tough.  More than twenty years have elapsed and I still remember how much I hated that feeling — and how meaningful and instructive the experience turned out to be.

You see, prior to being at the back of the pack, I didn’t have much empathy for those who struggled with the physical demands of the trip.  I’d been annoyed at times and found their complaints and doubts to be draining.  I was sometimes frustrated that we couldn’t move more quickly as a group, especially when speed meant a better chance at a dry camp or warm food before sunset.  With my injury came a small taste of what it felt like to pull up the rear; it was just enough of a sampling for me to know that I didn’t like it AND to give me greater sensitivity to what it must have felt like for my companions who struggled to keep up.

Returning to present-day life, I sometimes think back to that Patagonia trip.  Experiences that challenge so intensely, especially when we are stripped of the creature comforts of everyday life, tend to set up shop in our psyches and surface meaningfully from time to time.   The message from my trip and for today’s article is this:  Be a novice sometimes.  Do things that scare you and challenge your abilities.  Find a way to shake up the status quo and let yourself take a place in the back of the pack. Learn a new skill, try a new sport, take up ballroom dancing – even if you have two left feet. Doing so will probably give you a new appreciation for the challenges others face in pursuits that might come easily to you. If you are a coach of any sport or teacher of any content, it is especially important that you know, firsthand, the psychological process of learning and development. Remaining solely in a position of competence offers you little appreciation for the critical experiences of your athletes or students—an appreciation that will make you far more effective in your leadership role.

Self-preservation and other aspects of human nature often prevent us from trying activities that make us feel awkward and incompetent. By branching out and forcing ourselves to be a beginner sometimes–with all of the uncertainties this entails–we just may access new and hidden parts of ourselves. Becoming a student and trying new things may lead to personal growth and a heightened tolerance for uncertainty, along with increased empathy for others in their own challenges.  It’s one of the things about CrossFit that is so intriguing and enriching for those of us who do it:  opportunities abound for being a novice and for having one’s capacity for learning and vulnerability tested regularly.  The appreciation of both the abilities and struggles of our training companions is an important part of the group workout experience.

So get out there and try new things.  Take a singing lesson, strap on some roller skates, learn a new language or try surfing.  Be unsure of yourself, question your ability, be clumsy and slow. Let the self-reflection begin and your empathy increase, and be sure to have fun while doing it!

*Related reading from the archives:

Success is Important, but Don’t You Go Cherry-picking!

Out-of-Comfort Zones, Exercise High, and Visualization: Powerful Ingredients for Change

Blocked Practice Versus Random Practice: Shake Things up in Your Training and Your Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

The Downsides of Performance Goals (or Why Letting Go Sometimes Leads to the Greatest Gains).

 

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I received a message on Facebook this week from a psychologywod reader who often responds with great ideas of his own.  This time, Fred Callori wrote,

I have become aware in myself and from observing others that there is this tendency to perform beyond our own personal expectations right after we decide that “we just don’t care anymore.”

How counter-intuitive does this seem? We stop caring, and we start meeting expectations that, just days ago, had seemed unattainable, despite our great focus and desire.  Anecdotally, though, this is a phenomenon that rings true.  I often work with people who are determined to reach certain fitness or physical goals, doing everything they are “supposed to do,” including caring a whole lot about the outcome.  But sometimes people get in their own way; investing so much of themselves in the desired objective may, in fact, prevent them from putting forth their best effort.  It’s as if the caring and obsessive focus on the goal makes people so anxious or afraid that they are unable to follow through.

We hear time and again that declaring a goal publicly is the first step in ensuring that we will stick with it.  We are told to share with friends and family our New Year’s resolutions: something about the act of telling other people leads to an accountability we might not otherwise capture. However, I do believe there’s another side to this approach; declaring goals out loud to others and professing that we will reach them can lead to a certain type of backlash.  So much unconscious material can become infused into our goals, especially when they involve our bodies—whether for esthetic change or for performance improvement.  As I’ve written about before here and here, we often project our past psychology into our physical selves in ways that are confusing, complicated, and difficult to unravel.  Our physical goals may then become more challenging than we ever imagined.

After all, for most of us, it’s no mystery how to lose a few pounds or run a faster mile at the track. It’s no mystery how to go from lifting 150 pounds off the floor to 175 pounds over the course of several months with regular, guided training sessions.  It’s not rocket science to follow a thoughtful mobility or yoga program and improve flexibility. And yet, so many of us set goals like these and fail to reach them. Until that magic moment when we decide to stop caring.

Admittedly this phenomenon doesn’t happen in a single moment, but it sometimes can occur pretty quickly.  You see, when we set goals, make them known to others (coaches, friends, family members), and enlist their help and support, we set in motion a wide range of interpersonal and psychological events, most of which are not consciously recognized.  We may, for example, replay an early relationship with our father, whose expectations could never be met.  We may recall feelings of envy for our middle-school friend who always beat us on the timed mile, no matter how hard we tried. On the other hand, we may be reminded of the envy felt by our best friend in high school when we made the varsity football team and he played on the freshman squad.  All sorts of internal material can be thrown into the mix when we care deeply about a performance goal and can’t quite seem to reach it, taking into account not only our own hopes and dreams, but the perceptions and judgments of others. Often these are projections of our own insecurities.

Sometimes the letting go of the goal and of the desire to perform allows us to shake off those demons, release ourselves from the intensity of the pursuit, and remove the relational and psychological implications of it all. With this release comes the possibility for our bodies to do what they have been striving for all along.

Makes sense, right?  Stop the madness of caring (and looping in all of those complex issues that make us human), and let your body do its thing.  I know it’s not always this simple, but then, sometimes it really is.  You can fight hard and persist to obtain a skill, lift a weight, run a certain amount in a certain time, lose pounds, achieve a muscle-up, win a tennis match, earn a handicap on the golf course.  But until you let go of all the loaded meaning that success and failure hold for you and your relationships, you may struggle in vain. This is what we mean when we say things like, “It’s all mental” or “If only my head didn’t get in the way.”

Let it go, People!  Sometimes you need to allow yourself the freedom from caring too much. Just get out there, relax, tone down the effort, enjoy your physical self, and you’re likely to make gains that were so elusive when you were trying too hard.

Post-Open Blues? Time for Some Good Old-Fashioned Introspection.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote last year at this time.  Endings are always complicated.  Learning and growth happen with reflection before moving on to the next best thing.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

The CrossFit Open 2013 is over.  Thousands of CrossFitters around the world can breathe a collective sigh of relief, enjoy some rest and recovery, and find other things to do with their down time besides check the leaderboard and read coaching tips about workouts.  They can let the tips on their hands heal and relax those aching shoulders.  They can hang out with their children, free from the distractions of 13-point-something and can revel in the thought of going to the gym with a more relaxed mindset.

Or can they?

It is important to recognize that, alongside the highs, there may also be a collective sigh of regret, a sense of confusion and malaise, a feeling of things left undone.  There may be people feeling unsettled, unsure where to focus their energy, and confused about why they feel disconnected in some ways.

There is a small percentage of athletes for whom the Open turned out extraordinarily well, who will advance to the next phase of competition at Regionals or, for Masters athletes, head directly to the CrossFit Games.  For these individuals, there may be a larger sense of relief mixed with excitement and anticipation, as well as an invigorated outlook (even if sprinkled with a good dose of pressure and fatigue).  But for the majority of people who competed, this is the end of the road as far as the competition year goes, and endings and transitions are often rich with psychological fodder.  I’ll dare say there may even be a small percentage of participants who will experience some form of emotional “blues” or even a mild depression in the wake of having thrown much of themselves, both physically and mentally, into the five-week event.

This may sound hyperbolic to some readers–perhaps I’m just too much of a shrink and too ready to go to the dark side.  But I think there is much to be learned in that underbelly of human experience.  In talking with many CrossFit Open participants over the past three years, I’ve come to take seriously the effects that participation has on one’s psyche.  There are stories of elation and triumph from having overcome obstacles, having hit personal records in lifts, and having mastered skills in the heat of the workout battles.  There are stories rich with human connection, of people finding new friends and becoming closer to each other through the trials and tribulations of competition.  There are stories of spouses finally understanding the athlete’s investment in their workouts and their lifestyle.  And yet, I’m proposing that, much like the condition of postpartum depression after pregnancy, there may be a “condition” involving depressive symptoms in the days and weeks after a consuming event such as the CrossFit Open.

Hang with me here.  Have any of you been married?  Have any of you put your heart and soul and childhood dreams into your wedding day?  Have any of you felt a sense of void after your honeymoon was over?  How about those of you who have worked tirelessly as an event planner at work, riding high for weeks and months on the feeling of focus and import that can come with planning a big event and being in charge of numerous people and pieces coming together?  Despite the stress involved in such an effort, have you ever felt empty or sad or derailed in some way after it ended, perhaps taking with it a bit of your sense of self worth?  Anyone ever have a hard time in the days and weeks after graduating from high school or college?  Any triathletes or ultra-marathoners out there ever experience a dip in mood and/or an experience of being wayward in the weeks after crossing the finish line?  If none of you say yes to this, some of you are lying.

You’ve probably heard of postpartum depression (PPD), and some of you may have even suffered from it.  According to the DSM IV-TR (the handbook of psychiatric/psychological diagnoses used by mental-health professionals), PPD occurs within four weeks of delivery and lasts for at least two weeks.  Diagnostic criteria include symptoms associated with a major depressive episode, with impairment of functioning lasting at least as long as two weeks.

Without getting too deep into the literature on PPD, there are some interesting risk factors associated with it, which, in my mind, may have implications for our feelings of dejection, loss, irritability, etc. after a major event other than pregnancy that has occupied us for some time.  For example, women who report symptoms of depression and anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to suffer from PPD, and women with a history of depression are more likely to experience PPD.1  Those with limited social support are also more vulnerable; having strong social connections appears to mitigate susceptibility to PPD.1  That whole social connectedness/community topic runs deep (see my book if you’re interested in this topic).  Another important finding is that a large percentage of women experience some sort of low-grade depression after delivering a baby, even though symptoms do not meet diagnostic thresholds.2

What I’m getting at is that there may be a similar pattern of emotional blues that exists after the completion of a significant and exciting event like the CrossFit Open, and how you went into the event likely affects how you will come out of it.  Those of you with a history of depression might be more prone to feeling depressed and sad after the Open.  Those of you who are prone to anxiety might feel especially confused and unsettled about where to focus your resources now, and you may feel irritable because of your lack of direction.  Those with tentative social connections might feel particularly uneasy at the thought of leaving behind the special vibe you have shared with gym members through the Open.  Those of you who were totally jazzed and wide-eyed can probably take a positive spin on even the hardest parts of the Open.  You may not have as strong a reaction as others, but you can still learn from this time of transition.

When I sat down to write this article, I was curious to see what I could find in looking into the concept of post-event blues.  What I found online were numerous personal stories of people who have experienced a significant letdown after an important event or endeavor.  Some people even called it “Post-Event Depression,” which is the search term I had used.  Much like PPD, I’d say there is a wide range of severity and symptomatology that can occur after the passage of a big event, ranging from no issues at all to a whole slew of issues that impair functioning for a given time period.  A certain percentage of CrossFitters will surely experience some kind of blues in the next couple of weeks.  They may question why they ever cared about the Open in the first place, and they may struggle to find a reason to continue training at the level to which they are accustomed.  They may wonder what the purpose of it all is, and they may have a hard time defining another goal that seems worthwhile.  Some might have difficulty letting go of images of workouts, no-reps, unfinished business.  They might be bitterly questioning the fairness of the Open model, with varying degrees of judging standards withheld across the world.  They may feel let down by a coach, a gym’s programming, or their own deficiencies in skills.  Again, I realize this is only part of the story.  For every athlete who is dejected in some way, there are plenty of others who are on cloud nine–loving the rush of having competed, having lived outside of their comfort zone, and having exceeded all expectations of themselves.

The Open is but one example of a physical endeavor that, once over, might have significant repercussions for one’s state of mind.  Marathons, adventure races, adult sports leagues, and other physical outlets requiring time, focus, and energy can also lead to a postpartum experience that is not all peaches and cream.  Once again, this doesn’t mean there isn’t also elation, a sense of accomplishment, joy, inspiration, and motivation.  But those are the easy and fun parts.  The big picture is about the totality of our experience, and if we only focus on the upsides, we sell ourselves short and ignore an opportunity for self-reflection and growth that might reap great rewards as we approach our next venture.  The same is true for non-sport events—those that absorb much of our time and energy in the realm of our work lives, our social lives, or our spiritual lives.  We can learn a lot from the post-event roller coaster if we pay attention while we’re on the ride.

So what can we do?  Below are some suggestions that can help guide you in the wake of a big event.  For those continuing on to the next phase of competition, most of these tips are less applicable than they are to those who are done.  However, reflecting on the process after each step of the way (E.g., Open, Regionals, Games) is probably a good idea for everyone.

Track Your Experiences

Journaling can be a great way to document and learn from our experiences. If you’ve been keeping a journal throughout the Open (or other big event), that’s great.  Don’t stop now.  You should continue with it during the days and weeks that follow the event’s closure.  If you haven’t been writing, it’s never too late to start.  Jot down your thoughts when your mind wanders to the event.  Reflect on what your goals were going into the event (E.g., a certain ranking in the Open, a certain number of clients added to your sales profile at work, a certain kind of emotional presence at a social event).  Write down how you fared at meeting those goals.  Write down what you did well and would like to repeat in the future, as well as what needs to be altered.  For the Open, you could focus on various aspects, including physical self-care (sleep, nutrition, training), mental preparation (visualization, relaxation exercises, journaling), and management of the extras (time spent on the leaderboard, handling disappointing workouts, etc.).  The more you can put in writing, the more solid a record you will have for your future, and the better your guide for next time will be.

Do Some Research

Consider your options for next steps carefully.  It may or may not be best to jump right into your next CrossFit goal, scanning the Internet for upcoming competitions in your area.  Maybe it’s time to try something new and test your training in a new forum.  Maybe there’s a basketball league or a mountain-bike race you might want to try.  There is room for more than one endeavor in our lives, and if you’ve put a lot of yourself into the Open, it might be a good time to find another outlet while you continue with CrossFit in a less competitive or intense way for the moment.  There is huge value in competition, but there are also other avenues you might want to explore.

Set Some Goals

During the days and weeks after your event, with your research behind you, you might take some time to set some goals for what’s next in your life.  Try to create short-term goals (maybe just the next few weeks), mid-term goals (6 months out), and long-term goals (1-2 years).  During the first couple of weeks after a big event isn’t the best time to make hard and fast decisions about what you will choose to focus on.  However, people often find it helpful and grounding to look to the future and start to create a plan.  Just be careful not to let your planning prevent you from feeling what you’re feeling; rigorous planning for the next big thing can become a defensive maneuver if you’re really disappointed in the last big thing.

Connect with Others  

Don’t underestimate the importance of staying connected during your post-event experience.  Research is unambiguous about the effects of social connection, especially during times when you are at risk of even the slightest duress.3  Be sure to find time and ways to connect with friends—those who are CrossFitters and can relate to the Open as wells as those who aren’t and can’t.  Both are important; it’s the connecting that is critical.

Find ways to Relax

You probably know what works for you: massage, visualization, meditation, hiking, and reading, are some examples.  Make sure you find some down time while you’re less occupied with your training.  It might even be the perfect time for that weekend away or full-blown vacation you’ve been putting off because of your training requirements.

Celebrate!        

This is just a little reminder to celebrate your victories and the fact that you put yourself out there, competed in the Open (or put on a big event or ran a long race), and came out the other side in one piece.  There is much to celebrate in this, even if you are one of the people feeling blue.  Having some kind of celebration, however small, is a great way to mark an ending and move on.  If you’re not able to do this at all and are really struggling, it’s probably time to talk to a counselor or therapist.

Notes:

1. Robertson, E., Grace S., Wallington, T., and Stewart, D.E. (2004). Antenatal risk factors for postpartum depression: a synthesis of recent literature.  General Hospital Psychiatry, 26, 289-295.

2. Bennett, S.S & Indman, P. (2006).  Beyond the Blues:  A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression.  Moodswings Press.

3.  Belger, A. (2012).  The Power of Community: CrossFit and the Force of Human Connection.  Victory Belt Publishing.

The Psychology of CrossFit Open Workout 14.5….and The Bigger Picture to Boot!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Perhaps stating the obvious, 14.5 is a grinder of a workout.  It will test the mental toughness and fortitude of even the world’s fittest and most talented athletes.  My thoughts here are geared more towards the non-elite among you–my assumption is that the elite athletes will simply gut this one out, with unbroken thrusters and a solid pace on the burpees.

While it’s tempting to become consumed by how physically challenging this workout will be and how uncomfortable you will need to get in order to complete it, I’ll advocate for a different approach.  Given the task-priority format of 14.5 (which will allow far more people to finish the workout than would finish if it were a time-priority workout), many of you will wrap up the 2014 Open with a fully completed workout.   You will, therefore, experience a different sense of accomplishment from what you may have experienced in previous years and/or in previous workouts this year, when the clock determined when your workout ended.

Globally, then, as you prepare for this workout, be sure to take some time to appreciate the task you’re about to accomplish—not just by doing the workout, but also by finishing the Open altogether.  Take time to be thankful for the opportunity you have had (and will have in 14.5) to push your body to its limits and to test your fitness and your mental strength in the company of a worldwide community.  Regardless of your rankings, you will have finished what you started, and that is cause for celebration.

Is it premature to focus on the accomplishment prior to the final buzzer? I don’t think so.  The idea is to fuel your effort in 14. 5 with the positive fire that should come from knowing that you’ve made it this far and are fighting for the finish line with every thruster and burpee you complete.   In other words, access the mental positives of making it this far, so you can drive through the inevitable physical pain you will experience is you push yourself during 14.5.  Let go, now, of any what-if scenarios and any regrets about past performances.  Focus on what you’ve done, rather than on what you wish you could have done.  Your mantra this week could be something like, “I’ve made it this far. I can do a little more,” or “The end is near. I’m lucky to be here.”  Perhaps this sounds trite or conceived with an overly positive spin.  That’s your call. But when the going gets tough, and you’re sucking wind and staring at that barbell, I bet you’ll pick it up sooner if your thoughts are positive and driven by gratitude than if they are negative, self-defeating, and driven by regrets of perceived failures along the way.

I get it that some of you have reason to be legitimately disappointed. Maybe you suffered an injury during the course of the Open, or maybe you know that your goal of making it to Regionals is no longer possible.  Maybe you wanted to finally, after all of these years, successfully complete a single muscle-up in the Open, and that didn’t happen for you last week.  Maybe you are reckoning with some personal demons or life’s curve balls that have interfered with the optimization of your fitness.  These are all reasons to be glum and all warrant your focus at some time.  That time, in my opinion, is not while you complete 14.5.  Leave all of that for a later date, and tackle 14.5 as though it’s actually 14.1.

14.5 is also a time to make use of some of the mental strategies you’ve learned in the previous 4 workouts. As in 14.1, you’ll need to find a reason to care when the pain sets in; keep your mental eye on whatever the “prize” is for you.  As in 14.2, you’ll want to have the discipline to break up reps earlier than you think you might need to, in order to avoid burning out too quickly.  As in 14.3, you’ll want to be able to find a way to breathe and “rest” during one movement or the other (whichever one is the smoother and less daunting one for you). As in 14.4, you’ll want to be prepared for the barbell to feel heavier than it is, and you’ll want to focus on each set of reps as you tackle it–don’t allow yourself to be caught up in all that lies ahead.  You’ve accomplished a lot and learned some strategies. Now is as good a time as any to use them!  If you’re a Gamer, you will likely enter the workout with your rep scheme planned.  Be ready to count yourself back into the workout with every rest you take.  3, 2, 1, pick up the bar.  3, 2, 1, get down on the floor.  Don’t let yourself rest for too long–your competitors won’t be resting, but you can’t see them passing you.

Visualize aggressively between now and when you do this workout.  Envision yourself finishing the workout, yelling “Time,” and finding strange pleasure in the discomfort in your quads, the shortness of your breath, and the pump in your forearms.   Imagine yourself lying on the ground or hunched over your knees in recovery.  See yourself racing for the door to get some fresh air and catch your breath.  Anticipate that feeling you crave—that feeling of having accomplished something you knew would be difficult.  Know that you will probably talk about it far too often with far too many people, but that you will have earned the right to revel in your glory.

One parting thought:  For a small percentage of you reading this article, you will now focus on your training for Regionals and the Games.  For most of you, though, 14.5 will mark the end of your annual competitive season, and you may be surprised by the void you feel.  After last year’s Open, I wrote an article called “Post-Open Blues? Time for Some Good Old Fashioned Introspection.”  I’ll be reposting that next week, and I encourage you to read it and spend some time taking seriously the impact of this ending and what it might mean for your next steps—not just in your training, but in your life outside the gym.  You do have one, right?