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!

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

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By Dr. Allison Belger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Related reading from the archives:

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

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

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

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