The Psychology of Muscle-Ups (Repost of a Repost in Honor of 14.4).

By Dr. Allison Belger

This is the third time of publication for this article.  Given Open workout 14.4, I’m putting it out into the world one more time, for those of you preparing to get on top of the rings after all that other work.  Enjoy!

(From March, 2013):

My article below was first published in WODTalk Magazine a few months ago.  Given the announcement of the CrossFit Open workout for this week, I was asked by some readers to post it again here.  The photo below is of me in the summer of 2010 while on a family vacation in my home town in New York, at my elementary school playground.  I had dragged rings across the country to be sure I could practice my muscle-ups, for fear of “losing” them while I was away.  Yes, I can laugh about this scenario–could then and DEFINITELY can now! 

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In elite gymnastics, the muscle up is basically a way for an athlete to get up on the rings so he can do the real work of the apparatus.

For CrossFitters, the muscle up has become something far more significant, some kind of stock-taking, measuring device to assess one’s worth.  For many elite CrossFit athletes, the muscle up, like most skills, is but a new trick to learn and with which to seek relative mastery.  We all recall Annie Thorisdottir fighting to get her first muscle ups at the 2009 CrossFit Games in Aromas.  It doesn’t hurt that she was gymnast prior to starting CrossFit, but she is not alone among elite CrossFitters in their capacity to pick up the movement and incorporate it into their bag of tricks, right alongside movements like the snatch and the pistol, despite a lack of familiarity with them for most of their lives.

While relative mastery of the muscle up is not reserved only for the elite among us, and there is certainly a large crew of athletes who are fairly competent with the movement, for most of us, achieving our first muscle up takes hard work and plenty of time spent imagining what that first time will feel like.  In many cases, athletes develop some sort of low-grade preoccupation at best, and full-fledged obsession at worst, with the goal of muscle-upping.  I’ve heard from stock market traders who’ve stolen time away from their desks to watch muscle up videos on their iPhones between transactions.  I’ve heard from a nanny who did the same during naptime for the kids in her care.  I’ve fielded emails from many a mom in her 40′s, desperate to get pointers on ways to train to increase her chances of attaining the ultimate skill.  I’ve experienced the allure of the muscle up, myself, and while it’s been just over three years since I attained the tenuous standing of muscle-upper, that pesky movement still looms large in my psyche from time to time, despite the hard fact that most of my life is lived and enjoyed outside the realm of rings hanging from the ceiling.

My own intermittent preoccupation with my muscle-up skills has left me wondering what it is about the muscle up that has captivated, intrigued, and flat-out tormented so many CrossFitters since the inception of the CrossFit movement.  We all hone in on certain skills from time to time, and we sometimes obsess about our performance with other movements, as well. Indeed, a quick glance through the Facebook news feed of a CrossFitter reveals much about our intense focus on performance and skill attainment. But there’s something especially loaded about the muscle up.

My husband, TJ, and I have two daughters, ages eight and ten.  Through the years of their early childhood, we’ve watched as they, like so many kids around the world, find their place on the playground, navigating the world of body weight movements unfettered by instruction and coaching or any formal education in gymnastics.  The monkey bars can be a powerful thing, bestowing ranking on unassuming youngsters with a significance similar to that of wearing the right clothes in high school.  There are kids who master the monkey-bar traverse with relative ease in preschool or kindergarten, while others work tirelessly to gain membership into the monkey-bar club throughout first grade and beyond, for those unlucky few. There are the kids who skip one, two, even three bars at a time, despite the occasional arm break that occurs in playgrounds across the country.  There are the kids who can kip up on top of the bars, perching themselves victorious, the reigning kings and queens of the recess kingdoms.  And of course there are all sorts of variations on the task, from the spinning circular bars that require a whole other level of competency, to the speed with which one can move, to the ability to stop on a dime and go backwards.

While this all may sound a little melodramatic, the truth is that there’s a whole lot of social jockeying that goes on at playground time.  Psychologists and teachers have known for decades that recess time, with its lack of structure and inherent physical activity, can be a breeding ground for social anxiety and requires a great deal of self-preservation on the part of the tiny people forced to engage.  For the ones who possess a natural capacity for movement and basic gymnastics competency, self-confidence can come in large doses, via the “oohs” and “aahs” of playground bystanders.  This soon can be seen in games and sports, including four-square and kickball, where the studs of the games tend to become the social elite.  Those with wheels also do well early on, as tag holds great import, especially for cross-gender relating.

So what does this have to do with adult CrossFitters obsessing over muscle ups?  I’m suggesting that our pursuit of excellence–heck even mediocrity—with regard to this elusive gymnastic movement harkens back to those playground experiences, where we all knew, whether consciously or not, that our skills were placing us on some kind of continuum of capacity that had simultaneously nothing and everything to do with our social standing.  While we know as adults that it doesn’t really matter in any deep way to our friends and fellow gym members whether or not we can muscle up– at least as far as assessment of our overall character and personality go– there is still something super cool for people about being able to do muscle ups in a group.  Somehow, we feel we have arrived and have a ticket to the exclusive muscle-up ball.

Kelly Starrett, founder of San Francisco CrossFit and mobilitywod.com, aptly describes something about this social phenomenon: “With muscle ups there’s a party-trick element.” He explains how cool it is to watch someone do a strict muscle up on demand, as though it’s “no big thing.”  But as Starrett points out, “the reality is that very few people can ever do that without trying really hard,” meaning that people are driven to be able to perform that party trick at just the right time.  Starrett goes on to point out the irony in the social appreciation of the trick. “Very few naive bystanders would watch in awe as someone does a much more technically challenging movement like a heavy snatch balance,” but it’s the muscle up that holds the social cache and has become the spectacle of choice.

Perhaps it’s because, as Starrett notes, “It’s entirely one or zero.  You may complete it with horrific form, but it’s unambiguous: one or zero.  There is no scaled muscle up.  You can either do it, or you can’t.”  This instantly categorizes us as being a person who can do muscle ups or a person who can’t. And for all of human history, we’ve been a species who likes to categorize.  We feel more organized, grounded, and sure of ourselves when we can put people into groups.  Plus, it makes us strive to be in the preferred category, in this case a person who can muscle up rather than one who can’t.  As Starrett has seen far too many times, “people are willing to throw tissue safety and technique out the window” to join the club. Somewhere in our psyches, the social stakes are high, and we are social creatures.

The flip side of the ‘cha-ching’ moment of being able to do a muscle up in a crowd is the dreaded moment of trying and failing to do one while others are watching.  This may prevent people from getting the coaching or practice they need in order to develop the skill, just like they would with other, less loaded movements.  Megan Kaden, a TJ’s Gym coach who also has a life coaching practice, recently did her first muscle up.  She explains something about how loaded the muscle up was for her in terms of fear of failure and holding herself back.  On the heels of her successful and fun participation in a small throwdown, Kaden wrote the following:

My recent experience competing reminded me that if I don’t take the risk that I will fail, I have no potential to grow. And so today, I attempted to do a muscle up. After a couple attempts with my coach/boyfriend/biggest supporter as a spotter, I got some confidence under my belt to try unassisted. Then, much to my surprise, there I was, on top of the rings. I kipped out the dip and done: my first muscle up. The buildup to this moment has been huge. The truth is a good part of me knew I had a real shot at getting one, which is probably why I let myself try publicly today.  Although I haven’t practiced this skill much out of fear of the discomfort of failing, it has been a gnawing awareness in the back of my mind: I need to practice my muscle ups. And now, the gnawing awareness will change: I need to let myself fail. I must practice things at which I am likely to fail, so that I can practice tolerating the feeling. That is where growth, as an athlete and as a person, becomes possible.

Kaden also acknowledges the effect of that all-or-nothing quality of muscle ups, which also made practicing them so unappealing: “Everything else was about improving, while this was about simply achieving…Plateaus at a skill I can already do at least made me feel like I was doing something.  With the muscle up, it was all-or-nothing, and every time before the day I got them it was just nothing.  I felt like nothing got accomplished when I practiced.”

Happily now, Kaden joins the ranks of thousands of other CrossFitters who “have muscle ups.” Unfortunately for her and for all of us, the muscle up is typically not a faithful companion, always there when we need or want it. It is a high-maintenance partner requiring all kinds of nurturance and dedication, and sometimes just the right environment and conditions to make its presence known.

According to Starrett, it is this uncertainty that fuels our fires and makes us want our muscle ups even more. I agree.  I suppose it’s like the allure of the ‘bad boy’ as the boyfriend for the ‘good girl.’  I got him, but will he be there next time, when there are other girls around or when his friends are watching?  Or perhaps it’s like the complex math problem you finally figure out with your parents at home, but can you pull it off under the pressure of the timed test when your teacher is roaming the rows of desks and the cutest girl in school is sitting next to you?  And maybe you’re sweating, so your hand is slippery on your pencil.

In fact, it’s the moments when the fittest CrossFitters fail to achieve a muscle up in the heat of a competition that bring up the potency and mystique of the movement for Craig Howard, co-owner of Diablo CrossFit.  He calls this “the worst moment in competition for a CrossFit athlete–when the muscle ups go away and the spectators and fellow competitors gather round to cheer him/her while making suggestions.”  Howard goes on to note:

Muscle ups have been the pinnacle of gymnastic achievements in CrossFit since the first post of thirty muscle ups for time.  Of course, the “Nasty Girls” fueled the muscle-up hype and reinforced the belief that you’re not a legitimate CrossFit athlete unless you can muscle up.  Almost anyone can deadlift, squat, clean, overhead squat or snatch.  But even some of the fittest athletes in the world have failed to achieve muscle ups.  So, when an athlete hits his/her first muscle up,  we cheer, celebrate and post it on the whiteboard and Facebook.  And the hype – along with the pressure – is passed on to the next generation of CrossFitters.

For TJ Belger, owner of TJ’s Gyms, this hype is instilled early on for most CrossFitters:  “When you walk into a CrossFit gym, you will see many movements that your ego tells you are doable.  Lifting, jumping, squatting. Then you see the muscle up and your heart sinks. It looks impossible. You soon realize that only the top ten percent of athletes in your gym can do it, and your ego suffers a crushing blow. Is a 500-pound back squat or a sub-five-minute mile any less of an accomplishment?  Of course not, but we also don’t care, because we tell ourselves that those are meant for specialists. But muscle ups are for everyone. Why?  Because everyone has the hanging-off-a-cliff dream. The problem is, that is a dream and the muscle up might not be your reality.”

It is probably true that the muscle up holds a place in our collective CrossFit psyche for a large host of reasons, different for each of us. Whatever the underpinnings, the muscle up’s uncanny hold on us seems to penetrate deeply, and it makes our first one a cause for celebration.  Starrett jokes, “Nobody remembers the first time they deadlifted, but everyone knows where and when they got their first muscle up.”

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Jump Smarter. Live Better.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

*I originally posted this article in March, 2013. It’s relevant all over again this week!*

LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP…  (Samuel Butler)

 HE WHO HESITATES IS LOST   (Joseph Addison)

 Above we have two competing proverbs.  So what are we to do?  Take our time, do a quick risk assessment, and fully prepare ourselves?  Or will we lose out, get left behind, and miss opportunities if we look before leaping?

This dilemma occurred to me the other day after I coached a class at one of our gyms.  The programmed workout of the day included box jumps.  For my non-CrossFit audience, this involves jumping from two feet onto a box, standing on the box, and then jumping or stepping down.  In a typical class, boxes range in height from 12 inches to 30 inches, though some people use weight plates stacked to six inches, while others add to the thirty.  Ever watch a group of adults try to jump onto something?  If you have, you know that it is as much a psychological endeavor as a physical one.

The ability to jump with both feet off the ground over an object typically develops around age four or five.  There is a lifetime’s worth of analysis and metaphorical pondering one can do with regards to the process of jumping with both feet off the ground, as opposed to leading with one foot.  Try it for yourself and feel the difference.  Jumping with both feet requires more faith that you will again find your bearings and a stable place to land.  One foot at a time is less of a commitment.

Each athlete has his/her own style of jumping.  Those who jump with abandon and a complete lack of caution often get burned.  Those who are so paralyzed by fear that they either don’t jump at all or only jump a few inches tend to be unscathed but also unsatisfied.  And then there are those who seem to have figured out some kind of balance between fear and abandon, able to jump more gracefully and more efficiently with each workout, no mishaps along the way but plenty a feeling of accomplishment.

This past week, one of our gyms’ teen phenoms wrote about his second run-in with a box:

I woke up happy and ready to conquer….Desiring to push 100% for new records and new satisfaction. Lacking a fear of the box. And It was exactly this mentality that got me into trouble. I was happy-go-lucky as some say. Just going for it, head to head with [my buddy]. Enjoying the burn in my legs as I rode the Airdyne, and the confidence of my shoulders as they locked out a push press. Not pausing for a second to consider my mental state, or lack of, even after I saw [my buddy] go down. I was 100% body, feeling it, not thinking it.  So it was no wonder when I “bit the box.”  My feet left the ground, but my mind stayed. It did not move with me to the box, it did not do even as much as register a jump. Clumsily I hit the box.  First my feet, then my shins, brought by my momentum. This collision brought about the peak of my jump, causing my to return to the ground, grinding my shins the entire way. I landed and my mind came back, back with a single thought, “not again.”

We can blame this on the invincible attitude of youth, on this kid’s desire to beat his buddy in their friendly competition–on his tunnel-vision that day.  But the truth is, this happens all too often.  Whether you think the box jump has a place in fitness development and competitive exercising is not the question I’m going for here, and that can be argued elsewhere.  What I’m getting at is what happens in us moments before we jump.  What goes through our minds in those seconds, even milliseconds?  How do we prepare ourselves so that both feet can leave the ground, clear the edge of the box, and land fully planted?  There’s a whole lot of synaptic firing going on, and I’m arguing that much of it is psychological.  It’s like when you get a massage and the therapist says, “Wow, you hold a lot of tension in your shoulders.”  There’s a lot of life, fear, confidence, ambivalence, courage, boldness being expressed when you jump.

Kelly Starrrett of MobilityWOD talks about getting yourself physically “organized” before you take on a barbell.  He speaks of getting your core aligned and tight, your breathing controlled, your body fierce in preparation to lift heavy stuff.  The same goes for the box: get yourself together before you jump.

So what’s the big deal about box jumps?  Ah, another metaphor for life, of course.  Do we think before we leap and analyze the situation, or will we miss the moment and be left wondering?  But if we jump too quickly, before we have gotten our psychological selves organized, aren’t we risking getting burned?

In the field of psychodynamic psychology (specifically Object Relations Theory for those who like to know such things), there is a concept called “Potential Space,” created years ago by a really cool Pediatrician/child psychoanalyst in Britain named Donald Winnicott.  His idea, in broad and very watered-down strokes, was that the psychological space that develops between the mother and the infant during “good-enough” relating becomes the place where subjectivity is formed, creativity can be expressed, and playfulness can exist.

I would argue that there is “potential space,” a psychological and functional in-between, lying somewhere between the extremes of excessive caution (never jumping) on the one hand, and not enough caution (jumping with abandon and a lack of organization) on the other.  In the case of the person who never jumps, or perhaps jumps forever with one foot at a time, so much of life will be missed.  There will only be zones of comfort, smooth skin, and predictable outcomes.  In the case of the person who jumps with abandon and fails to organize, there may only be jazzy moments filled with adrenaline rushes, quick fixes, and fly-by-night relationships.  Scars are cool, but not so much when they pile together and create thick, unwelcoming barriers.

Maybe the parting thought here is something about how to get yourself together–get your ducks in a row–just enough to take on that metaphorical jump quickly enough to not be left in the dust, but slowly enough to avoid being banged up.  If you take a few deep breaths before you jump, you’re likely to do a quick, perhaps unconscious assessment of your relationship in space to the top of that box, and you’re likely to clear it without a problem.  If you gather your limbs and get your parts moving together, all should go well.  Metaphorically speaking, if you take enough moments to assess nuances of situations, read people’s body language, listen to your gut, check in with yourself and how you’re feeling (think: what would I tell a teenager to do at a rowdy party?), your “jumps” will lead to positive outcomes. On the flip side, if you haphazardly and consistently “jump right in,” you will eventually get screwed.  Without organizing your emotional self prior to making decisions or taking risks, without first assessing yourself in relation to others, without taking stock of the pros and cons of engagement, you are setting yourself up for problems down the road, even if there is a short-term win.

So get yourself together, stare down the boxes in your life, and find that tricky balance (call it potential space if you want to sound smarter) between not looking at all before you leap and hesitating so long that you’re late to the party.  This sounds like such hard work, but if you dial in when and how to jump, you might just get there, and the view from the top of the box will be awesome, not just today, but in ten years.

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What Proper Nutrition, Mobilizing, and Cheering on Athletes Doing the CrossFit Open Have in Common

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By Dr. Allison Belger

We are now in the second week of the CrossFit Open 2014.  In addition to being the first step in the qualification process for the international CrossFit Games, this is a huge community event, connecting athletes within and among gyms around the globe via fitness efforts, cheering, and a little shared suffering to boot.

In 2012, I wrote a book called The Power of Community, which documents, among other things, the importance of meaningful social connections for our psychological and physical health.  The topic of community and the benefits of social interaction on our overall wellbeing have been widely discussed in both scientific literature and popular culture. Recently, Oprah started a campaign called “Just Say Hello,” which is meant to encourage people to connect with others, with as easy and simple an act as making eye contact and saying hello.

Oprah’s website provides some interesting information about both the importance of human connection in the prevention of loneliness, and the harmful effects of social isolation and lack of friendships.  While we often associate sadness and other emotional melancholy with being lonely, what we may not realize is that loneliness also has a powerful and direct negative impact on our physical health.  If you’re interested in further reading on the subject, my book discusses it in detail, and there’s also an easily digestible article on Oprah’s site By Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

One of the more fascinating findings Dr. Gupta highlights is that social isolation and loneliness actually register in our brains in the same way as physical pain.  With a historical overview, Dr. Gupta explains, From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense; our prehistoric ancestors relied on social groups not just for companionship, but for survival. Staying close to the tribe brought access to shelter, food, and protection. Separation from the group, on the other hand, meant danger. Today when we feel left out, our bodies may sense a threat to survival, and some of the same pain signals that would engage if we were in real physical danger are flipped on.

Along these lines, last year I had posted a link to a psychology journal article, which documented the perception of social isolation as physical pain. It’s fascinating stuff about how an emotional experience can register in our brains as something physical.

For those of us who are concerned about our health and wellness and are doing what we can to keep our physical selves healthy, Oprah’s campaign is a good reminder that we must also attend to our social lives and emotional wellbeing. In our efforts to keep our bodies strong and fit, we of course need to focus on our training, our nutrition, our lifestyle choices, our efforts at mobility–all of it.  But we need to pay as much attention to ourselves as social beings, and in particular how we are connected to others.  As Dr. Kelly Starrett said when reviewing my book, we need to “create opportunities for people to matter to each other.”  The incentive is twofold: we will be emotionally more content and happy, and our physical health will be better, as well.

One of my favorite quotations comes from political scientist, Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone.  After reviewing the vast landscape of literature on the topic, Putnam writes:

The bottom line from this multitude of studies: As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half (emphasis in original). If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”

This week’s message, then, is to take advantage of opportunities to connect with others.  Following Oprah’s initiative, smile at a stranger — you just might make someone’s day and improve someone’s health.  Call old friends, make plans with people you enjoy, join a book club, volunteer for a local cause, find your own path for sharing experiences.  And remember, the CrossFit Open is a great way to bring people together. If you’re not competing, you can still show up, cheer, and make connections.  It just might be as good for your physical health as doing the workouts you’re watching!

The Mental Game and Open Workout 14.2

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By Dr. Allison Belger

For those of you tackling the CrossFit Open workout 14.2, here are some pointers on how to keep your mental focus throughout the fun (also published as part of the Tabata Times Coaching Roundtable) .  If you’re not a CrossFit athlete, you may still enjoy some of these tips for competition prep and your own mental game.

We say it all the time: “This one’s going to be a mental battle,” or “This one’s going to come down to who is more mentally tough.”  For some workouts, those statements are more true than for others.  This is one of them.

The thing about the time domain design of this workout is that, for strong competitors, there will be significant rest periods. Having rest periods can be nice, but it also means having plenty of time to be left alone in one’s head with one’s thoughts.  Typically, the pre-workout period marks the time for focused, deliberate mental concentration and internal chatter.  Once go-time happens, the mental chatter usually takes place in the background of the physical activity.  This time, during those rest periods, athletes should be ready to attack the mental game with a plan and with poise, because the mental game will now be in the
foreground.  Just as rep-scheme plans will be critical, mental strategy will likely play a significant role in the outcome of 14.2.

I often recommend that novice competitors create a warm-up for themselves to use on Game Day in typical competitions.  In the heat of the moment, athletes who are accustomed to having a coach guide their warm-up often become paralyzed, unsure of how to prepare their bodies for the workout.  There will surely be plenty of information swirling around the internet on this topic, with suggestions for mobility and pre-workout prep.  Less experienced athletes should be sure to put those into a clear guide or script.  It will be extremely reassuring to have a written plan of attack when your nerves creep in.

Experienced competitors will know how to warm up and also tend to have a transition routine that allows them to move from their warm-up mindset to their performance mindset.  This transition signal can be a simple ritualized routine (e.g., 5 arm swings, 5 foot stomps, 5 deep breaths and a quiet utterance of a cue phrase, such as “Go time” or “I’ve got this”).  For 14.2, it may be particularly useful to create an additional quick transition cue/routine for subsequent restarts–there are a whole lot of “3,2,1..GO’s” in this workout, and that can be a mind game if you’re not prepared.  Be ready with a go-to transition for the ten-second period before each three-minute set.  This might be one or two big, deep breaths, followed by a mental image of being done with the set successfully.

This is not a workout into which you want to go with the attitude of “If it doesn’t go well, I can always do it again.”  If there is even a glimmer of possibility of a repeat, it will likely be difficult to go to the very uncomfortable place you will need to visit if you are hoping to be a competitor.  Don’t give yourself an out; your hands may be too torn up or vulnerable after your first attempt, and you may struggle to harness the intensity you’ll need the second time around.  I say give yourself one shot on this one, and make it count.  Try to fight the urge to conjure when you might be able to fit in a second try.  Visualize yourself inputting the score you want.  Act like there’s no tomorrow, and give it everything you’ve got.  Thinking about going again can be a crutch and a flee from intensity.  Hang in there with the challenge, rise to the occasion, push through the fatigue, and don’t give yourself an out.

Another unique aspect of this workout is that the difference between finishing the given reps in a three-minute window and not finishing them can end up meaning huge differences on the leaderboard.  Even if you are behind someone by just one rep, if that person finishes a round and you don’t, you will end up many places behind him or her.  Those last few reps in what will be your last full round are gold; fight like crazy to get them, so you can buy yourself the opportunity to continue.  Center yourself as I discussed last week—use a cue word to remind yourself why the discomfort is worth it.  It could get ugly for some of you, and you’ll need a mantra to keep yourself focused!

Last week’s mental slip warning was a tangled rope. This week it might be getting no-reps on the overhead squats.  Force yourself to exaggerate your depth at the bottom and hip opening at the top.  If you do get a no-rep, register it as a signal to do better, and keep moving.  Getting caught up in the potential unfairness of it all is foolish.

One final note for this week is on checking in with yourself and monitoring your system throughout the workout.  Ripping your hands badly could mean as much as a week off from training hard with grip-demanding movements.  Unless you are in a position where you might be fighting for your athletic life to qualify for Regionals or for the next step as a Masters athlete, I’m not sure those setbacks are worthwhile.  Certainly if you’re taking on the Open with more of a “weekend warrior” mentality, do yourself a favor and make part of your goal coming out of the workout with your skin intact.  I know this can be a controversial topic, but I generally advise athletes to err on the side of not ripping their hands and protecting their bodies.  There is a time and place to put it ALL out there and literally leave skin in the game; be honest with yourself in assessing whether or not this workout qualifies as one of those times for YOU.

 

Psychologywod’s Crash Course in Competition Prep

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Next week marks the beginning of the CrossFit Open 2014.  For those of you who don’t do CrossFit and may not know, the Open is an international competition in which athletes will do a set of five workouts (one each week) and submit scores via an online forum.  This is the first stage of qualification for the CrossFit Games, to be held in July.  The majority of the thousands of people who will complete the Open workouts have no intention of qualifying or actually competing—they are simply taking the opportunity to test their fitness relative to their own performance in the past, or relative to others in their age group.  Or, they may be participating in order to be a part of a fun community event.

Given the number of articles I have written on competition and the mental game since starting this blog one year ago, I thought this week would be a good time to provide links to the articles that relate most to competition, preparation, mental toughness, and general psychological and emotional aspects of putting ourselves on the line in some kind of competitive endeavor.  Keep in mind that each article addresses more than just athletic pursuits; the applications to life off the field are critical and always covered.  Indeed, they are why I was inspired to start this blog in the first place!  We all have so much to learn from applying the mental game of sport to the mental game of life.

Here’s my top ten for competition-related content (in no particular order):

1.  Threat vs Challenge: Do you experience competitive scenarios or other performance opportunities as a threat (risk of failure) or a challenge (chance to shine)?  Read more about the implications of each way of framing your endeavors:

2. Responding to cues mid-workout:  How skilled are you at listening to your body during a workout or competition?  How able are you to adapt to your audience in the middle of a presentation at work?  Read more here:

3.  Fear of Negative Evaluation:  Learn more about how anxiety affects performance and how you can develop performing-enhancing states of mind, for sport and life:

4.  Overthinking:  Read about the differences between accessing cognitive processes for learning new skills and allowing your body to do its thing once you are no longer a novice:

5.  How do you move on from a less-than-stellar performance?

6.  Understanding the value of visualizing just after you’ve conquered a physical challenge.

7.  Injured and unable to participate in the Open or other competition or challenge?  Feeling left out and blue?  Read more here about the psychological aspects of injury.

8.  The holy grail of “mental toughness.”  What the heck does it really include?

9.  How important is a competition or other physical pursuit, any way? Read here for some thoughts on finding perspective.

10.  The importance of evaluating the effect of your pursuit on your life.  After all, it might be time for a break!

How are You Using the Power of YOUR Mind?

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Short-and-to-the-point message this week, as I’m busy being a “Dance Mom” for the first time in my parenting career—fodder for a future post, no doubt.

One of my clever and witty Facebook and real-life friends, Teresa Basich, posted the following status earlier in the week:

The 30 minutes it takes for a Cold-EEZE lozenge to dissolve + the 15 minutes I’m supposed to wait after it’s dissolved before drinking anything = TORTURE ON LEVELS I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW EXISTED.

This was funny to me, because of how ridiculous and accurate it is at the same time.

My father is an MD with a specialty in infectious disease.  He is straightforward and data-driven in his approach, and he rarely buys into remedies that claim to shorten or diminish the effects of the cold virus. Recently, though, he followed some research suggesting that a certain product (not Cold-EEZE), when taken at the onset of a sore throat, significantly reduced the duration and intensity of the common cold. That was enough to get me to purchase the product the last time I had a sore throat and felt a cold coming on.

The wind came out of my sails a bit when I read the packaging:  no eating or drinking 30 minutes prior to, and after, taking this remedy.  Seriously? I had to guarantee that I would not eat or drink for a whole hour?  Like most people, I go without consumption for an hour at a time quite often.  But, there’s something deeply troubling about being told I MUST refrain for a period of time.  Ever have a colonoscopy?  Worst part by far?  The 24-hour period of no eating or drinking leading up to the procedure.  The procedure itself is a walk in the park compared to the starvation that one must endure prior.

Of course I’m trying to be funny here, and I realize that 24 hours without food is, in the grand scheme of life, in a world where people go hungry all the time, neither starvation nor a tragedy by any stretch.  My point is to highlight the mental battle that accompanies hard, fast rules about what we can and can’t eat or drink.  Don’t worry.  I’m not writing about nutrition or diet or how to get your eating in order.  I’m writing about the power of the mind, using food restriction as an example of how significant our mental processes are in the way we live our lives.

The mind is incredibly powerful.  It can fixate on restrictions and make us immediately and aggressively crave things we have been told we cannot have.  It can also buy into hard and fast rules, so that we structure our entire lives around our belief systems.  The mind can gather information that will affect how we eat, exercise, and socialize.  It can serve us well, and it can betray us if left unchecked.

Remember this the next time you’re up against a physical or mental challenge.  Remember that if you tell yourself you’re not up to the task, or if you allow yourself to believe in deeply rooted self doubts, you are setting yourself up for failure.  Remember this the next time you’re anxious about an upcoming presentation and you’re bombarding yourself with all the ways you have ever stumbled in front of a crowd.  Remember this the next time you read the workout posted for week one of the CrossFit Open.  All it will take is a mantra akin to “I suck at those movements” to start the process of resignation in that powerful brain of yours.  Remember this, too, the next time you’re struggling in a relationship and you tell yourself you’re “damaged” because of your childhood.  If you repeat the same story long enough, you will be hard pressed to ever create a new one.

Appreciate the power of the mental game. The playing field has no boundaries, and there’s no clock.  It’s always happening, so you’d better make up your mind to be flexible and positive.  Otherwise, you’re choosing to limit yourself.

 

Reminder: Your Latest and Greatest Pursuit Just Might be a Decoy!

When I first posted this article back in June, it resonated with many people. Now that we are a month into New Years resolutions, I figured it would be a good time to post it again.  We can never have enough reminders that we tend to be excellent at self-trickery and avoiding the challenging, yet important, path of introspection and self-evaluation.

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By Allison Belger

In my twenties, I ran a lot.  I’d never done any formal running, except as part of training for the sports I played competitively in high school and college. Running became my thing while I lived in San Francisco post-college.  One of my most consistent and avid running partners was a dear friend who had picked up running as a way to lose weight.  Carrying extra poundage around since her college days at a particularly social school, she had struggled for years to come to terms with her body as it was.  Running and mountain biking had become her refuge, and when she dialed in her nutrition, the pounds finally came off.

Prior to losing weight, my friend, approaching age thirty, would often lament the fact that she was single.  She longed to be in a long-term relationship, settle down, and have a family.  Her single status, in her mind, was the result of the extra pounds, plain and simple.  Ups and downs at work?  Yep, those were weight-related, as well.  Indeed it seemed that almost every nuance of her functioning was related to the number on a scale, which she watched like a hawk multiple times each day.  The funny thing was that when she finally lost the weight—after a few months of extreme levels of exercise mixed with more restrictive food choices—her life didn’t change much.  She still navigated the rather clumsy world of city dating, she still had ups and downs at work, and, perhaps most importantly, her mother was still nuts.  A few months into being “skinny” and living the same old struggles, my friend insightfully recognized the shortcomings of her thinking with regards to her weight-induced plight in life: it wasn’t actually the extra pounds on her body that hindered her.  She now had to reckon with her psychology in ways that her focus and on, and obsession with, her larger body had rather conveniently prevented her from doing.

We humans are exceptionally good at creating and maintaining psychological defense mechanisms.  The psychological and emotional demands of being human are intense, and we need ways of defending ourselves.  However, and rather unfortunately, it is often these same defensive strategies, which serve us well superficially and for the moment, that prevent growth and become stumbling blocks when they are nurtured past their prime.  While they may temporarily distract us from the real sources of our angst, their tricky ways make progress unlikely.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of immersing yourself completely into a newfound endeavor of some kind—be it physical, spiritual, or mental—making huge changes in your life for a relatively brief period, only to have those changes unwind almost as quickly as they arrived.  Ever had a friend become obsessed with a certain exercise routine or sport of way of eating, with significant but very temporary results?  Maybe your nephew ended up in a commune of some kind, convinced of his new way of viewing the world and spiritually transformed—but only for a few months.

Human behavior takes time to change for real and for the long haul.  Brief, severe, bouts of change, often borne of obsessive focus and thinking, are unlikely to last.  What I’m interested in for this post is the psychological purpose served by these intense times of focus and change.  Obsessively watch what you eat and lose fifty pounds?  Run fifteen miles every day for three months en route to your first marathon?  Read every Ayn Rand novel ten times over and join four book clubs on the road to a new, intellectual you?  Become a Buddhist in four short months?  Frantically strive for that bodyweight snatch while tracking every single lift for five months straight?  What’s the deal?

At face value, these endeavors are meaningful efforts, accomplishments, and developments that might prove to be the beginning of long-term change and achievement.  However, since this blog is about delving deeper, let’s entertain the idea that at least some of these obsessive engagements serve alternate functions, more like with my friend in her twenties, whose running and dieting proved to be a way of avoiding underlying emotional and relational issues that had plagued her for years–far longer than she had been “fat” and far more pervasively than she had imagined.

We all have bumps in the psychological road and have all endured aspects of our upbringing that did not go as our caregivers intended, and certainly not perfectly.  We all have our issues–insecurities, fears, annoying behavior patterns.  We are the psychological products of millions of interactions with our caregivers, first and foremost, and with multiple significant others along the way.  Each of these interactions is influenced by the psychologies of all parties involved, totaling exponentially more complex relating than any single one might involve.  There’s simply no way these can all go smoothly.

When we suffer from particularly challenging underlying “issues,” we often find ways of distracting ourselves from them (i.e. defense mechanisms mentioned earlier).  Did you have a dad whose expectations were always slightly bigger than your capacity?  Did your mom loathe her body and make you uncomfortable for not loathing yours?  Maybe your sister was a superstar, and you were stuck in her shadow for years.  More extreme versions abound, including abuse, neglect, premature exposure to sexuality…the list goes on.  As survivalists, we all put up walls and find ways around knowing our own discomfort and pain.  Maybe we drink too much.  Perhaps we obsessively clean our home.  Maybe we jump from bed partner to bed partner or shop on eBay with money we don’t have.  Maybe we train for a marathon or become a religious devotee.  The idea is that these endeavors provide a nice, intense, reliable go-to when our psyches threaten exposure of our most painful and complicated content.

Some of these strategic behavioral decoys last far longer than a few months or even a few years.  Sometimes we jump from one to the next, as though we realize the purpose served by one has a rapidly approaching expiration date, and we’d better find another, right quick. We go from running to Yoga to CrossFit to Buddhism to knitting, and back again.  We lose forty pounds and gain forty-five.  Along the way, we avoid the underlying complications of our most formative relationships and how they play out in our lives in the present.

The problem is, the setup is flawed, and the defenses don’t work forever.  Remember, human behavior takes time to change, and the quick fixes and obsessive interests rarely last.  Our psyches have a tricky way of catching up with us, and ultimately we are better served by trying to address ourselves head on.  The good news is that doing so might save us from further disappointment down the road.  Regaining weight once lost, losing our capacity to run 26.2 miles, or realizing that the book club was a bore can all be a real drag after we have put so much effort into each journey.  This is especially true when we realize that we still suffer from the anxiety, self-loathing, or general malaise from which we unconsciously sought refuge in the first place.

This all may sound a little depressing or insurmountable, even, but hopefully these ideas come as an invitation to seek help when it is needed and to do some hearty soul-searching regarding the functions of your chosen activities.  That sport you just cannot get enough of, those calorie-counting spreadsheets you complete nightly, or those late-night online shopping “trips” you take might actually be decoys.  Heads up: pay attention and figure out for yourself if your current engagements might be an effort to avoid something that you think will somehow be fixed on the other side of your pursuit.  “If I lose the weight, I will be lovable.”  “If I reach that personal best lift, I will prove that I’m a strong and successful person.”  “If I have great clothes, I will fit in.”    The thinking is powerful and seductive, but flawed nonetheless.  Much like we all are, really.  The idea is to access the powerful and seductive in us in spite of what is flawed.  Doing so means we cannot become too distracted from ourselves by the activities we pursue.  Seek help (find a professional if need be), talk to friends, explore your inner life.  It’ll always catch up with you if don’t, so you might as well expedite the process, address who you are, make peace with yourself and your history, and forge ahead.  Losing weight won’t hold a candle to that kind of work.  I promise.

Assertiveness Training: The Importance of Standing up for Yourself

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By Dr. Allison Belger

When my husband, TJ, and I arrived at the hospital for the birth of our second child, we hadn’t yet decided on a middle name if we were to have a girl.  TJ is all about turning such scenarios into games, so he suggested that if we had a girl, her middle name would be the name of the first female nurse to come into our room.  We agreed to go for it.  In walked a very friendly nurse whose name was Vietnamese and difficult for us to pronounce.  We chose “Brooke.”

I tell this story as an intro to this week’s post.  Through the holidays, my goal was to spend as much time with our girls as possible, and frankly, I had little motivation to write and struggled to develop article ideas.  Last night I committed to myself that I’d ask my 11-year-old daughter for an idea, and no matter what it was (even if Vietnamese and difficult to pronounce), I’d give it a whirl.  She did not disappoint. Her idea:  “Why don’t you write about the importance of sticking up for yourself?” She went on to describe that in Little Women, which she’d just finished reading, the character Meg has difficulty standing up to people and needed to work on that.  Done.  I’d committed to her idea, so here goes.

The ability to be assertive and stand up for our own needs and desires is handled differently by each of us.   Culturally, especially in years past, boys have had an easier time with this than girls; apparently, the message for young girls was to be quiet and respectful, and not cause a stir.  Clearly that message has changed, but nonetheless girls and women may still  have a harder time with assertiveness; they are less likely to confront and want to be liked.

Male or female, standing up for yourself can take many forms, from being able to hold your place in line at the grocery store when someone tries to work his way in, to being able to tell your mother that you don’t like it when she tells you what to wear.  It might mean telling your soccer coach that you feel stronger as a defender than as a striker, or telling your son’s teacher that you are concerned and anxious about his learning disability and would appreciate weekly check-ins.  It could mean telling the trainer who is preparing you for your next CrossFit competition that you’re not sure her programming is working for you and your need to be home with your kids at critical hours.

For those who struggle with this kind of assertiveness, the challenge may be rooted in both your personality (nature) and your earliest interactions with caregivers (nurture).  Perhaps you had a domineering parent who overreacted whenever you expressed your needs. Perhaps you have an extra dose of innate anxiety, or maybe you grew up with a sibling whose needs were more apparent and always seemed to take center stage.  While you may have to work harder to combat natural forces and environmental shaping, the results are worth the effort.

Even if you are someone who is generally able to speak up for yourself and ask for what you want, you may struggle at certain times and in certain situations—e.g. facing an intimidating boss, in social settings where stakes are high, or at times when you feel insecure and self-conscious.  Below are some pointers that will help you develop your own assertiveness quotient:

*Role play.  Hokey as it sounds, going through the motions with a trusted friend or family member is often a great way to develop the guts to stand up for yourself in especially tricky situations.  Have your partner respond in various ways to ensure you are feeling ready for whatever response you might get in the real-deal scenario.  Practicing will ease your anxiety when it matters most.

*Conjure your deepest darkest fears and worst-case scenarios with a specific issue or individual in mind.  Write them down and then write down the worst thing that could possibly happen in each case. It is likely that your amorphous, nonspecific fears are far more threatening than any real-life versions of what might actually happen

*Practice being more assertive and asking for what you need with those closest to you, with whom you feel safest.  This should work like training wheels to get you ready for interactions with others out in the world.

*If you have children, imagine what strategies you would like them to develop as they grow and encounter peer pressure and other life challenges. This might help you view assertiveness skills with a greater appreciation for their impact on your own life and inevitable stressful situations.

How might these exercises play out?  Next time you’re at the gym, be sure to speak up if you need a modification for a movement or would like some special help from a coach.  When you’re at work and have a question or suggestion for your boss, make the time to approach and discuss.  When you’re on the phone with your sister and need her to listen to your story (for once!), find the words to get her attention.

The bottom line is that the ability to ask for what you need is a critical life skill.  When done within reason and with awareness of others, expressing yourself and making realistic demands will allow you to navigate life with less frustration and resentment.  Of course, it is possible to take this too far with negative, self-absorbed results, but that’s a topic for another article.

This week’s focus is on the importance and benefits of being able to “stick up for yourself,” of recognizing your own needs and presenting them firmly in ways that allow others to respond and comply, with appreciation for your point of view.  The world may not accommodate every request, but it sure as heck won’t if you don’t try. Martyrdom is never a great tactic long-term, so recognize your needs, embrace the process, and assert yourself!

Related reading from the archives:  Peer Pressure and Homework:  It’s Not Just for Kids!

From the Archives with an Update: Good Days Follow Bad Ones

Below is an article I published back on March 25th.  The accompanying photograph is of my younger daughter last Fall when she was 8 and pensive on the sidelines of a soccer game.  Like all of us, she has good days and bad days on the playing field.  She now plays U9 competitive soccer and generally has a blast.  She has taken to juggling, and today reached a milestone, breaking the 100 mark, which is quite a feat for a player her age.  The rules are: no body parts other than feet allowed (thighs make juggling quite a bit easier).    Just yesterday, she had some “moments” of frustration, complaining that she wasn’t getting any better and wondering why she couldn’t get more than she had the day before.  Within four minutes of being out on the field today, it became a “good day,” as you can see in the video below.

We all have our ups and downs.  Deep breaths, perspective, and patience will guide us best, whether on the soccer field or in life.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I’ve always marveled at Olympic athletes. Beyond the amazing talent, drive, discipline, and dedication that impress us all, what has always had me most mystified is the fact that many of them train for their entire lives and have only seconds to execute their craft.  The Olympic record for the women’s 50-meter freestyle swim? 24.05 seconds.  The amount of time it takes for a vault in gymnastics?  In the neighborhood of six seconds.  Sure, marathons take a relative while, but still it comes down to a single performance on a single day after literally hundreds or thousands of days spent preparing.  I’ve always wondered how these athletes deal with chance in this setup–the chance they get sick, the chance they get hurt, the chance they could simply have a bad day when it matters most.

One might argue that the best athletes and performers are defined by simply not having bad days.  Or maybe it’s not that they don’t have bad days; rather it’s their capacity to manage themselves despite having a bad day, their ability to dig down and perform when their bodies aren’t quite right, that makes them special.  But I think this is old news.

My focus here is not on what elite athletes–whose lives have been devoted to training and performance when it matters–do to rise above a bad day, but what the rest of us do–not so much during a bad day, but in its aftermath.  I’m interested here in how we handle the disappointments of a competition, a workout, a race, an event when things don’t go our way.  How do we process our failures?  Where do our thoughts go, why do they go there, and how does this affect our functioning in the future?

The CrossFit Open is a forum ripe with people experiencing all sorts of highs and lows, based on performances week to week and year to year.  My thoughts for this article were spurred on by a post on our TJ’s Gym discussion board by a long-time member whose performance on workout 13.3 was far worse than his performance on the same workout a year ago, despite consistent effort and training in the interim.  He was understandably frustrated, and I dare say he will obsess about this for at least a few days.

His post, combined with many conversations I’ve had with other people, got me thinking about why it is so difficult for us to acknowledge when a less-than-optimal performance can be chalked up not to poor preparation, or mediocre effort, or declining prowess, but to the simple fact that we have bad days.  Sometimes things just don’t go the way we have planned.  Sometimes our systems aren’t fired up on days when a competition or game is scheduled.  Sometimes our hormones are out of whack, our spouses are upset with us, our kids are sick.  Sometimes we just don’t have that spark, and try as we might, we can’t light the fires.  What’s worse is that we may not even realize when our bodies are having a bad day, if our minds are having a good one.  We may feel mentally excited, prepared, rearing and ready to go, while our bodies hold the secret of another fate.  This disconnect can be especially frustrating, because the lackluster performance comes as an unpleasant surprise and unexpected disappointment.

So what do we do when the stars don’t align, and our bodies, our brains, and our psyches don’t cooperate to allow us to put our best foot forward?  We don’t get a hall pass.  The competition for which we’ve registered doesn’t get postponed, just because we don’t feel particularly jazzy.  The 10k race we finally had the guts to enter will go on as planned, despite our malaise.

Are we able to give it our best for the day and move on?  Can we accept a bad day and recognize that it’s part of being human?  Can we let go of the “what if’s” and focus on the “what next’s?”  Or do we obsess for days, unable to let things go, torturing ourselves because we didn’t perform how we wanted?  Most importantly, do we generalize from the experience and let it suddenly and irrationally define who we are as an athlete?  Do we convince ourselves that we simply are no longer up to snuff and must be losing ground in our sport, or can we find the perspective that, plainly and simply, we’ve had a bad day?

I realize that blaming all failures or sub-optimal performances on a bad day is unproductive and unlikely to lead to growth.  It is absolutely important for us to learn from errors and evaluate our preparation and training, in order to make changes and engender progress.  But, on the flip side, if we torture ourselves every time we don’t perform as well as we’d hoped, development is also unlikely to unfold.  Take the guy from our gym who, at least momentarily, interpreted his performance as an indication that he is less fit and skilled than he was a year ago, despite his training efforts.  If he were to allow himself to get stuck there, he might become less and less likely to train hard.  Why?  Because what’s the point of training hard when the results are crap?  What’s the point of going to the gym week after week, when it’s apparent that fitness and competencies have declined?  We can see how becoming too invested in the big meaning of a single failure is a slippery slope to throwing in the proverbial towel.  On the other hand, accepting the reality of bad days would allow this athlete to let it go, have faith in his training, reclaim rational thinking and acknowledge that he is fitter, more skilled, and more energetic than he was a year ago when he probably tested his fitness on a “good” day.

A forum like the CrossFit Open is unique and intriguing on a number of levels.  One of its most captivating features is that elite, increasingly professional athletes do the same workouts as regular, everyday CrossFitters.  But let’s not forget that part of the “job” of an elite athlete is to overcome and perform, regardless of internal and external circumstances, while part of the “job” of the other thousands of participants is to fit the Open workouts into everyday life, with all of its demands and curveballs, and to be able to leave it behind and continue with the business of the rest of life, generally unfettered by the “what if’s” of a single workout on a single bad day.  Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that competition is trivial, and we should just let it go, not a care in the world about our results.  Rather, the point is to acknowledge the reality of its import and significance and not let a single instance carry too much weight or define too much about who you are and how you see yourself as an athlete, much less as a person.  If your life is not bigger than a single performance, a single workout, well then, we’ve got a larger set of problems to address in another post.

Invest yourself in your training and your goals, for sure, but don’t over-indulge in the process.  Bad days happen, but so do good ones.  You may even have an awesome day (or ten) if you don’t get bogged down in the bad ones.

How Well do you Really Know Those Joneses, Anyway?

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City.  During the ’80s when I was in middle school and high school, many of my friends’ fathers worked on Wall Street.  The financial industry was booming, and some of the wealthiest financiers lived in my home town.  My father, a hardworking physician, used to joke when he’d pull into our driveway after picking me up from one of my friend’s mansions, that he thought he was doing well until he saw their house and cars.  On the flip side, when we would host soccer players from out of town, competing in local tournaments, they would always “ooh” and “ahh” over our home—how big it was and how fancy.  It’s all relative.

We’ve all heard the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses,” which captures what happens when people attempt to acquire material goods and social standing commensurate with that of their successful neighbors.  You can read about the history of this idiom and potential meanings of it here.

Despite clear warnings against trying to keep up with our neighbors, at certain times in our lives we may succumb to social comparisons and envious feelings, and we may alter our own efforts accordingly.  Keeping up can become a full-time job.   We may covet the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, and the trips they take.  We can yearn for their beautiful homes and lucrative jobs.  We often admire/desire their striking good looks, their natural athleticism, or their family cohesiveness.  We may dream of having their well-mannered, talented children along with their easy popularity and exciting social life.  Indeed, we come to believe that what we see of the Joneses is all there is to see, that their lives are truly so much better than ours.

The thing is, how well do we really know those Joneses?  How much do we know about what goes on behind their closed doors, how they parent their children, or what they say to each other when they’re angry?  How much do we know about what Mrs. Jones looks like when she rolls out of bed, how Mr. Jones treats the people who work for him (and what they really think of him), how Junior Jones behaves at school, or how Miss Teenage Jones feels about herself when she lies in bed at night?  Can we ever get beneath that surface, even if we consider them friends?

The Joneses I’m talking about don’t even have to come in that traditional form—a financially successful family with good looks to boot.   For you, the Joneses might present as the very fit woman at the gym who can do things with a barbell you’d like to be able to do, or the student who gets better grades in your college humanities class.   It might be the trim, tan executive who rides on your bus every morning, effortlessly flirting with beautiful women.  Or maybe it’s the 60-something woman who walks her dog each morning with a kick in her step, more energetic than your own, at age 47.   You see, the Joneses are tricky and chameleon-like in their capacity to show up in different forms at different times in our lives.

In the case of the beautiful Mrs. Jones: as you critically observe the wrinkles on your own face, are you aware that she has struggled with adult acne for years and takes all sorts of potions from Birth Order Plus to achieve the skin you see?  Did you know that the guy with the job you desire suffers from self-doubt and bouts of depression? Were you aware that Little Boy Jones has tantrums in school and throws things when he’s at home being a kid, more often, even, than your own spirited child?

While we’ve all heard the warnings about trying to keep up, we often sustain feelings of envy, which are misguided and self-defeating.  We say it at our gyms all the time:  Don’t compare yourself too readily or too often with other athletes.  If you want pull-ups like that woman in red (call her a Jones if you like), you should certainly work for it, but there are some things you might not know: Woman-in-red has struggled for years to achieve what seems so effortless to you, and she would love to have your strong legs!  The goal is to compete with yourself–to become the fittest, healthiest, and happiest possible version of you–and to avoid being drawn into physical and social comparisons.

Sure, there are some Joneses who have been dealt a fabulous deck of cards and truly do live a relatively blessed existence.  Some people are more fortunate than others—no doubt about it.  Still, remember that behind closed doors they too have feelings and doubts that they keep to themselves, much as you do.  The answer may be to choose positive role models and mentors—with strengths to be admired and human weaknesses too.  Understanding the achievements of others and how they arrived at their success can be productive and powerful, providing motivation to propel you in directions you’d like to go.

Keep in mind that there’s a slippery slope from inspiration to a self-defeating frenzy based on unrealistic, idealized notions of the lives of others.  The best route is to strive for what is meaningful for YOU, not because you imagine it will transform you into a version of somebody else.  You might not actually want the behind-the-scenes reality that comes along with the perfection you perceive on the outside.  And if you still long for those external trappings but are unwilling to make the kind of sacrifices it would take to get there, that’s okay too.  It’s your life, and your name isn’t Jones.