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!

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

IMG_1339Grandfather bliss. New York.  Winter, 2005. 

By Dr. Allison Belger

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

Happy Father’s Day to my wonderful father, I hope you stay gear hungry for new gadgets and continue to share your inner world with ours, I will share your poignant insights appear at the end of today’s article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Sure There’s a Forest in Your Trees: Taking Stock of Your Personal Pursuits.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

The idiom,“You can’t see the forest for the trees,” reminds us that sometimes, if your vantage point is too close, it is difficult or impossible to take in the whole picture. We often use this to describe what happens when people get so consumed by details that they can’t appreciate the totality of a situation.  Like viewing a painting from so close that your focus is on the individual brush strokes or fine lines, taking in an experience from the inside, only, might prevent you from making sense of the overall image.

It’s been almost three months since I posted my last article on this blog.  Although it wasn’t a conscious decision to take a break from writing, I followed my gut and didn’t push a new topic until one came to me naturally. Yes, the chaos of the holidays and some significant work events played a role here, but mostly I write when I feel like writing and/or when an idea with legs surfaces on its own.  When that didn’t happen for an extended period of time, I went with it; doing so gave me a renewed conviction that I should only write when I am inspired. Since starting this blog three years ago, I have come to realize that I write for pleasure and to share ideas with my readers; this is not my “job,” nor do I write in order to sell a product or build a brand. Were I never to allow myself to go with the ebb and flow of ideas and drive to write, I’d likely force the writing, and both my enjoyment of the process and the quality of my content would suffer.

As I’ve written before, it can be quite difficult to take a few steps back and evaluate a pursuit in which we’ve become personally invested.  Discussing the process of considering a break from training for a particular sport or physical challenge, I wrote the following in 2013:

Having the capacity to make changes in our lives is critical.  Having the courage to shake up our own status quo is hard.  Familiarity is comforting, even when imperfect.  The idea of stepping away from something to which we’ve given a solid chunk of ourselves is frightening.  Maybe it’s the feeling that all of the time, energy, planning, we have put into the endeavor will seem like a big waste if we leave it behind.  Perhaps we are afraid that we won’t find anything else to fill the void…Then there’s the addiction element: perhaps something about our training and physical pursuits serves a function far greater than fulfilling our competitive drive or helping to keep us in shape.  Maybe, like any addiction, it has become a way to prevent ourselves from feeling something we are afraid to feel or from knowing something about ourselves that we are afraid to face.

This analysis, I think, applies to far more than physical training. If we are so immersed in the day-to-day of any pursuit—be it a relationship, a job, a hobby-turned-obsession—that we can no longer see the forest for the trees, it might be time for a new perspective.  Many of us, as parents, encourage our kids to do this all the time: if you’re playing a sport five out of seven-days-a-week year round, perhaps it’s time to check in and be sure it’s still rewarding and fun.  Has that spontaneous and joyful experience of jamming with some friends become a tedious band practice every day?  Maybe it’s time to put down the guitar, and listen to that inner voice about what you find positive and meaningful. Most likely there’s a balance to strike or a change to be made that invites the joy of the pursuit back in.

As adults, we are just as easily consumed by our projects and habits and hobbies and commitments. The trees may seem lovely enough, but how’s that forest doing? My message this week as I come back from my own brief hiatus is this: Be sure to step back from time to time, take in the big picture at the expense of the details, and assess your relationship to the ways you are spending your time, finances, energy, and precious psychological resources. Have your activities become automatic, lacking in spirit and resonance?

The good news is that there’s always time for change.  But, like almost everything in life, making something different happen will likely require an open mind and some emotional fortitude.  Stick with it; the process and outcome are worth it

The Slippery Slope of the “Things Could Always be Worse” Perspective.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

The other day on Facebook, a good friend posted something that had happened to her kids. One of them, a pre-teen and budding photographer, had lost a file of treasured pictures from his hard drive. The other, age eight, had melted down after discovering that his Legos had been unexpectedly tidied up in his absence, though he was in the midst of a grand building scheme.  As parents often do, my friend was reflecting on the events and the meaning she and her kids had each made of the losses they’d suffered.

So often, we talk about how to help our kids (and ourselves) maintain perspective when they, or we, encounter loss or endure an insult of some kind. In the example of my friend and her two boys, the parental message was one of a splash of empathy mixed with a big dose of perspective: bottom line? Nobody has Ebola, so it’s time to move on, right?

Yes, but…

I am fortunate to have been raised by hardworking, successful parents who could afford some of the finer things in life and made a point of encouraging new experiences and opportunities for me and my brother.  Their work ethic and desire to provide for their kids trickled down to me, and my resulting M.O. is to raise my daughters to have a work ethic and drive of their own, an inner sense of civic responsibility and the importance of giving back, and a childhood free of serious financial burdens.  Sounds perfect, right?

Well, things aren’t always so streamlined and clear. Many people in our social circles struggle with the same questions my parents faced decades ago: How do we raise children in relative comfort without a sense of entitlement or tendency to overreact when confronted by minor adversity? How do we develop in our children an appreciation of their good fortune compared to the challenges faced by so many in the world around them?  How do we instill a work ethic and solid values, while giving them so much “stuff”?  These questions have been debated for years, but my focus here is slightly different: how can we provide genuine empathy when our kids hit bumps in the road—acknowledging their disappointments and distress while maintaining perspective and helping them stay grounded.

I’ve written on this topic before, dealing with the “it’s just a game” mantra when things don’t go our way in sport:

For those of us fortunate enough to have been raised within a loving family where basic needs were met and fundamental aspects of childhood were sustained, the “things could always be worse” mantra can loom large in our psyches… But what if we are never allowed to feel pain or disappointment because the message we continually receive is that we are fortunate and that others suffer more?  What if things literally could always be worse and, therefore, our problems are never legitimate enough to warrant attention or sympathy?

So when our budding photographer loses his cherished photographs in middle school or our eight-year-old comes home to find his Lego village destroyed, our instinct is to remind them that it’s important to keep perspective.  We tell them that “it’s not the end of the world,” that they can always take more photos and build a new Lego city.  In fact, we might add in frustration how lucky they are to have fancy cameras and hard drives and Legos, which 90% of the world’s children can only dream about.  And, besides (we might pile on), many kids with cancer or who’ve lost a parent, or who are in foster care, would give up their cameras and Legos in a heartbeat for a chance at health and stability.  Indeed, when my nine-year-old daughter had moments of fatigue this summer while juggling her soccer ball to raise money for the kids at St. Jude Hospital, you can be sure I whipped out the “suck-it-up-because-you-don’t-have-cancer-message” one time too many.

Our intentions are good. We are doing our best to create grounded kids with a sense of appreciation and perspective. But here’s the problem: it can be all too easy to go overboard and raise kids whose cuts and scrapes never get acknowledged, because someone else lost a limb. We can create kids whose psyches resonate with the message of “things could always be worse,” and are never allowed to acknowledge any loss in their lives.  Their dad might be away on business trips five out of seven nights a week, but at least they have a dad.  Their mom might be starving herself to fit into her party jeans, but at least she makes their lunch every day, and it’s packed in a monogrammed lunch box. They may have lost their championship soccer game, but how lucky to be able to pay for the traveling team, to be healthy and have the experience of competitive soccer in the first place.

It’s a slippery slope, the perspective one, and I’m here today to give voice to the importance of having our little “owies” acknowledged, bandaged, and cared for. We all need to feel that we are heard, seen, and nurtured, no matter the big picture.  And while this strategy refers mostly to parenting, it also applies to how we treat ourselves. If we grow up being told over and over that things could always be worse, that we are so fortunate to have what we have and be who we are, we just might end up trying secretly and desperately to find a REAL reason to be taken seriously and cared for, with outcomes that are far from ideal.

The lifelong message is to keep in mind the importance of acknowledging and validating the pain and disappointment of our everyday losses while also understanding and appreciating the big picture and the positive aspects of our lives. This balance is as tricky as life balances get, but with all the self-help and parenting advice that gets thrown around these days, especially in circles of privilege, it is well worth remembering.

 

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Back to Basics: Taking Care of Your Psychological Self

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Serious athletes training for sport often seek the services and guidance of a variety of specialists. From massage therapists, to chiropractors, to running or gymnastics coaches, it often “takes a village” to keep athletes going strong in their sport of choice.  Perhaps you can relate: you may pay a specialty coach or follow certain blogs or consult with experts you hope will propel you to the next level of awesome.

In our pursuit of optimal performance, both in sport and in life, we often forget a critical factor affecting us in profound and complex ways: our psychological profile and functioning. While sport psychologists are increasingly included as part of an athlete’s team of advisors–a good thing–what I am referring to here is a different kind of attention given to caring for our psychological selves.

Many athletes at all levels–including the serious, elite, and everyday–fail to address the fundamental aspect of who they are.  Since our psychological functioning affects everything we do, it behooves us to take a good look at what’s going on inside and to take seriously the impact of our personalities and emotional standing in all areas of our lives.

We hear it all the time: train your weaknesses.  We are told to be sure to attack physical skills that challenge us most, so that we may be well rounded and efficient in our athletic endeavors.  But we sometimes ignore the biggest weakness of all—the one that affects us most profoundly, both on and off the field: our psyches, the foundation of who we are and how we function. Our psychological vulnerabilities are present in all we do–from our training and performance in sport, to our jobs, to our hobbies, to our relationships.

This week’s post is meant to serve as a reminder to explore your psychological self, possibly with the help of a psychologist. If you are struggling with any aspect of your life, do yourself a favor and address the foundation of all you do. Get back to basics. Deal with the forces that make you tick.  Like a smart coach who pushes you to rework the technique of your front squat, deadlift or pushup, a savvy therapist will help you address the most fundamental aspects of who you are.  You’re in this for the long haul, after all, and the sooner you do the work to create a stronger foundation, the more likely you are to achieve your desired goals, both in sport and in life.

Related reading from the archives:

https://psychologywod.com/2013/06/30/heads-up-your-latest-and-greatest-pursuit-just-might-be-a-decoy/

https://psychologywod.com/2013/07/21/mental-illness-mental-health-and-the-in-betweens-the-beginning-of-an-open-discussion-with-drew-canavero/

https://psychologywod.com/2014/01/17/life-in-the-in-between/

****PLEASE VISIT JUGGLING FOR JUDE to find out how you can support St. Jude Children’s Hospital via a 9-year-old’s soccer juggling skills! Every bit of money helps children with cancer receive cutting-edge treatment at an amazing place.  Thanks for your support!

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/

 

 

Be Like a Celebrity, and Make Someone’s Day.

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These days, with so much happening on social media and so many work and social connections being made instantaneously through the click of a mouse, networking has become increasingly relevant in our world. It’s long been true that having connections in a certain field was helpful to propel you forward and that knowing people “in high places” gave you an upper hand socially and with work aspirations. However, with the greater level of access we have to people via the internet nowadays, it seems that upper hand might be within reach to more of us.

I’ve always thought that one of the coolest parts about being a celebrity would be the ability to make a difference in the lives of others. Notwithstanding all of the challenges, complications, and hard work that comes with being a famous person in our culture, the upside to me seems to be an increased capacity for helping others. Celebrities can help fundraise for great causes, and they can visit sick kids and make wishes come true (if only they could heal them, too). I’ve reached out to some stars in the world of professional soccer these past couple of weeks, in order to help my daughter’s Juggling for Jude summer fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. So far, the response has been great, and each time I’ve gotten a retweet or a Facebook post promoting her fundraiser, I’ve felt the same way: it’s so great when people in a position like that of a pro athlete step up and help when asked to do so, even if by a total stranger like me.

I’m writing about this to encourage us all to keep in mind that we can ALL be helpful to someone. It doesn’t take celebrity status to make a difference. I’m not talking charity here—that’s a topic for another article. I’m talking about the kind of networking and support or encouragement we can all provide to someone who, relative to ourselves, could benefit from the position we’re in. Maybe you have a friend whose kid is interested in science, and you’re a science teacher. You might offer to bring that kid to work with you one day, to see what it’s like to be a science teacher. Maybe you run a chain of grocery stores, and you know of a young person trying to get her product into the market. Talk to her about the industry. Know a friend struggling with getting a publisher for his first novel? Hook him up with your college roommate, now a publisher, via Facebook. Drive by a lemonade stand on your way to work and have that moment of guilt that you don’t stop? Next time, stop. Throw in an extra dollar and be on your way.

From the smallest gestures at the lemonade stand to the biggest connections that land people in movies or the job of a lifetime, each of us can make a difference for someone. Make use of the skills, personal connections, and other resources at your beck and call, and you just might make someone’s day. Come to think of it, you might change the trajectory of their future so they become a celebrity one day; hopefully, they’ll remember those who helped them, and they’ll pay it forward with an even greater result.

Let it Flow: The Importance of Losing Yourself in a Pursuit.

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I tend to be someone who jumps with a vengeance into projects that interest me. Slightly obsessive by nature (thanks, Dad) and usually outcome oriented, I can bust out work with great intensity when something is important to me.  I’m currently focused on helping our younger daughter with an inspiring summer project called Juggling for Jude.  If you follow me on social media, you’ve probably seen my posts about it. The gist is that Hollis is juggling her soccer ball to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and in just over three weeks, she’s already raised more than $8,000!  No small feat for her small feet (sorry, I couldn’t resist)!

After spending a couple of hours yesterday blasting various social media channels and emailing influential people hoping to help Hollis take this effort to the next level, I realized how quickly time had passed and how unaware I was that I was doing “work.” It was more like my brain and body had been on autopilot; while productivity was great, conscious effort was minimal.

Last week I read a book called The Rise of Superman, which had been given to me by my friend, Steve Crane, whose story I’ve told before. Steve is an ultra runner who has extensive experience with various mindsets that allow him to do amazing things.  The Rise of Superman describes how extreme athletes, whose lives are risked in their pursuits and who accomplish physical feats that seem impossible, access a state of “Flow.”  Flow, a term originally coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is defined as a state of being marked by total focus and complete absorption leading to an emotional experience of joy, pleasure, and something approaching ecstasy.  Notably, during “flow,” there is a lack of self-consciousness and a lack of awareness of the passage of time.

While achieving a true state of “flow” might be a beneficial goal for the intense or elite athletes among us (a topic for another article), my focus here is how that same lack of self-consciousness and self analysis can also benefit us in our more mundane, less risky pursuits. We may not be scaling mountains, surfing killer waves, or competing at the highest level of sport, but our efforts are still important and meaningful.

When we are caught up in self-criticism, self-doubt, or simply a high degree of self-awareness, we may limit our capacity for productivity. By analyzing our every move (considering, for example, what our co-workers will think of us and our work), we are unlikely to think as freely or with as much focus as we could without these concerns. Similarly, if we consider how we move physically when others are watching us learn a new skill, versus how we might move when we feel confident and uninhibited, the analogy is powerful.

I’ve written before about the downside of conscious processing when it is utilized after it has served its purpose.  The idea, in a nutshell, is that when we are learning new physical skills, we learn best by engaging in a conscious and deliberate analytical process with each step of the movement.  However, once we have achieved a certain level of competency, we need to just let our body do its thing.

This week’s message is to apply this construct to all of our endeavors: In the midst of the deliberate and well-thought-out work we do, we should allow ourselves–at least occasionally—to lose track of time and of our self. This is not the same as getting lost in a great book or an exciting movie; I’m talking about losing yourself while simultaneously being productive in some important way. If you don’t have moments in your life where your passion for a project, work, or an endeavor of some kind takes you away from self-awareness, deliberate analysis, and the passage of time, it might be time to search for something that will.  It’s a powerful thing to experience what it’s like to be inspired–to immerse yourself so fully in something that only later do you realize how involved you’ve been and how much time has elapsed.  Trust in the process, enjoy the “work,” and the positive outcomes will follow, maybe even in ways that far exceed your expectations.

If you’d like to help Juggling for Jude raise money for St. Jude Hospital, please donate here.  Every bit helps!  Thank you!

Related reading from the archives:

https://psychologywod.com/2013/07/28/passion-find-it-live-it-just-dont-confuse-it-with-success/

https://psychologywod.com/2013/04/28/have-an-audience-how-do-you-handle-the-pressure/

 

The Next Generation of Philanthropy

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By Dr. Allison Belger

In lieu of an article this week, I’m instead highlighting a fabulous fundraising effort called JUGGLING FOR JUDE.   This summer, my 9-year-old daughter, Hollis, an avid soccer player, will be using her soccer juggling skills to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been touched by the St. Jude “commercials,” chronicling stories of children with cancer and how they and their families found solace and top-notch medical care at St. Jude.  I would make sure that my parents donated to St. Jude every year; somehow through their donation, I felt I was doing a little something to help those incredibly brave kids I saw on the television.

Now a mom of two girls, I can’t fathom the challenges faced by parents whose kids end up at St. Jude.  Helping my daughter take on this fundraising effort is, once again, my small way of doing what I can.  Encouraging our children to make use of their skills, talents, and other resources for the benefit of those less fortunate is a great parenting act.  It’s not always easy in our very busy and full lives, but the smallest efforts can sometimes make the biggest differences!

I hope you’ll join Hollis this summer via her JUGGLING FOR JUDE fundraiser.  Please spread the word on Facebook and by sharing the link to her blog, where she explains what she’s up to and where her St. Jude personal fundraising page can be accessed.

Thanks for your support!

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.