Reflections on 9/11 and Connection

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By Dr. Allison Belger

This has been one of those weeks for me: an unexpected and negative life intrusion for a close friend, the first week of school for my kids, a new gym in the final phases of construction, and my younger daughter’s birthday.  It’s been exhausting, stressful, and busy–new beginnings and excitement tempered by concern.

This has also been a week of reflection—not just for me, but for all of us.  Wednesday was September 11th, a day that for many will never come around without conjuring darkness and doubt—much like December 7, 1941, for past generations–a day that will live in infamy.  As I read posts on Facebook from people inviting us to remember and reaching out to those who lost loved ones, I got to thinking about how this kind of tragedy, with its shared suffering and loss, brings people together from all backgrounds and walks of life.  9/11 moved us in ways that cross divides—racial and ethnic, educational, economic and social.

As we are touched in our hearts and souls, we do not differentiate between victims who are black or white, rich or poor, bankers or janitors. True, the first responders hold a special place in our hearts with the magnitude of their sacrifice and loss of life trying to save others.  What we share as a nation is the collective experience of horror, sadness, shock, and mourning.  In the aftermath, we also share the simple desire to live in peace, with the conviction and psychological containment that we and our loved ones are safe and out of harm’s way.

There is nothing I can say about September 11th that hasn’t already been said.  My focus for today is about capturing something from that powerful, shared experience to connect us across the divides described above.  One of the most liberating aspects of growing up, in my mind, is the ability to understand those who are different from us, with increasing freedom from judgment and fear. Despite some great progress in our education system, which now attempts to enlighten our young people and teach them to embrace diversity, the bottom line is that we are a species prone to categorization, trying to define and fit into our own tribes.  Perhaps adolescence is the peak period for such “us” and “them” struggles.  The tumultuous years of adolescent emotional insecurity are marked by a need to identify and bond with a group as an insider, which is often accompanied by an aversion to those who are designated as outsiders.

Life after college seems to offer the space for a more open-minded existence.  With maturity and a more relaxed internal state, we are usually better able to accept and welcome differences; we may be less fearful of being judged and less likely to judge others.  Increasingly, there are powerful moments and experiences in our lives that drive us toward connections crossing categories of difference.  Connecting in these ways without the catalyst of a universal tragedy is the ideal.

Here’s where the sport and life part comes in:  As I sit waiting for my daughter’s soccer game to begin, I think about the psychological function of being part of a team and playing other teams, and how that interaction can bring together kids of diverse backgrounds—both as teammates and competitors.  As adults, we have fewer opportunities to participate in team sport, but there are possibilities.  The CrossFit movement is known for bringing people together from vastly different backgrounds. In my recent book, you can find an exploration of this and other forums of connection through group effort, exercise, movement, and sport.   There is a huge variety of affinity groups out there—including bikers and hikers, running communities, backpacking clubs and more—and each can offer connection and shared experiences that feed our souls along with our bodies.

Other opportunities abound, if we are open to them.  The goal is to find ways of tapping into our souls via sustained effort with others, harnessing a drive or desire that moves us on some meaningful level and allows us to experience a common ground we might not otherwise share.  We will be better people, a better species, if we can connect in the present–beyond 9/11 and other shared losses–and allow for the possibility of letting others, no matter our differences, enter our lives.  Is this all too contrived, sentimental or trite?  Could be.  But maybe not.   It’s a risk I’m willing to take this week.

Your Fear of Missing out Just Might be Causing you to Miss Out.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I spent this past week in Disneyland with my family.  We don’t vacation often, but when we do, I usually try to get in as many workouts as I can—not because I’m doing any serious training, but because I know I am a better person when I exercise, and I enjoy my vacation far more when I keep up with the endorphin production.   Despite my ongoing drive to move my body, there is typically a moment when I start my internal discussion about how necessary it really is for me to work out while away, and how nice it might be to rest completely.  The voices on both sides of the ‘argument’ always make great points.  This is a process I avoid completely when I’m in my routine at home; working out is pretty automatic for me, so the dialogue rarely kicks in except when I’m away.  I believe that people are either inherent exercisers or they’re not; some individuals have to force themselves to be consistent, and for others—like me—it’s almost like breathing and eating.

While negotiating with myself about one final hotel workout yesterday morning, I got to thinking about what makes people train when they are sick and not feeling up to it, or are not scheduled to do so.  I started thinking about people I know who are unable to hear about other people’s training and workouts without feeling the need to train themselves.  These are athletes who are compelled to match the personal bests of others, even on a day when they are supposed to be recovering.  These are individuals who read about workout sessions going on at their gym and must join in, despite a planned rest day, or a head cold, or an extremely busy schedule. These are athletes who can’t stand to hear about their team’s training session if they were unable to attend, so they cram in a workout at night to be sure they don’t get left behind.

Ever hear of FOMO?  It stands for Fear of Missing Out.  It’s a social phenomenon of sorts that has exploded with the proliferation of social media in our culture.  Fear of Missing Out is a type of anxiety that one experiences when not involved in some kind of social outing or event; it is the discomfort caused by not being part of an opportunity that we think others are enjoying.  With Facebook posts, Twitter Feeds, Instagram photos, and other streams of happy faces doing extra-fun and super-amazing things, onlookers have endless reasons to feel they are missing out. Much like my sense that people are either natural exercisers or not, my gut feeling about FOMO has always been that people are either wired to have lots of FOMO or not.   There are recent studies exploring some psychological correlates of FOMO, but I’m not going to delve into that research here.  I’m on vacation, after all!

I’ve often thought about the compelling pull to be a part of a social event; the wonder of unknown happenings with so much seductive power has puzzled me since middle school.  It seems that when we succumb to FOMO, we allow that fear of missing something to prevent our full engagement in what we are doing in the moment, making it unlikely that we will enjoy or benefit from our current activity. If our gut says that being at home with a good book is desirable, then why question this choice simply because we discover that someone else is partying?  If we have a family commitment that will allow us to connect with our loved ones, then why intrude on that gift simply because some friends are at a bar posting cute photos on our social media channels?   Maybe we are snuggled up with hot cocoa and that book because we are feeling stressed and know it’s time to take care of ourselves. Until, of course, we get a text from a friend saying she is getting together with a running group to do a favorite trail run.

Athletes hear it all the time now: rest and recovery are as important to your success in your sport and to your long-term health and wellness as is your training. But when training Fear Of Missing Out kicks in, many will question whether today should actually be a day of rest.  Athlete FOMO also seems to occur in the context of missing out on “THE” way to train or “THE” best coaching method, or “THE” best programming approach.  Individuals can be so busy searching for the latest fad in training that they compromise their focus in their current workouts and never get out of them what they had hoped to accomplish.  The dangers of FOMO may be especially prevalent for those engaged in the relatively new sport of CrossFit.  Despite the frenzy for finding just the right individualized program, training route or theoretical approach, CrossFit athletes who have had consistent success on the competitive playing field will tell you over and over that hard work, consistency, and full immersion in your training is key.  There is no magic ticket, and you’re not missing out on some secret path.

Indeed, there is no “Right Way” to train for any sport, and the bottom line is, and always will be, that full engagement in what you are doing is far more important than searching for the perfect training scheme as seen on Facebook or Instagram or even your favorite blog. Greater success might be attainable if only you could buckle down and focus, free from that wandering eye of FOMO that tricks you into thinking you’re missing out on something better.

My father, a physician whose specialty is infectious disease, talks about the FOMO he experienced as a young resident.  There was an allure about caring for a critically ill patient at three in the morning.  If you had finally gone home from the hospital but thought that this kind of excitement was happening without you, you could lie awake missing precious minutes of sleep, feeling that you’d missed out on The Big Case that night.

In the end, all kinds of FOMO can be self-defeating. As we engage our psychological and emotional resources in wondering what is so exceptional outside the doors of our domain (or with the typical “grass is always greener” syndrome), we ensure that we cannot possibly be fully present where we actually are.   We guarantee that we won’t take in completely the smell of our mom’s home-baked bread, or absorb our kids’ jokes, or respond to our best friend’s sadness, or take the time to reflect on our own thoughts and dreams.   Perhaps it’s time we rested assured that whatever is going on out there will still be there tomorrow.  And when tomorrow comes, bringing with it the opportunity to participate, let’s hope we do so without checking Twitter updates on our iPhone, yearning to be elsewhere.

**Related articles from the PsychologyWOD archives:

On Living in the Moment:  http://wp.me/p3fbdX-6H

On the Mental Toughness it Takes to Rest and Recover:  http://wp.me/p3fbdX-7u

To Everything There is a Season. Sync with your Own Calendar and be Awesome.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Labor Day Weekend is upon us.  This marks the time of year when kids go back to school and summer makes its exit, taking with it plans, hopes and dreams. Gone are the days of beach romances and summer novels, family reunions and vacation escapes.  Marshmallows, campfires, and the joy of leisurely evenings unfettered by homework –or work—recede into memory and longing as September looms large.  Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are inundated with photographs of cute kids, backpacks secured, heading back to school as proud parents watch.  Transition is in the air.

Even if you aren’t a kid and don’t have a kid at home, there’s something nostalgic and consuming about the back-to-school rhythm that seems to overtake our culture this time of year. Marking the end of a season that moves from light, frivolous pursuits into more weighty directions, September can affect us all in unexpected and subtle ways.

Transitions are part of development and growth.  Beginning with our movement from the womb to the outside world–likely the most aggressive and unrefined transition of all–we are repeatedly challenged to move from one mode of functioning into another, ready or not.  Each move shakes up our status quo and our sense of the world around us, and each requires a significant amount of cognitive and psychological restructuring. Preschool, with its freedom and emphasis on play, somehow turns into kindergarten with pre-academics and the rigidity of having to sit cross-legged on carpet squares.  Suddenly, it seems we are in middle school with hours of homework, tests and measures, and an after-school schedule that requires a spreadsheet and a small army to sustain.   College is another dimension: who is ever ready for all THAT when the time comes?

Of course there are plenty of upsides to transitions.  Typically, movement from one phase to the next marks a new level of independence and access to the world.  We become more able to do things on our own and more trusted for our capabilities. Becoming a teenager, for example, may mean that we have more homework, awkward physical changes and internal confusion, but it also means more freedom—attending unsupervised movies, using our own smart phone, choosing our clothes, getting a driver’s license.

Transitions in adulthood can be exciting, providing us with new opportunities such as a job promotion  or relocation, or becoming a parent.  There is significant promise with this new phase, even while one is fearful and unsure about navigating the next steps.   Becoming a homeowner, graduating from law school, starting a business—these are all transitions marked by progress and promise.  Still, each requires us to leave behind the comfort and familiarity of what went before.

Some transitions may be negative and inherently difficult.  Death of a loved one, loss of a job, end of a relationship—all are unwelcomed transitions that force us to reckon with our emotions as we try to find stability after the pain.  Anxiety and depression often accompany significant life changes, especially when these changes are imposed upon us.  We may call upon some primal blueprint from early childhood, drawing upon patterns from the past in dealing with adversity–with varying degrees of success.  Our strategies around transitions are affected by how successfully our caregivers helped us through pivotal transitions early on.  Being aware of these different strategies can be helpful; understanding our own patterns and their roots is often a first step toward recovery and progress.

While transition and new beginnings are in the air, you may find that you’re not ready to start over or make changes. Maybe you’re just getting used to a new apartment, new workout routine, or job you landed a month ago, and you’re rather annoyed that the world seems to expect a fresh start with summer ending.  Or maybe you’re courageously grieving a recent transition (divorce, job loss), and you know you’re not quite ready to jump into something new.  Our own timelines don’t always jive with the energy of the world around us, and it can be downright maddening when we are struggling to hold fast to a sense of stability and routine.   Give yourself permission to stick with your own timeline and resist the winds of change. Stay your course and ignore the frenzy.

On the other hand, if you are ready for change, scary as it might be, go with the September winds, hoist your sail and run with it.  Set some goals, create a plan, and be prepared to leave something behind as you move into a new way of being.  If you are training for a sport and you feel stagnant or unmotivated, do something about it.  Maybe you need to shake up an old routine or find a new group of training partners–or a new coach. Maybe it’s time to transition from being a competitor in your sport to someone who participates for health and fitness–and for the pure fun of it.   (see previous article on knowing when to take a break).  These times of transition can provide opportunities for self-reflection and taking stock, leading to forward movement and positive outcomes.  If you’re ready, go for it for real and with confidence.  Don’t let the promise of crisp new school supplies fade to notebooks with frayed edges without making something of the opportunity.  Time will fly, and the moment so filled potential might quickly become a thing of the past if you don’t commit fully.

Whether you’re ready for a change or settling in to a routine, be sure to enjoy these fleeting days of summer this holiday weekend!  Then, you can get down to the business of being awesome—either at your old routine or while creating a new one.

Enhance Yourself. Perform.

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*This post about gutsy performances is dedicated to my friend, business partner, and former teammate, Marcus Filly, for his incredible performance at the CrossFit NorCal Regionals competition this past weekend.  Marcus earned a coveted qualification spot for the Reebok CrossFit Games in July.  His victory is the result of intense focus, hard work, discipline, determination, and a huge dose of absolute talent.  Congratulations, Marcus, for having the guts to throw yourself so fully into this venture and for coming out on top!  

On Friday, our ten-year-old daughter kicked off the CrossFit NorCal Regional competition by singing the National Anthem at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.  This marked the sixth time she has sung the Anthem solo at a large sports event.  Earlier this week, she sang with her school chorus at PacBell Park to kick off the Giants’ game.  Next time, she hopes to solo there.

Performing takes guts.  Getting up in front of a group of people and singing or dancing or acting or playing tennis or doing CrossFit or showing your art takes guts.  It takes guts to pull together and wear an outfit to high school when it may not be exactly what the cool kids wear.  Writing a book or a poem or a song or an article that others will read or hear means you’re putting something of yourself out there for people to process and judge: gutsy.  I’ve always been especially impressed by performers, and I have come to recognize that “performing” takes many forms.  As I talk about performing here, I mean putting yourself out into the world for others to take in some way, via some form of personal expression.  It’s not easy to do, it involves vulnerability, and it invites other people to provide feedback, whether or not that feedback is desired.

Often when we take risks, as we do when we perform, we are brought far outside of our zones of comfort.  It is here where our heartbeat increases, our palms sweat, our thoughts race, our doubts creep in.  It is also here where our character is formed and meaningful memories are made.  It is when we put our talents, our training, our hard work, and our determined striving to the test that we give life to the parts of ourselves that would otherwise go unknown, to us and to others.  When we perform—when our personal expression meets an audience and we risk all that this entails—we shake up our hormones, challenge our internal status-quo, and endeavor to put forth the best of who we are.

Of course, performances don’t always go well, personal setbacks occur, and, in the worst of cases, public humiliation can happen.  In sport, we can train with abandon and have the best coaching in town, and we may still lack what it takes to do well at a certain level of competition.  Or, despite having what it takes, we may not be able to access it on a given day when it matters most.  We may sing like an angel and work with a premier voice coach, but our rendition of a song may fall flat with a given audience.  We can spend days, months, even years generating and writing ideas and proofreading till we’re cross-eyed, and still there will be people who find our work uninspiring.

Outcomes aside, we need to have the guts to try.  We need to find a way to continue to put in the effort and take the risks to develop our craft or our bodies or our minds in ways that might, in time, affect someone else in a positive way.  I was recently talking with a friend and fellow blogger about some nasty comments she had received in response to a recent post.  My perspective was then, and remains today, that it is far easier to criticize someone else’s written work—someone else’s performance—than it is to create anything of one’s own.  Courage and success is found in the producing.  There will always be critics; we must perform on.

The truth is that we are often our own harshest critics.  What we might think was a lackluster performance just might have thrilled plenty of others.  Often it’s the tenth-place athlete who inspires us the most, or the singer who sings with abandon and joy, if not pure perfection.  Risk-taking and gutsiness are generally acknowledged and appreciated.  When they’re not, perhaps it’s the audience’s miscue, rather than that of the performer.

The thing about singing the National Anthem at a sporting event is that it’s so rich with emotion—from the meaning of the song, itself, to the athletes preparing for their own moments–taking the chance to visualize, breathe deeply, reflect, and find faith.  That my kid has the confidence to sing in such a forum means to me that something has gone well for her.  Will she be a famous singer one day?  Never say never, but probability and percentages say the chances are slim.  Will she have nurtured within her from her years of performing a sense of confidence, agency, and esteem that she might not otherwise?  Absolutely.  How awesome is that?  Maybe just awesome enough that it inspires you to have the courage to step outside of your own comfort zone and put yourself—your training, your studies, your creativity, something about YOU—to the test.  Sign up for a competition or a 10k race.  Join a soccer team.  Write an article for a favorite website or newspaper.  Audition for a community play, bake something for a baking competition, sign up for your high-school debate team.  Do these things take guts?  Yes.  Find yours and have at it.  You’ll be a better, fuller version of yourself for having done so.

Coping with Injury: The Psychology of Being Sidelined

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I love to run.  Running offers me an adrenaline rush second to no other form of workout, and it maintains my cardiovascular fitness in ways other workouts don’t.  Yes, I’m a CrossFit athlete, and CrossFit workouts are what I do most often.  But, there are some days when a good run, even if a short one after my gym workout, is just what the doctor ordered.  I lace up my shoes, grab my headphones, step outside, and let the soul feeding begin.

A few weeks ago, I registered for a women’s soccer league and played in my first soccer game since college, over twenty years ago.  I’ve toyed with the idea of soccer re-entry over the past few years, but I’ve always held off, for fear of injury.  For a number of reasons, I decided that now was the time to give soccer a whirl.  During my first game, I had an absolute blast.  Thanks to my decent conditioning from years of CrossFit and relatively good retention of my soccer skills from days gone by (with plenty of touches on the ball over the years as a youth coach), I was a contributor on my team and had a blast.  With just a few minutes left in the game, I felt a sharp sensation in my hamstring as I accelerated towards the ball.  After a moment of panic, thinking I had strained or pulled it, I was able to happily continue playing for the rest of the game.  A few days later, I went out for a morning run and was absolutely unable to make my hamstring work for such purposes.  Today, more than eight weeks later, I’m still sidelined from the activity I love most.  Luckily, as a CrossFit coach and gym owner, I have plenty of other things I can do to maintain my fitness and my sanity, but I’m starting to get antsy, and grouchiness is likely on the horizon.

Injuries can be devastating to individuals who are consistently active and/or are training for an event or ongoing participation in a sport.  The physical repercussions are usually apparent, but the emotional and psychological sequelae are often less obvious.  Back in 2009 while working on my thoracic spine, Dr. Kelly Starrett of MobilityWOD and San Francisco CrossFit and author of Becoming a Supple Leopard discussed the importance of recognizing the psychosocial aspects of physical injury.  He and I chatted about how athletes can quickly experience a feeling of social disconnect when they are injured, especially when they are accustomed to being part of a community of athletes.  Ironically, the same community that provides so much belonging and connection when one is able to participate (e.g. a CrossFit gym or team), can also feel like a source of disconnect when one cannot.

Since starting PsychologyWOD, I’ve received a number of requests for an article about the psychology of injury.  As I reflected on my experience with athletes and immersed myself in the literature on injury and recovery, a few themes emerged, which I’ve highlighted below.  When athletes are injured, they experience a range of emotions that may seem extreme or idiosyncratic but are actually well within the normal range of responses.  Of course, there are many factors affecting the athlete’s injury experience, including severity of injury, extent of sport participation, and pre-injury personality, but it is not uncommon for people to experience some or all of the following:

Isolation:  Athletes often feel isolated and lonely when they are injured.  This is especially true if they had been part of a team prior to injury or if their pursuit involved training with a group of athletes from whom they may now feel disconnected.  (Ruddock-Hudson, O’Halloran, & Murphy, 2012; Peterson, 2009; Russell, 2008).  Along with this experience of isolation may come an unwanted feeling of envy of those who are healthy and able to continue participating in their sport or activity.  Envy is an uncomfortable emotion and is often accompanied by shame or guilt.  Injured athletes should know that envy may be part of their experience, especially when an injury is serious and long-term.

Anxiety:  Athletes may experience heightened levels of anxiety, both regarding their sense of identity and their capacity for healing and recovery.  Some studies even indicate symptoms of post-traumatic stress after an injury (O’Connor Sr., 2011; Brewer and Petitpas, 2005; Podlog and Eklund, 2007; Peterson, 2009; 1; O’Neill, 2008; Appaneal, Perna, & Larkin, 2007).   Athletes who fear re-injury may behave in ways that actually hinder their recovery and lead to re-injury, such as overdoing rehabilitation and recovery training, thereby taxing the injured parts in ways that are harmful instead of helpful  (Andersen, Mubaidin, Tibbert & Morris 2011).

Fear of Re-injury:  Injured athletes often have a heightened experience of vulnerability after an injury.  As they work towards re-entry into their sport or another activity, they may fear getting injured again.   This may hinder full recovery and the possibility of immersion into sport in the future (Stephan, Deroche, Brewer, Caudroit, and Le Scanff, 2009; Peterson, 2009; O’Neill, 2008; Russell, 2008; Andersen, Mubaidin, Tibbert, & Morris, 2011).

Depression:  When an individual’s primary source of enjoyment is removed via injury, it is not surprising that mood will be affected.  There is often a component of negative affect and depression associated with injury timeouts.  This can be especially true when the athlete’s identity and/or full-time career is at stake, such as for professional athletes and Olympians.  Should one’s depressive symptoms become severe, professional help via therapy and/or medication should be part of the athlete’s overall recovery plan (Appaneal, Levine, Perna, and Roh, 2009; Evans and Hardy, 1995; Peterson, 2009; Russell, 2008, Tracey, 2003).

Low Self-Esteem:  Related to one’s identity, self-esteem can suffer when one is injured.  If an athlete’s sense of him/herself is challenged, esteem can take a plunge, and feelings of worthlessness can emerge (Tracey, 2003; Wasley & Lox, 1998).  The more serious and committed one is an athlete, the more one’s sport is wrapped up in one’s identity, and the more likely self-worth will be diminished when that identity is challenged via injury.

Paradoxical Sense of Relief:  In some cases, when an athlete has been under a great deal of pressure and strain to perform in his/her sport, being forced to take a break because of an injury can bring an unexpected sense of relief and even joy, even if this is not conscious.  The relief may be a source of conflict for the athlete though, and he/she may not be able to simply enjoy it.  Rather, he/she may feel guilty for having such feelings and may try to hide them from others, especially coaches and teammates.  As one author puts it, an injury “may function as an ‘honorable discharge’ for [athletes] looking for an excuse to leave their sport” (Peterson, 2009, p. 230).

Given these potential repercussions of injury, as well as other possible emotional experiences related to injury, what are some ways of coping?  Below is a list of some helpful tips.  This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a start.

Social Support:  One theme that emerges with vigor in the research on the psychology of injury is the importance of social support during the rehabilitation phase.  This includes coaches and athletic trainers, but also refers to general social support systems (Yang, Corinne, Heiden, Foster, 2010; O’Neill, 2008; Podlog & Eklund, 2007; Dupcak, 2000; Belger, 2012; Green and Weinberg, 2001; Mainwaring, 1999).  The importance of social support for responding to stressful life events and for our overall health and wellness is discussed in great detail in my book.  There is no ambiguity here: social support and community connections absolutely benefit our physical and mental health and well-being (Belger, 2012).  It is critical that injured athletes maintain a social support crew that will help them get through difficult times.  Non-injured, active athletes can keep a list of go-to people who can serve this purpose, should an injury arise.  Unfortunately, for many athletes, their built-in support network may be too involved in their training or sport to be objectively helpful during the most trying of times (Peterson, 2009).

Specific Strategies:  A number of strategies have been shown to be helpful for athletes in the midst of injury. These include:

*Imagery: Visualizing one’s body healing and seeing oneself back on the playing field.

*Journaling: Writing down emotional content related to one’s injury.  Doing so with consistency and commitment can be a helpful way to manage the slew of emotions one experiences when injured.  It can also be a great resource for the athlete in the future, should another setback arise, as it can serve as a reminder of how he/she persevered through bleak times.

*Goal-Setting:  Much like with one’s regular training, setting and tracking goals when injured can be a beneficial strategy.  Goals should be reasonable and realistic and should include both long-term and short-term views, so progress can be monitored in an ongoing way.  Flexibility with goals and their attainment is especially important when injured, since rehab progress is often unpredictable.

Acknowledging Feelings and Reality:  Avoiding the reality of one’s feelings and situation isn’t a great coping style in general.  This is especially the case when athletes are injured; avoidant coping styles (ignoring feelings and trying to distract oneself from facing unwanted realities) have been found to be maladaptive and not beneficial when dealing with injury.  (O’Connor Sr., 2011; Gallagher and Gardner, 2007; Evans, Hardy, and Fleming, 2000).  Interestingly, but not surprisingly, those with limited coping resources are also the most susceptible to injury in the first place (Williams, 1996), making effective coping skills (those that acknowledge and deal with emotions and problems) important for both injury prevention and rehabilitation.

Counseling: In many cases, working with a psychologist can be helpful when one is injured and the emotional ramifications are significant.  Support from coaches is also critical, but there are times when a coach is too close to the situation and outside assistance is warranted and most likely to help.

Find a Way to Stay Connected to the Sport and/or Find an Alternative Outlet If you can manage to become a spectator, cheerleader, or coach for teammates or other athletes during your down time, this is sometimes a good way to remain involved.  However, it may be too emotionally painful if you are seriously injured.  It is also important to engage in other activities and be social with non-athletes.  At the risk of redundancy, social connection is critical when an athlete is sidelined.  Recovery periods may be a good time to pursue alternative endeavors and take advantage of some down time that can be hard to come by when training is in full force.

One final note about preventing injury in the first place:

In addition to physical issues related to keeping oneself well as an athlete, it is critical to remember that emotional and psychological well-being is also protective against physical injury.  Significant life stressors can predispose athletes and make them vulnerable to injury, especially when their coping mechanisms are less than optimal.  In one study along these lines, Kerr and Minden (1988) reported that stressful life events were related to both number and severity of injury within a sample of 41 elite female gymnasts.  This is a good reminder for athletes to be especially attuned to their bodies and their recovery during times of stress outside of their training.  If your emotional regulation or psychological coping is taxed or challenged outside of the gym, your body will be more susceptible inside the gym.  Ignoring stress and its potential physical consequences is a risky proposition.  Don’t do it!

Stay tuned for a future article on the psychology of sticking with a rehab plan!  

References:

Appaneal, R.N., Levine, B.R. Perna, F,N., & Roh, J.  (2009). Measuring postinjury depression among male and female competitive athletes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31:1, 60-76.

Appaneal, R.N., Perna, F.M., & Larkin, K.T. (2007).  Psychophysiological response to severe sport injury among competitive male athletes: A preliminary investigation.  Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology: 1:1, 68-88.

Andersen, M.B.,  Mubaidin, Q.H., Tibbert, S., & Morris, T. (2011). Injury recovery research issues: questions about anxiety, imagery, and mental toughness in rehabilitation.  12th European Congress of Sport Psychology.

Belger, A. (2012).  The Power of Community: CrossFit and the Force of Human Connection. Victory Belt Publishing: California.  Returning to Self: The Anxieties of Coming Back After Injury.  In Andersen, Mark B. (Ed), (2005). Sport psychology in practice, pp. 93-108. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL, US.

Dupcak, S.S. (2000). After the fall: The development of a coaches’ manual identifying the psychological issues facing injured athletes. Dissertation Abstracts International. Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 2754.

Evans, L., & Hardy, L. (1995).  Sport injury and grief responses: A review.  Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 17:3, 227-245.

Evans, L., Hardy, L., & Fleming, S. (2000).  Intervention strategies with injured athletes: An action research study.  The Sport Psychologist, 14:2, 188-206.

Gallagher,  B.V., & Gardner, F.L. (2007). An examination of the relationship between early maladaptive schemas, coping, and emotional response to athletic injury.  Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 1:1, 47-67.

Green, S.L., & Weinberg, R.S. (2001).  Relationships among athletic identity, coping skills, social support, and the psychological impact of injury in recreational participants.   Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13:1.

Kerr, G., & Minden, H. (1988).  Psychological factors related to the occurrence of athletic injuries.  Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 10:2, 167-173.

Mainwaring, L. (1999). Restoration of self: A model for the psychological response of athletes to severe knee injuries.  Canadian Journal of Rehabilitation,  12:3, 145-154.

O’Connor Sr., J.W. (2011).  Emotional trauma in athletic injury and the relationship among coping skills, injury severity, and post traumatic stress. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, Vol 71(10-B).

O’Neill (2008).   Injury contagion in Alpine ski racing: The effect of injury on teammates’ performance.  Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, Vol 2:3.

Peterson, K. (2009).  Overtraining, burnout, injury, and retirement. In Hays, Kate F. (Ed), (2009). Performance psychology in action: A casebook for working with athletes, performing artists, business leaders, and professionals in high-risk occupations, 225-243. American Psychological Association: Washington, DC, US.

Podlog, L. & Eklund, R.C. (2007). The psychosocial aspects of a return to sport following serious injury: A review of the literature from a self-determination perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8:4, 535-566.

Ruddock-Hudson, M., O’Halloran, P.,, & Murphy, G. (2012).  Exploring psychological reactions to injury in the Australian Football League (AFL).  Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24:4), 375-390.

Russell, P. (2008).  The psychological impact of sports injury.  Fitpro Network web article. 

Stephan, Y., Deroche, T., Brewer, B.W.,  Caudroit, J., & Le Scanff, C. (2009). Predictors of perceived susceptibility to sport-related injury among competitive runners: The role of previous experience, neuroticism, and passion for running.  Applied Psychology: An International Review, 58:4, 672-687.

Tracey, J. (2003). The emotional response to the injury and rehabilitation process.  Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15:4, 279-293.

Wasley, D. & Lox, C.L. (1998).  Self-esteem and coping responses of athletes with acute versus chronic injuries. Perceptual and Motor Skills,  86:3-2, 1402.

Williams, J.M. (1996).  Stress, coping resources, and injury risk.  International Journal of Stress Management, 3:4, 209-221.

Yang, J, Peek-Asa, Lowe, J/B. C., Heiden, E. Foster, D. (2010). Social patterns of collegiate athletes before and after injury.  Journal of Athletic Training, 45:4, 372-379.

The Importance of Being More than Just a CrossFit Athlete or Climber or Triathlete: Don’t Bore Your Friends and Family

momandgirlshugBy Dr. Allison Belger

Pure Joy: 2008 visit from Grandma. Happy Mother’s Day to my wonderful Mom, who taught me, among other things, how to write. 

Since I’m posting this article on Mother’s Day, here’s the tie-in:

1.  As a gift to your Mom, don’t bore her today with talk of your latest PR, unless of course she wants to talk to you about hers.

2.  If you’re a parent, yourself, thank your Mom for being one of maybe three other people in the world who truly care about the tiniest details of your kids’ lives.  Save those details for your Mom and spare your friends.

When I ask people at our gyms to name some of the challenges of being a CrossFit athlete, nine times out of ten a common theme surfaces: how to manage when a partner or good friend doesn’t also do CrossFit, and, therefore, doesn’t relate to one’s passion, commitment, and focus.  CrossFit involves some unique elements that make it especially seductive and potential all-consuming, but it is not necessarily different from any other pursuit in which a person might be fully engaged.  Some of the factors of CrossFit that make it attract one’s full-time interest include regular attendance at the gym, changes in lifestyle choices (bed times, diet, alcohol intake), and a new-found interest in aspects of exercise previously irrelevant to one’s life (think 42-year-old mom of three with no formal sports background suddenly tracking her clean-and-jerk PR’s).  All of these factors can have a profound effect on a person, to whom those closest can’t help but notice.  If your drinking buddy stops going to bars, your relationship is bound to change.  If your best girlfriend stops going to your Pilates classes with you and starts going to pilates in Atlanta instead and starts talking about a movement called a snatch, you might get bored, and your friendship might change.  If your Italian wife no longer cooks your favorite pasta for you and your kids, you might be annoyed.  Now throw into that mix the fact that the friend/wife/partner/buddy also talks incessantly about a whole new group of people who shares his/her interest interests and choices, while you hang on the sidelines, unable to relate to this new and awesome “community.”  It’s easy to see how an unshared passion about, and commitment to, something like CrossFit could slowly but surely create a divide in a relationship, despite everyone’s best intentions.

As I mentioned, CrossFit is not alone in its capacity to absorb a participant’s attention.  Talk to triathletes—especially Ironmen and Ironwomen–about the effects of their training and focus on their close relationships with people who don’t also train.  How about someone who takes on a new position as CEO of a large company and starts traveling for business, necessarily becoming immersed in the company culture and the industry at large?  Might that impact his/her availability for status-quo relating?  How about the ultimate transformation when people go from being non-parents to parents?  Perhaps nothing changes one’s lifestyle, availability for chill time, or capacity to talk about anything remotely interesting to a non-parent more than having a baby.  What, then, happens to friendships with non-parents?  How often do they survive when one party crosses over to the dark side of parental preoccupation?

Life is filled with transitions.  High school ends and friends disperse to colleges.  College ends and friends scatter the country–even the globe–in pursuit of career dreams, graduate school, or to benefit a long-term relationship.  Post-college life often involves the burgeoning of new interests and exploration of various activities, some of which require a great deal of focus and investment of personal resources.  Friendships don’t always weather the storms of change.

When an interest like CrossFit enters the mix and becomes all-consuming, the athlete’s ability to remain available to friends, partners, and even co-workers is often tested.  It seems it is all too easy for the one involved to blame any rift that follows on the other person’s inability to relate to a new-found passion.  I don’t think this is fair or helpful most of the time.  The truth is that a bit of self-reflection might make one realize that one’s involvement with CrossFit or other endeavor is all-consuming and has, in fact, become a barrier of entry to the old version of oneself.  This may be insurmountable to friends and family who were there before.

We all run the risk of becoming absorbed in our current pursuits and friendships, and it behooves us to check in with ourselves to make sure we aren’t so consumed by our passion for what we are doing that we can no longer effectively relate to those who don’t share it.  We are all multifaceted individuals—some more dynamic than others, no doubt, but we can make the most of all aspects of ourselves if we keep all dimensions in check and don’t give our entire beings solely to one pursuit.  Finding the delicate balance between commitment to, and immersion in, a sport or job or other activity on the one hand, and balance and availability for other interests and people on the other hand, is often hard fought.  But it’s well worth the effort.  I can assure you that people who don’t do CrossFit have as little interest in your daily updates about your snatch PR or your muscle-up technique as you might have in the latest developments in crampon gear that enthrall your mountaineer friend.  And that’s exactly how it should be.  If you can’t talk about anything other than one activity, don’t blame your friends’ lack of interest on their inability to relate to your passion.  One person’s passion is another’s source of boredom.  Sensitivity to that is critical if you’re going to be an effective member of any community or relationship for that matter.  If you do CrossFit and only have friends who do CrossFit, or you’re a climber who can only have a conversation with other climbers, or you’re a Vegan and your Vegan lifestyle is simply all there is to talk about, it’s probably time to diversify a bit.

On the flip side, there is also the reality that some people have a hard time supporting friends or partners in pursuits that are new and involve changes.  This phenomenon is multi-determined.  Of course, there is commonly a bit of jealousy that a friend or partner has found something new, exciting, and transformational.  There can also be a simple feeling of being left out or left behind.  Then there are some more complex forces at work.  For example, I often hear of friends mocking more restrictive nutrition choices or calling their friends “boring” or “uptight” because they now choose to avoid alcohol.  It is often the case that when a friend or partner chooses a path of discipline and refined lifestyle choices, the one left behind condescends, as a way of making himself/herself feel better about his/her own choices.  It seems that eating pie in front of someone who no longer eats wheat and sugar might make the pie eater feel inferior or less disciplined, consciously or not.  Having a few drinks with a buddy who no longer imbibes might make the drinker feel self-conscious in ways he/she might not otherwise.  It may inadvertently force the drinker to reckon with his/her own need/desire to drink.  Judgments about a friend or family member’s chosen restrictions may actually be an attempt to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings of self-doubt about one’s own choices—a way of ejecting the feeling that one might be somehow inferior for not choosing to follow the same dietary restrictions or wellness lifestyle choices.

So how can you handle friends and family members who don’t support your choices or question your new behaviors?  With sensitivity, grace, and tact.  Simple and periodic acknowledgments that the changes you have made via your pursuit, be it CrossFit or something else, can do wonders for relationship stability.  Recognizing that you have changed your behaviors but not necessarily who you are can be a helpful reminder to others that your relationship with them can continue.  Careful attention to how frequently you talk about CrossFit or climbing or your new job can stave off the shut-down mechanism in friends who don’t share your experiences.  Being careful to ask about their lives and to maintain a genuine interest in continuing to spend time with them is critical to ongoing relationships.  If you really care about someone, you will respect their indifference to the minutiae of your sport, and you will take care to address their interests with as much zeal as you do your own training.

Of course the cold, harsh reality is that some relationships won’t stand the test of ebbs and flows, especially when one party becomes fully immersed in an interest or pursuit.  This is part of life, but it’s a good idea to be darn sure that something you’re doing in the moment, even if you plan for it to be a long-term endeavor, doesn’t end up losing you more than you’re gaining, as far as relationships go.  As always, introspection and thoughtful attention is critical along these lines.  So, enjoy yourself and revel in your dedication to training or to a job or a certain way of eating.  Just don’t lose hold on other aspects of yourself; surely others will follow suit if you do!

Time for a Break?

hollissoccerforarticle

Our eight-year-old came home from school yesterday with tears in her eyes.  She told me she was tired, had too many activities, and wanted to quit something.  She mentioned that I wouldn’t be happy about it.  She said she wanted to quit soccer.  I immediately knew what the problem was: her best buddy at school has Mondays free, and soccer practices will  begin next week, on Mondays.

This will be our little one’s first year playing select/competitive soccer.  Spring session has two practices each week, which adds a load to her already busy schedule.  But the kid loves soccer.  She worked hard to prepare for her first-ever tryouts, and she has been totally jazzed about the upcoming practices.  Still, she is eight, and she wants to play with her buddy.

Kids are notoriously short-term thinkers.  They are all about immediate gratification and have a harder time than we adults at delaying gratification for a later date.  When faced with a desire for something tangible and immediate, like a play date with a best friend, kids struggle to see the forest for the trees.  Rational, logical thinking can easily become a thing of the past or the future when the possibility of a play date is on the line.  As a parent of two, I’ve gotten used to this scenario, but the challenge of getting a very determined eight-year-old to become more flexible in this regard remains a daunting one.

Did I tell my daughter that she could quit competitive soccer before she even started, so that she could enjoy her play dates on Mondays?  Of course not.  Did I explain to her that some day she will appreciate my parenting and will probably be stunned that she had ever even considered quitting?  Yes.  Did she come to her own senses within hours?  Thankfully this time, yes–another indication of how much she loves soccer.  Phew.

This whole interaction got me thinking about how we know for sure when it’s time to quit something.  How do we know when something we’ve enjoyed in the past, something to which we’ve devoted hours of our time and boatloads of our resources, is no longer a positive presence in our lives?  Maybe it’s not a matter of quitting forever, but it’s an issue of taking a break, taking time to reflect, and having enough information to make an informed decision.

Training and sport are easy examples of such a struggle.  Just today a new acquaintance told me that he had stopped running ultra-marathons when his kids were born.  As I wrote in the Acknowledgements section of my book, “Kids are a great barometer of what is worthwhile in life.”  When you are given precious little time to expand your life outside of raising human beings, you choose wisely–very wisely.  And what you do with that time darn well better not detract from your ability to parent well.  Mostly, at least for some time, the choices aren’t yours to make.  There is the reality that the sleep-deprivation and other lifestyle issues that come with newborns is far from conducive to efficient and injury-free training.  The decisions become pretty obvious pretty quickly.  Serious injuries, much like having babies, also tend to cut short our training goals and athletic endeavors.  When a physical injury prevents participation at a sustainable level, the question about whether or not it’s time to quit becomes easily answered.

But what about scenarios that are not so clear cut?  What about the grey areas when sport and training have become such a part of one’s life that it’s hard to imagine going forward without it, but at the same time participation has more and more downsides?  How does one decide when it’s time for a break or time to call it quits for good?  The implications for life outside of sport are easily conjured.  How do we assess when it might be time to step away from the job we’ve had for years?  How do imagine the possibility that a long-term romantic relationship might have run its course?

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.  Maybe we stay in a relationship for fear of being alone.  The same can be true of training for triathlons: are we afraid that we will feel aimless and have no structure if we were to stop?  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.

By no means am I suggesting that there always comes a time when it’s time to quit a sport or a training pursuit.  I am simply suggesting that you take time to reflect with honesty and courage on how this pursuit is working out for you.  Are you generally inspired and jazzed by your training, or are there more days than not when you feel drained, tired, defeated?  Motivation level is a critical indicator, not only of how well you are likely to do at a sport, but also of how positive the effects of your involvement are.  If you are feeling unmotivated, it can be a sign that your emotional, psychological, and physical needs are not being met by participation in your sport, and it can also be a result of excessive stress and not enough success to feed your system.  (see reference below:  James Loehr’s book on Toughness Training has a nice section on low motivation).  How about social indicators? Are your social connections being maintained in healthy ways, or are you finding that you are throwing yourself so heavily into your training that relationships outside of it have dwindled?  Physical signs are equally important.  Is your body responding in ways that show improvement, or are you constantly fighting injuries or pretending you don’t have pain when you walk?

This kind of self-reflection is critical for ongoing happiness, development, and health.  Of course there are some commitments that are non-negotiable.  Parenting is one of them.  You can’t decide a few years in that it’s just not working out for you because the effort outweighs the upsides.  But most of us give a lot of ourselves to some other endeavor, and I’m arguing that it’s worth assessing the results of this at any given time.  Given that we only go around once, figuring out when it might be time to step away from something—maybe forever and maybe just for a while—is probably a really smart thing to do.  Leaving something behind makes room for something new, which is awesome.  But let’s not jump right into that.  There is much to be learned from allowing ourselves the gift of time, space, and the capacity for more.  The next great thing will find its way in, and it just might be the very thing you had to leave behind in order to figure that out.

Reference:

Loehr, James E. (1994).  The New Toughness Training for Sports. Plume: New York, NY.

Have an Audience? How Do You Handle the Pressure?

jessgames

I can remember back in high school, amidst the burgeoning of adolescent self-consciousness, being on the soccer field with my teammates while spectators cheered us on.  For the most part, this was a plain-and-simple experience of taking pleasure in being an athlete and appreciating the support of friends and family, as my teammates and I applied our training and talents during games against high-school rivals.  But on some days, during occasional moments, there was an awareness of another kind—of whether the boys watching thought I was cute, of whether the girls who played other sports appreciated our efforts, of whether my coach was pleased with my progress.  Luckily, I wasn’t overly self-conscious, so this kind of thinking rarely intruded on my performance.  But for some, self-consciousness or even certain types of social anxiety can absolutely contribute to a decline in athletic performance.  As athletes, it’s important to consider how our psyches affect our physical skills, especially with regard to anxiety.  So, here goes a little analysis on a certain type of social anxiety that has been shown to hinder performance.

In the psychology literature on anxiety, there is a concept called Fear of Negative Evaluation (FNE).  Watson and Friend (1969) first defined FNE as “apprehension about others’ evaluations, distress over their negative evaluations, and the expectation that others would evaluate oneself negatively (p.449).”  Basically, people with high degrees of FNE (which can be assessed by the FNE Scale created by Watson and Friend) are overly concerned with how they are being judged or perceived by other people.  They tend to imagine that they are being perceived in negative ways, and they are often inhibited in their behaviors as a result.  FNE can be related to a more global social anxiety (Schlenker, 1980), and it can lead people to avoid situations in which they might be evaluated.  While most of us have some degree of awareness of how we are received by others as social beings, those who are high in FNE have a heightened level of anxiety that they are, or will be, evaluated in negative ways–an anxiety which affects their behaviors and choices.

People with social anxiety tend to have more negative ratings of their own affect and bodily symptoms than those without social anxiety (Edelmann & Baker, 2002).  In an interesting study of performance anxiety while singing (Chen & Drummond, 2008), high-FNE subjects who were forced to make eye contact with evaluators before and/or during their performance later reported more bodily symptoms consistent with anxiety (e.g., sweating, cardiac measures), even though they did not actually exhibit any more of those symptoms than did their low-FNE counterparts.  It was their FEAR of showing signs of anxiety that made them experience changes in their bodies that were actually not happening.  This finding seems very relevant to performance anxiety in sports, which often leads to decreases in performance.  If you have a high FNE or are otherwise socially anxious, you are likely to experience heightened levels of anxiety in somatic ways, even when your body is not actually affected.  For example, you may feel more winded or more fatigued or experience your muscles failing you, even when you, and they, are not.  Your cognitive assessment of these phantom bodily symptoms might make you give up early—perhaps you will fail a lift, miss a putt, botch a free-throw.

Self-presentation models of “choking” under pressure to perform are also discussed in the literature (Schlenker, 1980; Mesagno, Harvey, Janelle, 2012).  Self-presentation refers to behaviors and actions chosen to present a certain image of oneself to other people.  As Mesagno et al (2012) discuss, concerns around self-presentation likely affect competitive athletes’ susceptibility to choking.  Indeed, qualitative work has demonstrated a link between desires to present a positive self-image, and choking in competitions (Gucciardi, Lombardi, Jackson, & Dimmock, 2010; Hill, Hanton, Matthews, & Flemming, 2010).  In one study, Mesagno (2009) took fourteen athletes known to be susceptible to choking and asked them about their experiences involving low and high-pressure performance scenarios.  As summarized by Mesagno et al (2012), “analysis of participants’ interviews suggested a link between perceived self-presentation concerns and choking, which might be explained through public self-consciousness (i.e., tendency to focus on outwardly observable aspects of the self such as physical appearance or performance) and fear of negative evaluation (FNE)” (p. 61).

There is plenty more evidence that people high in FNE appear to be more susceptible to performance anxiety in sport than those who are low in FNE.   For example, in a research study examining choking under pressure in experienced basketball players, high-FNE subjects had a significant increase in anxiety and a significant decrease in performance when pressure to perform was induced (Mesagno et al 2012).  In a slightly different vein, a study in England explored how students respond to physical education classes.  Elementary and secondary school students were asked to rate their own athletic competence immediately after physical education classes.  The study found that girls had higher FNE than boys, as well as lower perceptions of their own athletic competence.  High-school-aged girls had the highest FNE levels and lowest perceived competence of all groups (Hartmann,  Zahner, Pühse, Schneider, Puder, Kriemler, 2010).  These results suggest that when we are anxious about how others will judge or evaluate us (high FNE), we are more likely to underestimate our skills and competencies, and, therefore, more likely to stay away from activities in which they will be judged.  Or, perhaps, we may engage in these activities but with only part of ourselves being actually committed to the task; the other parts are too busy worrying about how we will be perceived.

Fear of negative evaluation also intersects with perfectionism, which can be the result of an over-investment in others’ evaluations of oneself. People  with high degrees of perfectionism often lack self-confidence and worry that perfect performance is the only way to please others.  This can lead to an avoidance of activities in which someone is not perfectly competent or confident. (Frost, Glossner, & Maxner, 2010).

The point of this post is not simply to expose or detail the pathology of an intriguing aspect of social anxiety.  Rather, my idea is to make use of examples in the literature to raise awareness of some of the anxieties that might impact not only an athlete’s performance, but also his/her desire to engage in training or practice at all.   While most of us don’t suffer from severe social anxiety or high FNE, we all experience moments of fear or questioning related to how we are being judged, especially when learning new skills.  In the physical realm, when these skills are outside our zones of comfort, we are more likely to feel self-conscious and less likely to allow our bodies to do their things, unfettered.

My own experience with Olympic-style weightlifting has been a great learning process for me along these lines.  It is by far the most I have struggled with something physical in my life and has involved the times when I have felt the least capable or coordinated.  Until recently, when I lifted, I would fight not only the barbell, but also my mind telling me ten ways from Sunday what I was doing wrong.  When I had an audience, even of just one person, the ante was upped, and my chances of training effectively or performing well were quite slim.  Thankfully, I’ve gotten over my fears to a large extent (admittedly helped along by a lack of competitive ambitions for the moment).  My run-in with the barbell in my early forties has been a powerful learning experience as far as the mind-body relationship goes, and I have learned much about how self-doubts can dictate physical outcomes.

So, next time you’re out doing something physical—really doing anything–and have an audience, be aware of how focused you are on what they are thinking of your performance.  Don’t try this during a competition or important training session, of course!  First try it out during a session when the stakes aren’t high, but there are people around.  How worried are you about what they will think?  How tense does your body feel, and how hindered might your movements be?  What is it that worries you about their evaluations?  It can even be helpful to take notes in a journal after your training session or performance, allowing you reflect on the results of your anxiety and how your performance was affected.  While I don’t have a list of answers for how to make you stop caring about what others think, I do know that we would all benefit from this kind of internal analysis and reflection on what it is that concerns us so much about having an audience.

Of course the implications for life off the courts are plentiful here.  When we are ridden with social anxiety or simply with worries of how others will perceive us, we often restrict ourselves in ways that fulfill our own fear-driven prophecies–at work, in relationships, wherever.  Too much fear of how others are judging us can wreak havoc on our senses of ourselves and our abilities to maximize our talents and optimize our learning potential. Self awareness and an understanding of who we are in relation to others is, of course, critical to optimal functioning.  However, there is a tipping point at which our ability to shine will be totally outweighed by our fears.  Make sure you’re not reaching that point, and if you are, it may be time to do some serious work.  Just think how awesome you might actually be!

REFERENCES

Chen, V., & Drummond, P. D. (2008).  Fear of negative evaluation augments negative affect and somatic symptoms in social-evaluative situations. Cognition and Emotion: 22(1), 21-43.

Collins, K.A., Westra, H.A., Dozois, D.J.A., Stewart, S. H. (2005). The validity of the brief version of the Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale.  Journal of anxiety disorders: 19: 345-359.

Edelmann, R. J., & Baker, S. R. (2002). Self-reported and actual physiological responses in social phobia. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 41, 1-14.

Frost, R. O.; Glossner, & K.; Maxner, S. (2010).  Social anxiety disorder and its relationship to perfectionism.  In Social anxiety: Clinical, developmental, and social perspectives (2nd ed.), Hofmann, S. G. (Ed) &  DiBartolo, P. M., Eds. (pp. 119-145). San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press.

Gucciardi, D.F., Longbottom, J., Jackson, B., & Dimmock, J.A. (2010).  Experienced golfers’ perspectives on choking under pressure.  Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 32, 61-83.

Hartmann,  T., Zahner, L., Pühse, Us., Schneider, S., Puder, J.J., Kriemler, S. (2010). Physical activity, bodyweight, health and fear of negative evaluation in primary school children.  Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 20(1), 27-34.

Hill, D.M., Hanton, S., Matthews, N., & Fleming, S. (2010).  A qualitative exploration of choking in elite golf.  Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4, 221-240.

Mesagno, C., Marchant, D., & Morris, T. (2009).  Alleviation choking: the sounds of distraction.  Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21, 131-147.

Mesagno, C., Harvey, J.T. & Janelle, C.M. (2012).  Choking under pressure: The role of fear of negative evaluation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise: 13(1), 60-68.

Ridgers, Nicola D.; Fazey, Delia M. A.; Fairclough, Stuart J (2007). Perceptions of athletic competence and fear of negative evaluation during physical education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 77(2), 339-349.

Schlenker, B (1980). Impression Management: The Self-concept, Social Identity, and Interpersonal Relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Watson, D. and Friend, R.  (1969). Measurement of social-evaluative Anxiety. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 33 (4): 448–57.

What’s YOUR Story?

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One of my favorite parts of completing my Doctorate in Psychology was having the opportunity to do intakes of incoming clients in various settings.  Hearing people’s stories offered a fascinating glimpse into the human experience and afforded me a series of small windows into the events and relationships that form personalities and psychological functioning.  What has always fascinated me about people and initially lead me to pursue doctoral training is the same thing that I appreciate most about people now: We all have a story to tell.

It’s funny sometimes how little we know about each other.  We can spend hours with people at the gym, in our jobs, as parents at school functions and still know next-to-nothing substantive about each other’s backgrounds and histories.

What’s YOUR story?  If you were going to an intake meeting where someone asked you to talk about yourself and the events and relationships that have formed who you are today, what you would you say?  What have been the turning points in your life?  Which relationships have mattered most in the formation of how you relate to those closest to you now?  What successes and failures have created your current outlook about the possibilities for your future?

Intentionally thinking about our own stories from time to time can help us get a grip on why we think, react, and behave in the habitual ways we do.  Moments of focused self-reflection about where we came from and how we got here can help us question our relationship patterns and challenge our notions of our future.  Ultimately, the goal is to allow for growth and development, both of which imply change.

Ever had a moment with someone you’ve known for a long time where you find out a significant bit of information about that person (maybe that her mother died suddenly when your friend was just five), and you suddenly have an entirely new appreciation for your friend’s personality quirks?  Ever wonder why your boss is so darn cynical sometimes, only to find out that he spent his teen years in foster care with an alcoholic parent?  Perhaps your responses to these people change when you know more about their story.

So what’s YOUR story, and how has it formed who you are?  We often have Baby Books, with moments in time documented by others.  Somewhere along the way, the stories told about us tend to become us.  What are the pivotal moments and formative relationship patterns that make you tick now?  Do you let your history dictate your actions now?  Have you ever thought about how you can control the effects of early experiences and make changes so you can be unencumbered by them?

Consider this the next time you’re training and struggling to complete a workout or gain mastery of a skill.  What thoughts go through your head, and how do those relate to “your story?”  How can you make a deliberate shift in the thought patterns that arise now that you have become more aware of how your past affects you?  Let me give you an example:

You are shooting for a one-rep-max lift or you are practicing your tennis serve.  After a number of failures, you begin to get frustrated.  Because you are trying to be more focused on your thought processes, you realize that you’re thinking about how your older sister could probably do this better than you can.  After all, she was always so much better at learning new sports–your dad loved to joke about that at family gatherings.  Instead of allowing this line of thinking to unravel in your mind, how about stopping it dead in its tracks?  As soon as your sister pops into your mind, remind yourself immediately of a major success in your life, preferably one you’ve had to work hard to achieve.  Eventually, with enough practice, you can just say the word “success” out loud and that will be enough to derail your thought process.  Or you might remind yourself how your childhood experiences with your sister actually have nothing to do with your success on the court or in the gym today (ultimately having a catch phrase/mantra like “be your own person” should suffice to counter the old thoughts).

Of course, the effects of such awareness and thought restructuring won’t be immediate.  People often seek ongoing therapy for these purposes; change takes time.  But we’re in this for the long haul, so we might as well start today.  There’s plenty you can do on your own.  Acknowledge your past, consider its effects on your present, and learn to take control of the moments when your story takes over, but you realize you’re not the author.  Your revised draft just might take, and it could include a more awesome version of the you somebody else wrote about.

Brief Thoughts on the Boston Marathon

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I had the pleasure of running the Boston Marathon in April, 1996, the 100th Anniversary year of the event.  I was 25 years old and can remember being totally inspired by the support from the crowd lining the streets, much like I had been when running in other cities.  But the spectacle of the 100th running in Boston made it that much more alive and exciting, and I felt fortunate to be a part of it, running high on positive fumes for much of the race.

Today’s tragedy at the finish line in Boston is a striking blow, as all terrorist attacks are, to our sense of safety, innocence, and wonder.  What strikes me most about this one is the juxtaposition of the triumph of the human spirit and capacity—runners pushing themselves beyond limits while spectators and volunteers attend to various needs—with the depths of the human condition—the absolute worst of what human beings can inflict.

Like so many others, my thoughts and prayers are with the families who are suffering right now.  Just this morning I was talking with some friends about the enormity of being a parent and recognizing that in a split second, life can change irreparably, should something bad happen to our children.

For those of you who have experienced a significant trauma or loss prior to today, keep in mind that events like today’s are likely to stir up grief, fear, anxiety, sadness, irritability, and other uncomfortable emotions.  Reach out to those to whom you can talk about such things, including professional counselors or therapists if need be.  For those of you with young children not immediately impacted but concerned about today’s events, it is best to reassure them that this is a freak event that is unlikely to happen again or to them.  Children need to hear from their parents that the world is generally a safe place, filled with wonderful people who can help and protect them.  The reality is that there are also bad people who do bad things.  But kids need to be able to have faith that all will be fine in their worlds.  Keep your ears out for your kids’ fears, and make yourself available to talk as needed.

As for those of you in training for your next athletic event or physical pursuit, perhaps today gives you a dose of perspective—mostly, we are lucky to have what we have and to do what we do.  Worrying about training milestones or competitions or outcomes of our hard work is a luxury.  Taking time to appreciate that and to savor the moments of triumph and opportunity is as important as any PR or training session or trophy.  Life can change in an instant; harness the positives and work through the rest.  In each moment lie possibilities.