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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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By Dr. Allison Belger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Dr. Allison Belger

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

Or can they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Track Your Experiences

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

Do Some Research

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

Set Some Goals

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

Connect with Others  

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

Find ways to Relax

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

Celebrate!        

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

Notes:

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

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

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

Had a Bad Day? Now What?

Originally posted in March, 2013, this article’s topic is timeless. Never stop examining your response to real limitations and less-than-perfect outcomes. Personal growth happens here!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dr. Allison Belger

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

(From March, 2013):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jump Smarter. Live Better.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

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

LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP…  (Samuel Butler)

 HE WHO HESITATES IS LOST   (Joseph Addison)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Psychologywod’s Crash Course in Competition Prep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are You Using the Power of YOUR Mind?

chizzie_Fotor

By Dr. Allison Belger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

duckdecoy

By Allison Belger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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