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.

Blocked Practice vs. Random Practice: Shake Things up in your Training and in your Life

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By Dr. Allison Belger

You know the old adage “Practice Makes Perfect?”  My soccer coach in high school, who at the time held some serious records for most consecutive wins in high school soccer, always used to say that adage was a load of bull.  “Practice makes permanent,” he would argue.  Nothing earth-shattering, though at the time it was innovative stuff.  Then there’s the variation: “Perfect practice makes perfect.”  Again, nothing mind-blowing here—just another modification of the original.

But there is something about the way we practice motor skills that really matters when it comes to skill transfer and long-term retention.  It turns out that psychologists have known for decades that something called random practice is different from something called blocked practice, and the former is significantly better at leading to long-term skill retention and application than the latter.

Blocked practice is when a learner performs a single skill over and over, with repetition being the key.  Variance in training is minimized or nonexistent.  The learner then moves on to practice another discrete skill in the same way.  By contrast, in random practice, motor learners work on a number of different skills in combination with each other, randomly working trials and patterns of one and then the next and the next, with each trial interleaved on the previous one.  The random element means the learner is forced to be on his or her toes, not falling into a repetitive routine.  Blocked practice is marked by low levels of what is called cognitive interference, while random practice is marked by high levels of cognitive interference.  In simple terms, this means that random practice setups challenge the learner’s cognitive and motor systems to deal with the interference of each task on the next—an element that keeps him/her on his/her toes and allows for greater retention and skill transfer.

In a nutshell and without getting too complicated or technical here, it seems that repetitive blocked practice leads to a kind of rote learning that allows for better performance during training sessions but less skill transfer to competitions and novel situations, as well as lower retention levels over time.  One explanation for this is that there are lower demands on active problem-solving and engagement during blocked practice than during random practice.  During random practice, when one is forced to work through various skills in a single session that are presented randomly, one’s cognitive system must adapt, rethink, and solve the problem of choosing and executing appropriate motor patterns, upon demand.  This means determining similarities and differences among tasks before designating which motor pattern applies.  In contrast, during blocked practice with repetitive motor patterning, one can effortlessly rely on memory and automaticity of movement.

Because blocked practice leads to better performance during training sessions, athletes and coaches are often led to a false sense of confidence that is shattered during competitions, when predictability and rote learning are no longer guaranteed.  In an interesting study back in 2001 (Simon and Bjork), subjects who were trained using blocked practice were more likely to predict higher levels of future task performance than those who were trained using random practice designs.  According to co-author of the study, Robert A. Bjork, PhD, “It’s natural to think that when we’re making progress, we’re learning, and when we’re struggling and making errors, we’re not learning as well.  So people who are responsible for training can often be pushed toward training conditions that are far from optimal…The problem is that if people confuse the current sense of ease with learning, they’ll tend to prefer training conditions where things are kept constant and predictable—conditions that act as crutches to prop up performance without fostering learning” (quoted by Carpenter, 2001).

Richard Schmidt, PhD is renowned for his work in the area of the psychology of motor learning.  His book, Motor Learning and Performance: A Situation-based Learning Approach is loaded with information if you’re interested in the topic.  Schmidt has addressed the applications of random and blocked practice to all kinds of sports and learning situations.  Quoted in a 2011 article on golfdigest.com, Schmidt told attendees at the World Gold Fitness Summit that year “In blocked practice, because the task and goal are exactly the same on each attempt, the learner simply uses the solution generated on early trials in performing the next shot.  Hence, blocked practice eliminates the learner’s need to ‘solve’ the problem on every trial and the need to practice the decision-making required during a typical round of golf.”  This can apply to any number of athletic endeavors; the idea is that forcing athletes to come up with the best motor patterns given the nuances of the specific task at hand is imperative for long-term skill development that allows for flexible and adaptable motor recruitment in the heat of the moment, when competition and other variables are introduced.

The literature on this topic is deep and consistent: blocked practice is best for beginners learning new motor patterns and basic skills.  Once a certain level of mastery is involved, however, random practice seems to be the way to go.  This leads me to two questions:

1.  Does your personal sport training include random practice?

If your sport is CrossFit, you’re in luck.  Part and parcel of the CrossFit methodology is variance in training—rep schemes, movements, combinations, and other aspects of training are randomized, or at least varied significantly and with purpose.  However, if you are a competitive CrossFit athlete and you follow individualized programming, you might want to check in with your coach to be sure he or she is familiar with the principles of blocked and random practice.  Again, most CrossFit programs are inherently varied, but you should be sure that your skill sessions do not work the same exact movements over and over, without interleaving variations (e.g. portions of movements randomly ordered) that keep your cognitive and motor systems guessing.  In addition to interleaving skill variations, you might do things like changing bars for your gymnastics work during workouts (each set of pullups is done on a different bar, with variations in height, thickness, grip type, etc. with a special approach in gymnastics for kids).  If you only use women’s barbells, mix that up from time to time to keep your body guessing.  Do some of your toes-to-bars as toes-to-rings.  Leave your weightlifting shoes at home for your squatting workout.  There are plenty of ways to make your practice more “random,” and in a sport where the unknown is tantamount and the implements and playing field are constantly changing, it makes good sense to randomize in more ways than just by following programming that is inherently varied.

As noted above, these concepts apply to all sports and all kinds of training.  For example, for those of you who are golfers, be sure you are not practicing that same swing from the same spot with the same tee, over and over and over, without attention to variance.  See here for a nice write-up about random practice in golf: http://www.golfdigest.com/magazine/2011-03/kaspriske-fitness-column  You can find other sport-specific examples by searching the internet.  Have at it to be sure you’re challenging your system to recruit more than just some kind of automated response to routinized motor patterns.

2.  How can we apply these findings to life outside of the athletic training forum? 

Ah, the PsychologyWOD holy grail: applying sport to life.

It seems that we might envision blocked practice as being akin to the routines in our lives and the things we do automatically, without much thought or attention.  There is an ease to such activity, since it is routinized and automatic.  Maybe it’s the way we build our kids’ lunches by assembly line on the kitchen counter, or the way we take the dog for a walk while checking Facebook on our iPhones each morning.  Or maybe it’s the way we do the laundry or get our coffee or head out for a run on a route whose pavement we have pounded thousands of times.  There’s not much going on frontal-lobe-wise; it’s all rote activity we’ve done for ages.  For some of the stuff of our lives, this is perfect; we don’t need to reinvent the lunch-making wheel, and our walk with our dog is a necessity that need not be diversified to be enjoyed, or at least fulfilled.

But what happens when that kind of blocked practice functioning (for lack of a better term) permeates aspects of our lives that should entail more cognitive interference and should absolutely tax our systems—psychologically, hormonally, you name it.  Maybe now we’re talking about the way we walk into the door after a long day of work, throw down our bags, barely make eye contact with our family members, and plop ourselves in front of the TV.  Or maybe we’re talking about the job we dread, day in and day out, that is so stale and limiting after all of these years that it requires little to no creative effort.  Maybe, worse still, it’s the way we have come to interact with our partner or our children, in some kind of routinized way that we barely even notice anymore.  Each of these examples can be thought of as being caught in some kind of mindless state of functioning where cognitive interference is minimal.  It’s something like driving to a location to which we’ve been a million times; we get there on auto-pilot, without even realizing how we’ve managed to do so.

But what if we lived a life more characteristic of random practice?  What if we made sure to build in plenty of cognitive, emotional, and psychological interference and made sure we kept ourselves on our toes as often as possible?  What if–within the realities of schedules and logistics and responsibilities–we were to find ways of challenging ourselves and forgoing the easy routines.  Maybe we try out a new ritual for when we walk in the door and greet our loved ones at the end of a long day.  Maybe we change it up every Monday.  Maybe we dare to seek a different job, acknowledging that the one we have no longer feeds us in a meaningful ways.  Maybe we pour new life into our time with our kids on the weekends and challenge ourselves to do a different activity with the each month.  Maybe it’s some kind of randomization of the books we read or the places we go for dinner.  Maybe it’s being spontaneous and pursuing some kind of new learning twice yearly–you know, those cooking or knitting or foreign-language classes that are always on your mind, somewhere way down deep at a level about which you barely you know.

Do something crazy and spontaneous with your partner or a friend and make it a surprise.  Or do it by alone, just for you.  Randomize something about your life—mix things up–by design.  Just as random practice leads to greater retention and skill transfer, living in ways that shake up the every day and make your life less predictable and routinized just might make things more interesting and desirable long-term.  Much like we should do puzzles and word games as we age to keep our neural synapses firing, we should also consider making our lives less routine and more stimulating in the grand scheme, for the benefit of long-term growth, development, and outright happiness.  I get the constraints, the logistics, the realities. Throw yourself a bone: shake things up, People!

References:

Carpenter, S. (2001). A blind spot in motor learning.  APA Monitor: 32(6), p. 62.

Schmidt, R. A. &  Wisberg, C. A.  (2008).  Motor Learning and Performance: A Situation-based Learning Approach. Human Kinetics Publishers.

Simon, D.A. and Bjork, A.B. (2001).  Metacognition in motor learning.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition 27(4), 907-912.

Simpson, R. (2011).  Do’s and Don’ts of Practice: Why beating balls might not lower your scores.  http://www.golfdigest.com/magazine/2011-03/kaspriske-fitness-column

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!

Have an Audience? How Do You Handle the Pressure?

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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.

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.