Peeking Behind the Curtain: It’s not ALL Fun and Games!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I’ve seen some funny posts circulating social media about the discrepancy between the perception we might have of someone’s life based on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts and the reality of their life in true form. While there’s humor there to be sure, we might find ourselves a little bummed out if we are inclined to chronically compare our own reality to the social media version of the lives of others.

I spent the weekend spectating at the CrossFit Games, specifically as a “Filly Fan,” rooting on my good friend and business partner, Marcus Filly. When you’re a spectator at the CrossFit Games, you get to witness amazing feats of human performance by athletes like Marcus who are pushing themselves to the limits. You are privy to the “thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” as ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to say.

If you follow me on social media via Psychologywod or simply as Allison Belger, you know that I am currently committed to a fundraiser called Juggling for Jude. My 9-year-old daughter, Hollis, is juggling her soccer ball to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. She is keeping a blog about her experiences, and she posts videos of her daily personal bests, as well as pertinent photos. At the time of my writing this article, she has raised nearly $13,000 in five short weeks. Her juggling skills are legit, with a record of 326, alternating feet. In the photos and videos we post, she is usually smiling (case in point the photo below with her holding a newspaper article about her efforts).  While she does acknowledge the challenges of her daily efforts and the fatigue that sometimes sets in–especially after a long day of camp–her blog content is mostly positive.

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Does this mean that Juggling for Jude is an endeavor marked only by good times, wide grins, and a happy camper? No. The truth is that behind the scenes, Hollis experiences moments of doubt, of not wanting to juggle, of feeling pressure to perform, and of simply being tired. The pressure is especially significant because she knows that most, if not all, of the kids at St. Jude for whom she is juggling would trade places with her in a heartbeat; she is lucky to have her health, let alone her talent for soccer. This is quite a bit of content for the psyche of a nine-year-old to manage.

At the CrossFit Games, the general aesthetic of the athletes, indeed of the entire event, is one of human beauty in motion. We see tan skin, defined muscles, bodies that move gracefully and skillfully while taking on the most demanding of physical challenges performed on visually pleasing and perfectly constructed stages.   The Reebok apparel worn by the athletes is lovely and colorful, highlighting and neatly showcasing the physical specimens. Athletes are often smiling before, during, and after their workouts, and even when things don’t go as well as planned.  A hallmark of the Games is that it is a showcase of considerable sportsmanship; there is rarely a public display of anything but appreciation for participating.

Like Juggling for Jude, this is all something to celebrate. However, since Psychologywod is about digging beneath the surface for personal growth, I’m here to suggest that, like Hollis who is juggling for sick kids, even the graceful athletes at the CrossFit Games, the gifted soccer players we watched at the World Cup, or the elite and sponsored athletes in your sport of choice, have behind-the-scenes moments that aren’t often reflected in their social media streams and public displays.   Beyond the obvious moments we might imagine that involve draining training sessions marked by physical pain and mental challenges, there may be moments of anger, irritability, and a desire to quit. There may be feelings of having been cheated by a judge or referee and a resentment of others who weren’t. There may be self-doubt and questioning of a coach or training plan. And there’s always the possibility of burnout, when the drive and desire all but disappear. These moments don’t “sell” well in social media, so you won’t see them often. But I’m here to say that they are likely experienced at least some of the time by every one of your favorite athletes. Like you, they are human beings with complicated systems.

So the next time you’re struggling with training for a sport or your daily grind at work, or your relationship, or your fight to be fitter, keep in mind that you’re not alone.  Most people don’t post photos of their bedhead or their look of disdain when arguing with a loved one. Don’t be fooled.  You are simply privy to the parts of your own experience whose counterparts in others you don’t get to see. Like you, they must fight to be better and to persevere through tough times. Like you, they feel pressure and pain; they just might not tweet about it or post an Instagram photo expressing it. And that’s ok. Just be sure you realize that your personal, internal social media stream is authentic and complete, unlike the published, filtered versions of others you might see on your computer. Keep fighting the good fight, and know you’re not alone.

 

*If you’d like to donate to St. Jude on behalf of Juggling for Jude, please go here to do so.  Thank you in advance–every bit helps this amazing place!*

Related reading from the archives:

https://psychologywod.com/2013/11/24/how-well-do-you-really-know-those-joneses-anyway/

https://psychologywod.com/2014/04/13/hanging-in-the-here-and-now-you-cant-always-be-your-personal-best/

https://psychologywod.com/2013/08/04/face-your-dark-side-and-move-on-you-are-not-the-sum-total-of-your-imperfect-thoughts/

https://psychologywod.com/2013/03/25/had-a-bad-day-now-what/

 

 

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

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By Dr. Allison Belger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for a Break?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having the capacity to make changes in our lives is critical.  Having the courage to shake up our own status quo is hard.  Familiarity is comforting, even when imperfect.  The idea of stepping away from something to which we’ve given a solid chunk of ourselves is frightening.  Maybe it’s the feeling that all of the time, energy, planning, we have put into the endeavor will seem like a big waste if we leave it behind.  Perhaps we are afraid that we won’t find anything else to fill the void.  Maybe we stay in a relationship for fear of being alone.  The same can be true of training for triathlons: are we afraid that we will feel aimless and have no structure if we were to stop?  Then there’s the addiction element: perhaps something about our training and physical pursuits serves a function far greater than fulfilling our competitive drive or helping to keep us in shape.  Maybe, like any addiction, it has become a way to prevent ourselves from feeling something we are afraid to feel or from knowing something about ourselves that we are afraid to face.

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

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

Reference:

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