Failing Perception

Summer is coming to an end. The subtle hints of an emerging fall season are appearing. The edges of some leaves are browning. ESPN’s coverage of football is gaining momentum. College campuses are no longer ghost towns, but rather a chaotic mass of hopeful, eager, and scared students. Changing seasons often prompt people to make changes to live a little differently. A new beginning if you will. As a teacher and soccer coach, the beginning of the fall season brings mixed emotions. Teaching means the sadness of less time with my wife and kids, longing for less responsibilities, the excitement of helping other kids, the joy of seeing missed colleagues, and the worried energy of another unknown school year. Soccer means exhausting 6:00 am training sessions, intriguing talks of tactics and putting the right players in the right spots, hopeful opportunities to share knowledge with young players, and the thrill of being under the lights at Clothier Field.

Some new beginnings just happen; such is the case with the seasons changing. Some new beginnings demand tremendous effort; such is the case with new soccer seasons, starting a new school year, or trying to become happier/less angry/more patient/less worried/more compassionate/being healthier. These are the hard new beginnings. They are hard because they mean doing things differently. They are hard because the require effort and persistence. They are hard because we don’t know how they will unfold. And the unknown is often scary, anxiety-provoking, and unfamiliar; making it all too easy to return to what is comfortable and known. This is why new beginnings often fail before they start. We envision the amazing results of a desired future. Regrettably, when we stumble on the path of a new beginning for the first time our perfect vision moves out our grasp. When we stumble for the second time the vision continues to move and becomes blurry. By the time we’ve stumbled over and over again the vision becomes an unattainable, frustrating, and hopeless failure. Or does it? Is it really unattainable or have we made our mind up to give up even though success is still a possibility? (I feel compelled to be mention that repeated failures eventually signify failure. That is reality. But too often we succumb to failure well before we have put forth the proper effort and persistence.) If we had just persisted for another day, week, or month maybe we could begin to grasp that vision once more. And if we could grasp the vision, maybe we would feel renewed motivation to persist the next time we stumble. And if we persisted with each stumble, maybe we would feel that sense of pride that accompanies overcoming difficult times. And if we feel proud, maybe we would succeed and truly experience that original envisioned future, rather than it just remaining a vision.

There is a reason that successful people are said to “have vision.” Successful people maintain a clear vision of their desired future despite repeated failures. What is envisioned remains steady in the mind’s eye regardless of the peripheral noise and distractions. Successful people do experience the torture of naysayers, the self-doubt, and the challenges. However they limit the controlling power the naysayers, self-doubt, and challenges have over them.

As you start to entertain ideas of change and a new beginning, is it possible that you may be the biggest obstacle. You might come up with excuses that things get in the way, but that is only because you let them get in your way. If you have previously attempted to begin anew and failed, consider that your perception may be at the heart of the problem. A small change in your perception might lead to the envisioned path and not down the path of another frustrating failure.

Finally, how we talk to ourselves has a big impact, so consider the following: If you are attempting to make a change, try the simple, although challenging task to replace the word “problem” with “distraction” when talking to yourself. Problems can feel and therefore become overwhelming, thus problems are more likely to stop progress. On the other hand, distractions feel manageable, thus distractions are much easier to work through. Small changes like this can have a profound impact on perception, motivation, and whether see a new beginning through to its final end.

Don’t let your perception to lead to failure.

On the Fence of Maybe

We all struggle with the maybes of life. Maybe I should do something about my high
anxiety, maybe I need to break up with him/her, maybe I should propose, maybe
I should quit this awful job, maybe I should start thinking about how I’m getting in my
own way, maybe this depression is too much for me to manage, maybe I can be
happier. I hear it too often. “I loved your sport psychology presentation, I should
really start seeing you, that mindfulness stuff really makes sense, I worry too much/I’m too sad
I need to be in therapy…” Unfortunately these comments often remain abstract thoughts and
words, but never become a concrete action.

There are a myriad of positive reasons for seeing a therapist, but the negative reasons and
self-doubt which prevent someone from seeing me tend to be stronger. These
negative thoughts include, “What if someone I know sees me, opening up is too
difficult especially to a strange, what if I cannot be helped, it is going to
take too much time…” At the root of this issue is often the comfort of what is
familiar versus the fear of the unknown. A problem-filled life is more tolerable
when compared to the fear of a new life associated with entering into therapy.
However, I have found that most people who are apprehensive and fearful of
seeing me, quickly realize that the negative thoughts prior to going to a
therapist pale in comparison to the reality of therapy.

Which side of the maybe fence are you on? “Yes, it is time see
Ciarán” or “No I don’t think I can do it.” If you are struggling and leaning
toward no, consider the following examples:

-Some people are depressed, anxious, experiencing relationship
problems, and/or afraid of taking a risk, which contributes to an unhappy life.
Our problems vary from severe to mild. Either way when life is not satisfying,
we spend too much of time thinking about and trying to do something about our
problems. This constant thinking is distracting, worrisome, annoying, and
prevents us from enjoying the moment. This thinking sometimes helps us overcome;
but sometimes we need help from an expert. What if you replace the countless
hours and energy spent thinking about life problems with one hour of weekly
therapy? I’ve had too many people get 3-5 sessions into therapy and voice regret
of not coming into my office sooner.”

-Some people are struggling with their performance and it is not
due to a lack of talent. Many of today’s serious middle school, high school, and
college athletes can experience a day that includes two hours a day in the gym,
two hours practicing, an hour watching film, and an hour stretching/doing yoga.
That’s six hours of training your body in one day, while the mental side of
development is neglected. When I work with an athlete, it is usually for only
one hour a week and the positive impact often helps them reach the next level.

Are you sitting on the “fence of maybe?” If so, which side are
you leaning toward? Regardless of the path you chose, I hope this post helps you
get off the fence because the fence is uncomfortable when we stay there too long
and we cannot accomplish much when we are still on the fence. Get off the fence
and start moving toward your goals and a life worth living.

Preseason and Change

Many athletes are making final preparations for an eagerly awaited/dreaded preseason. They will soon find out if a summer spent on the track/road, repeating in drills, lifting in the gym, and training on the field will pay off. One common mental mistake made by athletes, as well as anyone looking to change (dieting, exercising, reading more, managing problematic emotions) comes from unrealistic goals, an unsupportive environment, dwindling motivation, and limited repetition. The book “Fully Present” by Smalley and Winston addresses these needs in order to make change a reality.

1. Make steps simple 
Athletes often set goals of a championship. One problem with this goal is we cannot see the results until the end of the season, or at least until a team is eliminated from the playoffs. I do however feel this can be a helpful goal as long as small goals are included, such as making steady progress by increasing the team’s goals per game average in the first three games of the season. Another example involves dieting. A goal of losing 15 pounds in the next six weeks sets up failure because the first slip up often causes someone to give up because 15 pounds and 6 weeks now can seem impossible. Instead, Smalley and Winston offer the following suggestions for keeping diet steps simple: putting your fork down with each bite, taking breaks during a meal, and eating fruit for dessert. In the end, a series of mini-successes allow for a person to move toward a goal, work through the inevitable failures, and enjoy the journey.  

2. Being in a supportive environment
Team sports provide an unusual backdrop for the conflict between competition and support. On one hand, you are forced to compete with teammates to make the team and earn a starting position. On the other hand, successful teams tend to be very supportive of each other. No other player feels the tension of this conflict more than the rookies. They have to compete and perform at the level of established players, but they also want to fit in. It’s quite a challenge to upstage upperclassmen and gain their support as well. The burden of managing this challenge falls on the coach and trickles down to the team leaders.

3. Motivation
As athletes step on the field, approach the starting block, or walk on the court for the first time in preseason, motivation is usually at an all time. They have thought about this moment while training in the off season and if they are lucky, the have the right balance of excitement, anxiety, curiosity, and confidence to be their best. However the grueling season is the perfect stage for the rollercoaster that is motivation. In a college season, motivation tends to proceed in the following direction: Motivation will drop toward the end of preseason, pick up before the first regular season game, then pick up before the first conference game, steadily decline as academic rigors increase, hit a low around midterms, pick up a little if playoffs are on the horizon, and finally it is a motivation crap shoot when the playoffs begin. It becomes crucial for each athlete to determine what they find both intrinsically and extrinsically motivating so they can call upon these incentives when needed. One suggestion is positive self talk. It is common and very easy to say negative things to yourself when motivation drops, which causes motivation to spiral downward.

4. Repetition
Smalley and Winston say creating a new habit requires repetition. You must have the determination, persistence, grit, and vision to see any form of behavioral change through. Some behaviors are easier to change than others. It is going to be much more difficult to stick with a diet if you’ve never maintained a healthy diet. It is going to be more difficult to become a team leader if you have never been a leader before. Repetition is closely tied to motivation. Repetition becomes stale, boring, and monotonous even with things you love. If goals are realistic and attainable, if you surround yourself with support, and if you use strategies to remain motivated, then repetition is bearable and change will eventually take place. 

Good luck in preseason. Remember to take a moment to enjoy the experience, because the season is short and there will be a time when you miss it all, even the worst parts of the experience. 

What Your Daydreaming Does For Performance.

I finally signed up for a twitter account. It allows me to follow some musicians, comedians, and psychology groups. Psychology Today is one group I’ve been following. It is a magazine focused on psychological topics, and I recent read an article entitled “How and Why You Daydream.” The article explores the details and research attached to daydreaming. For example, the article states, “For men, the more frequent their daydreams, the lower their life satisfaction. For women, vividness but not frequency was related to lower life satisfaction. For both genders, people who daydreamed about their close family and friends reported higher levels of life satisfaction.”

As a psychologist who frequently works with people trying to improve performance, the article spurred some thought. In my practice I encourage athletes to:

1. Learn from mistakes, but not dwell on them. Dwelling on mistakes lowers motivation, confidence, and overall performance.
2. Dwell on successes. This increases motivation, confidence, performance, and enjoyment.

The article caused me to realize how we process, relive, and think about performance is similar to daydreaming. Athletes, artists, and business professionals spend a lot of time reliving past experiences or envisions future tasks. This is equivalent to daydreaming and it has a tremendous impact on their motivation, confidence, performance, and enjoyment.

The next time you get lost in thought, whether it is during a meeting, lecture, game, on the beach, or before you fall asleep, take a moment and try to determine what purpose the daydreaming serves.

1. Does it allow simply let you to escape boredom or is there more to it?
2. Do you think that daydreaming about the worst case scenario better prepare you for the future?
3. Do your fantasies make you feel great by providing an opportunity to relive those great moments in life like scoring the game winning goal in a championship, presenting the perfect defense in a court of law, or that breath taking musical performance in front of a large crowd?
4. Is it a combination of reasons?

Are You Still Having Fun?

Are You Still Having Fun?

 

There is no hiding from the reality that youth sports are becoming increasingly professionalized. Kids are expected to play one sport year round, to be on the best team, and train with the best coaches in attempts to develop into next Tiger Woods, Leo Messi, or LeBron James. One of the most unfortunate outcomes of this reality is that kids are more likely to miss out on the original feeling that enticed them play the sport in the first place. Fun. It does not matter what level in which you are playing, youth or professional, fun is essential to success. Take NBA superstar Dwight Howard for example. He recently signed with the Houston Rockets after a brief stint with the LA Lakers. Why would the league’s premier center leave the Lakers who have a legacy of hall of fame big men in Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq? A lot of the behind the scene experts say Howard’s “I want to have fun playing” mentality strongly conflicted with Kobe Bryant’s leadership style and personality. As a result, Howard spent one year with the Lakers before leaving. Is it possible that Dwight Howard was not having fun in Los Angeles?

 

When working with athletes who experience burnout, lose the passion for the game, and are no longer having fun there is an initial inclination to help them persist and get through the tough time. However many coaches and parents ask, “What do I do when it is more than a “tough time” and my child/player really wants to quit?” My advice is to first consider their age because younger athletes need adults to be the decision makers often than not. But if it becomes apparent that the sport is more of a chore than a fun activity and this has been going on for a while, it is important to support the decision and help the child/adolescent find another activity/hobby/sport to pursue. Coaches and parents are sometimes conflicted because they have a responsibility to motivate and cultivate a good work ethic, which is why we push our children and players when they experience adversity. But it is ok to give up on an endeavors when it is more than temporary adversity or you might suggest a less demanding and involved sport schedule. Imagine having to spend a good portion of your time participating in something you have grown to despise? I can’t imagine your performance being anything than subpar.

 

I think back to a former player of mine who was thinking of quitting. My first response was, “Give it two weeks, get back to me, but understand that I’ll do everything in my power get you to see it through.” After some careful deliberation, I changed my approach. I told the player that I would support whatever he decided. You see, he was old enough and therefore capable of sifting through the pros and cons of the decision. Plus, as a coach, I don’t want players whose heart is no longer in it because their performance is going to suffer. It will suffer because they are no longer having fun.

Learning To Just Let It Go

Has overthinking a concern ever caused you to feel more anxious, depressed, stressed, drained, or distracted? Everyone faces the daily stress of paying bills/making ends meet, dealing with difficult work situations, trying to win an argument with a spouse, making the right decisions for your kids, planning events, or playing in a big game. Take a moment to think about your overthinking. Did you stick to your original plan or solution? Or did overthinking lead to a better alternative? Did overthinking result in a better, more relaxing life or did it lead to more stress and worry?

The problem lies in our difficulty with just letting go, which is explained through rumination. The original definition of rumination is when a portion of food returns from the stomach to be chewed for a second time, as with cows. The questions is why do we “chew” over these thoughts again and again? Why is it so difficult for us to “let it go?” There are a lot of reasons for why we ruminate, but there are two explanations I encounter most frequently. First, we are able to convince ourselves that overthinking a problem or source of stress will help reveal a better approach or solution to that problem. Of course there is some truth to this, but more often than not, the first approach or solution is the one we stick with. We are inclined to stick with the first solution because we are very skilled problem solvers. We efficiently take in all the available data and quickly formulate a plan. Second, and what I feel is the core reason for our unrelenting rumination, is because overthinking provides us with momentary comfort. Allow me to clarify. We are a culture of doers. We consistently praise hard work, persistence, and determination, while devaluing inactivity and laziness. As a result, when we are faced with a problem there is an almost subconscious sense of discomfort when we are not trying to think of a better solution. It makes us feel good when we ruminate. It makes us feel like we are accomplishing something by simply ruminating. We are uncomfortable when we do not ruminate because we feel worthless because we identify ourselves as being lazy and inactive.” It’s funny how we play these head games with ourselves, even if it is out of our awareness.

The lure of being able to come up with a better solution and the discomfort experienced when not thinking about a problem are why it is so difficult to “just let go” of worry. God forbid we develop a plan for a problem and not think about it again until we have to carry out the plan. But think about how better life might be without this self-created stress.

I’m not advocating for the elimination of rumination. We have to think about our problems, relationships, and job. The ability to identify a concern, problem solve, and plan for the future is what leads to success in life. What I am advocating for is increased awareness of when we begin to ruminate and a conscious decision to determine if rumination is necessary or detrimental.
Take Ed for example. Ed has to pitch an idea at work in one month. There is a lot riding on this pitch: a promotion, increased salary, and reputation to name a few. Ed’s strength is his ability to plan ahead and complete things well in advance, therefore he is finished with the pitch two weeks in advance. He has the presentation finished, he knows exactly what to say, and he is prepared for just about any questions that might be asked. Unfortunately his weakness is rumination. During the two weeks leading up to the pitch he overthinks and second guesses his presentation, a presentation that is already excellent. The rumination causes him to lose sleep, neglect other job responsibilities, eat poorly, not exercise, and constantly argue with colleagues and friends because he is stressed and irritable. In the end, since Ed is good at what he does, the pitch goes according to planned and he gets his promotion and maintains his stellar reputation. But what if Ed learned to let it go? To be able to convince himself to refrain from ruminating for two weeks after the presentation was complete? He wouldn’t have been miserable in the time leading up to the pitch. In addition, if this is common for Ed, all that undue stress would eventually take its toll on his physical, mental, and emotional health, while destroying his interpersonal relationships.

How Do Emotions Impact Group and Individual Success?

Think about the factors that contribute to success you’ve experienced as part of a team, business, organization, or even a family. Attributes such as intelligence, ability, experience, determination, or social skills tend to come to mind. You probably did not think about your emotional abilities/intelligence or the emotional climate of the group. Let me clarify.

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive accurately, appraise, express, and regulate emotions in a fashion that promotes growth. This is your ability to read situations, decide how to respond, and then show the emotions necessary to accomplish your goals.   

Emotions play a vital, yet overlooked role in groups. Emotional outbursts can motivate players or ruin programs as was the case with Mike Rice former Rutgers basketball coach. Emotional displays from parents can assist a toddler in avoiding danger when they get too close to a hot stove. Or repeated and exaggerated emotional displays from a parent can contribute to a toddlers budding anxiety. Leaders in business often act as a barometer of what level of emotionality is acceptable to show. Take another moment to now think about the various groups in which you are a member. How are emotions expressed? Are they repressed or are they expressed in an out of control manner? Do emotional expressions enable or impede the progress of the group? What happens after an emotional display? Is the person who showed the emotion praised or punished? All of these answers comprise the “emotional climate” of the group. Now think about whether the “emotional climate” helped or hurt the group. I’ve been part of different soccer teams where the emotional climate helped the team because players felt free to voice concerns, yet retain a sense that they were supported. Alternatively, I’ve been a part of teams where emotional displays were out of control, unpredictable, undermining, ongoing, and, ultimately detrimental to the goals of the team.

Leaders sometimes make the mistake of not examining how emotions impact group success; however those under the leaders (employees or players) know all too well the impact of emotions. Just about everyone can recall a time in which a coach, boss, or parent lost their temper. The impact was probably severe and long lasting. I encourage leaders, whether a coach, boss, parent teacher, or principal to explore the impact of their emotions on others. It may be possible that a change with regards to emotional expression can improve the productivity, happiness, and success of the group. Because when used properly, emotions help provide feedback, promote learning, and assist changes in future decision making.

For example:
-A reserved and soft spoken parent/coach/boss could show more emotion when their child/player/employee is breaking the rules or unmotivated.
-A loud and angry parent/coach/boss could show outbursts sparingly for serious behavior issues so it can carry the necessary weight.

Much of the information provided within this blog came from “Exploring Emotion Abilities and Regulation Strategies in Sport Organization” by Wagstaff, Fletcher, and Hanton.