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.

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.

Fear of Failure in Writing

Everyone is afraid to fail, yet that experience of fear varies in intensity, stems from different external and internal events, and influences us in a myriad of ways. Unfortunately, we are often most fearful regarding the things we are most passionate about. Therefore we are stuck in a catch 22. On one hand, we would like to avoid writing, but on the other hand, we would like to persevere. For example, writers are afraid about how others will react to reading their work and they might want to stop writing. Writers are also passionate about creating something meaningful and they want to continue to write.

I’ve received a lot of feedback about specifics of writing since I’ve started blogging, some wanted and some unwanted. The wanted feedback adds fuel to my desire to continue, whereas the unwanted feedback adds fuel to my fear of failure. When I work with people who are struggling to write because of fear, I offer the following advice. Be very careful to monitor thoughts of criticism to ensure you don’t allow it to deter you from writing more. But be equally careful to listen to and internalize the criticism. Ignoring the criticism is a way to protect yourself from fear that you writing needs to improve, but ignoring criticism will hurt your chances truly improving your writing skills.

A good friend offers the following advice when writing. Imagine two people. One person who is your harshest critic who, regardless what is written, will always have something negative to say. The other person is your greatest supporter who, regardless what is written, will always admire what you’ve put on paper. I would like to take this great advice one step further. When motivation is high and you cannot stop writing, imagine the harsh critic just a little bit more. These are the times when you want to push your ability and try to improve as much as possible. But make sure you use this strategy sparingly. Conversely, when motivation is low and you hate the act of picking a pen or sitting at the keyboard, repeatedly imagine your admirer.

The song “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Pertty comes to mind.

Personality Similarities in Life and Sports

Over the years I have recognized that the personalities and tendencies of athletes on the field often coincide with their personality off the field. This seems obvious, but it is rarely discussed and it can be a useful tool for coaches and players. For example, the soccer player who is quiet, calm, and understated in games is likely to say very little when the team is watching game film and developing strategies. The outspoken and flashy wide receiver will probably do things both on the field and at a party to draw attention to himself. The runner who is very structured and even robotic in their training regimen could be prone to prepare and study for class in the same fashion. I’ve been lucky to see firsthand how the players at Swarthmore College approach soccer is often the same as how they approach their academics and social life.

The Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire or 16PF offers some information regarding your personality. Please keep in mind that this is one test. In order to gain a true depiction of one’s personality, an extensive and thorough psychological battery and evaluation is necessary.

Check out the quick online personality test to see if this accurately describes your personal, professional, and/or athletic life.

Wikipedia offers the following explanation.

Edit 5/29/13
I would like to clarify the purpose of this blog. Although not true 100% of the time, I’ve stated that athletes maintain the same personality on and off the field. This information can assist coaches in their evaluations of players. What you see off the field is probably what you will get on the field. When I recruit and see players at a tournament or a camp, I don’t just scrutinize their on the field performance. I look to see how they treat their parents, friends, and camp employees. This information gives me some insight about how they might behave on the field and how they are going to treat teammates and coaches, plus it is an indication what kind of person they are in general. This is important because I want to be associated with players who are good people while they attend Swarthmore College.

The other reason for writing this blog is geared more toward athletes. I’ve worked with players who struggle with changing certain aspects of their game. The most common example I’d like to share pertains to how verbal a player is on the field, more specifically the quiet, calm, and understated player. Being quiet on the field is a negative quality because it makes the game a little more difficult for the team. Soccer is a team sport and teams/groups need to effectively communicate to be successful. Players who try to become more verbal on the field do so by stepping out of their comfort zone in the limited time during practices and games. They try to demand the ball more, organize team shape, and encourage teammates. The problem is they are trying to change a strong, habitual personality characteristic during a limited window of time. This would be the equivalent of a smoker trying to quit by resisting urges for two hours a day. It’s not going to work. I would encourage the quiet player to try to be a little more verbal throughout the day, such as in class, at parties, and in the cafeteria.

Memorial Day Motivation, Increased Effort, and Social Loafing

This weekend, weather permitting, will provide the setting for back yard bar-b-ques, parades in the center of town, and cold beverages. Have you ever thought about your role in the preparation of these activities? Are you the type of person who does the bare minimum for these social gatherings, while working very hard to keep your yard perfect or your home spotless?  If so you are not alone. Social loafing is the tendency to put forth less effort during group tasks. It is believed that it is easier for us to shirk responsibility and “fly under the radar” when in a crowd. Apply this concept to your job. When you have a deadline for a project that rests squarely on your shoulders, the spotlight shines bright, and therefore you try your best. On the other hand, when you are part of a team, less effort will cut it.

Two other similar concepts are social compensation and the Köhler effect. Social compensation occurs when superior group members try harder to make up for the short comings of others. Conversely, the Köhler Effect suggests that the inferior group members will increase effort to prove their worth and overcome their limitations, especially during group tasks as opposed to individual tasks. All of these concepts tie in with my post regarding social comparison, which indicates we try harder when in groups and subsequently perform better.

So the next time you feel more or less motivated during group task, now you might have a better understanding why. This information may be helpful for those on the playing field, conference room, classroom, or on stage. Scrutinizing and understanding thoughts that contribute to more or less motivation may help you during those times when motivation is very low. This is why athletes imagine themselves in a big game when training during the off-season. This is why lawyers imagine themselves in front of a jury when staying up late to prepare for a high profile case. This is why business people imagine themselves in front of the board of directors when preparing a sales pitch. This is why musicians imagine themselves on stage when practicing a song. We can muster up extra motivation in those times of procrastination by mentally putting ourselves in the social situation we are preparing for.

Body Language: What Are You Saying On The Field?

Body language, facial expressions, and nonverbal communication are under-explored on the playing field. I think about times, as a coach, when I’ve told my players to attack a particular opponent because I recognized something in his nonverbal language indicated the opponent was struggling and therefore revealed psychological weakness worth exploiting. I think basic attention to nonverbal communication can shed light on the reality that Tom Brady, Ray Lewis, Steven Gerard, and Kevin Durant as superior leaders. But I’m stating the obvious. However, I must mention that nonverbal communication is not always accurate. Let me explain. I dislike Eli Manning as a quarterback, partially because he plays for the Giants, but more so because of his body language. He typically casts an image on the field with his mouth partially open, shoulders slumped, and when he makes a mistake, his body and face often seem to be saying, “Aw shucks.” I’ve had to admit, albeit painful, he is a great quarterback. But I feel he could be even better if he just worked of his nonverbal communication. Imagine the energy his teammates would feed upon if he exuded confidence, much like his brother? Another player in the NFL that falls in the category of leaderless body language is Jay Cutler, the Quarterback for the Chicago Bears. I recently read on a survey conducted by that Cutler was number 4 in a list of the most disliked athletes. He was topped by Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, and Tiger Woods, all of who have made poor decisions warranting their placement on this list. How unappealing is your nonverbal communication and general demeanor in order get lumped in with one of the biggest cheaters in cycling and sports history, one of the most gullible athletes ever, and an adulterer?

I also think Donovan McNabb could have had more success had he developed better nonverbal communication. Two examples come to mind. First, he always seemed to be smiling, even when he made a mistake. Yes, it is important to have fun on the field. You are more likely to play your best when you’re having fun. But as the leader and someone whose passion for the team’s success should trump all, it is important to show that you are pissed off from time to time when things go poorly. I believe McNabb’s perpetual smile sent a message to his teammates and the unforgiving Philly fans that he did not care deep down about the failed passes on third down that fell to the ankles of a target. A momentary slap of the hands or a pointing finger to his chest would go a long way to indicate that he assumes blame and is not ok with these types of mistakes. The reality is that McNabb probably was very passionate about his performance. However, a shift in body language may have solidified his place in Philly sport history as the best QB ever, rather than someone that a lot of fans were happy to see leave. The other example is an isolated incident, but it really screamed volumes as to why McNabb was never fully embraced by the critical fans of this city (See the youtube clip below.)
In a 2009 wild card game between the Eagles and Cowboys in a brand new stadium in Dallas, McNabb performed a very bizarre air guitar solo followed by a two hand slap of the plexi-glass that separates players from fans. The whole sequence was strange and not what you would expect from the leader of your team. Was it was planned? If so, what was the motivation and expected outcome? Was it an impulsive act to counter some internal anxiety? Unfortunately, this was the first step in a series of blunders that led to a 34-14 Eagles loss. One might expect stoic focus from the team leader in this pressure-filled situation. I struggle with visualizing Joe Montana behaving in this manner.

To conclude this series of blog posts, I hope you pay closer attention to the nonverbal language of athletes in future games. It will be interesting to see if Flacco’s transformation to a more confident personality, as described by the analysts, carries over into next year or if he will revert back to that player with all of the potential who is lacking the last piece of a true leader. I also wonder if Kaepernick’s explosive start to his career is an anomaly or if he is the real deal? Finally, will Griffin be able to recover from a devastating injury and become the player that was briefly on display this past year?