The Fear That Motivates and Paralyzes

Fear is a natural emotion that people will go to great lengths to avoid when it becomes overwhelming. Excessive levels of fear can paralyze and cause people to steer clear from pursuing lofty goals and the things in which they are passionate. Think of that time in middle school in which you could not speak to nor approach that person you had a crush on.  The intense fear felt in the pit of your stomach led to silence, avoidance, or a bumbling mess of nonsense coming out of your mouth. On the opposite end of the fear spectrum is the lesser version of fear that motivates us work hard and make conscientious decisions. For example, there is a healthy fear some adolescents have when facing their parents after getting trouble. This fear, hopefully, influences the teen to steer clear of vandalism, breaking a curfew, or engaging in risky behavior. At both ends of the fear spectrum lies passion and one’s comfort with failure.

There are two types of passion: obsessive and harmonious. Obsessive passion tends to overwhelm and maximize one’s attention and identity. This is the person who is constantly focused on, talking about, and/or engaged in their passion of choice. This is the person who only talks of one aspect of life such as sports, video games, work, or parenting. These individuals tend to lack a healthy balance between their personal, social, and professional/athletic/academic life. One of the common negative side effects this person might encounter could be a great deal of anger, depression, anxiety, fear… when they experience failure associated with their passion. Obsessive athletes experience this when they play poorly, get cut from a team, or do not crack the starting line-up. They become overwhelmingly upset, angry, anxious, or sad because there is nothing else in life to distract them and give them a break from obsessively thinking about the failure. ESPN recently did a story on Jozy Altidore, starting forward for the US National Men’s Team. He is currently starting for the Dutch team AZ Alkmarr where he scored 23 goals last season. After failing to live up to high expectations in the past, Altidore attributes his current success to finding a healthy balance between soccer and his personal life, which describes the other type of passion.

Harmonious passion is describes as strong desire to freely engage in your passion. These individuals love what they do and work extremely hard to reach lofty goals. They also feel the negative effects of failure; however their identity is not wrapped so tightly around their passion and they can still enjoy other areas of life when they fail. Steven Gerrard, starting center midfielder for Liverpool explains how he is able to leave soccer on the field. This ability to compartmentalize sports from other areas of life contribute to a healthy mental perspective. Players and professionals who can “leave it on the field and in the office” allow themselves to take that valuable mental break and relax/rejuvenate so they are at their best when they must perform in the future. 


Steven Gerrard talks about having some separation from soccer.


Much of the information provided in this blog post was motivated by the article “Driven By Fear: The Effect of Success and Failure Information on Passionate Individuals’ Performance” by Belanger Lafreniere, Vallerand, and Kruglanski. (2013.)


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.

Avoiding Burnout

This blog is based on the article entitled “Perfectionism and Junior Athlete Burnout: The Mediating Role of Autonomous and Controlled Motivation” by Jowett, Hill, Hall, and Curran.

Everyone has different things that cause them to feel passionate. Teachers feel passionate about reaching that struggling student. Song writers feel passionate about creating a song that is worded perfectly and resonates with others. Parents feel passionate about raising their children the right way. Athletes feel passionate about winning championships. LeBron James’ performance against the Pacers is a good example of passion.
He hit the game winner in game one.

He scored 16 points in the 3rd quarter in game five to carry his team to a win.

More importantly, he is proving that his ability coupled with his passion can carry a team. He has two superstars for teammates in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. However they are struggling and James took it upon himself to bear the responsibility of the current success of the Miami Heat. Passion can elevate performance to its highest point.

But what happens when that all-consuming desire fades and does not return? Burnout sets in. Burnout is different from a momentary decline in motivation. Burnout is when you reach that point when you want give up. Here are some of the common symptoms of burnout:
1. Decreased perception of accomplishment
2. Perceived emotional and physical exhaustion
3. Devaluation and reduction of participation
4. Psychological, emotional, and physical withdrawal
5. Burnout often brings about feelings of depression and anxiety

Perfectionism plays a vital role in the onset of burnout. Perfectionism typically involves two parts.
1. Striving for exceedingly high standards
2. Harsh self-criticism

The research shows that burnout is more likely when certain aspects of perfectionism are present. Below are those aspects of perfectionism followed possible corresponding thoughts in quotes.

1. Placing irrational importance on goals: “I have to score four goals today or I’ll get cut
2. Preoccupation with mistakes: “I suck because I let in one goal this half” (Repeat this self- statement over and over again)
3. Chronic doubt about inadequacies: “I’m no good, I’m too slow, I’m not skillful enough, I’m not fit…”
4. The necessity for precision and order: “I need to make sure every touch on the ball is perfect”

What can be done to avoid burnout? The first and most important step is to become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that contribute to both increased and decreased motivation. A lot of these thoughts happen automatically and out of one’s awareness because they are habitual. Once this awareness is established you can determine whether the thoughts are realistic and whether they are causing you to feel more or less motivated. For example, thoughts of how others view us is a key factor in motivation. When we think others see us in a positive light, our motivation goes up. Whereas, when we think others see us unfavorably, our motivation plummets. The point is, how we think other people are thinking about us plays a vital role in our motivation to perform.

For those of you with children who are athletes, artists, musicians, and students, please keep in mind that the pressure you put on them can be overwhelming. The research shows that a child’s perceived parental pressure is often greater than the actual pressure. So when a parent thinks they are putting a little pressure on their child, then child probably thinks the pressure is greater. In the end, children who are kicking a ball, picking up a trumpet, or molding clay are more likely to be highly motivated and less likely to experience burnout when the pressure is manageable and not overwhelming.

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?

Joe Flacco Being Comfortable With Himself: The Metamorphosis

Joe Flacco, Superbowl MVP. Why did it take until his 5th season for him to show he is the leader and physical specimen that was predicted when he was a senior coming out of the University of Delaware? He showed so much potential in his rookie year with the Ravens by becoming the first rookie QB to win two playoff games. But, despite making the playoffs every year since, he never made it to the Super Bowl. That is until this year when he marched the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in near perfect fashion. In the playoffs he threw for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns (tied for the highest total with Montana and Warner), and ZERO interceptions. He finished with a QB rating of 117, very impressive.

The thing that interests me came from the mouths of the analysts. Many of the experts who had the opportunity interview Flacco in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl commented on his personality. They said he appeared more relaxed, more comfortable, more willing to show his “true self.” I hypothesize that this shift in public demeanor was due to Flacco’s confidence. Athletes who are comfortable in their cleats on the field are often comfortable in their own skin while being interviewed. Take a post-game press conference for example. Compare a player who has just won a big game versus a player who has just lost a big game. The winning player often has their chin up, elevated shoulders, puffed out chest, makes eye contact with the reporters, and seems to revel in the spot light. Whereas, the losing player might be covering their eyes with a hat or sunglasses, makes limited eye contact, has slumped shoulders, and provides short answers that scream, “Get me out of here!” Both of these visual images are on opposite ends of the confidence spectrum.

It would have been interesting to have shadowed Flacco throughout his five year career to determine what contributed to this metamorphosis. Did Flacco always project an uncomfortable public demeanor with less confidence? Did he need to make a determined shift to portray more confidence and comfort when being interviewed or did it happen naturally? One thing we will be able to find out is whether this shift is permanent or temporary with the upcoming season. And for those who are interested in this kind of thing, watch your teammates, business partners, coaches, classmates, or friends to determine their level confidence and how it correlates with success.