Monday, April 11, 2016

The Athlete Mindset Hack 

It's not uncommon for me to be working with an athlete and hear them say things such as, I should win, I always choke, I'm not good enough to be here. Research shows that thoughts affect actions and can hold an athlete back from what they are physically capable of doing. Below is a snapshot of common phrases that can railroad an athlete's mental game, and others that can counter that. Consider questions that tap into your natural curiosity and provide you with choices. What are some of your habitual close-minded phrases (like the one's on the left), and how can you rephrase them (like the ones on the right)? Consider asking a question, and focusing on strategies, actions and intentions rather than on your value as a person.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

What Do I Say?

How to Talk to Young Athletes to Support a 

Healthy Mindset

    A long-time running friend of mine recently asked: "What specific phrases would you use to focus on strategies for a youth athlete (less than 10 yrs old) who is innately competitive?"

     That is an important question, because what we say helps shape the emotional landscape of our kids. First let's look at what's going on developmentally in this phase of life. Early adolescence is a time when children are constructing meaning from the world around them and growing wisdom. They are modeling actions from how they interpret the messages around them (parents, coaches, peers and media). Beliefs are developed from that input, which lead to the formation of an identity.

     When the predominant message from the immediate circle is to compete, win, dominate, children can begin to lose touch with their natural sense of wonder and curiosity, and become emotionally fixed and inflexible. I can see how this has developed in our society, since the norm these days is to begin children in structured sports-activities as young as 5 years old.

     How we language information to children in order to be appropriate and empowering is actually quite subtle and specific. Our communication shapes thinking, and can provide children with the beginnings of a map for their own healthy inner voice. In order for children to be resilient and emotionally flexible, it's important to help them develop what Stanford psychology researcher Carol Dweck calls a Growth Mindset. Dweck states that children are natural wonderers. Through specific and healthy communication you can stimulate that aspect, and model to them a focus on actions and intentions rather than judging their innate identity. 

     In a study conducted by Dweck with a diverse population of young Chicago students, participants were given a moderately difficult set of problems to complete. Those children that were then praised for being smart, were less inclined to fill out a more challenging worksheet, in the event they then appeared not smart. Those who were praised for strategies like hard work or pacing themselves, were eager to raise the bar, and agreed to take on more challenging problems. Dweck concluded that praising students for their ability taught them a fixed mindset and created vulnerability, but praising them for their effort or the strategy they used taught them a growth mindset and fostered resilience. 

     Eight time grand slam winner and Olympic gold medalist, Andre Agassi, is a perfect example of being brought along in his physical development while his inner voice was misguided. Agassi admitted in his autobiography that he hated tennis because of his overbearing father, who pushed him to train and compete from an early age. It wasn't fun, and he eventually developed a drug problem to deal with his resentment.

     As someone who sprinted rapidly up the ranks of youth running, I can't state strongly enough how important it is to have fun. As a matter of fact, the number one goal for youth athletes is to have fun. It's also the number 2 and the number 3 goal. When kids get stuck in roles like, "I'm the one who has to win," they limit their options and flexibility when they don't win. There are also times when being competitive is inappropriate or even destructive. These experiences can effect the child's health as well as social relationships, and thus negatively impact self-worth.

     When I work with young athletes in mental performance, I always take the lead from them by asking questions like: what do you love about your sport, what makes it fun, what bothers you about it. I talk with them about their hobbies and interests and engage them in co-creating a balanced, meaningful, and happy experience. For example, I work with a young go kart racer who runs as part of his training, which he doesn't like. When I asked him what he loves to do, his face lit up as he told me about these collectibles he calls Magic Cards. I encouraged him to come up with a game that incorporates running and Magic Cards, and he did. Once empowered and on-board with the idea of playing with his program, we also came up with fun ways for him to do push ups and sit ups using blueberries as rewards for each rep. He then quickly named them Fruit Ups. He was on fire with ideas, and lit up for the first time that session. It looked like a weight had been lifted from his 10-year-old shoulders. And he had been the one to lift it!

     When speaking with young athletes, I recommend you use phrases and questions such as: 
          Looks like you worked really hard at this.
          Mistakes help us grow.
          What do you think we learned today?
          What worked well and what didn't? 
          Is there anything you want to add, and anything you want to get rid of?

Make sure the language is specific and leaves opening for discovery and possibility. Take the lead from the child, and empower them to be a co-creator in their sports experience as they develop a healthy inner voice.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Athlete Perfectionism: The Highjacked Brain

     Perfectionism all too often plagues many athletes, and sabotages the very success they are driven to achieve. Eating disorders, exercise addiction, negative self-talk, setting unrealistic goals, are just a few of the behaviors that signal such a tendency. That's because perfectionists tend to focus on external goals, such as numbers, time, distance, and wins, and misinterpret or ignore the feelings, emotions, and physical signals that provide us with valuable information. 

     It's like the brain has been highjacked by a force working against its innate drive to develop and aspire. These individuals often live out their lives as if-- as if they have to prove something to themselves and others--as if their life depends on it--as if they have no choice. 

     Madison Holleran, the young University of Pennsylvania track runner who committed suicide in the winter of 2014, left behind a note that said it all about the trap of perfectionism and identity:  "I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in." Sadly, this is a clear example of how roles limit our options, locking us in a fixed way of acting, or being perceived. Like this we have little room to explore other expressions of ourselves, or separate the events in our lives from who we think we are supposed to be for the rest of the world. 

     Where do these roles come from? It's actually a lot of old ingrained patterning. Roles emanate from childhood, where hidden social messages first were interpreted in ways those providing them may not have ever intended. It's like the parent saying, "good boy" or "good girl" if you do something right. It implies that if you mess up, then you're a bad person. If your job is clearly to be a good person, well, major fail! The bottom line is that you are just a person--neither good nor bad-- learning through experiences. Unfortunately, the perfectionist experiences life's trials as some judgement against their value as a human being making it hard to rebound. Sadly, when you disappoint, the easiest person to take it out on is yourself.

     So how do you shift that mindset and learn to grow, be curious? Recent research on mindset and language can help point the way. Studies show that when individuals are praised on process rather than outcome, they perform better, develop resilience, and also form new and stronger neuron connections that, over time, allow them to develop open mindsets primed for learning. As an athlete, how you talk to yourself--staying curious, asking questions like : "what went well," "what can I learn from this," "what feels difficult," "what do I want to do about this," and "who can help me," and tossing out statements with always, never, and should, can help you escape the trap of perfectionism. As a coach or parent, praising athletes for being fast, or strong, or always a winner, does not allow room for the times when they aren't those things. However, praising athletes for the specific strategies they use to achieve a goal or navigate disappointment, leaves room for learning, discovery, adaptability, growth, and resilience. Instead of criticizing an athlete for who they are, couch feedback in phrases such as, "things didn't go as we had hoped today. What can we add, and what can we get rid of, for a better result." Make sure to consider what ACTIONS (not personal traits) can be shifted for better results. Remember, how you talk to yourself, or talk to your athletes, helps shape the emotional landscape, and can make or break the athlete within.

Point 5: An Elegy

UPenn Track runner Madison Holleran's suicide in 2014 hit me deeply. Here is a personal essay I wrote at the time...


"The terminal velocity of a falling human being with arms and legs outstretched is about 120 miles per hour (192 km per hour).

January 24, 2014, Philadelphia, PA: Yesterday I headed over to the site where 19-year-old Madison Holleran took her life by jumping off of a parking garage. She had come here to Philadelphia just 5 months before to go to the University of Pennsylvania and run on the track team. In college I’m guessing that she expected to continue in the same trajectory as high school--winning races, getting straight A’s. If this is the way the world has been, there is no reason why it could be any different in the mind of a teenager--a teenager who was recruited by college coaches not just in one sport, but two. 

Serious runners--like many athletes--measure things in numbers. But not just whole numbers, specific numbers, like, point something. “How far did you run today?” I ran 8.7 miles. “What’s your marathon time?” 2:59.57. “What did you run in the 800?” 2:08.87. That last number was actually Madison’s time when she won the event in last spring’s NJ Meet of Champions. She was also a standout soccer star with offers to play that sport collegiately at other schools. Madison chose instead to run at an Ivy League school. Wouldn’t you?

When I heard of Madison’s suicide, I was disappointed and pissed off. It hit close to home. I had been a collegiate track runner, as well, and two girls on the team at different times had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately for all of us, they had succeeded in living. I decided to head over to 15th and Spruce to retrace Madison’s steps, and try to sort out the thoughts I had.

High above the sidewalk, yellow caution tape swung in the cold afternoon air out of the opening in the parking garage where she jumped. Below was an altar of sorts--large vigil candles in glass containers, notes from friends taped to the wall, and a frozen pile of flowers in their store-bought paper wraps. The notes read like the common teenage sentiments in a school yearbook. "Madison, you were so beautiful." "You were such a good friend." "I wish I had known you longer."

In grad school one of my areas of interest is sport as a rite of passage. Coincidentally, one of the early sociologists who developed the theories on rites of passage also extensively studied and wrote about suicide. Émile Durkheim, a turn-of the 20th century french sociologist, suggested that suicide is a fact of society, and it arises from rules that govern behavior and group attachment. He believed that society is formed from the collective consciousness of a group of individuals, and that we are bound together by strong emotional and moral ties. These ties are reinforced through our rituals, like birthdays and sporting events, where we celebrate our common values, and recognize the passage of our members to new roles and privileges. Conversely, these shared beliefs that fuel our collectiveness, also constrain us. Some members who feel this constraint opt out, and choose to live outside of the broader society, like the Amish, or Timothy Treadwell, the infamous ‘Grizzly Man,’ or Henry David Thoreau. Some, however, opt out totally. They choose to die.

In one research study on college student-athletes, the sport of track and field has the 4th highest suicide rate behind football, basketball, and swimming. As I write this, I'm looking out over Rittenhouse Square from the Barnes and Noble Cafe. It's the same view where Madison posted her last Instagram, after she'd walked or run across the Walnut St. bridge from the Penn campus, before she wound her way through smaller streets to a parking garage, above a sports bar, and across from a CVS. The banality of it was surreal. I remember writing a poem years ago about what it must have been like for my father to meet his end on a train platform in Orange, NJ--the sudden collapsing to his knees from a heart attack, the swirling drone of concrete and overcoats, the usualness of a Wednesday morning commute in America. My conclusion? What an absurd place to die.

The Physics Fact Book says that a single raindrop falls at 25 feet per second. The more compact and dense the object, the higher its terminal velocity will be. How long did it take her to walk or run the 1.6 miles to her destination? How much time did it take to ascend in the elevator, to get up the nerve to jump, how much time to land? How many seconds and milliseconds did it take for her to fly 85 feet, before being stopped in our memories at the age of 19 forever? Did it take 3.19 seconds? Did it take 2.5? Did it take less? It’s a number I don’t ever want to know. 

Speaking of decimals, Madison’s GPA in her first semester at Penn was 3.5. That number is exactly .5 lower than what she had always expected to receive. Exactly .5 lower than what she had always gotten. Point 5 is the time it can take to go from 1st to 6th when you fumble the baton pass in a sprint relay, or 1st to 3rd in the epic closing of a distance race. Or the time it takes to let your feet leave a high ledge and soar down past the first few floors of a parking garage. Point 5. That is what it came down to. Point 5. Not even a whole number--a fraction. And that fraction made all of the difference in the world--our world, now that we live in it without her.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Pause for Poetry

Hey Everybody,

A not so known fact is that my area of focus in college was poetry. Throughout my athletic career I was able to balance the demands of training with the diversion of writing. My running often inspired poems, as I experienced a flow state that stoked the fires of creativity. I often encourage the athletes that I work with to explore other passions and interests to balance the challenging and sometimes tedious pursuit of sport. Pursuing hobbies and interests can be a way to take a mental break, find social connection, have a fun challenge free of penalties, and awaken a new source of energy. And, you never activity can flow into and inspire the other making you better at your job as an athlete. Throughout my life the process of creating deliciousness from language has fed my soul in ways that supported running, helped me process disappointment, celebrate elation, and leave the miles behind me when the time came. Here are a few of my musings related to bodies and movement....

Your body lies there a sutra of
myofilament and storm.
The warm sarcomere of your fibers,
crossbridging, collapsed dark regions,
a tangle of hair and fiber,
unfurling from the center,
opening, awakening and
fiercely dormant in it's deep collapse.
Even in your stillness you
rise to the sum of all kinesis.

This one came to me immediately after a run in Vermont with an old friend who had spread his father's ashes on a mountain we were passing. I sat down by a stream with pen and paper, and this river of language just flowed right out...

Father Mountain

Big Burke Mountain, you rise broad-based above all else,
gentling sloping upward shouldering sky.
From eastern views your peak splits,
bristling cleft chin, strong-jawed,
bear-hugging the big kingdom below you where we pass.

Your blue-green presence stirs in us 
dog-eared thoughts of another's passing,
whose ash you hold,
earth unburdened of another soul
at long last lifted child-like into your fold.

We wave, you nod, acknowledging this season's close.
One less soul between us, you and I.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Presenting at Villanova University in March

On March 18, 2016, I'll be presenting at Villanova University at the upcoming Day of Distance. The Day of Distance is a day-long conference featuring speakers whose talks are geared toward supporting the work of athletes and coaches in track and field and cross country. My talk is entitled: Heavy Mental: Getting to the Heart of the Healthy Athlete Mindset. Legendary running coach Jack Daniels is the Keynote Speaker. Click below for more info, and hope to see you there.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

 Those Voices in Your Head

You've all heard them--
This hill is going to kick my butt.
If I can't win, I won't try.
I'll never get past this injury.

     Some of these thoughts are ingrained pathways from childhood--as our brains were forming, we may have interpreted messages from the people and culture around us as criticism, negativity, anxiety, or futility. Research shows that you can intentionally shape your brain and your life by shaping the chorus that drives it. For me growing up on the elite runner fast track, some of these inner voices fueled me and some foiled me. It wasn't until I learned to reframe experience and get curious about my perceptions, that I realized I could manage my mind for more positive experiences and performances. 
     I was working with an athlete the other day who was struggling with said voices. I told him, "you know, some of these thoughts never go away. You are who you are, and to some extent you just learn how to manage that." We came up with an invisible dial he could turn on his shoulder to dial down the negative voices. It's helping him accept who he is, and feel more in control in any given situation.
     Below is a chart I developed to help you transform fixed negative thoughts into positive possibility. I'd love to hear YOUR thoughts. What are some of the messages you hear, and how do you manage them?

                                      Fixed Negative Phrases                         Positive Possibility Phrases
The only reason I compete is to win. 
I'm doing this for be admired...for material gain.
I enjoy this.
I deserve this.
I want to see what I can do.
I should win. 
It’s important how I look.
I don't take risks because I might look like a loser.
What will people think of me.
Will this help me improve?
Will this get me stronger where I need it?
I love and respect myself.

I suck. I’m an idiot, a failure. 
(Or, when injured) I don’t know who I am if I’m not training/competing. 

(Over-identifying as an athlete. When your self-worth is connected to performance).
I’m not where I want to be YET.
No matter what, I can still work hard.
What am I missing? 
What action(s) can I take to influence results? Who can help?
I am more than my sport.
I give up. 
I can’t do this.

(Avoid challenges. Get defensive or give up easily).
Bring it on. 
Let me see what I’ve got today.
I take risks and learn. 
Who can support me?
Why bother?
Nothing will change?
I can only push myself if people are there to make me.
I have to push ALL the time to prove myself.

Progress requires effort.
If I want to improve I have to put in the work.
What do I have inside me to get through this?
My body is intelligent, and I listen to what it needs.

Something must be wrong with me. 
I don't deserve this.
People expect a lot from me, and I'm letting them down.
The coach doesn't know what their talking about.

(Tendency to ignore constructive criticism or take it personally).
How can I improve?
What am I missing?
Mistakes help me grow.

Success of Others
I'm a loser.
I don't deserve to be here.
I'll never reach my goals.
I'm letting people down.

(Feelings of being threatened by others’ performance).
I’m inspired by my rivals.
We strive together.

(Find the lesson and inspiration in other people’s performance).
I quit. I’m walking away unfulfilled.

(Plateau early. Achieve less than full potential).
Let’s see where this goes. I am open to what comes that I didn’t expect.
(Reach higher and higher levels of achievement. Able to transform no matter what).