in families, business, churches, communities...
And there are lots of leaders out there like my friends. Some in big businesses and some in small, independent business. Can I afford to pay my employees? When do I cut my losses? What now?
And there are, in a way, leaders like this out there in every family right now. Facing tighter budgets and having to make tougher, scarier decisions.
For all of you out there leaders in business, families, churches, communities organizations…I want to do the one thing I can do, which is bring my passion for nerdy social science and resilience type-stuff to provide some reassurances. Four of them to be exact:
What the research in heuristics and biases and emotions tells us is that in fact high confidence in decision making is often totally unrelated to the quality or accuracy of the decision. The more pessimistic, negative emotions you as leaders are feeling right now is likely actually helping you to make some of the best, most accurate, most informed decisions you’ve ever made. When we feel positive emotions, we tend to more consistently rely on our heuristics for decision making. When we feel negative emotions, it pushes us to seek broader information, weigh all the facts, and think more critically. So know that if you are feeling the weight of your decisions, if you are feeling uncertain about the future, you and your brain are probably doing the right thing.
I hate to say it, but if the decisions you’re making right now feel awful and painful, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is the place you want to be. If the decisions you are making today are for the long-term (9-18 month) benefit of our organization and our people…then you’re probably doing it right. It means you’re fighting against our behavioral instinct to make decisions in reaction to near-term losses and gains.
“In the midst of uncertainty and fear, leaders have an ethical responsibility to hold their people in discomfort – to acknowledge the tumult but not fan it, to share information and not inflate or fake it…When we are managing during a time of scarcity or deep uncertainty, it is imperative that we embrace the uncertainty. We need to tell our teams that we will share as much as we’re able when we’re able…There is incredible relief and power in naming and normalizing fear and uncertainty. We have to find the courage to look back at the people who are looking at us for leadership and say, ‘This is difficult. There are no simple answers. There is pain and fear that would be easy to unload on others – but that would be unfair and out of our integrity. We will walk through this in a way that makes us feel proud. It will be hard, but we will do it together.”
If you’re feeling some big emotions in this time…that’s expected. Grant yourself permission to feel all of those emotions. In order to do that, you’re likely first going to have to give yourself permission to PAUSE. Pause. Just…pause more often than you currently are. Don’t pause from work to scroll your social media feed or catch a few minutes of the morning news. Literally just pause and sit and tune inward. Breathe. Ask yourself, “how am I feeling right now?” And notice how your mind and body respond. That’s it. Pause and inquire within. You may be surprised at your power to tune-in and you may be surprised at the information your body give you.
How many of you out there are having a hard time being optimistic these days?
Or, how many of you out there are maybe mad at the people who seem overly optimistic right now?
Here’s the thing. Optimism often gets a bad rap. Or, at best optimism is often mis-understood.
Which is really unfortunate because optimism is CRITICAL to resilience. It is part of what enables us to not only go through tough times, but grow through them.
In fact, whenever we teach resilience, we refer to optimism as “the engine of resilience”. Meaning, optimism is as critical to resilience as an engine is to a car. Without it, we go nowhere.
But our definition of optimism often surprises people.
Yes, part of optimism is positive thinking.
But optimism is not having your head in the sand. It is not pretending everything is okay or that there’s nothing wrong. It’s not the typical ‘pie in the sky’ denial type thinking.
Optimism is being firmly planted in reality. It is acknowledging that things, right now, are hard. They’re scary. They’re uncertain. AND having an unwavering faith that we will prevail in spite of what’s happening right now.
It’s maintaining a steady, resolute belief and confidence that there is light at the end of the tunnel – even if we can’t currently see it. Even if right now, it’s pitch black.
We can be scared and be optimistic.
We can be unsure of what’s to come, but still take control where we have it.
We still have agency or choice in our thoughts and actions. And we can learn to see that we will grow from this hardship – both as a society and as individuals.
If we want to be resilient through this – or any tough or challenging time – we have to be optimistic.
Maybe you have family members that are sick and you aren’t able to visit them. Maybe you recently transitioned to a being a one income family and are worrying about how you will pay the bills. Maybe you’re nervous about your children’s education while schools are cancelled.
Not only can we hold that challenging reality in view and still be optimistic, it’s critical to hold that reality in view in order to be optimistic.
Because research shows us that only when we confront the adversity of our current state head-on, can we make accurate assessments and better decisions about where to use our energy and give ourselves the best chance to overcome.
It’s that type of realistic optimism that helps us maintain hope.
Sometimes people think pessimism is a better, more realistic route to take. But research shows us that Pessimistic thinkers are actually quite bad at seeing where they have control. Pessimistic thinkers tend to both OVER and UNDER estimate the amount of control they have in any given situation….and there is a cost to both.
If we over estimate our control – we are wasting energy in areas that we can’t change or even influence.
If we under estimate our control – we don’t take action in areas that could get us closer to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Now, if you’re a self-identified pessimist, know that these are in fact thinking styles that can be grown and developed and changed with practice.
Perhaps more importantly, the thinking style we choose will influence the thinking styles of those we interact with daily – virtually or in-person, particularly our kids. What ripple effect do we want to have? How do we want to influence those we love and lead?
Take a minute and reflect on your beliefs about optimism, realism, and pessimism. What did you think before and what do you think now?
I’m hoping you’ve started to see that what we all need right now is neither head in the sand optimism nor grouchy pessimism. What we all need right now is optimism planted in reality.
Here’s your action item: let’s work to hold ourselves and those around us more accountable by adding the missing piece. What I mean is…
When we talk with a friend and all we hear them say is “how hard it is right now” and “how bad it is” …let’s not deny that truth, but instead acknowledge and add optimism. “Yeah, it is hard right now and this is really bad. AND, what we can do right now is…((stay home, connect with people we know are solo, wash our hands well and often, make sidewalk art))”
On the other hand, when we talk with our overly positive friend and all we hear them say is, “everything’s going to be okay” …maybe we share with them that their positivity is needed and appreciated AND that research shows us our positivity has an even more powerful impact when we also acknowledge reality. “I really appreciate that you can see that we’re going come out of this at some point, the world needs that right now, I need that right now…and it’s also true that for a lot of people this is going to be bad…acknowledging that will allow us see what we can do to help ourselves and others overcome.”
Let’s all be realistic optimists. Acknowledge reality while maintaining hope.
Stay home. Stay Safe. Stay Connected.
Here’s my question:
How many of you have come to believe, either from a mentor or just…working in the field, that a good way to reduce stress and burnout is to detach yourself from the pain and suffering you see?
That shutting down your emotional attachment, your emotional response…is the best way to protect yourself?
Heck, many of us not in the medical field have come to believe this…
Here’s the thing: research tells us the opposite is true.
There is some amazing new stress research out there and one of the key things that research is telling us is that in fact we don’t want to reduce stress. We want to embrace it.
And, there’s one really unique and cool way healthcare workers can embrace the stress they face that can reduce burnout, reduce feeling emotionally drained, reduce feeling isolated, reduce depression and anxiety, and increase satisfaction with your work.
Want to know what it is?
Instead of shutting down, seeing patients as ‘cases’, instead of turning away from pain…
Increase your deliberate reflection on the profound privilege it is to be the people helping, to be the people who get to relieve the suffering, or to be those closest to bear witness.
You joined the healthcare field for a reason. Somewhere back in the day, I’m guessing this sense of meaning and purpose of work was in that reason.
Why does increasing reflection on your work make a difference? Because the research is clear: a meaningful life is a stressful life. They are inextricably intertwined. Nations with the highest stress index also have the highest levels of well-being. And measures of stress PREDICT sense of meaning.
Stress is an inevitable consequence of engaging in meaningful work and pursuing meaningful goals. When we embrace that…when we deliberately connect meaning to our stress, we can change the impact stress has on us emotionally and physically.
So here’s the brief intervention: Take time to talk with your co-workers or your family about the meaning of your work. Share a hippa compliant story about a profound moment of caring…or a moment where you had a change of perception about a patient. Ask yourself and ask others questions like, “What made that memorable? What did you do that helped in the situation? What did you learn about yourself?”
It’s not a perfect intervention. But it’s something that can absolutely help. If you want more specifics, reach out and I’m happy to help your teams.
This research and so much more can be found in “The Upside of Stress” by Kelly McGonigal.
Hi Everyone. It's been a while...but I feel like I have content that I want to share with you all that could be helpful in these crazy times and will hopefully start posting more here. I'm also going to broaden the base of work here - moving out of the on-field Ultimate setting to, well, the whole of life. If you've got people in your life who could use this type of content right now, share it widely. We're all in this together and I want to be here for all of you. Happy reading and keep in touch...virtually.
Resilience Through Emotion
First thing I want you all to do is close or lower your eyes and take one deep breath.
Okay. How many of you did that?
How many of you just kept breathing normally and waited for me to keep talking?
How many of you scoffed or rolled your eyes at me?
Maybe you even thought, “If one more person tells me to breathe…”
My point of this small activity is this: YOU HAVE THE SKILLS. You have the resources. You have the strengths within you already to remain ready and resilient in this challenging time. IT’S ABOUT USING THEM.
One of the things we talk about in resilience research is the idea of “ordinary Magic.” What we mean by that is: Resilient people aren’t special. They didn’t get some lucky mix of genes that made them more resilient than others. More often than not, those who are most resilient have a set of ordinary skills and strengths and the are able to Marshall them – or pull on them, use them – in the moment they’re needed. In that way, resilience sometimes looks like magic. But when we pull back the curtain (with research) what we find is that it’s ordinary skills, strengths, and relationships leveraged in the right moment.
So my first bit for you today is this: YOU ALREADY HAVE IT WITHIN YOU TO NOT JUST SURVIVE THIS, BUT TO THRIVE THROUGH IT. When in doubt, look inside first. What do I already know? What do I already do? What do I have inside me that can help in this moment?
Now, I’ll continue today by noting just a couple areas you might want to tune-into first: Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation. In particular, I want you to tune into – become more self-aware of and improve your regulation of, your emotions.
Because in tight living quarters – think home with spouse and kids for weeks – it is nearly impossible (research supported) to not be affected by the emotions of those around you. We want to build resilience through connection and our emotional state can make or break that.
And even if you’re a single person sheltering in place by yourself, these next emotion awareness and regulation ideas will help you too. Being aware of your own emotions, learning to regulate them will help you stay grounded in the absence of others.
First let me be clear:
Emotional Regulation does not mean not feeling. It doesn’t even mean exerting tight control over what we are feeling. It doesn’t mean banishing negative emotions. Emo Reg starts with giving yourself and those around you the permission to feel ALL emotions – without judgement.
How do we do that?
Two key themes from today:
Hope that was helpful! If you like this content, all of the supporting research and so much more can be found in the book, "Permission to Feel" by Marc Brackett. I highly, highly recommend it!
Hello Ultimate Mindset readers!
This post is long overdue and a bit hard to write.
You see, I have a thing about following-through. Do what you say you’re going to do. Your word is your everything.
I have been following-through with supporting my family - taking some time off work to take care of my kids while my wife starts a new kick-ass job.
But as I write this, I feel a pang in my gut telling me that I have not been following-through with my goal to support the Ultimate community with mental strength training. And that’s on me.
I originally intended for this to be a quick apology note. And then I realized that here in my own life is a lesson worth sharing.
Balance is hard. Sometimes things slip. The plates fall. The disc drops.
It happens everywhere – and probably more often than we’d like on teams.
Maybe you were late getting the weekly track workout sent. Maybe you forgot the disc bag. Maybe you forgot to return a text message. Maybe you missed a work deadline because you were too busy compiling the track and strength workouts for the week. Maybe you were late to practice because you just couldn’t get out of work on-time.
It’s not about what happened, what we missed, forgot, or dropped. It’s about what we do when we recognize what’s happened.
Do we acknowledge our mistake or do we hope no one noticed?
Do we own our mistakes or do we blame other people or circumstances?
Do we apologize and make amends or do we hope that we will be forgiven?
Those questions get at the heart of accountability.
Accountability is critical to trust.
Trust is critical to teams.
Acknowledging, owning, and apologizing for our mistakes is hard. It’s why this post is hard for me to write. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. In fact, I believe the hard things are often the most worthwhile.
So to my UM team, I hope that you’ll accept my apology and are willing to bear with me as I continue to find the balance in my life.
Know that the archives are always there and I’m always happy to answer your questions (feel free to send them my way). Also know that I hope to be able to do some new cool modes of content through the rest of this year that will hopefully make up for the lack thereof so far including trying my hand at Instagram, so if that's your thing look me up and follow me there: @PerformanceColorado.
After my first post on recovering from injury and getting back to playing, I got quite a few questions about strategies for dealing with an initial injury and getting through the recovery process itself. That’s what this post is all about. If I had to sum it up in one sentence it would be:
Recovery is a dynamic process – be aware of changing conditions, adapt, be patient, and persist.
Here are my tips for getting through the process of recovering from an injury. As always, ask questions and share any other strategies that have worked for you!
Maintain Realistic Expectations: Plan for the roller coaster
What I’m about to say in this section isn’t meant to be harsh or get you down. It’s meant to prepare you if you’re just starting the recovery process. It’s meant to normalize your experience if you’re already deep into the process. It’s meant to help you say: I can get through this.
Experiencing and recovering from injury is a challenge. It can test your body, mind, spirit, and relationships.
It can be a mental and emotional roller coaster: You’ll likely have days where you’re upbeat and feel good followed by days of the exact opposite. Grief, anger, sadness, detachment, no motivation, irritability, lost confidence…these are all normal.
A provider (Dr., PT, ATC, etc.) may say, “You’ll be able to return to play in X months.” Then X months may come and go and you’re nowhere near being able to play. A friend may say, “I had that same thing happen and it took me forever to heal” or “I had that same thing happen and I was back a week later.”
Knowing that these ups and downs are coming can help us to manage them when they arrive and can help us understand they will come and go.
Keep a journal of progress & setbacks
I highly recommend keeping a detailed journal of your progress. Often athletes make small improvements that go unnoticed. And a common response to not feeling like we are making any progress is to push too hard.
The journal also helps you more objectively see the 'two steps forward, one step back' type of progress. Instinctively, we more easily notice and remember the 'one step back.' Reviewing journal entries can help you see how far you’ve come.
If you have a provider (ATC, PT, Dr., etc.) you’re working with, ask for their thoughts and feedback to add to your journal as well. They are experts and may be seeing progress that is hard to feel and offer a different perspective.
Track your progress & the strategies that helped. Track your setbacks & the lessons you learned.
Re-frame your thoughts
Are your thoughts about your injury and recovery helping or harming you?
If you find that your thoughts are not effective for your recovery, you’ll likely need to do some work to re-frame them. This takes practice and some effort initially, but as you begin to retrain your brain it will become more second-nature.
One strategy is to identify and recognize the reality of the situation (don’t ignore it, that’s actually not helpful) and then also identify where you have control and what you can do to help your body heal.
In the early stages of an injury, your thoughts may sound like: “I hate not being active, I can’t stand to sit around” or “If I don’t play I’m going to lose my spot on the starting lines.”
Re-framing these thoughts might sound like: “Not being active is hard for me, but I trust that rest is what my body needs to heal fastest” or “The only way for me to maintain my starting spot is to heal as efficiently as I can.”
Stay tuned-in to your thoughts throughout the recovery process. The thoughts that get in your way immediately after an injury may be different than the thoughts that get in your way a week, a month, or many months into the process.
Keeping track of your initial/unhelpful thoughts and the re-framed thoughts is another great way to see progress. It can also help you transition between stages. For example, early on you may need to be more protective and then transition into a stage where you need to push a bit more – different thoughts can be helpful in these different stages.
How you think matters to your recovery – choose to be your own ally instead of your own enemy.
Culture of respecting the recovery process.
Finally, but certainly not last: Coaches, leadership, and teammates have to be on-board with creating a culture where the recovery process is valued. More importantly, this should be explicitly stated as something that is valued. Otherwise, athletes inevitably 'mind read' pressure from their coaches/leadership/teammates to return to play sooner than they are ready.
Most athletes put enough pressure on themselves that they actually need the encouragement of others to hold-back. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Be aware of how your beliefs or preconceived notions may be influencing your perception of an injured athlete. Some people may push a top-tier athlete to return to play because they are needed, and some people may protect a top-tier athlete more than others. Some people may judge a lower-tier player’s injury to not be as serious and unintentionally pressure them to return to play. Tune-in to your thoughts and reactions to your athletes/teammates injuries and how you may be influencing their recovery.
The more people we have on our side through this process the better.
TODAY'S JOURNAL WORK: REFLECT & ADAPT
Where are your expectations set? Are they helping your recovery or making it harder?
Are you aware of your progress no matter how small? Would tracking your progress in a journal help you see your progress more objectively?
Is your thinking helping or harming your recovery? Could you be thinking more effectively?
Are you supporting your athletes and teammates in their recovery as well as you could be?
Another post in the Q&A series...
The first thing I want to say is that I hope people read this post whether or not they've ever been in this exact position with an injury:
Question: "What are some of the strategies you use in overcoming an injury? Specifically, is there a mental pep-talk you give yourself after recovering from an injury when you have a scary moment where you overreact mentally? I find myself apologizing and explaining that I had a recent injury, but need to pull myself together quickly to keep playing after a "close call." I've seen others struggle as well. Advice?"
Certainly, if you've been injured and felt like you've 'overreacted' in 'close call' situations during your recovery (or even well after you've recovered), it's important for you to know what's (likely) going on in your brain and body.
If you're a coach/captain/teammate/friend of someone who's ever had a serious injury or struggled to come back from injury, or has 'overreacted' in 'close call' situations, it's important for you to understand what might be going on for them.
Additionally, the information I'm going to present in this post is valuable for everyone to know because it has broad connections to any type of injury or trauma someone may have experienced in their life.
Let's start by defining the term "overreact." We use this term to describe the moment when our actions/reactions turned out to be more than the situation warranted. It is usually retrospective and it is usually judgmental in tone. I can't think of a time I've ever planned to "overreact" in advance. It usually just happens and it often happens before we really know that it's happening.
This post is written to help you understand why and how our brain and body react seemingly without your direction, much less your permission.
Here's how one athlete describes this experience:
"Everything is fine until all the sudden it's like my brain senses or feels someone running up behind me. I freeze – I go from a full sprint to a dead stop - my body just stops, tenses-up and I scream. All this to find out seconds later that the player behind me wasn't even close to me. The reaction – stopping in my tracks, tensing up, screaming – is instantaneous …it all happens before I even knew it happened. When the time warp ends, I stand there untouched, unscathed. Embarrassed, I apologize...but I feel shaken."
While there is a lot of technical neuroscience stuff that can explain these reactions down to the neuron, I want to keep it more basic here so we can all have a usable big picture understanding.
This is a textbook experience of what it's like when our primitive and emotional brains hijacks our thinking brain.
The primitive brain is responsible for our survival functions like breathing and threat detection. When a threat is detected, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we experience symptoms commonly referred to as "fight or flight" such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and surges of adrenaline. These physiological changes are designed to help us survive the threat by priming us to run or fight for our lives.
Another somewhat lesser known response is the "freeze" response. The physiological changes in the freeze response include a similar activation of the sympathetic nervous system, but a disabling of body movement. The primitive and emotional brains basically says, "this threat is so severe that our best chance of surviving is to play dead."
What's most likely happening for athletes who experience a freeze response while playing is that the primitive brain detects a threat because the conditions - 'someone running up behind me' - are similar to the conditions under which the athlete experienced a severe injury.
Other athletes may experience similar physiological or emotional symptoms to a lesser extent. Maybe they don't freeze, but they hesitate. Maybe it's not in the moment of play, but upon returning to the field where they tore their ACL or facing the opponent they were playing when they got a concussion.
It might seem hard to believe that the brain would create such a strong response to one data point when it has thousands of other data points that are strikingly similar and nothing bad happened. This happens because our brains are wired to encode emotionally charged memories (the one data point) significantly deeper than average, non-emotional memories. Why? To keep us safe. Unfortunately, sometimes they overshoot the mark - especially when it comes to strong emotional memories like an injury.
So what do we do about it? How do we reign-in our primitive and emotional brains and allow our thinking brain to execute some control?
TODAY'S JOURNAL WORK: THE PLAN
#1: Manage your expectations.
This is my number one rule for anything injury related and is especially true here. Retraining your brain to respond differently is going to take time and effort - trust that it's worth it.
#2: Remove the judgment.
Unfortunately, when we judge ourselves or others judge us for our 'overreactions,' it can actually reinforce the intensity of the emotional connection to the response, which can reinforce the response itself.
Try starting by acknowledging the judgemental thought: "I'm feeling embarrassed." Then, acknowledge that your response was in fact nothing to be ashamed of, but simply a survival instinct gone too far, "my brain felt threatened and took over, I wasn't in charge."
#3: Release your physiology.
When we have a survival response like fight, flight, or freeze, our bodies fill with neurochemicals and hormones that create physiological activation such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and muscle tension. If there is no threat, we want to release these things from our body as soon as we can so they don't continue to influence us unnecessarily.
Try starting by noticing which of these symptoms you're experiencing: "My heart rate is through the roof, I'm short of breath, and my shoulders are hunched up to my ears." Then, take deliberate action to release these sensation such as a few deliberate breaths, shaking out your arms, or a quick sprint. Be sure to pay attention to what it feels like as your symptoms release.
#4: Start rewiring your brain.
Once the judgment is contained and our body is returning to baseline, we now want to get our thinking brain truly back online. The thing is, you want to be as deliberate about this process as you can as this is a great time to start rewiring your brain for the long haul. I highly encourage you to pre-plan these thoughts in a moment of calm instead of relying on them to come to you in the moment. The stronger the emotional resonance, the more effective they will be.
Try starting with a word, phrase, mantra, or image that fills you with a positive emotion such as hope or gratitude. It could be something as simple as "I'm OK." It could be more complex like a reminder of 'your why': why you play the sport, why you love the sport, why you're pushing to play past this experience. Perhaps something like, "I'm a living example of perseverance for my kids/friends/teammates." If possible, connect this new thought to your calmer physiological state or the positive emotion it elicits. This will help you more deeply encode this response.
Numbers 2-4 are a plan for in-the-moment. The first few times you try to engage these strategies, it might be a bit slow, clunky, or bumpy. That's to be expected. The idea is that this new plan will become easier and more natural each time. You'll start to recognize indicators sooner and be able to more quickly recover. Numbers 5-X are strategies to rewire your brain in calmer moments.
Our brain has a hard time distinguishing between what is real and what is imagined. It's why we feel physical excitement just from thinking about something exciting; or feel stress from thinking about something stressful. Use this to your advantage by training your brain to respond how you want it to in your mind first.
Try starting by imagining yourself playing, using all of your senses. When you get comfortable, imagine yourself in the conditions that usually elicit your intense response - like feeling someone running up behind you. It is likely that you will start to feel some emotional and physiological activation at this point. Ideally, instead of letting that primitive brain response take-over, you imagine yourself staying calm and playing through that moment.
It may take many repetitions at this to 'get it right' and actually see yourself playing through it without having an extreme reaction. Your brain is a powerful thing, harnessing it will take time (see rule #1). If you do still see yourself responding with a fight/flight/freeze response, see yourself implementing your new recovery plan (#2-4) and returning to baseline faster.
#6: Enlist help.
Struggling is hard. Struggling alone is harder. Know that other people have gone through what you're going through. Those people may not be on your team, but that doesn't mean your team can't still be helpful.
Try starting by taking time to think about what you need/seek from people in those moments. Do you need to make eye contact with someone? Would you benefit from someone saying something specific to you? Then, think about who you want to ask for that support. Maybe start with a best friend, maybe start with a coach - whoever you feel will be most helpful for you.
#7: Embrace a new normal.
It is important to understand that injuries, even when fully physically healed, still impact us. Pay attention to what mark that injury is leaving on you and know that you can work to frame that mark in a way that it is helpful instead of harmful.
Try starting by recognizing what impact you might be noticing: "I'm not planting and cutting as much off my surgery leg." Then, think about how you could frame that in a way that is helpful: "That is forcing me to tune-in to my cutting patterns in a way I never have before." The idea here is to recognize and embrace that big things impact us, and with some deliberate work they can have a positive impact on us.
Many people who experience major life events (like athletic injuries) recognize that while they'd never wish it on anyone else, they appreciate how it has helped them grow. We might be smarter, stronger, or straight-up tougher than we were before. Let's recognize and leverage it.
I really hope you found this post helpful in understanding what might be happening for people with injuries. If you want more information on any of the topics discussed or have questions about your own experience, please reach out and let me know!
Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank a few people for their contribution to this post: E Kruise (a fellow sport psych consultant for some mind-bending 'nerd out' conversations), Jenn Housholder (a trainer with the Trauma Resource Institute for her insight on injury and the brain), and the athletes whose first-person accounts inspired and informed this post.
A few additional resources for those interested in the details of the brain and the different responses, check-out the videos below...
Emotions and the brain:
Areas of the brain:
This post was inspired by a conversation I had with an athlete this week and is shared with their permission.
We are working on increasing this athlete’s confidence and consistency. One major barrier to that has been their self-talk – the things we all say to ourselves in our own mind. Their self-talk has historically been quite critical.
Realizing we had a short turn-around between our session and an upcoming tournament this weekend, I was looking for ways to have them practice the skill of quieting their mind in everyday life between now and game time.
“Are you as critical of yourself in everyday life as you are in Ultimate?” I asked.
A knowing laugh and sheepish “yes” was the answer.
“Me too!” I said. (I don’t think they were expecting the mental skills coach to say that).
“For example, this morning when I was unloading the dishes from the dishwasher (and our son was sleeping in the next room) I banged a metal baking pan against another pan. I instantly berated myself with a harsh, ‘aw c’mon!’”
There was that knowing laugh again.
“But that was the end of it,” I said. “I couldn’t stop that first millisecond thought, but after that one thought I took a breath and emptied my mind.”
“But don’t you want to fix it?” They asked. “Isn’t the point of the criticism to help you fix the behavior and wouldn’t it be selfish not to fix it?”
“Absolutely. But who says I didn’t fix the behavior? I did: I was more careful and quiet with the rest of the dishes with a quiet mind instead of continuing to berate myself.”
This story might make me seem like I'm good at this all the time. I'm not. Quieting the critical mind is a skill, a process, and a practice. We may not always find success, we may not always remember, but the point is that we always choose to return again.
This is the choice we all have: We can continue to berate ourselves as we fix the behavior, correct the mistake, or simply carry-on with our task. Or, we can fix the behavior, correct the mistake, or simply carry-on with our task with a quiet mind. That quiet mind allows us to be in the present-moment instead of in the past. Being in the present moment is our best chance of being our best.
“But don’t some people use that self-criticism to motivate themselves?” They asked.
“Sure, we can do that. But is it the most helpful and effective motivation?” I said…answering a question with a question (my athletes get used to this overtime).
We talked through another example, this one Ultimate related: you drop a pull in a close game.
In that moment, you could think of that dropped pull and maybe the guilt you’re feeling and use that to motivate yourself to play really hard defense and work and try your hardest to ‘get the disc back’ by making a big play. And we see TONS of athletes do this…and coaches reinforce it. But that motivation can be counterproductive.
If you're over-amped and working so hard to make a big play to get the “D” – you might be thinking about poaching the lane and let your cutter get away from you. Or you might be thinking so much about redeeming yourself with a hand-block causing you to over commit on a fake and give up an easy around.
If you were able to let-go of that mistake, quiet your mind, and play in the present moment you would be more likely to be focused on playing your best defense in that moment. You'd probably stay more focused on your cutter and stay truer on your mark…which is what your team actually needs from you in that moment.
I wanted to share this quick story because I think a lot of people are in this boat together. We think that being critical of ourselves can motivate us to fix the behavior or the mistake we made. Perhaps that’s true, but couldn’t we also fix the behavior or correct the mistake with a quiet and gracious mind? How would life be different if that’s how we operated?
The point sank in for my athlete. “I feel like that’s a big life change to make,” they said sort-of jokingly.
So often when I work with athletes on their mental game in sport, we also end up talking about their mental game in life. If you train your brain to think in a certain way all day every day, how can you expect it to think differently on a moment’s notice?
That couldn’t be more true of a critical mind. Learn to quiet your mind in daily life and the skill will transfer to the moments that matter.
JOURNAL WORK: Learning to quiet the critic
When you make a mistake, become aware of the critical thoughts that enter your mind. As soon as you regain control, find a way to empty your mind.
For me, I actually either say the words “blank” or “empty” to myself, take a breath, and fill my mind instead with my current surroundings. If I’m in the kitchen, it’s as if my mind becomes the kitchen. It might seem silly, but it literally takes your attention away from the self and puts it in the task or moment.
Imagine how powerful that would be if you were on the Ultimate field and your mind became the field and everyone on it and that was the only thing in your mind. That is present-moment-focus.
Quieting your mind is a skill.
Your way of emptying your mind may be different than someone else’s. You may have to do some trial-and-error to discover the best strategy for you.
Quieting your mind is a process.
Success may ebb and flow. Some days may be easier than others.
Quieting your mind is a practice.
You may not always remember, but always return again.
Question: "Are there mental warm-ups we should be doing in addition to physical warm-ups?"
I love this question.
Think about the purpose of a physical warm-up: to prepare your body for whatever you're about to ask it to do...train, practice, or compete. We know - and have normalized - the fact that our bodies need some deliberate preparation to perform optimally.
Funny thing is, while most of us acknowledge that our minds also need to be ready in order to perform optimally, we haven't normalized that our minds also need deliberate preparation.
I have two opinions/approaches/recommendations on both physical and mental warm-ups that I'll share first. Then I'll dive into a few strategies to try.
First, your physical warm-up should be what you need as an individual player to get your body ready. I know most teams have specific team warm-ups with running and plyos and mobility and stretching. All of that is good. And, each individual athlete, if they want to perform at their best, has to know which of those exercises in which order at what intensity is right for them.
My opinion is that while teams can/should run some element of a structured physical warm-up for those who need it, they should also be open to athletes who say "I need something different."
I insert this opinion on physical warm-up within the 'mental warm-up' post because ultimately, being ready physically can have a big impact on our mental readiness. Allowing individuals the time and space to do what they need to do to be ready is one small step captains/coaches/leadership can take to improve the mental performance of their athletes.
Second, your mental warm-up should be what you need as an individual player to get your mind ready. While I would say the vast majority of teams still don't incorporate deliberate mental warm-ups at all, I would also say those that do often miss the mark. Largely what I've seen is captains/coaches/leadership taking the same approach as they do to physical warm up: asking everyone on the team to do the same mental warm-up at the same time. This is usually imagery of a highlight reel, talk to your pump-up buddies, or breathe/meditate.
While these are three great go-to strategies, the trick is in encouraging individuals to customize their warm-up to incorporate them when needed (which I'll discuss more below). Now let's talk about how to improve those mental warm-ups or create them from scratch.
#1: Know your end state: what physical/mental/emotional state are you trying to create with the warm-up. I wrote a series of posts on this topic called so that I could tease-apart the details and help people understand how to identify their ideal state. "Switch On" Part 1 and Part 2 deal with identifying your ideal state and you can find those posts here and here. The general idea is: you have to know where you're trying to go if you want to get there on purpose.
#2: Develop/discover how to get there: Some athletes really like having a set routine you do the same way every time. Some athletes have bits and pieces they incorporate as needed. Some athletes discover what they need day-by-day. Interestingly enough, the world of sport psychology is rather polarized on this issue: some say you need a set routine and some say you don't. My approach is that you have to know you...How you get to your ideal state is up to you. "Switch On" Part 3 is largely about discovering and developing what you need to be mentally ready. Hint: it takes some work so you'll find most of what you need in the "Journal Work" section.
#3: Have a variety of strategies to introduce or try: Different strategies produce different results. And, sometimes a strategy that worked before doesn't work in a particular moment and you need another option. Below is a short-list of strategies to try.
Finally, as always...Train your mind like you train your body: Warming-up physically for a competition isn't the first time you've warmed-up physically. You physically warm-up for training and practice as well. So my question is, are you mentally warming-up for each of those events as well? If not, start there. Try these strategies in practice first to see what works best for you.
Let me know what questions you have from this post. And, this list of strategies is nowhere near complete. Please feel free to comment on our FB page with the mental warm-up strategies that work best for you, especially if I didn't cover it here!
One comment/question that came up on our PC/Ultimate Mindset Facebook page - and got quite a few 'likes' - was: "I loved the "3 Things" exercise for in-the-moment work. I'd love more ideas for how to try and quickly recover when struggling."
I'm excited about this question because having a tool-kit full of strategies to use in-the-moment is an important part of mental toughness. I'm going to breakdown some of these strategies into individual "quick-tip" posts so that they're more easily digestible. And, I re-tagged a couple older posts as 'quick-tips' as well so you can search for those more easily. Just remember, do your best to give these strategies a test run during practice so you know how they work for you before you hit game time!
Quick-Tip: Helping or Harming?
This strategy is insanely simple and yet I have seen it produce amazing results and get people back on track FAST.
Here it is:
When you're "struggling" ask yourself this question: "Are my thoughts and emotions helping me or harming me right now?"
This one simple question reminds us that we are in control of our thoughts and emotions - we are in control of ourselves.
If what we are thinking and feeling is working for us in the moment, that's great - drive on! If our thoughts and emotions aren't working for us (which is most likely the case if we feel we are 'struggling'), it gives us the opportunity to think and feel something different.
A few notes:
I hope this quick-tip reminder that you're in control is helpful. As always, email/post any questions or feedback for me!
Hi! I'm Piers. I am an Ultimate player, spouse, parent, and human performance coach. My passion and my profession is to help individuals and teams perform at their best through research-based mental skills, resilience, leadership and team dynamics training.
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