Learning to be OK with Earning Number Two

Whether you are an athlete, a parent, a coach, or a workplace professional, your mindset and preparation can make a world of difference in your productivity, performance, and level of success.  To help address this area, I sought out feedback from Dr. Pete Economou of Rutgers University to provide some insight into the relevance and principles of “MAC” for helping athletes improve their performance.

Take it away, Dr. Pete!

“You might be reading this because the title caught your attention. How many people remember who came in second place? Who is really OK with earning second place?  Many athletes have wondered how they can improve and enhance their performance. Our society is one that emphasizes the importance of immediacy, as well as a society that stresses the importance of winning. Some elite athletes have taken this to irrationally high levels and have even thought to hurt a fellow competitor (Think: Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding- figure skating-1994 Olympics). While some athletes might look for the easy way to the top, there are still many athletes that are committed to the hard work that is essential in winning. As parents or coaches of athletes, we may be seeking the right way for our blossoming athlete. I will show you the perfect blend, as I see it, to achieve success in sports.

Think about the good old fashioned approach of working hard for an outcome. This would include countless mornings rising before the sun, closely monitoring one’s diet (which probably includes being sure to eat enough calories- like a table full of breakfast foods at the diner following at 4 hour practice), hours of sacrifice (e.g., social, academic, family), and a life that is dissimilar to the everyday student. As a former athlete, collegiate coach and now psychologist, I have experienced losing. Growing up there was no such thing as always winning and receiving a trophy. You had to earn that title and reward. I was not the best on every team, and that was OK. I can see the negative effect not being the best had on self-esteem, but it also provided me with the opportunity to learn other ways to build self-esteem. I worked hard, learned how to perform to the best of my ability, and was rewarded for the effort (sometimes). Discussion was often encouraged in my house, and my parents would often lead conversations about feelings related to a performance; not just those that were losses but also reinforcing strategies that worked while winning. Mindfulness within the sports performance world can assist athletes in finding that balance between winning and losing, working hard to the point of tears, and being OK with not always winning.

Mindfulness is a term you may have heard in the media and is defined as being present in this moment, doing so on purpose, and not judging your experiences (See: John Kabat-Zinn). While this is not an easy feat in Western world, it has proven to be effective in the East for centuries. Much of the social research shows that people in the East have lived free of many of the concerns and issues that we typically experience here in the West (e.g., the China study- no translation for hypertension and other medical health issues that are common here in the West). In fact, some argue that Mindfulness is nothing more than Buddhism wrapped up in a bow for Western people to embrace (Note: technically Buddhism is a way of life and not a religion). The foundation of Mindfulness comes from Zen Buddhism which teaches practitioners to observe the mind and this is often achieved through hours of silent sitting (zazen). I recently read the autobiography of Yogananda, and then watched the documentary, and I was reminded of how closed the minds in the Western world can be. Yogananda brought yoga from India to the U.S. and he was met with much resistance. Many people practice yoga in the U.S. today without any realization that yoga was initially created as a way to warm the mind up for meditation.  Currently it seems that yoga is more of a fad and a means to tone up the body rather than an exercise for the body AND mind. While I just bounced between Zen Buddhism and yoga, there is a strong connection between these two practices- one that beautifully compliments the practice of Mindfulness.

What does this idea of Mindfulness, yoga and Buddhism have to do with winning? Recent research by Frank Gardner and other sports psychologists have employed principles of Mindfulness in athletic performance and called it Mindfulness Acceptance and Commitment (MAC). Athletes are trained in the practice of Mindfulness, are evaluated on their openness to experiences and assess their values, and then are taught to commit to actions. Let me explain what that means.

The practice of Mindfulness with athletes looks something like this: embracing any present moment no matter how difficult it might be (i.e., being comfortable being uncomfortable), homework such as driving in the car with no radio or phone, sitting in silence daily for 10 minutes (with the hope we can work up to 30 minutes), defusing words and thoughts from reality (i.e., “I am stupid” vs. “ I am noticing a thought saying that I am stupid”), and ultimately cultivating the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e., the calming aspect of our central nervous system- the opposite of that “fight-or-flight” response).

Then, the leaders assist athletes in practicing psychological flexibility. Not the kind of flexibility that occurs in the gym or yoga room, rather this is the flexibility that requires us to re-learn something that we have known and practiced for a long period of time. Psychological flexibility is the ability to persist in a new behavior that is more aligned with who we want to be (See: Stephen Hayes and ACT). While the practice of psychological flexibility is one of the most challenging aspects of my clinical work, here are some ways to do so:

  1.  Accept the present moment as it is
  2. Separate yourself from your thoughts
  3. Be present
  4. Evaluate your values and see what you want to change
  5. Commit to this change.

To that end, we also work with the athletes to assess their values related to performance (e.g., their role for their team or goals that have been set) and also we evaluate the life values in general (e.g., the balance of working out and socializing, community work, spirituality, family, etc).

Lastly, this work of MAC requires a level of commitment from all parties that are involved. It is more to just say that someone wants to win- it is committing to the hard work required to get there that we focus on. A marathon runner does not just receive some trophies along the way to the first 26.2 mile run. That runner slowly and steadily builds to the marathon run through hours and hours of training.

While our society is typically focusing on the principles of winning, there is a lot to be learned from losing. Learning to accept that moment and learn how to improve yourself within performance is crucial for athletes. It is true that winning can improve self-esteem, but I postulate that one could learn more self-esteem improvement strategies through losing.  The message must be heard. To that end, listening is not just hearing. It is imperative that athletes, their coaches, and parents talk about the processes of both winning and losing. It is OK for boys to cry when they lose, and girls can boast when they win. We do not have to adhere to social pressure to uphold gender stereotypes. Lastly, cultivating a daily mindfulness routine can enhance quality of life and subsequently athletic performance. This can be accomplished by sitting and noticing, counting your breaths, visualization, or endless number of mindfulness strategies which can be detailed in future blog posts.”

Dr. Pete Economou has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology with a concentration in neuropsychology, and is based out of The Counseling & Wellness Center. For more info on Dr. Pete Economou, check out his bio here.  Dr. Pete can be contacted at peter.economou@rutgers.edu and is on twitter: @OfficialDrPete.

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