With Parker Stinson and high school teammate, Sharon Ahearn Siedliski at the 2017 BAA 10K in Boston.Read More
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.
Psychologists define perfectionism as a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards. This mindset is accompanied by critical self-evaluations, as well as concerns regarding others' judgement. Sadly, once these standards are met, they are deemed insufficient, and new benchmarks are set—to be lighter, to be faster. The beat goes on. Simply put, perfectionism is an insatiable task-master fueled by perpetual anxiety about never being quite good enough.
As I write this dispatch, a song sparrow lands nearby, and I’m compelled to watch its smooth conical beak dip into water. I was a nature kid. So deeply resonant with a rain drop’s perfection, I could spend all morning at a fresh puddle. Hours would go by foraging in the garden, and there were abundant trees to climb. The world was perfect by design, just like the tree-climber herself.
Soon after those years, I discovered running. But not the kickball-race-you-to-the-hydrant-tag-game kind of play. The kind where you compete against others to see who breaks the tape. I was a natural, and before long had constructed an arena in our yard complete with old mattress high jump pit, strawberry patch long jump, and backyard sprint. No longer just the fastest kid on the block, I became one of the fastest in the state, and then the country. To others I was not me, but what I did. The message became: Get a paid ticket to college. The small print on an NCAA scholarship should read: “Hey kid, you better deliver, or else.” With hope in my heart and a signed contract, I left home unaware that the Sword of Damocles hung over my head by only a horsehair.
On A Role
And so I ran for them and their contract as if I had no choice, as if it defined me. Individuals struggling with perfectionism often live out their lives as if-–as if they have to prove something to themselves and others, as if they’re self-worth depends on it. It's like the brain has been hijacked by a force working against one’s innate drive to develop and aspire.
When I got to college perfectionism went into full court press. Instead of being perfect for who we were, many of us got caught up in the ceaseless pursuit of who we were not. I saw my teammates felled by eating disorders, attempted suicides, and isolation, as I was burning out from feelings of being, as one coach said, “not as good as I said I was.” In the end, many of us were spit out believing we were a lot less perfect than we thought we were. The sports arena, like life itself, was ripe for such an experience. I understand this now because I have an MS in Sport Psychology and one in wisdom. As a mental performance coach, I strive to ransom the athlete’s hijacked brain from such programming.
The F Word
An example caught my eye in the NY Times the other day. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you are not a failure’!” was US Olympic high jumper Chaunté Lowe’s comment recently upon hearing that athletes placing ahead of her in Beijing failed retroactive drug tests, thus giving her the bronze. As a former elite trackster whose childhood dreams got abused, I am incredibly disheartened that Chaunté got her podium invite nine years after the crowds left the stadium. But, a failure? My sister, only 1 in about 9,000 people make the US Olympic track team. You never were a failure. Never will be. Podium or not. I totally get why Chaunté would feel that way, and I hope she reads this like a love letter to her soul.
Madison Holleran, the young University of Pennsylvania track runner who committed suicide in the winter of 2014, left behind a note saying: "I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in." It’s possible that both of these athletes were trapped in this as if role to be somebody for others that they weren’t for themselves. This fixed way of being gives us little room to separate our identity from what happened.
Where do these fixed roles come from? Roles can 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 make your bed. It implies that if you don’t, then you're a bad person. The bottom line is that you’re just a person--neither good nor bad--developing through experience. Unfortunately, the perfectionist experiences falling short as some judgement against their value. And sadly, the easiest person to take it out on is yourself.
So how do you shift your mindset to be a hardy learner instead of an anxious and self-critical performer? Consider taking on what Stanford researcher Carol Dweck calls having a Growth Mindset. Dweck’s studies show that when individuals are wisely acknowledged for their effort, strategies, process, and focus, they develop resilience and persistence. Outcomes–getting an A, winning a race–are NOT equated with self-worth, challenge is embraced, and mistakes are OK.
This work reshapes your brain, too. Research also shows that people who take on a growth mindset form new and stronger neuron connections that, over time, allow them to develop resilient mindsets primed for learning.
How you talk to yourself–staying curious, asking questions like: "what went well," "what can I learn from this," "what feels difficult," and "who can help me," invites new data and support. Tossing out statements with always, never, and should, creates space for new self-expression.
Take the Growth Mindset Challenge
Be specific in your praise, acknowledging…
- AND, not attaching results to self-worth
What does this look like?
A parent to their youth athlete:
- Instead of: “You’re the best player out there,” you can say, “You had 6 great passes today.” (Acknowledging effort)
Coach to athlete:
- Instead of, “You’re not as good as you said you were,” say, “There’s no doubt you have speed and strength. College is a big transition. Let’s ease up on your workouts so you have something left for racing.” (Focus on strategy)
- Instead of, “I suck at the triathlon,” you can say, “I didn’t do what I’d hoped, but I nailed the transitions.” (Focus on process)
"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.