Vote for Joy

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And we’re back. Fall always feels like pushing the reset button. If you’re a skier or ski racer, it’s definitely time to kick your dryland training up a notch and get some sore quads now or suffer the consequences.

Now, before the excitement and frenzy of the season starts, is also a good time to re-examine your “why”; as in, why are you doing this sport? Your experience this season—as an athlete, parent, coach or rabid fan—will flow from that answer. Here, I’ll do my best to make the case for a “why” that is often overlooked or undervalued: Joy.

WHY JOY?

In all sports, and especially youth sports, we can get caught up in training more, and harder, to achieve the results that neatly equate to success. Focusing on joy, or fun, or any higher plane of fulfillment than results, can be misconstrued as an “everybody gets a trophy” degradation of commitment. To the contrary, when the joy of doing your sport is your why, your best performance—whatever that may be—typically follows.

IT STARTS INSIDE, UP TOP

After watching the Summer Olympics, it’s clear that we are in the era of mental health awareness. As with most sports fans, I’ve listened to and participated in many discussions on mental health. It is not a new discussion on this blog (like here and here), and on so many other blogs and podcasts, but I’ll swing the bat here at distilling the chatter to some highlights.

The current buzz notwithstanding, the importance of mental health in sports has been a surprisingly tough sell. Getting athletes to commit to mental skills training requires getting beyond the persistent perception, throughout the sports community, that sports psychology is something you need when you have a problem.

As a starting point, one simple suggestion resonates: Instead of calling it mental health and tiptoeing around the topic, why not call it mental strength and attack it like any other kind of training? Rather than viewing it as a fix, we can view it as a superpower, a set of skills we can train and enlist to improve consistency, rather than a wily third rail of performance.

PRESSURE IS A NON-NEGOTIABLE

I’ve been rightly accused of being soft, and of letting people off the hook. This is especially true when it comes to athletes who blow it in big moments. As an athlete who did so at an Olympic level, and as a mom of competitors who have felt their fair share of that pain, I ache for the athlete who trips into the first hurdle, flubs the baton pass, falls off the beam, straddles the last gate. Performing in the event of your life is a lot of pressure.

That said, when you shoot for the pinnacle in sports, pressure IS what you sign up for. If you can’t perform in high stakes situations, you don’t get a medal. There are many other reasons why you may not get a medal, but an inability to handle pressure—that is a deal killer.

Right before the Summer Olympics, where the World’s best athletes met the World’s biggest pressure cooker, I listened to a great Hidden Brain podcast on this topic. In it, the host interviews cognitive scientist Sian Bielock, who wrote the book Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. 

ANATOMY OF THE CHOKE

Bielock explains the mechanics of choking through the “paradox of working memory.” When we are learning a new skill, and need to pay attention to every detail, we rely on our readily available working memory. When we become skilled in that activity, it moves to procedural memory, affording us the mental space to take on the higher-level tactics and decisions that elevate performance. If, however, we take an autopilot skill, that is encoded in procedural memory, and reroute it to working memory (overthink it), we become a beginner at it. Put simply, we choke.

The opposite scenario is the coveted state of “flow” which happens when you allow yourself to rely on procedural memory vs working memory. Nicole Davis, on this episode of The Real Pod describes flow state as “when it feels good to be you.” When it comes to flow, Davis says, “Presence is everything!” This is because flow is often disrupted by anxiety, which is oriented to the future (results) and past (failure).

WHY YOUR WHY MATTERS

The key to maintaining flow is to re-engage in the present. That can be by giving your working memory something simple to do before a high stakes performance; eg, concentrating on breathing, singing a song, engaging in conversation, giving feedback, observing and being curious, helping teammates, feeling gratitude—basically doing anything to throw yourself back in the moment, and reconnect with your WHY. Why do you love doing this thing you are doing right now?

None of these suggestions involve the ever-unhelpful advice to, a: “stop caring,” as if you can turn your emotional investment off like a spigot, or, b: “be confident,” as if one can conjure confidence from thin air. Deb Milliman, in her Design Matters podcast and as a guest on a bazillion others, maintains that confidence is overrated, and that courage is more foundational to success. You can’t just “be confident” in something unless you have first had the courage to try it. You then build confidence in that skill through repetition.

The ability to let ourselves do what we know how to do (i.e. trust our abilities when the stakes are the highest and usher in the flow state) is something that takes practice. Hence, it involves moving mental skills out of the realm of crisis management tools and into the realm of every day habits.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL, AND SOMETIMES UNNECESSARY

Nobody explains the power of habits better than James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits. He lays out the importance and simplicity of good habits (“the compound interest of self- improvement”), that feed into efficient systems to foster success. Clear stresses the limitations of using results as motivation, and suggests the best approach to improving performance is to be “outcome aware, but process-oriented.”

Clear’s garden hose analogy illustrates the ways we can choose to deal with pressure. If you want to increase flow from a kinked hose you can either turn up the water pressure, or you can unkink the hose. Both methods increase flow (performance), but unkinking the hose (the system) accomplishes it with no added stress and pressure. You can pile on the pressure with expectations from yourselves or others, or unkink the hose by enjoying the process, and letting yourself flow.

THE JOY IN THE GRIND

Fall dryland training evokes images of sore muscles, gasping for breath and suffering in unhospitable weather. There is some of that, sometimes lots of that. But there is also immense satisfaction, pride and JOY in taking charge and in accomplishing something, however painful, because you want to do it. As Clear puts it, “Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to be. It is the method through which we create our identity.”

Here’s the clincher: Nobody can cast those votes for you. Coaches and parents may try to do so, in the name of teaching commitment. I’ve been on both sides of those well-intentioned efforts, that more often undermine or diminish the independence, growth, and joy of the experience. Holding joy up as a north star is not abdicating commitment or celebrating slackerdom. It is acknowledging the satisfaction that comes from doing the work on the good days and the bad, and from casting the votes that build your identity.

Fall is beautiful, and it’s tough. It’s a perfect time to build on all your strengths, including mental strength, and to let joy lead the way.

GOOD LISTENS FOR COACHES AND PARENTS:

  • Sian Bielock breaks down the dreaded phenomenon of choking on Hidden Brain.
  • James Clear unlocks the power of habits on the Way of Champions (The cheat sheet is right here on Racer Ex.)
  • Jean Cote talks about the value of immediate positive experiences (joy) in long term success, on this episode of The Way of Champions
  • Deb Milliman, in this Ted Talk Daily, explains why confidence is overrated and why courage is the more important first step
  • On the Real Pod, Nicole Davis talks Performance Anxiety, Flow and finding your Why.

DIGGING DEEP FOR THE YOUNGER SET:

The above resources may be snooze for younger athletes. Eliteam’s Dig Deep Academy is anything but that, and a great place to start or build on mental strength training.

Some topics in the Sports Psychology course include: Jackie Wiles on coming back from injury; Paula Moltzan on the need for increased mental strength as you progress; Laurenne Ross on positive self-talk in the starting gate; and Norwegian Atle Li McGrath on working on both strengths and weaknesses, and the role of failure in learning. There’s also plenty of sports psych talk by current World Cup athletes in Eliteam’s Clubhouse, which is free to all. Check it out here

6 thoughts on “Vote for Joy”

  1. A wonderful article that I’ve shared with everyone in my family. It is relevant regardless of the topic, skiing or life. Thanks for stimulating these thoughts and bringing us these concepts. You’re the best!

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