Monsters Under The Bed
Remember when you were a little kid and you were put to bed at night only to get up because you were convinced there was a monster under your bed? Well ok, maybe not you but I sure do. I was so convinced of it that I would sneak out of bed nightly, crawl down the hall where my parents were watching television and be promptly put back into bed. My parents nor anyone else could convince me that there wasn’t a monster under my bed even though my mom and I peered under the box spring regularly to make sure. I made up for a lack of bravery with a great imagination.
My “flight” response during competition was no different than crawling down that hall worried about that monster. Only the monster during competition was the fear of failure and a disproportionate sense of importance I placed on winning and losing. What I didn’t realize at the time was I would be the same person regardless of the outcome. Being so heavily entrenched in the sport and striving to achieve some very difficult long-term goals I placed an unreasonable amount of self-worth on whether I won or lost. There would have been a benefit in understanding who I was, was not dependent on what I achieved or didn’t achieve on a wrestling mat. Even to this day some of my losses haunt me in that way.
This is where “The Process” comes in and how the range of personalities can benefit from a culture where getting better each day trumps outcome. Even the most seasoned athlete or the athlete that appears to have it all figured out may have developed coping skills that only mask what is going on in their head. Eventually, most athletes who compete long enough develop coping skills to mask these debilitating emotions. Coping with “competition anxiety” and actually changing one’s mental approach to a positive non-judgmental, process oriented outlook are vastly different. My son who I always thought had a relatively healthy approach to competition would definitely be considered in the “fight” category when dealing with anxiety. The bigger the tournament the more this manifested itself in his behavior. At Junior Nationals his junior year in high school it seemed like he literally wanted to fight everyone in the Fargo Dome. I didn’t totally realize it at the time but this was his physiological reaction to what he deemed in his brain as a stressful situation. This was illuminated for me after his final college match. After he lost in the finals of the National Tournament I was distraught.
He said to me, “What are you so sad about, I’m happy.”
I replied not really knowing why I was so sad, “I feel bad you didn’t achieve your goal and I’m sad it’s over.”
He put his arm around me (when I should have been putting my arm around him) and said, “Dad I’m so relieved it’s over and there is no more pressure. I’m happy it’s finished.”
It had never occurred to me that he felt so much pressure and anxiety. He could be brash and over-confident even to the point of talking trash. Maybe, I was too close to the situation to realize that he dreaded competition just as much as I did. The difference was how we mentally dealt with it. He wanted to fight and I wanted to be home on the couch watching cartoons. Ironically, I could not remove myself enough to look at him from a coaches perspective (subject for another blog post) to truly understand where he was because I was, first and foremost his dad.
So, how, as coaches do we go about dealing with all the personalities and the emotions that come with them? Before we even broach the subject of “competition anxiety” with the athlete we need to get to know them and create a solid relationship. There is a level of trust that athletes must have in their coaches to really open up to them. Integral to the relationship is providing an environment (culture) that is built around focusing on the process, competing without judgement and using outcome as a learning tool not a punishment. If there is an awareness of the constant journey and a focus on all the intricacies that take place for both the individual and his/her team than the outcome is just a small piece of a greater and much more rewarding journey. Wrestling, with the intense individual hours of self-awareness and indulgence can create and magnify this feeling of determining self-worth by outcome. This is no different for the beginner or the guy trying to win an Olympic gold. There are those who release all their success and situation to a higher power or to their coaches or to their teammates. I believe when we release responsibility and judgement to someone or something else it is a way of removing that judgement or removing ourselves from the responsibility of outcome. Accepting outcome as an essential part of the process, in my opinion, is a more healthy way to approach competition.
As coaches, teammates and even parents, building a culture that focuses on “the process” is an ongoing challenge. If one of the three participants in this journey go overboard on the winning and losing stuff it will be difficult to convince the athlete what really matters. But, if there can be an ongoing conversation about focusing on the journey the athlete has a better chance at approaching competition with a positive, healthy attitude. A couple reminders I tell my athletes before a match or tournament is to have a mental mantra. This is self-talk or reminders of what should be their focus. It may be as simple as, “move my feet, hard hands, angles, move on the whistle, no judgement.” A mantra keys in on the actual physical and intellectual attributes that lead you to success. An athletes self-talk during competition should avoid self-criticism, making judgements about performance or an ongoing personal critique. If our minds are in a constant state of analysis, rather than “being in the moment” or what some people refer to as, “the zone” than our performance will suffer. It is ok to be critical of your performance but hold off until after the competition is completed. Another tool athletes need to take into competition with them is the ability to “right the ship” or get back to what I call “homeostasis.” Competition is emotional and passionate and at times athletes can lose that clear-cut state where they compete at their highest level. In their pre-match preparation, while visualizing or relaxing athletes should identify a point in the arena (could be a sign, an area of the stands, a part of the mat, something easily identifiable) that when they look at it and take a deep breath it helps return them to center and refocus on the process. As a coach you may a verbal que for your athlete that you say to them during competition that assists them in returning to homeostasis.
Winning and losing is a mirage that we create in our own minds. Anything not happening in the present is a thought. When we realize there are no monsters we can compete with the relaxed confidence of a true champion.
#coaching #wrestling #theprocess #sportspsyche