Published January 17, 2017
You know you are in deep trouble; so you face the brutal facts of the challenge you’re facing. But at the same time you feel deeply that you will prevail.
This quote comes from James Stockdale, a prisoner of war for over seven years in Vietnam. Stockdale's perspective on acknowledging the reality of your adversity while still holding to the belief that things will work out became known as the Stockdale Paradox, a central takeaway from research done by Dr. Dennis Charney. Dr. Charney studied a variety of people who had survived adversity in its most extreme forms and yet somehow came out of it without the depression, PTSD, and harmful emotional scar tissue one would expect. He compiled a list of characteristics that set these people apart, and the #1 characteristic was a simple yet misunderstood quality - optimism.
To understand optimism, let's begin with what it's not. Optimism is not a naive assumption that everything is always going to be fine - the Pollyanna who views the world constantly through rose-colored glasses and never worries a day in their life.
Optimism is a mindset, characterized by maintaining positive expectations for important future outcomes. It is the stories you tell yourself, and the way you interpret the circumstances and events of your life. And optimism has some eye-opening benefits:
- Optimism is the most powerful predictor of resilience (our ability to recover quickly from adversity)
- Optimism, and the anticipation that comes with it, makes us happy! Think about this - when surveyed about their favorite day of the week, people choose Saturday. But second place goes to Friday (a work day), not Sunday. We love the anticipation of what's to come.
- Positive emotions can undo the effects of negative experiences.
- Optimistic people, while experiencing the same levels of anxiety and frustration when faced with adversity, are able to more quickly let go of negativity, worry less, and shift their attention to what is positive.
- Optimists tend to give more effort over a longer period of time.
If that list doesn't win you over, you may have a dangerously pessimistic style of thinking which ultimately shapes your mindset - but not to worry, let's finish with some practical takeaways.
Here are 3 ways you can grow your optimism:
- Stop listening to yourself and talk to yourself.
Our mindset is determined by the stories we tell ourselves. And all too often, we settle into a bad habit of negative, pessimistic inner dialogue, using consistent and absolute language “things are always going to be this way, they will never change for the better”. We develop an expectation for negative things in our lives, maybe without noticing, which can lead to helplessness and hopelessness. Stop listening to yourself, and start talking to yourself with intention and purpose. Learn to take the lessons from difficult circumstances and push forward, expecting better things to come. The best is yet to come...
- Interpretation is more important than preparation.
This isn't to discount your planning and preparation in life - those things have plenty of value. My point here is, when the inevitable adversity comes (the kind you weren't prepared for), an optimistic person will have a healthier and more beneficial interpretation of what happened and how to move forward. This is what's known as your explanatory style. Adversity will come your way - grow your ability to lean into it, pull out the lessons that will help you grow, and push forward.
- BUT...bring an umbrella.
We all have an optimism bias that we must be aware of. There's a fine line between healthy optimism and naiveté (the person who ignores the weather report that calls for a rain storm and ventures out without an umbrella). To paraphrase Stockdale, acknowledge the challenge ahead but believe deeply that you will prevail.
How would you rate yourself when it comes to dealing with adversity? We all have a ton of growing still to do.
But the best is yet to come.
Published September 20, 2016
Athletes as a Special Population
Mental illness affects approximately 61.5 million Americans each year; despite this, mental health continues to carry negative stigma that interferes with proper treatment and effective care (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2013). This is especially true for athlete populations. Athletic culture and a self-help mentality lead athletes to seek treatment less often and reject treatments at higher rates than non-athletes (Watson, 2005). Oftentimes, mental illness in athletes goes underdiagnosed. Thus, athletes should be considered a special population with needs unique from non-athlete counterparts (Beauchemin, 2014; Etzel & Watson, 2007).
Burnout VS. Depression
Depression in athletes is specifically underdiagnosed. Part of this issue stems from the similarities between Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Burnout. Major Depressive Disorder involves either depressed mood or loss of interest/pleasure in nearly all activities for a period of at least 2 weeks; this also involves other symptoms like changes in sleep, appetite, energy, and concentration (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Overtraining or burnout in athletes can involve almost identical symptoms. These similarities provide difficulties for practitioners working with athletes; awareness of these similarities is vital for appropriate referrals, care, and competence in treatment.
Common Symptoms of BOTH Depression and Burnout
- Lack of motivation/energy
- Feeling discouraged
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty maintaining responsibilities
- Denial or avoidance to seek treatment
- Inadequate or reduced coping skills
Differences in Depression and Burnout
- Role Dysfunction: Inability to fulfill designated roles in work, school, or sport
- Burnout involves role dysfunction in athletic performance
- Depression involves role dysfunction of social, cognitive, and work settings
- For athletes, role dysfunction may occur in all domains
- Burnout: Anywhere from 1 week onward
- Typically resolved with rest
- MDD: Minimum of 2 weeks
- Not resolved with rest
- Burnout: Anywhere from 1 week onward
Awareness and insight into this issue among professionals is crucial to ensure comprehensive and ethical care of athletes. AASP Certified Consultants are encouraged to develop a vast and comprehensive referral network, including physicians, psychologists, athletic trainers, and coaches. Further, programs that adapt interventions to consider athlete culture are essential to meet the current needs of athletes regarding both mental health and performance programming. These discussions are vitally important to the promotion of athlete health and well-being.
National Institute of Mental Health http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression-easy-to-read/index.shtml
American Psychological Association Division 12; Find therapists in your area http://www.div12.org/
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V)
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Beauchemin, J. (2014). College student-athlete wellness: An integrative outreach model. College Student Journal, 48(2), 268-280.
Etzel, E., & Watson, J. C. (2007). Ethical challenges for psychological consultations in intercollegiate athletics. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 1, 304-317.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2013). Mental illness facts and numbers. Retrieved from http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf
Reardon, C. L., & Factor, R. M. (2010). Sport psychiatry: A systematic review of diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illness in athletes. Sports Medicine, 40(11), 961-980.
Schwenk, T. L. (2000). The stigmatization and denial of mental illness in athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(1), 4-5.
Watson, J. C. (2005). College student-athletes’ attitudes toward help-seeking behavior and expectations of counseling services. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 442-449.
Published September 6, 2016
There is no construct of human psychology and functioning more prevalent in sport than emotion. Mood, emotions, and general affect can influence every movement in every sport. Consider a typical 45 second shift in ice hockey. Within those brief 45 seconds, the player might begin the shift with high confidence (“I’m going to have a strong shift!”), receive the puck and skate in on the opposing goal with high excitement (“I’m going to shoot high glove side and score!”), get poke-checked by an opposing player inducing feelings of frustration (“That was a missed opportunity”) and guilt (“I could have really helped out my team”), back-check and makes a good defensive play which raises the player’s pride (“I helped my team by showing hustle and foiling the opposition”), and finally, end in a scrum in front of the net where there is much shoving with opposing players where the player takes a spear to the midsection that the referee misses inducing anger (“I can’t stand that creep!”). Six different emotions within 45 seconds and each emotion will have the potential to help or hinder the player’s performance.
Effectively managing emotions then becomes an important skillset for every athlete. Emotion regulation means the use of strategies to initiate, maintain, modify, or display emotions (Gross & Thompson, 2007). This means that any attempt to change how long an emotion lasts, how intensely you feel the emotion, or what you are actually feeling is an attempt at emotion regulation. Further, emotion regulation isn’t just about changing how you feel, but can also involve changing the emotion’s action response (i.e., avoidance or confrontation) and physiological responses (e.g., facial expression or breathing patterns).
Emotion regulation: A family affair
There are literally hundreds of different emotion regulation strategies. James Gross (1998) has identified five families of emotion regulation. Each can be used in sport:
- Situation Selection: An athlete can modify their emotions by selecting which situation to engage in. For example, a skier who is nervous about re-aggravating an injury might choose to skip a race in order to calm themselves. Goal-setting can act as a type of “situation selection” in that it can help ensure the athlete remains in desired and intended situations.
- Situation Modification: Once dedicated to the situation, the athlete can change some aspect of it to manage their emotions. For example, a figure skater who is nervous about a specific element might perform a modified version of the element at a lower difficulty in order to feel more confident about the whole performance. Consistently doing performance debriefs can help an athlete reflect on what potential tactics are available based on anticipated situations.
- Attentional Deployment: An athlete can also choose what aspect of the situation to focus on (and/or ignore). For example, a volleyball player worried about the impending outcome of the game might choose to focus on specific aspects of the next serve-receive to shut out distracting thoughts about the outcome. Focus strategies that have primed the athlete about what is in, and out of, the athlete’s control can be an effective tool here.
- Cognitive Change: An athlete can choose what meaning or perspective to have about any situation. For example, a basketball player who is happy with her performance in the first half of a game might remind herself that “there’s still another half to play” in order to maintain a high and focused intensity. Given the strong link between appraisals and emotions, self-talk (that is, the things we say to ourselves either out loud or in our head) is an essential tool for effective cognitive change.
- Response Modulation (Suppression): After an athlete has experienced an emotion, he or she can try to alter the emotional response (behavioral, physical, or physiological). For example, a baseball player who strikes out can hide feelings of frustration by resisting the urge to curse or toss the bat. Having visualized potential “if-then” plans to employ based on anticipated emotional responses can be an effective tool in this circumstance.
Each emotion has the potential to either help or hinder performance. Identifying which emotions do what in any given circumstance is the first step to learning how to manage emotions. Once this has been accomplished, athletes can begin to identify and practice emotion regulation strategies that are both effective and are likely to be employed based on the athlete’s ability and personality as well as the confines of the sport.
Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-299. doi:10.1037/1089-26126.96.36.1991
Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp.3–24). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Published August 23, 2016
A 20-year trend in youth sports emphasizes teaching coaches how to create a healthy psychological environment for their athletes. However, there’s also an important need to educate parents, so they can support and supplement what trained coaches are trying to do.
How do parents unintentionally become a source of stress for young athletes?
All parents identify with their children to some extent and thus want them to do well. Unfortunately, in some cases, the degree of identification becomes excessive, and the child becomes an extension of the parent’s ego. When parents over-identify with their child’s sport performance, they begin to define their own self-worth in terms of their son’s or daughter’s successes or failures.
A father who is a “frustrated jock” may seek to experience through his child the success he never knew as an athlete. A parent who was a star may be resentful and rejecting if the child does not attain a similar level of achievement. Some parents thus become “winners” or “losers” through their children, and the pressure placed on the children can be extreme. The child must succeed, or the parent’s self-image is threatened. When parental love and approval depend on how well their children perform, sports are bound to be stressful.
What can adults do to help combat performance anxiety?
Coaches and parents are in an ideal position to help young athletes develop healthy attitudes about achievement and an ability to tolerate setbacks when they occur. In fact, a study conducted with my colleagues, indicates that by educating coaches and parents, they can effectively reduce athletes’ competitive anxiety (Smoll, Smith, & Cumming, 2007). Our research demonstrated the combined effectiveness of two adult-education programs.
What were the research methods?
The 151 participants were 84 boys and 67 girls, who played in two different basketball leagues. The average age of the athletes was 11.6 years. Coaches in one league (an experimental group) participated in a Mastery Approach to Coaching workshop that we developed. The workshop content emphasized skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun (see Smoll & Smith, 2015).
Additionally, parents of youngsters in the experimental league participated in a Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports workshop (see Smoll & Smith, 2012). The program taught them how to apply mastery principles and how to reduce performance anxiety in their children. Coaches and parents in the second league (a control group) were not offered either of the workshops.
What were the results?
Pre-season questionnaires showed little difference in the levels of performance anxiety among the youngsters in the two leagues. However, by the end of the season, athletes playing for trained coaches and whose parents attended the Mastery Approach workshop reported that their levels of stress, worry, and concentration disruption on the court had decreased. Players in the other league reported that their anxiety had increased over the course of the season.
What was learned?
The evidence indicated that a combined education approach helped coaches and parents to create a mastery-oriented climate. In regard to this, we never ignore the importance of winning, because it’s an important objective in all sports. But with a Mastery Approach, winning is placed in a healthy perspective. As a result, young athletes exposed to the mastery climate had less worries about their performance, and they were better able to concentrate while playing.
A core component of the Mastery Approach is a conception of success as giving maximum effort and becoming the best one can be. Coaches and parents are thus encouraged to adopt a four-part philosophy of winning (Smoll & Smith, 2012, pp. 29-32):
- Winning isn’t everything, nor is it the only thing. Young athletes can’t get the most out of sports if they think that the only objective is to beat their opponents. As noted above, winning is an important goal, but it’s not the most important objective.
- Failure is not the same thing as losing. It’s important that athletes don’t view losing as a sign of failure or as a threat to their personal value.
- Success isn’t equivalent to winning. Neither success nor failure need depend on the outcome of a contest or on a won-loss record. Winning and losing pertain to the outcome of a contest, whereas success and failure do not.
- Athletes should be taught that success is found in striving for victory (that is, success is related to commitment and effort). Athletes should be taught that they are never “losers” if they give maximum effort.
Fear of failure is an athlete’s worst enemy, and sport competition can easily create this type of anxiety. The encouraging thing is that educational programs for coaches and parents can give them the tools for decreasing pressure and increasing enjoyment. And an added bonus is that athletes who are not afraid of failure typically perform better. When coaches and parents are taught stress-reduction principles, they can be a winning combination for kids.
How can you get online training in the Mastery Approach?
To facilitate distribution of the workshops, the research-based coach and parent programs have been converted to video format. To find out more about the Mastery Approach, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website (http://www.y-e-sports.org).
Smoll, F. L., & Smith, R. E. (2012). Parenting young athletes: Developing champions in sports and life. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Smoll, F. L., & Smith, R. E. (2015). Conducting evidence based coach-training programs: A social-cognitive approach. In J. M. Williams & V. Krane (Eds.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (7th ed., pp. 359-382). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Smoll, F. L., Smith, R. E., & Cumming, S. P. (2007, Summer). Effects of coach and parent training on performance anxiety in young athletes: A systemic approach. Journal of Youth Development, 2. Article 0701FA002. http://www.nae4ha.org/directory/jyd/index.html
Published August 9, 2016
Recent doping allegations within track and field include systemic doping (e.g. Russian Athletics), corrupt administration (e.g. the International Association of Athletics Federation; IAAF), and leaked personal data. No doubt, it is an issue currently affecting a number of individuals, organizations and nations. While the sport scrambles to recover from the growing list of condemning allegations, the athletes are increasingly drawn into the conversation(s). However, one group of athletes has been noticeably overlooked - the self-declared ‘clean athletes’ who have been personally impacted by others’ doping behaviors. Meanwhile, their experiences and perspectives have the potential to shed important (and novel) light on the supposedly far-reaching and endemic nature of doping in track and field.
By collecting the stories of elite track and field athletes who have been personally affected by others’ use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), two stories were created depicting their unique lived experiences. The first story, ‘Nobody saw it coming’, tells the story of the current competitive athletes: “I mean, I’m doing my sport for the same reasons I chose to do it when I was age seven – I always believed I could get to the top in my sport if I worked hard and did my best. I’ve just presumed everybody else was doing it for those reasons too. Well, I was wrong. Doping has affected me and my results. A lot… I could’ve been the best in the world but I was never told.’”
In the second story, ‘I’ve got scars’, the retired athletes relate their experiences: “You go through a period when you wonder ‘what’s the point?’… I think I was very angry and bitter that a guy cheated me out of my livelihood, cheated me out of places, cheated me out of maybe an opportunity to stand on the podium. Well actually, not just one athlete – a lot of athletes….. I do look back and wonder ‘what if?’”
The stories themselves offer unique insights into the widespread (and currently undocumented) impact of doping in sport. In particular, they detail financial, emotional, and relational implications stemming from others’ use of PEDs. Critically, the impact is not ephemeral; the retired athletes detailed the long-term implications of their experiences. Meanwhile, the current competitive athletes suggest that given the current state of sport, they regularly have to defend their status as ‘clean athletes’. Thus, the ripples of doping in sport appear to be far reaching and enduring.
The published paper is available to you for free by clicking here.
I invite you to read the paper, and then give yourself time to reflect on it. The following is the reaction the stories triggered in me. The process of creating these stories will certainly inform my research and practice going forward.
What kind of reaction do the stories trigger for you?
“When an athlete breaks the rules by using PEDs, fellow athletes regularly miss out on prize and endorsement money, as well as losing opportunities for public recognition and glory”.
The quote above is a sentence that I originally wrote into the rationale for this research. At the time, these seemed like really negative implications of PED use for fellow athletes. However, during the first interview I quickly realized how naïve I was. I walked away from that experience with so many more concerns and questions. Certainly the tangible losses (money, medals, glory, etc.) associated with being impacted by PED use must be devastating, but what does that actually feel like? How long do the emotions last? What are the long-term implications of the losses? Do you ever get over it? After just one interview I was acutely aware of how simplistic my understanding was regarding the potential implications of PED use in sport. The emotional and long-term implications of being affected by PEDs are so much greater than I had ever considered.
Now months after conducting the interviews that shaped these stories, I still find myself reflecting on things my participants said. I regularly make random comments to the people in my office, my friends, family; anyone who will listen really. The implications of doping for fellow athletes are severe. The not knowing, always wondering; the ‘what ifs?’ and ‘if only’. For the active athletes, they still have a chance to change things; their careers are not over. Conversely, for the retired athletes there is nothing left for them to do but try and accept what has happened and be proud of what they managed to accomplish despite the circumstances. That is tough. I cannot imagine looking back on my career and wondering what could have and might have happened ‘if only’. The worst part is, the ‘if only’ was (and is) out of their control. There is likely nothing they could have or would have done differently; rather, it’s something that the PED using athlete would/could have done different. What would have happened then? How different might their situation be now? Chances are, they’ll never know. I can’t imagine what that feels like. However, I’m grateful that I’ve had a chance to offer these athletes (hopefully!) an opportunity to try and convey just that; what it feels like. Also, I feel compelled to continue providing this opportunity.
Thank you to the International Athletics Foundation for helping fund the research. Thank you as well to my participants for trusting me with your stories. It is an honor.
Kelsey Erickson, PhD
Institute of Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure
Leeds Beckett University