Ruminations on sports, training, health, and wellness

Posts tagged “stress

Striving for a Beginner’s Mind

First, a disclaimer: this post is going to be a self-congratulatory/self-flagellating exercise in navel gazing, although I hope not entirely devoid of insights. If that’s not your thing (and it’s totally cool if it isn’t!), it’s probably best to skip over this one. I promise to get back to bicycle racing soon. Without further delay, I present my latest Soigneur’s Diary entry.

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This is a really flippant, privileged, entitled-white-girl-from-the-suburbs thing to say, but rings true: I’m not used to not being good at things.

I’m a little bit on the type-A side in that respect. I tend to pick up new things pretty easily — new sports (with the notable exception of inline skating), artistic pursuits, academic skills, clinical skills, using technology, and so forth. I try to embrace the “see one, do one, teach one” approach to learning and it generally serves me well. I take pride in mastery of processes and making meaningful contributions through my work. I learn best when I can take a methodical approach and clearly see how all the moving pieces fit together.

So it’s absolutely driving me crazy that I’m not a great soigneur already. I feel like I have about 1 out of every 10 days of total competence versus completely screwing up and getting in the way. There are a few things I’m doing very well, like therapeutic massage and first aid management, but it seems like such a small percentage of the job. It’s the part that the director rarely sees, which really shouldn’t matter — performing my job expertly is its own reward and if I’m doing it right, my part should be relatively invisible as athletes recover from racing and heal from injury easily and rapidly. I would never presume to take credit for their achievements, but I am keenly aware that poor clinical reasoning on my part will inevitably impact them negatively.

But that’s the tip of the iceberg; the other 90% of unseen lurking mass is the part that consistently trips me up and makes me feel foolish at best and incompetently negligent at worst. Part of the challenge is the rest of the job should be more or less invisible too: the best soigneurs get noticed by going unnoticed. Everything is immaculately prepared and arranged when it needs to happen without question or hesitation. All the details are managed to make a perfectly smooth big picture. All this is done without the expectation of thanks; at the end of the day, the things that matter are that the riders are cared for, and the rest of the staff is happy and never inconvenienced by a task left incomplete.

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I am working so hard to get to that point. I had a long phone conversation with my mentor yesterday, who likened my situation to being thrown into battle on the front lines without basic training. (I have a hard enough time justifying a career in something as “trivial” as sports to my Quaker Meeting; the military metaphor might be enough to get my Friend card revoked!) It does feel a bit like that sometimes, but I think of it more like a counter-terrorism squad: people only notice the superb work they do when they let that one-in-a-million slip through the cracks and horrors ensue. (I’ve been watching Homeland in my spare time before bed; ugh, my Quaker card is definitely in serious jeopardy now). Obviously, forgetting a chair or mislabeling a supply box doesn’t have quite as serious repercussions, but it shows that I’m not performing at the high standards to which I hold myself. I feel like 5 months of doing this job should be enough time to achieve proficiency; I mean, seriously, sure there’s the sports medicine bit, but mostly I wash vans and fill bottles and make sandwiches. How hard can it be?

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I’m not a dumb person. I’m comfortable solving calculus-based biomechanics problems, I know all the bones in the human hand and nerves in the brachial plexus, I play half a dozen musical instruments, I got a perfect score on a section of the GRE, I can still recite the first canto of Dante’s Inferno in Italian that I memorized in college (which is probably why I have trouble remembering phone numbers). I’m a serial enthusiast and when I get really excited and into a particular topic, I read everything I can get my hands on to amass a near-encyclopedic knowledge about it (my mom sometimes calls me Cliff Clavin and I don’t think it’s a compliment). Emotional and social intelligence…maybe not so much. I have a hard time fitting in and perceiving social cues. I get so excited about successfully navigating a social interaction when I meet a new person that I invariably immediately forget their name. I don’t have a strong personality, and I think that causes me to come off as aloof, shy, and boring. In reality, I usually just have no idea what to say. I don’t think of myself as particularly cute, funny, or interesting, so I tend to discount and discredit the qualities and contributions I bring to the table. I am less shy than just painfully introverted, and I recharge with alone time and spending one-on-one time with close friends. I expend so much energy trying to be liked that I make myself wholly unlikeable. I’ve come to grips with the realization that I’m kind of weird and have weird interests, but I lack the confidence to fully own my weirdness and instead fall firmly into the awkward zone. I haven’t really found my people, so I make up for my difficulty forming friendships by throwing myself into work and dramatically overthinking everything. It’s pretty exhausting, actually.

Brain

I’m a worrier. I was in therapy specifically for aviophobia last year, and I realized that air travel was hardly the only time I experienced overwhelming anxiety. The psychologist I worked with appealed to my academic tendencies and gave me an array of articles and chapters to read about how the brain processes threat. Fear is hardwired into the prefrontal cortex “lizard brain” as an important survival tactic. When we receive a sensory stimulus like a sabertooth tiger crouching in the grass, an ancient programmed circuitry fires into action, engaging the sympathetic nervous system to divert all energy to escaping the danger. It is an evolutionary advantage for the brain to perceive a threat where none exists — if we assume that every rustle in the grass is a tiger, we are more likely to survive rather than if we incorrectly identify the rustle in the grass as just the wind when a tiger is ready to pounce. This tendency toward hypervigilance is the reason our species has been able to survive, proliferate, and evolve. It also causes an awful lot of problems in the modern world. When the amygdala receives signals that a threat is present, it floods the blood stream with stress hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system, stopping metabolic processes and heightening sensory input to prepare the body to face or flee from danger. When a specific, discernable threat is present in the environment (the tiger, to continue the example), the system functions as designed. When there is not a threat readily identifiable, the amygdala looks for other environmental cues that could signal danger, and even cues within the body such as elevated heart rate and respiration. A panic attack is, in essence, crippling fear of fear itself. We then spin “what if” stories that have no actual basis in reality, taking us out of the moment to exist in an imaginary realm of fear and dread. Even though the conscious mind knows it isn’t real, the prefrontal cortex has no way of differentiating and responds to the imagined fear stimulus just as if it were a tangible threat.

My biggest fear is shame, and I am tremendously good at inducing it in a variety of situations. I think this is true for most people, and definitely for me: if I’m given a list of a hundred things I do well and one area in need of improvement, I obsess about the shortcoming and discount all the proficiencies. I dwell on my goof-ups and allow them to overshadow my talents. I walk around like a puppy that’s just been beaten with a newspaper, afraid that my coworkers are going to yell at me the way I am mentally berating myself (usually they don’t, but I live in terror of their disapproval). I parked a van in the wrong place yesterday and I spent the rest of the day in a funk when one of the other staff pointed out my error in an effort to help. It’s an attractive quality, no?

It’s also absurdly unproductive, and I know it is. My guilt and fear that I will never measure up is probably my biggest obstacle to competence. How do I possibly ask others to put their confidence in me, when I lack confidence in my own abilities?

While I was bemoaning my plight to my endlessly indulgent mentor, my mother sent me a TED talk that spoke to the heart of the matter.

In the video, researcher-storyteller Brené Brown explores the link between vulnerability, authenticity, shame, and courage — spoiler alert: she finds that the ability to embrace imperfection and celebrate shortfalls with successes alike is at the core of successfully finding fulfillment in all our relationships and endeavors. Yikes. The very idea makes my throat tight with the first inklings of panic. Wouldn’t putting my vulnerability on display counteract all the effort and energy I put into appearing like a pillar of confidence and strength?

Writing this post to go in the public sphere is my first step toward a healthier exploration of vulnerability. I don’t have to turn into a scared child to accept the fact that I will fail in life, sometimes often, hopefully not too spectacularly, and that’s ok.

My mentor had some great advice that is already helping me to feel more secure about my abilities. His first piece was to stop assuming logical leaps and to be more pedantic about questioning each procedural step. I love this approach; I learn best when I read the directions completely before assembling an appliance, so I have a thorough understanding of the process timeline from start to finish, and a discernable checklist of items that assure the task has been completed correctly. He told me to let go of my concern that people will judge me for insisting on a detailed explanation of mundane things, because an excellent end product at the expense of taking a little more time with the process is better than struggling as I go without a clear vision. The same concept applies to the challenge of dealing with cultural differences that I face with working in Europe — it is always preferable to spend more time hammering out details ahead of time than to assume we’re all on the same page because I don’t want to take up anybody’s time.

He implored me to do one thing at a time. Multitasking is the enemy of process. In science, the most important part of experimentation is the ability to repeat the exact conditions that will achieve a specific end result. Adding too many variables invites error. Accomplish each task completely before moving on to the next, and focus on the task at hand instead of allowing my attention to wander to the next one. Keeping a physical checklist is helpful for me in this area, because it’s one fewer thing to juggle in my mind as I learn a new skill. A slightly slower, more deliberate process is always preferable to hurried neglect.

As I establish processes that achieve satisfactory results, he encouraged me to allow those to become as instinctive as my sports medicine practice has become. He is the only director I have worked with who has actually seen me in action doing sports massage and first aid, and he commented that I am so comfortable in my element that a complex maneuver looks as intuitive and natural as getting out of a chair and walking across a room. I find it a little ironic that I am struggling to make setting out chairs and mixing sports drink as easy a task as performing a physical evaluation for knee pathologies. On the other hand, it’s good to remember that the hard medical part that many soigneurs spend years mastering is already more or less second nature for me.

One piece of advice that struck me at first as a little counter-intuitive was to apologize less. I have always tended to show profuse contrition over even relatively minor offenses, or those that are not even really my fault but I appeared in the wrong place at the wrong time. He told me to quit taking ownership and responsibility for things that are out of my control — not to be an excuse-maker, but also not to saddle myself with the burden of every mishap. Sincerity comes less from expression guilt and more from the actions taken to not let the same mistake happen again, and that’s what’s really meaningful to other people.

He instructed me to let mistakes go immediately. Every time I allow some part of my mind to linger in the past and obsess about a mistake, I am diverting attention from the task at hand and making another mistake more likely. It is always more productive, and often safer, to take a lesson and whisk away the rest. Mistakes in and of themselves have no value — the value comes from learning to approach the situation differently next time for a successful outcome.

Finally, he cautioned me against comparing myself to others. This is a pretty tall order, as I tend to evaluate the world around me through judgment rather than perception. There was a beautiful blonde Australian soigneur here this spring who was also a first-timer, and I was in awe of her skill. She was such a natural at every part of the job, and her extroverted effervescence and gregarious personality endeared her to the rest of the staff quickly in a way I admired and even envied. I have come to realize that she made just as many mistakes as me, but the biggest difference in her approach was her ability to laugh it off and hop right back on the horse. She seemed a lot less stressed than I feel most of the time, and I think her resilience was a huge part of that. I have been racking my brain for ways to develop the same resilience myself; it hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps it already exists within me and was waiting to be tapped.

I cash in another night feeling just a little better about my work today than I did yesterday. I gave a director a bad driving direction today, and I forgot that I had promised a rider to change his wound dressing when another director asked me to make a gas station run for diesel in the van. I didn’t let go quite soon enough on a water bottle feed and the rider knocked it out of my hand. But nobody died. We even won our race. And I am coming to realize that today was a job well done, even if it wasn’t a job done perfectly. And that’s ok.


How Athletes Deal With Stress

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Does she remind you of anyone? Over the past few weeks, I’ve been feeling a lot like her! I’ve had a number of very stressful life events arise — some I could control, and some were completely out of my hands.

Probably the most stressful thing in my life right now is the thing that I’m also the most excited about — in a few days, I’m leaving to spend 2 months at the USA Cycling training center in Sittard, Holland and traveling throughout the continent with various elite road cycling teams. I have worked really hard to make this fantastic opportunity into a reality and I can’t wait to get over there. USA Cycling operates with the riders themselves as its number one priority, as they should be, so staff needs get bumped down the ladder rungs and are dealt with only after all of the riders’ needs are met. This structure gives USAC riders in Europe an outstanding experience, and expects staff members to be flexible and able to jump on a plane with little notice (or have departure dates delayed suddenly). After having my departure date delayed a few days with still no definite travel itinerary, I’m doing my very best to stay cool and prepare for all the things I can without stressing the rest.

Sports psychologists tell us that people who participate in physical activity, and especially people who compete in sports, have different mental toughness and coping skills that help us to deal with stressful situations. Developing those traits can help us to perform better under pressure, both in sports and in life.

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Visualization Practices.

Coaches in many sports that put tremendous wear and tear on the body but also require precision and fine motor skills have trended toward refocusing some of the training time that used to be spent repeating movements and routines on visualization exercise. Gymnastics is a notable example, and one of the first sports to adopt visualization and imagery as an important part of training. Athletes who devote time to mindful meditation and mental rehearsal of difficult movements often develop those skills better than athletes who do not practice visualization but instead rely on practice through rote repetition. Of both groups, the athletes who practice quieting their minds and mentally rehearsing the challenging task tend to outperform the athletes who rely solely on physical practice in competition. Many athletes also report a better sense of mental well-being and confidence when they regularly practice visualizing themselves succeed in challenging situations; the imagery of competence seems to transfer throughout all areas of life.

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Alan Alda, using Joan Vickers’ gaze-tracking goggles to practice the Quiet Eye technique

Look Out Through Quiet Eyes.

The term “Quiet Eye” comes from Joan Vickers, a kinesiology researcher at the University of Calgary who observed the habits of highly successful professional athletes completing precision tasks under mental pressure, especially putting in golf and shooting free throws in basketball. Vickers used sophisticated eyesight gaze-tracking software and concluded that the most accurate performers focused on a specific point on the target for several seconds prior to to any movement, and continued to concentrate on the same point while performing the task. In a broader sense, we can consider a “quiet eye” attitude to be one of intense focus on our goal while zoning out all the extraneous distractions in our environment. For a triathlete, this may be sighting a buoy to keep his swim tracking straight and efficiently in spite of other swimmers or rough water conditions. For a mountain biker, it might mean letting go of a little bit of control while staying still and focused to let the bike take a fast line through a technical descent. And when encountering a difficult life event, it might mean clearing your mind and allowing yourself to experience and acknowledge your emotions fully, one at at time without distractions.

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Stop: Is it Environmental, or Internal?

One of our species’ defining characteristics is our capacity for pattern recognition. We can use it as an amazing tool for scientific discovery, and we can also misuse it drive ourselves crazy in the process. The ancient portion of our brains that governs memory, behavior, and emotion is the limbic system, which comprises several portions of the deep- and mid-brain. When a noxious stimulus enters our environment, the limbic system is responsible for identifying the threat and preparing our bodies for fight-or-flight response, firing up the sympathetic nervous system and releasing a wave of neurotransmitters and hormones to elevate our sensory arousal. If the stimulus is a saber-tooth tiger crouching to attack a paleolithic hunter, then the hunter’s limbic system correctly identifies the tiger as the threat and latches on to all the clues in the environment that could portend a tiger attack in the future. Early humans who did this well survived and passed on these genes for excellent pattern-recognition. Today, however, many of the things that make us anxious aren’t readily identifiable environmental factors, which confuses the limbic system into identifying false threats and anxieties. I can use myself as an example — I get very nervous about flying on airplanes, especially in turbulent conditions. My limbic system recognizes my anxiety but cannot attach it to any specific environmental stimulus, so instead it identifies my internal cues of anxiety as the threat and creates a sympathetic response to those, elevating my anxiety even further. Rapid respiration and heart rate, ringing in my ears, upset stomach, and other physical sensations that I experience when I am anxious are perceived by my limbic system as a threat, which can snowball into full-blown panic if I don’t recognize it and take active steps to break the cycle (mostly highly-rehearsed visualization exercises). Giving a name and a manifestation to our anxieties can be tremendously helpful in minimizing and tackling them, instead of coping with a nebulous cloud of doubt and malaise. Facing stress is challenging, but it makes it a whole lot easier to be able to identify the source of your stress — you may find that a raging torrent downriver is just a trickling spring if you track it all the way back to its source.

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A Healthy Release.

Many athletes initially get involved in sports as a way to blow off steam and cope with stress. Sports and physical activity are a wonderful way to manage stress and help to find balance between work and life. Constantly appraise your motivation for participation in all activities — are you personally receiving satisfaction and purpose from them, or are you doing them to please someone else? When your fun, leisure activity becomes another onus instead of enjoyment, then it may be time to reevaluate if your stress-reliever has become a source of stress. It isn’t realistic to expect every day of training and competition to be a great day, but it is good to keep a rough tally of whether the great days outweigh the less great ones. You shouldn’t feel like your sports participation is an obligation, and if you do, it should signal that it’s time to talk to your coach or peers and restructure your participation in the sport. If you continue to compete out of a sense of duty instead of enjoyment, you could easily be headed directly down the road to burnout.

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Beneficial Stress.

It’s important to recognize that much of an athlete’s training is to prepare her for enduring stress. This makes the assumption that stress will always be present in some capacity during competition (or, indeed, during life) and that success does not mean minimizing all stressful stimuli, but preparing the body and mind to use stress in a positive way for maximum performance. Think of a master martial artist — when an opponent throws a punch at his body, he doesn’t block the punch with his arm, risking breaking the bone and being thrown backwards as he absorbs its energy. Instead, he is likely to redirect the energy of the punch into a useful movement that throws his opponent off balance and puts him in a better position to anticipate the next move and ultimately prevail. Stress is the same way; if we avoid all stress, we also avoid all opportunities to develop strength, toughness, and strategies for recognizing opportunity in dismal situations. Sports psychologists talk about stress on a continuum from calm to distress. Calm and distress are situated on the far ends of a bell curve, with “eustress,” a term to describe stress used as a motivating factor, at the high point of the bell curve. This is meant to indicate that there exists a healthy degree of stress, and response to stress — it is up to us to condition ourselves to respond to it in a productive manner. We need to reframe stress not as a necessarily negative experience, but a powerful tool in our arsenal for top performance.

 

As for my own stress, I’m doing my best this week! I still don’t know what day I’m leaving for Europe, so I’m trying to be proactive about having everything I can control ready to go at a moment’s notice (and a big hat’s off to my employers for being so understanding about this!). I’m getting over a bad cold that was probably in part stress-induced; managing stress poorly can lead not only to mental fatigue, but to physical symptoms and even immune suppression. Going forward, this trip is a great exercise for me in preparing for what I can and rolling with the rest — watch this blog for more adventures in stress management soon to come!