Stress and a Glass of Water

Stress and a Glass of Water

Stress and a Glass of Water

I want to run you through a demonstration I have used in workshops and with individual clients. It’s called Stress and a Glass of Water. I didn’t invent the analogy, but have used something like this to help people understand the concept of stress for a long time.

Stress and a Glass of Water

If I were to ask you How heavy is this  glass of water? What would your answer be? 8 oz? Maybe 12 oz? 

Absolute weight doesn’t matter really. It depends on how long you hold it. If you hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If you hold it for an hour, you’ll have an ache in your arm. If you hold it for a day, your arm will feel numb, it may feel paralyzed or it fall off (or so I’m told). In each case, the weight of the water doesn’t change, but the longer it’s held, the heavier it feels.

Stress and anxiety are like the glass of water. Think about them for a short time and everything is fine. Think about them for a longer period of time and they begin to feel uncomfortable. And if you think about them all the time, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything or moving forward.

I can add to this analogy for you as well. What happens when we add more water?  What if you fill the glass to the top? Things tend to get shaky.  You have difficulty focusing and water spills out. Now you worry about the water that has spilled too. If someone is talking to you now you have difficulty paying attention and holding the glass still. You’ve also been taught that spilling is bad and you should be ashamed of your self for letting those emotions, er I forgot water spill. So now you can’t focus, you feel shame and to top it off your arm hurts. 

You might just consider to put the damn glass down for a while. While it is down and feeling returns to your arm, you can clearly use your skills to deal with the task which caused you to hold the glass of water for so long. Most people choose to continue to hold the glass of water rather than put it down. Sometimes it can even be of help to release (spill) a bit of water. There is no shame in spilling a bit of H2O, after all it’s just water. 

Athletes and business people who have heard that being mentally tough means battling stress by holding their arms up to keep the glass of water from spilling have missed the point. Toughness isn’t enduring pain for little reason, mental toughness is about understanding that emotionally intelligent people sometimes put the glass down and figure out a better strategy. This is in part what mental training is all about. Learning the skills of when to hold it up and when to just put the damn thing down.

I am always looking for great analogies / metaphors.  What’s your favorite? Share with me and I’ll give you credit. Sharing is a valuable teaching tool to reach more people. 


Getting past shame

Getting past shame

Mental Training to get past shame in sportsdunce

A while back I wrote a post on shame. It is one of the areas that we rarely address in sports. It got a lot of hits back when I originally posted it. It was uploaded to a site in the UK this month for a new audience and again it’s garnered a good deal of attention. I thought perhaps I would talk about a few exercises people can use to get over issues were they feel shame. For some it is a feeling of failure associated with letting team or family down by not performing to their own or others expectations. In many ways it is associated with fear of failure. In other ways it goes perhaps deeper. Shame affects confidence, motivation and so much more. From an emotional intelligence point of view, along with guilt, it is certainly one of our more useless emotions. Please keep in mind, as usual; I am not talking about people who have really deep seated issues, as I only work with healthy people. There are times when we all have trouble dealing with something however, and these exercises can help.

Using CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy type exercises can help athletes reduce this feeling and perform at higher levels. Some are very simple. Some will take a bit of work. Some come from what are known as Shame Attacking exercises.

My new favorite one however comes from Clown School. Don’t discount this technique because of its unusual origins.  I picked this one up from a friend, Leif Hansen,  who runs a group called Spark Interactions [ SPARK ]. A lot of what Leif helps people do is re-learn how to play through interactive activities. A good deal of which is Improv.   I’ve attended 4 of his clinics, always interested in new growth activities for myself and those I work with. It was Leif who talked about Clown School. I love this one as in part it helps people deal with failure in a way completely removing shame.

Clown Redemption (my name not his).Another approach to dealing with failure

In clown school when a clown makes a mistake in a routine instead of apologizing or telling everyone they are sorry for their mistake clowns are taught to do something very different. After making an error, instead of saying sorry, the clown takes an exaggerated bow and says in a loud voice, Thank You Very Much with a smile. Taking credit for their mistake and rejoicing in the opportunity to learn something from their mistake. Athletes drive me crazy with the two-word apology I hear so often, “MY BAD”.  What the athlete is stating is I made a mistake; I do take responsibility for it. But it is also an acknowledgement that there was something bad in their behavior. This can reinforce feelings of shame, rather than the idea that failure leads to learning and ultimate growth / success. I think if more people would bow and say thank you very much, they would overcome so many inhibitions.

Shame attacking Type Exercises:

The idea here is to do some things which make you very uncomfortable in public some can be done in private too. By choosing small steps in behavior change people come to understand that the consequences they were so afraid of, only exist in their own minds. Understanding this on a real level allows a person to be more comfortable in their own skin. Trying new things that allows them to realize that their shame or embarrassment is not real.  So here are a few non sport exercises to help you understand their impact. You can try them yourself as of course there are no consequences.

The basics are to do something that makes you feel foolish and uncomfortable.

– Start dancing as you walk through a store

– Start laughing while waiting in a line

– Sing while you are waiting in a line

– Tell a random stranger that is in line by you that you didn’t take a shower today.

– Ask a random girl/guy passing by if they would want to do something later

– When you are in a store start running frantically while looking behind you as if something were chasing you.

– Make funny faces to people who are stopped beside you in traffic

In sports it could be something as simple as these.Shame in sport

– Something as ridiculous as trying to kick a soccer ball and falling down on purpose

– During practice make odd faces

– Ask a really stupid question of a team-mate or coach

– Make a funny noise while catching a ball

– Smile during practice – assuming you are one who believes you must wear a game face

Now these are just a few simple things and I’d love some comments back on Shame Attacking ideas in sports. I’ve got some others I’m holding back because I want some creative ideas not variations. You might notice that all of the things I’ve listed are common behaviors at most every practice. But not for everyone. If you were to say to yourself I would never do that, maybe you should.

So if we enter my world of sport and we observe athletes held up by their anxiety and as we lift the veil and help them cope with their sports anxieties and still something is missing, we may need to understand their greatest fear.  I often ask the question, “What is your greatest fear?”  Maybe it is the wrong question.  What is it that makes you feel shame?  Can you talk about it?  We tell people not to put their self-worth in a sport outcome or result.  What if they do that because somewhere along the way, instead of finding joy in sports, they found shame?

If this post fails to help you understand how to help yourself or someone else then I failed to explain it well.  All I can say to that then is:

Thank You Very Much (with a bow of course)

Concussions in Sports- Tragedy of Jr Seau’s Death

Concussions in Sports- Tragedy of Jr Seau’s Death

Concussions in Sports- Tragedy of Jr Seau’s Death

Concussions in Sports- Tragedy of Jr Seau’s Death. A few days ago Jr Seau, former NFL linebacker (19 years) shot himself in the chest and died. I rarely jump ahead of formal news reports, but the evidence is suggestive and because it is, awareness is important.

Concussions in Sports

I have pulled some statements from football super agent Leigh Steinberg’s blog. You can read his full blog at How Many Deaths Will It Take? →  I wanted to help players, coaches and parents understand that we are all part of the problem and the solution. Don’t get me wrong. As a sport psychology consultant, I’m a tough guy. I love contact sports. I love aggressive behavior for both males and females in sport, but I believe in teaching sportsmanship, good technique and common sense. I also believe that we need to be aware of the issue and our awareness will keep players safer.  This is not about scare tactics. It’s about protecting are players and our sport.

Leigh’s statements are in red.

Normally, speculation as to causation would be premature, but these are not normal times. The specter of head injury and the disastrous lifetime ramifications call for emphatic action. There is a largely undiagnosed health epidemic which has surrounded contact sports at the youth sports, high school, collegiate and professional level and it is a ticking time bomb.

What are the long-term ramifications? How many head injuries are too many? How long should a player sit out after suffering the hit?

The players themselves were in a state of denial concerning physical health. They had been taught since Pop Warner to ignore pain — hide injury so as to not lose their starting position or jeopardize their status on the team. They didn’t want to be known as “training room” players and be stigmatized and isolated from their peers.

I just wrote about this for because ice hockey is no different; in fact hockey has a reputation of believing hockey players are tougher than football players. My previous post here was about SHAME. It contributes to the problem. (more…)

Panicking or Choking in Sports- Do You recognize the Difference?

Panicking or Choking in Sports- Do You recognize the Difference?

Panicking or Choking in Sports- Do You recognize the Difference?

In working with athletes on emotional control especially as it concerns emotional intelligence I frequently need to help athletes cope with situations in which they say they choked. This then is about Panicking or Choking in Sports.

Very often it is a big game or a game that involved added pressure. Added pressure could be anything from a big crowd or critical situation. Sometimes it is not the game, but who is watching.  Just having someone important in the crowd, like a special relation, scout or coach that the athlete is trying to impress has been known to increase the level of pressure causing athletes to have a poor performance. We have over time seen instances on TV in major championships where athletes did not cope properly with the competition. There are two negative behaviors that can occur under this type of pressure. Choking and Panicking.

I received a post from an associate about a book called “What the Dog Saw” Malcolm Gladwell

I read this a few years ago when it first came out. The author is Malcolm Gladwell and it is available thru  He has a chapter in it called “The Art of Failure”. Gladwell does a great job in describing the differences between the two by describing behavior, brain processes, and psychological studies related to choking and panicking.  

“Choking is about thinking too much.  Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct.  Panic is reversion to instinct.  They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.”

Let’s look at choking first. When an athlete starts to focus on the future outcome and has negative thoughts as in what will people say if I miss the shot or if I don’t skate well tonight Coach Jones isn’t going to offer me a scholarship. The thoughts are plentiful and cause an athlete to be tight and not play to their ability. When I teach relaxation training one of the muscle groups I focus on revolve around the neck and jaw because these muscles tighten under pressure hence the name Choking. Teaching athletes to be aware of tightening of these muscles can allow them early recognition that they need to refocus. The thought of the possibility of choking during competition ruins many players ability to enjoy their sport. It often is a more destructive thought than actual concerns about team or even their own success. The shame and embarrassment of having choked the game away can be very debilitating. The answer is understanding how important our self talk is in shaping our behavior. What we say to ourselves really does matter. Using emotional control in stressful situations will help a player tremendously. It is a skill that can be learned and is part of understanding emotional intelligence.

Panic is a bit different. It is the abandonment of everything an athlete has trained to do and relies on instinct. This is our old limbic system at work, or the flight / fight response so often seen in sports. An athlete seemingly just loses (some would say their minds) control and panic sets in. Often time I have seen athletes break down completely. All of their strategy or tactics goes out the window. Dependent on their skill level they can sometimes play ok, but their focus is gone and they often react contrary to game plans. Either way choking or panicking the issues remains similar in that performance degrades completely. Elite athletes may rely on their greater experience and find away to overcome panic and settle in. This is where experience plays a role and why coping behavior is so important. If we remember that practice does not make perfect, that perfect practice makes perfect it is easier to understand what happens during competition. If an athlete panics, the more ingrained perfect practice is, the more likely they rely on that experience. It is why I emphasize the use of guided imagery to enhance the practice competitive experience. If an athlete uses imagery rehearsal and practices stressful situations with positive results, when stressed they will relay on the system that is highly practiced and trained, resulting in a better performance. This can be very unconscious as opposed to the more conscious behavior of choking.

Memory is a Funny Thing

Memory is a Funny Thing

Memory is a funny thing.  I am sure we were all great athletes, once upon a time.  For some of us it is remembrances from high school or college.  I’ve met quite a few people that when I listen to their stories, I am convinced they are referencing some major accomplishment when they were in elementary school.

We remember things as we want to remember them.  I had a very odd experience today.  It is a shared memory experience in fact with my wife.  Perhaps her memory of the incident is influenced by having heard me tell the story so often that it is now part of our collective memory.  This may be similar to the way many people remember their early childhood back to a time that they could not possibly remember an incident, some time before they were even born.  Some family occasions that have been passed down are now part of their remembrances.

The story I am telling about myself concerns an athlete I once worked with.  She was an elite athlete and I was helping her prepare for the national and world championships in her sport.  I worked with her for over a year.  I was with her at the National Championships, where she placed 3rd.  Here’s where it gets sketchy.  I was invited first by the competitor, then by her mother and finally her sponsor to be with her at the World Championships.  They wanted me there to support her.  I had two reasons for declining the invitation.  I should mention that it would have been financially beneficial for me to support her there.  It would have also been great for my reputation working with elite athletes.   What happened next?

I declined the invitation on the basis that she didn’t need me there.  It was a self confidence thing and I wanted her to understand that she was in control.  My other reason for not going, which I did not tell them was out of embarrassment.  It was a silly thing really.  I did not possess a passport.  These people were world travelers. The World Championships were in Europe, in a country that no longer actually exists.  I was embarrassed because I thought they would think less of me because obviously I was not a world traveler.  The athlete did great.  She won the bronze medal and qualified for the Olympics.  I had done my job.  I felt great, until her coach fired me, but that is another story all together.

So what does this have to do with memory?  I am putting some things together for my book “The Athlete within You”.  I needed a few extra stories and some accomplishments for book signings and public relations information.  A friend reading the story about the World Championships asked me to write down the city in Europe where the World Championship took place.  As I couldn’t spell it properly, I goggled the year and the event.  Did you know that Cincinnati was right in the middle of Yugoslavia?   I was astounded.  I double and triple checked, but that year, the unlikely place for the World Championships, was Cincinnati, OH.  How could I have gotten this so wrong?  What’s even stranger is I asked my wife what she remembers and it is exactly as I told the story hundreds of times.  So do you think I can get spaghetti and chili in that suburb called Cincinnati, Yugoslavia?

So take this one from me.  Memory is a fickle thing.  When someone regales you with stories of their athletic youth, remember it is likely what they want to remember or mistakenly put together.  Of course if you are hearing about my athletic prowess back in college or high school, take it to the bank; it really happened exactly that way.

To help keep my memory intact and so that I am not alone in telling stories about myself, feel free to tell one on yourself in the comment box.  It’s good for the soul!  I look forward to reading your memories, real and imagined.


Shame – What We Won’t Talk About

Shame – What We Won’t Talk About

Shame – What We Won’t Talk About

I was invited to a conference today on Behavioral Health and Addictive Disorders.  I went to hear Harriet Lerner, Psychotherapist and Author of ten books.  She was going to be speaking from one of her books, The Dance of Fear.  This is about dealing with fear and anxiety.  Her talk was called The Secret Life of Shame. So here is Shame – What We Won’t Talk About.

shame - what we won't talk about

Now I have made it very clear that sport psychology rarely deals with these types of issues.  I write this only from the standpoint of working with people with major issues.  It is not that as human beings involved in sports we are exempt from these issues, it is just that I work with generally healthy individuals that may need to understand how something like anxiety affects their performance, but for the most part they can get out of bed each morning and function in society.

I was interested because I am increasingly becoming more aware of the role shame plays in sports performance.  In all my years I have never heard this topic addressed in sports.  We talk about fear, anxiety and even guilt, but never shame.  It got me thinking about what I have been seeing in the youth sport arena of late.  It seems to me what we have been labeling as fear or even embarrassment may in fact be shame.  If this is true then we need to approach this much differently because shame is something we just won’t talk about.  Instead we bury it deep inside us and try hard to forget about it, but it does leave its scars.

I was at a youth tournament this week.  I had met a man who had played a major sport for a major college.  He was talking up his daughter.  Telling me how good she was and that I should come watch one of her games.  I said I would try.  I got to her match late and only caught the end.  Her team was let’s say; under-performing.  Translation – they were getting their butts kicked.  I noticed almost immediately that the father was not watching his daughter or really the team.  His focus was on the other team.  He would not look at his child.  He was focused on not watching her.  I thought at the moment that he was embarrassed.  He was ashamed of her and her team.  This was clearly evident.  Watching their interaction after the game confirmed my feelings even from afar.  The daughter, with her head down, picks up on how she had disappointed her father, by her performance.

Shame is not as I said a common topic in sport psychology.  Mostly we focus on dealing with and coping with anxiety of a poor performance.  Issues involving shame are much more below the surface.  Shame isolates us says Lerner.  We can join together with teammates or family to cope with anxiety, fear anger and guilt, but with shame we stand alone.  It is the nature of shame.

We can tell stories about ourselves where we have been embarrassed by our own mistakes and failures.  People do it all of the time.  We even make party games out of it.  But tell someone the deep dark shame in your life, not a chance.  It is shame that eats us up in the darkness of the night.  Perhaps we need to pay more attention to this social emotion.

The parent I had met had been a major college player.  He played on some really good teams.  He was projecting his feeling on his child.  Her failure was his failure.  He was ashamed to have raised someone who could not perform.  The last part of the game was reflective of what I saw.  She was in for one of the last plays and just went through the motions.  She saw her father’s shame.  She didn’t match his expectations.  I am very sure that this man loves his daughter, likely without any reservations.  Yet the message was not unconditional love that was delivered that day.  We need to live our lives within ourselves.  Our self-worth should be measured by our deeds without comparing ourselves to others or by needing the approval of others.  So much of what we do is grounded in what we have learned in our early life.  If we are taught shame, we isolate ourselves and our issues.  We cannot openly talk about those things we are ashamed of.  So if we enter my world of sport and we observe athletes held up by their anxiety and as we lift the veil and help them cope with their sports anxieties and still something is missing, we may need to understand their greatest fear.  I often ask the question, “What is your greatest fear?”  Maybe it is the wrong question.  What is it that makes you feel shame?  Can you talk about it?  We tell people not to put their self-worth in a sport outcome or result.  What if they do that because somewhere along the way, instead of finding joy in sports, they found shame?