Monday, November 26, 2012

Charlie Beljan & The Panic Miracle

I don’t know if you caught it, but this year at the season-ending PGA tournament, the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, something miraculous actually did happen.  Tour rookie Charlie Beljan, needing a big weekend to finish in the top 125 and thus keep his card for next year, not only accomplished his goal, but won the tournament.  In doing so, he jumped from 160th on the money list to 64th, more than doubled his earnings for the year, snagged a two-year exemption on the Tour and saved himself from returning to the dreaded q-school, the Calvary of all Tour wannabes.
But, that’s not the miracle.
The miracle happened on Friday.  Not feeling well before the round with chest pain and shortness of breath on the practice tee, he nevertheless chose to play, largely because he was cleared by the Tour medical staff, who found nothing “medically” wrong with him.  But, at several points in the round, he was seen hunched over with hands on knees, or resting on the ground, or trying to take huge gulps of air.  As he acknowledged later, he actually thought he was going to die.  He spent Friday night in the hospital where, again, doctors found nothing medically wrong with him and it was determined that he was having a panic attack.   And we still haven’t gotten to the miracle yet.
Let’s take a look at just some of the symptoms of a panic attack, as outlined by the DSM-IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders): accelerated heart rate, trembling, chest pain, feeling of choking, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, de-realization (“this isn’t happening”) and sense of impending death.  So, clearly, the miracle here is that he managed to shoot a 64 under the grip of symptoms such as these.  Indeed, after a birdie on the fourteenth hole which brought him to 9-under for the day, he was officially on “59 watch.”  He may be the only player in PGA Tour history who at one and the same time was on both death watch and 59-watch.  Most of us couldn’t deliver the club head to the ball under these circumstances, much less play the round of our lives.
But let’s look a little closer at what a panic attack is and how you might handle one, should it occur.  From the symptoms I listed above, it is clear that, regardless of the external reality, the body is responding as though it is facing an existential threat.  Indeed, these symptoms are all reactions of the sympathetic nervous system, one of whose main jobs is the injection of adrenaline and cortisol as part of the body’s “fight or flight” response.  Now, I hear what you’re thinking: “Give me a break, Matt. This guy was playing a round of golf, he wasn’t being chased by a lion in the Serengetti.”  Here, we remember that trauma and stress are in the eyes of the beholder.  That is, the degree of stress attached to an event is up to the person experiencing it, not those of us commenting on it later around the pinochle table.  From Charlie’s point of view, he was fighting for his life: his tour card was on the line, he had just become a father, with the attendant stress of providing for his family, and he was staring down the barrel of the twin indignities of q-school and begging for tournament exemptions.
To address a panic attack, we have to realize that one of the main triumphs of any form of stress is that it steals us away from the present moment and forces us to focus on future outcomes, generally dire (“I’m going to lose.”  “I’m going to miss this shot.”  “I’m going to die.”).  So, the first step is to have some awareness when you start getting nervy and the self-talk is becoming anxious.  Remember that nerves are a sign that you care and are engaged in something important, not a sign that you are panicking.  Every athlete gets nervous.  Take it as a sign that you are alive, not dead, and doing something for which you have trained hard and are well prepared.  You are lucky to be in this position.  If you transition from nervous to panic, center and ground yourself in the here and now.  Respond to the negative self-talk with mantras like “I’m here”  “I’m not dying (losing, missing)” “stay tuned,” “isn’t this great?!”  You may even need to lightly pat or pinch yourself.  By continuously bringing yourself back to the here and now, you can avert the precipitous slide into dismal future projections.  Secondly, as to that most common symptom: hyperventilating.  When we hyperventilate, we are not oxygenating our blood, and the oxygen deficit leads to light-headedness and an increased urgency on breathing, but with diminished returns.  This is why so many panic attack sufferers say, “I can’t breathe!”  Here, the fix is obvious: breathe!  But, breathe gently, not frantically.  The breaths should be long, extended inhalations that bypass the chest and go directly into the belly.  Exhalations should fully empty the lungs.  (This takes practice. The belly should go out, not in, when you are deep breathing properly.)  People often ask me how long they should continue belly breathing.  The answer is: always, but certainly for as long as the stressful situation pertains.  For Charlie on Friday, the answer would have been the entirety of his round.  The fact that he was seen on multiple occasions literally gasping for air showed that he wasn’t breathing properly.  The third solution is to find a way to be distracted from the stress.  This can be difficult during a competitive situation, but any sporting event, and particularly a golf round, affords many opportunities to bring our focus away from the stress of the moment and onto other things.  It’s useful, during a hiatus in actually performing the actions of the sport, to bring the attention to one’s sensual experience of the surroundings: the smell of the air or grass, some beautiful sight, often plentiful on a golf course (a dramatic cloud formation, the play of light, a pretty bird), or some ambient sounds.  When we put our focus on these things, we generally exit the battlefield of the mind and attend to experiences that are occurring in the here and now.  We leave our world and enter the world.  In moving out of our head and into the senses, we more fully enter the moment.
        In this regard, Charlie’s panic attack may have been his saving grace.  In focusing on the fact that he thought he was dying, he thus turned earning his Tour card into a matter of little significance.  Still, I don’t recommend that you try that strategy.  Having a panic attack and thinking you’re dying might help you avert some other stressors, but it’s not generally the way to float & sting your way to victory.  And while it is metabolically and metaphysically true that we are dying every minute, let’s save that ultimate reality for later and invest our energies in being here now.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Scattering & Husbanding: The energy economy of bad conduct

Recently, I have been helping US Squash out at some junior squash tournaments, particularly in the area of refereeing and conduct.  In this role, I have had the opportunity to witness, up close and personal, the various forms of bad conduct that infect any competitive event: ball abuse, racket abuse, referee abuse, opponent abuse and, reality abuse.  While my role is to help younger referees deal more firmly and effectively with these sorts of outbursts, and while I could dilate extensively on the importance and value of good sportsmanship, my main message here is that bad conduct is a sign of bad cognition and, as such, corrosive of good performance.  Like all instances of faulty cognition, you should do your level best to root it out whenever you feel it, notice it, or if you’re lucky enough to have a good referee, be given a conduct warning for it.
Of the many reasons why bad conduct results in bad performance, the one I will call your attention to is that it is a total waste of energy, an athlete’s most precious and finite resource.  When you are freaking out about the last point, you’re well on your way to losing the next one.  And furthermore, when you are squandering your energy that way, you are draining your tank and re-fueling your opponent’s, who notices and capitalizes on your little tantrums.  So, in the energy economy of competition, bad conduct is a lose-lose scenario.  In this article, I am going to call your attention to the three most prevalent conduct errors I witness and provide direction about how to channel your energy more effectively.  When you fall prey to them, you are scattering your energy.  When you avoid them, especially in tough times, you are husbanding your energy.

  1. Imprecating: You hit a ball into the tin, out of court, or fail to retrieve an opponent’s winning shot, and yell any or all of the following: “OH, MY GOD!!!” “JESUS CHRIST!!!”  “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!”  “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??!!”  “WHAT THE (expletive deleted)??!!!” Sometimes these outbursts come in singlets, pairs, or as a tricolon crescendo.  In this scattering error, you appeal to some absent tribunal, some Olympian counsel for answers as to why the universe has turned suddenly inimical.  Zeus snickers, “foolish mortal, plaything of fate,” as you go on to lose the next several points and petition the divine ever more vociferously.  The first fix for this error, which aims at husbanding energy, is to keep it inside and find a way to transfer the negative energy to positive.  Follow this husbanding routine: note the mistake and validate the frustration to yourself (“Damn!  A tin.  That’s a mistake.”)  Then, give yourself, again, to yourself, an encouraging correction (“Get the next point!” “Hit it higher!”).  In moments of extreme frustration, pace around the service box, tie your shoes, check your strings.  But do so, all the while being clear that you are re-focusing your mind for the task at hand and giving yourself a pep talk.  Don’t use that time to continue wallowing in your misery.  Following this routine will minimize the damage from a mental error, get you back on track, and, most importantly, save vital energy for when you need it most.
  2. Disputing.  Things are not going well.  You have lost the last few points and the whining din of negative self-talk has become deafening in your ears.  Because you haven’t succeeded in re-focusing the mind, you become disputatious.  You question the referee’s calls, doubt your opponent’s retrievals, question appeals for lets and strokes, since obviously these things must be at fault for your poor play.  These external disputes are signs that inwardly things have continued their downward spiral.  That is, you are externalizing an internal struggle, all the while leaking and sputtering energy willy nilly.  The husbanding fix here is a bit tricky.  It requires some mindful attention to the self-chatter.  Has it become whiney, harsh and tinged with anger and righteous indignation?  If so, notice it and nip it in the bud!  Give yourself a quick scolding (“Come on!  Snap out of it!”) and then administer a pep talk (“Let’s play a couple of really strong points.”)  Even if you don’t win them, commit to changing the cognitive landscape toward the positive.  If you lose an entire game in negative talk, make sure your primary intervention during the game break is on the cognitive thermostat.
  3. Storming.  Things have reached their nadir.  Now, when you lose a point, instead of just imprecating or disputing, you storm in the following ways: ball abuse: kicking the ball, slamming the ball into the tin after the point is over; racket abuse: nicking the side wall with a violent swing, throwing the racket into the corner, or even breaking the racket on the wall.  You also abuse reality: change the score, claim that a ball retrieved on the 2nd and a half bounce was up, swear that the opponent’s ball was out even though it was two feet inside the line.  In this frame of mind, a conduct warning or stroke can be the best signal that you have really lost your tether to the rational world.  The referee is trying to give you a lifeline back with that warning, though you take it as further proof of all the forces arrayed against you.  When things have reached this point, often a strong intervention from the entourage is the only fix.  A coach can help.  S/he can speak truth to the madness (“You’re going to lose if you carry on like this.”) and get you focussed on the present (“Just play one point at a time.”), as well as give you a good strategy.  But just as often, words don’t penetrate the rabid frenzy, and a parent provides the best intervention, who, after warning you once, will default you from the match if the tantrums don’t stop.  No doubt, this is the nuclear option, but it should be left on the table for players who can’t manage their own behavior.  Of course, if a parent doesn’t step in, a good referee will oblige by awarding your opponent a conduct match, the ref’s nuclear option.

   In this piece, I have outlined three forms of bad conduct, all of which betray poor cognition.  I have also written with an eye toward young athletes, but we know well that athletes of all ages fall into these traps.  And, while I have focused on squash, these remarks apply equally well to all sports. Indeed, to all life.  An important thing to recognize about poor conduct is that it violates the two main injunctions of good sport cognition: that you stay present and that you focus on the things you can control, not those you can’t.  When we are in a bad mental framework, and letting that framework ooze all over the court, it is because we are perseverating on past moments, as well as on negative rather than positive inputs.  Secondly, we can’t control referee calls, an opponent’s good play or bad shenanigans, but we can control our own conduct and play.  A huge step toward being able to control these two variables is by controlling our emotional response to the challenges of the moment. Controlling emotions saves energy.  Freaking out squanders it.  It is only by husbanding our energy rather than profligately scattering it that we avoid getting mired in the hellish quicksand of bad cognition and can get down to the more joyous and liberating business of floating like butterflies and stinging like bees.