Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Excuses & Radical Responsibility

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the goofy t-shirt that has common excuses tennis players use when they hit a bad shot.  The shirt says things like: “the sun got in my eyes,” and “my strings were too tight.”  You get the point.  While the shirt is intended as a light joke, it speaks to a natural tendency that all of us have when we make a mistake.  We immediately leap to the mitigating factors that led us astray.  Top athletes, in particular, fall prey to this defense mechanism, often called denial, because they have honed their games to such an extent that they feel as though they are no longer prone to simple mistakes.  This is why you so often see a player glance with a disbelieving look at his or her strings, racket, the ground or the air after a bad shot, trying to fathom the reason for their miscue.  But instead of excusing away a bad shot, I encourage you to use a skill I will call ‘radical responsibility’, in which you avoid the easy balm of environmental fluke and instead take full, personal ownership for the mistake.  Owning your errors is the quickest path to shoring them up, whereas excusing them away is the surest way to remain in the fiction-laden universe of denial and sour grapes.  In this post, I will expand on this common pitfall and promote the skill of radical responsibility as a way toward improved performance.
    Often, there are some other cognitive distortions lurking behind a defense mechanism and it’s important to know which one you might be using when you resort to excuses.  I have written about them both previously, but the first is perfectionism.  Many athletes understandably fall prey to perfectionism because they work so hard and are always striving for the perfect result.  This kind of striving is a good thing.  But it derails performance when the athlete thinks he or she has trained away all mistakes.  But even the best players hit the ball into the net or chili-dip an easy chip shot.  An excuse, then, masks the insult that the mistake has caused to the imagined perfection.  But, often a mistake can be a good opportunity to notice a technical flaw or to realize that your attention has strayed from the task at hand.  The second one is grandiosity, the idea that as we train and get better, we get beyond making certain mistakes, that somehow they are beneath us, that One so Great should never make an error so small.  They say that great mathematicians are not good at simple calculations.  But, that doesn’t make them immune to the laws of nature which addition, subtraction and division describe.
    No.  The real opportunities for learning from mistakes comes from taking radical responsibility for them.  Instead of “I had a bad lie,” try, “I didn’t account for my lie.”  Instead of “the wind really took that,” try, “I didn’t adequately judge the wind.”  That is, radical responsibility demands that you bring your own agency into focus before considering the environmental factors.  Doing so will give you more opportunities to know what you need to work on, and will give you a greater sense of ownership in the outcome.  You take credit for your victories, so you should also put yourself forward as the author of your mistakes.
    I will leave you with two recent examples of how this sense of radical responsibility can play itself out even among the best players.  After missing the cut at this year’s U.S. Open, 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson remarked, “I’d describe the whole course as manipulative.  It just enhances my disdain for the USGA and how they manipulate courses.”  Now contrast that remark with one that comes from the 1996 P.G.A. Champion, Mark Brooks.  Many people might not have known that he was actually caddying for another tour player at this year’s Players Championship.  When asked what his years of competitive experience were bringing to his man’s bag, he replied: “One thing I try to get him to do is to take responsibility for his shots, really do it, deep down.  And the second thing is to work on his deficiencies.”  Note that the two are connected: take radical responsibility for your mistakes, see them as windows to deeper technical flaws, and then use that feedback to reduce their frequency.  Radical responsibility: put it in your bag and on your next t-shirt.
(For help with this or any other performance challenge, don't hesitate to contact Altius Performance Works at

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Healing to run, running to heal

In the wake of the events at the Boston Marathon and the subsequent shootout and stakeout in Watertown, there has been much discussion of the strength and resilience of the Boston community.  Our Mayor crowed, “Boston will overcome,” and our president uttered his somber words, “they picked on the wrong city," and, "make no mistake about it, we will finish the race.”  The phrase “Boston Strong,” has gone viral.  Even our busses flash this slogan after their LED banners show the number of the route, as if, no matter what bus you get on, we are all headed toward this same impregnable fortress.  And indeed, many of the runners, even among the injured, have pledged that they will run next year, even if on new fiberglass limbs.  Such a display of strength in the face of such terror is both admirable and simply human.  We endure because we have no choice.  But, what of those who don’t feel this sense of strength, whose sense of safety has been so shattered that they are experiencing far greater disturbances than can be addressed with simple slogans of an imagined bravery?  What if they cannot fathom running the marathon again, or even, running again?  What do we say to them?
    The subjective nature of trauma.  The first thing to say is that trauma is an entirely subjective experience.  Just because you weren’t there, doesn’t mean that you weren’t traumatized.  The images of the explosions and the descriptions of the wounds were repeated so often by the media that we all had a very vivid pictures of the horrific event imprinted in our minds.  Some people can seem to regroup relatively quickly, while others--particularly runners and marathon participants--might feel that their universe has become so inverted that they just cannot imagine returning to their pre-event peace of mind.  The important thing to remember is that there is nothing inherently wrong with either response.
    Know the signs of acute traumatic stress.  The second thing we might offer them is to recognize that certain reactions to trauma, though distressing, are normal and can be overcome.  Professionals often break down trauma symptoms into clusters, the most common of which are: re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares, hightened sensitivity to reminders of the event), avoidance (social withdrawal, difficulty having or naming feelings, avoiding stimuli or activities associated with the event, difficulties with memory), and hypervigilance (an edgy feeling of always being on, of always thinking the event is going to happen again).  Experiencing these symptoms can often make a person feel as though they are going crazy, when in fact, they are part of the body's natural protection system that went into overdrive during the event.
    Grounding exercises.  One good way to help yourself if you are experiencing any of these symptoms is to first recognize that this is what they are.  Then, you can practice some fairly simple grounding exercises to help you through.  If you are having re-experiencing symptoms, it is important to stop the thought or wake up from the dream and say something to yourself like, "It's over.  It's not happening now.  It was only a flashback/dream.  I'm safe."  If you are having some social withdrawal, try to make yourself do something socially that maybe stretches your comfort zone but isn’t impossible.  Ask a friend to do something that feels pretty easy and then expand from there.  And if you are experiencing some hypervigilance, practice some grounding exercises like some deep breathing (exhaling twice as long as your inhale), guided meditation, or even some physical exercise that gets you out of your head and into your body.  One thing that you will notice about these grounding exercises is that they attempt to give you back some control that was lost during the traumatic event.  Loss of control is one of the signal aspects of trauma and by addressing these symptoms yourself you are taking back some of what was lost.  
       Yet another thing that was lost in a traumatic event is some basic trust in the universe, our faith that bad things like this shouldn't happen.  In that regard, trauma represents a spiritual injury as well as a physical and psychological one.  For this sort of injury, I might suggest that running does offer the best bet for a return to spiritual health.  Your running has been a spiritual exercise for you, a time when mind and body synchronize with your surroundings and gave you that sense of transcending the here and now and participating in something larger than yourself.  Thus, running can be a way to re-harmonize what has gone so badly out of tune.  Recognizing and treating the signs and symptoms of acute stress rather than pretending they're not there might just be one way for you to put those shoes back on to begin the long journey back to the starting line.  But, if some of these symptoms are particularly severe or last longer than a few months, don’t hesitate to contact a mental health expert with some experience working with traumatic stress.