The pressure’s all in your head, right?

Just like other athletes, professional tennis players contend with performance pressures and emotional swings. André Agassi related his on- and off-court struggles in his 2009 book, Open. Commentators highlighted emotional pressure as an possible issue in Serena Williams’ crushing loss to Roberta Vinci. Although she never admitted to sensing the pressure, Serena had encountered heavy media and fan attention as she attempted to complete the calendar year Grand Slam.

Another American player, Mardy Fish, went on the record to discuss how psychological pressure led to panic attacks and physical problems that sidelined him for nearly three years. In his last singles match prior to retirement at the  2015 US Open, Fish showed signs of mental and physical greatness coupled with indications of emotional wear. He ultimately lost the match in five long sets.

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Emotional pressure affects rec players, too

Fish’s willingness to talk about his issues increased dialogue about mental health concerns in the world of pro tennis. And even though rec tennis players don’t earn their livelihoods from the sport, we still have to handle the pressure of competitive situations.

In fact for women such as myself, the scoring and ranking aspects of tennis make it particularly hard to view the sport as merely a recreational activity I do for fun and exercise, not a place where I compare my performance to other people’s.

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We decide how to view our pressure

Anxiety over becoming an empty-nester and worries about what I would do after full-time motherhood ended contributed to a general lack of focus and low self-confidence that carried over into my tennis matches. Even though I was playing tennis “for fun,” it actually wasn’t all that fun, and I wasn’t sure how to make things better.

Last year, however, I experienced a defining moment — in other words, a moment of pain + an opportunity to grow.

Pain

After organizing a group of players to do clinics, practice and play doubles matches together, I heard from others in my group that they preferred not to partner with me. While I might have taken this information at face value, instead I interpreted it as a rejection of me and my on-court performance. I thought they were choosing to emphasize win/loss record over friendship, and it made me feel terrible.

As a tennis player who wants to improve, I understood my friends’ desire to move up in the ratings, and their fear that partnering with me might prohibit them from doing so. But their rejection still hurt. It hurt a lot. Some days I’d barely get to my car after seeing them on the court before I’d start crying.

Looking at the situation now, I don’t believe my friends had intended to make me feel bad, only to tell me the truth — that they liked me, but preferred not to partner with me. At the time, however, I let myself slip further into negativity, with the result that I lost every USTA match I played that season.

Opportunity to Grow

It had been my choice to allow the emotional pressure of a situation where friends wouldn’t partner with me to drain my self-confidence. Alternatively, I might have interpreted it as a sad commentary on the strength of our friendship, but not as a rejection of me per se.

Given the fact that I felt weak in other parts of my life, choosing the second interpretation would have been hard for me back then. Even so, I tried to hide my vulnerability. I failed to reach out to my friends and let them know how much their rejection had hurt me.

Sometimes we cover up weaknesses to appear strong on the outside — when really, by admitting our weakness, we could become stronger on the inside.

I tried to conceal my pain, but at the same time hoped that one of my friends would notice something was wrong and show me she cared. That didn’t happen. The growth came when I finally stopped feeling sorry for myself, stopped waiting for others to help me, and took charge of my own reactions.

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“Pressure is a privilege”

Billie Jean King, perhaps the greatest female player in the history of tennis, is famous for saying, “Pressure is a privilege.” That phrase, in fact, is the title of her memoir. Her 1973 match v. Bobby Riggs, nicknamed “The Battle of the Sexes,” became a metaphor for women’s equality struggles through that decade and beyond. She has also discussed pressure faced in her decision to have an abortion, as well as the press conference she chose to hold after being “outed” in 1981.

Recreational athletes can take learnings from the court, course or field and apply them to other parts of our lives. As sports marketer David McLean puts it, we can excel under pressure by changing the way we think about it:

Regardless of who we are and what we do, let’s shift our perspective on pressure from being something from which we want to be freed, to a gift enabling us to be better.

Replace self-pressure with self-compassion

As good as the concept of embracing “pressure as a privilege” sounds, I find it hard to do. What works better for me is looking at the source of the pressure I’m feeling, and deciding what, if anything, I can do about it.

On the tennis court and in life generally, I find the worst pressure I experience is pressure I put on myself. I push myself to do better all the time, whether it be to win more tennis matches, write more “usable” prose (whatever that means!), or load the dishwasher more efficiently.

But I’m learning to identify my triggers for self-imposed pressure and offer up self-compassion instead. To replace the voice of judgment in my head that tells me, “I should have finished this project by now, I’m an incompetent writer,” with “It’s a bummer I haven’t finished this project yet, but I’m going to keep trying.”

A subtle shift perhaps, but one that in time, will help me put pressure in its proper place.

 

Image credits: WSOC TV, NoFault Sports,Canberra Times,

Back to school, back to anxiety

It’s that time of year again. Yes, it’s exciting to enter a new year at school, meet new friends, learn new things. But many back-to-school experiences are infused with anxiety — both for students and their parents.

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Student anxiety

Students of all ages are nervous as well as excited, whether they’re in elementary, middle, high school, college or beyond. Their questions vary on similar themes: will I get a “good” teacher? How will I find something I like to do and people I like to do it with? How can I make good grades without working too hard?

For students moving away to college, the thrill of living on their own is often matched by a latent fear of whether they’ll be happy. Whether they will find people who accept them for who they are, or whether they should “try on” new personalities in order to fit in.

Even going back to college after a summer away brings worries: will I still like my friends from last year? Will they like me? What am I going to major in? How am I going to juggle all my responsibilities?

Parents are anxious for our kids

We parents may try to hide our anxiety, but it runs high. We’re worried about how our younger children are going to choose friends, make good grades, excel at sports, get their homework done. Anxiety builds as they start high school. We fear that even tiny missteps will limit their options for college.

Clearing the college hurdle brings on new worries. As parents of college students, we have to content ourselves with what our kids choose to tell us. Even if we had tried to guide kids’ choices in the past, they’re out of our reach now.

We worry about ourselves, too

Those are the worries we have for our kids. What about the anxiety we feel for ourselves? For example, how can I volunteer at my child’s school while still leaving time for my job or other commitments? Are the other parents going to accept me as one of them? Now that my kids have moved on to college, what should I do? Should I change jobs, start working again, go back to school, take up a new interest? How will my spouse and I get along with each other, now that the kids have left home? How can I meet new friends, now that the interactions with parents I used to see at school or sports are more random?

Relationship anxiety

So we worry about our relationships with other adults, and also about how we will relate to our children who are becoming adults. But deep down, both parents and students want to know the same things:

  • How do I separate?
  • How do I stay connected?

 

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Letting go of anxiety

Vague advice for anxious parents or kids like, “Just chill out!” may be well meant, but it’s not particularly helpful. Of course we know that worrying doesn’t do any good! Various religious traditions (not to mention common sense) admonish us to let go of anxiety. For example, Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount: “Which one of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?(Matthew 6:27 ESV)

For those of us who are prone to anxiety, however, it’s not so easy. As a near-professional worrier myself, I struggle with letting go. But my own experience suggests starting small can help. For example:

  • Commit time to take a “worry break.” Go for a walk or sit outside and breathe slowly. Get a pedicure or massage. See if you can think about something else for thirty minutes, maybe even an hour. Block the time out on your calendar.
  • Let go of one thing: Figure out something you’re worried about that logically, you know you can’t control. Don’t try to let go of all worries at once — just this one.
  • Turn the camera around: notice what’s going on in the lives of people you encounter every day. The cashier, receptionist, school janitor, or homeless person. Sometimes the simple act of focusing on another’s problems, even briefly, can give you perspective on your own concerns.

Letting go of anxiety, even temporarily, is something we can train ourselves to do. Not unlike learning to hit a slice serve or sink a four-foot putt, this training requires us to practice and build on small successes. But even little improvements will start to add up.

OK, it’s time for me to walk my dog. Likewise, go on your own “worry break!”

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Images licensed under CC BY via Flickr: Mari Z., T. Goskar, P. Nouhailler

Patrick Nouhaill

 

Communicating with your college student

When my eldest child left for college, he chose not to call, text or email us for three weeks. This was his way of separating, but I didn’t like it. My daughter, on the other hand, follows the more typical college student practice of phoning me on her way to class. From a parent’s perspective, neither of these communication styles is particularly desirable. But we take what we can get. Technology may have made communicating with your college student easier. But in fact, modern communication vehicles compound age-old communication issues between parents and our emerging adult children.

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Cell phones make communicating with your college student easier

It goes without saying that cell-phone equipped college kids are more “in touch” today than we were. Members of our generation generally shared a landline phone with one or more roommates. Sometimes the best way to reach a friend was the memo board on her dorm room door. Now parents can call kids directly, plus we can send quick emails or texts like, “good luck on your midterms!” or “buy a plane ticket home before prices go up!” There’s no need to plan for a Sunday night phone call or interrupt our kids’ busy (ahem) schedules with a short message or reminder.

Cell phones make authentic communication harder

Even with smart phones everywhere, authentic communication between parents and our college children remains elusive. While it’s great to receive a photo of your child and her roommates, you’d really like to know how she feels about her relationships with them. You wish you knew whether she wants to be going out with her roommates, or whether she’d prefer to be doing something else. In short, you wish you could tell from the photo whether she “fits in.” But you can’t. It’s even worse with boys, since most of them give their parents minimal information. When they lived at home, at least you could see them and observe how they were doing. Now you’re at the mercy of their choice to reply (or not) to your messages. My youngest has a personalized ringtone for me in the tune of La Bamba, “You got a call from Mama.” It’s hilarious, but I can be sure he won’t answer the phone without knowing I’m on the other end.

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Communicating with your college student: The iConnected Parent

The iConnected Parent, first published in 2010, addresses cultural shifts in parent/student communications that parallel changes in technology. Written by Barbara K. Hofer, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, and Abigail Sullivan Moore, a journalist who reports on high school and college for the New York Times and other publications, the book compiles Dr. Hofer’s research on undergrads at Middlebury and the University of Michigan in 2006. While it paints a picture of helicopter parents who can’t leave their children alone at college, it also connotes the complexity of parent/child relationships in the Internet age.

Parents and students average 13.4 contacts per week

A frequently cited statistic from The iConnected Parent is that, on average, college students and their parents communicate (via phone, text or email) 13.4 times per week. This figure is slightly higher for girls and slightly lower for boys, but it doesn’t vary by ethnicity, race or distance from home. (Ch 2)  While parents initiate more of the contacts than kids do, communication goes both ways. And habits that started in high school, such as a parent helping to edit a child’s paper, can continue throughout college thanks to the ease of emailing documents back and forth.

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Problems with the “electronic leash”

In addition to emphasizing the student’s need to further his/her own development by separating from home, The iConnected Parent points out that parents are short-changing themselves by staying too connected to their kids. In past generations, the empty nest period tended to give parents a chance to reinvigorate their marriages and explore new interests or careers. Now parents never completely end their child-rearing years, as they continue to manage their children’s lives via cell phone and Internet. A conscientious parent may feel she needs to be constantly available to her college-age children — indeed, her kids depend on instant access. But such an arrangement heightens stress for parents and can even create a false sense of security for the child. (Ch 6)

Communicating with your college student: cut the cord

For the sake of parents as well as kids, the authors say, both parties need to “cut the cord.” How easy this is to do depends on patterns established during childhood. The authors’ observations suggest that helicopter parenting has lasting consequences, and their research highlights parent/child relationships with these types of patterns firmly in place. Given this vantage point, I feel relieved to have fewer contacts per week with my college kids than their study revealed to be the norm. At the same time, however, it would be nice for my offspring to phone home once in a while . . . A future post will offer tips on communicating with your college student. But if I’m going to achieve the average 13.4 communications with each of my college kids this week, I’ve got to shift my attention to texting and calling now. TTYL.

Image credits:
the girl who owns the world via Flickr, Stuart Miles via freedigitalphotos.net, Amazon

 

Yoga for TMJ: does it work?

TMJ stands for Temporomandibular Joint, or jaw pain and stiffness associated with stress, clenching and grinding the teeth — often while asleep. Over ten million US adults suffer TMJ symptoms, with women experiencing it at twice the rate of men: nearly 7% vs. 3.5%. Dentists often prescribe night guards, soft foods, hot and cold packs — which can help, but they don’t usually cure the problem. Knowing that my own TMJ was related to stress, I sought to resolve the underlying causes through yoga for TMJ.

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Workshop on Yoga for TMJ

Even though my track record with yoga classes is spotty, I signed up for a three-hour workshop, full of optimism that this was going to help me when other things hadn’t. Although I got lost and arrived late, I was the second-to-last person to get there, so the punctual people reserved their judgmental stares for the lady who came last. Thank goodness. I quickly realized I wasn’t the only stressed-out person in the room.

Our instructor was a yogi and an experienced cranio-sacral practitioner. She was about my age and had two little buns near the front of her curly hair, perhaps to contain the longer part of her bangs? Her hair also had streaks of pink and of blue, plus a hairband to keep it off her face. She used a colorful plastic teaching model of the skull to explain what goes on when our jaw starts to tense up. The bright colors on the skull ostensibly differentiated the various bones, but I thought it added a cheery note to what otherwise was a sober topic.

The only downside was when our instructor dropped her visual aid, and it fell apart. She became distracted and un-zen-like as she tried to fit the pieces back together.

 

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Yoga for TMJ: the lion face

“Okay, before we do anything, give me a little lion face,” our instructor said. The Lion Face pose involves dropping your jaw and sticking out your tongue. It’s often accompanied by rolling back the eyes. Here’s a video that shows you how to do it. There are lots of funny lion poses out there, even a flickr group that showcases some of the best ones.

You can’t clench your jaw when you’re doing a lion face. Our teacher emphasized that we needn’t do a “major lion face,” just a “little lion face.” She would talk for a bit, then stop her lecture for us to do the lion face. She would also interject “now do a little lion face”  into the sequence of poses she led us through later.

After I told my family about the lion face, my son took to doing it at random times. We might be at the dinner table, and my husband would bring up a controversial topic. I’d look across at my youngest, and he’d cue me to relax with the stuck out tongue and rolled back eyes. So far, this has been the biggest benefit of my class on yoga for TMJ.

 

Benefits of yoga for TMJ

I learned there is a link between the skull and the pelvis, and that yoga poses to open the hips and give you more hip stability can augment the lion face and other things you do to relax the jaw itself. At the same time, I’m not sure I demonstrated the proper attitude during class. It was hard to remain in a zen state, when actually I got tired of sitting for three hours on the bare floor, not to mention my annoyance at repetitive, self-oriented and generally stupid questions asked by one of my classmates. Why is there always one person who asks dumb questions? Faking a pleasant look while she was wasting everyone else’s time was NOT helping my TMJ!

 

Yoga for TMJ: attitude is everything

There was also a section where our instructor taught self-massage, and when I questioned whether rubbing my temples so hard that my arms hurt was really what I wanted to do, she came over to me and suggested I use less pressure. She placed her fingers on the sides of my head and asked me if I felt that.  “Sure,” I replied. “It feels like you have your fingers on my temples.” It did. But others had expressed amazement when she did it to them, so my comments weren’t appreciated. It was as if someone had said, “The emperor has no clothes.” Clearly, the subject of yoga for TMJ needed to be treated with more reverence than I offered.

Owing in part to bad attitude, I’m not benefiting from yoga for TMJ as much as I could. But at least the class was fun and provided some good stories. Bottom line: I think yoga can reduce TMJ, whether through specific asanas or general improvement in the ability to deal with stress. I’m just not there yet personally.

In the meantime, though, join me in a little lion face.

 

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Image credits: Amazon/Wellden, Damn Good Yoga, Anne Rosales

 

 

 

Two weeks, two graduations, what’s next for me?

Last month we celebrated. First was college graduation for my eldest on the East Coast, then back home for the last rites of high school with my youngest. There were so many parties and official events that I powered through by focusing on logistics. Now I have time to stop and consider the meaning of it all.

 

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There’s no denying middle age

In addition to the festivities, I also underwent that initiation into middle age, the baseline colonoscopy. And recently I’ve spent hours collecting financial documents, as my husband and I worked with an attorney to update our wills. Little wonder that my spinning instructor cautioned me about hunching my shoulders, and my chiropractor told me to come back in just a week.

 

That persistent question

Why can’t I stop and bask in my kids’ graduations — celebrate a job well done? Why do I jump to “what’s next?” Maybe it has to do with the question people were asking me at last month’s functions: “Now you’re going to be an empty nester. What do you think about that, and what do you plan to do with yourself?

 

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I tense up. For twenty years I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, school and sports volunteer, carpool driver and family chef. I don’t know how to translate these skills into something that will give my life meaning for the next twenty years.

I know I’m over-reacting. Folks are just being nice when they ask me “what’s next.” We don’t know each other well, and they’re trying to make conversation. Maybe the woman who asks me this is gathering ideas for her own midlife transition, or maybe she wonders if anyone else dreads an empty nest as much as she does. In fact, the actual number of people asking me “what’s next” has been small — nonetheless, I feel overwhelmed by the question.

 

Not knowing what’s next

For lots of us, it’s a scary transition. We’re left alone as our children go off to new adventures, friends and opportunities. Although it doesn’t hit you when they’re in elementary or middle school, the implication of raising your kids to be independent is that, eventually, they won’t need you anymore. This is good. But it’s also terrible.

I’ve spent the better part of two decades shepherding my children through their activities, helping with homework, doing laundry and cooking, and learning about their friends and interests. Now I’m staying put while they move on to do these things somewhere else, without me. Sure, it’s nice to do less laundry than before, not to always plan ahead what we’ll have for dinner. But there’s a big hole in my day-to-day life where my kids used to be, and I’m not sure how to fill it.

 

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A beginning or an end?

Commencement: for the graduates, it’s a beginning. For me, the graduates’ mother, it feels like more of an end. The end of their childhoods, the end of little people who need me, the end of doing what I know how to do.

I have faith there’ll be more joy ahead — I’ll make my way through this tunnel of sadness, fear and confusion. But I’m not ready to announce “what’s next” for me.

When I figure it out, though, I’ll be sure to let you know.

 

Image credits: Daisy Shih, Nick Harris, Anne Rosales