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,

Five reasons to love sports talk radio

In case you didn’t know, the San Francisco Giants are playing in the World Series for the third time in five years. They’re trying to win the ultimate baseball championship yet again, after triumphing in 2010 and 2012. And there’s nowhere better for Giants fans to get all the stats and commentary — essentially, to live the game right alongside the team, than on sports talk radio. In the Bay Area, we listen to KNBR, “the sports leader.” They have two stations, AM 680 and AM 1050, plus online access. They’re the official radio broadcasters for Giants baseball, Warriors basketball, and 49ers football. Loyal fans listen to KNBR all year long, but anyone with a passing interest in sports should check out sports talk radio when your hometown team is, to use a sports talk cliché, “on the verge of making history.”

love sports talk radio_knbr_sf

Five reasons I love sports talk radio:

1. It’s fun

Sports talk radio shows typically feature two personalities who engage in witty banter, laugh at each other, find funny things to highlight or give sports figures silly nicknames — all in the name of fun, of bringing a smile to your commute. Most of the partnerships have catchy names: Murph & Mac, Gary & Larry, or the Bay Area’s favorite baseball announcers, Kruk & Kuip. Some of the guys, such as Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper, do play-by-play for games. Others have built a following by talking about sports, interviewing sports figures and perhaps most important, fielding calls from listeners. All of them stay positive. No depressing world news here: it’s all sports, all the time.

2. It’s efficient

Although it’s possible to waste hours listening to different callers’ opinions on how they would have executed an important play differently, or what they think is critical for the team to win its next game, tuning in to sports talk radio is actually an efficient way to collect a few stats and soundbites that will give you “street creed” with your spouse, your co-workers or even the guys who fix your car or computer. Fifteen minutes of sports talk radio in the car will pay off later, when you mention an interesting statistic or story you remember, or you drop the name of last night’s key player. This modest investment of time can make you look completely plugged in to the sports situation.

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3. Everybody gets to be an expert

The best part about sports talk radio is the call-in show, where regular fans go on-air with their opinions about the game their team just played, or what the team needs to do in its next game. After the Giants won their first 2014 World Series game 7-1, emotion was running so high that some callers predicted the Giants would sweep the Series, just like they did back in 2012. But the next day, after San Francisco lost to Kansas City 7-2, fans were somber and analytical. “If I were Botchy [SF’s manager], I wouldn’t have left Peavy in for so long.” Or, “Why is that guy Strickland allowed to pitch at all? We’re not in AAA — this is the World Series!”

Callers had even more concerns after the Giants lost Game 3 in San Francisco, bringing the series to 2-1 games in favor of Kansas City. But fan exuberance returned after Game 4, where a come-from-behind win evened the series score, and everyone who followed baseball in San Francisco knew the Giants’ ace, Madison Bumgarner, would be pitching the following day. After San Francisco won Game 5 with a historic 5-0 shutout, callers started to celebrate a World Series victory in advance. They offered advice on how to handle the relief bullpen situation, how the Giants could “wrap things up,” how we really had KC “on the ropes,” and on and on.

The thing with sports talk is, everybody gets his or her moment to be the expert — to explain what s/he would have done better than the people who get paid lots of money to manage teams and play games. When reviewing a loss, the benefit of hindsight allows callers endless variations on what the team “could” have done. When the team wins, they offer thoughts on how “we” can keep the streak going. People use statistics to bolster their arguments, and/or add warnings that restrain fan excitement. Callers show depth of passion and at times extensive knowledge about the game. Phoning in gives them the chance to shine.

4. It offers lively debate, but within limits

Sports talk radio hosts keep callers on air longer if they have an interesting viewpoint or an entertaining manner. They dispense quickly with callers who add nothing to their program, sometimes even losing calls with a “technical glitch” that may or may not be accidental. But hosts never insult their callers, never suggest they could be spending their time better elsewhere.

Most calls discuss hypothetical situations. They deal with games that are past, or games that haven’t yet been played. As stated above, callers get to show off their knowledge. Sports talk radio hosts encourage lively debate, but at no time is a caller permitted to bash the home team. One of their unwritten rules, but every bit as firm as unwritten baseball rules like “If their pitcher hits one of your team’s players, you have to hit one of theirs,” is that ALL callers have to be fans of the home team. You can debate ideas and opinions, but everyone has the same team’s best interest at heart.

love sports talk radio_kruk&kuip

5. Sports talk radio builds community

By valuing a diversity of views about “the small stuff,” while holding fast to the overall goal of wanting to see the home team win, sports talk radio brings people together. It gives fans a place to talk about their favorite teams, and for those who listen regularly, it offers consistent hosts who can become your radio “friends,” in much the same way TV news show hosts or bloggers you read regularly seem familiar and comfortable. Sports talk radio also gives listeners connection with each other, as they agree or disagree, but recognize that ultimately, they are united by their love of the same sports team. Positive and entertaining, sports talk radio lets fans celebrate (or commiserate) together and allows them to feel united with a bigger cause.

Join in with passion

If you’re even a little bit of a fan, tune in to sports talk radio to become more conversant in the game, celebrate your team’s wins and witness true passion at work. As you’re listening, reflect on why we don’t let ourselves experience other ups and downs of life with the same intensity as we attach to sports — why we don’t allow ourselves to feel or express similar levels of emotion at work, school and home as we do when rooting for our team. Maybe steeping ourselves in sports talk radio’s passionate community will help bring passion to the rest of our lives, too.

But for now, GO GIANTS!!

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Image credits: KNBR, Wikimedia, Comcast Sports Net, Anne Rosales

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

 

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

What does carne asada have to do with team building?

Yesterday I hosted the last team dinner I’ll ever get to host. My son’s water polo team gathered at our home prior to a tournament they’re playing this weekend.

Two other moms helped me, and we served the boys mounds of carne asada, hot tortillas, enchiladas, Spanish rice and salad. As if that weren’t enough food, we also offered chocolate milk (great after a workout, you know), fruit, homemade cookies and brownies.

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For years I’ve hosted end-of-season parties, supervised team sleepovers and served dinner to players and families after Little League games. But last night was the end. The end of orchestrating a large dinner to be ready precisely on time, of serving it efficiently, making it look easy. The end of sharing a gift with my children’s teams  —  not by playing or coaching their sports, but by doing something I’m good at: food and hospitality.

I’ll still find people to cook for, still find ways to build community over shared meals. It just won’t involve my kids as much. And since none of them is playing varsity sports in college, it definitely won’t involve their teams.

Maybe that’s why this final team dinner seemed so significant. Sports have been important to my children, but not because they dreamed of playing professionally, or even playing in college. They took their sports commitments seriously, valuing not only personal improvement, but also their teams’ collective achievement. They learned “life lessons” about things like persistence, fairness and sportsmanship that will stay with them far beyond the court, the field, or the pool.

 

Menlo School boys water polo. Photo by Cynthia Yock.

Photo by Cynthia Yock

 

I’m grateful for the role sports have played in my children’s lives, grateful for remarkable individuals who’ve coached them over the years. Needless to say, I’m less grateful for the handful of negative coaches who made my kids’ lives difficult or soured them on a particular sport or season. But even then, playing for such coaches helped my kids develop the ability to discern when they were wrong, vs. when their coach was being unreasonable. Without a doubt, this is a skill they’ll use in “real life.”

Cooking for my children’s teams, or organizing schedules and communications for them, was a way I could contribute to activities they cared about. My son’s a senior, playing in his final water polo season, so I’m nearly finished with these contributions to my kids’ sports. Yes, I most likely will contribute elsewhere in the future. But all the same, an emptiness lingers.   [Read more…]