Practice the REALLY Hard Stuff

I was working with a group of high school athletes, teaching them the competitive advantage of emotional intelligence. They were learning that if you know what triggers your emotions, that awareness may help you keep from being emotionally hijacked. In the middle of the explanation, a player held up his hand. He wanted help. A kid on another team really knows this young man’s buttons. The two, on opposing teams, meet regularly during the season. The other kid uses derogatory comments as a weapon against his opponents – it’s a clever form of bullying. I suspect he’s learned that he can catch his opponents off guard, subtly question their ability and get them emotionally off balance.

I asked my athlete for an example. He said in one game, he came close to making a goal. It was a great effort that Cat lion couragebarely missed the upright. And the other kid said, “too bad you missed that one, a little more practice and you might be good enough to play in this league.” A couple of barely audible comments like that and my young athlete is completely hooked. He gets angry in his effort to prove his opponent wrong. Because of the emotional hijack, he experiences the full affect of the fight/flight/freeze response. It compromises his ability to think clearly, control his shots, and to even stick with the game plan. His anger invites desperation – the fear that maybe he CAN’T play the game.

Mission accomplished for the young provocateur on the other team. He has psyched out his biggest threat.

So what is our young athlete to do? One proven answer is simple – practice the skill of de-triggering. It’s a learnable skill. Think of it as unhooking the emotion. With practice, he can learn to diffuse his emotional trigger before his opponent sets foot on the field.

What I suggested was that he get a partner – someone he trusts, like a coach or a parent – to practice the language that triggers him. If he practices experiencing the bullying in a controlled setting, he can get to the point that there is no longer an emotional sting to the insults. For the next few minutes we practiced how to practice. I threw my best bullying insults his way (I’m really awful at this) from “your mother wears army boots” to “so’s your old man!” I looked and sounded about as threatening as his grandmother and we laughed – which was perfect. Being insulted didn’t hurt and he found he could be in complete control.

Then I asked that we do it one more time. This time I repeated the words of his opponent while he tried to imagine his face rather than mine. The more we worked, the more he was able to chuckle – realizing the choices he had. I watched as the emotions that had been in control when he first told his story became diffused and powerless as he learned resilience. He left our session with a new practice in hand.  His opponent had trained our athlete get triggered.  Now he was practicing – and learning to be impervious to that trigger. Sweet.

 

You Don’t Have to Love It

Have you ever been asked if you have passion for your sport or your work – and when you look inside it felt a little parched? No love to be found – just the feeling that it’s hard.

It’s OK. It happens. It’s human. When you are heads down, working diligently on a long-term goal, there will be times when you look for the energy that passion provides and it’s just not there. There are days…and sometimes those days can become weeks…when it’s just hard.climber-984380_640

So what’s a person to do? Rather than languishing, start by asking a critical question – “what do I want?” Sound too simple? The truth is, it’s a question we probably don’t ask enough. So if it feels a little uncomfortable – maybe out of place – don’t be concerned, it is natural to hit an uninspired stretch when we are working toward a big goal. By knowing, ‘what I want’ I can find energy even when inspiration is in short supply. If “what do I want” feels like a big question, good, you are looking in the right place. I’m pointing you toward understanding your bigger game – what you are hungry for in your life.

I worked with an athlete who told me he realized he no longer loved the game. Practice had become hard and he felt like a fraud – surrounded by teammates who were passionate about practice and learning when it just felt like work to him. We focused on what he wanted for his life. He saw that the game would provide the scholarship that would provide the funding to get the education to pursue his dream. He discovered what he wanted. He also realized that he wouldn’t keep his scholarship if he didn’t continue to develop his natural talent and bring value to the team. By understanding himself a little better, he reframed his relationship with the game. He realized he didn’t have to love it. He did have to work hard because it was the path to what he wanted.

I invite you to allow “what do you want?” to be a big question – to take you beyond goals of making quota, winning games, or getting the position. You may find that great questions lead to even more valuable questions for you. What impact do I want to have? Where do I want this investment to take me? Where am I in this picture? Where do I want to be? These are the questions that help you find your direction – your purpose. From those answers emerges commitment.

You can re-calibrate and decide if the mundane work (that in itself may not be inspiring) gets you where you want to go. If the answer is yes, let that be your passion when it gets boring or hard or tedious. Knowing what you want – really want – in life can provide clarity, patience, and commitment.

In Between Yes and No

In between the answers YES and NO we can find the place of NOT YET – but only if we are wise enough to look.   If you are like me, you typically think of YES and NO as absolute.  It either is or it’s not…there’s not a lot of wiggle room. But what if there were more wiggle room, more possibilities? What if, in between being told “yes” and “no” there is a place of preparation and self-management?  That’s the value of NOT YET.

Here’s how my eyes were opened to that lesson. I was working toward an important professional certification and thought I was prepared. Imagine my response when I was told I had failed an important part of the exam. I was blindsided! My first response was to run headlong into NO. NO – I wasn’t going to get the coveted prize. Theimages-2 realization took the wind out of my sails. I was angry, embarrassed and determined to believe the worst of the credentialing system. After all, it told me I was a failure. You see, I was taking up residency in the land of NO.

In the midst of my angst, I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who believed in me. They brought me into the energy of NOT YET. In fact, husband Paul had to come in and get me – yank me out of the energy of failure – out of NO – to bring me up and out to NOT YET.

When I made the move into NOT YET, it became clear that seeing the possibility of a positive outcome in the end doesn’t mean the path will be easy. In fact, the opposite is often more true. Getting from NO to YES takes courage, hard work and a willingness to accept how we are seen by others – not just how we see ourselves. When I mustered the courage to live in NOT YET, I discovered a sense of urgency and determination. It was a place of hard work and hope.

What’s the lesson here? I think it’s two-fold. The personal lesson is to look for NOT YET when I hear NO. We have to be wise enough to understand that some NOs are absolute – people die, positions are filled with someone else, seasons end. But if I look, I might find the NOT YET. Sometimes it is clearly in front of me; sometimes it’s on another playing field. The point is to look. Once possibility of NOT YET is discovered, it’s important to remember that the journey will probably be challenging. The land of NOT YET is aspirational – and it’s not for wimps.

The second lesson is a leadership lesson. When someone around you – or someone you are responsible for – gets a NO, help them find their NOT YET. You can help them see what is beyond, what is possible when they’ve just gotten a NO. When I was blind to possibilities, others gave me the gift of vision.

We are called on to deliver NO’s as leaders (coaches, parents, teachers). The lesson is to remember NOT YET. When we practice looking for the path to YES, we teach others to, as well.

YES is not always automatic. Sometimes it can take a lot of NO’s to get to YES. Looking for the NOT YET offers hope and the whole world of possibilities!

(*Enormous gratitude goes to friend, Dottie Cook, who expanded on these ideas during an inspirational sermon)

Sportsmanship vs Gamesmanship

kid cheating golfAs we enter into this time of end-of-year, end-of-season pressures, it’s critical to remember – there is a difference between Gamesmanship and Sportsmanship.

Gamesmanship is where the rules are bent – if you’re not caught,  it can feel like you are not actually breaking the rules.

Sportsmanship is doing this right thing because it’s the right thing…knowing the game will be won on the merits of the players.

One of the biggest differences between the two is what we choose to model to those who look up to us.  Is it all right to bend the rules to win if we plan to explain it (or ignore it) later?  Or is important to always model honesty and integrity?  Always.

It’s a tough question in sports and in business.   It’s the difference between being like John Wooden and Bill Belichick.  Or if you are in business, between being IBM or being Enron.

I guess a key question remains:  who do you want to be in this world?

Even When No One Is Watching

The mark of dedication and commitment is to do the hard stuff – even when no one is watching.

Through the line
Photo credit: Players engage in endurance running drills during a San Diego All-Stars Club basketball practice at Miramar College. Sandy Huffaker

I was watching basketball drills (and realized it’s the same as baseball and softball) – one of the drills was to run and run and run because that’s what’s required to build up stamina for a season. The drill is called running through the line.  The player is asked to run a series of sprints across the court or field.  The trick is to run THROUGH the line, not just TO the line.  It’s good exercise and is a measure of thoroughness, commitment…you get the idea.

It’s a place where many athletes cheat…just a little bit.   Wait – it’s not really cheating, is it? After all, who cares if I run through the line or just touch it or maybe just come close?  What does it matter?

It matters.  In fact, it’s a matter of integrity.  Consider athletes getting ready for their seasons, or customer service reps who are responsible for the satisfaction of the person on the other end of the phone. I think of all of those moments when a supervisor, a boss or a parent is not watching. Why is there an inclination to slack off just a little bit because no one will notice?

If it’s worth doing well, isn’t it always worth doing well simply because it’s worth doing?

Does quality in your organization – or in your life require supervision? Or is it a matter of self-management and pride?  Always remember to run through the line.

Don’t Let It Get To You

It could be the play that you’ve run a dozen times in practice that falls apart during a game.  It could be the referee who seems to favor the other team of the kid who knows better but still takes a cheap shot on the field or says something out of line.  And all of a sudden, you are ready to explode.

That’s when you battle to NOT do or say something that will get you thrown out of the game.  And you haven’t even gotten to the interviews after it’s over!blog anger

What’s happened to you is a full-blown amygdala hijack.  That’s when the emotional control center of the brain unleashes a chemical response to tension or threat.  In an effort to keep you safe from perceived danger, the amygdala floods your body with cortisol.  When that happens, your field of vision narrows, your ability to think clearly is impaired, you have a knot in your gut, and your mouth can have a hair-trigger.  Anger floods your consciousness and self-management is at an all time low.

Oh great, exactly what you don’t need.  So, what can you do?

Actually, it’s simple – as soon as you feel the symptoms of anger or frustration begin, take a deep breath.   That’s it.  Breathe deeply.  The anecdote to the chemical flood is to re-oxygenate your brain and engage the logical part of your brain.  That allows you to override what’s happening with your emotions.  Yes, you can. It is simple but not necessarily easy.  Emotional self-control takes practice.  Over time you can choose it over an emotional meltdown.  And the control you model to your team becomes a skill you teach them.  That’s when emotional control becomes a competitive advantage.

Don’t let emotions get to you. In fact, make them work to your advantage!

 

Photo credit: Thanks to Disney Movies for this personification of ANGER from their delightful movie,  Inside Out