Coaching Anxiety

A desire to achieve can be a powerful incentive to overcome ourselves. My son’s quest for his school’s beep-test record has taught him a lot about human nature in group situations.

Sport is a wonderful place to equip ourselves with skills we can use in our daily lives. I’m going to take another swing at sharing some ideas about anxiety.

First up, the feelings most of us label “anxiety” are useful. They are not a problem to be removed and anxious people aren’t flawed. In my life, these feelings provide little nudges towards better.

When might my emotional state become an issue? When I make quick decisions based on unlikely fears.

I was chatting about this with one of my kids and they stated flatly, “I’m never anxious.” I smiled because this kid has some of the highest baseline anxiety I’ve seen. However, like many of us, they do an excellent job of living with it.

We were on a chair lift. About four towers out they started to get twitchy about raising the bar. This rapidly progressed to mild hysteria, “we are going to get caught and hurt!!!” After we got off, safely, it gave me a chance to introduce the concept of being worried about a future that might never materialize.

The feared future can be adaptive => better behavior nudged by a fear of getting caught.

It can make us miserable => fear of loss, resulting in never taking a chance on improving one’s life.

It can cost us money => fear-based selling in the face of price-volatility

Body composition, friendships, portfolios, marriage, business relationships… all are damaged when we train rapid action based on our fears.

How might we use sport to build useful emotional skills?

Don’t train the startle reflex => endurance sport is filled with opportunities to notice, rather than act on, our instincts. ALL our deepest habits come to the surface in the face of competition and fatigue.

With my athletes, we’d start with bike pacing, and using their powermeter to give them visual feedback (when they had lost their minds!).

We’d progress to getting bumped while swimming, holding personal pace in groups and, finally, letting other people make mistakes.

Letting other people make mistakes => letting others deal with the consequences of their actions

…this habit leads naturally towards “let it go.”

On the bike, in a race, on a zoom call, at the meal table… notice when the startle reflex is triggered and pause.

As a father and husband, my victories are invisible.

Conflicts not triggered, confidence not damaged, relationships strengthened by not-acting on my fears.

Notice, then let it go.

An Education In Crazy

Due to normal teen-anxiety, some of my daughters friends are at the early stages of self-harm.

There’s nothing unusual here, these patterns have been in my family since before I was born.

To help my daughter understand, and navigate, irrational choices, I’ve been introducing her to the neurotic athlete archetype.

Allow me to introduce…

Neurotic means you’re afflicted by neurosis, a word that has been in use since the 1700s to describe mental, emotional, or physical reactions that are drastic and irrational. At its root, a neurotic behavior is an automatic, unconscious effort to manage deep anxiety.

The entire Web-MD entry might sound familiar – it applies to 90% of the champion athletes I know. A constant quest for high performance can be an effective management technique for anxiety, that never quite clears.

Normally, I exit deeply-neurotic people from my life. I do this because I have my hands full dealing with myself!

As an athlete, you need to watch out for three traits: (a) a willingness to hurt one’s self; (b) the desire to chronically under-feed yourself; and (c) an addiction to stress hormones (hooked on breakdown).

If you find yourself in a training group, or alongside a coach, who embraces self-harm for “performance” (or as a path towards his own sexual gratification) then you need to exit ASAP. As a young woman, my wife found herself in that position. It took a shattered wrist for her to listen to an inner voice that was telling her “this situation is not good for you.”

This situation is not good for me.

If you hear that voice then get out.

Get out.

Watch for “development” squads led by sketchy men. Their mode of operation is breaking down healthy people and they need a steady supply of young, healthy athletes to fund their operation.

Sports that embrace the “breakdown” of girls are constantly in the news for long-term sexual abuse of multiple athletes. Steer clear! You can not fix a sport where breakdown is a design feature.

These groups are very dangerous when run by a sexual predator. The leader will seek to isolate anxious, young and inexperienced athletes. For many of these young people, it will be their first time away from home and the leader will be the first authority figure who expresses confidence in them.

You don’t want that type of man to be the first person to believe in your daughters.

I tell my most anxious daughter, frequently, she is a star.

I do this in word, in writing and by reflecting her own good choices back to her.

My message…

You have the capacity for good judgement.

You know what’s good for you.

If you’re dealing with anxiety in yourself, to the point of driving the good out of your life, then get professional help. Get professional help, break the cycle of spin.

Feelings of anxiety are a universal part of human experience. These feelings are useful when successfully managed. A good chunk of my writing is about this topic. I don’t point it out because nobody likes hearing they are are headcase!

Here’s what works for me, the topics link back to the Web-MD article.

If your life is a shambles then I’m willing to bet you’ve inverted much of this advice.

I know I can make myself both irrational and miserable by doing the opposite of what follows:

Self => if you want to teach this to others then sort yourself first. The best education my kids receive is watching me manage myself.

Routine, routine, routine => change slowly, change later => if you are a parent to a highly anxious child (or a neurotic spouse) then do not call a lot of audibles!

Be Open, Connect, Do Not Self-Isolate => anxiety builds when not discussed, make time to let mentally healthy, objective people influence you. On the flip side, secrets are a huge part of the lives of the neurotic. You will not learn that everyone is feeling the same way if you keep everything to yourself.

Exercise every morning => it just seems to work => if you have a neurotic child then set a minimum for them and stick with it. I’m way over the minimum, but I’m a fairly extreme case.

Sleep => the time you get to sleep is just another thing to obsess about. Forget about it. Focus on waking up at the same time, every single day. Same deal for your kids.

If you’re wrecked then you can have a 20-minute nap before noon – that’s all you get. OK to go to bed early but wake up at the same time!

Stop doing too much and making yourself exhausted => wean yourself from chronic fatigue.

Nutrition => know your binge triggers, know the foods (usually highly-processed carbs and refined sugar) that screw up your neurochemistry.

Abstinence does not work for sex education – abstinence also doesn’t work for anyone’s nutrition.

Focus your attention on portion control of triggering foods, boosting the quality of your intake, making veggies easy to eat and getting the timing right on sugar/carbs.

For example, if I eat 3-6 squares of chocolate before a bike ride then I’m far less likely to eat an entire bag of Halloween candy before bed.

Positive Male Attention => call it “essential masculinity” => Fathers, if your kids (and spouse) don’t get it from you then they might get it from some creep.

In yourself, seek approval from individuals who bring out your best, rather than feed your intrinsic rage.

Best tip for the end.

These feelings will be with you for a long while. Make friends with them, they are a very useful aspect of your personality profile.

The most effective management technique is to replace your “worst” triggers with a habit of making better choices.

Transcendence comes but it takes years of persistent work.

Replacement works.

Don’t mess with a streak => be willing to say no (nicely, don’t freak out) to well-meaning people who tempt you away from a life structure that works.

Finally, teach your anxious kids, they are at a very high-risk for getting hooked on socially-acceptable depressants.

There’s a big chunk of our society self-medicating, most days, with wine, sleeping pills or marijuana. Athletes tend to replace the drugs with fatigue, to the point of breakdown.

It works, but only at a superficial level.

I encourage you to look deeper…

When I looked deeply into my own strategies, I realized that being sensible was no worse than being medicated/exhausted.

Being medicated is more pleasurable, I don’t dispute that reality.

Being exhausted also has a form of pleasure associated with it, the pleasure of being able to fall into a deep sleep, for example.

However, being sensible is far more useful, particularly to manage anxiety, get stuff done and avoid the risk of ruin from negative addictions.

If you’re an athlete, who is “hooked on hard”, then making better choices can feed directly into your deep desire to challenge yourself. It’s not easy for me to avoid becoming a headcase! 😉

Choose wisely.

I sincerely hope this helps someone. Winter is a really tough time for the anxious, even more so due to COVID isolation.

As I told my wife this week…

Hey! Pay attention. This is a topic I know well.