Ottawa River Psychology Group is pleased to welcome three talented graduate student trainees who will be offering reduced fee psychotherapy […]
By Kimberly Sogge on August 5, 2021.
Saturday July 3, 2010
You are an athlete, or you aspire to be one. Moving your body gives you joy (or it did once). There are books and coaches for training your strength, your endurance, your flexibility, for timing your intensity with the scheduling of your event, for planning your diet. There are guides for gear, clothing, shoes, nutrition supplements, training vacations, dating other athletes. There are inspiring stories from olympians, instructions on ways to apply your winning attitude to business, and star athletes’ confessionals. All of these strategies are designed to do battle with external obstacles to your best performance as an athlete. A lot of sport psychology also treats the mind as an external obstacle to success. Athletes are taught “mental toughness”, goal setting, visualization, and activation. These strategies are getting closer to those used at Sogge & Associates, but still aren’t quite the same as what we do.
The thing all the strategies for improving performance I’ve mentioned have in common is an assumption that you have to control or avoid obstacles to your success. Many of them, even the sport psychology strategies that purport to teach you how to deal with your head, assume that the problem simply needs to be defined, then strategies need to be applied to do battle with the problem and make it go away. The problems in thinking need to be targeted, then obliterated with another better “success code” thought. At Sogge & Associates we take a different tack. In our approach to overcoming performance barriers for athletes (and for anyone overcoming barriers, in fact) we apply mindfulness and acceptance to all problems in training, motivation, competition, and optimal performance. Mindfulness and acceptance do not necessarily meant that one tries to make anything in their experience go away. In an Acceptance and Commitment approach, we acknowledge that we all have internal barriers to performance and then we work on how to accept and then dissolve our own particular mind, emotion, or behavioural barriers with a willingness to deal with reality, converting the energy formerly locked into patterns that took us away from our deepest values and goals, into energy for forward momentum towards our deepest values and goals.
The problem with applying strategies to barriers to success to “make them go away” is that there is an assumption that a) you have to be in control and b) you have to avoid having problems. Instead, in our practice we work with everything that you might experience as an athlete (or person striving to be their best), and teach you not how to do battle with barriers to optimal performance, but to literally digest all blocks with willingness, acceptance, and fierce commitment, so that you perform with effort and not struggle, moving mindfully towards your values and goals, without trying to eliminate any particular experience. As one of my teachers once said: “reality is here anyway, why not have a full experience of it?” and I would add: “then let it go”.
If you are an athlete, assuming you have all the physical and technique training resources you need, then the biggest barrier to your optimal performance is you. Dealing with your you in training for your sport is where things get tricky: all the planning, control, and avoidance strategies (you’ve done all your workouts exactly according to the training plan, you’ve measured your diet scrupulously, you’ve got your pre-performance rituals down pat) just don’t work on the inner world that you conceive of as you. That’s right. If you’ve been rigourous about every extneral aspect of your training, you’ve done a great job. Now you have to drop allthose strategies and do something else when it comes to the inner world. You have to unlearn everything that works on external obstacles, to effectively deal with the biggest obstacle of all at the most elite levels of performance: that obstacle is you.
Imagine this: what if your last obstacle is not subject to control or avoidance, and what if a lot of the strategies recommended by experts only make things worse? What if you do everything right in terms of physical training and you still don’t get the results you want? What if you have a perfect diet plan laid out for you but you can’t hit the right weight for your sport? What if you have all the gear but aren’t motivated to use it? What if your training ruins your relationships or your pleasure in life? What if you think positively but still feel scared? What if you get injured, can’t train, or don’t even like your sport anymore? What if you cry every time you have to do interval training, or you hate your coach and start avoiding practices just to not see him/her? What to do then?
An Olympic athlete at a recent Olympic games trained for years and was expected to win gold. He was celebrated in the media as his country’s big hope for an early medal. He was prepared. Then it happened: He bombed his heat and was eliminated before making the finals in the very event that was his specialty. A reporter asked him how he was dealing with the setback. He said “I can tell you what my sport psychologist wants me to say, or I can tell you what I really feel.” He was caught in a struggle with himself. This book is about removing that struggle. It isn’t about removing effort or pain. Optimal performance as an athlete doesn’t come without effort and pain. Sogge & Associates exists to help you move through that effort and pain, with minimal suffering and maximal movement towards values and goals. If enlightenment is continual waking up from habitual forms of thinking, doing, and being, then athletes (and professionals, and artists, and parents, and labourers) who bring willingness, acceptance, and commitment to their deepest values can be enlightened in the way they practice their sport.
I’m a psychologist interested in the effects of stress on the body. I’m interested in how the body responds to challenge, both acute and chronic. And I’ve learned that the biggest stressor on the body is, (that’s right) the mind.
When I was in my late 20s I decided to apply to graduate school. As a last taste of freedom before going into grad school a girlfriend and I planned a 6 week bike trip in Europe. I had to work until the trip started so only had minimal preparation physically. Early in the trip, we ambitiously launched into cycling the hills of the champagne region of France. The first days were hard. My quads were tight, my lungs were screaming, and it rained daily. We camped in a tiny tent, so we hardly slept and when we did we woke to more cold and wet clothing. We were tired, hungry, cold and hurting badly. Then came the Hill of Death. We were lost in champagne country, and realized that the fastest way to our destination was through a series of valleys. The scenery is a blur to me now but all I remember is every muscle in my body screaming with pain. I swore to myself for k after k cursing the pain, the hill, the lack of training, the weather, the lack of food, exhaustion, you name it. Then a tiny voice inside me seemed to whisper “you have a lot of energy for resisting. What if you just went with it” So I stopped. I stopped resisting pain, exhaustion, hunger, cold, broken chains, headwinds, bad gear, screaming muscles. A sort of dawn happened. First I noticed I could move the pain around my body wherever I wanted. Then I noticed I could pay attention to different sensations in the body just the way one paid attention to different brush strokes in a painting. Then I noticed that a curve in the road that revealed more and steepler climbing only brought a blip of resistance and then gave way to curiosity. Then I noticed joy. Then I noticed tiny surges of energy as I played with sensation instead of fighting. It was like being caught in a storm of struggle, then suddenly sinking into the flow of effort. The mind went quiet. We hit the top of the hill at last, and soared down the other side with pleasure. Effort, not struggle. Mindfulness not control. Forward movement to goals, not avoidance of obstacles. Presence of pain but no mind sufferingto go with the pain. That is where this book was born. No amount of training since then has successfully eliminated the experience of pain I had cycling that hill in France. Even bearing children with no medication, I still rated my pain according to number of “Champagne hills” (my first baby was 2 champagne hills in case you are wondering). However I do know now that given that pain is inevitable in training for recreation or competition, suffering is optional. Effort is required, but struggle is optional. In my work I use the power of the revolution of acceptance and mindfulness therapies, which I’ve since studied for 15 years, to dissolve your internal barriers to your optimal performance, and to achieve this performance with effort not struggle. If you are ready to dissolve internal barriers to optimal performance, then your work towards enlightenment as an athlete is ready to move forward.