Thursday, August 27, 2009

Peak Performance: Emotional Fitness and Emotional Energy

In sports psychology, peak performance includes many components: physical fitness, emotional skills and mental focus are among the top.

I often think emotional skills are treated as the too-distant cousin at the wedding of physical fitness and mental skills. Everyone talks about the physical and mental aspects of performance. I used to be a Wellness Director at a University, and the administration thought that by simply offering fitness classes we could keep the faculty and staff happy. What people needed was a sense of being valued, a feeling that they were cared for by the administration, they wanted some "feeling" kinds of things. I know this because they told me. In my consulting room with athletes, what is it every single client brings up? -- their distressing feelings about their performance, sometimes feelings about their coach and undue pressure, or feelings about their inability to do what they absolutely know they have the talent to do.

I know - the world of emotional healing is my deal. I've been doing this work for 23 years. You could imagine that I'm the one that elicits them talking about emotional ability or their present lack of it. But it's not how it happens. They just start expressing their distress to me from the minute they sit down.

I just worked with a very talented gymnast. She's on full scholarship at a very prestigious east coast university. She's the one on the team given the hardest skills to perform. Level E skills are what Olympic gymnasts perform, which she is not. You can't go any higher in difficulty. This one particular move, the Yaeger, is really tough. She's done it well she estimates 50 or more times. But over her sophomore year she has struggled big time to complete it successfully. This is a move that, when not completed well, finds you flat on your belly on the mat from the high bar of the uneven parallel bars. Ouch! It hurts physically, and drains your energy, not to mention your confidence.

What's the emotional side of her sports performance problems? There is the intense desire to please an unpleasable coach, the fear instilled by the coach threatening to take her scholarship away, the fear of disappointing her parents . . .there are a lot of things going on. It's hard for a young junior in college who has always been the darling of the gymnastics world and had supportive and encouraging coaches to now be living for over 4 hours every day with a coach who uses threats and lack of encouragement as a method of coaching. Combine that with this young athlete's mechanism of working to please people her whole life and you have a situation that spells disaster for her ability to perform what she could normally perfom very well. These emotions of fear, lack of self confidence, worry, needing to please or else "I am not worthwhile," feeling "I'm never good enough" (very easy for a gymnast to feel) are creating havoc for this talented, dedicated, very hard working athlete. She said to me with tears in her eyes, " I'm just not enjoying this; I'm not having fun. And I love gymnastics."

Here is what Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz ( The Power of Full Engagement, page 72) say about the role of emotions in peak performance for athletes (or anyone).
In order to perform at our best we must access pleasant and positive emotions: enjoyment, challenge, adventure and opportunity. Emotions that arise out of threat or deficit -- fear, frustration, anger, sadness -- have a decidedly toxic feel to them and are associated with the release of specific stress hormones, most notably cortisol. From our perspective, emotional intelligence is simply the capacity to manage emotions skillfully in the service of high positive energy and full engagement. In practical terms, the key “muscles” or competencies that fuel positive emotions are self-confidence, self-control (self-regulation), social skills (interpersonal effectiveness) and empathy. Smaller, supportive “muscles” include patience, openness, trust and enjoyment.

Please don't ever sell short the importance of emotional healing, emotional energy, and emotional skills when it comes to sports psychology and peak performance for athletes. It is woven into every thread of the fabric of a talented athlete being successful, having a long career, and feeling their sport has developed them intrapersonally and interpersonally. My hat goes off to every competitive athlete. I am honored and thankful to work with them.

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