Last week in Houston, I debuted a topic that I had not previously spoken to the teams I visit before about: Emotional Regulation.
It was something I found myself returning to, time and time again, when I worked with athletes one to one. In all cases, these were athletes that found themselves emotionally overwhelmed at swimming competitions, particularly ones that were really important to them.
Of all the things that these athletes were able to learn, one thing really stood out. The more that someone can build a team of people around them that can help them, in the tiniest or biggest of ways, deal with tough emotional situations, the more likely they will be able to do it.
I got asked earlier today if I had a mantra and I laughed it off. But of course, I do. In the immortal words of Chris Peterson: “other people matter”
Where to Go?
When I was a young swimmer growing up, I got frequently overwhelmed by the prospect of swimming at the big meet. A story I tell often when I speak is the one of my “final” race in college. I swam a best time, and I had a fleeting happiness about it.
More than anything, I was relieved. I knew that I wouldn’t have to deal with my own churning stomach any more. Later I was pretty sad, because swimming remains something that I love. How did I get there?
Growing up I didn’t have a an emotional support team. My father handed down a long tradition of stoic masculinity that meant emotions were strictly off limits. My mother was liable to become so upset if you told her something that you ended up having to comfort her.
So I figured I had to go it alone. I was completely wrong, but without a proper intervention, I learned not to ask for help.
When I talk to athletes, I wish that someone had delivered the message to me at that young age that it was possible to have other people there to help you through emotional struggle.
Even if my parents wouldn’t have changed, there were plenty of adults that could have helped me through some tough times, if I had let them. One of my fondest memories of childhood was going to my 7th grade English teacher (Mrs. Vaccaro)’s classroom for an hour before school started every day. She sensed I needed a place to go but I never told her anything, just sat around and did some homework.
There are people in your life who can do one or many things that can help you deal with tough emotional situations. They do not necessarily need to check all the boxes of empathy, although those are nice.
One thing I teach athletes is to take people that they may be avoiding and see if they can’t teach them a simple task that will help them in emotionally charged situations.
I coached one swimmer who would avoid talking to her coach. The coach wanted to talk strategy before the race, which in turn made the swimmer more nervous. The swimmer was able to communicate to their coach that a message about the process they had used to get to meet was more useful.
Having people you can simply tell “I am feeling very nervous right now” or “I am feeling sad” and have them listen without judgment is hugely beneficial and requires little effort on the other side.
In both cases, it can be helpful to be able to have conversations with trusted people well ahead of a potentially nerve-wracking experience so that they know what to do when the time comes.
In each case of individuals I worked with, the more people they had who could effectively help them (again, sometimes even only a tiny little bit), the more likely they were to have a good experience at the heightened moment and ultimately swim better.
It’s not easy, especially for young people who by nature mistrust a lot of their relationships, but starting a conversation around this level of emotional support can make a huge difference in the culture and community of your team.
Are you interested in having this and more Positive Psychology topics introduced on your team? Contact me.