We All Need A Secure Base

Anyone who’s tried to get me on the phone knows one thing. When I’m at home, at 3 pm eastern, Chris DeSantis Coaching shuts down for the day. That’s the time of day I go to get my baby boy, Jacob, from daycare, and we spend from three until dinner hanging out.

Yesterday was like any other day. Jake was in a pretty good mood, he had gotten decent naps during the day. I brought him home, fed him a bottle, and let him loose to bulldoze around the apartment. He was happy I was there but mostly ignored me. He furiously crawled over to one spot or another, grabbed something, gave it a quizzical look before shoving it in his mouth.

About an hour in, his mood shifted. He crawled over to me and stood up on his knees, flailing his arms upward. I picked him and he immediately went into a crushing bear hug around my neck. He laughed. I put him back down on the ground.

He started to cry. He crawled up my leg and wailed at me. I sat down on the ground and put him on my lap. For the next thirty minutes we sat there. He made no noise, and he barely moved a muscle. And then, just as quickly as this mood had hit him, it evaporated. He thrust his chest forward, landing on his hands and resumed his furious crawling and everything that followed.

One of the joys of fatherhood is that it’s taught he how much closer we are to these little tiny human forms than I ever believed. Jacob cannot even speak, yet he communicated something I’ve seen thousands of times.

Confident is not a mountain peak

Have you ever coached someone that seemed really brave? Someone that went for it, every set, every day. They raced fearlessly, they dreamed big and went for it.

Then all of a sudden, they weren’t doing any of those things. Or perhaps you’ve run into someone who was already running scared from the moment you met them.

I’ve said this countless of times in this space, but I think many of us have been sold a false model of bravery and resilience. It is one that is far too focused on rugged individualism. I believe in a different model, one that involves relationships and emotion healing.

Our confidence has a natural ebb and flow to it, no matter who we are or what is going on in our lives. There is no confidence mountain we can surmount and then look down from for the rest of our lives.

Unfortunately, some of us learn, over time, to just stay afraid. The good news is that you can come back, but more than anything you need a secure base. You need a place to heal and recover.

Building Emotional Strength

Let me put it in exercise terms. Any coach, whether they favor 10,000 yard IMs or 30x25, will tell you that recovery is important. You tax your body, you “break it down” (whatever that means) and then you recover. If you’re doing it right, you should recover stronger than you were before and be able to move ahead even fitter.

Our emotional system works pretty similarly. When we “break down” emotionally, which we all do, we need to recover. If we can successfully do that, we can emerge more resilient, stronger and ready for bigger and better challenges.

But I’ve found that most coaches, athletes, and people in general lack a working process for emotional recovery. For a lot of my own life I’ve lived in such strong denial of their emotions that it would be hard for me to even recognize when I need to recover emotionally.

Emotional recovery requires more than good nutrition, and rest, although those can help too. The most powerful way for an emotionally taxed brain to recover is through interaction with another brain. Said more simply, you need other people to recover emotionally.

Establishing Bases

You’re going to want more than one person to recover with. To put the burden on one person is asking too much, and unrealistic in the long term. This is the practical session, the part where I say what you might actually do in your own situation.

  1. Parents: Going back to the beginning of this story, parents have huge potential to be secure bases for their children. The model where I snuggled my little man on my lap for thirty minutes would obviously be inappropriate for a coach, but a parent has that kind of power for their kid. With my older child (5), I’ve been able to defuse tantrums simply by acknowledging and accepting her emotional state. I’ve had good success with parents of teenagers learning to do the same, and the result is that their kid is more likely to come to them with their feelings rather than their explanations, which is often what sends parents off in the wrong direction to solve the problem.

  2. Coaches: Coaches can be a secure base for athletes in a few simple ways. Often without knowing, we as coaches exacerbate emotional ruptures in athletes without knowing. Coaches and athletes should have a conversation about what behavior the coach can engage in that will help them heal in tough moments. A couple of tactics that have worked for me include, instead of giving race strategy, telling a swimmer what you have liked about their preparation. Or, simply creating safe times and spaces for athletes to express themselves emotionally.

  3. Teammates: Peer resources can be extremely important. If teammates can learn to practice basic empathy, their going to go a long way to making a more resilient team. Just being able to help a teammate pinpoint what they are feeling and acknowledging that feeling works wonders.

So next time you’ve got someone doing the child, or teenager, or adult version of crawling up your leg crying out for help, look at it as an opportunity to be a secure base that will allow them to heal, and go back to being brave again.