WITH KIDS FACING INCREASING PRESSURE TO COMPETE, IT'S IMPORTANT TO RECONNECT WITH WHAT MAKES SPORT TRULY GREAT
Charlie’s father brought him to my office when it was clear he was no longer enjoying swimming. In the past, Charlie had generally been enthusiastic about his training and races, but there had been a notable and puzzling dip in his motivation and performance over the past few weeks. Talking to Charlie, it became clear that this dip coincided with the start of his school’s swim season. He swims for a top area club year-round and already had to miss a handful of school practices to meet obligations for his club team, something his school coach frowned upon.
Charlie is a standout backstroker in an urban area rich with swimming talent, making him a coveted asset for every team he swims for. Wanting to live up to the expectations set for him, his daily schedule looked like this: wake up at 4am for club swim practice, attend a full day of school, go to school swim practice in the afternoon, do homework until around 10pm, then go to bed to start the cycle over. This schedule was hard enough to sustain, but what pushed him to the breaking point was an altercation with his school swim coach during which the coach berated him for missing the occasional practice and not being “committed enough” to his swimming.
The joy that Charlie had once felt for his sport was fading, replaced by stress and a sense of never being enough. He had become fearful and tentative in the water and a beloved activity had become a thankless job to him. Now, Charlie is a pseudonym, and a few other details in this anecdote have been modified slightly to protect his privacy. But, one unaltered fact, which frankly is still stunning to me given what he was reporting, is that Charlie was only 12 years old at the time of our meeting, still in his first year of middle school.
How has it come to this? That sport, a domain that is so crucial to our socialization in Western culture, can become a if not the primary stressor to a kid like Charlie. The pressures to specialize and compete - i.e., “get serious” - about sport are being applied earlier and earlier and the greatest victim in that push also happens to be a key to both optimal experience and peak performance: fun. The importance of fun to sport has been captured in many concepts within sport science, perhaps none more influential than Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model, one of the key ingredients of this idyllic state that many now equate to being in “the zone” is what he calls autotelic experience, which basically means doing something purely for the joy of the activity itself (as opposed to for some ulterior benefit).
When asked to comment on why autotelic experience can be so elusive as we grow up, Csikszentmihalyi has maintained that adults tend to view this type of motive for an activity as childish and therefore something to be ashamed of - see Daniel Pink’s fascinating 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for a more detailed description of this conversation. This idea is profoundly intriguing to me and perhaps exposes one of the major deficits that exists in our culture of sport today. As athletes get older and more “serious” about their sports, we are essentially snuffing out one of the qualities that both most benefits sport performance and provides one of the greatest benefits of sport.
I’m a clinical sport psychologist, and I’ll admit that I had fantasies of working with high-profile professional athletes when I first opened my practice in 2008. But, something totally unexpected and wonderful happened as I started branding myself in my community - many of the people who sought out my services weren’t the pros, but were adolescent and young-adult athletes who seemed to be dealing with some variant of the same issues as Charlie. The more I’ve learned about this trend through my clinical work and my research, the more passionate I’ve become about a new cause: promoting change in the culture of sport to strengthen and preserve what makes it such a powerful force of good for kids - intrinsic motivation, joy, learning, friendship; in short, autotelic experience.
When I was in graduate school, I co-developed a program of research around bringing mindfulness to sport. For those who don’t know, there is a “mindful revolution” happening throughout psychology and society at large, and that movement is now beginning to spread into sport. Mindfulness is all about how we pay attention and operate within the moments of our lives, including the chaotic, high-pressure moments of athletic competition. This program grew into a dissertation study on an intervention my research team created, mindful sport performance enhancement (MSPE), and MSPE has now become one of the primary mindfulness-based mental training programs available for athletes and coaches (I’d like to shamelessly plug the book we’re writing on MSPE to be published by the American Psychological Association and released in 2017).
One of our earliest studies of MSPE illustrated conceptual and empirical links between mindfulness and flow, and a number of other studies in the last decade have similarly demonstrated the connection. Thus, a major focus of my work has become exploring how MSPE might help facilitate this badly needed paradigm shift in sport, away from the extrinsic pressures that can be so stressful and damaging to athletes. While much of our research to date has focused on college and adult athletes, a recent pilot study I conducted with high school athletes showed incredibly promising results, with a very modestly sized sample which endured a variety of scheduling disruptions due to inclement weather nonetheless experiencing highly significant increases in dimensions of mindfulness and flow, and decreases in emotion-regulation difficulties.
Furthering this exploration of how mindfulness and MSPE can enhance youth and scholastic athletes’ athletic performance and (both on- and off-the-field) experiences has led to an exciting collaboration with Sam Parfitt’s The True Athlete Project (TAP). Sam has already brought MSPE to a group of elementary school athletes with thrilling results. Among the comments made by the kids after MSPE were: “I feel like a weight lifted from my head and I’m free;” “I still get nervous at swim meets, but now I don’t let it get the better of me;” and “I feel like I’ve transformed, this is going to help me so much.” The plan is to continue making the program available in various ways through the organization. TAP’s mission to make the culture of sport more healthy by promoting innovative mind, body, and spirit approaches for athletes and coaches is a crucial one and one that I’m personally honored to be a part of. My sincere hope is that others will join the movement and help make experiences like Charlie’s a relic of the past.
For more about MSPE and Dr. Keith Kaufman, please visit his websites: www.KeithKaufmanPhD.com and www.MindfulCompetitor.com.