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Performing Under Pressure: A Lesson in Vulnerability

Mental training.
Mental fitness.
Mindfulness.

By now, you’ve heard it all.  You know it’s good for you.  You’ve heard Michael Jordan say 80% of the game is mental.  You know mental training has tangible benefits, but it doesn’t feel tangible.

So, before I go into all the benefits of mental training (of which I’m sure would otherwise just feel like a lecture), let me lead by example during Mental Health Awareness Month with a key pillar of mental training: vulnerability.

Also, let me note that I have never documented this story…ever.

When I played softball at Stanford University, I had an amazing arm.

This is not bragging, it’s me recognizing my talents (as we all need to!).  I was a catcher for the majority of my life and loved nothing more than putting a stealing baserunner in check by making sure the ball was in my shortstop’s hands before her knee even touched the dirt.

But during my junior year of college, I developed the yips.  For those of you who are unaware, the yips are “the loss of fine motor skills in athletes. They manifest themselves in twitches, staggers, jitters or jerks. The condition occurs most often in sports which athletes are required to perform a single precise and well-timed action”, as defined by Wikipedia.

For me, the yips manifested themselves in my inability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. If a runner stole second base, she was done, out, no questions asked.  My muscle memory took over, and my mind went silent.  However, on our home field, in front of our fans, when I had to throw the ball back to the pitcher, I just…couldn’t do it.  My arm jerked, my body spazzed.  I chucked the ball at our pitcher’s ankles.

Can you imagine? All of a sudden, the most basic aspect of the game you love becomes dauntingly difficult. The anticipation of having to perform is overwhelming, and the relief of finally throwing the ball accurately simply generates more anxiety when notice your team’s collective sigh of relief …And then you realize you’re going to have to throw it back again, and again.

It sucked.  It was humiliating. I was ashamed.

I got yelled at …got benched …got questioned …was pitied. I read Mind Gym.  I cried.  I tried formulaic breathing exercises on the field.  Nothing worked.

I often worried about what people thought of me.  How could she have earned a scholarship to Stanford?

So, I get it. The yips are quite literally the physical manifestation of the fear of failure. At every conscious moment, I was so afraid to fail that my mind prevented my body from doing what it had known for years – something I could have done in my sleep.

As young, developing athletes, we’re afraid to acknowledge our flaws because we believe it’ll make us weak, when in reality, mental training teaches us that being vulnerable has the exact opposite effect. Victory goes to the vulnerable.  

As an athlete, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase: “be comfortable being uncomfortable,” and vulnerability is just that.  It is the willingness to allow yourself to fail.  It is ridding yourself of that fear of being unworthy or incompetent for the opportunity to thrive.  And it is the only way to achieve growth.

But, allowing yourself to become vulnerable is hard.

And that’s where mental training comes in.

Mental training provides you with the tools to allow yourself to cross that barrier into the unknown.  According to Sports Psychology Today, “Mental training [helps] athletes break through the mental barriers that are keeping them from performing up to their peak potential. Mental skills, just like physical skills, take repetition, practice, and game-time application to develop,” (Edgar, et al, 2011).

Thankfully, there are a number of resources to help athletes train their minds in ways that hadn’t existed even just a few years ago.  And almost paradoxically, I now work with a company whose mission is to bring out the greatness already inside of us.  Through quick, 5-minute mental training workouts, we give athletes the tools they need to perform under pressure.

Working for a company that coined the phrase “Victory to the Vulnerable” has led to numerous reflections and epiphanies looking back on my collegiate career. Most notably, I realized that the Maya who suffered from the yips and the Maya who had the highest fielding percentage on the team are the same player. The greatness was always in me.

I had the yips because I was scared to lose; I did not allow myself to become vulnerable. So, while I trained my body day in and day out, a key piece of my training was still missing. I did not consistently train my mind in the ways we now know to be essential for athletes at the highest level of performance.

A common theme among elite performers is their ability to accept how they feel and deal with it in stride. Elite performers are able to separate their feelings from their current circumstances and focus on what they can control to move forward. And they’re able to do so because they’ve trained their minds.

What I also know is that tough experiences help us to find our purpose. And telling these stories shows others that they are not alone in their journey.

The resources are out there.

 

For one example of the types of resources you can turn to, click here.