Tag Archives: self awareness

Learning to be OK with Earning Number Two

xray brainWhether you are an athlete, a parent, a coach, or a workplace professional, your mindset and preparation can make a world of difference in your productivity, performance, and level of success.  To help address this area, O-PA! Performance Academy has teamed up with Dr. Pete Economou of The Counseling and Wellness Center to provide Sports Psychology education on-site in Bernardsville, NJ.  I am also excited to present Dr. Pete in his first guest blog for SMFTM!  Below, Dr. Pete provides some insight into the relevance and principles of “MAC” for helping athletes improve their performance.

Take it away, Dr. Pete!

“You might be reading this because the title caught your attention. How many people remember who came in second place? Who is really OK with earning second place?  Many athletes have wondered how they can improve and enhance their performance. Our society is one that emphasizes the importance of immediacy, as well as a society that stresses the importance of winning. Some elite athletes have taken this to irrationally high levels and have even thought to hurt a fellow competitor (Think: Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding- figure skating-1994 Olympics). While some athletes might look for the easy way to the top, there are still many athletes that are committed to the hard work that is essential in winning. As parents or coaches of athletes, we may be seeking the right way for our blossoming athlete. I will show you the perfect blend, as I see it, to achieve success in sports.

Think about the good old fashioned approach of working hard for an outcome. This would include countless mornings rising before the sun, closely monitoring one’s diet (which probably includes being sure to eat enough calories- like a table full of breakfast foods at the diner following at 4 hour practice), hours of sacrifice (e.g., social, academic, family), and a life that is dissimilar to the everyday student. As a former athlete, collegiate coach and now psychologist, I have experienced losing. Growing up there was no such thing as always winning and receiving a trophy. You had to earn that title and reward. I was not the best on every team, and that was OK. I can see the negative effect not being the best had on self-esteem, but it also provided me with the opportunity to learn other ways to build self-esteem. I worked hard, learned how to perform to the best of my ability, and was rewarded for the effort (sometimes). Discussion was often encouraged in my house, and my parents would often lead conversations about feelings related to a performance; not just those that were losses but also reinforcing strategies that worked while winning. Mindfulness within the sports performance world can assist athletes in finding that balance between winning and losing, working hard to the point of tears, and being OK with not always winning.

Mindfulness is a term you may have heard in the media and is defined as being present in this moment, doing so on purpose, and not judging your experiences (See: John Kabat-Zinn). While this is not an easy feat in Western world, it has proven to be effective in the East for centuries. Much of the social research shows that people in the East have lived free of many of the concerns and issues that we typically experience here in the West (e.g., the China study- no translation for hypertension and other medical health issues that are common here in the West). In fact, some argue that Mindfulness is nothing more than Buddhism wrapped up in a bow for Western people to embrace (Note: technically Buddhism is a way of life and not a religion). The foundation of Mindfulness comes from Zen Buddhism which teaches practitioners to observe the mind and this is often achieved through hours of silent sitting (zazen). I recently read the autobiography of Yogananda, and then watched the documentary, and I was reminded of how closed the minds in the Western world can be. Yogananda brought yoga from India to the U.S. and he was met with much resistance. Many people practice yoga in the U.S. today without any realization that yoga was initially created as a way to warm the mind up for meditation.  Currently it seems that yoga is more of a fad and a means to tone up the body rather than an exercise for the body AND mind. While I just bounced between Zen Buddhism and yoga, there is a strong connection between these two practices- one that beautifully compliments the practice of Mindfulness.

What does this idea of Mindfulness, yoga and Buddhism have to do with winning? Recent research by Frank Gardner and other sports psychologists have employed principles of Mindfulness in athletic performance and called it Mindfulness Acceptance and Commitment (MAC). Athletes are trained in the practice of Mindfulness, are evaluated on their openness to experiences and assess their values, and then are taught to commit to actions. Let me explain what that means.

The practice of Mindfulness with athletes looks something like this: embracing any present moment no matter how difficult it might be (i.e., being comfortable being uncomfortable), homework such as driving in the car with no radio or phone, sitting in silence daily for 10 minutes (with the hope we can work up to 30 minutes), defusing words and thoughts from reality (i.e., “I am stupid” vs. “ I am noticing a thought saying that I am stupid”), and ultimately cultivating the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e., the calming aspect of our central nervous system- the opposite of that “fight-or-flight” response).

Then, the leaders assist athletes in practicing psychological flexibility. Not the kind of flexibility that occurs in the gym or yoga room, rather this is the flexibility that requires us to re-learn something that we have known and practiced for a long period of time. Psychological flexibility is the ability to persist in a new behavior that is more aligned with who we want to be (See: Stephen Hayes and ACT). While the practice of psychological flexibility is one of the most challenging aspects of my clinical work, here are some ways to do so:

  1.  Accept the present moment as it is
  2. Separate yourself from your thoughts
  3. Be present
  4. Evaluate your values and see what you want to change
  5. Commit to this change.

To that end, we also work with the athletes to assess their values related to performance (e.g., their role for their team or goals that have been set) and also we evaluate the life values in general (e.g., the balance of working out and socializing, community work, spirituality, family, etc).

Lastly, this work of MAC requires a level of commitment from all parties that are involved. It is more to just say that someone wants to win- it is committing to the hard work required to get there that we focus on. A marathon runner does not just receive some trophies along the way to the first 26.2 mile run. That runner slowly and steadily builds to the marathon run through hours and hours of training.

While our society is typically focusing on the principles of winning, there is a lot to be learned from losing. Learning to accept that moment and learn how to improve yourself within performance is crucial for athletes. It is true that winning can improve self-esteem, but I postulate that one could learn more self-esteem improvement strategies through losing.  The message must be heard. To that end, listening is not just hearing. It is imperative that athletes, their coaches, and parents talk about the processes of both winning and losing. It is OK for boys to cry when they lose, and girls can boast when they win. We do not have to adhere to social pressure to uphold gender stereotypes. Lastly, cultivating a daily mindfulness routine can enhance quality of life and subsequently athletic performance. This can be accomplished by sitting and noticing, counting your breaths, visualization, or endless number of mindfulness strategies which can be detailed in future blog posts.”


Pete Economou OPADr. Pete Economou has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology with a concentration in neuropsychology, and is based out of The Counseling & Wellness Center. For more info on Dr. Pete Economou, check out his bio here.  Dr. Pete can be contacted at petere@thecwcnj.com and is on twitter: @thecwcnj and @OfficialDrPete.

12 Ways to Make an Impact: A Life Skills Guide for Athletes (& Everyone Else!)

Great things come to those who make things happenGreat things come to those who make things happen. I firmly believe this. As I’ve grown through my career, I’ve learned that in order to truly make a positive impact on others one should have a goal-oriented and empathetic mindset, demonstrate a passion for helping, take initiative when appropriate, and think big. As David Schultz noted in his motivational book “The Power of Thinking Big”, no matter who you are, where you are, or what you are, you always have the power to think big. Do you think “big”?  By this, I mean do you give thought to the endless possibilities that exist for growth in yourself and in those you work with while striving towards mastery of your craft? You have that ability. We all do. Embrace the opportunity.

I am extremely excited to announce that all of my “big thinking” and a focus on “making things happen” has paid off in the form of an amazing new professional and personal opportunity. On September 6th, 2014 I embark on my newest journey as Vice President of O-PA! Performance Academy, a new entity awakening this fall in Bernardsville, NJ. Once again, it’s time to make things happen and make an impact. This will be a consistent theme and mantra for all that I will be involved with, embracing O-PA! as a vehicle to make an even bigger impact. The purpose of this particular blog is to share what my overall approach to “making an impact” is (and will be via O-PA!) in hopes that others can also embrace these approaches in their own personal and professional life.  Here are 12 ways to make an impact:

  1. Seek first to understand, then be understood. Once again I must give thanks to Stephen Covey for reminding me of this through his book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”.  In order to help others, you have to understand their perspective. This doesn’t mean you always have to agree with the other’s perspective, but you must acknowledge and understand it. Through empathy you will see improved connections, improved teamwork, and improved mutual respect. Practical Example: You resolve a disagreement with a teammate by better understanding each other’s perspective, thus leading to a win/win solution.
  2. Be proactive. Think ahead to what else can be done. There are two components to this. First, building off of #1, by understanding others and understanding the dynamics of any given situation you can make choices without being prompted, which can ultimately lead to improved processes and improved outcomes. Second, by looking forward and thinking with the expected end result in mind, you can take steps towards attaining those end results. Practical Example: You know that your co-worker is falling behind in their work responsibilities because of family problems, so you put in some extra effort today to complete your responsibilities in order to free up your schedule the next day to help them catch up.  
  3. Practice self-reflection. nolan thinkingThis may seem like common sense, but you must know yourself better than you know anyone else in order to maximize your ability to make an impact on others. What are your quirks? What is your kryptonite? What kind of person do others see you as?  In other words, what is your personal “brand”? Practical Example: You run into a string of what some may call “bad luck”, so you review your personal processes leading up to these occurrences and discover there were better choices available for you to make – and you learn from this for future use.
  4. Value your strengths and embrace areas you need to enhance. First, through #3 you determine your strengths as well as areas you need to enhance (I hate the word “weakness”, btw). Now, values these. This could be personal aspects and tendencies, or can be about your skill set (such as a fencer knowing his hand speed is excellent but he needs to improve the quickness of his lunge) . Practical Example: You recognize and embrace your commitment level as an athlete, so you work hard with a performance coach to work on improving your strength and stability deficits.
  5. Pursue mastery. True mastery can never really be attained, however, there is a lot of value in still trying to attain it. Mastery means having the ultimate comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment. Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, and Tiger Woods have a mastery-pursuit mindset. They recognize that there is always room for improvement somewhere. Don’t get me wrong – while pursuing mastery you can also enjoy the level of success that you currently have in something. That’s part of the fun!  Appreciate where you’ve gotten to (see #12) while also never ceasing to “sharpen the saw” (another from Stephen Covey!). Practical Example You have a passion for helping others achieve their performance goals, so you make it your mission to continually fine tune your approach to improve your application of that knowledge.
  6. Don’t spill your chocolate milk. I love chocolate milk. Besides being what I consider one of the most delicious beverages in the world, it is a highly effective post-workout recovery drink. What is your “chocolate milk”?  In other words, I am referring to the stuff that you love in life and enjoy on a regular basis (family, friends, faith, passions, cherished possessions). Maintain your stability and fight those outside forces that  come at you so that you can continue to enjoy whatever your “chocolate milk” may be. Practical Example: Fencing for your prestigious club makes you extremely proud, so you avoid going to the party where you know there will be under-age drinking (and thus avoid putting your position on the team in jeopardy).
  7. Embrace your inner child. Embrace your inner child while looking at life unjaded, open-minded, with a genuine eagerness to live, laugh, and learn. For more on this check out my previous blog on the topic, Practical Example: You are coaching a practice session and notice that your players are dragging (both mentally and physically), so you diverge from your practice plan and play a fun game such as a relay through an obstacle course.
  8. Laugh and have fun. A specific component of the 7th “way”, this world is too exciting not to have fun.  It is important to have a good sense of humor, for laughter can be quite the powerful tool in many situations. Sharing laughs and collaborating in some form of play are fantastic ways to build rapport. Improved rapport leads to improved collaboration and improved outcomes. I’m fortunate to have entered into a profession that I see as “play” much more often than I view it as “work”. This is a mindset that I know we are all capable of. Practical Example: You laugh with your friends. Yep, simple as that.
  9. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. There are lots of things in life that occur which we could completely avoid if we had the choice: The arguments, unexpected negative situations, setbacks. Unfortunately, we still have to handle these bumps when they occur.  It’s easy to handle things we are comfortable with, however what truly sets effective people apart is their ability to handle uncomfortable situations in a rational way. Can you remain objective in times when emotions run high in order to still accomplish what needs to be accomplished? Practical Example: You’re a star basketball player who has had an “off” night, going 3 of 15 shooting for the game. You are at the free-throw line with no time remaining with the opportunity to win the game for your team. You re-focus and sink both shots.  
  10. Practice responsible independence and effective interdependence. Having responsible independence means that you can be counted on to be accountable and take care of your responsibilities. Having effective interdependence means that you work well cooperatively with others towards a common goal. Practical Example: You are a college athlete who sticks with your off-season training routine while away from school over the summer, and at the same time you maintain communication with your teammates to help keep them motivated as well so your team’s national championship dream can become a reality.
  11. Be a catalyst. A catalyst is something that leads to a reaction. In order the make an impact,on something/someone, you have to be a catalyst in some way or another. Apply your unique talents and personal traits in ways that not only help you meet your own goals, but also helps others attain theirs. Practical Example: You are a seasoned sports medicine professional with the opportunity to have interns, and you make the most of the mentorship opportunity in order to give back to the profession that you love by helping them develop their tools so they can make an impact on all those they come into contact with in the future.
  12. Be appreciative. Appreciate everything that you have and the opportunities that occur, appreciate others for the value they bring, and above all else appreciate yourself as an amazing person capable of doing amazing things.  Practical Application:  You always say thank you, and mean it.  life is about creating yourself

These “12 Ways” are a practical approach to making a positive impact on/with others in your personal and professional life. While developing the tools needed to be a greater athlete, we will also develop the tools needed to be a greater person. Make things happen and make an impact so that you as well can achieve your goals while helping others achieve theirs. Remember, GREAT things come to those who make things happen.

As always, thanks for reading!