The Pressure of Being a College Athlete

Recently I read the book What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan that recounts the life and suicide of college athlete, Madison Holleran. I found it fascinating and couldn’t put the book down. Many of the comments that Maddy made throughout the book were reminiscent of what I’ve heard as a high school counselor- the pressure to perform, the allure of a name brand school, feeling trapped and unable to quit something that you don’t love doing anymore, etc. Reading this prompted me to dig deeper into research done specifically on perfectionism and college athletes.

Elison and Partridge (2012) published an article in the Journal of Sport Behavior that looked at the relationships of shame-coping, fear of failure, and perfectionism in college athletes. Their study found that female athletes tend to employ internalizing forms of shame coping (attacking self and withdrawal) more than males. One of the key highlights of this article for me was when the researchers said, “if shame is elicited by devaluation then shame and fear of failure can be lessened by reducing athletes’ perceptions that their shortcomings make them less worthy as a person” (2012). This got me to thinking how relatable that statement is to what I often see in terms of grades and personal value. Many students attach their self-worth to their grades. “If I get a B or a C, I am not a good person or unworthy” is often the negative self-talk going on inside their heads.

So how do we as parents and educators help? First, consider how you viewed your own success and failure? Did you tie your grades or success to your self-worth? If not, it’s important to share that with your child. You might say, “you know what I got lots of B’s or lots of C’s and while I might have wished they would’ve been A’s I also knew I tried my hardest.” You might also engage in a deeper discussion about personal values and how sometimes values aren’t measured by grades or trophies; they’re measured by how we treat people.

Know of a child or teen struggling with perfectionism or negative self-talk? I’d be happy to help!

Combatting Perfectionism

Let’s talk for a moment about perfectionism and the rise of perfectionism in our society today. What exactly is perfectionism? The simplest definition is the fear of making mistakes or the belief that making mistakes is unacceptable. Perfectionists also tend to be procrastinators- why is that you ask? Well if you have to make sure it’s perfect, then you might avoid the task altogether.

Having spent ten years in a school, I heard over and over again students who would re-write essays two, three times before turning it in because they had to make sure it was perfect. These students turned assignments in late because their first one or two attempts weren’t good enough. This example also demonstrates how perfectionists internalize feedback and how a grade less than an A signals a value judgement made about them. More often than not, if a perfectionist receives a “C” on an assignment, she’ll say “I’m not smart” or “I’ll never succeed” whereas a healthy response to receiving a “C” would say “I should ask my teacher where I could improve for the next time.”

What I’ve noticed over the years is that anxiety and perfectionism go hand in hand. A perfectionist has “what if” statements that control his mind. “What if I fail this class?” “What if I fail all my classes?” “What if I don’t graduate?” “What if I don’t get into college?” These thought processes create a spiraling effect where a student goes from fearing failing a test to that one test suddenly affecting the rest of his life.

So how can we as educators and parents help?

  • First, take a moment to notice in yourself if you are okay with making mistakes. When you make a mistake at home or at work, how do you handle it? Do you internalize it and allow it to make a value judgement? Model for yourself and for your children that making mistakes is okay. This is HARD work especially in a society that celebrates curated social media profiles and says, “Look everyone else is doing it so much better/easier/faster.”

  • Second, poke holes in the “all or nothing” thinking. If your child says, “if I fail this test I’ll never get into college,” poke holes in those fear statements. “I’m hearing you say that you are afraid this one test will affect your future and I’m wondering about the other assessments in your class that provide opportunities for you to show your knowledge in other ways.” You might also offer a moment of perspective taking and ask, “can you think of a time when you were afraid to take a risk? how did that work out for you?”

  • Third, adopt a growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s work talks about fixed versus growth mindset. What is a fixed mindset? Perfectionism is a fixed mindset. A growth mindset says, “this feedback will help me improve in the future” rather than “mistakes are to be feared.” Growth mindset encourages us to take feedback and apply it to what was presented/turned in versus internalizing feedback as a judgement on ourselves.

Interested in learning more about how changing thought patterns can affect perfectionism? I’d be happy to help!

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Summer Reading Recommendation #2

Have you heard of the Stress Olympics? If not, I encourage you to pick up Rachel Simmons newest book Enough as She Is and read Chapter 7 which talks about perfectionism and the rise of the stress culture. Chances are if you're reading this and you have young kids you've heard something similar to the following:

Kid 1: "I bet I can throw the ball farther than you."

Kid 2: "Oh yeah well I can throw the ball farther and do it with my eyes closed."

This "one-upping" of each other happens early in childhood and yet Rachel Simmons notices that it's happening in an unhealthy way in high school. The example she gives in her book goes something like this:

Student 1: "I'm so tired. I only slept five hours last night."

Student 2: "Yeah well I'm so tired because I have 2 tests and got 2 hours of sleep."

Student 3: "You think that's bad. I pulled an all-nighter and have 3 tests today."

There's this growing sense of pride that is associated with being "soooooo stressed" and "soooo tired." The Stress Olympics then breeds this culture of busyness where if you aren't tired and stressed, you must not be working hard enough. What is the solution then?

Let me offer a few thoughts. First of all, unfortunately the Stress Olympics is part of a larger problem with our society valuing and praising being busy and although that is not something one parent can solve, below are some helpful tips in working with your child:

1. Validate the feeling and dig deeper. "Wow it sounds like you are feeling stressed. I wonder what other feeling you can identify as well?" This allows your child to tap into their feelings vocabulary. Is it an exciting stress like the week before a big performance? Is it an overwhelmed stress such as writing college application essays? Is it a fearful stress because chemistry is really confusing?

2. Take small steps. The most common "type" of stress I hear and see in my work is the overwhelmed kind so I work with students on creating timelines and breaking larger assignments and tasks into more manageable chunks. The part of the brain responsible for planning and organization is the prefrontal cortex which is still developing in adolescents so they need strategies on how to break larger tasks down. You might say, "Okay so let me check to see if I heard you. Your research paper for history is due in a month and it's between 10-12 pages and worth a lot of points. Is that right? What do you think is your first step in tackling a large assignment like that?"

3. Provide coaching about healthy coping skills. "Wow it does seem like you have a lot on your plate right now. It's important to balance study time with time for yourself. What ideas do you have for how you might balance work and fun?" Questions like these help coach students to tap into healthy coping skills such as playing basketball, taking the dog for a walk, baking, etc. If your child is receptive to your coaching, provide an example of an activity that helps you. "I know that at work before a big meeting I take a 5 minute stroll around the block to clear my head and that helps. I wonder if there's something similar that might work for you?"

Looking for help with time management and relaxation strategies? Contact me and I'd be happy to work with your student.

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Helping Adolescents Find Balance

I think back to the days in which I grew up- days where homework only took an hour or two, social time consisted of riding bikes down the street or hanging out in someone's backyard, and stress seemed like a word that only applied to grown-ups. Sure I remember the feelings of worry and unease in high school before taking the SAT and how anxious I felt awaiting college acceptance letters but as I reflect on my experience I can only pinpoint a few times when I felt truly stressed.

I contrast that feeling with students today. The feelings of anxiety and stress start in elementary school and sometimes by the time high school arrives these feelings are crippling. My work on helping adolescents find balance centers around mindfulness practices. When students or adults are in their thoughts and their heads are spinning, they are disconnected from their bodies. Mindfulness allows students to come out of their heads and feel what's going on in their bodies at the moment. 

Listening to music, journaling, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery are all tools that can help adolescents become mindful of how their thoughts affect their bodies. Start out small with 5 minutes a day devoted to drawing, listening to a meditation, journaling, etc. and then slowly increase until 30 minutes before bedtime you're engaging in a mindfulness practice. Not sure where to start? That's where I can help!

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

"Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, that is the best season of your life." ~ Wu Men

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman