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Wellness and Personal Development

Full Court Pressure for A Varsity Senior

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

"Does my son have a mental block on the basketball court?" This was the question posed the morning after her son, Ray a starting high school varsity senior had, in mom's mind, another underachieving game. Having attended the game with mother (Pam; actual names have been changed) and Ray's older brother and aware of some compelling recent history, it seemed likely that more than basketball skills or athletic ability were disrupting Ray's play.

Up to this point, based on mostly brief and sporadic encounters, I knew Ray to be a bright, unfailingly polite yet somewhat reserved, if not guarded, 18 year old. With this in mind, when Pam (a single-parent mom) asked about my talking with Ray, I responded cautiously. While experienced as a performance trainer and therapist, I stressed that Pam be low key when exploring her son's interest in a "motivational coaching" session regarding the challenging season.

Mom also passed along the deal-making offer that Ray, as a lean and hungry teen, couldn't refuse: being treated to a pizza dinner! Our tag team strategy -- low key paired with hot and spicy -- worked. Two days later, Ray and I broke pizza dough together and began to analyze and grapple with the ingredients contributing to a pressure cooker season and senior.

Before detailing the problem background and the intervention process in the Ask the Stress Doc "A." Section, let me mention the rationale for sharing Ray's story. Despite several fairly uncommon aspects, it touches upon many dynamic issues critical to self-esteem, performance anxiety and the transitional trials of young adulthood. Such issues include: the ebb and flow of self-identity and self-confidence, pressure from authority figures and peers, unrealistic and stress-inducing, if not self-defeating, expectations and the many challenges and anxieties stirred around leaving high school and selecting a college.

A. Ray spent his Junior Year in a European country on a civic association scholarship. He was enthralled by the people, his studies, by the whole cultural exchange experience. And the icing on the cake was being able to play basketball overseas in a semi-pro league. While only a role player, Ray loved the opportunity to stay connected to his passion and to further develop his skills.

Not surprisingly, the most eager anticipation as the magical year came to its inevitable end was returning for his final year of hometown school varsity basketball. Alas, quick on the heels of his homecoming, the glowing, ever-expanding cultural year abroad bubble suddenly exploded as if someone had stabbed a sharp spike in a basketball.

With his year abroad, according to the regional school board, Ray had used up his high school basketball eligibility. He was not allowed to suit up. Pam, a feisty mix of urban sophisticate and "Old West" woman, was not giving up without a fight. Initially, reinstatement looked bleak. Ray felt defeated after his personal testimonial plea fell on deaf ears and righteous, bureaucratic minds. But mom hired a tenacious attorney and the legal guns started blazing. When the dust had settled, and the case was ready to be considered by the State Supreme Court (word on the street was that the high court was favorably predisposed to Ray's position), the board grudgingly reversed its oppositional stance.

Ray was ready to soaror so he thought. But sometimes, nothing fails as much as bright light, full court press coverage success. Ray's hot seat season was about to begin and it started as soon as he hit the gym for his first practice:

a) teammates who didn't know Ray, had heard rumors that some 6''7" monster was returning to school after playing Euro-ball; Ray is 6'2", more lean than bulky. In a tense and uncertain atmosphere, not surprisingly, fantasies and grandiose expectations run rampant,
b) Ray, himself, was struggling with guilt feelings: his return meant there was no varsity spot for the last player added to the team, and
c) the final mental albatross was the coach's announcing Ray's return as a Messiah-like (can't remember if this was the coach's phrase or Ray's paraphrase) Christmas gift for the team. Ray was left speechless and somewhat teamless. He felt like an outsider, suddenly isolated from the other players. He was even awkward with one or two close friends on the team. Rivalrous demons, real or imagined, were lurking. And the pressures of being anointed while, at the same time, also feeling beholden to many others, were just too large a burden to bear.

Three months later, eagerly chewing on pizza and tentatively sharing emotional angst we began to put the turbulent transition in a healing and hopeful perspective. Consider these "Seven Strategies for Tackling Post-Traumatic Transitional Stress and Performance Anxiety":

  1. Trials and Fish Bowls. Ray and I immediately discussed the high profile pressure - the despairing lows followed, finally, by the exhilaration of the successful legal contest. Next up was the "there's nothing worse than success in a fish bowl" phenomenon. Ray felt pressure to perform not just for himself, his coach and teammates, but also for his went-to-bat-for-him family. (Not to mention any lingering desire to stick it to the antagonistic schoolboard.) Finally, Ray also felt beholden to the grass roots folks that supported his legal action with a community petition. That's a lot of weight on a young man's shoulders, no matter how broad and muscular.

    We also acknowledged some of the inevitable let down and normal readjustment coming back to the states after an idyllic year abroad. Clearly, his situation was several standard deviations from the norm.

  2. "Get By with a Little Help from Your Friends." While Ray recently was feeling less estranged with teammates, he admitted not having had a real heart-to-heart with one or two of his close basketball buddies. I encouraged him to review the six-month ordeal, to get a good friend's perspective and then share his. In particular, I suspected they would challenge Ray's guilt about cutting short the varsity career of the last man on the team.

    While praising Ray's moral compass and sense of empathy for the odd man out, I also provided a reframe. While Ray was struggling in legal quicksand, this fellow had a few months of varsity experience, an opportunity he would not have had otherwise. Ray hadn't considered that.

  3. Question Authority. Perhaps the most delicate issue was the misguided introduction of Ray to the team. Ray still had some anger as he recalled being set up on this isolated pedestal. Again, he had not talked out his feelings with the coach. (Ray's not having contact with his father since early childhood was a background issue that was left undisturbed.) Like so many proud young men (and women) athletes, he suffered in silence. It's the old Rambo (or Rambette) style of stress management. Although the pedestal pressure was diminishing, he did acknowledge his sense of hiding or wimping out. Not speaking up, avoiding handling past conflict with the coach, fueled some covert sense of shame.

    I reassured Ray that an angry exchange was not necessary nor was it the best strategy. Sometimes when we are getting back our strength, feeling more at peace, the key is to not to completely drop the old issue. Actually, we are in a better position to return to the unfinished (emotional) scene. My recommendation for Ray: let the coach know he's feeling more comfortable with the team and with his role. Acknowledge he hasn't been the stellar player of his fantasies or the coach's pronouncements. Also, acknowledge the pressure of the introductory sermon. Finally, Ray reaffirms his moving beyond the shaky start. Now he's working as hard as he can to make as big a team contribution as he can.

    Ray seemed relieved that there didn't have to a blow up or a shoot out. There was a middle way -- "a pass in the impasse" -- through this psychological injury-professional authority-personal integrity challenge.

  4. Vulnerability vs. Identity. Ray harbored an understandable yet unrealistic expectation that had to be confronted: why couldn't everything be clear, that is, why couldn't he feel as self-assured as when he was starring in recreation league ball or playing in Europe? First came the recognition that in Europe he had readily accepted his "role player" position. The next reality: starting for the varsity high school was a more competitive playing field than the rec league.

    But there was also a sticky truth that needed to be understood: at 18, in his senior year, with many new role and identity transitions looming, Ray was looking for psychological clarity and certainty too quickly! Role confusion was not just the adolescent/young adulthood norm; an optimal amount of uncertainty allowed for productive exploration and, often, more long-term maturation than prematurely closing the identity building process. Ray readily connected to his impatience.

    We talked about discovering his own balance of reaching out to others for support and venting time, as well as learning to quietly embrace his physiological arousal and performance anxiety. Harnessing and focusing this generalized (life stage) and specific (game-induced) arousal energy will definitely sharpen his creative edge.

    Two key suggestions: 1) for the remainder of the season, allow himself to recall and inhabit the comfortable and fun European "role player" space and 2) practice some meditation/visualization to be with and channel his potential performance energy.

  5. Life Skills vs. Basketball Skills. In light of this year's many challenges, I speculated that Ray's learning curve for life skills would surpass his basketball learning trajectory. Because of the humbling nature of the season, he will likely discover two fundamental truths: a) "The Phoenix Phenomenon" -- sometimes one's real life, the bigger picture emotional strains and challenges reduce a capacity to excel undividedly at a task. I then shared passing a competitive test to get into an academically gifted school - Stuvesant High School in New York City. However, my family and I were too bottled up emotionally for me to perform anywhere near my potential. Surrounded by academic stars whose essence burned bright, I felt inferior, lost in the shadows cast by their luminous presence.

    However, over the long learning arc, that past sense of shame and incompetence once placed in perspective (with the help of good therapy) has become more motivational crown than obstructionist cross. With the ongoing development of tools to better handle emotional conflict and potential creative energy, the past "Sturm und Drang" now helps fuel an irresistible drive to keep evolving as a writer and performance artist. As previously shared in this newsletter:

    For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
    One must know the pain
    To transform the fire to burning desire!

    b) Process, Not Just Goal -- As we were talking, Ray repeatedly came back to a shortcoming: his wanting to work problems out, to reach his goals quickly. My counter challenged the allure of rapid solution over pain-staking problem-focus. Especially when a person is trying to develop a wide range of skills and roles -- not just be a good shooter, but also an assist leader, or a rebounder, or even a role model regarding work ethic, etc., -- persistence and patience are key. I discussed the gnawing drive within (both neurotic and creative) and the years it has taken to coordinate and maximize my potential as a therapist, organizational consultant, speaker and workshop leader, creative writer and online/standup "psychohumorist". (And now there's the latest challenge of chat group leader.)

    Perhaps a breakthrough came from a visual image/analogy -- wriggling the five fingers on my right hand as I enumerated the professional roles. For years they seemed out of sync, mostly isolated, often strained, competing with each other for attention and development. But gradually, finally (with the help of Internet Technology and an evolving Stress Doc Enterprises team) interactive and integrative "digital" potential began crystallizing from this heretofore-amorphous configuration. Suddenly, I clenched my fingers, made a fist and pounded the restaurant table. Ray's look of surprise and dmiration signaled that the resultant process and power born of struggle, time and synthesis had not been lost on his psyche.

  6. High School to College Transition. Not surprisingly, with the senior year not just the varsity season coming to a close, future considerations and choices made it onto our problem-solving plates. A key item was the comparative valuing of basketball and academics when selecting a college. Ray had applied to some very prestigious universities that were also basketball powerhouses. He also included schools that had good academic and athletic programs but were not elite in either domain,

    I knew academics were important to Ray and his family. (An older brother had graduated from Harvard.) Yet as soon I mentioned it being okay to follow his "passion," Ray's eyes lit up. Learning to combine passion with discipline is often the bottom line for peak performance. I assured Ray that he'd be developing attitudes, values and skills that would transfer to all walks of life. (I suggested Bill Bradley's book on this same theme.) He wasn't going to "just be a jock."

    If basketball is a true passiongo for it! But don't choose a school where he'll mostly sit on the bench. And trust that graduate schools and future employers will be impressed by an application or resume that highlights a good school, solid grades and varsity basketball experience.

    Also briefly touched upon in our fifty minute session (my chat group was calling) some of the sadness to come saying goodbye to family, high school buddies, girl friend, etc.

    Finally, we acknowledged that having a chance for a fresh start in the Fall, without the pressured circus atmosphere (but with the past year's growing pains maturation), will go a long way to helping Ray fulfill his potential and passion for basketball, along with the future career paths and passions.

  7. Stay in Touch. And last, I shared my wish that Ray would periodically email to keep me abreast of the ending of the current chapter and the start of the new.

The next day, Pam shared that Ray expressed being real glad that we had talked. Opening up to someone more experienced in certain aspects of life, taking the risk to trust, acknowledging vulnerability and guilt, loosening up on rigid "shoulds," timelines and definitions of success, expanding our insight and perspectiveit's how we genuinely grow and grow genuine.

As Jonas Salk, the medical pioneer, observed about human (actually, life) progress:

"Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down; being courageous one more time than being fearful; trusting just one more time than we are anxious."

And Salk's words are also a wonderful prescription to help us all.

Practice Safe Stress!


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