Put Away Your Hammer

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As a gymnastics professional, I know that developing an athlete’s flexibility is essential in the development of a successful gymnast.  Without flexibility, not only a gymnast is unable to execute certain skills, she also is considerably more likely to become injured.   As a result, having a supple body is an important key to an athlete’s success and health.

But in addition to physical flexibility another type of flexibility is also important: emotional flexibility.

Tenacity and determination are hallmarks of many top athletes.  That unrelenting resolve to be the best, to push beyond everyone’s expectation and to consistently challenge herself to chase huge goals is a trait shared by top performers in most any sport.  Yet, if that same doggedness is not coupled with emotional flexibility, the ability to reevaluate and change plans, goals and ideas as new information is learned or as circumstances change, the athlete is at risk of stress, anxiety and burn out as well as failing to discover alternate paths to success.

There is a fine line between being relentless in the pursuit of excellence and being so rigid that it causes the athlete to snap.  While being single-minded in the pursuit of excellence is perfectly great, excellence is best pursued when the athlete is able to consider new ideas, strategies and techniques to achieve her goals.  In fact, it is essential that the route is constantly being re-examined, acknowledging that sometimes taking a different path is either better or even necessary.   When old patterns no longer serve the athlete, it is time to make a change.

But athletes who lack emotional flexibility often become demoralized if their “plan” is altered in any way.   Just like the gymnast who lacks flexibility in her hamstring can pull the muscle if it is stretched, the gymnast who is emotionally inflexible will snap when her environment puts a challenge or barrier in front of her plan.  Additionally, the stress that it puts on the athlete who is resisting change can lead to mental blocks or even more severe mental health issues such a depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

On the positive side, athletes with emotional flexibility are resilient.  They are able to recognize when it is time to abandon a strategy, they are willing to try a different tool or approach and they are able to bounce back after an injury or loss because they are confident that they will be able to figure out how to do better next time.

Some kids come by emotional flexibility quite easily and seem to be able to change, adapt on the fly and let go of past disappointments.  Others really struggle.  So, how does a coach or parent develop emotional flexibility in kids?

First, talk about the concept of emotional flexibility.  Explaining to kids that it is healthy and normal to experience lots of emotions when working toward a goal and that it is important to express their feelings.  When people shut off certain feelings, finding it unacceptable to express them, it leads to shame and rigidity that eventually comes back to hurt them.

And speaking of feelings, it is quite possible and even probable that they will sometimes feel two very opposite feelings at the exact same time.  This is a complicated notion for adults, much less kids.  But quite often, especially when something means a great deal to us, we have conflicting feelings.  They may both love and hate their coach, teammates or even their sport.  It is confusing, but letting kids know that it is normal and okay to talk about it is a great start in helping developing emotional flexibility.

It might also be useful to develop routines and strategies regarding what the child will do when routines change.  This may sound somewhat contradictory, as the goal is to help the child to be responsive to change.  Yet, by helping the athlete develop a plan of how to she will deal with change reduces her stress and builds confidence that she will be able to cope.

Journaling is an effective activity for athletes who are working on their emotional flexibility.  Being able to dump on to paper all of their conflicting ideas and feelings is a good way for them to sort through their complicated emotions.

Finally, I love using analogies to help the athlete envision what it means to be emotionally flexible.  My favorite is a construction worker and his tool belt.  Imagine if the only tool a construction worker carried was a hammer.  It would be very hard for him to do his job with just one tool.  In fact, it would be impossible.  So, to be a successful athlete, we need to help the child develop a wide range of tools to place in her belt.  The cue “put away your hammer and take out a different tool” reminds the athlete in a non-threating way that they need to look for another strategy.

Emotional flexibility will not only aid the athlete in her sport, but it will also help teach her a critical skill to develop her resiliency, a wonderful trait that she will use well beyond her sporting years.  Developing kids into healthy, happy adults with good character—isn’t that one of the main objectives of youth sports?