During the height of the pandemic, Melissa and I joined OrangeTheory Fitness to shake off the doldrums that had congealed in our veins, bones, and minds: sluggishness, pessimism, and perhaps even a bit of hopelessness. Our days of being actively involved in fitness related activities seemed well behind us. The workouts at OrangeTheory are extremely demanding: one hour of highly intensive cross training with your heart sometimes working up to 90% of its maximum capacity. And while the coaches can be relentlessly encouraging, the work can feel impossible. The good news is that the cure largely worked for us: improved energy, mood, and outlook. I even found myself thinking about making a comeback to competitive squash. BUT, I did notice that while I loved the intensity of the workouts, if I found the music discordant, jagged, and loud (e.g. shredder rock, emo rock, thug rap [language!]), where I couldn’t find the beat, I found the workouts particularly challenging, and the self-talk fell in sync with my experience of the music, which is to say, discordant, jagged, loud, and even angry. I would often want to quit: “I can’t do this!” “This is the definition of torture.” “I hate this.” “I pay for this?” Sometimes, I even noticed some indelicate language of my own. Needless to say, my performance on those work outs often suffered, and improvements I had gained weren’t there. So, I decided to try to make hay out of noticing all of this and turn it into the overall challenge of the experience. Here are the skills I employed:
Change Mindset & Talk Back: One way I managed this situation when it arose was that I would notice the turn toward negative talk and turn it around, talk back to it. “I don’t need to love this music, I just need to finish this workout.” “The workout is the same no matter what the music.” “Don’t let the music get you down.” “Push the rock up the hill.” I even resorted to quoting Rudyard Kipling (“Or being hated, don’t give way to hating.”). Often, I treated the music like it was a squash rival and I intensified my effort. Finally, instead of making a snarky comment to the coach on the way out about the music as a passive aggressive payback for their torture (“That playlist killed me!”), I would thank the coach for a great workout (“Great workout. Thanks!” [Fist bump]). That coach had planned a workout, a playlist, and had showed up for me. It was my problem that I didn’t like the music. In practicing all of these skills, I was tapping into the power of willingness over willfulness, and working on my non-judgmental stance.
Improve Focus & Find an Anchor: Obviously, focusing on my negative reaction to the music was scattering my energy, wasting it. This energy suck was evident in my results. Instead, when I noticed it, I would use it as a challenge to double down on my focus. I would think about the part of the body most challenged, inhabit it, truly feel the burn. The treadmill, the hardest part of the workout, has mirrors facing them, and I would set my gaze on my eyes, so I was literally making myself a rival of myself, staring myself down. These skills helped distract me from the music and sharpen my concentration, perhaps the most valuable thing an athlete can hone.
Cope Ahead for Difficulty & Set a Goal: I discovered that a serious part of the problem was that I only prepared for liking the music and plugging into the slipstream of the beat. When it all syncs up, flow states are easier to find, and therein lies transcendence. Time disappeared. But, then, when my dislike for the playlist started, my disappointment made the next 59 minutes feel unbearable. Time crawled. Instead, I decided to plan for bad music, to prepare myself for the challenge of my negative change in mood and cognition. I set the goal to treat the music, love it or hate it, like “Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”1 This shift was crucial and hastened my ability to engage the other skills mentioned, shortening the time that my mind hindered my performance. This skill speaks to the vital importance being fully prepared for every contingency you might encounter, including bad play, a slow start, or challenging conditions. Young athletes often forget this skill, perhaps because they prepare their minds by visualizing good outcomes.
Of course, all of these skills rest on the mindfulness involved in noticing and observing the problematic pattern in the first place. So, I congratulated myself for that. But, I experienced a tinge of shame when I thought about needing to resort to the very skills that I teach on a regular basis. It was a comeuppance to remember that I needed them as well. But then, I reminded myself that, like my athletes and clients, I also have a human mind and I’m not exempt from its devilish traps. Far from it. With the proper training and skills, we can transform the mind from a torture chamber & impediment into a shelter from the storm, source of strength & the sharpest arrow in our quiver.
1=Kipling, Rudyard. 1910. “If,” from Rewards and Fairies. Doubleday, New York.
2=Linehan, Marsha. 2015. DBT Skills Training, Worksheets and Handouts. Guilford, New York.
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