PERSPECTIVE; WHAT IT MEANS TO BE TOUGH

Typically I start each of my blogs in a similar fashion to what I coach my client athletes to do. I visualize what I want to put out there. I plan, organize, and then execute in the hopes of “performing” by writing with clarity. But this one is different. I will apologize ahead of time (and only once) for writing from the cuff. This one is personal.

I have not been very consistent of late with my writing. Though I have made notes of several topics I would like to write about, there has been something else pulling my attention and focus, and causing me to alter my approach. I constantly remind my clients that I do not “coach” them through any psychological intervention (i.e. mental skill training) that I have not attempted to work through myself. And over the last several months I have made attempts at “reaching the next level” as a professional in psychology. Although doing so may mean risking my financial/professional future, what I am really after is finding that edge which only comes when you place yourself in a positive of challenge. This process has been full of ups and downs, gains and losses, progress and mistakes, and all of it I would consider growth. But the motivation behind it has been very personal.

For the last several years, my niece  has been fighting osteosarcoma, otherwise known as bone cancer. If you are not familiar with this particular form of cancer, consider yourself fortunate. Without giving too much detail, suffice it to say this form of the disease overtakes you piece by piece, aggressively and without mercy. And yet she has fought this “monster” in a way that has left me inspired. Each time I have had a chance to see her, there has been a spark in her eye, and a kindness in her heart that leaves me with hope and at the same time in awe. She has shared love, encouraged others to live with wonder, and is always grateful for time spent together with those she loves. And it this style of living that has so greatly inspired me.

Both of my grandmothers died from cancer, the first when I was very young. Since that time I have lived in fear of this disease. I’m not a health nut to be sure, but I have purposefully lived in a way that should help me avoid risks of getting cancer. But to watch my niece, I have been reminded that we do not get to choose many of the things that happen to us, we only get to choose how we deal with them. And in this vein, more recently I have purposely lived a lifestyle that is true to my interests and passion for seeking challenges, especially if that means I have the opportunity to positively influence others along the way.

Recently, my niece’s health has become much more distressed. It is painful to witness from afar, and in quiet moments it consumes my thinking. But as I went through my morning routine today of eating while skimming news articles and social media posts related to sports, I stumbled across an article written by Scott Miller in Bleacher Report (see article here) regarding Mike Trout’s decision to remain with the Los Angeles Angels, rather than become a high priced free agent. And at this point, you may be asking “what the heck does a child with cancer have to do with perhaps the greatest baseball player on the planet today?” But for me, the connection was obvious. Being mentally tough isn’t just about “fighting” when you find difficulty. It is also about knowing what your values are, living with character, and capitalizing opportunities to build a sustainable support network that works in conjunction with your values and character. 

My niece in no way has had the same type of talent and prowess as Trout. But I could clearly see the connection they share. She is by far the toughest person I know. Yet she is tough because her fight is focused on what she can control, building connections and finding the joy in the things she can do. She has shown us commitment in how to live with a thirst for living, to not be resentful, and by expressing yourself through your talents (she has decorated her room with incredible artwork of her own making). And like a gifted athlete, she has chosen to make the most of limited time and opportunity.

My niece also finds challenges that stoke her confidence. She has had multiple surgeries to remove tumors, tissue, and bone. One leg has had most of the muscle removed, and her femur replaced with a steel rod. Yet everytime I went to see her, she found a way to get to her feet and show me how she has relearned how to walk. She has mastered the art of getting up and down the stairs in various means. She walks the neighborhood to make sure her dog has exercise. She has never competed in a sport, but she has the heart of a champion, and a competitive spirit I truly admire. And this is why I have included the term “Perspective” in the title. 

If you have read many of my articles, you will quickly recognize how I touch on topics connected to pressure young athletes feel from adults (parents & coaches). Frequently I find myself counseling parents and adolescent athletes on how to communicate, or teaching athletes how to effectively speak up for their own well-being with a coach. While I would rather exclusively focus on mental skills training, the reality is that a significant reason for struggle on the part of the athlete is the loss of perspective from their support network. There are a myriad of reasons for this to be so, but none of them change the negative impact it has on an athlete’s ability to perform. The article on Trout clearly showed the powerful influence of a positive support system.

Similarly, I was able to attend the opening of the NCAA College World Series this summer. While there, a colleague and I had a discussion on the scene of families of the athletes. There was no pressure, only joy as players came to the dug out walls to share hugs and hellos. While the games were played, you could see a unique blend of anxiousness and celebration as their boys played in what for many may be the end of playing baseball. I never heard any of them yell at an umpire, question a coaches’ decision, or remark that their son was not getting a fair chance to play. Instead, they all cheered and consoled together, in celebration of this opportunity in life. 

If you have followed the stories published and noted by ESPN, you are also aware of the hardships each of the teams has overcome to get to this point in the season. This is especially true for the 2019 National Champion Vanderbilt University Commodores, who lost a core member of their team to a drowning accident a few years back (Elizabeth Merrill article here). The young man’s parents have remained close to the coaches and team, and are recognized as strong fans. To me, this is a hallmark of perspective. Sport isn’t life, it is an opportunity to enjoy life. Talent is essential as you climb the ranks, and mental skills become more important as you go. But at every level, having perspective is critical to overcoming obstacles and growing.

And as I write this entry, things are coming full circle. Champions are being celebrated, stars are adorned, and my niece’s health has become critical. I’ve only shared pieces of her story with a few close friends, and I have tried to listen supportively as a family member when the subject is discussed. But privately, my heart breaks as Marissa has been a motivational person for me. I have learned from her that celebrating life is the only way to live. As an athlete, a coach, or someone who supports either, seeing sport as a means of celebrating the time you have is the right perspective. Anything else is a misguided attempt at defining what is really important. So in honor of my niece, I am writing this piece to ask you to play sport, dance, get on stage, or in any other means, perform with the realization that doing so is a way to celebrate the opportunity of living.

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