Retraining My Brain After a Career in Professional Sports
For most of my adult life, I’ve been looking for a magic potion. Well, maybe not magic, but something close to it. After many years of what has felt like unrelenting, insurmountable anxiety, worry, and fear that all seemed to pervade virtually every aspect of my life from baseball to work to relationships, I’ve finally begun wrapping my brain around a few simple ideas that are helping me – a lot. I’ve never written about this, and I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve talked to – like, really talked to – about this. I generally don’t write about myself because I think most people don’t care, but my improvement the last six months has felt so profound that I thought it was worth sharing, in hopes of someone else finding even a small measure of inspiration or even consolation in some aspect of my journey.
I got very lucky last October. I stumbled upon an outstanding therapist – my first of any kind, other than a sports psychologist I worked with at the tail end of what I like to refer to as my “brief and unspectacular” professional baseball career. (That sports psychologist, by the way, was actually very, very good, and I’d highly recommend him to any ballplayer; unfortunately, I found him long after the last point at which my career and love for playing the game were salvageable. Look up “Steve Blass Disease” for further details.)
Through a combination of loving-but-firm encouragement from my amazing girlfriend and, well, a single Google search, I found someone who has managed to patiently, brilliantly help me begin to unravel the tangled mess of negativity that used to feel like it was consuming my brain from the inside out.
How I described my problem in the past.
I should back up a bit and describe how I used to think about my “problem.” I approached it as I imagine many former athletes might, through the lens of incremental, measurable progress: If my anxiety right now is a ten, and I want it to be zero in five years, then I need to find a process – an exercise, a drill, instruction from the proper coach – to remove one unit of anxiety every six months for the next five years, and then I’ll be happy. I don’t beat myself up (anymore) about how misguided that strategy was, because quite frankly, it worked really well for me – and led me to success – in many other, more achievement-focused facets of my life.
But here’s why that approach was, for me, doomed from the start: I clung to a belief, instilled in me by pretty much everything I read and everyone I talked to, that by thinking negative thoughts, you make them come to life. Now, to be fair, this actually did happen to me in baseball. I’d step up to the plate petrified of striking out, or look to first base fearful of making a bad throw, and those very same (or worse) negative results I visualized would time and again manifest themselves right before my eyes and before the eyes of thousands of unsympathetic fans.
I clung to avoiding negative thoughts. I believed acknowledging them made them come true. To be fair, this actually did happen in baseball.
So when – over the course of many years – those negative thoughts, left largely unacknowledged and unattended to, terrifyingly morphed into Don’t suddenly swerve into oncoming traffic, Don’t pour your hot coffee on that little kid’s head, Don’t shove that random person down the stairs, or Don’t spastically put your fist through that pane of glass, the growth in the amount of control my incessant and irrational worrying exerted over my day-to-day thinking went from linear (annoying and concerning) to exponential (downright frightening). My fear of my own thoughts was surpassed only by my frustration and helplessness at not being able to stop thinking them. As I’m sure other anxiety sufferers know, life is typically not much fun when you wake up every day scared of your own mind.
Then, two breakthroughs.
It started when my therapist, after a few months of getting to know me and beginning to understand what goes on in my head, asked me to pick a friend (I chose a very close one, someone I’ve known since childhood and love very much) and to pretend that that friend was facing my issues himself. My therapist asked me to talk – at length, it turned out – about how, very specifically, I’d show the immense compassion I’d surely feel for my friend, and about what that would feel like. I was admittedly skeptical, because it felt a little contrived, like many of the fruitless thought exercises I’d tried over the years. But when I got to a place where I could really feel – not just articulate – that hypothetical compassion, something clicked. I got it. That level of compassion, directed at myself, was my new goal. And because I would get to count up, from zero to whatever, rather than down, from ten to zero, there would no longer be the proverbial clock (an anxiety inducer itself) ticking.
Why was this so powerful for me? Because suddenly, amazingly, the intense pressure of my ten-to-zero anxiety-reduction countdown was lifted. That monster could stay at ten or double to twenty or diminish entirely without me really caring, because I had a new strategy (focused on a new, completely orthogonal variable): to take a small step each day toward showing myself the same compassion I’d show that dear friend, to grow that steadily from zero to whatever. I’m just getting started on it, but I can’t tell you how good it feels to finally reframe something that seemed destined to remain so intractable.
I can’t tell you how good it feels to finally reframe something that seemed destined to remain so intractable.
The second breakthrough was subtler and much more recent, and it has to do with gratitude. I’ve never really had trouble finding a place of gratitude for the challenges life has thrown at me, but it’s always been the thankful-for-hard-times-helping-me-grow-as-a-person kind of gratitude – which I don’t mean to diminish in any way. (That’s not an easy attitude to maintain, and I still struggle with it from time to time.) Rather, what my therapist is beginning to get me to see – and to be grateful for – is that a little bit of anxiety, in healthy doses and at appropriate times, can be a good thing, and can simply make you better at doing things, better at life, better at decision-making. My frustration and agony had become so intense, so blinding, that I couldn’t fathom any measure of real victory other than complete and total extinguishment of all traces of fear and worry. Not only was that absurdly unattainable, it was foolhardy and impractical. A little bit of that stuff is a good thing, and I’m becoming increasingly grateful that I’ll never have a shortage of fuel to keep me focused on doing the right thing for myself and for the people I care about.
It's worth a shot.
These are just two simple, non-earth-shattering ideas; I know I’ll have other breakthroughs in the years to come that may be more powerful, or that may contradict or even entirely rewrite pieces of this. But here’s what I’ve learned: When you’ve spent years watching your brain try to claw itself out of thickening quicksand, a few simple concepts articulated by someone other than yourself can be truly transformative. I didn’t believe that, but I’m lucky enough to have someone in my life who wouldn’t give up until she convinced me to give it a shot. My hope is that these words find at least one other person who thinks talking to someone is a waste of time. I won’t pretend to be an expert or promise you results I shouldn’t, but I can promise you that it’s worth a shot.