With Love

As the year comes to a close, I can’t help but still marvel over the Atlanta Braves run this year.  Two months removed from the final out of the World Series, and I still have the afterglow of wellbeing and relief. That can only come after 25+ years of sports heartache living in Georgia.   In reviewing videos, rehearing broadcasts, and rereading newspaper articles—what theme continually shows up is the story of resiliency.  It is about belief.  It is about love.  It is about playing for each other that drove this team.  I read about what the Braves faced in the playoffs and World Series: a gauntlet of the best teams in baseball—in terms of metrics, the 2nd most difficult path to the championship in statistical history.  And remarkably, this Braves team never faced an elimination game—so dominant they were in spite of much loss.  ESPN’s Michael Wilbon stated “There’s a spirit to this team”. It is this spirit that defied the odds, where experts around the country overwhelmingly picked the Brewers, the Dodgers, and then the Astros to win against them.  This 2021 Braves team exemplified what the proper response is to loss.  Out of the bowels of suffering, this 2021 Braves team formed a “togetherness” that mowed through the competition like a runaway freight train.  They and the city of Atlanta were not going to be denied. 

The Braves did not choose the suffering.  Suffering happens, and it is out of your control despite your best efforts to prevent it.  But suffering is necessary to awaken the good things that exist within you.  Through suffering, you are faced with a choice.  To give up and remain lost in your misery.  Or to continue to fight…to realize the potential you have of good things: fortitude, compassion, equanimity, endurance, hope—all the best things that make us human.  From the top down, this 2021 Braves team resoundingly chose the latter.  Let me be clear. What happened to Mike Soroka, Marcell Ozuna, Ronald Acuna Jr and others is not to be wished for, but without falling down, how can you learn to pick yourself up? And in doing it over and over again, you get better at doing it over and over again. Pain drives this process. This path is the only way to cultivate the resiliency these Braves developed throughout the season. And when the Braves were thirsty, this was the river they turned to throughout the playoffs, whether it was a Freddie Freeman striking out 7x, a Luke Jackson giving up a three run homer, an Ozzie Albies striking out with runners in scoring position, a Charlie Morton breaking his leg, a 4 run lead being lost in a clinching game—these Braves stuck together, relying on what they created together.  They were a resilient bunch.  They weathered the storms together in spite of the ghosts of playoffs past.  Baseball courts failure with it’s obsession on performance numbers where the term “error” is a statistic alongside the score: Where for whatever reason, a dominant pitcher just doesn’t have it on a given night or where the best hitter in the game, succeeds less than half the time.  Baseball IS failure.  Failure personified on a macro and micro level.  That’s what makes this game both cruel to those who play it and those who watch it.   But also this game for those who play it and those who watch it…if you can embrace the suffering and patiently respond…can have you experience the best of the human spirit. 

The Apology

The Braves ace, Charlie Morton, broke his right fibula in the second inning of Game 1 of the World Series after he was hit by a 102 mph line drive by Yuli Gurriel. Appearing to be OK, Morton went on to throw 16 more pitches, striking out Jose Altuve in the bottom of the third inning. Then his body could go no longer. He had sacrificed himself, giving his teammate, AJ Minter, time to warm up and enter the game. The Braves went on to win the game 6-2. Afterwards, teammates visited Morton in the trainers room to wish him well, and he replied with this: “I’m sorry”.

How can you tell if someone has pathologic narcissism? One sign is if that person never says “Thank you”. And another sign is if that person never says “I’m sorry”. The grandiosity of narcissism is a false front to hide deep shame and insecurity. You see, to a narcissist, saying “thank you” acknowledges he depends on someone to give him that which he could not do or get for himself. To say “I’m sorry” is to admit he did something wrong. Either admission is intolerable for someone who is trying to hide low self-esteem. I can only imagine what it might have been like for a professional athlete growing up, being praised and elevated by others throughout their entire life; then getting paid millions of dollars and being catered to even more. That kind of attention can breed anxiety over whether or not performance can be maintained, and often athletes will feel threatened when performance falters or rivals fare better. And if you’re the ace of a world class pitching staff, the best of the best–how can you not have pathologic narcissism? Then there’s Charlie Morton.

It wasn’t his fault the ball hit him on his leg. It wasn’t his fault that his leg could not withstand the force of a ball hit at 102mph. He made the choice to continue to pitch despite the pain because he knew his team needed him. And when his body gave out, he apologized when there was nothing to apologize for. But for Morton, in his mind, maybe there was. Charlie Morton knows he was brought into the Braves organization this year to help win a World Series, and he has pitched admirably all year. He did his job. The way I see it, Charlie’s apology was an expression of sincere care towards others, the opposite of narcissism. It was if he was saying: “I wanted so badly to perform for you. I recognize my contribution to this team that I wanted to deliver on this greatest stage, and I’m sorry I can’t for you”. He gave what his body would allow him to do. And in his mind, he fell short in giving enough to his teammates who were counting on him. That is what the apology was for. That is warrior mentality. And I’m sure with the caliber of character of this Braves team and all that they’ve endured together this season, they responded with: “Thank you”. Thank you, Charlie.

The Atlanta Braves and Resiliency

“We had like 40-foot potholes that we hit, like humongous speed bumps. Everything you could possibly see in a road, we hit it. Somehow we overcame all that … Anything that got thrown at us, we overcame it.” -Freddie Freeman

“We all have our story and I’ve been through failure. I felt like I wouldn’t be in this spot tonight if I hadn’t gone through that failure, it just made me prepare for this moment and that’s what life is all about. Nothing’s supposed to be easy, it’s not supposed to be given to you and you have to earn it…If you haven’t gone through failure, then you haven’t experienced life. Going through failure, it builds you. It’s going to make you better.” -AJ Minter

The Atlanta Braves are the 2021 National League Champions, having defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team that most baseball experts predicted would win this year’s World Series. As a casual fan, you may have just seen the final outcome with Freddie Freeman raising his arms in victory, but if you followed the Braves this entire season, you know this championship was hard earned, much like the forging of iron into a steel sword, an artisanal blade of durability and beauty. Forging a sword from impure iron requires stress–melting, cooling, stretching, folding and pounding–and this Braves team went through such stress. First they found out that all star pitcher and Cy Young candidate Mike Soroka had reinjured his achilles heel and would not return this season. Their first half record was middling with losses more consistent than expected. Hard hitting left fielder, Marcell Ozuna, injured his fingers from a hard slide but was then missed the rest of the season due to domestic violence issues. Huascar Ynoa, a young dynamic starting pitcher, broke his pitching hand while punching a bench out of frustration. Silver Slugger catcher from last year, Travis d’Arnaud, tore ligaments in his thumb. And arguably the best player in the National League, in the hunt for MVP honors, Ronald Acuna Jr. tore his ACL.

The first half of the season was about being stretched, folded and pounded, but their GM didn’t give up, acquiring struggling players from other teams to bolster their outfield–Joc Pedersen, Jorge Soler, and Eddie Rosario who was even on the IL at the time of acquisition. They remained resilient, within sight of first place in the NL East. Over months, like folding steel, this Braves team was purified and tempered into steel, finally going above .500 in early August. It was through loss and suffering that resilience was created. And it was that resilience that cut a path through the playoffs. It was resilience that won games 1 and 2 in the final inning of the NLCS despite early deficits. The resilience withstood 7 straight strikeouts for Freddie Freeman. It was resilience forged from being sent to the minors and returning to the majors that led to AJ Minter’s performance. The years of hard work of cultivating resilience by overcoming the yips was on display with Tyler Maztek’s three strikeouts with runners on 2nd and 3rd and no one out in the clinching game. NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario knows about pain and resilience with being bounced around from Minnesota to Cleveland and then on the IL. As a whole the team had to address the narrative of “choking” again from last year’s devastating loss from up 3 games to 1 to this Dodgers team. The media wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t ask about it. But when you have been through what this team has been through, such trials are easy to handle. No one wants to go through the pain, but it is necessary to have what the 2021 Braves have–razor sharp steel.

Simone Biles’ Withdrawal

Simone Biles, the GOAT in women’s gymnastics, dropped out of team competition in arguably the greatest stage for the sport–the Olympics. The reaction on social media/TV/newspapers has been a mix of praise vs. derision. Her act was described as “heroic” to “choking”. As a sports psychiatrist, I have been observing my own reactions. Initially it was one of shock and admittedly judgment: “How can you drop out of the most important competition when nothing is physically wrong with you?” But like the varied responses out there, over time and reflection, it has also evolved to one of empathy and support. Only Simone Biles would know, physically or mentally, that she cannot compete. She made the decision that was safe for her despite knowing the avalanche of criticism she would face in not meeting the expectations of others, the expectations of a country. In my view, that is courage. Critics have used comparisons to other athletes (“It’s like Michael Jordan dropping out of the NBA Finals to protect his mental health”) in order to persuade people to come to their side. It is a persuasive argument because at the level of elite competition, shouldn’t you have honed a steel trap of a mind to withstand pressure? To begin with, isn’t it because you have been blessed with a genetically endowed resilient mind to go along with your physical gifts to even be able to reach the highest level of your sport? And don’t you have an entourage, a team of support including coaches, trainers, and support staff who have been working with you all along for you to meet the mental challenges of competition? We watch elite athletes to see the drama unfold: when the chips are stacked against them, when all hope seems lost, when despair strikes, it is the athlete that perseveres and emerges victorious. We want to see that in ourselves. It is natural to feel “Simone Biles robbed us of that”. The US and by proxy “us”, did not experience the glory due us. The Russians won.

The comparison to other athletes who overcame adversity is easy: Michael Jordan and the “flu game”. Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases after he hit the homerun off Erickson in the World Series. Tiger Woods winning the 2008 US Open on a broken leg. But is this the same as what Simone Biles faced? In order to justify our critical reactions, the answer is “yes”. But on reflection and reading more about the situation and Miss Biles explanation of it, I can see how I was conflating very different experiences. I am comparing apples to oranges. Tiger Woods not being mentally prepared before he hits off the tee is not as life threatening than being ten feet in the air at high speed and potentially landing on your head.

The closest comparison to more accurately approximate the situation would be gymnast Kerri Strug in the 1996 Olympics. With a bad ankle and risk of serious injury, she vaulted and stuck the landing in obvious pain to win the gold for the US in team competition. It was a sublime moment of the intersection of all the things are country embodies: hard work, pressure, danger and grit with an outcome for the ages. Why not with Simone Biles in her situation? This is still not apples to apples although it seems like it. Here is why: With Miss Strug it was primarily her ankle, not a breakdown in her mental abilities. As an elite gymnast with years of training, Simone Biles has a cultivated preternatural gift of knowing where her body is in space. But that night, in that moment, she lost that gift. Her explanation: “[I] literally cannot tell up from down” “What’s even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have no idea how I’m going to land. ” Other differences: Miss Biles is dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse. Trauma can certainly disrupt normative, executive brain function in response to stress. Miss Biles is also living in an era of unprecedented social media and exposure with the attendant judgment that is sure to be exponentially gargantuan compared to 1996 if she fails. I’ve also read about Miss Biles not being allowed to take her routine medication for her diagnosed condition of ADHD, a medication she has been on for years. These are just a few of the differences that come to mind and likely a small percentage of all the factors that led Miss Biles to withdraw.

Whatever your opinion is, I do know this. Through this experience Miss Biles wrote: “the outpouring of love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before”. What an insight to achieve! To arrive at the heart of the truth of things. Good for her. I also know this: a client of mine who is a high achiever and attends a prestigious university–this client has also defined herself by her accomplishments. As a result she has struggled with panic attacks in response to academic stress. She has resisted proper therapy and treatment, but recently she said “I need to take care of my mental health first” in lockstep with Simone Biles. I have no doubt that what Simone Biles did and Naomi Osaka before her led my client to change her mind where I could not reach her otherwise. Now she is resolved to getting the complete care she needs. My guess is that by the high visibility of what Miss Biles did, countless others will now seek the care they need as well.

The Last Dance

MJ

“Like Mike, if I can be like Mike”–Gatorade Commercial, ca 1992

The documentary series “The Last Dance” was intended to detail the 1997-98 season of the Chicago Bulls, the end of a dynasty.  It was touted as you being immersed into the collective experience of that team.  Yet for me, it obviously centered around one person: Michael Jordan.  It was an exploration in the present of his enduring legacy, spanning and delving into his childhood, high school experiences, collegiate career and into the NBA, culminating in his 6 NBA titles.  This post is about what I took away from watching this documentary.

I grew up watching Michael Jordan.  Admiring Jordan.  Amazed by his his inclination to not be affected by gravity which made him inhuman.  He transcended the limitations of what a human could do.  I wanted his success.  However, after watching “The Last Dance”, I don’t know if I want to “Be Like Mike”.  What I saw in the documentary is someone who is yet to find rest.  There is no peace.  To me, Michael Jordan played the game of basketball better than anyone, and he has the hardware to prove it.  But playing and winning at a game is different than cultivating inner peace through conscientious evolving of character and developing moral excellence.  The motivation that clearly drove Michael Jordan was pain–whether it was actual, perceived or self-created pain.  And the need to avenge pain to be the best and to maintain being the best.  Disrespect, disregard, “distancing from” fueled MJ.  And so Jordan begs us to ask: Is pain the predominant path to reach the highest pinnacle of sport achievement?  And for that matter, does that mean “success”?  Whatever your answer, in “The Last Dance”, Jordan displayed, intended or unintended, the cost to living that path.  You can see it in his eyes, in his speech, in his body language.  And in his tears.  But can you blame him for walking that path?  All that reward, recognition, and the unbridled adulation from millions can inform you that what you’re doing is “right”.  Then you become God in judging what is right when you stand alone at the top.  He wanted to share that success with others–that is clear.  But he projected what worked for him on to others, in effect saying “Do what is right and what works.”  For better, or for worse?  That is for each of his teammates to decide for themselves and perhaps share with us mere mortals.  This was somewhat explored with Pippen, Rodman, Kerr, Kukoc, Paxon and others more, but for me, I would like to have heard more.  In the end, and again, I am not sure if it was intended, “The Last Dance” portrays a man with a heavy burden who is alone with that burden.  It is hard to be a god.

 

 

 

Kobe

Kobe Bryant

“You guys know that if you do the work, you work hard enough, dreams come true.  You know that we all know that.  But hopefully what you get from tonight is that those times when you get up early and you work hard; those times when you don’t feel like working–you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself–but you do it anyway.  That is actually the dream.  That’s the dream.  It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.  And if you guys can understand that, what you’ll see happen is that you won’t accomplish your dreams, your dreams won’t come true, something greater will”

Kobe Bryant was not only speaking to his daughters that night his jerseys were retired only two years ago.  He was speaking to all of us. Sadly, tragically, he is no longer with us.  His legacy remains.  Love him or hate him, Kobe is us too.  He had potential. We have potential.  There were growing pains and admitted bad mistakes along his path.  We make mistakes.   He had goals or “destinations”, and we have goals.  Kobe achieved much in his long career. MVP. NBA Champion x5.  18x All Star.  Icon.  However, at the end of it all, the night his jerseys were lifted high above us, he shared his secret of realizing his potential.  The secret was an every day, an every moment conscientious movement in a direction of his choice.  What did he choose?  He chose the cultivation of his talent through a fierce work ethic that was THE destination in and of itself.  And it showed on the court.  He invites us to cultivate our own potential and create our own legacy with this mindset.   Now the question is: What will you do with your day?

“Juan Responded”

Juan respondedAmazing.  In game 1 of the 2019 World Series, Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto responded to the force of power that is the Houston Astros’ pitcher Gerrit Cole.  In Soto, we’re talking about someone who can’t even legally buy a beer in this country facing a 29 year old 3 time all-star who likely will win the American League Cy Young Award and hitting a home run and a double off the veteran pitcher.  He even added a single after Cole left the game.  But it started out with a first-at-bat strikeout.  Then he settled down.  He made adjustments.  He changed his approach.  Mid-game. The response afterwards was fearlessness and enjoyment.  Home Run.  That’s the place to be in in order to perform at your best: fearlessness and enjoyment. One key to getting there is what Soto mentioned in an ESPN interview: “most of the times just take a deep breath and just focus on the picture of me.  Everybody around I forget about; it’s just you and me. And that’s how everything comes down, try to enjoy it”.  Physiologically he has a brain that isn’t fully mature being all of 20 years old, but Juan Soto has worked at optimizing what he has, and the results are prodigious.  It is about honing a present moment focus.  It is about having a routine.   It is about clearly articulating goals to aim for in a particular moment that makes distractions minimal if non-existent.  It is experiencing success and feeling the enjoyment of it and wanting more.  More challenges.  More success.   This drives the desire to continue to work to get more success.  That’s the promising start of a career.  That’s Juan Soto.

“It’s been a long journey, Tiger”

Tiger Roar

It’s been 11 years since Tiger Woods won his last major, the 2008 US Open in which a Tiger with a broken leg gutted out a playoff in dramatic fashion to win.  Since that time, Wood’s seeming invincibility had been rocked by scandal and character assassination of his own doing.  There have been injuries, multiple surgeries, rehabilitation.  Don’t you remember the video of an impaired Tiger Woods swaying unsteadily on his feet as he’s questioned by a cop?  And now….redemption.  No matter what your opinion of Tiger Woods, no matter how you feel about this man, you cannot deny his incredible composure as he methodically marched to his 15th Major at the place where he won his first, the Masters.  How can a person, given what they have gone through, keep their emotions in check knowing what has preceded before and now, facing a life defining victory that is so close?  Yet this is what we saw: a calm, collected human being who did not outwardly reveal the white hot burning intensity of desire mixed with possible emotions in such a situation: anxiety, elation, frustration, anger, excitement, anticipation.  You did not see the emotion until it was all over.  And when it was over: joy.  Relief from the monumental restraint he exercised throughout the day.  A triumphant roar.  Let this be a master lesson of emotional regulation.  You can have emotions (there’s nothing wrong with them).  And you can display them…up until a point.  That point is where the outward expression of emotion adversely affects your performance (eg. anger tightening up muscles leading to mistakes).  That point is where your emotional display is seen by your opponent who then regains confidence to beat you.  Ask yourself, “what is my breaking point?”.  The ability to direct and redirect focus requires training and experience.  From two years ago saying “I’m done” to being the 2019 Masters Champion, Tiger Woods is as legendary as can be….and he is as human as can be.  Today he demonstrated for us what is possible.

Serena Williams and Fusion

The US Open Women’s Championship won by Naomi Osaka of Japan, her first major title ever, was overshadowed by Serena Williams emotional outburst and argument with Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos.  This will not be a discussion of who is right and who is wrong but rather how lack of acceptance likely affected Serena’s focus and thus, her athletic performance.  Things seemed to have settled between Ms. Williams and Mr. Ramos after a warning was given to her for possibly receiving coaching from the stands.  The accusation that she was “cheating” did not sit well with Serena who stated out loud her career never involved cheating.  In the argument with the umpire, she also brings up her relatively new role as a mother which implies that she is very aware of the kind of person and player she commits to be and what values she wishes to impart on her daughter .  Although the controversy seemed to have been “let go” mentally by Serena, this does not seem to be the case as seen later on in the match.  A point was taken away from Serena by Mr. Ramos when Serena slammed her racket on the ground out of frustration.  On finding out a point was taken away, her anger resurfaced and need “to be right”, to challenge the cheating accusation takes center stage again.  She becomes “fused” with the identity of how she wants to be perceived: an accomplished tennis player who has never cheated.  It is a state of rigidity. Of inflexibility.  As a result, she is carried by a tidal wave of emotion, hurling back verbal insults “you’re a thief”, threats “you’ll never [umpire] another one of my games” and accusations of sexism.  And the only way she could see how things may be corrected is to demand an apology from Mr. Ramos. Serena could not accept the reality of the situation.  She could not accept “what is”.  Here is “what is”: she received a warning from the chair umpire who suspected that she was receiving coaching from the stands.  “What is” is that she lost a game on serve and the score is 3-2, 2nd set and she destroys her racket.  “What is” is that she had a point taken away from her for this violation.  “What is” is the feeling of frustration, anger.  Granted she could be right in her accusations that Mr. Ramos is sexist or that there is a bias against her as experienced in past US Open tournaments.  These interpretations are not facts.  They are perceptions that are believed to be facts by Ms. Williams and it leads her down a path of emotional upset.   What is clear is that she wanted what she did not have and she did not have what she wanted.  She could not accept  the”what is” of the moment.  In this refusal of “what is”,  an athlete’s mind is not present.  This is a dangerous state to be in the midst of competition.  When you are not playing in the present moment, if you are thinking of “what could have been” or “what needs to be” then the quality of your performance goes down.  It goes down to the degree of how badly you want “what could have been” or “what needs to be” and you focus on that instead of what is in front of you.  Emotions take over.  With sports that require complex motor movements where inches matter (like pretty much all sports) then mistakes get made because your mind is not present–it’s absent, thinking of either what just happened or what consequences are to come.  From this mindset, what follows is less joy, less creativity, less relaxed play.  The decreased quality of actions affect performance and outcomes.  They affect others around you including your teammates and in Serena’s case, Mr. Carlos Ramos, the fans, and unfortunately Ms. Osaka as her once in a lifetime chance to ceremoniously celebrate her first major tennis championship is lost.  To her credit, Ms. Williams did address the crowd to place Ms. Osaka rightfully in the spotlight of recognition of superior performance that night.  However, we don’t pay attention as much to the positive when there is drama.  And Serena created drama.  How do you avoid rigid fusion when you don’t have what you want?  Know where you heavily invest your emotional “eggs in one basket”.  Decide ahead of time if it makes sense to do so.  Consider goals of mastery rather than outcome goals.  Value sportsmanship and let your playing do your arguing for you.  Know that not only do you have a responsibility for yourself, but that your actions affect others.  Focus on putting quality out there.

The Masters and Jordan Spieth

GettyImages-520308860.vadapt.664.high.81[1]Not to take away from Danny Willet’s win at the 2016 Masters, but who are we kidding? The biggest story is of course Jordan Spieth’s collapse.  A score of 7 on the 12th hole was a crowd silencing finality in erasing a 5 stroke lead on the final day of the Masters.  This was a tragedy, played out on Amen Corner.  I know good intentioned people want to preface it with “well, it’s only a golf tournament…it’s only sports”, but doing so also is in a way a form of denial.  It tries to take away the suffering from the sufferer.   It undermines the acknowledgement of such a life altering event and the acceptance, not liking, but the acceptance of the situation and the ensuing feelings that understandably will be present: sadness, regret, shame, anger….pain.  Such a loss can bring a mortal to his knees, his soul shattered.  But acknowledgement and acceptance is the first step in creating a resume of resilience.  Acceptance, you see, paves the way for important processes to occur.  For growth.  And for this to occur, Jordan must believe there is something meaningful to be had from the experience.   Not just an understanding, but a pure belief.  What is there to learn from what just happened?  And finally what is essential  (I heard this in spades from Mr. Spieth as he was being interviewed walking off the golf course) is that Jordan has faith in himself.  He believes it is up to him to control his destiny.  He believes he has the competence to make changes, to improve and shape how he will handle a similar situation in the future.

It would be ideal if this process of acceptance-meaning-learning-competence occurs in the moment when the course of events may still be changed to a favorable outcome, but this process requires teaching.  It requires experience for the process to be earned.  Hard enough for a mature adult individual, even harder for a 22 year old whose frontal lobe, the seat of executive functioning that reins in emotion,  has yet to fully mature despite a preternatural maturity that Jordan has.  Young people tend to still think and act according to intense emotions.  This hurts, but “Smooth seas does not a master sailor make”.   Will this new experience for Jordan Spieth serve an important crossroads milestone on the road to excellence or will it serve as a detour to a winding path of dark uncertainty?   What I hear and what I hope for this young man is an assured confidence, at least for now, to get up and keep walking.