Understanding Stress

Part One of an Ongoing Series

Through the world travels of the Good Athlete Project, we have noticed one underlying constant in the desires of most people: less stress. It takes different forms and we name it different things, but it consistently looms heavy in the minds of many… stress about work, family, performance in a variety of fields. To have “less stress” is an understandable desire, but a misguided one. Instead, let’s learn to thrive in the presence of potential stress and grow from those experiences.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

Stress is a signal-response mechanism that allows us to exist within the demands of our environment. We need it. The negative relationship we have to the word refers in actuality to chronic stress, which is the real culprit behind much of our pain, and should be avoided. Strategies exist to avoid chronic stress. In order to utilize those strategies, and understand the difference between stress quality and stress quantity (how many potential stressors you have in your life, versus how good/bad they are) we should take a moment to understand exactly what it is we’re talking about.

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Photo Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

There are three primary systems in the body which coordinate to manage stress: the voluntary nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, and the neuroendocrine system. The voluntary nervous system is the most obvious. It controls conscious movement. It’s the one filtered through the primary motor cortex of the brain and sends commands to the body. Decide to lift your cup of coffee, then do, then thank this system. It gets you where you want to go.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

The autonomic nervous system is slightly more complex and comprised of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for what we commonly refer to as “fight or flight” responses. It preps the body to respond to demanding stressors without conscious awareness. When you walk into a packed stadium for a championship game and the hairs on your neck stand up, this is why. In the presence of a significant obstacle or threat, your heart rate will increase alongside the rate of your breathing, and your pupils will dilate so you can more accurately perceive potential threats. Glucose levels in your bloodstream will elevate so that muscles, should you be called upon to use them, will have quick and easy access to fuel. Without this stress response, our ancestors would have been eaten many years ago. You – we – wouldn’t have the opportunity to exist (and complain about the stress in our lives).

The parasympathetic nervous system more generously refers to the series of “rest and digest” responses. It is the counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system. Among other necessary functions (like eliminating waste, reproducing, and repair/create tissue), this is the state in which you recover from the demands of your “fight or flight” actions. Here your heart rate drops, respiration slows to a comfortable pace, and pupil dilation returns to normal. These two systems work like a seesaw, when one is up, the other downregulates, and vice versa. When the human system is functioning well, they balance each other out.

The third system, the neuroendocrine system, works in concert with the others. It produces the hormones – namely, cortisol and adrenaline – which prepare our bodies to manage obstacles and threats. Cortisol has the ability to increase glycogenesis, providing fuel for our skeletal muscular system. It also stimulates brain activation and use of our senses. Adrenaline increases heartrate, blood pressure, and expands air passages, among other performance enhancing functions. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, these are the hormones it pairs up with in order to meet the demands of a situation.

They are necessary. They are the reason we survive as a species.

[Stress is] necessary. [It is] the reason we survive as a species.

But there is a cost. Every ounce of energy expended produces equivalent exhaust. There is a conversion, a remainder. Think of the exhaust coming out of the tailpipe of a car – that’s what’s left over when fuel has been converted into the energy which propels the vehicle. If a car continually burned fuel but didn’t release exhaust, think of the damage it would do, building up within the vehicle and polluting the system. That’s the problem with modern stress.

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We no longer live in an environment where fending off the occasional predator or tracking down the week’s feast is the main priority. We live in an environment designed to hijack our attention and retain it through a barrage of stimuli which keep our pupils slightly dilated, our heart rate slightly elevated, our blood sugar levels at a slight increase. Our environment keeps us slightly stressed, always.

Add chronic stress to significant societal disregard for rest and recovery, and we have a problem. Consider that for a moment. How well do you sleep? For how long, on average? Do you take time to consciously recover from the stressors in your life?

Odds are against it. Americans have been sleeping fewer and fewer hours per night over recent years, down one full hour since the 1940s, to a measly 6.8 hours per night. The CDC recommends 7-9 hours for adults which makes us, on average, a sleep-deprived nation (more on the value of sleep in later articles). Sleep deprivation makes accurate assessment of work, relationships, and other potential stressors far more difficult.

So perhaps it is not the amount of stress in our lives, but our perception of the quality of that stress due, in part, to the way we do or don’t relax. In other words, it is not our overactive sympathetic nervous system, but the lack of balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Again, not too much stress, but too much chronic activation of “fight or flight” which tamps down the activation of “rest and digest”.

Instead of “less stress”, we should aim for more balance.

A range of strategies will be released in an upcoming series of articles. Today’s performance strategy is simple: work to understand.

 

Performance Strategy: Work to Understand.

We cannot solve a problem of which we are unaware. Moreover, once we are aware of a problem, accurate assessment becomes immediately important. An easy way to imagine this is through the splinter metaphor. If you have pain in your hand, the first step to solving this problem is the recognition of the pain. The second step would be identifying the splinter as the source of the pain. If you misattribute the pain to dry skin, then your “remedy” might be applying moisturizer. Feedback in the form of continued pain would tell you that your strategy, though well-intended, was ineffective. Only through accurate identification of the problem, the splinter, can you take steps to removing the splinter, keeping clean hands to prevent infection, and ultimately solving the problem. But before you solve it, you have to understand it.

So as you Work to Understand stressors in your life, try this method:

  • 1. Identify the Need
    • What are you thinking and feeling – do you feel overwhelmed? Are you in a state of chronic stress? Might be time to take action and improve your situation.
  • 2. Assess the Situation
    • What are the sources of this pain? Write them down. Whether it’s work, bills, other people or a combination of sources, it’s important to be as explicit and honest as possible about what’s actually going on in your unique situation.
  • 3. Identify the Source of the Problem
    • Be honest. Is your co-worker actually the worst person you know? Do they really have no clue what’s going on and you can’t understand why your boss hired them? Perhaps your negative interactions are the result of a system of complicated, overlapping factors. What of those factors can you control? Are you discounting your personal wellness in hopes of workplace success while unknowingly making workplace relationships more difficult? You’d be surprised how often that is the case.
  • 4. Attempt a Solution
    • Spend a week prioritizing your nutrition. Or physical exercise. Or sleep. Or mindfulness. Based on what you have identified as the source of the problem, give something a shot and stick to it.
  • 5. Create a Feedback Loop
    • Did your attempted solution work? If so, great, move on to the next challenge or opportunity in your life. If not, return to one of the previous steps and see where you went wrong. Did the solution not solve the problem? Try another solution. Did you inaccurately assess the problem? Reconsider the situation and try again. Listen to the feedback.

If the feedback after your attempted solution does not address the identified need, try again. Keep trying. Diligent practice within this model will eventually lead to a desirable result.

When we identify external stressors like a co-worker, too much homework, or an overburdened schedule as sources of our stress, then we hope and hope and hope for less of it, then we will never have the proper, manageable amount of it. Rather, let’s take a close look at the way we interact with stress, and our role in not only reducing it but actively recovering from that which we have.

Try it. With this model, the effectiveness of your actions will improve, just by doing the work of accurately understanding.

The Coaches We Mean to Be

When fall rolls in, the leaves on the old oaks lining Appian Way provide an idyllic view from the corner office of Rick Weissbourd, Faculty Director of the Human Development and Psychology program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Rick is also the Co-Director of Making Caring Common, a national effort to make moral and social development priorities in child raising.

We had the privilege of sitting down with him to record an episode of the “Good Athlete Podcast”, which seems as appropriate now as ever. The discussion is an essential one. After all, sports don’t teach life lessons, intentional teachers and coaches use sports as a platform to teach life lessons. Rick agrees, as he does “not think there’s anything about sports, per se, that build character.” There are good sports environments and bad sports environments. It’s coaches. It’s culture. It’s not automatic.

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Photo credit: The Harvard Gazette

Similar to the research outlined in his book, The Parents we Mean to Be, Rick notes that some of life’s most valuable lessons can be taught by the mentors in this space, though they are not necessarily. In sports, one’s intense feelings are colliding with the intense feelings of another. A coach has the ability to create an environment that values competition but frames it in a healthy way so that both teams shake hands by the end of the game. On the other hand, the coach can also fuel negative feelings and demonize an opponent. Both of these situations regularly present themselves.

There’s clearly potential to influence young people through sports. The questions for the coach is, what will you do with it?

Empathy, for example, has become a staple concept in modern classrooms. Sports offer the opportunity for young people to empathize with people that are different than them. When the culture is appropriately created, they provide the opportunity to take other perspectives, to work together toward a shared goal.

Emotional regulation has provided massive psychological benefit for young people by assisting with stress-management, ability to focus, and ultimately resulting in feelings of self-worth. Healthy sports cultures teach young people to regulate their emotions in emotion-rich environments. Rick adds that “intense competition can be really good for kids” IF, in keeping with the theme, coaches help young people frame these moments. Intense competition does not include excessive violence and rule breaking. It can include full effort, quick decision making, and the prioritization of team over self. Emotions need to be regulated. That skill can serve as a successful strategy in many other areas of the student’s life.

What is so refreshing about Rick’s perspective is that he acknowledges that feelings of aggression and competition should not be met with shame. It is rarely okay to chastise a child for feeling any sort of way; rather, we have an opportunity to teach young people how to deal with those feelings. That, coaches, can be a life lesson.

He notes that these life lessons are not always conveyed in the ways we assume. Coaches who cultivate us-vs-them or win-at-all-costs cultures often include explicit or implied permissions of violence and rule breaking. Those are the toxic situations which undercut healthy adolescent development. Rather benignly, they create unpleasant experiences in sport and do not allow students to reap the full benefits of the experience.

If those toxic mindsets continue, how they transfer and present themselves in realms other than the field or court can be devastating. “Being a man” in artificial or violent ways, for example, often has a way of terrorizing relationships and unceremoniously ending any chance at social success.

That said, Rick’s mission is clearly aimed not at finger pointing, but at accurate looking. Counterbalancing those violent, toxic cultures, there are “everyone-gets-a-trophy-cultures.” These too can be harmful, since “kids need to learn to cope and deal constructively with underperformance.”

Unfortunately, popular opinions of sport seem to include either 1) win at all costs, or 2) you’re all perfect.

At the Good Athlete Project, the goal for students is to win as a team, with the win serving as the product of healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement.

We realize that the win is not all that matters, which is why the “healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement” line is so essential. Win or lose, students who learn that sort of lesson will undoubtedly be on a positive path.

So when the leaves change color this fall, let’s be intentional with what we teach. It could be deliberate practice, growth mindset, grit, or any character trait that might associate with longitudinal success.

Whatever it is, let’s align the coaches we are with the coaches we mean to be.

For more information regarding Rick’s work with Making Caring Common, find him here: https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/

 

 

 

 

Tim Tebow: the Survey

Rumors of the New York Mets calling Tim Tebow into the big-league have begun. He continues to improve in the minor leagues (he just made the Double-A All-Star team), and it seems his number is almost destined to be called. That news is already sparking low-level debates akin to the nearly constant controversy that came alongside his NFL career. With more debate looming, we decided to run a small study (n=25) in an attempt to identify patterns within the way we, as sports fans, judge the popular athlete.

Methods

Over the course of twenty days in June/July 2018, we collected twenty-five responses (three responses collected by phone, nineteen collected in person, and three via social media correspondence) to a brief survey consisting of the following questions.
1. How familiar are you with Tim Tebow? (1-10):
2. How much do you like Tim Tebow as a person? (1-10):
3. How good is Tim Tebow as an athlete? (1-10):
4. Use one word to describe Tim Tebow:
5. Use one (more) word to describe Tim Tebow:
6. Did you know he was playing baseball now? (Y/N):
7. Do you think he got that opportunity because of his stardom? (Y/N):
For the final question, participants were given a scenario: A prospect in the Mets organization, by many accounts, is strong, humble, hardworking, and his coach says “I’d never bet against him. Whatever the obstacle is, he’s going to be relentless in overcoming it.”
8. Based on the description, would you play the other prospect over Tim Tebow? (Y/N):

The catch in our study is that the description of that anonymous prospect is a description of Tim Tebow. The quote is from his college football coach, Urban Meyer. We understand that the questioning is tricky, and the participants were left anonymous and not told of this “catch”, to avoid any possible embarrassment. After collection, we analyzed the results in attempt to identify why, in a local population, people had such conflicting ideas about Tim Tebow.

Results

Participants had a fairly high awareness of Tebow, responding with an average awareness of 6.8 on a scale of 10 (with a range of 4-10). There was significant range in the opinions of Tebow as a person (2-10), with many leaning low and responding with an average score of 5.76. Regarding Tebow the athlete, there was a smaller range (4-10), with many leaning high and responding with an average score of 7.24.

Tebow Avg Rating from Survey
Average rating of Tim Tebow as a person (column one) and as an athlete (column two).

Questions 4 and 5 looked for adjectives describing Tim Tebow. Descriptions fell mainly between two categories: 21% were coded as Hardworking (effort, work ethic, relentless, perseverant), and 31% were coded as Religion & Associated Values (prayer, abstinent, and Tebowing, among others). Lame came in third with 12%, Strong was in 10% of the descriptions, and Kind, Motivated, Successful, Football, and Dumb were in 7% of the descriptions or fewer [Fig Two]

Tebow Definitions from Survey
Adjectives describing Tim Tebow broken down by frequency.

92% (23/25) of participants said they would select the other athlete to play over Tim Tebow, even though 60% (15/25) of participants mentioned the same or very similar qualities to those given in the scenario (strong, humble, hardworking). 93% (14/15) of the participants who mentioned one of those qualities still chose to play the “prospect” over Tebow.
The most notable date comes in the examination of those participants who rated Tebow a 5 or below as a person. In that subgroup (n=15), participants found Tebow unlikable, on average, with a score of 4.33. Even within that group, Tebow was rated 7.0 as an athlete. Similarly surprising, members of that subgroup also used terms like relentless, hardworking, winner, and strong in their descriptions of him. Still, all of those participants (15/15) selected the anonymous prospect to play over Tebow.

Interpretation

Many of the responses do not seem to align. There are a large number of participants who prefer an unnamed player over Tim Tebow based only on an anonymous description. That description, as we mentioned, is of Tebow himself. This is confusing, since Tebow averaged a 7.4 rating as an athlete. We believe that participant judgement of Tebow as a person often outweighed their view of him as an athlete. This becomes especially obvious in the examination of those participants who rated Tebow a 5 or below as a person. In that subgroup (n=15), participants found Tebow unlikable, on average, with a score of 4.33. Even within that group, Tebow was rated 7.0 as an athlete. They describe him as relentless, hardworking, winner, and strong; still, as mentioned, all of those participants (15/15) selected the anonymous prospect to play over Tebow.

The prefrontal cortex is the locus of logic in the brain, and we shift activation to and from the PFC as situations demand. The amygdala is the locus of emotion, with fear stimulating perhaps the most activation. The amount of activation in the PFC versus the amygdala might be able to suggest the degree to which logic or emotion is being employed in a given situation. In a 2010 study, Masaheko Haruno and Christopher D. Frith used MRI to gain insight into the way people process information during social interaction. In economic games, prosocial participants “defined as those who like to maximize the sum of resources for the self and the other, while simultaneously minimizing the difference between the two” (Haruno & Frith, 2010) had greater activation of the dorsal amygdala when they felt that outcomes of those games were inequitable. That is, during the moments when participants judged “unfair” actions of their peers, the amygdala (emotion) was activated to a greater degree than the PFC (logic). Additional studies demonstrate similar results, with high activation in the insula, which is also associated with emotion processing. These experiments demonstrate one very ‘human’ result: people respond based on the degree to which they feel, relying on emotion, rather than (or at least as much as) logic.
In this study, it was found that many are “rub[bed] the wrong way” by Tebow (as noted in follow-up discussion with participants). A few participants do not like the way Tebow behaves, but had a difficult time providing specifics. Many more cited his beliefs regarding religion and abstinence. He makes people feel like they would not want him to play for their team, even though they rate him a 7/10 as an athlete, and describe him using words like strength, athletic, and hardworking.
A study published in Science in 2008 might be able to shed further light on the discussion. Herrmann, Thöni, and Gächter, from the University of Nottingham, gave participants a set number of tokens to either keep for themselves or contribute to the pot, in whichever quantities they liked. Tokens contributed to the pot experienced a small multiplier before being evenly distributed back to participants. In the experiment, the best possible outcome for a person would be to keep all of their tokens and have all other participants contribute all of their tokens; the worst outcome would be to contribute all of one’s tokens and all other participants keep all tokens. An additional component: participants in the Nottingham study were allowed to punish the other participants as they saw fit. Some were punished for not contributing enough toward the communal pot. Interestingly, the inverse was also true. Researchers found that participants penalized others for giving too much. Interpretation suggests that there was a distaste for those in the group who set a high standard of contribution – in other words, a distaste for those who set a standard they themselves were not willing to uphold.

Is it possible that we feel as though Tim Tebow is setting a standard that demands too much of us?
Limitations

Our survey has a quasi-experimental design and is not large enough to be predictive of a full population. We made an attempt to stay neutral during the interviews and not influence the responses. In the few surveys we conducted via Instagram, it is likely our name and handle influenced the responses (the Good Athlete Project; @coach4kindness). Chicago was the site of most of the data collection. This decision was made primarily for ease of collection. That might also have been a benefit to the survey, since Chicago is outside of Tebow’s primary markets of Florida, Denver, and New York. Still, we believe the responses we received are indicative of the conceptual divide that exists in common conversation and in media: appreciation for the athletic and competitive ability of Tim Tebow. This study did not fall under a high level of scientific scrutiny; rather, a survey was conducted in attempt to identify patterns within perceptions of Tim Tebow to shed light on the way we, sports fans, tend to think.

Conclusion

Despite less than rigorous scientific criteria, we believe this study supports previous studies that suggest human beings judge and punish with more emotion than logic, and that perhaps our emotion-fueled judgement is harsher for those who raise performance and behavior standards to levels we ourselves to not feel comfortable with.
With all of this in mind, we should probably default to the Mets’ ability to assess baseball talent when Tim Tebow gets his chance. If he ever does. After all, logic would suggest that what we see through our screens cannot possibly compare to what MLB talent scouts are seeing in person. Emotion might conflate our ability to accurately assess, as well as make decisions regarding who should play. Sports analysts, internet personalities and armchair quarterbacks, take note.