Wednesday, July 28, 2021

On Athletes, Anxiety, And What We Are Doing To Our Children

Almost every athlete who has played at any competitive level has experienced what is often called "the yips" (apologies to Ted Lasso). These days, we call the yips a "mental health" issue, and while Simone Biles is the most current and high-profile example, what I have to say isn't really about her.

In fairness to Simone, gymnastics is a unique sport. A soccer player or golfer with high levels of anxiety (or other mental health struggles) might play poorly, make a bad pass, or miss a putt. A gymnast could seriously injure himself if he's not in a state of mental clarity. A four-foot putt is very different than a backflip on the balance beam.

My question, rather than being about the 2021 Olympic gymnastics competition, is much broader. What has happened over the last five years (or more) to create this environment in which so many world-class athletes are so drastically underperforming? On a wider scale, what is happening to our children? Why is anxiety at an all-time high? Why are suicides drastically on the rise?

Of course, the common narrative (not just in athletics, but everywhere) has been that the past five years, and especially the past two, have been incredibly traumatic for many different reasons. I want to spin some of those reasons in a slightly different direction.

The election of Donald Trump was not traumatic, but the reaction to his election was trauma-inducing.

*The onset of COVID-19 was not traumatic, but the reaction to its spread was trauma-inducing.

The killing of George Floyd was not traumatic (to the general public and those who did not know him), but the reaction to George Floyd's murder was trauma-inducing.

The violence of January 6 was not traumatic (to those who were not directly impacted, and within the global context of protest violence over the past decade), but the reaction to January 6 was trauma-inducing.

In comparison, the events of 9/11 were not traumatic (again to those who were not directly impacted), and the reaction to 9/11 was not trauma-inducing. What was the difference?

The constant drumbeat of fear, catastrophe, doom, and unprecedented horror along with the expectation that anyone with a platform will be an outspoken advocate for the social issue du jour, has placed young, prominent athletes in an untenable position. 

Kids today (not just athletes) are overwhelmed with the seriousness of life. They are terrified about climate change, white supremacy, and unmasked or unvaccinated people. Even worse, they are consistently aware of the possibility that they might accidentally misgender someone. They know that being on the wrong side of any of these issues will have dire social consequences. They are filled with guilt and shame because of their nation's past sins and don't know where or how to find redemption.

It's time for everyone to dial down their own rhetoric, turn off the national "news" broadcasts, and block the blue-checks on social media. We need to stop cowering in fear, worshipping the false god of safety, and turning every issue into a crusade. 

It's time to recognize that bad people still exist and always will. Those bad people will do bad things. But the actions and choices of individuals are neither reflective nor representative of others who may look like them, talk like them, vote like them, worship like them, or be from the same place as them.

We can find a middle ground on how to handle COVID.

We can find a middle ground on how to stamp out racism.

We can find a middle ground on how to move forward after a divisive election.

Step number one to finding a middle ground on any of these issues is realizing that none of these issues should dominate our lives. These are all serious issues with significant impact, but none of them are so important that our kids should kill themselves because of how we've reacted to them.

We need to embrace adventure, complete with the danger it brings. We need to exemplify hard work and pushing through difficulty, especially when the next step looks and feels impossible. We need to put down the broad brushes we use to paint others into the corner and start listening for understanding. We need to laugh more, embrace silly fun, and recognize that disagreements don't have to lead to division. 

Life is hard. We don't need to make it harder.

We can't always control what happens, but we can always control how we respond.

We need not leverage every unfortunate event into an opportunity to proclaim doom and gloom. The world will not end because our favorite cause fails. Let's teach our kids that peace and hope are not dependent on what happens to us or what others do. Peace and hope are the results of our CHOICES and our RESPONSES to whatever life throws our way.

Choose to breathe. Choose to relax. Choose to love. Choose to listen.

*Nothing kills communication more quickly than choosing to read the words of another in a way you know they didn't mean them. I trust that the readers of these thoughts are capable of understanding that general statements almost always have exceptions. I did not spend the time to mention or list every exception to the general truths I espoused here, not will I engage in arguments with those who prefer to nitpick with exceptions rather than engage the general concepts.

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