Psychologist Identifies Mental Toughness Through Gymnastics

22 Apr

“In sports we celebrate people who hang in there and come back, but we don’t always think the same way about other achievements. The shame is not in not making your goals on the first try, it is in giving up too soon, although this is always easy to do. Believe me, climbing back onto a balance beam a couple of times in a 90 second routine is not fun, but completing a routine with no falls is, and both of those are part of the process.” – Dr. McNaughton-Cassill

Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, professor at the University of Texas and loooooooong time gymnast, gave a beautiful speech recently at the Honors commencement  for the Psychobiology Department. It expressed both her love of gymnastics and unique perspective on master’s sport from a clinical psychologist’s point of view.  Mary most recently competed at the 2010 Azarian GymMasters Classic. You can find the speech in its entirely below. 

Gymnastics and Psychology Share More Than Just a Y

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk to you today. The first time I was asked to speak at an Honors graduation my twin daughters were in elementary school. Now they are seniors in high school, and are applying to college themselves.  Its funny to me to think that they are just starting on the journey that you are finishing, but the truth is that many of the questions remain the same. What do I want to be when I grow up? What am I good at, what will make me happy, where can I make a difference and make a life for myself?

These are actually questions I think about a great deal, on a number of levels.  In addition to teaching classes like Psychology and Health and Stress Management, I also I do research on stress and coping, and work with clients. And, one of the things I often find myself telling people is that the key to being successful is doing something you really care about and find meaningful. Now I know that is easier said than done, but I have been lucky enough to have found two things I really love to do, so I decided to use examples from both of them to talk to you about stress, and coping and building the life you really want.

Of course the first of these topics is psychology. Whether you are talking about why you like the taste of certain foods and not others, how you communicate with your friends, why someone is depressed, or how to excel in a sport, psychology matters. The way our brains work, the way we think about things, and how we feel all affect our body and our behavior, and vice versa.  How many of you have missed items on a test, or gotten stressed at a job interview, or said things to someone when you were mad that you wished you could take back? Probably all of us, so the question is how we can learn to control our thoughts, and manage our emotions in ways that bring about the outcomes we want, rather than sabotaging our efforts.

And that brings me to the second of my great loves, gymnastics, which at first glance seems to share very little with psychology except the letter Y. However, they are intertwined in my life. I discovered both in high school, majored in psychology and competed in gymnastics in college, and have been going to an adult gymnastics class since I started teaching at UTSA. So why do these two topics fascinate me? Because gymnastics is a sport that has a huge mental component. Certainly you have to train physically, but actually flipping backwards or jumping on a 4 foot high balance beam requires the ability to manage emotions like anxiety and fear, and to think positively about the outcome you want to achieve.  Basically to be successful you have to focus on 3 things, balance, flexibility, and strength. And, coincidentally, psychological research suggests that these same 3 skills are crucial for good mental health and life satisfaction.

So lets start with balance.  Standing on your hands, landing a leap, and sticking a landing all require balance.  But balance is important in other aspects of life as well. Studies of the elderly show that work outs that emphasize balance help them to avoid falling and getting hurt. But psychologically, we are also constantly trying to balance all the demands in our lives, and that process has gotten very complicated in the modern world.

Most of the time we don’t think a lot about how much the world has changed in the last 50 years. We are too busy just trying to keep up. But one of the things we talk about a lot in the Honors Seminar my husband and I teach on the Psychology and Science of Everyday Life is how much technology has changed daily life.

As a result of electricity we stay up late, we get up early, and we can do more things in less time than every before.

We also have far more access to information than ever in the history of the world. If you look back in history, the task was usually to find out what was going on. Information was hard to get, and books and printed materials were rare, assuming you could read at all. But with computers and the internet this exploded.

Now we aren’t concerned with finding information, but rather with sorting through it, and trying to figure out what is accurate, and useful.  On the one hand this is a great benefit, on the other it makes it hard to know what to believe.

In addition, this huge volume of information also changes our expectations about the world. We know much more about how other people live, and what they think, and who they are than ever before. However, this can make it hard to be content with what you have, because now you can constantly compare yourself to people in other circumstances who have more resources, or thinner bodies, are bigger cars, or nicer houses, or more leisure time.

This is really different from the past, when you tended to compare yourself to the people who lived around you. Now there usually were more affluent people in every social group, but the majority of people around you looked and lived more like you than not, and your images of them were not manipulated, air brushed, and otherwise enhanced by the media.

The question then becomes, how do you balance this constant stream of input from the world, with valuing your own experience, and appreciating what you have, well, I think it comes down to flexibility.

Physically, flexibility reflects the ability to bend and stretch, but this is also a key mental ability. We live in a world that is changing faster than ever in the history of the world. We travel faster, we get information faster, and we have more choices whether we are talking about what to eat for breakfast, what to major in, who to marry, or where to move after graduation…..

The irony is that when we only have a few choices it is easier to make a choice than when you have lots of options and have to optimize your selection.   The reality in today’s world is that no matter what you choose, you will be rejecting other choices, and missing other opportunities, and things change faster than ever, so you may have to readjust, and adapt over time.

Just figuring out what to do on a Friday night is an issue. Should you eat out, go to a play or a sporting event, or see a movie? If you pick a movie which one, and where, and since time isn’t infinite, each choice means there are some things you will probably never get to do.

The key then becomes consciously figuring out what your priorities are and being flexible about what you expect, and what you feel you have to do. If you don’t really think about this you will spend a lot of time doing things as they come up, whether or not they really matter to you, or are actually things you are good at and can make a difference doing.

So often students come to my office hours upset because have locked into a certain set of thoughts. “I’m not good in math, my parents don’t want me to go into Psychology, they want me to do Business, or I got into a grad program, but now I am not sure I like it”.  Now there may be truth in all of those beliefs, but there are probably ways to get around them too.  If you need to pass math to get into your major than you need to utilize every resource we have on campus for helping you pass the class. If your parents are worried about the marketability of your major research it, and answer their questions. It turns out there is branch of Psychology called Industrial and Organizational Psych which has Business applications.  Finally, plenty of people change graduate programs, and careers. Probably one of the best decisions I ever made was to leave a Ph.D. Program in Physiological Psychology. It turns out I like studying the brain, but not doing lab research. I was out of school for 3 years, but then went back in Clinical Psych, which is a much better fit for me. So I lost a couple of years, but it turns out the experience I got in the first program helped me get in the second one. The catch is that you have to be open to novel solutions to get around real barriers.

 A book I love called Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman is a great resource for helping you think about what you really value and want to prioritize in your life.  In a rapidly changing world this is an ongoing process, which will really only work is you are flexible. Finally, I need to talk about the fact that both balance and flexibility are only possible if you have the strength to achieve them.

Of course strength is a key component of most sprits, where it enhances your ability to lift more, run faster, and vault higher, but it also reflects the ability to endure difficult times, and to persist in pursuing goals, even when you face challenges or failure. And in fact, if you are flexible, without strength in sports you often dislocate joints!

However, living in our technological, frequently virtual world we tend to forget that things take time, that gravity is real, and that sometimes winning is a matter of endurance. The things that tend to matter most to us aren’t easy to do, and can take tremendous amounts of time, and energy. They often require that we give up short-term rewards or gains, for long-term outcomes, which aren’t guaranteed.

And most of don’t make all of our goals on the first try. I talk to lots of students who are applying to grad school, or med school, or jobs, and are in a panic about how things turn out. And you know what I usually tell them? You won’t know until you try, but lets look at the worst case~ say you don’t get into the school you want this year. Then you have a choice, you can give up, or you can figure out what it would take to make yourself a better candidate next year Do you need to retake a class or a test, or get more experience, or a publication? Or you can be flexible and research other schools that might meet your needs, or other careers that might play to your skills. Now you have a goal for how to change the outcome next time.

In sports we celebrate people who hang in there and come back, but we don’t always think the same way about other achievements. The shame is not in not making your goals on the first try, it is in giving up too soon, although this is always easy to do. Believe me, climbing back onto a balance beam a couple of times in a 90 second routine is not fun, but completing a routine with no falls is, and both of those are part of the process.

So, I hope that as you leave UTSA you will find the grad programs and jobs you want, but if you don’t or you get there and figure out it isn’t what you like, don’t get discouraged. Instead, put your energy into figuring out how to move forward and to stay engaged.  Balance the pros and cons, think flexibly and make conscious choices, and have the strength to make tough decisions, so you end up where you want to be doing something you are a good at, and feel good about~ which is real success.

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