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Melinda Harrison - Personal Next

Melinda Harrison was on the national swim team for Canada and participated in the 1984 Olympics. Since those competitive athletic years she has built a career outside of sports as a professional ICF, PCC Level Executive Coach and facilitator. Many highly accomplished people after achieving a major success or realizing a lifelong goal struggle to start a new life pursuit with the same robust confidence and vision that fueled their previous success. In 2013 Harrison set a goal for herself to interview 100 individuals who had successfully navigated peak success and then shifted their lives to pursue different forms and meanings of success.

In preparation for writing, Personal Next, Harrison primarily interviewed high performance athletes from over 25 different sports. Their level of competition ranged from professional, amateur or collegiate. One question she addresses from her research is, “Is there a way to help athletes learn from their first pinnacle of success with sporting to help them achieve new pinnacles of fulfillment and true happiness in their post sport lives?”

SZ: The “Thoughts” section on your blog asks relevant questions for athlete’s as they consider “what next,” transitioning out of competition. What do you know now about preparing to transition out of elite competition that you wish you had known when you were an Olympian swimming for Canada?

MH: You can intellectually understand the process of transitioning out of sport and prepare for that. However, as prepared as you think you are, when you actually go through the transition, my experience working with clients is they are often caught off guard with the range of emotions that they are experiencing. It is difficult, if not impossible, to prepare for the emotional effects that you naturally feel when you say good-bye to something. And because athletes tend to have a persona of strength, they may ignore these signals. So, it is important that people close to the athlete are aware of any change of behavior. The effects can show up physically, mentally or socially.

What would I have wished I had known? Those first few months post-sport are tough and there was no question I was caught off guard. I talk about this in the book but in reflection I wish I had had someone to work with me and help me with the process. There is so much newness and I expected myself to be competent at it. (and I wasn’t).  I had no idea what I wanted to do but I needed to get a job. I was in a rush to prove I was good outside of the pool. I am sure a coach would have slowed me down, challenged my thoughts and pushed me to explore not just accomplish.

SZ: Do you swim competitively now?

MH: I get asked this question a lot.  The answer is no – I really do not like getting wet.  I am ok with warm water like a hot-tub but I think years of jumping into a cold pool has created a negative affliction to it.  There is another aspect to this as well – the goal of every practice is to push yourself as hard as you can. Backing off is not an option.  Exercise for a healthy lifestyle and training to perform are two very different things and when I finished swimming I needed to learn to exercise. When I got into a pool, I wanted to do what I had always done -race and win.  Eventually, I found other things that replaced swimming.

SZ: A majority of athlete’s say good-bye to a full commitment to their sport after University/College. Do you think these academic institutions are doing a better job offering closure for these athlete’s?

MH: The issue is being talked about (which is a first step). My understanding is in some places, programs are being offered. The student-athlete is so busy with managing classes, training, going to competitions, doing some volunteer work (to contribute back as well as to build resumes). At this stage the last thing an athlete wants is to be told that they must participate in another program around their retirement. It does not fit with their goals of improvement on the field/pool and it certainly does not fit with their schedule. I believe the best approach is to back into it and there is some great work that can be done around ‘who you are is not what you do’, understanding strengths, shadow strengths and weaknesses and building skills including a self-awareness that will help them not just after sports but during their time at school. The athlete will buy into this.

One of the challenges is the schools provide an incredible support system while you are competing and then that disappears. Student-athletes can get accustomed to feeling ‘taken care of.’  How do you learn to help yourself when you have always been helped by others? (probably from a young age) This is a skill that the athlete might think they have, but probably do not understand it like a NARP (non-athletic regular person). Part of post-sport transition is learning to let go of the hands and systems that have supported you: the coaches, the trainers, the doctors, physio, the academic support, the training tables, the rigors of a schedule etc…That separation can be difficult. You can feel as if you are going from ‘hero’ to ‘zero, especially in the high-profile sports.

In May of 2020 I am launching an online coaching program specifically directed at athletes’ post-sport that will be affordable and guide them through a process of discovery. For many athletes one-on-one coaching is financially out of reach so I have developed this to help them through both an awareness of self and  discovery of a personal next.

SZ: Team environments whether professional or amateur provide a comforting routine, with a reliable seasonal schedule of training, scrimmage (practice), competition and a fairly stable social network. It is a relative cocoon of predictability with a team fraternity/sorority built in. In your research did you find that being outside of that long-established routine of familiarity caused distress? Did athletes tap into the network of athletes that retired before them to gain a sense of what to expect or how to move forward?

MH: Yes. In the book I describe 3 categories of influences that affect you as you dismantle parts of your athletic life and experience change. These categories are Your Body, Your Psyche and Your Status. There are many sub-categories within each of these.

Here are some examples in each of these categories:

  • In your body, how is your sleep, exercise and eating/drinking/self-medication habits influencing your current state?
  • In your psyche, are you worried that you might not ever be as good as you were in sport and what influence does this have on your confidence and actions moving forward?
  • For your status, how has it changed? Do people you meet want to pull you back to your glory days. Do you hang out with the same group of friends. What influence does this have on how you are challenging yourself in your new life?

Your question about athletes’ networks is an interesting one that requires digging into.  It is way easier to keep in touch with your network than when I left swimming. There are positives to this and negatives.  This is highly individual to the person.  It is a support system that allows you to connect and feel comfort in shared experiences. But on the other end of the spectrum, because it is comfortable, it does not allow you to explore different relationships.  Additionally, if no one in your ‘group’ is excelling, the members of the group might fall to the mean.

SZ: If an athlete didn’t feel as though he/she hadn’t reached their potential was leaving their sport more difficult?

MH: Very few athletes walk away from their sport feeling as if they accomplished all of their dreams. (as well as their parents dreams) This absolutely can affect how they approach the next part of their life. Questions of ability can reverberate deep into your future and can create a self-talk that can undermine potential. Coming to terms with this is part of a post-sport transition.

I do not think it makes it more difficult. Those that achieve their dreams and reach their potential also have challenges that are unique to their situation.

SZ: Through your coaching business and in writing “Personal Next” you’ve interviewed hundreds of high performers. Did you find any commonalities among this diverse group of people that surprised you?

MH: My interviews for the book were with individuals who had positively identified as having made a successful transition from sport to personal next.  My goal was to learn from those who had found a pathway forward. The interesting thing that came out of this was that every athlete I interviewed (24 sports) went through some version of a messy middle. This surprised me.

We, as the public assume that high-performance athletes are invincible. We have created stories around them (from a very young age) and consequently the athlete learns to believe in those stories. For example, many are told they cannot show weakness or give up. Others are told everyday they are amazing. When they are done with sport, they do not feel invincible and or amazing. I want athletes to read this book and say – someone gets me and the life I have lived and what I am experiencing now. I want them to feel hope when they are in the messy middle and I want them to realize ‘if they have done it before they can do it again.

SZ: Personal Next, officially becomes available in April 2020, is there a way for reader’s to obtain a copy prior to the release date?

MH: No – This is my first book. The release date is April 21, 2020. It is a process to get it published and the last stage is far more intense than I ever imagined. I give kudo’s out there to all authors. There will be a few Advance Reader Copies but the publisher, Lifetree Media, has control over the distribution of these.

In the meantime your readers can follow me on Instagram, @melindaharrison or connect with me on LinkedIn.

SZ: Melinda thank you for taking time out of  your busy schedule for this interview. I wish you a very successful book launch in April.

Overcoming Anxiety & Panic

It’s estimated that almost 1-2 percent of the general population will experience an anxiety attack in any given year and 5 percent of the population will experience an anxiety episode at some point in their life. In recent years several professional athletes have spoken to the media about their challenges with anxiety/panic disorders. NFL Philadelphia Eagles offensive line-man Brandon Brooks, NBA Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love, and ATP player Mardy Fish, have shared their experience with this mental health issue.

Elizabeth McMahon, PhD is a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people overcome anxiety related issues. Dr. McMahon has been practicing for over forty years. Since 2010 she has incorporated Virtual Reality technology as a tool and works with the National Mental Health Innovation Center to improve treatment options for anxiety.

SZ: What were the deciding factors for you to become a specialist in helping people with anxiety?

EM: During my first years in practice, I treated pretty much everything, but as I kept reading the professional journals, I was struck by the growing evidence of effective treatment for anxiety. The more I read, the more interested  I became, until I ended up specializing. It is so exciting because overcoming panic and anxiety changes a person’s life.

SZ: Have there been break throughs in the last few years that make treatment easier or provide faster relief and healing for clients?

EM: Absolutely. The biggest, most exciting breakthrough is Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT). Combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), VR makes learning and practicing anxiety management easier and more engaging. In VR, clients can face their fears gradually in a controlled, individualized fashion, in the privacy of the therapy office with therapist guidance and support. Facing and overcoming  fears is less scary, more acceptable, and very, very effective.

SZ: In your recently published book “Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide”, you simplify for the reader the two areas of the brain most involved in creating and overcoming panic. Can you give a short explanation of how the Reacting brain and the Thinking brain work in panic?

Self help guide to understanding triggers and patterns of anxiety.

EM: The Reacting Brain is left over from caveman days. It automatically triggers panic when it thinks you face some kind of danger.  It prepares you physically to run or fight and it sends a message of “DANGER!!!” so you focus on finding the threat. This is a life-saving response our minds and bodies are built to have – but it has one big drawback. The drawback is that things other than actual danger can trigger the Reacting Brain. For example unrealistic expectations of yourself, self-criticism, stress, or bad past experiences can trigger this response when you don’t need it.

I think of the Reacting Brain as a Devoted, but Dumb, bodyguard. it is well-intentioned and has fast reflexes – but it is rather stupid!

The Thinking Brain, on the other hand, is Smarter, but Slower. It is conscious, verbal, and logical. The Thinking Brain is what you use to evaluate the situation realistically. You use your Thinking Brain to decide what to do based – not your child-like primitive brain. The more you use the Thinking Brain, the more it calms down the Reacting Brain.

SZ: How are symptoms of worry differentiated from being nervous, or panicked?

EM: Worry, nervousness, and panic are all forms of anxiety. They just differ in intensity and immediacy.

Worry is more focused on the future. Examples of worries are: “What if I mess up?”, “What if I let the team down?”, “What if I am so anxious I can’t play?”, “What if I have a panic attack?”. Worry can range from mild to very distressing. Panic has a more immediate focus. Examples of panic thoughts are: “I can’t breathe!”, “I can’t think!”, “Any minute now I might throw up, or pass out, or go crazy!”, “I am out of control!” The fear is more intense. The danger seems more immediate. Nervousness can fall anywhere in the middle. Worry, nervousness, and panic are all anxiety. Understanding anxiety helps you know what to do – no matter what form your anxiety takes.

SZ: Is there an increased challenge working with 12-20 year old clients as the area of the brain that provides self control on the whole doesn’t communicate well yet with the part of the brain that controls fight or flight.

EM: The higher levels of the brain continue to develop into the mid- or late-20s, so it is true that the Thinking Brain is less developed. At the same time, the Thinking Brain does exist and the more clients use it, the stronger it gets. It may be especially important for 12-20 year old clients to understand that they can do things to strengthen their Thinking Brain. This is why learning about anxiety is so important. Dr. Charlotte Tilson, a child and adolescent psychologist, and I are creating a version of Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide for teens and young adults. We hope to finish and publish this book by mid-late 2020.

SZ: What is your advice to a person thinking about taking first steps to overcome their anxiety/panic cycle?

EM: First of all, congratulations. You can feel very hopeful. We understand how anxiety works and how to make it less of a problem. Learn what is happening and how to break the cycle. Remember that the Reacting Brain is just trying to help, but it is not very bright so don’t automatically believe the anxious thoughts. Use your rational Thinking Brain to question and re-evaluate your fears.

If you have Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide, start with the first section. It will help you map out your personal anxiety cycle. Then follow the step-by-step process to break free.

SZ: Dr. McMahon thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. You’ve written a very user friendly book to help people start to understand and manage the natural process of anxiety, identify individual triggers and how to calm down the chain of reactions when the Reacting brain is set in flight.

Questions for Nick Kyrgios

Australian tennis talent Nick Kyrgios joined the ATP tour in 2013 and in 2018 reached a ranking of #13.  Kyrgios is known for moments of tennis brilliance when focused and playing well. He has a large base of support from fans and players.  Kyrgios is equally known for struggling with frustration and emotions on the court when matches are not going his way. Nick’s natural athletic talent sometimes is out of synch with his mental management and day to day business of the game. Physical gifts are a prerequisite at the world class level and typically fall short of being a champion when not accompanied by mental training.  Professional athletics is a grind that player’s have to love, or make peace with, and manage week to week. As a sport counselor when athletes come to see me, we begin by exploring basic issues that include motivation, values and goals for making a commitment to the sport. If there is a disconnect in these areas we look at what may be getting in the way of the player being the athlete they see themselves as being. The follow question are an example of what I would ask Nick Kyrgios.

1) What is your motivation to play professional tennis? World class level requires full commitment to training and competing. Nick your website says, “We live a very special life and are very lucky, I just love to compete and go out there and have fun and that’s why I play. My parents worked hard and fought to help me get where I am.” Yet at the 2019 Wimbledon second round post conference you said, “I am not the most professional guy. I won’t train day in and day out. I won’t show up everyday.”   Competing with the best in the world requires full commitment to the mental/physical pieces of the game. What do you want out of your professional time in this sport? There are many articles suggesting you need help with anger management. I think time management is a better idea to focus on. The life of a professional athlete often has a short life span. Nick has struggled with injuries, but work with a physiotherapist and managing his playing schedule to take time off that builds in both physical and mental rest seems important for future success.

2)  Why would you be upset if Nadal receives occasional preferential treatment?  Nadal has been competing on tour for eighteen plus years and has won at this point nineteen Grand Slam singles titles. During that time he has had occasional outbursts of frustration on the court, and disagreements with referees but for the most part he manages his emotions under duress and plays out his matches win or lose and accepts defeat with tolerance.  Nadal seems to be able to avoid verbally abusing referees, spitting, tanking matches and calling out opponents in post-match tweets. Champions earn their place and reap the rewards of their talent by playing even when they aren’t having their best day, when they aren’t feeling their best. They rate high on the Grit Scale.

You’ve said that other player’s receive preferential treatment. You were handed down a suspension for 16 tournament weeks for your on court behavior in Cincinnati. but if during the next six months you don’t earn any additional code violations you will be able to keep playing unless your conduct oversteps the conditions the ATP has set forth.

When a swathe of smashed racquets are left behind from your matches time and time again it demonstrates a poor representation of professional tennis. No other sport allows for equipment to be intentionally broken during a match/game without consequences. No other sport permits a participant to verbally abuse a referee. Yet, the ATP has given you room to keep playing in this six-month probation period.

The NKFoundation website says,  “NK Foundation endeavors to create a safe place where underprivileged youth can frequent to play the sport they dream about and take shelter if needed. Our facility will have tennis courts, basketball courts, a pool, a gym and dorms that will provide refuge to children that don’t have access to play they sport they desire.” Have you given some thought about how you will react and work with the kid at your facility that acts out when losing, or pouts and withdraws emotionally when losing? The kid that spits on other kids out of frustration or smashes equipment at your facility? You have a fantastic opportunity to become a role model for these kids you care so much about. This is your quote, “My purpose is to give every dream a sporting chance…..when I work on the NK Foundation and our Melbourne facility I cast my mind forward to all the disadvantaged kids I will be helping. I’m playing for them now.” In the upcoming 2020 playing season it will be interesting to see if you will make the leap forward to handling pressure and being a leader for these kids to look up to.

3)  What do you envision for your professional future?  Professional tennis will survive with or without your participation.  The next generation of players are exciting, powerful and hungry to win Grand Slams. You could probably raise money for your foundation by playing exhibitions which would take the pressure off of competing week to week. But the more success you have on the ATP tour in the next few years the more marketable you will be for future exhibitions. My guess is you are a competitive person and would prefer not to be a footnote in the sport history books. You have purpose, talent and fans. I hope you get the support you need to figure out how to participate competitively,  plan time off to rest your body and mind, add some mental skills to manage your emotions on court and allow yourself to see how far you can develop your talent. It would be a bonus for tennis and those kids that mean so much to you to fully immerse yourself in the game. Best of luck to you in 2020.