Sunday, January 11, 2009

For Every Curse there is a Blessing: Elite Performance & Trauma

I read an article in the New York Times yesterday that just made my jaw drop. It's an article about psychiatric consultant Michael Miletic and his theory that many elite athlete's incredible focus and ability to perform comes from one of the strangest places:
He theorizes that the highly adaptive abilities of successful athletes were often formed to create a sense of invulnerability in the face of early physical and emotional hurdles. Thus, the seeds of success for some athletes -- perhaps as well for some opera singers, police officers, test pilots, surgeons -- are sown in trauma, often including physical abuse.

''Now don't take this as a blanket statement,'' said Miletic recently in his Birmingham office, ''but I have seen a significant proportion of high-achieving athletes who have come out of abusive homes. Their ability to block out pain and fear, to dissociate from their emotions, comes from their adaptive tactics to the trauma of their childhoods. It's a form of compensation.

I would argue that in order for these athletes to make the best of this traumatic childhood and turn it into something positive, they might also have to have the "resilience gene" as well.

If you read this story (and it is worth the read) you'll learn about how a hockey player lost his signature shot and found it again. And in an interesting turn of events, it turns out that this athlete could put his strong work ethic acquired from intense sports training and apply it to the work he needed to do in his therapy.

The player's willingness to be treated -- he asked his family to leave the intensive care unit so he could talk to the young psychiatrist -- and the superficiality of the insights he offered turned out to be typical of Miletic's future athletic patients. So was the thoughtfulness and enthusiasm; the player approached his initial psychotherapy with the same work ethic he brought to physical training.

But he resisted the trip into his unconscious mind. The hockey player ascribed his suicide attempt to outside pressures; the fans and news media expected him to lead a subpar team racked by dressing-room dissent. Because of this pressure, he said, he had become so unsure of himself that he even suspected his fiancee of having an affair with a teammate.

It was not until the second year of therapy that the player was ready to deal with the repressed trauma that had led to his breakdown. He had become anxious because he was soon to be married and a father, and that had stirred old ghosts.

So for me this was a fascinating story. I am no elite athlete. But I certainly can relate to this story. I wonder how many other elite and endurance athletes gain an edge from the disassociation they learned during their traumatic childhoods. It seems to every curse there is a blessing. And it is stories like these that make me keep looking for the blessing at every turn.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Goals & Remembering This is Why I Tri

I met me goal for December, just barely. I made it to 2 Maramarc workouts each week (one bike and strength training and one Saturday brick) and in addition I ran at least one other day a week, sometimes even two. I just barely made my goals, because today, I found out I have strep and have had it for the last 8 days. No wonder workouts have seemed harder and I've been struggling to keep my head above water.

But, it's the workouts that keep me sane.

This week has been one of the toughest weeks in my adult life. I try to keep things in perspective but it is hard. I draw strength from my friends. From my incredible husband and my children. And from music. And, workouts clear my head and set me free if only for a moment.

This is not the first time that training and triathlons have helped me turn an important corner in my life. I try to remember why I swam across the Chesapeake Bay and why I've decided I will do an Ironman one day. It is because I can. I have the dream, the desire, and the drive to conquer my biggest fears. To be stronger than I ever thought I could be. And to always do the right thing no matter how much it hurts. Without triathlons, I'm not sure that I'd know how to bear this pain. But they have taught me to look to the finish, to see the big picture, to keep perspective and to keep my head up. They have taught me that my strength can be found in helping others and in confronting my biggest fears.

Tonight, I learned about another inspiring woman who feels the same way. And so tonight, I remember nothing is easy. And that challenges can be incredibly inspiring and an incredible source of strength. And that maybe things like this change you forever. And probably they should. And just because something hurts doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. And just because you feel alone doesn't mean you are. There is always room in a hurting heart for hope and for inspiration.

"The biggest fear I've ever had is dark water," she said. "And the biggest urge I had was to face my fear. That's why I decided to do marathon swimming. "... I imagined myself doing it. I believed."

.....[She], conquered the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim three times, using her fear of the ominous, murky deep as motivation to quickly churn through the 31-mile course along the Harlem, Hudson and East rivers.

When she first plunged into the chilly waters in 1982, she'd never swum more than two miles at a time. The water was so "black and yucky," she couldn't see her hands in front of her. She swam through old cardboard boxes, melons and rats.

"One of the other competitors ran into a corpse," she said. "They didn't finish."

But Clark did finish. Last.

She completed the course in 9 hours, 30 minutes and couldn't wait to try again. More than a year later, she posted a record time of 6:52.15, faster than any woman had gone before.

"I was that inspired," Clark said. "Marathon swimming isn't important, but the lessons are. One of the lessons I learned is that facing my fear is a parable to facing issues. Persevering, finding power in my weakness. My biggest weakness was dark water. That fear was the fuel made it possible for me to swim."