Nine girls between the ages of 10 and 12 hung on my every word as they stared at me intently. The very idea of that makes me laugh; if you’ve ever been around a gaggle of girls this age, then you know that they almost never hang on your every word. You’re lucky if they catch every other sentence. Besides, even if one of them is listening intently, certainly all of them are not. Its not their fault; they’re kids. Maintaining attention is a skill they are still developing.
In this instance, with these particular girls, I definitely did not have their undivided attention and it was especially challenging. We were standing inside an enormous gym where 5 volleyball courts were all going at the same time. In the background were whistles, cheering, balls bouncing, and fans and families moving about. These girls were about to play in the final tournament of their season. Their eyes were wide and their ears were attempting to filter the loud environment. They could barely see me in the midst of the overwhelming scene, let alone hear me. It was my job to somehow help them focus, de-stress, and get ready to play; but I had my own stress going on. Every rule, guideline and schedule that I was told before the tournament started had been changed or eliminated completely. Therefore, much of what I had done to prepare my girls for the tournament was no longer relevant and I was dealing with a completely different setup than I expected. I was near my last nerve and the tournament hadn’t even begun. Yet, if I let that tension show or I took it out on my players, it would only add to their stress. They would have started their first match at a mental disadvantage. I didn’t need a plan to manage the situation; I needed to manage myself.
You wouldn’t be wrong to think that this all seems rather insignificant. A youth volleyball league, a loud gym, a season tournament. These are all fairly routine moments of childhood on the big stage of life. And yet, it’s not. I once heard one of my teachers say “how you do one thing is how you do everything.” This means that if I have a habit of contracting, tensing up, or losing perspective in one moment of pressure, then I’m likely to do it in other situations as well. Is coaching a youth team very different from dealing with an ailing relative, running a business, or hearing about current events? While the settings and situations may be different, the circumstances and mood are not.
Mindfulness can be likened to a muscle we train. Its a habit. Mindfulness is the ability to observe yourself in the moment with some degree of perspective, thus allowing for some self-control while we wait for our higher skills and better selves to come on line. There is a learning theory that I particularly like that applies well here. It describes four stages of competency with respect to a given skill or knowledge. It goes like this:
- Stage 1: we are unconsciously incompetent
- Stage 2: we are consciously incompetent
- Stage 3: we become consciously competent
- Stage 4: we become unconsciously competent.
If I were to apply this 4-stage learning theory to my coaching, in stage 1 I would not even notice a habit of reactivity. At the start of the season it could include me shouting at the players for not paying attention as if it is nothing; I probably would not even notice whether it had an impact on them. At this point, I would be unconsciously incompetent at communicating with them. In stage 2, I might notice that I yell at my players and although I am now aware of it, I’m still doing it (consciously incompetent). In stage 3, I might be working toward developing a higher level skill of pausing before I yell, choosing my message, and deciding how I want to deal with the situation (consciously competent). Presumably, with time, I would eventually arrive at stage 4 in which I routinely communicate with my players in a constructive way that gets my message, rather than my mood, across to them. At this stage, I become unconsciously competent. My deliberate development of a habit would have taken root and it would begin to bear fruit in the form of positive practices and good experiences between myself and the players.
I really liked this learning theory when I first read it. Probably because it heavily relies upon awareness (AKA mindfulness) in order to be effective. For me, mindfulness practice comes in the form of meditation, yoga and informal mindfulness, which refers to moment by moment noticing of everyday situations. These days, I probably use informal mindfulness the most, as it helps me recalibrate in any given situation. Yet, the informal tools have only come about because I used my formal practice of seated meditation and mindful movement and breathing (AKA yoga) to establish a foundation. I was first introduced to these practices over 20 years ago and I have been a student and practitioner ever since. I consider them to be my dress rehearsal for life; when I can bear witness to my mind, heart and inner reactivity during a seated practice, during a tense conversation with a family member, or while I watch the world go by, I am preparing myself to show up skillfully when its needed. Non-reactive. Deliberate. Intentional.
I often tell my clients to use their mindfulness skills when they don’t need them so that they are there for them when they do. I believe we can all benefit from developing this habit. This summer, Positively Yoga will host a Six-week Introductory Training (S.I.T.) in mindfulness, led by New Mindful Life’s founder and director, Rochelle Voth Calvert. I will be there, to strengthen my mindfulness muscles and I hope you’ll consider doing the same if you feel you could benefit from building your own positive habits. In this way, we can all become consciously competent of our skills of awareness, together.
All that said, here’s what I did in that moment with my players in that loud, chaotic and overwhelming scene. I caught myself before my tension rose and I said to them, “This is a really loud and big place. We’ve never played here before. There’s a lot to take in. Why don’t you all look around and get familiar with it? Take your time.” At that point they all relaxed and did just that. They oriented themselves to the moment, with my permission, and my acknowledgement of their states of mind. Several moments later, I asked them to join me in our team meeting. And that is when I actually did have 9 girls, between the ages of 10 and 12, mindfully paying attention to me and hanging on my every word. Four matches later, they took second place in their division and went home with a medal that they earned. BONUS: they had a lot of fun doing it.