Mindful Coaching: A Dress Rehearsal for Life

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.


The Effects of Stress – Brought to us by TedEd

Chronic stress is hazardous to your health.  Life (the primary source of stress) can be hard, but the cumulative effect of it on our health can make it even harder.  Stress wears down the body and brains functional centers that we would otherwise use to cope with challenging events.  Yet we all have access to simple techniques that are antidotes to the harm of chronic stress.  These tools require no equipment, no gym membership or fancy trainers.  Using a combination of breath and awareness at a minimum, we can recover our emotional and physical balance on a moment by moment basis.  Our well being is at within our reach and the tools to access it are hidden in plain sight.  Just breathe.


So for those of you who have heard me talk about this at length, here’s the same information, delivered in a very helpful and easily digestible way.  But beware – if you are or have been under intense pressure and you are struggling, be sure to watch all the way to the end.  That is when you learn that its not all bad news and what one can do to overcome the harmful effects of chronic stress.

In good health.



When Great Expectations Don’t Happen

Delayed Postpartum Depression: Expectations

We all create expectations in our minds about life events and big transitions.  Doing so is adaptive in that it can make the future we are anticipating feel more manageable. Sometimes expectations can reassure us and give us courage to face what’s ahead.  Yet, expectations are also made up of myth and fantasy, and there is no better example of this than in parenting.  Rarely do our expectations and images of our future parenting-self match reality.  From birthing and breastfeeding fantasies, to sleeping and baby soothing practices, parents are routinely faced with challenges they did not envision beforehand.  While expectations can be useful to prepare for the future, they can undermine our sense of self when outside circumstances or unforeseen events interrupt the plan.  This can threaten our sense of confidence and security as a parent if we do not recognize that a mental collision is taking place and we are at the center of it.

In April of 2016, I took part in a conversation about this topic with New Mommy Media’s Newbies podcast host, Kristen Stratton and her two guests.  We discussed expectations, why we create them, why they matter, and how to work with them.  After you listen, you might decide you want to do the following activity to explore your expectations for yourself.  Since this is a creative activity this may be more fun to do with your partner or a friend.  Talk about what you created after your activity is done.  And don’t forget to have some Kleenex on hand.

Exercise: Expectations and Reality

Take a clean piece of paper and some colored pencils or pens.  Sit down and take a moment to bring your mind back to that time when you were planning to get pregnant or were newly pregnant.  Bring to mind any images or memories you have of what you were expecting when you became a parent.  Explore your memories of what you envisioned before the experience was clouded with dirty diapers, breast bumps, or sleep schedules.  After several minutes of reflecting back and remembering your pre-parent self, turn to your paper and write down what you remember.  Be free and creative here, giving yourself permission to be messy and imperfect.  Use sketch drawings, stick figures, symbols, words, clouds of color that are symbolic to you or whatever feels right for you to express yourself.  Whatever you choose, put it down on paper. Spend several minutes doing this. When you think you are done, spend a few more minutes in this relaxed place and see what else arises that did not come up the first time.

Next, on the same piece of paper or a different piece, take a moment to connect with your present self.  Connect with your inner story of what parenting involves, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Now do the same practice you did in the first part, sketching, writing or coloring your representation of parenting.  Try not to be afraid and trust that as you capture your life as a parent now, even the hard parts, that will give way to the beautiful parts too.  That by acknowledging the difficult or the imperfect, you make space for the richness and the strength that arises in parenting.  Think of it as your kitchen table.  When you clear away the clutter and the mess, what you eventually arrive at is a tidier space that feels good once you get to it.

Now, pull back and look at the what you have created.  What did you put on paper?  What does it reveal to you?  If the process did not lead you to recognize your strengths and what you did/do to work with the challenges, then explore that now.  Here are some things you might pay attention to to reveal your strengths and resources:

  • What tools and resources have you used to get through the difficult parts?
  • Did you call on people or did caring friends or family show up at times?
  • Did you have a particularly good nurse, pediatrician or mom group that has been helpful?
  • What do you do as a partner or spouse that has led to support or growth in the relationship?
  • Can you identify a few of your successes that you are proud of?

The goal of this exercise is to connect with your inner process of what you hoped for, what actually happened, and who you are now as a result.  This process can also reveal to us how strong or resilient we actually are, by discovering our successes. If you notice that you can’t seem to arrive at any ‘wins’ and your thoughts remain mired in the difficulties or a sense of failure, this may be a sign that you are struggling with something more serious.  In that case, it would be worth considering talking to a safe friend or family member or to a professional.  You can call my office for a brief consultation to see if you would benefit from therapy or support.  There is no obligation.  It is solely there to help you determine what you need to be the healthiest person (and parent) you can be.

Just as you couldn’t anticipate how it would actually feel to soothe a baby through a difficult night, you also couldn’t have known just what it would feel like to be so deeply moved to protect and love someone either.  You couldn’t have anticipated the welling up in your heart as you watched your baby smile for the first time or the precious feelings as you watched him sleep, only to be followed by the humorous exhale of ‘thank goodness for sleep!’ that all parents feel when they finally have a moment of quiet.  So maybe parenting isn’t what you expected.  But that truth applies to both the hard parts and the BReautiful (credit to Glennon of Momastery) parts.  I hope you enjoy this creative reflective process and that you’ll share your journey with someone you trust to listen and appreciate your full story.



Do these women sound like you?

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 5.44.54 PMSunny Gault of newmommymedia interviews women who have survived postpartum depression and anxiety.  They not only speak to their symptoms and suffering. They also address how they have recovered and how they are maintaining their recovery.

Watch and find out if you recognize this experience.  And if you do, I dare you to not feel hopeful that you can indeed recover