Dear Coach -- Thanks for the Mulligan

Dear Coach:

Thank you – for understanding when I flew off the handle, for giving me just the right kind of space, for letting me take a mulligan.

I didn’t plan to throw my goggles at Mark yesterday – and I sure didn’t plan for them to hit him in the face.  I didn’t plan anything at all.  It just happened.

I was so incredibly frustrated that my little sister beat me in the 200 fly set.  I went right into fight mode.  My goggles were there.  Mark was there.  And BAM.  You know the rest.

Somehow you also knew just what to do.  Warming down in the empty lane cleared my head and relaxed my body.  By the time practice ended, I was ready to make it right with Mark.  I could even smile a little when I explained why I was upset.  And you didn’t have to say a word.

It was like with my mom at home. Say I have a ton of homework to do before practice and I forgot my math book and I spill chocolate milk all over my towel as I’m shoving it in my bag.  And I just start yelling.  And maybe chucking my bag against the wall. 

My mom just stands there.  She just waits.  I finish yelling.  She waits some more and doesn’t look at me.  And pretty soon my temperature comes back down.  I clean up my stuff.  I apologize. Then we make a plan for how to get everything done.

It’s just that moment of stress.  Things come at my brain so fast that I have no time to think.  None.  (My mom says my prefrontal cortex doesn’t kick in as quickly as other kids’.)

Maybe you understand because you’ve seen how awesome this can be when things happen in the middle of a race.  I flub a turn, or my goggles fill up, or I go in way behind on a relay start, and I don’t get hung up thinking.  I just react.  I’m in the zone.

But I know my zone can be not so great on land – fish out of water, right? 

So this past year I’ve started learning some strategies to help. 

The best so far has been meditation, which can be a lot like the race visualizations that we do as a team.  At a time when I’m feeling chill, I try to imagine a scene where I might get upset.  Then I try to visualize myself having an appropriate reaction (like maybe going to the water fountain and breathing for a minute after my sister beats me, keeping my goggles in my hand).

I’m also learning to be mindful of signs in my body that my top is about to blow, like when my face gets hot and my jaw starts to clench.  The idea is to walk myself back with a better plan, like the ones I picture when I’m calm, before it’s too late.

This is super tough when things slam into the emotion center of my brain (the amygdala, for what it’s worth).  But a few times it’s worked – I’ve actually caught my body in the stress buildup and managed to choose a wiser path.

Last semester I had a physics exam first period, and my carpool was late getting us home from morning practice. I barely had time to grab a shake and my backpack before heading back out to school.  Of course I forgot my physics formulas, which we were allowed to use for the test.  I didn’t notice until the teacher was handing out the tests, and as soon as I did my face went hot and I started to sweat.  I was so mad – first at the late carpool mom and then at my forgetful self.  My amygdala totally wanted to toss the test on the floor and run from the room (this would not be a first).

But when I felt that heat, felt my jaw tighten, I took a huge breath and dug deep to picture a better scene.  That kept me in the room at least.  A few more breaths and I could see myself asking my teacher what I could do.  The blood left my face, and my teeth started to separate. 

And I did it.  I asked the teacher.  Politely.  Calmly. 

And guess what? She said I could borrow her copy of the formulas.  Just like that.  No lecture.  Just understanding.  Just like you.

This might not seem like a big deal.  I forgot something and asked the teacher.  For other kids maybe super easy and normal.

But for me it was beyond huge.  I’m learning about my brain, about how it affects my body and about how to control both.

I can’t tell you how much it means that you get it.  That you get me.  Your understanding drives me to keep working, on my swimming and on my self-control.

So, thanks again, coach.  You’re one in a million.