Many teenagers today lack a sense of joy and fulfillment from their activities, and the culprit is the excessive focus on attaining straight A’s, winning championships, and being the best.They’ve become so fixated on the end result that they are unable to enjoy the journey. I’ve encountered many burnt out athletes who lament that, “It’s not fun anymore.” Olympian Kerry Walsh Jennings is one such competitor.
Paired with Misty May-Treanor, Kerry won gold medals in beach volleyball at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 summer Olympics. She shared in a recent ESPN documentary that she felt good for about an hour after winning the third gold medal but felt empty after that. She had, “Built up a monster in my head; I gotta do it again or it will be my fault. And if we had lost, I would have felt like a failure.” She felt totally broken after her 2016 Olympic loss, but she was ready for change. That led her to hire Michael Gervais, a high-performance psychologist, to get her back on track mentally.
Gervais taught her mindfulness and meditation practices to train her brain for singular focus and to learn to stay in the present moment. Now, in building up to the 2020 Olympics, the process of training feels like ice cream sundaes every day and winning the gold will just be the cherry on top.
I teach stressed out teenagers to focus on the journey, not the destination. When they can just keep their focus on what can I do today, in this moment, towards attaining my goal, the reward is in the process, not the result. The end result is the end result, but learning to let go of the outcome diminishes stress and keeps you in the present moment vs. worst-case scenarios in the future. Many competitive girl’s fear is that if they aren’t stressed out and worrying about the outcome, they will do worse, but they almost always experience the opposite.
I have girls at Camp Weloki for Girls and my Strong Girls Strong World school program play a game that illustrates that point. The first time they play, the intention is to see who can make the most free throws in 30 seconds. Typically, the energy is low and there is almost no cooperation. The second go around, we change the intention to making everybody on their team wildly successful. The kids brainstorm how they could be more supportive, and then go at it. I hold off on telling them the final group score, and instead have them share how it felt to play the second time. They talk about how much more fun it was, how good it felt to support each teammate, and the energy in the room is electric. Every group I’ve worked with in the past 30 years blows their team score away, which is surprising for the most competitive kids.
Girls who are hyper-focused on the outcome are set up to feel like failures if they make mistakes or fail. Even when they win, like Kerry Walsh Jennings, they don’t feel the sense of joy and fulfillment inherent in the activity. Teenagers I work with tell me they’ve lost their love of learning because all they’ve been taught to care about is giving the teacher what they want in order to get the grade. Some girls continue playing sports because they’re so afraid of letting down parents, coaches, and teammates if they quit, so they slog on miserable and feeling empty.
Parents, teachers, and coaches need to teach girls about focusing on the journey, and to stop overvaluing perfect grades and being on the “best” teams. Help them connect with the feelings associated with learning for the love of learning and playing sports for the love of the game. Teach them mindfulness exercises to live in the moment and to savor the good feelings inherent in everything that they do.