Inside Look: What I Learned from a Mindset Consultation with a Sport Psychologist to the Pros

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” -Marcel Proust*


The phone rang and went to voicemail. Our scheduled mindset consultation never got off the ground.

I wondered if something had come up, or she forgot. Maybe I’d gotten the date wrong. The thought flashed: Perhaps I’m just a low priority because of the nature of the call?

Dr. Christina “Chris” Heilman is a sports psychologist of the pros, having coached climbers such as Sam Elias, Joe Kinder, and Dan Mirsky. In nearly 20 years she’s worked with clients from olympic athletes to weekend warriors, and I was here for a free 20-minute consultation and angling to write a story, because… Well why not?

Chris had agreed to play along.

I dashed off an email and was surprised a few hours later with the reply, “I have us down for 11am MST…which is in 10-min. Are you available to chat?”

My grave mistake. Wyoming is two hours behind, my timezones had been twisted. The reaction I had says most of what you need to know. Maybe this call with a mindset coach would be helpful after all. 



At 11am (MST), Chris and I saddled up on a call for what I was hoping would be part Gonzo journalism and part let’s-learn-about-me session.

“Hello! Good morning!,” a delighted effluence shot through the muffs of the headset.

“How are you? You’re based in Boston? Have you always lived there? Tell me about this call, you found something about this interesting, what was it that was interesting to you?,” she opened with a flurry.

I bandied back with a peppering of, “Are you originally from Kentucky? Your accent sounds like… How’s the climbing out there? Let’s talk about me.”

The plan was to act like a prospective client, to report on the experience, and find out what I could selfishly glean about how to improve my mindset in order to become a world-class climber—all within 30 minutes.

This quickly bowed to an infinitely more interesting subject, Chris.

So it goes.




Photo source: mindset-coach.com


Chris: The Mindset Coach

In high school, Chris’ world fell apart. She would have to rebuild, but how? She wasn’t sure she had the tools.

Chris was a competitive athlete when an injury derailed her strong body revealing a mind intrinsically linked to her self-definition of being physically fit. Without athletics what was she? Who was she?

As she recovered, she wanted to go beyond a return to a previous state, she wanted to be stronger. Through the process she realized a desire to help others become stronger as well. She would pursue athletic training as a career.



At South Dakota State University she found history rhymes when the athletes she was helping to rehabilitate became unraveled by injury. “They didn’t have the coping mechanisms,” Chris notes with a sorrowful tone.

It wasn’t a fundamentally physical issue.

“Everyone works on the physical,” she says. This arena of well-being is the most tangible and offers immediate feedback, “but we really need to look at your wellness as a whole, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.”

The athletes weren’t getting the support they needed in these other arenas.
She quickly learned that her gift wasn’t about physical recuperation, her talent lay in meeting the athletes where they were and helping them to return to the field of play mentally.

Chris would go on to receive a PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the University of Utah then headed up to the Tetons with a husband, a gig in ski patrol, and the launch of a new psychology practice. Mindset was born.

Photo source: mindset-coach.com


What I Learned 

1) Our brain doesn’t care about winning or doing exciting things, it cares about keeping you safe.

I can be a worrywart, which is not exactly revelatory, but it has been topical and principal of late. A friend had pointed out that I was spending a lot of time and energy on, let’s say non-life threatening decisions, exasperated by a ring-around-the-rosie repetition. 

Chris pointed out that while fear and self-doubt are normal, we have to evaluate these responses against real world potential dangers. By considering the threats and pitfalls we can decide whether our responses is appropriately commensurate.

Worry is instinctual. If we don’t evaluate the worry we can be can be ruled by it.

2) Self-understanding is the real aim. Peak performance emanates from that.

Outside appearances don’t often tell the full story. Chris talked about how the initial problem that clients come with ends up being but a trojan horse.

“I want to be able to focus better while climbing” may unwrap performance anxiety which might stem from unnamed expectations from another. 

Identifying our fears, anxieties and challenges allows you to at least be aware of what you are experiencing, and possibly to work on them. Often we feel discomfort and fear when looking into “darker” recesses of ourselves, so having a trusted guide can help us even approach our deeper selves.

3) How do you get out of your own way?

The meat of the practice is self-awareness, which makes the potatoes the pathway towards improvement. Generally, the reaction towards change is inertia, or “I can’t do that,” which is a habituated train of thought. 

Chris encourages taking action immediately by pursuing the simplest, easiest, and most concrete step you can do today. The purpose is to build momentum and train your mind to develop self-efficacy.

You are working to move to and beyond your edge, which implicitly means you are expanding your range of what’s possible. That is growth.




In the end I found Chris’ bubbly personality, constant swearing, and straight-shooter truthfulness refreshing. Of course, you cannot distill years of rapport, mutual understanding, and learnings into 30 minutes with someone you’ve never met before, but the call was helpful nonetheless (thanks for playing along, Chris!).

You can learn more about Chris by visiting her website, Mindset-Coach, or you can listen to her two interviews with Neely Quinn on The Training Beta podcast (episode 1, episode 2). 

If you want to talk to the woman herself to see if she might be a good fit as your performance psychologist, you can schedule your own 20-minute consultation




 
*Paraphrased from: “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.” – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

The Baggage We Carry

I didn’t realize how much baggage you could pack into a carry-on. 

Three pairs of shoes, four pairs of pants, some shorts, enough underwear and shirts for a week. And all that shit about past breakups, of the romantic and business kind. Heavy. I’m glad they didn’t make me weigh it.

That tote, a Patagonia duffel in Skipper Blue. I had brought it while living in Mountain View three years ago, the last time I had been in Silicon Valley. It was an REI clearance find. A good deal. 

Packing for this trip I hadn’t noticed the connection, it was just the best bag for the job. Just like the original intent, seven days of business in Reno. It all fit together nicely.





My clothes were scattered on the bed, it was an odd mix of attire and emotions. The feeling wouldn’t change once I arrived. 

Flying in to San Francisco, we swooped in low above the green hills of Muir Woods headed south. Ahead lay a graph paper peninsula coordinated by buildings and strips of green painted slapdash through like abstract art with a minimalist flair. 

The running commentary in my head was, “all those god damn houses.” I thought back to the excitement I felt the first time I arrived in SF years ago. My stomach tightened.

A few weeks back, in Boston, I got carried away by the idea of a business trip. It was the season that teases after all: Frigid temps that withdraw into snippets of Spring, before the rearguard battles back with the next cold front. Sunny California seemed like a reasonable excuse to escape the maligned battery.

But I didn’t have to come to CA. I suggested it to the company.

Why go? What was I hoping for?

I think, at some level, I was keen on making a return, to see what it would be like years later and without a connection to the area. To experience things as removed from a past life.

What I didn’t expect was all the emotion that was still wrapped up in the place. I thought about stopping by the old apartment. Imagined what it might be like.

Photo by Bambi Corro on Unsplash.

There I am.

The smell of shade.

It’s musty with a breezy fragrance of flowers and pollen that streams in from the screen door. Dry leaves scatter about the patio behind a flimsy fence that offers little resistance to prying eyes.

I see the place empty, ready to be moved in. The opportunity for new memories, perhaps of just starting out: A family, a job. I’d tread through the living room, to the corner where we’d once set up a makeshift shipping station. Maybe peer into the kitchen and sniff the outline of Soylent shakes that sustained us for too many meals.

I’d tiptoe down the hallway. I can’t remember if the floorboards creaked, but going lightly seems important. The first room on the right was alien to me. There was a rug and a closet with board games that we never played.

The bathroom at the end of the hall was tight with a tiny window that looked out onto the trash bins for the compound. Decay and other funny smells would seep in while you showered. All for the low-low price of $3,300 a month. Perched on the shelf were bottles of microbes that allegedly ate the compounds that cause stench on the body. My roommate didn’t use soap to wash, he conscripted miniature beings to do the job for him.

The second bedroom was shared. It’s where I slept on the floor, on a mattress. It sat in the corner, and when I’d lay against the wall, reading perhaps, my feet would point to the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the closet doors. I came to resent the reflection forced upon me each morning. Steve Jobs’ words, “Is this what I want to be doing today?” would cross the mind with increasing frequency.

Some days, when no one else was home, I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling fan lights, the blades circled like a drunk crow tied to a leash, round and round. I found that if I stared long enough at the argon-infused bulb the colors would melt out in thick strands of amoeba squiggles, rotating and twisting. The goal was to keep staring to see how far the mirage could go and to find that line where I was just on the edge of falling into some unknown. There was real fear of losing my grip.

Something beyond told me it was wise to avoid the depths.

In this imaginary vision, I’d lie there again to see if I could reproduce the effect. Maybe go over the edge, if I had the time. 




The hope in this exercise?

Perhaps to exorcise ghosts, of her lying in the bed crying, disappointed in my not renting a car, of my selfishness. She’d have to lug bags to see her friend at Stanford. I was supposed to drive. We’d break up a few weeks later.

Perhaps I’d cry in that room in that spot, to feel the pain of let down.

Photo by the author.


I won’t make it to Mountain View.

But I’m just a few miles away on the other side of Palo Alto. It feels the same, a proxy but with better vibes.

The weather is cooler than when I arrived years ago, the cherry blossoms are in bloom. So much of what I tried to slice out of my life creeps back in.

I walk around to soak in ambiance, and listen to Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight, the album with The Modern Leper, The Twist, and Poke. I try to disentangle my own braided memories: A breakup, a dissolution of a dream, the splitting of a company.

The other day I sat staring at the comforter on my bed, crossing my eyes so the beaded leaves blended together. They mixed into a stereoscopic image of porous bone like you’d see under a microscope. There was depth to the chambers, I almost reached out to feel the calcified crust.

I thought to myself, “What would it be like if I could just let this all float away?” I sat with the idea and let myself smile.

The sailor’s knot began to come undone, and I think I’ll be able to leave here with a little less baggage.




Feature photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Enter the Void

I met a guy. He climbs for his daughter. 

He’s an immigrant and has to leave the country in a month. His two years are up but his daughter will stay. A home divided.

For years he scrapped to come to America from the place where Europe and Asia meet–or separate, depending on your perspective. He felt it might provide a better opportunity for his kin. He’s still not sure.

His wife had studied in the U.S., even earned a green card at one point, and then relinquished it years ago. Circumstances. Something about not being able to afford to come back for the legal work. They tried to make it this time around, but the two years wasn’t enough.

I met a guy. He climbs for his daughter, and to grapple with the upcoming calculus: The subtraction of 3-1.




Haruki Murakami was asked about why he runs, because as a prolific writer he also has an avidity for marathons. Both are grueling endurance activities, it makes sense. Anywho, over the past few decades, on average, he has runs 6-miles-a-day-6-days-a-week. He turned his response into a book, but that’s not important. 

This is: He says he runs to create a void. He runs to not think. 

I can relate. These days, climbing is the only activity that cores out quietude in a muddled mental world. Running used to. Hiking has, on occasion. But climbing is the only tranquil place for me.

So what goes on when I climb? Nothing much beyond what’s in front of me. It is silence, deeply satisfying and desperately needed sometimes.




Photo source: UKC

If life is like a narrative, sadness is a theme in mine.

Perhaps I’m prone to be low, to live with a mild depression. I don’t find it difficult to get out of bed or question my existence, but often my experience is tinged with the dour. The sadness is like a cat in a city alley, always sneaking around in the background. 

I’m sure this is part of the human condition. I know from talking with people and seeing it in others. But so consistently? I’m not certain.

Climbing happens to bring joy, but at minimum it creates a space for the heart to catch its breath for a bit. Like the cool down after Murakami’s latest 6 miler.




The guy at the gym is quite a skilled climber. It’s like art, he dances

We recognize beauty, probably evolved an eye for it. Its hard to explain but you know it when you see it—a symmetrical face, a flower backed by gilded rays—what I’m trying to say is, his climbing is beautiful. Fluid movements flow into each other like a waterfall in reverse. Struggle is non-existent, his toes float by without a sound. It’s like he bends space so that every motion lands exactly where it needs to be on a wall that comes to him. No wasted breath. No extra effort. The flight of a bird.

I call him The Dancer.

Another climber and I were talking about him, The Dancer. “I asked him, how long have you been here today?,” he tells me.

The Dancer replied, “4-5 hours.”

“Whoa, man, how many days a week do you climb?,” the man followed up.

“4-5 days,” The Dancer said.

The guy’s eyes are bright, and he speaks to me as if we’re sharing a secret, “Well I guess we know why he’s so good!” He’s practically winking at me.

I’m not sure the guy thought to ask, “Why do you climb so much?” Maybe he knows and didn’t know that I know, so we talked about facts and not whys. 

I had spoken to The Dancer before and I did ask why. I learned of his need to create a void. But I touched on a sharp edge that left tender fingers.

“I need to go climb now, I’m starting to think about my daughter,” he said. His eyes were dim, glassy, with salted water damming at the edges.

“I’m sorry, man,” was all I could muster.




Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

It’s not about avoiding the pain in your life, per se, to seek these spaces of solace. But I can understand the need to go there to give your damned mind and heart a break.

The Dancer seems very much in touch with the realities of his situation. And he knows he uses climbing to grapple with the pain.

After carrying around that weight all day, to be able to unshackle at the gym must feel like an Atlassian weight off the back. I imagine that’s why it looks like he floats right along.




Some days are dark and heavy, others we buoy like a butterfly.

Whether we move through the world in flight or on all fours, we do so with what we have, where we are, and with our own ways of coping.

For what it’s worth, I hope we are all so lucky to find a place of peace, if just for a few hours. 




Feature photo by Dorothy Lin on Unsplash

We Seek Suffering (Suffering is Optional)

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

The floorboards creaked and bowed under my weight. I stopped to move the turned over paint bucket–masquerading as exercise equipment–to the side, and hopefully to more stable slats. The soft thud of foot-up-and-foot-down became muted. I resumed stepping. 

Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. For 45 minutes.

This exercise is known as step-ups, and the beauty lies in the self-explanatory name à la description à la simplicity of action. The purpose is to prepare your body for uphill walking with a weighted pack (i.e., if you don’t have easy access to a mountain or you like the convenience of working out at home).

It’s a mindless task really. For the first 15 minutes or so it’s palatable. Then it becomes brutally boring. It’s nothing like walking or hiking or running in the woods. There’s no beauty to fall into, no change of scenery or rock or roots to keep our attention focused. It’s just you and a step. It’s self-contained, repetitive, and grating on the will.

In this Facebook group I’m a part of, some of the mountaineers will do step-ups for two, three hours. They say they go a little mad.

Why? For what end?

Because they’re a little off the rocker? Probably. (I hope to join them in that madhouse someday soon, though.)

But there’s more. 

This is about what the act represents: Literal steps towards mountain dreams. Because you can’t always be in the mountains, but you can train for when you do get there. Because you need to.

It’s about pain re-framed. It’s about defining your suffering, not letting it define you.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

― Haruki Murakami quoting a runner from a International Herald Tribune article, in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Suffering is our relationship to pain. It’s meaning making. We can choose to relate to the pain with purpose, even find enjoyment in it, or let it become misery.

For example, I choose to stay in shape because I know in the long-run it will be better for me. I certainly enjoy running, lifting, and climbing but not always. Some days you don’t want to be active–no way, hell no–but that long-term vision gets me out there more often than not because I’m pretty sure my future self is going to thank me. And lo and behold, usually after I get going I fall in rhythm and enjoy the activity. 

Let’s clarify a bit further about the companions of pain and suffering.

Pain is the physical and mental stabbings, the body breaking down, the mental fatigue. It is an inevitable part of life, especially if you’re into long distance running (as Murakami is) or have any sort of human relationship ever.

(For example, I’ve had a few parents now tell me a similar narrative, “Your children are your greatest love and joy, and they are guaranteed to break your heart.” You don’t get one (love) without the other (heartbreak)).

Suffering on the other hand is the story we tell ourselves about the pain. This narrative very quickly usurps the discomfort and frames the entirety of the experience. 

Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

Pain Is Temporary, Suffering Can Last a Lifetime. 

Therein lies the crux of it: How we relate to suffering matters more than the pain itself because it becomes the experience.

Nothing Lost, Nothing Gained. Or Rather, Never Really Lived.

We like to think that one of our primary drives is to reduce pain. But what do you make of all the people that actively go seek it out? 

Ultra-runners, mountaineers, triathletes… These are long and grueling activities that no one describes as “fun” during the event itself. Only afterwards, upon reflection, does satisfaction permeate. Their pain is reframed into an appreciation of a project completed after a whole lot of work, and it brings a smile to one’s face.

These athletes often talking about feeling most alive during their events.

Why is that? In part, pain evolved to bring you to your senses, to make you acutely aware of what’s going on inside and around you. Pain helps you to live in the present.

What does this say about our values hierarchy as a species? 

For one, maybe we care more about accomplishment and personal growth than mitigating pain.

Think of it this way, the only time you don’t experience pain is when you’re dead. Maybe if you’re not experiencing pain you’re not really living.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

Be Mindful of What You Spend Your Energy On

In this day and age, we say we want an easy life, but the irony is that we don’t really give a shit about something that comes without effort. What we spend our time on inevitably has meaning for us, and the harder we work, the more it matters.

Psychology backs this up, the Sunk Cost Fallacy suggests you are more willing to commit to something you’ve already invested in. The more energy you dedicate to something, the more devoted you feel towards it.

Perhaps in some small way that’s why people choose to spend so much time in their job. Because it’s the easy, most obvious thing to commit yourself to (wrongly or rightly).

The questions you might want to ask yourself: Are you clear with what you are trying to achieve at the end of this hard work? Is this something worth experiencing pain for? How are you framing your relationship to the pain?

One Small Step at at Time 

“Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche 

The room heats up and there’s a heaviness to the saturated air. The weathered light from the hanging bulb casts long shadows about the room. Sweat pools on my back where the backpack sits. In a short while I take a quick break to crack open a window. 

In the cool breeze I think of the pain and boredom, then of the majesty of mountains, and go back to take the next step. 



Photo source: Mountain Life

The Delta Between Expectations and Reality: Anxiety in Lviv

I started to feel anxious in Lviv.

 

The month-long stay was coming to an end and I didn’t know much more about the city than when I arrived.

 

The only “museum” I visited was the masochism-themed bar, Masoch, eponymously named for Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the 1800s Lviv author and sexual submissive (obviously). There were no information placards and I didn’t learn much more than he wrote Venus in Furs (about his trip to Italy as a subservient to his mistress). I did see some people get whipped (and took a few licks myself), though.

Whipped at Masoch
Two lads, shirts off, whipped by the local tavern dom.

Reflecting upon my stay in the city, I began formulating answers to “what did you do in Lviv?”. I concluded that I hadn’t “seen” much objectively, relative to the time spent there (and especially compared to the TripAdvisor lists).

 

Yet, my goals had been achieved:
  • Climb 3x per week. Check
  • Hike in the Carpathian Mountains. Check
  • Try salo (cured back fat from pigs) and varenyky (Ukrainian pierogi). Check
  • See a play at the Lviv Opera. Check
Still, I kept thinking, “I should have done more.”

 

The anxiety arose from the delta between what I “thought” I should be doing and what I actually felt like doing. 
I should have gone to the observation tower at the top of City Hall, explored the former site of the ghetto (and sneak into the sewers?), perambulated through the various historical museums and art galleries. But I didn’t.

 

Admittedly, I felt lethargic during my stay and didn’t love the vibe of the city. I spent quite a bit of time on the internet, meandering, and reading. Yes, there was an “exotic” world outside, but I just didn’t feel like seeing more of it.

img-4624-e1537967719496.jpg
Advertising copy from Lviv’s first brewery. Consumers were disappointed with the mis-set expectations.

Expectations shape your experience.

 

This incident is a microcosm of the larger chain of reactions that occurs in every day life. We adapt to and incorporate expectations, whether self-imposed or from outside forces (we see this in experiments with lab rats, in-group/ out-group, etc.). We don’t typically analyze how we are making decisions or where our ideas about how things should be come from.

 

The notion that I need to see a lot of a place is not how I like to travel, and yet it was on my mind. I knew this consciously and yet it still proved to be a nuisance.

 

What else is guiding my behavior away from what I know I want?

 

Upon further review (in writing this piece) I did actually see a lot in Lviv (thank you very much)…

 

Yet the point stands that anxiety crops up when reality doesn’t meet expectations, and the gnawing imposition from this generic-expectation-from-ambiguous-other actually influenced how I felt I experienced the city. It can feel like you’re a race horse but your feet are tied…

 

That’s some expectation-based jedi mind trick shit right there.