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Context and Variation

Context and Variation


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The Sports Psychology of Academia: Part II

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Writing down all the factors in our sporting or academic lives in which we have no control is a bit disempowering. You mean I’m up against all that, and there isn’t anything I can do?

Except that there is! We are both more and less in control of our lives than we think.

In The Sports Psychology of Academia: Part I on Monday I made two main points:

  • It’s important to recalibrate your understanding of success in the context of your environment.
  • You can only control your own preparation and reaction to external factors.

So in this post we can try and unpack those preparations and reactions, but also identify and rock out on the factors that are in our control.

So how do you prepare for the uncontrollable? Some people find it useful to map out their responses to various scenarios. In athletics we often do visualizations – back when roller derby wasn’t all scrum starts, I often visualized being the first jammer off the line and racing to the back of the pack. I also practiced starts and did plyometrics designed to improve my starts, as a way of maximizing my preparation. So I could imagine scenarios, but also give myself the best possible advantage against any opponent by being at my fastest.

In academia, I try to plan for setbacks or slow progress while keeping a positive outlook. This actually comes from my union organizer days, where we set what we called “high expectations, low bar” for the folks we tried to organize into leaders. So, what journal will I submit to when I don’t get it in Glamor Pub (ok, I’ve never actually submitted to any of the Glamor Pubs, but you might)? If some of my undergrads drift away, how will I get this project completed without them?

But honestly, I’m sure you already do these things. What I find most important to remember about all this is that starting point and environment really matter. Scicurious has a great response to my post where she focuses on this. In particular, she notes:

I often hear about or go to seminars on “mentorship”, or “getting ahead in academia”, or “maximizing your networking potential”. A lot of these seminars are helpful, but a lot of them also actually depend on you having a good beginning position in the first place. “Getting ahead in academia” seminars often assume that you have already worked with some well known people and are already well published and funded. “Mentorship” seminars or “networking” seminars often assume that you are working with people who want to mentor you, or actively work to help you network, or heck, even successful social skills. And if you look around at those seminars, and you do NOT feel as poised and prepared as the others around you…well you start to wonder if this is all your fault.

I think we all understand that an athlete’s current abilities are determined not only by her current effort and resource availability, but the resources she had her entire life. I played soccer for a large public high school, on a team with a ton of raw talent. But few of my teammates had gone to the years and years of summer camps our opponents had had access to. So despite being among many athletes, we didn’t have the right attitude, conditioning or skill level to ever have a winning season in the four years I played.

* * *

In our roller derby sports psych session, once we had thought about what wasn’t in our control and what we could do about it, Dr. Walker had us list all the factors in our sport that we could control. Then came the scary part: we had to rate ourselves on a scale of 1-10 on each. Here’s what I put down:

  • Nutrition -8
  • Exercise -9
  • Hydration -8
  • Effort -9
  • Strategy -7
  • Communication -6
  • Attitude -5
  • Self-talk -5
  • Focus -8
  • Body language -7
  • Sleep -6
  • Decision-making -8
  • Confidence -7
  • Emotions -6

What he told us to do was take a hard look at these numbers. We all want to focus on the places where we’re already doing well, because that’s what makes us feel good. So for instance, when I want to feel good, I focus on nutrition (8) and off-skates exercise (9) and killing myself at practice (effort -9).

But what Dr. Walker encouraged us to do was make the three or four items where we scored lowest our focus. This means I need to work on attitude, self-talk, sleep, communication, and my emotions.

Me jamming in a roller derby bout in the top photo, me hanging with a teammate in the bottom photo.

To succeed at what I’m doing on the top, I need to do more of what I’m doing on the bottom. Both photos by Alex Wild.

After almost two months of this – and I’m not doing anything especially different in my routine, just making a greater commitment to these things – I am a cooler-headed player. I get more sleep: instead of powering through articles I need to read for a literature review (or, ahem, watching another episode of Justified) I go to bed when I’m tired. As a team, we check in with each other more and are learning to read signs of distress and counteract them. I identify negative self-talk, even if I can’t necessarily stop it. I strive to be ever more generous with my team and referees.

I don’t know that this has changed our ultimate performance – whether our team wins or loses. But I think it has vastly aided my own preparation, my reactions to circumstances during bouts, and given me some confidence in places where I was previously lacking. In the coming months I am going to try and identify evidence-based interventions to actually help me with these factors, rather than just reflect on them passively.

* * *

What can I control as tenure-track faculty? Go on, make your own list of these or other criteria, and rate yourself. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Time -8
  • Effort -9
  • Decision-making -7
  • Confidence -7
  • Attitude -6
  • Self-talk -6
  • Health (in the sense of taking care of myself) -9
  • How I interact with colleagues -9
  • How I mentor my students -7
  • My knowledge of the literature -9
  • My statistical skill set -7
  • My lab skill set -7
  • My writing skill set -8

Looking at this list, some of the same issues plague me as an academic and athlete: confidence, attitude, self-talk are things I need to improve (*cough* impostor syndrome! *cough*). But I also want to be a better mentor, a better statistician, a better lab scientist (to have knowledge of appropriate methods for my research so I can train and support my students). Finally, I want to be better at decision-making: how to allocate my time, what battles to fight, what strategies I should employ for success.

I think my results here reflect my graduate training, which is probably pretty typical. In graduate school, I learned that you have to put in the time, you have to work your ass off, and you have to know the literature. So those come easily. I have a good writing skill set because I taught composition for a year and write this blog. I think I interact with my colleagues fairly well because I try to be generous and fair.

But as many academics have pointed out many times: we aren’t really trained to do our jobs. I have no training in lab management, grantwriting, and personnel management. I have erred several times in my decision-making in the last four years simply because no one warned me about obstacles before I crashed headlong into them.

Moving forward, I want to continue to think about the ways academics beat themselves up for poor performance, which is where the negative self-talk and confidence issues find their way in. Some of the NSF Panels I’ve applied to in the last few years have had a 5% fund rate. Most jobs in my field have over a hundred applicants, which leads to a 1% success rate. And yet we are hard on ourselves when we don’t get the grants or the jobs? This is why it’s so important to parse worth and ultimate performance!

So this exercise brings to light two main issues: 1) ways individuals can work to overcome their weaknesses and thus increase their chances for great academic performance, and 2) ways institutions can better train academics to do their jobs, also increasing their chances for great performance.

How should this look? And what needs to shift for you?

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



Previous: The Sports Psychology of Academia: Part I More
Context and Variation
Next: Talks and Trips, Fall 2012




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  1. 1. Double Shelix 1:05 pm 09/24/2012

    I am in awe that you can be on such a highly ranked team and still fulfill your personal and professional obligations. My team is still searching for WFTDA membership, my job is far less demanding, and i have no offspring. And yet getting to practice more than 3-4 times a week is a rarity!

    Professionally, though i’m in research and not academia, one thing you mention that i’ve always used as a selling point when i’m being reviewed or interviewed, that i recommend people steal freely: adaptability. Project needs change, the markets change, BusDev will change it’s mind, the client/partner will alter the details of your contract. Being able to drop or add priorities in a moments notice is a skill that some people don’t add to their repetoire until it’s too late in life. (This is actually related to derby, in that no one strategy will work in any given jam for more than several seconds at best. Blockers or jammers are sent to the box, people fall, the other team changes their strategy and BOOM your incredible 4 man wall is useless and now you have to man up or switch to O or whatever! Let go of the past and adjust to the present :)

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