The Sporting Psyche


The Movements of Accepting and Becoming

Micro-trauma.” My ears perked up when I heard the name for what exercise scientists call the process of breaking down our muscles when we push them past their capacity. It sent my mind in a hundred different directions, but continued to synthesize what was already becoming very clear in my work as an integrative body-psychotherapist. The more I listen to and learned about my body the more I could understand the processes and movements of the human mind. What our minds hold metaphorically our bodies hold in actuality and to get close to one is to begin to understand the other. Everything is interconnected.

The class I was sitting in was a part of my education as a personal trainer. We were talking about the principles of weight training and muscle growth. I was learning that in order for something in the body to grow a person must follow a particular path or set of rules. This wasn’t surprising information for me after spending most of my life in competitive athletics where weight training was essential to performance. It was, however, surprising that it included words that I had strictly associated with the world of psychology. I began to see that there was a lot of wisdom waiting to be transmitted from the body to the mind if I was willing to tune in to it. I thought I’d share one such example below…


_______Two Types of Growth ______________________________________________________________________________

There are two types of growth that we observe in the body. One of is a growth of “coordination and integration” and the other is a growth of “breaking down and rebuilding”. The more our bodies work in coordinated effort the more we are able to utilize our power. This type of growth is more about the mind than the body. What I mean by this is a person doesn’t even have to physically move the body to begin growing strength through coordination. In fact, a handful of studies have actually shown that a person can begin to improve strength solely through mental rehearsal. In other words, we can become stronger by just imagining a movement in the body and playing that movement out repetitively in our mind. These studies have shown up to a 22% increase in strength from simple mental rehearsal! This is incredibly surprising to most people who associate non-movement as useless and “lazy”. The general science behind this growth is that our ability to utilize our body is contingent on our current structure AND the way in which our structure communicates with itself. Imagine the difference between a person who was employing his entire arsenal of muscle in a concerted and coordinated movement and a person who only employed portions of his makeup while large portions were unaware of the plan or told not to participate. If you were to pit those two armies against each other, the coordinated army would win every time because the mission was clear. Everything would be moving towards accomplishing the goal. We move when our brain communicates this message to our muscles. Our muscles are grouped in little battalions that receive the signals and move accordingly. What often happens is we isolate portions of our muscle and leave others out. The more we do a movement, or even imagine it, the more the other connected battalions of muscles begin to coordinate to find the most efficient and effective way to move. In the world of strength building this type of growth is referred to as a “neural gain.”

Moshe Feldenkrais began to learn about this in the experiments that he conducted on his body that eventually turned into the Feldenkrais method of structural integration. Part of the brilliance of Feldenkrais is its ability to focus attention on the muscles while slowly and gently exploring different ways of doing the same movement. Feldenkrais was always wondering how he could make a movement easier in the world; searching out the ways he could employ unused parts of himself to create ease of motion. These mini-experiments begin to awaken different parts of us that have been dormant and alert our mind to new possibilities in our skin. These adjustments literally reprogram the brain through the exploration. As time goes on the dedicated practitioner begins to move towards greater balance and synchronicity in their bodies which produce stunning results in strength and power. This curious exploration creates integration, which as we will see in both body and mind, creates a powerful force.

The first way of change is very gentle and non-forceful. It begins with an acceptance of what is and moves towards integrating all that is into a whole force. It takes what we have and finds the best way to utilize it in the world through the use of attention, listening, understanding, and creativity. The other way of change involves “breaking down and rebuilding” our structure. The general idea of this way of change is a movement from what is to what could be. If the first growth is one of acceptance and integration, the second way is one of desire and longing. It sees what is and deems it “not enough” to satisfy what it wants to be and become in the world. Words that come to mind around this process is tearing and rebuilding, death and resurrection. Strength in this context is acquired through a process called “micro-trauma”. In order for us to change what is into what could be we must push past what our bodies can handle. This, in the world of strength training, is called the principle of overload. When we push our bodies to the end of their capacity to support the demand, we traumatize it. When the body is traumatized it breaks, or tears open. Our body then sends little repair teams (nutrients that bandage our tears) and they build up what was torn a little better each time. This is how a muscle grows larger. It tears and is rebuilt a little bigger, then the slightly larger version, when it is overwhelmed, tears and grows a little bigger. Each successive time we amass new muscle and create new capacity to hold more weight. This type of muscle growth is called a “hypertrophic gain.”

What is important to understand here is that a degree of trauma is actually inherent in the process of this type of growth. We cannot grow more of something unless we allow something to be broken apart. The key to this process is in the pacing, thus the word “micro-trauma”. If we shock the body with “macro-trauma” we are going to severely injure it. When weightlifters don’t slowly build up towards a limit they can tear muscles, shatter bones, or destroy ligaments. This type of “trauma” debilitates the body, as it does the mind. To rehabilitate from such trauma is long and exhaustive work.

The art of building muscle comes through paying attention to how much one is pushing and overwhelming the body. We naturally heal when there is appropriate attention given to warming up, cooling down, resting, and caring for the body after it is small t traumatized. If a person does not prep and care for the body after it has been overwhelmed, injuries will begin to pop up chronically.

Let’s take these concepts and apply them to the practice of psychology and therapy. The strongest individual is one that can employ both principles of strength. A coordinated, integrated self is more flexible and balanced and can withstand the process of breaking and rebuilding. In other words, an integrated, “secure” self is more resilient when confronted with demands from outside it. This is unsurprisingly the exact conclusion of attachment and human growth researchers over the past decade. When a self, or muscle group, is fragmented and disintegrated pushing it past its’ limitations will only serve to widen and intensify the issues already present in the body. You can see this visually at the gym. Notice individuals who have focused their concentration on a specific part while leaving the rest of them neglected. You see arms that appear to belong to a different body because the individual has focused all his energy on increasing something at the expense of other parts.

If we don’t create a solid foundation of acceptance and “neural” integration, attempting to push a person towards any “hypertrophic gains” will only further split their mind and body. In order for them to be their most powerful self they must first come to love what is already present. Each person must begin to see and value the ways in which their body and mind has adapted to the stresses of its past environment. These adaptations have limitations, but even in the harshest of examples, every behavior, emotion, and mental process has an adaptive function. Even the ones that we come to therapy to get rid of.

The initial movement of therapy then is always around acceptance and integration. We must learn to listen to our behaviors, emotions, sensations, and beliefs with a renewed curiosity. Instead of trying to destroy the presence of a symptom (the voice of our body), our work is to befriend it and learn what it is trying to communicate to us. If we aren’t trying to get rid of something we can start learning how to play with it. Like the Feldenkrais Method, our task is to pay closer attention and learn the most efficient methods of being us. There are all kinds of acceptance therapies that focus on this coordination.

The process of moving into desire, however, opens us up to a different kind of therapeutic reality. We cannot desire more for ourselves without experiencing the pains of childbirth. We always ache as we become. We push the boundaries of what is so that we can open up new possibilities in mind, body, and relationship. To do this a person must decide to step out of the safety and security of what they know and walk towards what they don’t. To breakdown, rebuild, and expand. In theological language, we enter the process of death for the hope of what could be more glorious (resurrection). To be transformed. Not because we hate ourselves and our foundation, but because, in the words of my priest, we want “to become more of who we already were.”


Good Enough

I have a folder in my computer that is littered with unfinished creations.  Songs, blogs, book chapters, PowerPoint presentations, marketing plans, and lifeplans.  It is not that I don’t have enough to say or that I run out of ideas, it’s that the combination of my ideas and expectations grow so large that my excitement at expressing my voice becomes a burden.  Something about that burden eventually destroys my impulse to create and I walk away from myself frustrated and disappointed that I failed at accomplishing my task.

Over the years this frustration has grown increasingly concerning especially as I’ve noticed places where the use of my voice could bring something good and healing in the world.  It has also caused me to panic when I set aside time to “create” and I am left with yet another unfinished work.  These themes have been intensely highlighted recently as I made decisions to more deeply pursue the my unique voice as a therapist.  I found myself thinking “if I don’t start writing and publishing things I’ll lose my opportunity!”  In response to this pressure I tried forcing myself to finish what I had started but only found that I lost my momentum and focus…this only increased the pressure and accusations.  It’s a vicious cycle full of shame, regret, and doubt that breeds only more of the same.

I’ve had the great privilege of sharing meals with and getting to know a guy by the name of Garth Lien who practices Feldenkrais, a method of body awareness, acceptance, and healing.  Our conversations are always really impactful and creative.  These encounters together inevitably ignite our imaginations and passion for life, our work, and the world.  More profoundly though, they serve us both as reminders of who we really are.

As we sat together recently he asked me how my transition was going and I named some of the difficulties I had been experiencing in trying to do what I was hoping to do in life.  I told him about my unfinished creations and my struggle to actually push through those blockages and finish what I started.  As I rambled on and on about my deficiencies and the ways I’d come to understand them he asked if he could interrupt.  I gave him permission (even though I had more evidence to present about myself).

Maybe those blogs are all done, maybe they are good enough.”  He said.  “Maybe you should stop pushing and just put them out there.  They are good enough.

This sentiment was one of the things that drew me to the Feldenkrais method and Garth in particular.  It was a reminder of a truth that I had begun to encounter several years prior in the writings of Henri Nouwen.  I could feel that it was genuine and that he wasn’t just giving me some line to encourage me.  There was something of rest in his words, yet, another part of me had built up quite a case against myself.

In the briefest of spaces after this invitation my mind cascaded through a landslide of thoughts.

Nobody is going to listen to me if it isn’t amazing…I might only have one shot to get their attention!…I don’t want to just be another voice lost in a sea of voices…They might not find me worth listening to if I don’t say something profound!… I’m scared that my voice won’t be good enough if I don’t get this right!!!”

I could feel the panic growing even as I just wondered about this possibility.  This was very familiar territory that I realized was impacting me in the same way I could see it impacting the voices of so many of my clients.  I began to think about the amount of pressure and expectation I felt as I created and how this pressure was functioning as a theif.  Shame and judgement kill our voices.  Our bodies and minds are made to fight, flee, or shutdown in the presence of these qualities, not thrive.  The more we feel like there is some expectation that we need to fill to be worthy or accepted the more our whole being rebels against the idea.

I could suddenly see how my “writers block” was actually communicating to me about the overwhelming expectations and perfectionism that I was placing on myself.  The energy and excitement that precipitated each creative act was being destroyed by the amount of judgement that I felt to create something “worthy”.  This environment was so intense that my body wouldn’t allow me to finish without addressing the fears of my heart.  Deep down my heart has always wondered if my real unedited voice would be good enough or if inevitably I had to take the offerings of my heart and make them more acceptable.

Isn’t the heart of perfectionism just a bargaining with these questions?  Our striving to be perfect just a commentary on what we have thought about the worthiness and value of our real true self?  Isn’t the demand for perfectionism in our lives just a mirror that reflects the environment that our true self has lived through?

The freedom once inherent in our vulnerable/creative/unashamed voices has often felt the pain of judgement and criticism and learned to protect itself.  This memory of the past reminds us so often in the present that we need to find some way to somehow appease the figures that our hearts long to be blessed by.  We experientially and tragically come to know that our best is not good enough in these relationships…and we begin to salve this pain with a new possibilty.  “If I’m perfect…will you finally accept me?”

The illusion of perfection offers a false hope in the midst of the pain and confusion of anothers judgement.  It fools us into thinking that acceptance is a response that we can, or could have, controlled if we were just more of something we were not.  It also offers absolution to those who don’t deserve it at the expense of our heart and energy.

As I write this I inevitably find myself afraid of the judgement that might arise in reaction to my voice.  However, I am slowly learning to soothe that fear with my own growing self-acceptance and compassion.  Not surprisingly, I feel like for the first time in nearly a year I am all done with this creation 🙂

You are good enough, you are good enough.


The “Medium” of Exercise


To begin exploring this idea of exercise and movement in eating disorder treatment, I need to give you some back story.  Several years ago I had an idea. I was working at a shelter in downtown Seattle at the time with a group of people struggling with addiction and homelessness – and we were watching a lot of movies. After several months on the job I found myself beginning to sink into a cycle of depression and numbness that marked so many of our clients’ lives. I wanted to find something to inspire and enliven the community; I thought there had to be more for them, and for myself. So I decided to change things up one day and I pulled out paper, pens, pastels, watercolors, and brushes and announced to the community that we were going to have an art day instead of watching Die Hard with A Vengeance again for the fifth time in two months. I was hopeful that something of life might emerge if we pushed into it.


The idea seemed perfect in theory but I quickly found it was nearly impossible to get everyone out of their routines, even if that routine consisted of merely staring at a wall for three hours before dinner. I got all kinds of different responses to my invitation but, ultimately in a room full of artistic possibilities, very few clients felt free to make art. Most did not believe that they were “creative” or that anyone would want to see their art. Something about my invitation seemed to brush against an inner pain, a deep sense of self-criticism and self-hatred inside of them.


handsIn the midst of this reality, however, there were a few men and women who had the audacity to join me. I had big plans for this small contingent in the beginning. Although I was not conscious of it at the time, I felt an inner responsibility to make this gathering into something more than just making art. I wanted them to get better and progress, both as artists and as people. My hope was that they would change and heal and in my mind that had everything to do with what they did. I tried to force things towards that end and grew more and more frustrated at the members of the community who did not participate. I began noticing that the more I forced them towards my hope, the more I ended up making art alone.  So instead of trying to manipulate everything, I eventually started paying attention to what the clients chose to create. There were stick figures, mountains, rivers, houses, happy faces, curse words, poems, flowers, boats. There were colorful, dark, mysterious, and terrifying masterpieces. They were all different and unique. Each beautiful in their own way. Most importantly though, as I learned to put down my own distractions and look closely, I found inside these art pieces the precious breadcrumbs of each person’s story. The images of their past experiences and the colors of their longings and fears. Each canvas willingly offered what so few were used to finding in their relationships; a safe space for their true voice.


Suddenly, each piece of art was not “good or bad”, it was telling. The more I focused on what was instead of what I thought should be, the more I found myself captivated by each unique artist and their way of communicating their lives truth. Placing a judgement on a piece only served to separate me further from the faces and truths being declared. In the end, it was this journey into this deeper truth that became the point. Instead of blocking these stories with a judgement we learned that healing could only come when we were allowed to finally speak the unspeakable. To honor our voice and story in a way that might finally make sense of all the confusing scenes and characters.


Now you might be asking yourself, “What does art therapy have to do with exercise and sport?” Great question. My job now as an Experiential Therapist for clients struggling with eating disorders at Opal is to help them begin to explore and understand their relationship to sports and exercise, and the lessons from art therapy years ago are actually still relevant to my work today. At Opal, we don’t just talk about the relationship to exercise and sport, we actually make room for it to speak. I often frame this exploratory process with clients through the analogy of painting, which so deeply impacted me years before. Sport and exercise is merely a canvas that has the ability to open a space for us to communicate. Therefore, my work with clients is not primarily to arrive at some new place, but to listen together to the impulses, compulsions, emotions, and behaviors that emerge as we move, play, and exercise together. The goal is not to judge the movement, but to make room for the experiences that clients long to convey through their movement. With this developing posture, our hope is to provide the very thing that was so often lacking in clients’ formative years – a safe space to process what feels confusing, incongruent, and scary.


What I always find is that nobody does what they do for no reason. What each client “paints” on the canvas of sport and exercise actually makes sense of the experiences of their life. Often times, the very places we try to cover up in shame are the places that shine a light on the path towards freedom in recovery from an eating disorder.


So, it is from this posture of listening and acceptance that we are able to dispel the grip of shame and begin experimentingIMAG0298 with new ways of being…and doing. If we aren’t being distracted with what should be we can begin to make peace with what has been and move towards a new world of possibilities. The heart of this process is ultimately rooted in each client beginning to love and honor their body and its experience more expansively. The more they are able to accept that they are worthy of care and attunement, the more the possibilities for movement, exercise, and sport begin to expand and transformational recovery becomes more possible. Their desire in movement once again becomes merely a reflection of the changing world inside of them. More flexible, more free, more playful, more alive.


It is in this spacious place that we can allow the weight of judgement and shame to fall away so we can begin to enjoy the rich feast of possibilities open before us. Maybe here we can feel free to enter into movement and tell a new story.