Rio Secreto

A year and a half ago my wife and I had the privilege of doing some underground cave exploration near Cancun Mexico at a place called Rio Secreto.  The underground caves or more correctly “cenotes” were believed to be a holy place to the Mayans that once inhabited the land centuries before.   The Mayans came to understand and describe this underground world as a sacred realm that influenced and mediated the land it sat beneath.  As we wade inside the belly of the earth we saw sights that an unaided human eye would never be able to see.  There were roots that seemed to stretch from eternity in search of any drop of water deep below.  There were animals that lived inside the pitch black sanctuary without eyes, living entire lives without coming into contact with another living being.  It was amazing to realize that a whole world existed beneath the one that I knew and understood and what I saw was only a small portion, only the tip of the iceberg.

During our initial descent our guide asked us how long we thought people had known about this particular cenote.  We all assumed it was found decades prior, believing that a discovery of this magnitude couldn’t have escaped modern man for long.  Upon hearing our guesses the guide, with the kind of smile that holds a secret, told us that the cave was found by accident by a man who was chasing after a wild boar.  The ground had given way and one of the largest underground cenotes in the world had been discovered…a discovery that had happened just 4 years prior!  4 years!!!  I was baffled that something could have existed in our midst for so long undiscovered.  In my surprise was a sense of disbelief that modern man could have missed something so huge and important for so many years.  I thought to myself, “How was this not explored long ago?!”

I don’t feel like it is necessary to craft some hyper-meaningful comparison between this reflection and the psyche of athletes other than the simple thought that I continue to be amazed at how little research and exploration has been done around what lies beneath the world of athletics.  As I’ve turned my attention to this work I have often found myself thinking the same thoughts as when I left Rio Secreto.  “How is it that we have missed these realities for so long!?”

One of the goals that I have set for this work is to begin telling the stories of this hidden world to those who have never seen it.  The words of this blog are my first attempts at narration.  Thus far it has been a collection of stories and insights from my own history and those I’ve worked with…but I want it to get bigger.  My hope is that by categorically naming the realities of sports and sporting culture we can begin to truly see the impact participating has had on so many of our lives.  Instead of just blindly continuing to play out these realities in the lives of the next generation, we can hold athletics up to the light to see what parts of it are pure and what parts are marred.  This is how generational cycles are broken, with courage and the freedom to question the status quo.

The link below connects you to one of many surveys I’ll create over the next few years.  Most of them will be very short and all of them will be anonymous.  My hope is that they will help us draw a map of sorts to a very new and unexplored world.  One filled with darkness and glory…a world full of secrets.  One that demands the efforts of many to map the whole.

Will you help us explore?  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/DBQSV92



Past in Present

This past weekend I found myself in the company of an old foe.  To some extent I’m still trying to put together all the pieces of what happened.  All I knew at the time was that I was alone somewhere in a thick bog of shame and that I wanted, dare I say needed, to make myself pay for ending up there again. 



590637_18797563Ping!  The ball exploded off the aluminum bat toward the bag at third and I knew my only chance to make a play was to spring out of my stance into a full dive.  My body extended just in time to reach out and snatch the speeding ground ball before it was past me.  As soon as I felt the ball in my web I glanced towards first base to see how much time I had to make a throw.  The runner was almost to first base so without hesitating I reached into my glove and threw the ball from my knees with all my strength.  Caked in dirt and barely able to see through all the shimmering dust I awaited the umpire’s verdict…”You’re OUT!” 

I remember the play so well almost 20 years later because it set in motion a sequence of events that would change my life.  After the game my dad and I were approached by a man in his early twenties.  He was a local basketball coach who mentored young kids at the community center nearby.  He complimented me on my game and was amazed at my ability to make such a difficult play.  My athletic ability caught his eye and he eventually asked me if I had ever considered playing basketball.   He asked if I would come down to the gym with him and shoot some hoops.  “You have so much potential and natural ability…trust me when I say you have what it takes to become great.”

The next day my Dad brought me to the gym to meet him.  I was greeted at the door and introduced to a handful of other kids who were playing pickup.  This wasn’t a normal introduction though, it was more like an announcement of my arrival.  He yelled out to everyone, “this is the kid I was telling y’all about…get ready cause he’s coming for all of ya.”  Every time I walked in the gym this would happen in some way or another. 

I was this man’s “boy” (this title alone provides an interesting commentary on what this man became in my life).  To be in his camp was an honor that every person in the gym wanted.  It meant you were special.  It meant you were chosen.  He was the king of the gym and I was his chosen understudy.

I wasn’t long before this honor and delight was repIaced with a pressure beyond anything I could ever explain.  My place of honor came at a price.  I quickly understood that my success would bring him pride and serve as proof that I was worthy of his continued honor and attention.  My failures would inevitably bring into question whether I deserved to sit next to the Kings throne. With every year, every game, every shot I was playing to prove I was the kid he believed I would become.  Every time I laced up my sneakers I wasn’t just playing to win, I was defending an identity…I was either the best or a disappointment.

There were moments when my performances seemed to live up to the hype.  There were games when I didn’t feel ashamed of myself for letting down expectations.  In my mind though, my good games were supposed to be the norm.  With every average game I lost more control over peoples thoughts about me.  With every missed shot I felt less and less able to convince all my critics that I was the person I was supposed to be.

In my Bones

A couple of months ago I started getting asked to play drums at a local church for money.  I had developed a little bit of a reputation as a good drummer and received lots of compliments from musicians and church members about my abilities.  When the church offered to start paying me I felt the need to take the gig a little more serious.  I thought to myself “I want to live up to their expectations as a professional who deserves to be paid so they will continue to schedule me.”  This weekend I found myself behind the drums performing a rather complicated set of music.  Before the set began the head pastor remarked, “Oh man, we’ve got the all-star band tonight!”  I still love the feeling of being noticed and really wanted my performance to confirm his expectations. 

Everything was going great until I noticed that I had cut out too soon during the first song.  As the song ended I mouthed “sorry” to the worship leader and mentally shook off my embarrassment as just a silly mistake that wouldn’t happen again.  As the second song started I began a difficult drumbeat with ease; everything was back in control again.  Then unexpectantly, during an easy snare roll, I stumbled again.  As soon as it happened I could feel myself start to panic…I started losing confidence and subsequently forgot my parts and our place in the song.  After a brutal and sloppy finish (to my standards) I noticed the face of the bass player on my left…he looked embarrassed to be sitting next to me.

All I could think was, “oh no, they are going to realize that I’m not as good as they thought.”  “You are letting everyone down.”  I felt sure that if I didn’t nail the next few songs that they would never invite me back.  My only hope was that they wouldn’t remember my failure if I played exceptional the next time around.  With the stakes at a fever pitch, I put on my best face and walked back onto the stage just praying that I wouldn’t do anything to further embarrass myself.  Just hoping I could make up for lost ground and prove that I was worth another vote of confidence.

Past in Present

In these moments I feel an almost irresistible compulsion to punish myself.  I’ve punched walls, kicked furniture, verbally assaulted myself, and even hit my own face as I channel the events of an age old drama stored in my very bones.  It is this penance, and the subsequent promise to do better, that allows me to move on from my errors.  I’ve done this dance so many times in my life I go ahead and make myself pay for mistakes even when there is nobody telling me to. 

Long gone are the days when there was an actual taskmaster who demanded that I undergo re-conditioning for every error committed.  It has been years since the last time I was actually yelled at for missing a basket.  I know these stories and have worked extensively to lessen their influence.  But, after a while these voices of accusation become your own. Your body remembers the way you felt when you failed and it remembers the ways you alleviated that suffering.

331062_7357We all have these feelings.  We all know this limbic pain.  And we all have rituals to help escape the shame we felt when we were young.  These memories, these experiences, are stored in our bones.  Our strongest cognitive allegiances are so often powerless to fend them off because we often mistake what these moments are actually communicating.  In reality these moments are actually narrating a brokenness that was active long before our birth.  When we look closely at the essence of these memories we end up seeing and learning more about the faces of our tutors than any contemptuous trait in us. 

Without such reflection it is so easy to judge these tender parts of ourselves, “If only I had been better…smarter…different…etc…”  But, in doing so, we continue to fuel a lie as broken as the men and women we got it from.  A lie that has the power to cripple even the strongest amongst us.  That somehow we are only as good as our diving throws.  


A Mental Death: A Theory on Identity, Concussions, and Sports

For the past several weeks I’ve been discussing the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), concussions, and brain trauma on athletes.  I wanted to finish up by talking about the complexity of what is happening in the minds of many athletes suffering from CTE.  In order to do so we must start by looking at the functions of the effected parts of the brain and then place that into the existing psyche of an athlete.  There are three functions of the effected brain that are particularly interesting in this discussion: 1) Emotion and emotion regulation, 2) Empathic response, and 3) flexibility.  I highlight these three because of their importance for the mental stability and health of a person, especially a person who has undergone extreme stress, trauma, and abuse and is trying to transition into a new phase of life.  This last part feels particularly important to note because I believe this may be where we see the impact of brain injury come to life.

Regulation, Empathy, Flexibility

O880737_86187705ur brain is divided into different regions that have different functions for our overall health and well-being.  One of the regions of our brain is called our reptilian brain and it is responsible for our most basic needs and desires.  This “reptilian brain” tells us to eat, sleep, have sex, and warns us protects ourselves when in danger (fight or flight).  It is the first part of our brain to develop and we have it in common with all animals.  In comparison, the neo-cortex and limbic system develop later and give us the ability to be controlled, to be mindful (empathetic) and to change our minds (beliefs) among other things.  A subsection of these two latter areas is called the frontal lobe which is located behind our forehead and is connected to other important parts of our brain that narrate emotions and help us understand our identity.  CTE primarily effects the frontal lobe and these surrounding areas of our limbic system and neo-cortex.  The impact of CTE, then, effects some very important facets of our mental health.

I believe the effects of CTE are most visible when a person is going through a season of disruption or transition.  In athletics some of the most notable disruptions and transitions happen when an athlete can no longer perform due to injury or lack of ability.  Through understanding how our mind functions to cope with disruption we get a fuller picture of what an athlete is up against.

In seasons of disruption or transition our sense of who we are comes into question.  Who we have believed we are is countered with evidence to the contrary.  In order to make sense of the ego-dystonic information we are faced with a choice to either integrate this new sense of who we are into our pre-existing identity or we have to protect and barricade our pre-existing identity from a perceived “threat” in order to ensure its’ survival.

[Theological Side Note: The work of integration is often about facing our own idolatry (our belief that we are/can be God).  In facing idolatry, we must come to terms with the frailty and fragility of our humanity in the face of our inability to produce a desired outcome.  In the language of the Apostle Paul, the process of Integration begs us to mentally “die” to self in order that we might be “raised” into a new identity.  The process of mentally dying is something akin to the experience of a depression in that it destroys our hope and ability to imagine goodness and life.  We feel lost, frustrated, and unsure of the point of our lives in the face of a major identity-disruptive event.  However, our desire to avoid this painful process during disruption most often leads us towards an attempt to salvage ourselves and escape our identity’s “death”.  We try whatever we can to hold onto what we believe about ourselves and our identity.  The mental pain involved for an individual will vary depending on how important that aspect of their identity is to their self-worth and perceived value.]

731447_90740785For most athletes their sense of self-worth is directly tied to their ability to perform in athletics.  Sports has afforded them a type of attention and adoration that many are starving for in their lives (see: “Now I have your eyes…).  Like I’ve said before, the madness of sports is that it fosters this belief and provides feedback that you are only loved when you play well.  This drives most athletes to great lengths in order to survive disruption and transition.  It also drives many athletes to seek out people and places that provide ego-syntonic feedback to affirm their sense of self.  There are few things more painful than the realization that you are not who you thought you were, so the logical thing to do is avoid this pain at all costs.  Unfortunately, every single athlete that has ever lived has had to come to terms with this bind.  The unavoidable reality of this bind often leads to an identity collapse for those who have made it to high levels of competitive athletics and who find themselves unable to perform any longer.  The subsequent firestorm of emotional turmoil is as varied as each athlete’s story, but the most common struggles manifest in feelings of anger (first step toward grief a loss), depression, addiction, insecurity, and even suicide.

The good news is that the brain is naturally built to help an individual along in this process of integration in three primary ways: 1) A healthy brain helps us deal with and regulate our impulses and emotions, 2) A healthy brain allows us to connect with and understand others through empathizing, and 3) A healthy brain is malleable and allows for us to integrate new experiences into our internal world and identity.  Some of the primary functions of a psychotherapist is to help an individual begin to progress in these three areas of functioning.  The enemies of these markers of mental health are each person’s experiences of trauma, abuse, and neglect.  Trauma, abuse, and neglect essentially create internal pockets of bondage and fear that begin to guide our behaviors and relationships.  These pockets, informed by our past experiences and relationships, come together to form our internal world which in turn directs our behavior, beliefs, and style of relating to others.  In other words, our internal world, if left unknown and unexplored, will influence and guide our actions and beliefs in the external world.  Our ability to understand the narratives that have shaped our internal world in the present gives us the ability to act, believe, and respond in new ways.  [Spiritually this work is the process of putting on the Spirit of freedom and putting off the spirit of the flesh/bondage].  Needless to say, the ability for us to do this work is paramount to our mental health and we need our brain to help us in this process.  Like I said earlier, the good news is that our brain is built to integrate and change….the bad news for sufferers of CTE is that the hardware essential to the process…just so happen to be primarily in our frontal lobe.

What brain researchers are beginning to find in patients with CTE is that Tau proteins are acting as a tar of sorts that inhibits our frontal lobe.  In other words CTE effects a persons’ ability to deal with their emotions, understand and connect with others, and integrate new experiences into their internal world and identity.  Anger is multiplied because we can’t mediate it normally, our ability to connect empathetically with others is impaired, and our ability to integrate our identity during seasons of Self-disruption is impeded.  The mental effect is like asking a runner to run a marathon with a sprained ankle.  It can be done but it will be very, very difficult.

The normal process of integration for an athlete is hard enough as it is and requires a lot of love and support from a caring community (therapists, family, friends, etc…).  The problem with the disease of CTE is that it damages the parts of our mind that we need in order to begin doing this hard work of integration in community.  The combination of all these things are leaving athletes stranded in a mental health “perfect storm” in which they are often unable to survive.  I don’t believe that it is actually the disease of CTE alone that causes player decline and suicide.  Most players would attest to the fact that there are a whole plethora of other issues that seem more causative when it comes to player decline and death.  I wonder, though, if the most debilitating factor of CTE is that it makes the sufferers ability to regulate emotions, understand and empathize with others, and integrate new experiences into their internal world and identity extremely challenging.  The part of our minds meant to respond can’t because of traumatic brain injury.  And since the enemy is inside of a players head, the presence of self-condemnation and shame will be very powerful.  An athlete’s difficulty in conquering these obstacle will only serve as a reminder that they are not who they thought they were…a fact that may lead many into a type of death that won’t allow for a resurrection.


[If you or someone you love is struggling with any of the above symptoms please call Knox Burnett @ 425-202-5716]