Mental skills coach Colleen Hacker joins espnW's Laughter Permitted to explain the idea of stress-related growth
After the U.S. women's national team lost in the 1995 World Cup, Professor Colleen Hacker joined the coaching staff to help players not with their soccer fundamentals but with their overall mental skills game.
As an expert in the psychology of peak performance with a doctorate in exercise and movement science, Hacker's message to players then is one she continues to share today: It is possible to take a challenging loss and turn it into a growth experience. It's no coincidence that, under Hacker's guidance, the U.S. team went on to win a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics followed by a World Cup win in 1999.
In a recent episode of Laughter Permitted, Hacker, who is a professor at Pacific Lutheran University, joined hosts Julie Foudy and Lynn Olszowy to discuss how the lessons she teaches Olympic-level athletes and teams can be applied in everyday life and are particularly relevant in the wake of the pandemic.
Hacker, who worked with Foudy while she was on the national team, explains the idea of stress-related growth, how we've all experienced a version of "pressure training" during COVID-19 and what steps can be taken to implement positive action into life.
Listen: Laughter Permitted hosts Julie Foudy and Lynn Olszowy talk to mental skills coach Colleen Hacker about the concept of stress-related growth and power of choice.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lynn Olszowy: How can we look at this past year and be better for it considering how tough it was? How do we move forward?
Professor Colleen Hacker: My mind immediately goes to two terms that really have been researched and written about and shared, although not as widely as I might prefer. And that is psychologists [Richard] Tedeschi's and [Lawrence] Calhoun work, in what's called post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth, and related to that is a more recent iteration that is called stress-related growth. And while post-traumatic growth, the greatest amount of research is in more clinical, severe, catastrophic kinds of trauma, it's related to stressful situations, right? And there's real guidance in that. But it's important to understand what it is.
Stress-related growth or post-traumatic growth is defined as the positive outcomes that result from stressful or traumatic situations. And the way that growth occurs is through mastery, getting better at something by increasing our coping skills, like our ability to handle stress.
Jules [Foudy] would have experienced that appropriately every day in practice where we call it pressure training. You put yourself in reduced space and then you reduce the number of touches for instance on the soccer ball to increase the stress so that if she can play controlled and possession in small spaces, imagine how much easier it will be on a huge soccer field.
After the 1995 World Cup loss, Professor Hacker joined the U.S. women's national team staff as a mental skills coach. Four years later, Foudy (left) and team defeated China in the World Cup. Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY
Julie Foudy: Here I thought you were going to say you would have experienced that every day homeschooling your kids.
Professor Hacker: Which is our form of pressure training, isn't it?
I go back to how can you grow? Through mastery, getting better at things in our lives, increasing our coping skills. Well coping how? Coping with distress, coping with stress, coping with challenges. The third way that we can grow from stress is our closeness to others. And I think one of the things that we've all found in the pandemic is that we've benefited from unexpected people in unexpected places in unexpected ways. And some of the people that we may have expected or thought or anticipated being central to our lives, not so much. There was real clarity in our closeness to others.
And then, just being honest from a literature standpoint, spirituality. And notice I'm not saying religion, but spirituality, which is much bigger. It's about who am I in this world? What is my purpose in this world? Sort of a renewed understanding of our life and our value and our purpose.
Foudy: So, the pandemic has given us this opportunity, given the stress, to actually grow in this situation. And what I'm feeling honestly, as hard as it is, I do look at it as an opportunity to grow. But when you're reading stuff about the pandemic or you're talking to people about the pandemic, we're not focusing on the growth, are we?
Professor Hacker: There is potential growth and it's available to each and every one of us regardless of gender or age or affiliation in life or career. It's available to us, but you have to do something. It's not something that happens.
Naming things has value because it gives us agency, but nouns need to be followed by verbs, and that's true in the English language. If you have a noun in a sentence without a verb, you have an incomplete sentence.
But I would say, we need that same connection in life. Name it. We name what we're feeling, but I immediately want to plant in people's mind, "OK. And what's the verb?" I'm exhausted, and I need to do something enhancing that's going to fill my cup. I'm frustrated, and now I need to get out in nature and see something bigger than me. And, but do you see what I'm saying? It's the "and." We want to focus on the verb, on what we can do. We just name it. We name our feelings. We name our difficulties. We name our frustrations. We name our stresses without connecting them to an and. And if we can turn our stresses, our traumas, if we're going to turn them into growth experiences, we have got to add action with that.
Olszowy: How does giving ourselves some credit every once in a while and considering how we've grown when maybe it doesn't even feel like we have, help us?
Professor Hacker: Perspective. It's like the analogy of hiking up a mountain or climbing a mountain or some metaphor like that -- that if all you do is climb and look up, you just climb and look up, the only thing you will see is how far you have to go. That's it. You just reinforced how far away from the goal you are. But as you climb, when you turn around and look down, you recognize how far you've come and that's motivating and energizing. And you recognize that your efforts matter, that your work has been rewarded. And then if you take a moment to pause and look out, you recognize you're part of this larger landscape and that choice is yours. We have that choice. And what I want to say to people is exploit your sense of choice, exploit it.
Foudy might no longer play for the U.S. women's national team, but she still lives by the words of mental skills coach, Professor Hacker. Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY
Olszowy: What I'm hearing is a lot of positive action and not just positive thinking.
Professor Hacker: This is not positive thinking and positive affirmation. This isn't Pollyanna, "Everything will work out." It's roll up your sleeves, hard work. It's a decision that you make.
One thing that I encourage people to do: celebrate small things. I think we can all do better with that. Celebrate small things, such as, "The house is clean, baby!"
I announce and cheer small celebrations, all day long, every day. I don't read to remind myself to do that. It's a habit that I'm hunting for those moments of, as you know, hunting joy, and then celebrate them, celebrate small things.
No. 2: gratitude. We all know about gratitude, but we don't do it. Knowing about the value of gratitude does not reap benefits. You have to do gratitude. I teach a team-building class at my university, and one of the assignments is that students are required to list five things that they're grateful for and why every day for two weeks. That's a major college paper assignment.
Next: random acts of kindness. They have two choices. Every two or three days, do a random act of kindness, one random act of kindness, but it comes with a twist. It has to be anonymous, and the reason that I require it to be anonymous is that we don't realize how much we do for others and it's tied into their appreciation for us for doing it.
And it has to be something you wouldn't normally do. Well, what does that do? It gets you thinking and creatively problem solving. It puts binoculars in your hands. Now, you're on the hunt.
Also, look for communities and connection, and these don't have to be long or enduring. They can just be one-off chats. You're going for a walk and you notice somebody's dog, and ask, "What kind of dog is that? I don't know what breed that is." These communities and connections can be very brief. They can be one-off, but you feel better about it.
Lastly, try something new. The point is to be game. The point is to try it. The point is to say yes to the possibility of something new.
If we come at things with this humility and openness, who knows what or who you might discover along the way? I just love that. But notice how everything that I just shared are actions.
Foudy: A lot of verbs.
Professor Hacker: Write your own story, that's a choice.
This is a new beginning for so many people. It's a new beginning to examine how we're living, who's in our life. What's important to us. What we value. What we're making time for. What we're making space for. All of us have been given a very powerful magnifying glass during COVID, pay attention.
When you're examining your life, pay attention. Listen to what you're saying. Pay attention to what you're feeling, and then have the courage to act on it. Have the courage of your conviction to act on what you have discovered by looking through that magnifying glass. When you choose to write your own story, truly make that a choice. What happened to you? How you coped with it, how you survive and hopefully ultimately thrive, then your story can be someone else's survival guide.
Professor Hacker: Right? When you write a powerful story and are honest, honest to the core about it, the difficulties and the challenges and the choices, then your story can become someone else's survival guide. What a powerful gift to share.
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