The Super Bowl of Mastering Emotional Success and Defeat
Helicopters buzzed over the roofs of the Seattle Seahawks’ team buses as we proudly advanced behind our SWAT team motorcade. The intimidating spectacle of the officers in front of us assured the entire world of our safe and timely delivery to the battlefield where we would take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. The air in the bus was “living”—connecting every player, coach and support staff member as all of us slowly bobbed our heads, as if in a trance, to the music playing in our headphones.
The two weeks leading up to the most notorious annual sports event were crippling. After a jarring “come-from-behind defeat” over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game, we had two more weeks of focus to cling to with everything we had.
This was my fifth season playing professional football, my second Super Bowl and my 10th playoff game. Twelve months before, I was cruising through the streets of downtown Seattle, holding the Lombardi trophy over my head, as the Super Bowl XLVIII victory parade strolled past hundreds of thousands of raving Seahawks fans. I should feel totally confident in being here, right?
Throughout the week, I wrestled internally with the weight of the situation. I think anyone who has played in a Super Bowl can attest to how intense it can feel. Drop a pass, and you are hated by fans forever; score a touchdown, and you are a god who never dies. No big deal…. “Excuse me; can someone please come hold a cold rag on my forehead while I throw up?”
Related: 10 Ways Successful People Stay Calm
I think the lie most people believe to be true is that to be at our best means not feeling any fear. At least that’s what I believed for so long. We seem to have enmeshed into our hearts that line from Trading Places, which says, “Fear? That’s the other guy’s problem.” We then conclude that one sliver of fear causes the entire glass house to shatter, along with all of our self-esteem. Suddenly, it starts to make sense why people make the same New Year’s resolutions year after year, and stay in the same place for decades.
Throughout Super Bowl XLIX, I paced constantly, doing every sports psychology trick imaginable to stay in the present moment. It seemed as if the totality of these fear-medicating strategies revolved around either focusing on my breath, having a performance statement or using imagery. Basically, they were techniques to help you to detach from your emotions when performance anxiety hit. Psychology has another term for this coping mechanism used to master, minimize or tolerate stress, and it’s called “disassociation.” In modern vernacular, it means, “I’m not gonna go there.” And it rarely ends well.
Disassociation is what any high achiever is tempted to do when they get knocked down and they want the people around them to have confidence in their ability to get back up. Disassociation helped me play six years in the National Football League. But after years and years of trying to “pick myself up by my bootstraps,” I couldn’t hold onto the focus any longer. And with two years left on my contract, the team told me they’d found someone else.
My tragic flaw was believing I couldn’t have any fear. Isn’t that what little boys are told? “Be strong.” “Never show weakness.” “Don’t cry.” “Buck up.” “Don’t let anyone see you sweat.” Every day, millions of little boys and girls are shamed into believing they need to look like they have it all together if they want to be successful in this world. And while there are appropriate and inappropriate times to express your emotions, to become “gifted” at this coping mechanism will always result in some type of decay in your life. That pattern of shutting down your emotions to moderate the stress of your craft will bleed into you shutting down your emotions with your family and anyone you care about. It’s unavoidable.
So here is the good news. Fear and success don’t have to be mutually exclusive anymore. In fact, they can’t be.
So here is the good news. Fear and success don’t have to be mutually exclusive anymore. In fact, they can’t be. The reason is because courage is not an emotion, it’s a decision. That decision needs to be consistently exposed to progressive-overload if we want to increase our bandwidth for doing hard things. We must reframe bravery to view it as an act of will, rather than a fleeting feeling. If we don’t, we will find ourselves diving headfirst into the murky waters of “emotional engineering.”
We have learned so much from what trauma and stress does to our brains. Honestly, it took me about a year after getting cut by the Seahawks to feel like I was human again. The intensity of the environment crushed me. Mix in a diagnosed anxiety disorder with some depression, and you have a toxic self-esteem cocktail. Mastering your craft will not come from your ability to disassociate from your emotions. It will only come from your humility to welcome and process them. It’s not an issue of where you put your focus, it’s actually an issue of acceptance. And when you accept and process your feelings with people you trust, the boogeyman will be exposed for the paper tiger that it is, and you will tap into a level of excellence you didn’t even know you had.
If you are reading this article, you are clearly someone who wants to achieve, get better and accomplish things. Many high achievers have learned how to direct disassociation into a massive competitive advantage for them in their field. However, high achievers who engage in this thinking pattern will inevitably find themselves alone and unable to have real connection with any of the people they hold dear. My hope is that in your aspirational pursuit of mastering your craft, you will also learn how to have healthy, balanced relationships—ones where people see you and know you for who you are.
It isn’t fun, to be rich and lonely. It isn’t fun feeling like you have to be a robot to everyone around you. It isn’t fun to be scared of your emotions. And it isn’t fun to try and connect with your kids and have no idea how, because in your pursuit of “your” gold medal, you developed a dead heart.
High achievers who engage in this thinking pattern will inevitably find themselves alone and unable to have real connection with any of the people they hold dear.
The days of following leaders with no problems are over. No one is impressed with a phony who reads the script of the “right thing to say.” The people you are leading want to see your humanity. While they might be impressed by your strength, they will only feel connected by your vulnerability. All of us are in process as we become the people we have dreamed to be. While the process can be painful, it’s also necessary if we want to grow to a place of “wholeness.” Be patient, engage in what scares you and allow yourself to feel…
Here’s to loving the process.
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