Shyness Is Nice

Spreading the word about the value of quiet, sensitive people

Lessons From the Court: What Basketball Can Teach Us About Overcoming Social Anxiety

A hero is someone who overcomes adversity despite human frailties.

Photo by Aaron Webb
Sports represent the ultimate in reality television. In addition to the competition, there are the personal stories behind the events. This background adds a mythical subtext that exemplifies why athletes are sometimes seen as heroes.

Case in point, the Missouri-Kansas college basketball game on Saturday night. The contest had all the drama of one of college basketball's oldest and most intense rivalries, and also some very compelling human interest stories regarding some of the key players.

Mizzou's Kim English grew up with a stuttering problem. His speech impediment was more apparent when he talked to people with whom he was not familiar or comfortable. He has worked hard to overcome this, to the point that a writer for ESPN earlier this year stated that English had provided the most articulate interview for a college athlete in a long, long time.

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For Kansas, the story of national Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson is even more compelling. Robinson grew up in Washington, D.C., where his mother and maternal grandparents raised him. Robinson's mother initially did not want him to go to Kansas because it was so far away from home, but she relented when her son convinced her that the Jayhawks' basketball program had a "family feel."

Last season, in a short period of time, Robinson lost both his grandparents and then, his mother. Robinson channeled his grief and focused on doing everything he could to help his younger sister. Since his tragic losses, he has dedicated himself to improving his skills, noting that the future is no longer about him. He sees it as his mission to put himself in the best possible position to take care of his sister.

We don't use the word "hero" to describe athletes nearly as much as we used to. Various scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs, as well as other issues, have made us reluctant to pin such a positive label on people we don't really know. For me, though, hero does not denote that someone is perfect. A hero is someone who overcomes adversity despite human frailties.

So, why am I talking about sports and heroes in a blog about social anxiety and shyness?

Every athlete has had to deal with situations familiar to anyone with social anxiety-lofty expectations from themselves and others, frustration with mistakes or poor performance, criticism and being highly scrutinized. If you experience social anxiety, there is much you can learn from these athletes.

Failure is inevitable, but being a failure is optional: Coming into this Saturday's game, Missouri's Marcus Denmon had been in a shooting slump, making less than 40% of his shots over the past several games. Saturday, against his team's biggest rival, he scored 29 points, including his team's last 11 points. He put his recent subpar performances behind him, and he worked to improve. Failure does not define us, and we can learn from it.

Practice doesn't make perfect, but it helps: Great athletes practice their physical skills constantly. They also do constant mental practice. Physical practice promotes muscle memory that allows the player to excel without having to consciously think about the skills involved. Similarly, practicing meditation, relaxation, and visualization skills can inoculate them from the stress involved in playing under difficult situations.

How does this apply to those of us with social anxiety and/or fear of public speaking? We feel anxious thinking about all that can go wrong while we are presenting to an audience. So, we avoid preparing and practicing, and we prevent ourselves from performing at our peak level. In reality, if we prepare, practice, and visualize ourselves doing well, we greatly increase the odds of success.

Focus on your efforts, not on the outcome: Thomas Robinson played a tremendous game, yet his team lost. Similarly, you can do everything right and still not achieve the outcome you were hoping for. Try not to get discouraged by setbacks. Instead, look for lessons you can learn.

Kim English, a young man and basketball hero avoided public speaking not that long ago. Saturday morning, there he was on ESPN, reading a poem by Rudyard Kipling:

                        If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream–and not make dreams your master;
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And–which is more–you'll be a Man, my son! 

Story Copyright 2012 Greg Markway

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Greg Markway, Ph.D., is a psychologist and has coauthored three books, including Painfully Shy.

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