Dinosaurs and Distractions
The word distraction generally comes with negative connotations and often thats justified. For example distraction and driving are two words you usually don’t want to hear in the same sentence, or spinal surgery and distraction for that matter. Despite this, I think having distractions is one of life’s most important hacks.
As a kid its easy, everything is a distraction. I would finish school and become a dinosaur for an hour, suddenly all the stresses of 7 year old human life were a thing of the past. Then as I got a bit older and school work bore a bit more significance with the stresses of exams beginning to loom, it was sport that became my sanctuary. All the stresses of a day in the classroom trying to understand what language Shakespeare was speaking or why we were talking about pies in a maths class would soon be forgotten when the boots went on or the racket came out.
After some what successfully negotiating the turbulent waters of sixth form I was lucky enough to leave the stresses of the exam hall behind and follow my dream of effectively doing PE for a living. Life couldn’t be better. So why, considering I had no more exams and I was getting paid to chuck a ball around with my mates, did I feel more stressed than ever?
It took me five years to work out the answer to this, an answer I discovered by accident. When I left school to join Bath Rugby as an 18 year old, I was actively discouraged to go to university. In the clubs opinion we were there to play rugby and any distractions such as lectures, girls and £1 pints in the student union could only be counter productive. Naturally i didn’t have a problem with this as after spending the last 13 years in education i was more than ready for a sabbatical, besides we went to the student union most Wednesdays and I ended up meeting my fiancé Lois (student) that year, so their plan didn’t quite come to fruition.
Thankfully that attitude has changed now with clubs and players more aware of the benefits and necessity of having a productive life outside of sport (as in something other than getting really good on Fifa or Call of Duty). As a professional rugby player, when you are working it is intense, however you are afforded a lot of spare time. If I had engaged as many hours in learning languages as I did in coffee shops between the ages of 18 and 24 then i could probably save the European Parliament a lot of money on translators. It took me until 24 and a few nasty injuries for the penny to drop that maybe i wasn’t going to play rugby forever and i probably needed to get some qualifications. So after a nudge in the right direction from the RPA (Rugby Players Association) it was with some trepidation that i enrolled as a distance learning student at Northumbria University.
Getting to grips with studying again was an interesting process after six years in the wilderness, however to my surprise it didn’t take long before I was enjoying myself. All of a sudden I had something other than rugby to focus on. Without realising it, over the last 4,5,6 years I had become completely consumed by the sport. Yes I had distractions, but they consisted of drinking coffee, playing video games or going on nights out, none of which were particularly fulfilling or engaged my entire focus. Don’t get me wrong there’s a time and a place for all of those activities but alone they aren’t enough to shake the depression caused by serious injury, or the stresses involved with performance, selection and contracts. Being a professional sportsman is a rollercoaster, and that rollercoaster has ups, downs and sometimes it even comes of the tracks. Just because rugby players or sportspeople are perceived to be tough doesn’t make them any less susceptible to the mental impact caused by such undulating and unpredictable circumstances. The highs are certainly high but the lows can be really low. What I was finding however, was that this new secondary focus was mitigating those emotional extremes. No matter how bad I had played at the weekend or how long my injury was taking to rehab, I had another area where I could not just take my mind of rugby but I could be productive, I could be successful.
The most surprising thing for me was that my rugby started to benefit to. A huge amount of pressure seemed to lift and I really started to enjoy myself. For a long time rugby had just been a job for me, and believe me you would be surprised how many professional rugby players don’t enjoy the sport at all. Those pressures and stresses that come with professionalism have the danger of turning that sport you loved as a kid into a daily grind, a means to an end. The extra focus had given my head a chance to compartmentalise those stresses, it felt like I had taken some of the eggs out of the basket. All of a sudden I was back enjoying myself again and that was being reflected on the pitch. After graduating I continued on to do a masters which i’m currently in the process of completing. Don’t get me wrong, the academic work causes an equal amount of stress and trust me I need my distractions more than ever when the cogs grind to a halt. In the past i’ve sat in front of computer screens for hours, losing the will to live. Now, if I cant get going again in 10-15 mins ill walk away and engage in something else.
This little process I had been implementing for the last few years was about to come in very handy as hospital would prove to be the biggest challenge of my ability to distract myself to date. A stressful situation and a wandering mind resulted in some deep dark holes, but armed with an I pad and the support of my friends and family I began to dig my way out by writing about it. Almost immediately I felt those same benefits I had experienced four years earlier, only this time they were ten times more impactful. It wasn’t just the fact that I was getting things off my chest and seeing the scale of the support I was receiving from the outside world, it was the fact I had something else to focus on, a distraction. Instead of worrying all night whether i was ever going to walk again, I was thinking; i wonder if mum will get that joke, or the lads are going to rip me to shreds for what I just said about Lois. It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out which thought process’s are more destructive.
Personally the distractions only seem to work iff they are productive. Too often I would make excuses for myself, saying ye you definitely need to watch this entire box set today because you need to switch off. Or the classic; playstation’s good for your hand-eye co ordination anyway. Again those things are fine as long as you are not trying to use them to ignore something else. Your brain rewards you for doing something you know to be productive. You finish an assignment, you go to the gym, you clean the house, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, as long as its productive it feels good afterwards. Watch out though….. for some reason before commencing any of these ‘productive’ activities your brain decides to make you not want to do it… This to me is a mystery, Joe Rogan calls it ‘your inner bitch’ which is maybe a bit crude but it makes sense. Conquering that ‘inner bitch’ in order to get things done is a daily struggle, a struggle that if failed leads to procrastination and the types of unwanted distraction or excuses we afford ourselves to overcome the guilt of not doing what we know we should. No one is immune to this, in fact I’m probably writing this when I should be studying so point proven! Although sometimes unavoidable; I find that the more of those mini battles you win; the more productive and generally better your day becomes.
Its like breaking up with an ex, you may think you despise that person at the time but if your honest with yourself you never really stop thinking about them until you fall for someone else. If work, life, rehab, anything, is getting to much, its not enough for me to just step away, sit there and forget about it. Whatever is bothering or overwhelming me will remain and that little woodpecker of anxiety will continue to tap away in my head until, and only until, I complete that task or i actively engage my brain in something else. This is why I find it useful to have these different focus’s, whether it be studying, training, rehab, writing, there is always something else productive to distract myself with when the other gets overwhelming. I don’t know, maybe some people find it easy, and I’ve certainly heard that people who are proficient with meditation can clear their minds in a matter of minutes. But they are effectively doing the same thing; they are letting go or moving on from what was bothering them before. I’ve dabbled with mindfulness and meditation over the last few months and I’ve certainly felt the benefits, but Yoda I am not and until I retreat to Nepal and become a Buddhist monk; I think study, exercise and pretending to be a dinosaur will have to do.
P.s. I just want to add that if you happen to be going through a challenging time in your life at the moment; the constructive distractions are important but nothing beats talking about it… Why not try doing both.. #dontsufferinsilence
P.p.s. Please take a look at Noggin Sport who are doing some great work raising awareness for mental health.
P.P.p.s. That is actually Lois dressed as a T Rex in Bristol airport… dont ask!