Have you ever gotten so angry that it seems you’re not in control of your own actions? So infuriated that it seems like you’re watching someone else have a fit?
In college, I lost my temper because I was behind in a friendly tennis match. I threw my racket toward the nearest fence. Except I missed. It flew up and over the fence and into another court beyond the fence.
A friend relayed another story of an athlete so frustrated by his performance that he intentionally ran into a tree.
At a sports event recently, I witnessed an athlete get so upset by a mistake that he broke his own finger.
As gruesome and comical as these outbursts can be, they highlight how destructive a loss of emotional control can be. When our winning mindset breaks, so do other things.
Constructive vs. Destructive Rage
Loss of mental control can halt progress toward our goals. It can hinder our work output – or destroy it. If we, for instance, slam a coffee cup onto a desk and drench a laptop, there goes weeks of data analysis. Bye bye to the family photos. That presentation? You’re starting again from scratch. After you spend hours or days replacing the laptop and getting it set up like your old, java-scented one.
Sometimes it’s not just a computer. Rage can damage our reputation and relationships. While being fiery or intimidating might be considered a plus by some, you’re more likely to lose your job, spouse or friends unless you manage your angry outbursts.
There is some thought that anger can fuel higher levels of performance. Watching the pure testosterone of a football team or a military unit, we see groups getting pumped up on adrenalin as they prepare for battle.
There is also some thought that expressing anger can help release it. An athlete might give a quick clap of her hands to dissipate frustration in an effort to move on.
It’s a fine line. When we embrace rage, we sacrifice calm and presence. Instinctual problem solving might work, but complex problem solving may suffer. Gross motor skills might thrive in the rampage, but fine motor skills may become unavailable.
In my own experience, adding a bit of intensity helps me tap into focus and access a higher game. Sometimes that intensity can take the form of anger, as in “there’s no f’ing way this skill is beyond me. I’m. Doing. It. NOW.” If I go beyond that, my performance suffers. I get caught in feedback loop of frustration and loss of confidence, and I need to reset. It takes an intentional effort to step away from the feedback loop of rage.
Temper as Proof of Commitment
This past year I’ve been playing a lot of disc golf and watching videos of the best in the world as they compete. It’s wonderful to watch the sport’s athletes make incredible and imaginative plays.
It’s not so wonderful to watch the athletes get angry. From local recreational play to the world championships, there is an undercurrent of unhappiness among players, borne of frustration. It’s the same frustration traditional golfers feel as they hit golf balls with clubs.
Sometimes it feels like people feel an expectation to be upset my mistakes, as though not being visibly frustrated is evidence that you don’t care. At the pro level, this can become a caricature. An outsider like me can understand disappointment when missing a shot within one’s wheelhouse. Often, the pros will throw a temper tantrum after barely missing a low percentage attempt.
It’s here where I see an opportunity for a mindset shift. What if the proof of commitment was brushing off imperfection? What if the most intimidating presence was the unbreakable, inscrutable genius?
We need a world-class and fully planned-out mindset strategy to get to that point. Frustration will inevitably tempt us. Our challenge is to be practiced in navigating it, so we find our desired experience.
Enjoyment in the Territory of Eternal Frustration
I gave up traditional golf as a teenager because the frustration was so unpleasant, and I gave up competing in disc golf many years ago for similar reasons.
I am approaching the game differently now, and as I watch disc golfers play, I wish they could find some of the calm I am feeling.
I wish the same for social change activists fighting against right wing extremism, confronting hundreds of setbacks for every victory, knowing that they may not even see the big win for another generation. That’s a lot of frustration to swallow, a lot of temper to manage. And it matters a lot more to the world than a missed disc golf putt.
So how do we not run into trees or break our fingers or fling tennis rackets dangerously close to fellow members of our communities?
It’s that simple. And it’s as complex as you’re thinking it is.
Here are three starting points:
1. Focus on What Matters
Whenever we focus on the result, we risk focusing on things out of our control. Whenever we focus on the past, we reduce our ability to impact what’s happening right now.
One way around this is to maintain focus on the process. It’s not about saving America’s treasured national treasures from greedy business people. It’s about meeting one more person who knows that Yosemite is a far more valuable asset than any oil well will ever be.
Another way is to maintain focus on the experience. If you are miserable playing a sport, why play? If you are miserable and a genius at a sport, how will winning change that misery?
How would you like the experience of playing to be? Find a way to cultivate that in service of performance. If you know you have an 80% chance of success with an action and that you did everything needed to reach that 80% probability, you’ll still fail 20% of the time. In this moment, temper is not going to increase your success rate, so why not find a different way to enjoy the experience?
2. Be a Refocusing Expert
Setbacks are inevitable when reaching for a goal, especially for those pursuing incredible, seemingly impossible goals. If you waste time losing temper in those setbacks, you are delaying the achievement of your goal.
We are emotional beings, so you’ll never hear me say “don’t feel frustrated.” I feel frustrated often. I want to see people get faster at recovery. Be resilient. Feel the pain, and become practiced at moving on.
Meditation/mindfulness is an excellent approach to managing rage. And confusion. And distraction. And disconnection.
No need to sign up for 10-day silent retreats or even set aside more than a few minutes of time. Just try sitting without devices or interaction for as long as you’d like. 1 minute. 5 minutes. 30. One’s endurance for mindfulness builds with practice, just like with any form of training. David Johnson’s podcast Beyond The Thoughts is a great starting point. Short recordings from an interesting and human point of view.
As you gain more skill at mindfulness, you will be more nimble at noticing your emotions and what is triggering them. You will feel more freedom to act rather than react.
3. Team Up
Whether it’s working with a coach like me to strengthen your mental game or surrounding yourself with friends who keep you accountable to your mindset, teaming up with others is a powerful strategy. When we are enraged, we’re not often our best coach. We’re busy raging. Working with others and designing how you’d like them to support your mental game can bring help you snap out of the reactive moment and snap back into your desired approach.