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The Blast Furnace of Stress

Getting through one’s adolescence safe and psychologically sound reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite action movies, The Rock, starring Sean Connery, Ed Harris, and Nicholas Cage. (My wife makes fun of me every time I watch it – so what if I’ve only seen it about ten times?)  Sean has guided the government forces into the bowels of Alcatraz Island, where maniac Marine Ed Harris has a beef with the federal government so has missiles aimed at San Francisco.

In order to gain access to the prison, Connery explains, he’s going to have to roll through this fearsome blast furnace tunnel, timing things perfectly with the blasts of fire, or else get charred to smithereens. Of course his new colleagues think he’s nuts. Because he’s Sean Connery, he smoothly rolls through the furnace and unlocks the door to the room where they’re all waiting, opening the door with a smile that says, “No problem, boys.”

Stress: Our Kids’ Blast Furnace

Although it may not look it, our sons, daughters, students and players have to run a similar gauntlet. Unfortunately, this is not a Sean Connery movie, so they don’t all roll through it timing things perfectly. What has made that course increasingly hard to navigate over the last ten or fifteen years can be summarized in one word, and that word is stress: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.

The older you are, the more you recognize that your friends, family, neighbors, children, players, students and you yourself are stressed.  Critically, folks increasingly don’t know how to shed that stress the way a good, solid, durable roof sheds rain.  Relaxing in the old-fashioned way is going out of style.  Culture now dictates that we work hard and play hard.  Staring at clouds and just playing for joy’s sake is on the way out.  We need results.

Very, very few young people know how to shed that rain, never mind get out of it.  It’s raining global warming and competition for everything from getting into a top college to making the team.  It’s raining tattered economy and opiate epidemic.  It’s raining on an increasingly burdened middle class, and it’s raining an every-person-for-themselves mindset.  It’s raining on kids who can’t afford athletic showcases and SAT tutors.  It’s raining stress, and a lot of kids’ parents have leaky roofs so can’t help their kids much. How then can we expect kids to learn how to relax when we’re not modeling that for them nor teaching them its value?

I know high school athletes who never take a day off and go to the beach.  I know lots of kids who stay up till one in the morning studying.  I did a workshop at an Ivy-league school with exactly thirty sophomore boys, and only three of them rated their self-confidence about a five on a ten-point scale.  I work at a baseball training facility in suburban Boston, and its owner tells me 95% of the boys swing early: “They’re anxious,” says he.

I had a baseball coach at an Ivy League college tell me, “I’m not that interested in winning games.  These kids have so much on their plates, I just tell them to come down to the field and try and have fun.”

Something’s wrong, and, very simplistically speaking, that something can be called stress. In addition, I call stress “the great isolator,” because when you have it, you are less likely to reach out to others for help and support, thus raising your stress levels even more because you feel all alone in this great, big world.

Getting Out From the Pressure

Take the need to relax seriously.  Compare your schedule and your stress levels to the way they were twenty, twenty-five years ago, and reflect on that for a few minutes.  Do you own an IPhone?  (I refuse to use a lower case “i.”)  Do you often want to smash it?  Do you go grimly to the gym, wear ear buds and talk to no one?  Do you get home from work after 6pm, sometimes way after?  Does your life seem to lack a bit of a center, to lack meaning?  If you’re like me and tens of millions of others, you’re stressed, and you’re not exactly sure why because you’re too stressed to think about it, and doing that’s a bit scary.  You have to get out of the rain to do that, and I feel as though there’s more than a little taste of mania and subtle peer pressure out there.  Pressure to work.  Pressure to see to it that your kid gets into a top-tier college.  Pressure to impress the boss.  Pressure to make dough.  All kinds of pressures that erode that roof, lessen our ability as adult role models to shed stress and, therefore, our ability to teach our kids to do the same.

A lot of kids are really suffering through this blast furnace.  It was never always easy growing up, but things are increasingly tough for kids now.

I’m reading Bobby Orr’s autobiography in which he rhapsodizes about the joys of pond hockey. Remember joy?  Let’s make a pledge to not only remember joy, but to deliberately bring it back into our lives, our families’ lives, our classrooms and our teams.

Joy builds good roofs.