"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can change my life."
I am living in northern Vermont at the moment, taking a little break from my extra-long racing season I've had and taking the opportunity to get back into physical therapy for a bit. I'm doing a short-term travel therapy contract with a home health care provider, so I'm going into people's homes and helping them regain function, usually after having a major surgery or hospitalization. I am grateful for this opportunity. Being of service in this way keeps me grounded and reminds me that there is still a "real" side to my sometimes fantasy-world lifestyle. It also helps me to connect and apply everything I've learned as an athlete to other life situations.
As a coach, I teach mindset work to people all the time. It makes an enormous difference on the bike. I've seen people (including myself) talk themselves out of a bad race and into a good race, even when it seems everything is going wrong. And I've seen the opposite as well. But sometimes I forget how powerful words can be in ALL areas of life, and when I get off my bike it rarely crosses my mind. I have been working this physical therapy contract now for about three weeks, and I am already grateful to one man for reminding me of the tremendous power of simple words.
I am seeing an older gentleman who is pushing 90 years old. We'll call him John. He is a 20 year military veteran, father, grandfather, great-grandfather. In his younger days he loved to climb mountains and ride motorcycles. Now, he has trouble sitting up straight in his recliner and getting around his house with his walker and his oxygen tank, but he still loves to go out on his front porch and look across the horizon to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He's a little hard of hearing, but his eyes, like his mind, are still sharp.
John has a caregiver who comes to look after him a few days a week. She is well-intentioned, but uncomfortably harsh. In the first few times I came to see John, she would say things like "Oh John, look at you, you're always being lazy, slumping and hanging your head. Sit up." And I would watch John, a once proud military commander, look down in embarrassment and slump further. When I would take him out to walk and exercise, he would sometimes get hung up on his oxygen line, and I would hear in the background "John, you're so clumsy."
I don't think this caregiver was intentionally being mean, I just think she likely is naturally critical and isn't aware of the effect. But it was obviously affecting John. He would literally shrink before my eyes each time she said something critical. In our first few visits, he was hesitant to let me do much with him. At first I thought it was because he was afraid of falling, but when he started to make comments like "Oh, I won't be any good at that," I knew it was something different.
So I decided to do a little experiment. Each time I came to work with John, I made sure to say encouraging things. Each time I noticed him lift his head in his chair just a little, I would take notice and say "John, your posture is awesome, I can tell you've been working on it!" And John would smile and straighten up a little more. When we tried a simple marching exercise, I complimented him on how high he was raising his knees, and he joked that he's had plenty of practice as he pulled his shoulders back while holding on to my hands for balance.
Every chance I got, I pointed out where John was succeeding, even if it was tiny. Pretty quickly, each time I came to visit, I felt like I was seeing a different man. His eyes lit up when I walked in, and he would do his best with whatever I asked. He would still get frustrated when he "screwed up," but with gentle reminders followed by quick encouragement, he started becoming more open to trying new things.
Yesterday, after three weeks, John let me teach him to two-step. I often use "dance therapy" for balance and strength training when I work with older people, as dance seems to have been much more a part of their culture than it is in ours today. Often, they have danced before, and it is neat to see their muscle memory take over even if their brain memory may be fading.
At first John had trouble with the pattern, stepped on his oxygen line, and I had to catch him as he lost his balance moving backwards. He immediately hung his head, returning to "I'm not good at this, I think I should go back to my chair." I looked him in the eyes and said "John, do you really say no when a pretty lady asks you to dance?" He laughed, regained his frame, and focused his full attention on learning the moves. When I left, he was sitting straight in his chair, his eyes bright and his demeanor alert. And I had a little chat with his caregiver about being mindful with words.
In sport, we hear and tell ourselves and others encouraging things all the time. (At least I hope we all do.) Sport is an easy place to understand that a positive mindset and encouraging words make a big difference. In the photo above, it was easy for me to give myself a pep talk when I'm clinging to the side of a slippery cliff in the dark wearing bike shoes. Getting negative or critical could have dire consequences. But what about in the rest of life? What about the more "mundane" things- our work, home projects, everyday life stuff? What about those of us trying to take on unconventional or challenging projects that really test us? I'm not saying we all need a pep talk when it comes to sweeping the floors, but how much are we criticizing vs encouraging ourselves and others on a daily basis?
It may sound silly, but try noticing and expressing genuine appreciation for little things: how shiny the glasses look after your kid, or your partner, does the dishes- especially if they don't do it very often. Thank someone if something they posted on social media made you laugh when you really needed it, or resonated with you in some way. Try giving genuine compliments to people when you notice how hard they work, or how creative their ideas are, or how they are especially talented in one thing or another. Especially if you know a certain thing is challenging for an individual, be aware of when you notice them making progress, and say something. Even if it's small. It could make someone's day, or it could change their entire outlook.
I have been in relationships where my partner was extremely critical, and it was all I could do to rise above it and not let it crush me. I have also been fortunate enough to have great friends who have known exactly when to encourage me when I'm reaching for something that at times may seem crazy or unattainable, and often it is that extra little push that I really needed that gives me a second wind and gets me over the hump.
We need to shift our focus to what we DO want, not what we DON'T want. Appreciate the good things about the people in our lives instead of searching for the bad. If you want your 90 year old grandfather to sit up straighter, don't harp on them for slumping, compliment them each time you notice them putting in effort. If you know someone is going after something challenging, go out of your way to tell them exactly WHY you know they can do it. If you want your dog to bring you the stick, don't yell at them for "never" bringing you the stick, be super happy with them when they do. (Yep, I just compared people to dogs. We all respond to positive reinforcement- and it's super obvious when you see it working in animals.)
Above all- we need to be kind. And apologize when we're not. No one is perfect- I write this for myself as much as anyone. But if we all could keep in the back of our minds how powerful words really are, this world would be a much happier place. <3