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About This Episode

Emotional health always determines performance even when physical health is at its peak.

Ben Houltberg joins us this week not only as a former elite runner, but also as a sports psychologist who has done extensive research on developing emotional health in athletes. Houltberg competed as a distance runner in high school, college, and then professionally. Plagued with recurrent stress fractures, he was in and out of competition and suffered from depression after each injury. This emotional roller coaster led to him pursuing studies in sports psychology in hopes of helping athletes in similar situations.

Years of research led Houltberg to determine that there are two primary ways that athletes develop their identity: either Performance Based or Purpose Based. Athletes with Performance Based Identity often have a strong fear of failure, are perfectionistic, and are not motivated by the desire to do their best, but rather to avoid a loss. On the other hand, those who have developed a Purpose Based Identity set goals that are attainable, participate in activities that are personally meaningful, and are connected to something greater than themselves that contributes to the world.

Unfortunately, Performance Based Identity often masks itself as impressive work ethic and dedication. Coaches praise team members who push themselves the hardest, work the longest, and produce the biggest results. But what they don’t realize, says Houltberg, is that Performance Based Identity is very short lived. Although results may be favorable at first, an athlete can’t maintain them. This form of identity is rooted in fear and doesn’t just illicit a psychological response, it also creates a physiological one because our bodies cannot distinguish between a threat to the body and a threat to the mind. The body reacts the same to both -- by tapping into our natural Fight or Flight response system. This system rations the body’s resources by withholding nutrition to our muscles, limiting emotional capacity, inhibiting our sleep, and more. In the end, athletes functioning in this mode will eventually become depleted on all levels before even getting to the starting line.

Houltberg shares that athletes should be aware of the markers of Performance Based Identity such as sleep disruption, finding excuses to avoid competition, lack of enjoyment in the sport, and an overriding fear of failure that is more present than an excitement to compete. Fortunately, when athletes catch themselves in this mode there are ways to shift to a more healthy mindset. Developing a Purpose Based Identity is about discovering what is valued the most and making that a priority. Athletes who pursue self-worth and service outside of sports develop a holistic framework that supports them whether they win or lose. They slowly begin to view competition as an opportunity to better themselves, rather than an arena in which they need prove themselves. They are able to reframe negative experiences, set attainable goals, and connect with people who care about them despite their achievements.

But what happens to their performance? Research shows that it actually improves. Those who develop a Purpose Based Identity not only succeed greatly at an elite level, but bounce back more quickly and fully after injury or loss, have greater longevity in their sport, and are better at regulating their emotions. Overall, they are happier and healthier athletes and individuals.

Houltberg recommends that athletes start this shift by giving back. Contributing and connecting with the greater community serves as an antidote to depression. And by discovering what they value in the world, they will be better able to better understand what they value about themselves outside of sports. This intrinsic motivation will not only benefit them on the field, but in all areas of life.

To learn more about Ben Houltberg’s research, check out the USC Performance Science Institute and all that they do to help understand and encourage healthy, holistic identities.


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[00:02:07] Dr. Ben Hallberg thank you so much for being on Hope Sports Podcast. We're excited you're here.



[00:02:21] Thank you. it's great to be here.



[00:02:24] Now give us a little bit of background because I know you used to be an athlete as well. Tell me kind of how you got your start and what your experience was



[00:02:24]Yeah. I mean, I grew up in the heartland in Kansas. And you know sports said there had been a part of my life I think from the beginning and throughout my kind of high school career, I ended up really excelling in track and field. So as a distance middle distance and distance runner mainly distance runner and high school and I started to experience success and won some state championships in track and cross country got a scholarship to college and had several offers coming out of high school and I chose to go to a school a smaller school, division1 school and then collegiately there.


And here's where I really started running more than a hundred meters and qualify for the NCAA championships a couple times. And then post-collegiately I got to run for U.S. indoor championships and won someone on the circuit and picked up a small sponsor and really enjoyed running. I think as you know there's a lot of athletes that probably feel this way but I think there's you know it was a challenge for me. I had eight stress fractures in my time from college to post coach collegiately. So is always that balance of training hard but being aware of this kind of propensity towards stress fractures and so I couldn't I couldn't really stay healthy long enough to keep going. And I was starting my PHC program at the time and so was 2007 I decided to stop to stop running competitively and just go full tilt and PHC program.



[00:04:28] Wow. So I mean I had to be pretty frustrating getting injured so frequently. I mean was part of that frustration has led you to be so interested and like the emotional health of elite athletes?



[00:04:32]I mean absolutely. I remember my freshman year of college I had just come from one and you know being the top in this day. And I remember lining up on the line the first time I Ripley's math weight and looking at the program and seeing how many state champions were actually on the line. There was so many of them so you kind of go from that big fish in a small pond.


To now a whole new world but I got into that first year and I really fell into a deep depression. It was a struggle for me. I had really built a lot of my sense of identity worth and value around running. And so, really had a pretty prosperous high school career with without too many challenges. So when I first hit that first kind of wall of getting my first stress fracture. It was really hard for me. And so you know I was kind of a constant like getting entry cross training coming back getting injured cross training coming back. And so I think that really became a part of my passion was that to help elite athletes deal with the obstacles and the emotional turmoil from being injured.


And I remember at the U.S. open actually I had trained. Been training so well and was it really just fantastic shape but had a lot of things going on in my life that were difficult at the time. And went to that meet and I really just-I just blew up. I just didn't run well. I had really put a lot of time and energy into getting there and I remember going back to the hotel room feeling completely alone and just sitting down in the shower and weeping and crying.


And there was something about that it just was so impactful for me like I had put so much time and I really felt like I was ready for a breakthrough race at that need. Then the devastation I felt when I didn't perform. I didn't really know why? I think physically I was ready at that time I didn't know why? But the more that I kind of studied this area and understood one more I've been able to kind of look back at that time in my life and say, Oh I see how I was really pulling for my resources before the race even started because of how anxious I was about not performing well. And so that belief and really the passion and purpose for me of helping athletes be able to compete with purpose and be emotionally healthy and perform well.


And so...



[00:07:36] Yeah. I love that. And I love what you've been researching along those lines of teaching about performance-based identity versus that purpose based identity. Can you explain to us what exactly is performance-based identity?



[00:07:36]Yeah. So performance based identity. It’s really this putting. When athletes put their soul worth and value or the main source of their worth and value into how they perform in sports. It's usually accompanied by this fear of failure that you almost as if now I'm not competing to even be my best but I'm performing I'm competing not to lose. And there's this contend to be this perfectionistic kind of concern or drive that I have to be perfect. Those three fear failure, this work, and value based on performance and this kind of perfection is concerned created. I found in my research this self-narrative or this idea about the self that was really unhealthy for athletes emotionally also contributed to poor performance. And cripple them after they had a disappointing performance. They had high levels of shame and guilt.


And so this performance-based identity really is can be something that's often celebrated even sometimes by coaches because this athlete might be the athlete that comes to practice every day they're grinding, they're pushing, they're doing the extra things maybe even sometimes you have to slow them down. They might even be a coach who says I wish I could bottle up with that athlete has and give it to everybody else. But the problem is there's the shadow side to that to that is unknown to a lot of people. And that's what I've found is that these athletes were where had the highest levels of depression and anxiety and weren't of life in the relationships where we're not healthy and they say they saw competition as a threat to themselves. They feared to fail. In their mindsets where were more of this kind of performance mindsets not more of that kind of growth mindset. So that's what you know, I think as I started to see this emerge in the data and all the work that I've been doing the story became really clear to me that this might motivate athletes for a while and work for a while. Like because it does push them to want to get better. But it's not sustainable over time.



[00:10:23] Yeah. I mean I heard you see it talked it like it can be when they're anticipating that next competition and they have that performance-based kind of identity that they can even physically experience like when you see a physiological reaction like they're being threatened by a dog or something. Can you kind of explain that? Like it's not just in your handling it comes out in other ways.



[00:10:45] Yeah. Absolutely. I mean I think that's what you said is really important it's not just in your head. It's in your body. It's a physiological response. So the work that I started doing early on in my career was really around this idea of emotion regulation and how people manage emotional responses especially kids from high-risk neighborhoods where they're exposed to violence on a regular basis. Physiologically what happens when you're physically threatened is your sympathetic nervous system is activated to become aware to become heightened of your surroundings and it's adaptive it's protective. But something like 100 different neuro and biophysical logical chemicals are released and changes in the body are happening in a way that pulls and manages your resources just to manage that threat.


[00:11:41] So in other words if the pleading you have resources just to manage that threat and what's incredible is that our body can't tell a difference between an actual threat to your physical self and a threat to your social self. So when you put your worth and value in so much into how you perform the very thought or anticipation of competition can trigger that same sympathetic nervous system as if you're being threatened that can deplete you before you ever get to the competition. I mean adrenaline is something that can be helpful as a facilitator for certain sports in certain events. But that sense of excitement that can come of just being ready for the competition. But it's not sustainable over time adrenaline cannot keep going. So if you're starting that kind of adrenaline spurts every time you think of competition two weeks, three weeks, one week out what you're doing is you're beginning to pull from your resources so when the moment comes. It's going to be really hard to turn that on. You might fall flat you might feel tired even though you've tapered you've trained well and you're ready for that moment. There's still something physiologically that that can happen with the athletes it's high performance based identity.



[00:12:59] That's so interesting because you like as an athlete as a high-level athlete myself. I know I do like some adrenaline I like the nerves I like that kind of heightened awareness in the competition or leading right up to it. But yeah if you're doing it weeks before you're just gonna be completely wiped out. Because like when your adrenaline is gone I mean you're left with nothing. So yeah I can imagine the toll that would take on you physically as well as mentally.



[00:13:30] Right. Right. I think that most high-level athletes know that feeling of like you know kind of thinking about competition and beginning to feel yourself getting amped and saying oh not yet not yet, you know? I got to keep I've got to regulate this right now. But I also think there's some you know other things that you can see and think about with performance-based identity is it's not always conscious either is that we anticipate threats often in our mind. They become a part of how we see the world and sometimes we're not even aware of it. And so we might not even be aware of that get our stress hormones high and we're stressed and that's the way the body works. And then once you kind of reach this our static load of stress it can be really hard to bounce back from that.



[00:14:25] Well I think. Yeah. I had seen you've written kind of some warning signs of performance-based identity that I'll just kind of list coz I guess if you're not aware. These warning signs are maybe a great way to see if you are kind of in that zone, right? So we have and let’s see. You have one sport are not fun anymore? That might be like a warning sign of a performance-based identity. Another one is fear of failure is stronger than the excitement to compete. Anxiety increases before the competition even including like sleep disruption. Bouncing back from a disappointing performance is difficult maybe there's a desire to quit or find excuses just not even to compete. Some descriptions only relate to being an athlete. You only see yourself as an athlete and not somebody separate from your sport. I also have feelings of worthlessness when not performing well. You might ruminate on mistakes made in the competition like you can't let go of jealousy or anger is distributed and demonstrated towards others performing better than you. And also an obsession develops with working harder practicing more just like you mentioned earlier. So I guess if you're not even aware. Like if you're starting to see some of those signs like you may kind of want to get yourself in check. Right?



[00:14:25] yeah. yeah totally.

[00:15:36] And I mean it's you know I think. You could speak to this laura and a lot of ways as a professional athlete. There are some of these warning signs that are really hard. I mean I think even it's more like the first one as far as sports not fun anymore. It's not always fun to work hard, you know that? And so I think even better are to go deeper in that thought is that there's a loss of joy for the sport. That the very thing that really attracted you to that.


But I also will have athletes stop and remember and think about that time where they started that sport and take them back to that time of being a child of standing maybe on the diving board for the first time or whatever it was about diving that attracted you to it. And whether it's running whatever it is. And really have them imagine themselves back in that scenario what was the feelings what were the sensations what were the things that really made this attractive. Because that's what's often lost is that the gifts and the joy of the sport become a burden. And we don't function near as well off of negative emotion as we do and he's more positive emotional states. And so there are times that negative emotions can help us and facilitate some progress. But overall that joy state of being able to really connect to what's meaningful and is really critical to being able to perform without getting you in your own way. Like you know?


[00:17:26] And so I think these times really are things that kind of point to and say, okay I need to maybe take a look at this and think about what is the source of my motivation and is there a way to find other more healthy motivation that can also help me be the best that I can possibly be.



[00:17:49] I love that. And I think it's important to point out like these are for every level of athlete can experience from you know kind of beginner like a young teenage athlete up until you know the top of the top. Like we pointed out you know Michael Phelps went in rehab after a DUI and he kind of had a summary based on his like performance-based identity and I'll quote it here he said, “I wound up uncovering a lot of things about myself for a long time I saw myself as an athlete that as the athlete that I was but not as a human being”. So nobody's really above this. Everybody can kind of be susceptible and I think sometimes we kind of go in and out of it. You've said any high achiever with a performance-based identity risk can feel devastated when they fall short of their goals or having actually even realized their dream and finding it empty.


[00:18:37] So I guess the big question is? Okay. Maybe we recognize that we have that performance-based identity or we-we deal with that sometimes like how do you change it?



[00:18:37]Yeah. Well, the first thing I would say when we talk about changing performance based identity is that it's always gonna be a process for a high achiever. There's always gonna be elements and times in life where we're all experience this kind of performance-based identity. I think it's beginning to shift it so that it's more your identity and work begins to become centered around something more meaningful in your life. The motivation is drawing from something deeper than just winning medals or proving your worth of value. That this is really when we talk about purpose is that.


The purpose is a powerful motivator that organizes our sense of identity around what we value the most. So a purpose is a great anecdote when we talk about this. Because purpose involves really three things. The first thing purpose involves is doing something that is personally meaningful to you. The second thing is having a goal or an aim that you're moving towards. So both of those are very easy in the sport to kind of capture. But the third piece is really important and this piece is that you're connected to something that is greater than yourself that makes a contribution to this world. One of the things that we've seen in the research is that people who have these three parts of purpose there's something about giving to others is something about doing something beyond yourself and connecting to something meaningful beyond yourself. There really is stabilizing in our sense of identity it gives us a sense of it starts with us really understanding our own sense of worth and value. It's hard to be. It's hard to create value if you don't feel like you're a person of value. And I think that's what becomes really key and purpose is it is a way to begin to help form our sense of worth and identity in something that's much more foundational than just performance.


And so we found that this purpose based identity that involves the self-worth and value that I understand their self-worth and value outside of just sports as well as this purpose and even a view of myself in the future after sport. These athletes also were just as accomplished and their performance was just as high. There’s no difference in our athletes that were in this performance-based versus purpose based identity. But they by far emotionally psychologically and the way they viewed competition and the way they bounce back from the competition were much superior to the performance-based identity athletes. They were able to identify and turn to other people in relationships for emotional support and in ways that were helpful for them. They had higher levels of life satisfaction feeling good about their life. They were able to regulate their emotions better. There's a great emotion regulation strategy that's really important called reappraisal and we can kind of redefine our reframe a negative situation in a way that allows us to overcome it that allows us to not be hijacked emotionally by it.


And so these are the purpose space that any athletes were able to do that better. They saw competition as a challenge. They embraced opportunity to become better. And so that to me is really what I think is the shift it's shifting from this performance-based identity to purpose-based identity. But there's always going to be a flux there that we have to be aware of and know and become aware of when we're going kind of more towards performance-based identity side of saying Ok well how do I get back to purpose understanding that and let that motivate me. Because sports is. The nature of sports and high achievement you have to work hard. You have to make lots of sacrifices. You want to be able to push yourself beyond what you ever thought you could. Those are all healthy pursuits. But what drives it really matters and that's the part that's going to impact your emotional and relational health.



[00:23:13] And that doesn't keep you going when things get tough too. For sure.



[00:23:13]  Absolutely.



[00:23:13] Questions. So if people are finding that their kind of performance-based and they're struggling with that that they're recognizing it they want to become where purpose-based. These relationships are really important for that. Like what if they're a little isolated? Like they don't have a lot of support of people around them. Like what can they do to get past that and get through that and find that purpose?



[00:23:13]  Yeah. I mean. I think that's often a result of this performance based identity is this even if it's on purpose to this isolation for meaningful relationships. And so, I think that the reason why relationships are so powerful. Healthy relationships are so powerful is because they remind you that you are of worth and value. They remindyou of your uniqueness. That somebody cares about you deeply not just for what you can do for them but because of who you are.


So when I work with athletes one of the first steps that I do is really try to help them engage and the people around them. Often there is somebody around them that they've had a meaningful relationship with and a healthy way that maybe they need to reconnect with and be reminded of a really simple task to do this. Had one athlete who I had her give the people that she knew around her that cared about her and had to give them little sheets of paper that they were supposed to write something. How did they saw her? How would they describe her  And then, they were to fold them up to tape on and she wasn't supposed to look at them. So they brought him back and then I kind of did this mindful activity with her. And just had it which is really just kind of giving her space to focus on her breathing and being present. And then, I read these statements to her knowing that these were all people who cared about her. The statements that were being read about her were so different than how she saw herself when it came to the more negative things. So it was challenging her negative self-talk through the voice of meaningful relationships. And I think that was really positive for her now.


Now the goal was to get her to start to internalize that voice for herself. Relationships are powerful because it reminds us of our worth and value. We do better when we're connected. We face challenges better we do with pain better. There's lots of great research to show this. And so the relationships become really a foundation for helping people begin to shift from front space with them and giving them a sense of worth that helps them now start to think about what is my kind of meaning and purpose, and what can I to do differently in practice every day whether it's learning to the practice of gratitude or generosity of doing things for other people or challenging negative self-talk. That begin over time to create habits that they get and become a part of our identity.



[0026:29]So powerful! So many good takeaways here. Now, with all of this good information thinking of the athletes and maybe where they might be if they could take away one thing like one thing they should do today that would help them move more toward that purpose based identity. What would you suggest?



[00:26:47]One of the thing that I think is often most powerful is to have athletes reflect on what is meaningful in their life. Often people will be able to talk about what's meaningful in their lives but they actually don't connect that to their athletic pursuit. They often kind of keep them separate. When you get somebody who talks about things like their family that their family is that's a value for them as is their relationship with their family. Why is that a value for you? What is it about that? It's a value and that you know it's just a connection and that's love and this loyalty and you start to see these things. So the first thing I would say is to sit down and write down, what is meaningful to you? What do you value? What are the things that you value about yourself or the things that you see as important values in your life? And then next to it really write down how are you living in that every day? Like what is your current life patterns and habits that they would be consistent with those things that you say you value? And just taking stock of that. And often with performance-based identity what you'll find is what's meaningful and valued at a deep level. And there might be things on that list like winning gold medals, breaking records or things like that.


There's nothing wrong with that but if that's the only dominant values in someone's life. That's where it gets challenging. And so thinking and pushing yourself to not just think about the athletic value or calls or pursuits but beginning to think about what is in life that brings most meaning to you and fulfillment to you and then how are you living in that every day. That can be an honest assessment of where you're at. I think that's important. I would say though that I would say don't wait till you feel like making the shift go. I mean this is a maybe a plug for Hope sports but go do. I mean the power of going to build with hope sports is is that you're doing something for the other and then you can start to really reflect on what that. Why is that meaningful to you? And if you can't make it to a build do it find some things that are meaningful to you and your neighborhood and your community and recognize that this isn't just good PR to go do good for others that when you do good for others that's just important as important for the transformation of your own identity. And I think that starts to give you a taste of what purposes it was possible with purpose. And once you get a taste of what's the possible purpose you will continue to go after it. Because it brings fulfillment in a different way.



[00:29:54] And then that's going to move you past sport too. Because if you have an injury and you have to retire or if you're just it's time to move on. Like what is going to be in your life and how do you focus and move on if you've always just been performance-based do. You have to know. As you said, what your value is in the value in others and you have to have that purpose beyond your sport to really kind of be successful in life too.



[00:30:17] Absolutely yeah. And that's a reality that I think is it can be really difficult to face for a lot of athletes. When they're done competing, what now? And for some athletes that's you know 21 for some that's 24, 25 some sports got go up to you know later in life and 40s and 50s, you know? But there's still a time where you finish and you have to say, okay what? How do I? What do I start to put my time and energy and now it's meaningful. And I think if you can start that as an athlete it's such a good foundation for that transition.



[00:30:58] And just for those of you who may not be aware of what Hope Sports is? This is the Hope Sports Podcast from an amazing organization called Hope Sports that brings athletes together to come down to Mexico in impoverished countries to build homes for the poor. And not only are you making a difference for a family that does not have a roof over their heads or does not have a solid foundation to stand on. But you also are impacted in just amazingly dramatic ways and all the people around you. It's such an incredible experience! And like Ben said, it's a great way to find value and purpose outside of yourself if you don't know how to do that. It is an amazing way to start.


And you know, check out HopeSports.org to learn more about that organization. An amazing organization that is sponsoring this podcast.


So, Ben? You are amazing and inspiring us all to go beyond our sport and find purpose in our sport, through our sport, in our lives. Where can we find you on the interwebs so that we can follow you and continue to get all this valuable information?



[00:31:57] Yeah. I do a lot of my work at a center called the Thrive Center for Human Development. And You can go to the website at TheThriveCenter.org. You can also follow me on my social media I'm on Instagram and also started on Twitter. So, try to gain like add more to Twitter coz I'm getting better at it.



[00:32:51]I'm on a hundred nobody cared less.



[00:32:54]Right. Seriously, like just like a whole another language. So then I'm on Facebook too. It's just been hoping you can find me on any of those social media sites. So I'm trying to continue to put more resource out there for athletes and because this is my purpose. This is what I feel passionate about. It gives meaning to my life. And yes. Feel free to reach out to me if you want more information and there are lots of articles and readings on twice on a website.



[00:33:26] Awesome. I think that's so poetic. Your purpose is to give other people purpose and I think that's absolutely beautiful. Ben thank you for coming on today. We really appreciate having you.



[00:33:36] Thanks, Laura.


Hope Sports
P.O. Box 120564
Chula Vista, CA 91912

+1 (619) 736-7306
[email protected]
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