Stephanie’s real forté was in running activities, where she harnesses classic sport psychology techniques to improve the quality of life of marginalized youth. She ran us through her comprehensive 10-week intervention in just two days; below I will just post the highlights. First though, a few quick notes on underlying tools. Stephanie uses Self-determination Theory well in her work, giving participants the chance to choose coloured folders for their work, or by awarding stickers for participation and homework completion. She only hands the latter out at the start of sessions, a neat way of promoting timeliness. Surprisingly, this method is very successful, even with the troubled youth with whom Stephanie works. Another recommendation by her is to intersperse relaxing with energizing exercises; this way, the group gets more experience learning to relax.
Day one sees her start with a pivotal question: “Who am I, and why am I here?”. Then she proceeds with a gentle icebreaker, asking everyone to pick a favourite colour, cuisine, and cartoon character. Here, it is important to pick very neutral, safe topics so no one feels singled out in these initial sessions. Then, when ready, she asks the participants to find as many people as possible with whom they share any of the three Cs, followed by a moment to settle down and to relate stories of success. With us, not one person was unable to find at least one other for any of the three categories, showing us that was all had quite a lot in common. After the ensuing discussion, her next step normally is to pile objects from the room in the centre (always having more objects than there are participants), and then ask participants to pick out the object that best represents them and to explain why. Then she asks they return their object and pick out a second that best represents how they would like to be in the future, also explaining why. This sneaky introduction of goal-setting is often a crucial step for those coming from underprivileged groups, as thinking of the future is often very rare in these demographics. This gets them thinking about the possibility of change, and can also be done inter-individually, with individuals picking out items to describe friends. This session is wrapped up with some brief lecturing on factors affecting performance, some more icebreaking games like link tag or knee tag, a homework exercise (identify six items you can control in life and six you cannot), and a final thought for the day: “Control the controllable”. The main factors picked from the list provided would later be referred to during the remaining workshops, and an analysis of them throughout the workshops provides a neat chance for observing both inter- as well as intraindividual differences.
Day two begins with discussions about control and about trying to implement it in life, with Stephanie asking participants what they have controlled/tried to control in the past.This is followed by a game where participants make a circle with chairs around one member who completes the phrase “Have you ever…?”. Then, anyone around the circle who can answer in the affirmative must leave their chair, run through the circle, and grab another chair in its circumference, with the original asker joining the mêlée, and with the last person left without a chair becoming the subsequent asker. Drawing a perimeter in the middle of the circle and making a rule that all runners must run through this circle greatly facilitates the game, eliminating the option of runners simply picking nearby chairs to sit on next. This activity leads to a discussion about optimal activation, about what happens when it is too low or too high, and discovering the circumstances when this occurs. Stress is visualized as a horde of butterflies in your stomach, but Stephanie underlines that this horde also houses tremendous energy, if only it is flying in formation.
From here, Stephanie teaches the group breathing strategies for relaxation, and cue-word self-talk strategies for engaging activation. The session wraps up with another icebreaker, a PMR session (where Stephanie advocates flexing the hands through opening them maximally rather than clenching in the traditional fist, as the resulting feeling is much more relaxed), the thought for the day (“Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”), and homework in the form of a self-reflection handout with the following questions:
- What are the real loves of your life? What things lift you and give you the most joy? What frees you to feel most fully alive?
- What would you really want to do in the working part of your life, after school? Be specific, and give examples!
Day three starts with discussing the above homework, and asking if anyone practised the relaxation techniques taught last time, what worked in each case, and what didn’t. Then the group is taught to slowly work together through the human pretzel exercise, and then shown that strategy outweighs brute strength via gladiator hands. The ensuing discussion turns to what the group members have successfully controlled over the past few days (perhaps a good moment to use the circle of control), and goal-setting is formally introduced. The day wraps up with the thought of the day — Michael Jordan’s quote on obstacles — and with the homework of progressing on one personal goal and on controlling something with which you normally struggle.
Day four begins with two exercises Stephanie fondly calls “Pendulum” and “Blowing in the Breeze”. The first has one person stand in the middle of a tight circle of other group members, and close her eyes. She is then pushed back and forth, gently, like an inverted pendulum for around 30s. The second has the central person fall to one side and then be passed around by the group from one set of hands to the next for around 30s, like a plant swaying in the wind. The point of these exercises is clear: to build group cohesion and to further establish the setting as one of safety and comfort. Exercises complete, the group then moves to share their personal successes — as well as obstacles met — in achieving their goals, and members are encouraged to make their goals more specific. The session then returns to exercises: with four-way thumb wars and toe tag (in pairs, small groups, and finally in a free-for-all), and finally settling into an introduction of Nideffer’s model of attentional styles, with an emphasis on when participants might want to use which style, and when certain styles may be problematic. This then leads to a brief breathing workshop, with emphasis on using breathing to regain control over oneself via the 4-7-8 technique. Upon completing the breathing exercise, group members reflect on where they are in their headspace: in the past, present, or future. They ought to be in the present; if not, they are asked to trace their thoughts back to what led them off track, and to examine it so they can be on the lookout for this distraction. Continuing with the concentration theme, number grids are given out and participants are asked to scratch numbers off in ascending order, starting from a random number chosen by Stephanie. A second round is completed after the first, this time with acoustic distractions. Interestingly enough, Stephanie has found that former gang members perform better in the stressful condition. This day wraps up with: “Always look for the positive” as the thought of the day, and with the homework of recording three positive experiences every night.
Day five commences with discussing the positives participants had recorded from the previous week, and then rolls into exercises. The first is standing up from a sitting, back-to-back position: first in pairs, then in triplets, and finally in a quartet. This quickly progresses into “Autumn Leaves”; a more intense trust exercise than anything done up to this point. It is something of a “Blowing in the Breeze” 2.0: the person standing with her eyes closed is picked up by her group and brought to a horizontal position high up in the air. She is then slowly brought back to the ground in a gentle swaying motion, almost as if she is a baby being rocked. I didn’t get a chance to experience this but those who did reported a remarkable sense of comfort and even joy in the exercise, combined with an exhilarating loss of spatial awareness. The session then continues with the theme of concentration, with the following exercises:
Balancing in a variety of poses, many taken from yoga and visible to the right and above.
- Forming groups of four, and having each group form a ring by sitting on each other’s laps (as in the photo below). A variation can include trying to move in this configuration.
- Counting out loud backwards by increments while being distracted by 2-3 peers.
- The mirror exercise described previously: forming groups of three and having a pair from the group link arms and move their non-linked arms as they wish. The third group member must follow the pair’s movements with his arms. This is then intensified through having the pair separate and move a distance away from each other, with the tertiary member’s instructions remaining the same.
- 20 Questions: The pair now asks questions of the individual simultaneously and the person must keep a cool head and answer them as best he can.
This session wraps up with “There is no success without failure” as the thought for the day.
Day six opens with groups of 2-3 discussing situations where they were able to refocus their attention over the past week, with an emphasis on how participants accomplished this. This conversation is then guided to encourage groups to share their goal achievements over the past week, and to create goal plans for the upcoming week. The session then moves to exercises, with triangle tag and 4-way suspension (unlike the video, the objective is to arrive at the final configuration without the use of props). Stephanie would then go into detail about imagery — what it is and how to use it — with the group, immediately moving into the 5 senses exercise once the theoretical framework is set. Then she would delve deeper into imagery exercises derived from sport, engaging the group’s imagination through having them become aware of their body in segments (“Feel your hand… now feel your arm…” etc). Then she would have them imagine themselves performing an action, freezing certain frames and accentuating elements in others. Stephanie would close the day off with another Michael Jordan quote, explaining that troubled youth often relate really well to sports superstars’ words. The homework of the day is to continue working on goals, on controlling the controllables in life, and on refocusing attention.
Day seven sees the continuation of the discussion on goal progress. This is followed by a game called “Ball and Chain“, where the whole group creates a circle and one member calls another member by name, throwing a ball to him. This person then continues the trend until everyone in the group has been named and has caught and passed the ball. This same exercise is then completed in the same throwing order as before, only with more balls passed to the first thrower to create a “chain” of throws. The group then settles down and writes imagery scripts, sharing them and improving them together. The purpose of the scripts is then discussed, with each individual declaring what they are going to achieve the next week. This is followed by Target Tag, where a few balls are distributed within the group and one person is selected to be “It”. This person can then touch anyone without a ball, and balls must be politely requested using the current carrier’s name before they’re relinquished to new hands. The days closes off with the following thought: “If you don’t live every instant in your life, you lose it; live every moment.” The homework assigned is for everyone to write warm fuzzies about all the other members of the group, and to practice a coordination challenge to be done with arms (one arm completes one pattern while the second simultaneously completes a pattern that is mentally interfering).
Day eight kicks off with a collection of the warm fuzzies, and with a presentation to see who can properly complete the coordination challenge from the previous session. Games of Chain Tag and Nose & Toes Tag are then played, and self-talk is introduced. A key element of this introduction includes sharing that self-talk is often automatic and even unnoticed, but that you can learn to detect and modify it. It is also important to impart on the group that people do not react to what is happening, but rather to what they interpret is happening; therefore it is very important to catch overgeneralizations, distortions, self-damnation, and thoughts of the form, “should” or “must”. The group is then charged with creating a slogan that will become the thought of the day, and then to perform a group push-up including every member. Homework is simple as the program simmers to a close: think up ten positive affirmations.
Day nine starts with checking the affirmations from the previous session, and with practicing saying them in front of the group until they sound sincere to everyone’s ears. This naturally evolves into a discussion on the possible uses of affirmations, and then into an examination of any successful negative thought-stoppage group members achieved over the past 24 hours. This is followed by a game of Electric Fence with an examination after it to see if any self-talk was used during its play. This done, self-confidence as an idea is introduced, and a group discussion opens with people sharing what they do to feel good about themselves. Stephanie stresses the following techniques to enhance self-confidence:
- Focus on process goals.
- Work on fitness and strength.
- Set short-term, challenging but realistic goals
- Find someone who can sincerely verbally persuade you that you are good in the task you are trying to complete.
- Employ positive self-talk (affirmations).
- Discuss realistic expectations.
- Look at mistakes positively. This reduces fear of failure.
- Realize confidence comes from hard work and practice.
- Get informational as well as evaluative feedback.
- Review videos of prior good performances.
- Use others as role models.
- Act “as if” you’re confident.
- Use imagery.
- Focus on reaching your optimal level of arousal.
- Reduce anxiety as needed via relaxation techniques.
- Reduce fear of anxiety through realizing it is a sign of readiness.
- Emphasis that failures result from poor strategy or from a lack of effort/experience.
- Emphasize internal, stable reasons for your successes.
- Increase self-discipline; this provides evidence that you are indeed in control.
Now the push-to-stand exercise is completed, this time with the group first shouting discouragement, and then later encouragement. Finally, the thought for the day is Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, and the warm fuzzies are given out to their proper recipients.
Day ten is the final day of the program. In threes, participants discuss the progress they’ve made over the past ten weeks. Then, as a group, people point out others’ successes from their perspectives. The group is then divided into pairs and is tasked with, each pair, reviewing one main part of the program and presenting it to the class. The program wraps up with an evaluation, and participants are finally sent on their way to continue applying what they’ve learned, now in real life.