Thursday, June 27, 2013

On Breaking the Slump

B.J. Upton, Atlanta Braves, center fielder, bat, strikeout, slump, frustration
by Ben Howard

Over the winter, my favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, signed free agent center fielder B.J. Upton to a five year contract worth $75 million dollars. It's the biggest contract the Braves have ever given to a free agent. I was a bit hesitant upon hearing the news, after all that is quite a large investment, but Upton has been a solid player over the last few years. He's fast, plays good defense, and has the ability to hit a lot number of home runs. He isn't quite a superstar, but he is only a step or two down from that.

Unfortunately, B.J. Upton has started this season playing terribly. Over the first two months of the Upton had a batting average of .144. That means he got a hit in 14.4% of his at bats. To put that in perspective, his career batting average is .250. 

In fact, there's a term in baseball called the Mendoza line which defines incompetent hitting. It's named for a notoriously bad hitter named Mario Mendoza who hit .200 for his career. If you hit below .200, it's essentially impossible for you to be a useful player. Upton was far below that.

But this isn't a story about a player who was once good suddenly becoming terrible, this is a story about slumping. Upton didn't suddenly forget how to play, nor did his skills erode to the point where he was overmatched; he was just in a slump. In fact, this month, he's hitting a relatively robust .234.

So how do you get out of a slump?

Some say it's a matter of confidence. Some say you just need to relax. Others have more interesting and off-the-wall suggestions (if you're brave, look up the term "slumpbuster"). Ultimately though there's no real solution. You're simply in a slump until you're out of it. It's part of the cyclical nature of sports and life in general.

Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees, dugout, alone, slump, depressedThe worst part of a slump is when a player begins to press. If you're unfamiliar with the phrase, pressing is when someone begins to put pressure on themselves to succeed. It typically involves over-thinking processes that were once instinctual. For example a baseball player starts to think about how to swing a bat instead of just swinging, or a basketball player starts to go through the step-by-step process of shooting instead of just shooting. At its worst, it can lead to the "yips" where a player can no longer perform simple actions that they've done for years (i.e. a catcher who's unable to throw the ball back to the pitcher).

I mention all of this because I'm in a slump right now and it feels like I'm pressing. The thoughts that used to come to my head easily are a chore and the words I want to communicate just aren't there. Instead of writing on instinct, I've been....well, I haven't been writing at all.

Since I don't know the best way to break a slump, I'm doing the best I know how and leaning into the curve; trying to overcome my writing slump by writing about it.

I've noticed a curious thing throughout my attempts to break out of this feeling. I've noticed the desire to try and copy myself. When I felt like I couldn't access an authentic version of myself, when I felt like I lost my voice, I would simply try and be the best imitation of myself that I could be. If I couldn't "be myself" then I'd try to "act like myself."

Think about that. Think about what that means.

It means that I thought that there was only one "authentic" version of myself that I needed to be all the time. It means that sometimes I thought I wasn't "me". That's impossible. I'm always me. Every part, every emotion, every happy moment, every sad moment, every moment when I have a voice and every moment when I feel like I've lost it, those are all me.

I'm sure you've heard that people show their true colors when they're angry or when they're sad or when they're afraid. Bullshit. People show their true colors all the time. They are always themselves. Every bit of them is authentically them, even when they're trying to lie and hide it.

But there's something in our psyche that tries to avoid that truth. There's something in our mind that would rather see clean narrative arcs and easily defined personalities. We want to be able to encapsulate people, we want to be able to encapsulate ourselves. For people we say that they're "Thoughtful, reflective and kind" or "Surly, arrogant and rude." For baseball players we tick off their batting average.

Mitt Romney, meme, average personHere's the thing that I've learned about being in a slump. Slumps are as much a part of who I am as the peaks. B.J. Upton's performance as a baseball player is not defined by his average, it's defined by all the bits and pieces along the way that go into that computation. You aren't one thing, you are all the things across the spectrum that compose that encapsulated view of yourself.

We limit ourselves and others to the average version of us. We define ourselves against our relative norms, and then we judge ourselves to be lesser when we fall below those norms. Perhaps the best way to break a slump, or to be confident in ourselves, or simply love ourselves (and others) is simply to realize that we are always who we are whether we're slumping or peaking or anywhere in between.



Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87. 
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