The Game of Life: Success Skills for Teens

Sam was an athletic 17-year-old with deep brown eyes and wavy blond hair. His good looks and natural charisma made him popular with the students at his high school, but some of Sam's teachers had reported to his parents that he was not living up to his potential, and that he could be an outstanding student if only he would apply himself. His parents tried to encourage him, but because Sam heard their input as lecturing, their words went in one ear and out the other.

There were a variety of reasons that Sam was not living up to his potential: his self-discipline was underdeveloped, he had some relationship problems, and he lacked important success skills. A major problem was that he simply brave up too quickly. For example, Sam played sax in the school jazz band, but when he had trouble learning to read music, he dropped the class. He would make distorted statements to himself like "I'm just not cut out to play an instrument" when actually he had musical talent. He had the talent to succeed in school as well, but he just was not interested.

Sam had a strong interest in three things: weight lifting, track, and football. He decided to try out for varsity football. When Coach Allen saw Sam's strength, agility and running ability, he believed football was just what Sam needed. Coach believed that if students could master the necessary habits and drills of the game, and play their best, they had the potential to become good players in the game of life. The sport could be football, soccer, golf, swimming, dance, a martial art, basketball and many other sports. Typically, playing a sport requires good grades, so football could help Sam develop his academic potential as well. The important thing was to develop positive copying skills and become a team player. Coach also believed that becoming a good team player could help Sam develop some exceptional relationship skills.

Success Tool 1: Learn to Manage Frustration

Sam, like many kids, lacking good frustration tolerance, which is an important life skill that can help create success. Because he did not complete the challenging things he started, he did not feel good about himself, and sometimes he took it out on others. This behavior affected his relations with his friends, who started avoiding him.

In order to overcome his frustration, Sam needed to learn to hang in there when the going got rough by doing the following:

  1. Change the way he thought about frustration. He learned to think to himself "Hey, I can manage this frustration" and "I can tolerate some discomfort."
  2. Break each challenge into manageable 20-minute steps, taking breaks to do something different between the steps.
  3. Breathe deeply and focus on his task.

Frustration tolerance is like developing a muscle – the more you exercise a muscle, the stronger it becomes. Sam needed to develop a stronger ability to contain more frustration. With more emotional muscle, he could improve his mood from his completions and get more done. The only way to develop strong frustration tolerance is to practice, practice and practice. Start with five-minute steps, and gradually add more time. When a task gets too frustrating, take a short time-out to do something different, and then get back to your task. It's important to breathe deeply and focus on the steps right in front of you. Most people leave the present moment and give up because they imagine that it's too difficult, but Sam became skilled at bringing his mind back to the task in front of him. He learned to say encouraging things to himself like "Come on, we can do this" and "I can tolerate some discomfort."

Success Tool 2: Persist When You Want to Resist

Sam started out the football season with his usual high motivation – he felt like he could have the top player on the team. During his first game, he scored two touchdowns against a mediocre team and basked in the crowd's applause and his teammates' praise. But several weeks later, Sam ran into his familiar old problems when he faced the opposition team's incredibly strong defense. Every time Sam tried to gain some yards, he would get tackled to the ground by the other players, and he was soon haunted by his emotional reactions. He became frustrated and over-reactive, and he started swearing at several players and himself. After the game he felt discouraged and thought to himself, "I'll never be a good player," which is an example of the distorted, pessimistic thinking that made him want to quit rather than persist through the challenges of the game. Sam was too hard on himself – he was using perfectionist standards and needed to learn to turn mistakes into learning experiences.

Coach Allen saw the problem and talked with Sam about getting a stronger interpersonal defense system. In his fatherly way, Coach said, "Son, you need to let this stuff roll off your back and push through the challenges with some determined thinking." However, this was not easy for Sam. When it looked like he was going to quit after another discouraging game, Coach decided to have a talk with him. Deep into this discussion, Coach learned that Sam's dad had an alcohol problem and was not giving Sam fair and firm limits at home. Without these limits, Sam had learned to take the easy way out instead of developing the important character trait of persistence.

Sam talked about how his dad would take away his computer privileges for poor grades, but then his dad would get drunk and give the privileges right back. As a result, Sam was not learning to persist when challenged or even to stick with his homework assignments, which are necessary for success in life. Sam said he missed having a positive relationship with his father, who left him wounded and longing. This explained a lot to Coach, who reminded Sam that even though he had problems at home, he could still learn strong success skills and develop great relationships.

A key to persistence is recognizing that there is a point when athletes feel defeated and want to give up. This is the exact moment when you need to hang in there and

  1. clear your mind and take some deep breaths,
  2. reach within yourself and generate emotional muscle with some motivating statements,
  3. strive even more to become a stronger person, and
  4. continue practicing your drills and discipline plans so you can play even better at the next game.

Coach understood a few things about relationship therapy and knew that Sam wanted help, and he said, "I'll work with you and help you, but it's going to take hard work and time to become a good player." Coach told Sam that perseverance is the ultimate tool in the game of life. They discussed how Sam could use these skills with his homework and in his relations with friends. He started to feel good about doing better in school and developing positive relationships skills.

Success Tool 3: Learn to Master Procrastination

Procrastination is the postponing of steps that could lead to a desired goal and a sense of accomplishment. Since persistency is closely connected with breaking the procrastination habit, Coach was not surprised to learn that Sam had been a 5-star procrastinator. Sam excelled in putting off the series of steps that could lead to positive achievement and a sense of empowerment. His mom reported that his bedroom looked like a disaster zone: his dirty clothes were strewn all over the floor, and his sheets had not been washed in weeks. His unfinished homework assignments were piled in messy stacks, which led to a series of incomplete grades in school. When he thought of doing a task that seemed boring, he would often say "I'll get to tomorrow," but tomorrow turned into months, and Sam began to feel like a loser. He clearly needed help, and Miss Perkins, the school psychologist who specialized in adolescent therapy, was able to provide a road map to help Sam master his habit of procrastination.

First, he kept track of how he sabotaged the completion of steps towards his desired goals. Sam recognized that his biggest enemy was his addiction to Facebook. He would think about completing a homework assignment, and to his credit he would often go to his computer and get started. But when a subject started to feel boring, he postponed working on his assignment and found himself going back to his Facebook page. Somehow he managed to spend five hours connecting with friends and listening to his favorite bands on YouTube.

Miss Perkins taught Sam that it was important to break down a task into 20-minute segments. This involved doing some thinking ahead of time and laying out the exact steps he was going to take to complete a goal. They also blocked out five "procrastination days" on his calendar – he needed to complete one 20-minute task on each of these days no matter what he felt. He could be down, depressed, annoyed or sleepy, but he had to practice working through those feelings while getting the steps completed. Sam could complete his homework assignments during these times.

Essentially, Sam just had to get the steps done, even though they seemed boring, because this is part of any goal worth achieving.He had to learn to talk himself into doing things, "say things on him like" Come on Sam, you can do this. Anybody can spend 20 minutes completing tasks "and" I am an initiator and I get things done. " These statements became like mantras to Sam and helped him cultivate the habits that would help make his football season a big success. He learned that the small steps, taken daily, add up over time and build the momentum to break through to higher levels of functioning.

Miss Perkins asked Sam to keep track of how he felt after the completion of each task. Initially, he did not feel much better, but within a week, he was noticing some slight sense of improved energy. Gradually, Sam began to feel like a different person. He felt a growing sense of empowerment, and his funk days decreed. He began to see the results of his efforts and this motivated him to keep going with his new behavioral changes. He learned to enjoy breaking tasks into small steps, and this really helped him move forward. Sam was on track toward developing an amazing relationship with himself. He learned to support himself with positive self-talk, and he practiced getting things done while tolerating some discomfort.

After several weeks, Sam reported, "Hey, I feel a sense of accomplishment and positive energy when I get stuff done." He also said he felt empowered as he unexpectedly postpones spending time on Facebook. Procrastinators postpon doing what they do not want to do, and Sam learned to put off what he did want to do. After six months, Sam had cut his Facebook time in half, and the time spent there was much more rewarding. Best of all, Sam was handing in his assignments on time, getting good grades and starting to feel a growing sense of confidence. His one 20-minute block of time per day had naturally expanded to three blocks per day, and when he was finished he could enjoy a guilty-free day.

Success Tool 4: Develop Good Relationships with Others

Good relationships are our most valuable resource, and Sam still needed to work on his relationships with his teams and friends. He made making affirmations statements like "I can bring up difficult topics with my friends, and we can become a tighter team" and "I do not have to be critical because a positive approach works best for the team."

Because solid relationship skills are essential to success in life, Sam needed to learn to

  • listen to the other person's side of the story,
  • ask good questions in order to understand a team's perspective,
  • express his views in a way that invited good teamwork instead of being bossy, and
  • use more expressive "I" statements rather than judicial "you" statements when talking to teams and friends. For example, the statement "I want us to work well as a team and support each other" is more constructive than "You guys complain too much and mess up our chances to do well."

Success Tool 5: Use Realistic and Forward-Moving Thinking

When Sam felt that he was not doing well, he regularly made negative statements to himself, which only made things worse. With the help of Miss Perkins, he learned to replace the negative statements with positive, proactive statements. Sam learned to repeat forward-moving words in his head such as "I can do this and will not give up on myself," "I am a talented athlete" and "I am going to get A's and B's this semester." This was part of his good mental game. He quit his habit of making distorted statements such as "I'll never be good at getting things done" or "I am just a failure at life." "Never" and "failure" are distorted words and were just fueling his feelings of low self-esteem. His forward-moving mantra became "I will not give up on myself until I master this play.

Sam also learned to expect to make mistakes because they are part of life and provide learning experiences. By staying focused on his plays and improving the weak areas in his game, rather than getting stuck in self blame, Sam found that each game became an opportunity for growth. He also learned to take the time to give credit to his teams to keep team spirit high. With time, Sam encouraged his teammates even when they made mistakes, which made him even more popular.

Success Tool 6: Set Motivating, Measurable Goals

Sam had vague goals regarding football and life. When asked about them he replied, "I just want to win." Coach Allen thought Sam needed to have specific goals that could be measured and that could motivate him. After some serious thinking and help from Coach, Sam decided on the following three goals:

  1. Hand in my homework on time .
  2. Improve my running speed and my ability to secure the ball when getting hit from various angles.
  3. Use more "I" statements than "you" statements when communicating with others.

Success Tool 7: Visualize Success

As the season was coming to an end, Coach Allen felt really terrific about Sam's growth. He admired how Sam was able to talk through his feelings rather than overreacting. Coach could also see that Sam had become a better team player and was growing in popularity around his peers. He had really improved his relationship skills, which would contribute to his success later in life. He also noted the significant improvement in persistence. However, Coach spotted one additional skill that could really help Sam, if he was motivated to practice it. That skill was visualization. Coach told Sam that Olympic athletics, and many highly successful people, use this skill. He knew that Sam loved to score touchdowns and how the high one touchdown would keep him at peak performance at school, at home and on the playing field for at least two weeks. Here is the road map Coach taught Sam to increase the probability of touchdowns. Of course, these skills can be used in many other areas of life, and the more vividly you imagine the goal, the higher your probability of success.

Coach Allen told Sam to do the following:

  1. Find a quiet room and relax while taking several slow, deep breaths.
  2. Imagine you are out on the field. Feel the ball in your hands, your helmet against your head and the cool air on your face. See the other players, the end zone and the many rich details of being out on the playing field. Visualize the entire scene as true to life as you can. Let yourself see, hear and feel as much as possible to get the best effect.
  3. Then imagine yourself running across the field for an 87-yard touchdown. Feel your feet hitting the ground, hear the guys trying to catch up to you and focus on how you are moving ahead, outrunning the others. Feel your heart beating and your adrenaline rushing as you run into the end zone. Remember that your body does not know the difference between something clearly imagined and something actually practiced.

Sam decided he would give the visualization a try for several weeks. He woke up 15 minutes early so he could practice visualization while he was still relaxed from a deep sleep. As he practiced, he became good at really getting the feel of the moves while visualizing. His efforts paid off; the last game of the season was a monumental success for Sam. With his new toolbox of practiced skills, he scored two touchdowns against a challenging team. As he did his hip-hop jig in the end zone, he let himself really feel the excitation of the ultimate natural high – a touchdown that great out of hard work, tenacious practice of new tools, and good teamwork. The crowd roared their approval for Sam's achievement.

Several weeks after the last game, Sam told Coach Allen that he had a new goal: to attend college and play football. Sam now had a goal and a vision that was really his own, and this made all the difference in the world!

Source by Patrice Wolters, Ph.D.

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