Give me the bad news first
In recounting my experience when I talked to a group of male 15-year-old basketball players about growing up and what that means in terms of physical fitness, anxiety, and self-esteem, I’ll admit that, while going there with all the intentions of helping them get rid of sweaty palms, by acknowledging that the anxiety behind that sweat is a friendly system rather than the enemy, I caught myself slightly trembling at the sight of my audience. Having one of them at home also did not help.
We park the slight discomfort and move on to brighter memories. Honestly, aside from the agreeable feedback I received after the talk, it was the giggles that made my day. Whether the amusement came from my slides or in response to teammates’ innovative comments and questions, still needs to be determined. The truth is, I was amused.
A time to come ‘online’
I was also excited to be sharing insights about how our biology has the answer to some of the things that occupy the minds of adolescent boys. About how puberty is a stage when it is not only the body that is growing fast – growing taller, building stronger bones, and putting on more muscle; it is also the psychology that is developing, and that according to Darwin (I’m sure I skipped the part where I introduce the great man) it is no coincidence that some mental abilities, such as higher energy, perseverance, and courage, come ‘online’ at puberty, because this is precisely the time when males enter reproductive competition (I had fun explaining this term).
Before walking the boys through the story of how we can use this knowledge to have a recipe for healthy development, I needed to justify why, instead of playing basketball, watching TV, chatting or even doing their HW, they had voluntarily agreed (that is how I prefer to think of it) to come listen to my speech. Which is the fact that, even if the whole point of life is to have fun, in the real world there are problems that stand in the way, such as feeling hungry, sleepy, worried, fearful of failure, etc., and therefore my job was to identify some key ingredients: this is where the balls, the sweat, and the expensive shoes come in.
The part on balls focused on how important it is for teenagers to eat for their health, take care of their bodies, and grow a bit of courage, pointing out that our biology dictates that we eat food that provides the right amount of nutrients and calories for the job (sitting down during lessons and training at the gym) and makes our stomachs feel full. A plate of meatballs in tomato sauce sitting on a small pyramid of spaghetti which in turn stands on a larger base of broccoli serves as an excellent example.
Balls also remind us of fitness for purpose, such as in using the right ball for the game. This was also a good opportunity to speak about how important it is to be a bit courageous at this time and to try new things that make one fitter and give advantage, always with the good caution that is advisable by the safety experts (mothers).
After many years of suffering from anxiety and depression in silence, American basketball player and NBA star Kevin Love spoke out about his struggles and urged other boys and men to get help. Surely, being open and getting support from others is what one needs to do in situations like this, but it also pays to take a few steps back and understand how most of the symptoms characterising anxiety –increased blood circulation, loss of appetite, hyperventilation, sweating, and a sense of imminent doom – are all useful components of the mechanisms of fear and anxiety that act together to increase fitness in the face of danger.
At this point I anticipated that they would ask about the type of dangers they could be facing on the basketball court, so I prepared a little list. Then I explained that if anxiety is a normal defence mechanism, and a very useful trait, without which we would not be evolutionary success stories, and even if in today’s environment it seems highly misplaced, rather than fight it, we could consider it as a partner that can help us, but mostly if we give it less attention. We can just let it play by our side.
I’d imagine in the part about shoes, the boys were expecting some secret tip to get their hands on those pair of branded basketball shoes, but in reality, this was about how to feel good by growing in self-esteem, getting it from the people that matter, and only after having worked hard to deserve it. At this stage I tweaked American basketball player Kevin Durant’s advice to players who lose confidence: focus on mastering the game and getting better rather than simply trying to impress others, and added that to do that, we can rely on one special meter inside our body, the sociometer, that keeps track of how ‘socially accepted’ we feel, and controls our behaviour so that we are motivated to work to get more ‘value’ when we need to.
In short, it’s the idea that when you put in effort and sweat, you grow in self-esteem, in the same way that eating good food and exercising gets you results in the mirror. It is also the idea that during puberty, balls and sweat and shoes become related, because if you eat meatballs, and put in sweat, you will get expensive shoes and plenty of self-esteem.