Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Youth Sports and Parents: How to Use the Words Unlucky and Brilliant to Your Advantage

Nora Golfing

Unlucky.

This is what the Brits would shout out when something didn’t go well on the football (soccer) pitch.

We were living in England for 5 months. Our older daughter was attending Oxford University and our younger daughter was a 7th grader at a local school in the county town of Northampton-shire. My wife had orchestrated a 5 month teaching exchange at the University of Northampton.

Living in the UK was hard. It rained nearly every day. Except when there was this thing they called “freezing fog.” I recall steadily hoping the temperature (in Celsius) would be higher than the wind-speed (in MPH). Typically, I was disappointed.

It was also hard to find a girls’ soccer team for my 7th grade daughter to play on. But we did. It was amazing and weird and good all at the same time.

What I liked best was the behavior of the parents on the sidelines. In the U.S. parents would often let off steam in rather unruly ways. And in response, the U.S. soccer refs (IMHO) behaved as if they had the proverbial chip on their shoulders. But in the U.K., when things didn’t go well, you’d hear shouts of “Unlucky” in a British accent. How cool was that? Not as cool as what they would shout out in response to good plays. Then, they yelled “Brilliant!” with their British lilt, and it was as if all was well with the world. Later, the refs and parents and coaches would share pint or two.

I have a lot to say about youth sports. And I even got to say some of it during our recent podcast. At least until Dr. Sara Polanchek put me in time-out for bad fan behavior. Yes, I lost my cool, but if you want to hear more, you’ll have to spend the 25 minutes it takes to listen to the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast. We’re in the process of making it big as podcasters, but until then, we’re still small. We’re also brilliant. You can listen on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or you can listen on our Libsyn site:  http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

In closing, I have a favorite book and a favorite quotation about coaches. The book is The Brother’s K, by David James Duncan. Here’s the quotation:

“Bobby Edson, like most coaches, was a kind of mystic: he believed the cosmos was endowed with an ineffable muffling system that rendered all the racist, sexist, tasteless and denigrating remarks made by coaches inaudible to the students about whom they bellowed them.” 

I had some Bobby Edson-type coaches. I’ve also heard some Bobby Edson-type parents, yelling from the sidelines.

Unlucky.

 

Dealing with Your Grief before it Deals with You

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When it comes to caring for our own mental health, most Americans are asleep at the wheel. There are road signs, signals, and exits everywhere, but most Americans are committed to keeping their eyes shut and snoozing right through anything remotely resembling mental health awareness.

Okay. This judgment is a too harsh. But, I’m thinking this way because, not long ago, I watched the film, Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck plays the lead character, Lee Chandler. Obviously the film got me a little worked up.

Early on, Lee Chandler’s negligence leads to his children dying in a fire. By any and every measure, this is a trauma and tragedy of immense magnitude. Chandler is emotionally desperate. He tries killing himself. He ends up choosing to live.

But how does Chandler handle his traumatic grief? He continues to drink alcohol and numb himself. He lives like an automaton. Who can blame him? His grief must be so huge that it can’t be addressed. Right? Well, not exactly.

Not long after his children die, Chandler’s brother dies. This is terrible and sad, but suddenly, Chandler gets a second chance. His 16-year-old nephew needs an adult role model. Chandler is the best option.

The film is about pain.  Chandler is devastated. I get that. But instead of showing a glimpse of what it might take to face grief, instead, the film shows Chandler studiously avoiding anything resembling counseling or psychotherapy or education or the possibility of any genuine human interactions that might be helpful.

To be blunt and unkind, Chandler is an emotional chicken. He doesn’t face his emotions or embrace an interest in improving himself or his relationships. He doesn’t do that before or after his traumatic grief. Why not? One reason might be because doing so would be against the cultural norm for real men. . . because real men avoid looking in the mirror and engaging in emotional self-awareness. Seriously? Is this all we expect of emotional development for men and boys? I hope not.

Chandler could have done better than that. We can all do better than that.

What do we know? There’s substantial scientific evidence supporting several ways Chandler might move toward addressing his grief, his depression, his alcohol abuse, and his damaged relationships. He could have been a better person a better man, and a better uncle.

Okay. I’ll calm down now. I understand this is just Hollywood . . . which is why I feel so free to attack Chandler for avoiding what might have been good for himself and his nephew.

All this brings me to my point. In the latest episode of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Dr. Sara and I interview Dr. Tina Barrett about how to talk to children about death and loss. Then, in the following episode (watch for it next week), we interview her again about how to help children through the death of a loved one.

If you don’t know who Dr. Tina is, you should. I met her in the mid-1990s, hired her at Families First in about 1998, and have followed her amazing work ever since. In our podcast, she provides wisdom and guidance and insights about death and dying. I hope you’ll take time to listen (and avoid being like the character Lee Chandler). Tina has some great ideas that might just contribute to your (and your children’s) emotional development.

As usual, you can listen at iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or you can listen on Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

That time when I conducted a scientific research study designed to test the effectiveness of using hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum and transport 18 people to the future so they could fill-out perfect March Madness brackets.

Flower in Bricks

You can probably tell by the title of this post that I’m pretty stoked about scientific research right now.

I typically don’t do much empirical research. That’s why it was a surprise to me and my colleagues that, about six weeks ago, I spontaneously developed a research idea, dropped nearly everything else I was doing, and had amazing fun conducting my first ever March Madness bracket research project.

My research experience included a roller coaster of surprises.

I somehow convinced a professor from the Health and Human Performance department at the University of Montana to collaborate with me on a ridiculous study on a ridiculously short timeline.

My university IRB approved our proposal. Seriously. I submitted a proposal that involved me hypnotizing volunteer participants to transport them into the future to make their March Madness bracket selections. Then they approved it in six days. How cool is that?

I managed to network my way onto ESPN radio (where we called the study ESP on ESPN; thanks Lauren and Arianna) and onto the Billings, MT CBS affiliate (thanks Dan).

And, this is the teaser: with only 36 participants, the results were significant at the p < .001 level.

Damn. Now you know. Scientific research is so cool.

Of course, there’s a back-story. While you’re waiting in anticipation to learn about those p < .001 results, you really need to hear this back-story.

Several years ago, while on a 90-minute car ride back from Trapper Creek Job Corps to Missoula, my counseling interns asked me if I could hypnotize someone and take them back in time so they could recall something that happened to them in a previous life. I thought the question was silly and the answer was simple.

“Absolutely yes.” I said, “Of course I could do that.”

Questions followed.

My answers included a ramble about not really believing in past lives and not really thinking that past life hypnotic regression was ethical. But still, I said, “If someone is hypnotizable, then, I’m sure I could get them into a trance and at least make them think they went back to a previous life and retrieved a few memories. No problem.”

Have you ever noticed that once you start to brag, it’s hard to stop. That’s what happened next, for several years.

Somewhat later in another conversation, I started exaggerating bigly. I decided to extend my imaginary prowess into a fool-proof strategy for generating a perfect March Madness bracket. I said something about, “Brains being amazing and that you can suddenly pay attention to the big toe on your right foot and, at nearly the same time, project yourself not only back into your 7-year-old self, but forward in time into the future. That being the case,” I waxed, “it’s pretty obvious that I could hypnotize people, break down the space-time continuum, and take them to a future where all the March Madness basketball games had been played and therefore, they could just copy down the winners and create a perfect March Madness bracket.”

Through this process, I would turn a one-in-a-trillion possibility into absolute certainty.

I enjoyed bragging about my imaginary scenario for several years. That is, until this year, when, I decided that if I was set on bragging bigly, I should also be willing to put determined it was time to put my science where my mouth is (or something like that). It was time to test my hypnosis-space-time-continuum hypothesis using the scientific method.

We designed a pre-test, post-test experimental design with random assignment to three conditions.

Condition 1: Education. Participants would receive about 20 minutes of education on statistics relevant to making March Madness bracket picks. My colleague, Dr. Charles Palmer, showed powerpoint slides and provided insights about the statistical probabilities of 12s beating 5s and 9s beating 8s, and “Blue Blood” conferences.

Condition 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation. The plan was for Daniel Salois, one of my graduate students and an immensely good sport, to do 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation with this group.

Condition 3: Hypnosis. I would use a hypnotic induction, a deepening procedure, and then project participants into the future. Instead of having everyone fill out their brackets while in trance, I decided to use a post-hypnotic suggestion. As soon as they heard me clap twice, they would immediately recall the tournament game outcomes and then fill out their brackets perfectly.

Unfortunately, on short notice we only recruited 36 participants. To give ourselves a chance to obtain statistical significance, we dumped the progressive muscle relaxation condition, and just had the EDUCATION and HYPNOSIS conditions go head to head in a winner-take-all battle.

Both groups followed the same basic protocol. Upon arrival at the College of Education, they were randomly assigned to one of two rooms (Charlie or me). When the got to their room, they signed the informed consent, and immediately filled out a bracket along with a confidence rating. Then they received either the EDUCATION or HYPNOSIS training. After their respective trainings, they filled out a second bracket, along with another confidence rating.

We hypothesized that both groups would report an increase in confidence, but that only the EDUCATION group (but not the HYPNOSIS group) would show a statistically significant improvement in bracket-picking accuracy. We based our hypotheses on the fact that although real education should help, there’s no evidence that anyone can use hypnosis to transport themselves to the future. We viewed the HYPNOSIS condition as essentially equivalent to raising false hopes without providing help that had any substance.

IMHO, the results were stunning.

We were dead on about the EDUCATION group. Those participants significantly increased their confidence; they also improved their bracket scores (we used the online ESPN scoring system where participants can obtain up to a maximum of 320 points for each round; this means participants got 10 points for every correct pick in the first round, with their potential points doubling in every round, and concluding with 320 points if they correctly picked the University of North Carolina to win the tournament).

Then there was the HYPNOSIS group.

HYPNOSIS participants experienced a small but nonsignificant increase in their confidence. . . but they totally tanked their predictions. We had a participant who picked Creighton to win it all. We had one bracket that had Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State in the final. We had another person who listed a final score in the championship game of 34-23. When I shared these results to our research class, I said, “The HYPNOSIS participants totally sucked. They did so bad that I think they couldn’t have done any worse if we had hit them all on the head with a 2 x 4 and given them concussions and then had them fill out their brackets.”

So what happened? Why did the HYPNOSIS group perform so badly?

When told of the outcome, one student who had participated offered her explanation, “I believe it. I don’t know what happened, but after the hypnosis, I totally forgot about anything I knew, and just wrote down whatever team names popped into my head.”

My interpretation: Most of the people in the HYPNOSIS group completely abandoned rational and logical thought. They decided that whatever thoughts that happened to come into their minds were true and right.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to link this to politics, but it’s hard not to speculate. It’s possible that candidates from both parties are able, from time to time, to use charisma and bold claims to get their supporters to let go of logic and rational thought, and instead, embrace a fantastical future.

Another faculty member in our department offered an alternative explanation. She recalled the old Yerkes-Dodson law. This “law” in psychology predicts that optimal arousal (or stress) is linked to optimal performance. In contrast, too much arousal or too little arousal impairs performance. She theorized that perhaps the hypnosis participants had become too relaxed; they were so under-aroused that they couldn’t perform.

It seems clear that the hypnosis did something. But what? It wasn’t a helpful trip to the future. Some friends suggested that maybe they went to the wrong year. Others have mocked me for being a bragger who couldn’t really use hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum.

What do you think? Do you have any potential explanations you’d like to offer? I’d love to hear them. And, if you have any ideas of which scientific journal to submit our manuscript to, we’d love to hear that as well.

Goodnight, South Carolina

Some days . . . the news is discouraging. Some days . . . evidence piles up suggesting that nearly everyone on the planet is far too greedy and selfish. On those days, I can’t help but wonder how our local, national, and worldwide communities survive. It feels like we’re a hopeless species heading for a cataclysmic end.

Sunset on StillwaterBut then I have a day like yesterday. A day where I had the honor and privilege to spend time hanging out with people who are professional, smart, compassionate, and dedicated to helping children learn, thrive, and get closer to reaching their potentials. I’m sure you know what I mean. If you turn off the media and peek under the surface, you’ll find tons of people “out there” who wake up every day and work tremendously hard to make the world just a little bit better, for everyone.

For me, yesterday’s group was the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists. They were amazing. They were kind. About 110 of them listened to me drone on about doing counseling with students who, due, in part, to the quirky nature of universe, just happen to be living lives in challenging life and school situations. The school psychologists barely blinked. They rarely checked their social media. They asked great questions and made illuminating comments. They were committed to learning, to counseling, to helping the next generation become a better generation.

All day yesterday and into the night I had an interesting question periodically popping up in the back of my mind. Maybe it was because while on my flight to South Carolina, I sat next to a Dean of Students from a small public and rural high school in Wisconsin. Maybe it was because of the SCASP’s members unwavering focus and commitment to education. The question kept nipping at my psyche. It emerged at my lunch with the Chair of the Psychology Department at Winthrop University.  It came up again after my dinner with four exceptionally cool women.

The question: “How did we end up with so many people in government who are anti-education?”

Yesterday, I couldn’t focus in on the answer. I told someone that–even though I’m a psychologist–I don’t understand why people do the things they do. But that was silly. This morning the answer came flowing into my brain like fresh spring Mountain run-off. Of course, of course, of course . . . the answer is the same as it always has been.

The question is about motivation. Lots of people before me figured this out. I even had it figured out before, but, silly me, I forgot. Why do people oppose education when, as John Adams (our second President) said, “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

The answer is all about money and power and control and greed and revenge and ignorance. Without these motivations, nearly everyone has a “humane and generous mind” and believes deeply in funding public education.

Thanks to all the members of the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists, for giving me hope that more people can be like you, moving past greed and ignorance and toward a more educated and better world.

Good night, South Carolina. It’s been a good day.

 

State Leadership in Education: A Missoulian Op-Ed Piece

Arntzen at opi meeting

Hi All.

I just had another op-ed piece published in the Missoulian Newspaper this morning. It’s about early childhood education. It may come as a surprise to you, but, along with John Adams, our second president, I’m a supporter of early childhood education.

If you’re interested in what John Adams and I think (we’re time-traveling buddies) about education, here’s the link: http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/state-leadership-in-education-our-children-deserve-better/article_fc8aeea4-7670-5a39-a7f5-bbb1c0875043.html

If you read it and like it, please pass on the link, especially to others in Montana and on Facebook and Twitter and all that.

Thanks . . . I’ll be getting back to the more normal counseling and psychology stuff soon.

John

The Missoula CASA Keynote

There are a number of problems associated with being asked to do a keynote speech for a local non-profit. Maybe this is all just me, but the pressure feels very big. Keynotes are supposed to be informative and inspiring and funny. Right? Well, to be perfectly honest, although I love to think of myself as able to be informative, inspiring, and funny, to actually have expectations to be informative, inspiring, and funny is miserable. That might be why, 15 minutes before stepping up to the microphone at the Doubletree banquet room in Missoula, I had a case of the complete BLANK MIND. I seriously had no idea what I had planned to say. Two days before the event I was sure I could memorize my 25 minute speech. Now, I looked at my notebook and words were there, but they seemed stupid and boring and not funny and I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who wrote this crap?” I suppose that’s an example of an unfriendly dissociation.

To top all that off, every speaker who offered introductions and who spoke before me was smooth and articulate . . . and I had decided to drink a cup of herbal tea which led to my bladder was telling me that I HAD to get to the bathroom right away. But I wasn’t sure how long I had before being called up as the highly acclaimed keynote speaker whose name was in big bold letters on the program. Mostly, I felt like crawling under the Crowley and Fleck sponsored keynote table or escaping to the bathroom. Neither of these options seemed realistic.

So I told my bladder to wait its turn and listened to Eden Atwood sing along with a group of fabulously talented and cute young girls. A man at the front table started crying. That’s what happens when you’re at an event celebrating and funding an organization that works with abused and neglected children. It was around then that Eden Atwood and her group (called the MOB) distracted me from my anxiety, calmed me out of my dissociative episode, and inspired me to go ahead and sing and dance around the stage as part of the ending of my keynote.

Just in case you missed it, the whole darn event was awesome. The best part was to be right in the middle of the generosity of so many people who help make Missoula a better and healthier and safer place.

And just in case you’re interested, I managed to deliver most my planned speech and people laughed and afterward offered big compliments. But I’m not certain how well I stuck to the script because at some point I remember saying “Of course, I’m lying about that” which I followed with, “But I understand that lying is popular right now.” I also recall, after one particular non-sequitur, saying something about the fact that because I was a university professor, I could say whatever I wanted and didn’t really have to make any logical sense. None of these comments were in the transcript to my speech. Obviously, I went way off script.

It might be surprising, but my plan to start singing and dancing actually was in the script. However, partway through the song my blank mind returned and I forgot the lyrics. The good news is that I’m fairly sure that everyone, including me, was greatly relieved when I stopped singing.

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Today, I am Captain America

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Today, I am Captain America

John Sommers-Flanagan

One of the hardest things about being a superhero is maintaining a secret identity. Sometimes I get so far undercover that even the Marvel Comics people don’t know who I am. This pretty much drives them nuts. But they deal with it, because, after all, I am Captain America.

I was born with the name John Sommers. This might be confusing to those of you who thought Steve Rogers was the original Captain America. That’s a myth Marvel and I perpetuated to help keep my identity secret. To further the deception, in 1985, I changed my name to John Sommers-Flanagan. This addressed the dual objectives of expressing an equal partnership with my wife and further obfuscating my identity.

Hyphenating my last name was a strategy similar to how my friend Superman is able to maintain his secret Clark Kent identity just by wearing nerdy glasses. Obviously, if you wear nerdy glasses, nobody will think you could possibly be Superman. Well, I wear nerdy glasses AND I have a hyphenated last name. Nobody in their right mind could possibly think I’m Captain America. Think about it. One time a guy I know asked me, “What sort of man hyphenates his last name?” I didn’t tell him because I was maintaining the secret identity thing, but the answer was and is: “Captain America.” #perfectdisguise.

I told Superman I was coming out of the secret identity closet and he asked me, “John, why are you choosing, at this moment in history, to give up your perfect disguise?” I said, “Hey Clark. . . ” (we’re on a first name basis because it always feels awkward when people call me Captain), “. . . radical times call for radical measures.” He just nodded thoughtfully. He’s like that.

The thing is, while growing up as Captain America, I realized early on that women were competent and I wanted to work alongside them, as equal partners. This eventually led me to be against the objectification of women and in favor of women’s rights to make their own healthcare decisions.

Being Captain American has also helped me clarify other values. I’m a big fan of the phrase “All men are created equal” but I’m inclined to substitute “people” for “men.” It seems only right that Captain America would support statements that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Over the years I’ve had Gay and Lesbian and Transgender friends and family and colleagues, and you know what, I found that they’re kind and competent and respectful and loving and safe people to have in my life who are equal to everyone else. I’m also pretty big on liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people, and that includes Muslims and Mexicans and Native Americans who have sacred lands threatened by oil pipelines and other minorities, including sexual minorities and persons with disabilities.

It might surprise you to find out that I really love music. I’m not that much of a dancer—although I’ve cut a rug or two in my time. Now that I’m older, I’m more into lyrics than swinging my hips. Like that phrase in the Star Spangled Banner about America being “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” To me and most Americans, I think the meaning of those words is simple. We have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to marry whomever we like, and we’ve got the courage to accept and embrace the goodness inherent in all this freedom and diversity. We also have the freedom to hate, although most people end up feeling so good about living in America that they usually find they prefer loving over hating.

Another musical reference that gives me tingles is the part of America the Beautiful where it goes: “May all success be nobleness and every gain divine.” That’s massively deep stuff, but right now it doesn’t feel like Wall Street, income inequality, and tax breaks for the wealthy fit with the idea of success being noble and divine. What would Jesus think? Well, along with Superman, he’s one of my besties and so I asked him. Wouldn’t you know, he got all analogy on me. He said something about rich people getting to heaven being as likely as a camel getting through the eye of a needle. My follow up question was about whether that meant it would be easier for Ant Man to get to heaven? At that point Jesus said, “Sure, Ant Man gets in, along with everyone else who makes himself or herself or their-self small and is interested in serving others instead of trying too hard to be bigly.” Then he giggled for almost a whole minute. Sometimes I’m not sure I get Jesus’s humor, but He thinks he’s funny, so that’s good enough for me.

Here’s another thing freedom means to me. Freedom means that we don’t have to register ourselves or be profiled or be put on watch lists because of believing in a particular God or because of having a particular color skin. It also means we’ve got the freedom to vote. And that means registering to vote should be pretty darn easy for all Americans and that voting lines should be equally short in poor and rich neighborhoods. Mostly we should be registering cars and college students, and, because I’m a superhero, I’m also in favor of registering guns. My reasoning is that in the real world it’s not as easy to sort out the good guys from the bad guys as it is in comic books and on television. What helps me is that I wear an easily recognizable spandex red white and blue outfit.  So I figure if you’re planning to carry firearms, you should register them and then at least have the decency to make it clear that you’re one of the good guys and if that involves putting on some spandex, so be it. That’s what my friend Thor would say. He always likes to say “So be it” in his loud, thunderous voice. He can be pretty convincing.

Here’s one last point on the gun thing. You may have noticed, I only carry a shield. Make of that what you will. I believe in the right to bear arms, but I believe even harder in gun safety.

Growing up, I went to public schools all my life. I even went to public universities. And as I’ve made clear, I ended up becoming Captain America. That’s not to say public schools are perfect, but Damn, American public school teachers are fucking amazing (I think that’s how my friend Pink would say it). Do you know how hard teachers work? Do you know how little they get paid? Did you know that John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States said something like (paraphrasing here), “there’s no way you can spend too much money on education for poor people.” Now, if you studied some proper history in a public school, you’d know that during his time, John Adams was just about the smartest and most persistent dude on the planet . . . and you’d also probably know the difference between educational measurements of proficiency and growth. Just saying.

I should confess right now that I’ve thought long and hard about whether to support the new president of the United States. The disrespect he’s shown for anyone he considers beneath him and who didn’t donate to his campaign make it difficult for me to endorse anything about him. But then I had an epiphany. I realized, “Wait, I’m Captain America, and that means I’m all about supporting values and not people.” This epiphany (BTW, “Thank-you Jesus”) helped me see and understand that I’m not a republican or a democrat and that I don’t support specific politicians. Therefore, whenever our new president upholds the values of equality for everyone, freedom for everyone, health insurance for everyone, gun safety, and better education for everyone—I’ll support him acting on those values. Also, whenever he sacrifices his own wealth and ego and treats women, minorities, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and everyone else with the respect they deserve, I’ll support those actions too.  However, to the extent that he advocates unequal treatment of individuals, restricts religious and other freedoms, meddles with women’s health decisions, or interferes with the common person’s pursuit of happiness, I’ll be opposing him along with my friends Jesus, Superman, and Pink.

That’s because I’m Captain America.

And you can be too.

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist, a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana, the author of eight books, co-host of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, and Captain America.

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