Addressing “Aunt Ninnie.”

The night before the deadline forcing a binary decision:  Spring Soccer vs. Spring Track…future Olympian, and social influencer, Colleen Quigley and her athlete/coach dad graciously agreed to meet with my Freshman daughter, and me for dinner.  After breaking through her awe, Annalise proceeded to snap selfies, and settled in to listen.  “If you decide to run track,” Colleen confided, 

“You are going to run into what my dad and I call, ‘Aunt Ninnie.’”  “She’s that negative voice inside that wants to tell you the reasons you will fail, or remind you of how tired you are, or why this whole track thing is a waste of time!  If you are going to succeed at track, you will have to learn to recognize her voice, and talk back to her!”  

Several weeks ago, I was privileged to interview, Dave, the survivor of childhood cruelty, who went on to set his own personal records as a husband, dad, and health care executive.  One of his life-long projects, just like Colleen, is to catch the internalized negative self-talk, “more early,”  and “end it more quickly.”  

Aunt Ninnie and Lizzie:  Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud

As the father of three track athletes, I have been privileged to occupy a front row seat to observe their wrestling matches with Aunt Ninnie.  Just this week over dinner, my high school Senior, Lizzie, asked, “Dad, how do I know that those two races where I PRed (achieved her Personal Record) weren’t just outliers?  What if my last race [that went poorly] is just returning back to my normal baseline?”  

I was so proud of my daughter for being willing to say the quiet part out loud.  The first, and most important skill in confronting negative self-talk is to bring it to consciousness.  The second, isto literally say it out loud.  Like mold in the basement, allowing negative self-talk to stay unexamined allows it a dark environment to grow bigger.  Lizzie’s courage in sharing with me allowed her to rationally examine it.  She came to see that her good performances were part of a trend line, and that, like all trend lines, there will be dips on the way to an overall upward slope.  Her wrestling match with Aunt Ninnie is far from over, but she is busy gathering useful intel on Ninnie’s signature tactics.

Aunt Ninnie and John Harry:  Getting Professional Help As Needed

Like so many of us, COVID took a little something from my son, namely, his competitive edge.  Two seasons of indoor track, and one season of outdoor track were shut down.  The decision to pursue a Master’s degree in Engineering has allowed John Harry to spend his last year of eligibility as a long sprinter in the 400m, 4x400m, and 200m races.  As he began to knock the rust off, he was frustrated by a newfound inability to close a race out like he used to.  After exploring it, he was able to detect the presence of Aunt Ninnie’s gnawing voice just below consciousness, “Your best races are behind you.”  For an athlete trying to beat opponents by fractions of a second, such an internalized voice can act like an invisible weighted back pack.  The form still looks solid.  The training program is rigorous.  But an invisible something exercises a kind of gravitational pull.  Just like Lizzie, John Harry’s mind-fulness, tracking down the sabotaging self-talk was step one.  Step two was saying it out loud.  What was the next step?

John Harry had the good sense to look up a sport’s psychologistto share his problem.  Together they worked out a strategy to talk back to Aunt Ninnie.  I sat on the sideline last week as the roar of the crowd swelled in the last 100m of my son’s anchor leg of the 4×400 meter race.  My boy, who had fallen prey to Aunt Ninnie, was clearly back to being the predator who stalked the oval track eating up space and competitors along the way. He hasn’t quite gotten back to his old record-setting best of 46.97, but with each new race, he is well on his way!  

Aunt Ninnie and Annalise:  The Power of a Power Statement

In 2018, Annalise, graduated from both college and track.  Like her brother, she left behind a school record.  Like her brother, she too consulted sports psychology when Aunt Ninnie stood between her and her track goals.  Annalise’s sports psychology takeaway? 

It was the power of a “power statement.”  In its proclamation, a power statement must resonate with every part of one’s soul and viscera…like a surge of magma speeding to the surface…or the edge of steel rails keeping the train on track.  In her case, the phrase, “Control the Controllables” provided a kind of forcefield that neutralized Aunt Ninnie’s influence.  When cold, wet, windy weather activated Aunt Ninnie (as in, “You probably won’t compete well in this bad weather!”), Annalise would utter her power statement with conviction.  This served to get her mind back onto things she could influence, like her running form, or wearing her muscle-warming sweats until the last possible moment to squeeze the most out of quads, calves, and hams.

It’s been awhile since Annalise picked off opponents in an 800mrace.  Nevertheless, her power statement came in handy when track ovals gave way to challenging inner city classrooms during her two years in “Teach for America.” I saw with my own eyes, and heard with my own ears how that power phrase is helping her make her way through law school in Boston. 

A month and a half ago, she made it with her team to the Semi-Finals of the Aimes Moot Court competition.  My wife and I flew out to watch her argue her case in front of three federal judges, whose job it was to interrupt her and poke holes in herarguments.  If her team succeeded, they would go on to argue their case in front of a Supreme Court Justice.  The auditorium was packed with classmates who are destined to become our nation’s top judges, lawyers and politicians.  As I hugged her before taking my seat, I asked, “How are you doing?”  She replied, “I can only control the controllables.”  She added a new power statement, “I’m as prepared as I can be.”  That’s when I knew that her opponent’s arguments were on their way to getting picked off by a former 800 meter runner.

Annalise’s team did not make it through to the final round of this competition.  However, by the lights of this psychotherapist, I see that she more than made it through as demonstrated by her poise and firm footing.  Just like her younger sister, just like her brother, the time she spent learning the ways of Aunt Ninnie, and how to talk back to her, provided an important scaffolding for these later achievements.   

Sunday Morning Café Questions

Thank you for allowing this track dad to indulge in a little pride in my kids.  Thanks to my kids for allowing me to utilize them as subjects in my resilience research.  I present the following questions as an invitation for you and a friend (or friends) to take a little pride in your own achievements relative to Aunt Ninnie, and what those achievements made possible in your own life.  If you, like me, still need to do some more work in managing negative self-talk, I hope this dialogue will give you a little support in that effort!  Thanks for reading!   

• What struck you from this article?  What seemed useful to you?

• What are some of Aunt Ninnie’s favorite negative messages that she delivers to you on a regular basis?

• Have her distinctive messages in you changed over time?  For example, do you remember any characteristic negative self-talk when school aged?  During Adolescence?  Young Adulthood?  Middle Age?  Post Middle Age?  Old Age?

• What have you learned that helps you recognize her messages in you?

 • What has worked for you in talking back to her?

• Do you have any “power statements” that serve as Aunt Ninnie Prophylaxis?

• What has your work in neutralizing Aunt Ninnie made possible in your own life?

• Has Centering Prayer, Contemplation, or Meditation served you in disregarding Aunt Ninnie’s voice by allowing her words to flow through you and out?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *