Dr. Steve Hamming is a psychologist, Performance Coach, and Life Coach at the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan. But, he’s also an All-American fastpitch softball player, winner of two gold medals in the U.S. Track and Field Masters division competition, the 2014 CrossFit Games Masters world champion, and a 2016 and 2019 Olympic Weightlifting national champion. In this Revealing Men podcast with Randy Flood, psychotherapist and Director of the Men’s Resource Center, Dr. Hamming explains that performance coaching isn’t just for athletes; it can help other types of highly-motivated individuals to harness their emotions and channel their anxiety in order to reach their full potential.
Flood: The first thing I’d like to ask, Steve, is what interests you in working with men?
Hamming: I grew up very much in a man’s world, working with 11 other men, all Hammings, and a lot of the traditional masculinity with tough-man contests, jumper cables on our noses, sledgehammers over our heads. So that was my first exposure to what it means to be a man. Then I’ve played, probably 35 years of softball which put me with men all the time. So, I learned well the culture of men, at least the culture of the ones I was with, which I assume was fairly representative.
And, as I grew in my own self and my own training, began to see the difference between what I was raised with and exposed to and what I really believe about what it means to be a man.
Flood: Talk a little bit about some of your own challenges (mental and emotional challenges) with performing.
Hamming: When I first started playing softball, I ended up playing on at a fairly high level representing the U.S. and then playing in national championships. And, [in my] early 30s struggled a lot with my own anxiety: going out on the field, feeling really heavy, not wanting to perform, wanting the game to be done, not enjoying it because I was too anxious. As I started and finished my doctoral degree and understood what was happening in my body, what was happening in my mind regarding anxiety, I could use my own performance on the field and then when I transferred into the world of cross-fit and weight-lifting, really use the energy from anxiety as a part of performance rather than fighting it.
Flood: So you’re saying anxiety can be a common experience for all performers and what you teach is to have a different relationship with it?
Hamming: Exactly. “Relationship’s” a great word. Every high-performer that I know, both in the office and out of the office, feels some level of anxiety (or we could call it arousal). And the idea is to keep it in an optimal range. Too little, you go in flat. Too much, you go in — worst case — parallelized.
The Power of Emotion
Hamming: Emotion in performance, particularly in athletics, but acting, too, singing, too, emotion is crucial. And learning to appreciate what’s going on in your emotional self and harnessing it and using it rather than fighting it or denying it or thinking of it as weakness, really befriending it so you can use it to get behind you as a performer. …You want some aliveness inside and I’ve come to value that as an athlete once I stopped fighting it and thinking of it as a problem. And, in my office as a therapist, I also want to help men tap into, align with, be aware of the aliveness emotionally as they live their lives.
Flood: There’s a certain level of vulnerability I think in submitting or asking for help. And, so, there’s that barrier: “Am I weak? Is there something wrong with me, because I’m asking you for help?”
Hamming: Right. … they come into the office still wanting to stay in their heads: “I don’t need to talk about feelings. I don’t need to worry about my feelings.” And, yet, that’s probably the biggest contributor to a limited performance.
Performance Coaching — Not Just for Athletes
Hamming: I think of performance as anything that happens on stage. The stage could be a field, court, a literal stage like an actor or a symphony player. The stage could be an attorney standing in front of the judge. So anytime that we’re metaphorically on stage, having to speak, to sing, to move, there’s going to be this confounding of emotional issues.
Flood: I never heard you say like an attorney, a trial attorney, is on stage. …to be a good trial attorney, not only to you have to know the law but you have to know how to perform. You’re performing in front of the jury. You’re performing in front of the judge. And cross-examination, you might want to be a little bit intimidating. Ingratiating, relational when you do the direct exam. There’re many different places that we are on stage; where performance is required.
Hamming: And, when we are, then issues like emotions, issues like limiting self-beliefs, issues like one’s personal history – as you come face-to-face with power or with struggle – they come alive. And, it’s really amazing to me when people come in and they start talking about them. They know something’s going on but they don’t know why until we start unpacking it and then it becomes much clearer to them.
Flood: Some people might even self-sabotage their optimal performance because there’s something telling them that they don’t deserve to be at a certain level and so they have a way of just kinda never quite getting to that optimal place and it’s all just self-sabotage. Do you ever run into that?
Hamming: Yeah. I think of one man in particular that I worked with who, because of being raised with an older brother, and even though he was more athletic, and he was smarter than his older brother, the messages he got from his parents was it was not o.k. to win because that made older brother feel badly. And he had a way of taking that into his life and when he was about to win at something – and his wasn’t athletic, it was a different on-stage experience – he would sabotage or he would limit himself and settle into that second-place role.
Flood: What I hear you saying is that part of your performance coaching would be to get people to feel enlivened and enjoy.
Hamming: Right. That has to be a part of performing, if not during competition, certainly at the end. I picture Tiger Woods maybe 10 years ago when he did the fist bump or Kurt Gibson when he hit the home run and he’s pumping his fist. That kind of emotional expressiveness makes playing the game of sport or life much more enjoyable, much more rich.
Flood: Do you think for men, some men, not all men, depend on sports, watching sports or participating in sports, to be connected to their emotions, because in other places they don’t give themselves permission?
Hamming: Yeah, it’s interesting using a sport as one of the few sanctioned areas where men can touch each other, hug, cry on each other, hit each other on the butt, and it’s all good. Try that at the office and that’s probably not going to be such a big hit!
Flood: Can we talk about relationships and emotions in other domains besides performance?
Hamming: If the performance is a sport – and I’ll just stay with that, ‘cause as I said, it could be many different types of performance – we will certainly talk about the value of celebrating, … learning to value and appreciate that their emotional self is normal. It’s not masculine or feminine. It’s human. That the physiology of men and women in terms of the limbic system, and tear ducts, and, … everything’s the same. These are human abilities to emote, not feminine or masculine.
Flood: Are there any particular age groups that you work with or that offer certain kinds of challenges?
Hamming: I think when it comes to this part of performance enhancement, I’ve found it best for the athlete to be at least 16, usually 17 or over. It’s like the final piece. They’ve done the physical conditioning, they’ve done the technical training for their sport of how to perform, and then the final piece is the mental/emotional piece. … Take a professional, or someone trying to become a professional, baseball player. In terms of ability, when they get to Triple-A and the majors, they’re all about the same. The ones that have done the mental work, that are mentally tough, whether they’ve done the work or are fortunate enough to have developed that as they’ve developed, those are the ones that are going to perform better. Physically, they’re all there. Technically, they’re all there.
The Power of Mental Preparation
Flood: Is there something where you could say that you never thought you would be able to do something, you never thought you’d be able to achieve at a certain level, and the work you did on your own performance, and the emotional preparation, and the physical preparation allowed you to crest over something. Is there a moment that stands out for you?
Hamming: Currently, I compete in Olympic lifting. And every sport has its own peculiar mental preparation. Lifting is like bowling, is like golf. Everybody around you goes silent. And you’re standing on the stage all alone. And the need to pull your focus in, listen to yourself, there’s no distractions to get lost up in, music or screaming fans. I use my current competition, and I have now for about the past 10 years, as kind of my educational playground, training ground, about what happens in my mind, where does it go, how might this relate to other men. And then find ways to direct it for myself that help me achieve.
Flood: I never thought of that. That there’s certain sports that everything goes silent.
Hamming: I came from the world of cross-fit competition where they just blast the music and so what you have to do with your mind there is very different. And every sport is unique that way.
Why Go It Alone?
Flood: What do you want to say to that person who’s reluctant to ask for help for whether it’s life coaching or performance coaching?
Hamming: I think of the work that I do in my office as very analogous to working with an athletic coach. Yeah, you could get in the batter’s box and you could hit and you could take batting practice and you could swing a thousand times, but having a hitting coach watch you, they will inevitably see things that you do not see and can help your game. And while many people can do it on their own, I would say, “but, you don’t have to.” There are great benefits to having another pair of eyes on what am I doing, what don’t I see. I think of it much like coaching.
Flood: It’s very freeing for men to know that they don’t have to go it alone. In life. In many ways. Coaching. Counseling. Spiritual direction. Whatever it might be.
More About the Benefits of Performance Coaching
Find out how you can unlock your full potential by scheduling a consultation with Dr. Hamming. He is also available to speak with your athletic team, school, or organization about the value of emotional and mental preparedness. Contact Dr. Hamming through the Men’s Resource Center.