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July 11, 2017

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Severance and Intention – A Family Rite of Passage

By Mike Sullivan, Alumni & Family Services Director

I recently presented at the Rocky Mountain Regional NATSAP conference in Whitefish, Montana. Before I continue, I will have to profess that this was one of the most beautiful settings for a conference – situated in a lush mountain valley near the entrance to Glacier National Park.  Further, the conference drew many attendees from therapeutic programs scattered throughout Northern Idaho and Montana, lending to an intimate and rich networking event.  The seminars were stellar and I hope to return to this conference again next year.

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

The conference specifically targeted the theme of “addressing family systems work,” which especially piqued my interest due to my career focus in family therapy and parent involvement in the treatment process.  I chose to present on experiential techniques for promoting a “rite of passage” experience for families, wherein, the family collaborates in deepening awareness into maladaptive patterns and ruts that they wish to sever from, and works together to set goals and intentions of positive characteristics and communication styles they want to work toward.  I opened the presentation by defining aspects of a rite of passage. I then shared a case vignette, and highlighted a particular families’ process engaging in family therapy and an actual garden ceremony.  The presentation concluded with the audience breaking into small groups where I assigned them to brainstorm experiential approaches that they utilize to engage families in ROP type experiences, and report back to the group at large with ideas generated.  It ended up being a neat combination of networking and idea sharing across models, allowing each professional to walk away with applicable tools.

I have always been intrigued with the role a rite of passage can play on a family systems level. Outdoor therapy provides a seemingly paradoxical model.  The identified patient (adolescent or young adult) is sent thousands of miles from home, isolated from access to family.  The child’s parents describe the deterioration of communication, care, and respect within the family, and trust that the outdoor model will enhance family relationships.  Some would question how effective this model can be; that sequestering a child in the woods can’t possibly address the complexity of the family system.  So therein lay the paradox – how does the outdoor program address the family system, with members of the family spread out across the country?

Outdoor programs nationwide have invested significant resources in bolstering family treatment, recognizing that individual treatment gains quickly diminish if the primary caregivers aren’t growing alongside their child. Outdoor therapy, when applied correctly, leverages the geographical distance to first foster individual growth and then reunite the family in an intentional manner to facilitate growth needed to sustain therapeutic gains.

As the NATSAP outcome study gains momentum and the sample size continues to grow, quantitative data supports claims that family systems benefit from outdoor therapy.  The Family Assessment Device, a trusted measure developed to identify problem areas in family functioning (Epstein, et. al, 1983), has demonstrated that families engaging in outdoor therapy make clinically significant progress.  This is remarkable and leads to the question – what factors contribute to that success? Having worked in outdoor therapy for 10+ years, I have observed the power of engaging families in a rite of passage experience.

A traditional “rite of passage” entails a ceremony, clearly marking the transition from one life stage to another. Individuals identify “severance,” or an “old story” that they wish to leave behind.  This includes limiting self-beliefs and maladaptive behaviors.  The individual then focuses on cultivating the best version of themselves, their “new story,” or “intention.”  The process of identifying “severance” and “intention” increases insight and allows for specific goals to emerge.  Individual growth is critical, and this same phenomenon can be applied on a family level. Families collaborating in identifying maladaptive family patterns informs the process of family “severance,” and working together to name a shared vision of how the family strives to function creates a family “intention.”

Types of family “rite of passage” experiences may vary.  Valuable approaches include exploring themes of severance and intention in a family therapy context, followed with a ceremony to mark the transition.  The ceremony may be creating an art project, hiking a mountain, or overhauling an overgrown garden bed and planting seeds.  Many approaches exist. The activity itself is not important per se, but the meaning assigned to it.  The family should collaborate in identifying what the actual rite is, and assign meaning within a guided context.  The process of guiding a family rite of passage is extremely powerful and programs would benefit from continued dialog about family interventions to use in the short duration of outdoor therapy journey.

January 19, 2017

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Successful Collaboration with Sky’s the Limit Fund!

By: Mike Sullivan, Alumni and Family Services Director

Happy new year!  We are diving into another great year of collaboration with Sky’s the Limit Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the lives of at-risk youth by providing grants, support and hope through outdoor therapy programs and beyond. Sky’s the Limit Fund has provided financial assistance to a large number of families over the years, and as a partner program, we have matched them dollar for dollar.  We enjoy giving back and catalyzing life changing experiences for families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access the amazing benefits of outdoor therapy.

Pacific Quest's collaboration with Sky's the Limit Fund is a Success

Mike Sullivan and colleagues at STLF event

2016 was a powerful year.  As a Sky’s the Limit Fund grant recipient said: “Outdoor therapy saved my son’s life.  I don’t know where we would be without Sky’s the Limit Fund and Pacific Quest.”  That young man arrived at Pacific Quest in a depressed and anxious state, and emerged with confidence and charisma.  The combination of evidence based therapy, whole person wellness, and this particular young man’s decision to grab life by the horns were all pivotal in his growth.  This is not an isolated story. Having attended several STLF fundraisers throughout 2016, I was able to witness grant recipients share their success stories in front of large crowds. These are tear jerking personal accounts of suffering and healing.  Thank you to Sky’s the Limit for making such things possible!

Looking Ahead

2017 is shaping up to be another great year.  Nancy Moore has completely transitioned into her new role as Executive Director, allowing STLF founder Rochelle Bochner to step away and focus her energy on her grandchildren.  Pacific Quest is excited to host Nancy and an STLF Chairperson on campus for a site tour later this spring, continuing to showcase the unique horticultural and wellness platform that makes PQ so powerfully therapeutic.

July 5, 2016

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Sportsmanship: Positive Role Modeling for Youth

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan in his 2016 race and triathlon training. In this series of posts, Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest Wilderness Program. In his first two posts, Mike shared his insights before and after the Hilo Marathon. Mike parallels navigating transitions in racing, wilderness therapy, and life in his third post. His fourth post looks at acceptance, on and off the course.  Today, Mike explores sportsmanship and how we play the game. 

By: Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

In my quest to raise awareness for the connection between fitness and mental health, I am reeling in the glory of two appearances in the newspaper this week! A dramatic finish in the Kona Half Marathon last Sunday drew significant attention, allowing me to practice what I often teach: good sportsmanship. Despite a knee injury and a laid back approach to the Kona Half Marathon, I found myself in a fierce battle in the final stretch of the race. The young man I was battling enjoyed a solid lead throughout the majority of the race, and in the final mile I closed the gap. He beat me across the finish line, finishing one second before me, clinching first place. We congratulated each other, both grinning about how close I came to passing him in the final stretch. I am a good loser, and respect that he beat me.

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Thirty minutes later, while hydrating at the Gatorade coolers, the local newspaper approached me. “Michael Sullivan, you won the race and we would like to interview you for an article we are writing for the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.” WAIT, WHAT? That other guy won. I told the reporter he had the wrong person. “Actually, that young man was disqualified for running under someone else’s name and you are now technically the winner.” My stomach turned; I encountered a strange mix of emotions. I wasn’t happy about winning on a technicality. I was surprised and dismayed, as my gut told me that it wasn’t right being awarded first place when I was second across the finish line.

The young man surfaced during the interview with the paper and congratulated me for winning. I immediately rectified the situation and employed my moral compass. “While I may have won on paper due to a technicality,” I told him, “You really won the race.”  He smiled and gave me a sweaty hug, and then disappeared into the crowd of people.

Mike Sullivan and Bree Wee, first place male and female finishers in the Kona Half Marathon

Mike Sullivan and Bree Wee, first place male and female finishers in the Kona Half Marathon

It is experiences like this that remind me of yet another aspect of what I appreciate about sports -they serve as a window into human character. According to Miriam Webster’s Dictionary, sportsmanship is defined as “fair play, respect for opponents, and polite behavior by someone who is competing in a sport or other competition.” I strive to inspire youth through sports, and will always convey the age-old lesson: it isn’t about winning or losing, but how you play the game. I feel great about my second place victory, and furthermore, feel even better about the flurry of attention it created in the media, as it allowed me to highlight my sponsor Pacific Quest, and the importance of positive role models for youth.

Check out the two newspaper articles about the event: Half Distance, Full Drama from West Hawaii Today and Athlete of the Week from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald to read more about Mike Sullivan’s race and role as an upstanding leader in the Hilo running community.

June 20, 2016

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Sometimes Our Students Are Our Best Teachers

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan in his 2016 race and triathlon training. In this series of posts, Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest Wilderness Program. In his first two posts, Mike shared his insights before and after the Hilo Marathon. Mike parallels navigating transitions in racing, wilderness therapy, and life in his third post. Today he looks at acceptance, on and off the course.  

By: Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

I recall a Pacific Quest student highlighting pertinent lessons from the book The Knight in Rusty Armor – “Mike, the most important theme of the book revolves around acceptance. See, right here, it says ‘accept; don’t expect.’ This is a critical message for me at this point in my life.” And later that day, the student painted a rock with the message “Accept; don’t expect,” and placed it carefully as a centerpiece in a garden bed.

The past two months have largely been hallmarked by acceptance, particularly as it applies to triathlon and life. I awoke before the sunrise on Thursday, May 5th, eager to learn my fate related to competing in the 2016 Kona Ironman World Championship. A quick glance at the newspaper revealed that my name was not one of 24 lucky island residents selected through a random lottery system. Although somewhat disappointed, I had practiced the art of keeping my expectations realistic, and not placing too much emotional investment in the outcome of a lottery I had no control over. I sighed, moped around the house for twenty minutes, honored how fortunate I was to race in 2015, and set my sights on other challenging races I had approaching on the 2016 race calendar. Accept and move on.

The Kona Half Ironman, aka “Honu” as it known in the triathlon circuit and amongst locals, is still quite challenging, and satiates any athlete’s desire to compete. The race is exactly half the distance of a full Ironman, and Hawaii boasts one of the most challenging courses in the world. Given that I had raced the “Honu” the previous year, I knew how brutally hot and humid the conditions could be. I got mentally and physically prepared and I tried to keep my expectations in check. I wanted to race very well and finish with the top tier athletes.

70.3coralRace day arrived. While I felt an overarching sense of confidence, I found myself grappling with personal expectations. I have been teetering on an overuse injury. My last several runs and bike rides have been painfully slow. I can barely comment on my swimming, as I have only been to the pool a handful of times this spring, and certainly didn’t show my face around there in the freezing temperatures this past winter. What could I expect of myself in this race? How would my body perform? Ugh… there is that sneaky self doubt sensation arising.

I knew I had my mental skills honed and ready. First things first, I had to put expectations to the side and let go. As the Pacific Quest student said, “Accept, don’t expect.” I acknowledged my lack of training and the injury I am working through. I told myself I was just going to go out and have fun. Second, I acknowledged that the race is largely mental. While being physically fit is important, it is the mental process of remaining calm in the swim, cajoling those positive self-affirmations on the bike, and pushing through the intense adversity in the run. Knowing that I have been honing my mental game throughout my life gave me a sense of confidence that cannot be eroded with a tickling echo of self-doubt.

The race started at Hapuna State Beach, an idyllic white sand and palm tree laden Kohala beach. Everything seemed to go rather smoothly for the swim and bicycle sections of the race. The run is where things intensified. I had to face the personal expectations I had tried not to create. As much I was working to accept and not expect, running is my strongest leg of the race, and I wanted to run the half marathon in under one and a half hours. I battled with the thoughts of my past month of running- my training times were in the tank and far from where I wanted them. The voices of self-doubt and skepticism emerged. I toyed back and forth with it with each stride. I wanted to scream out with frustration.

I then chose to surrender, and fight the negative thinking with acceptance. All I can do is my best, and nothing more at this point. I endured the mental agony of watching my pace slowly creep from 6:40 minute miles to 7:00+ minute miles. I stuck with it. I accepted and pushed. I smiled and gave high fives to children spectating on the sidelines. I passed hundreds of people, moving from 306th place to 75th place overall. My run was 1:32:28, and while not as fast as I would have liked, is competitive within the upper echelon of athletes competing in the race. I crossed the finish line in 5:01:47 and smiled ear to ear, knowing that I channeled my Peak Self throughout every aspect of the race.

The old cliché saying amongst teacher seems applicable here, “Sometimes our students are our best teachers.” I have learned tremendous lessons from the students at Pacific Quest, and the vivid memory of the boy who emphasized acceptance still rings as inspiration.

swimming acceptance

May 31, 2016

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Neurodevelopment and Play: More Fun than it Sounds

By: Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

If you have never heard Dr. Lorraine Freedle laugh heartily, you may not know her very well. In a recent presentation at a symposium on neurodevelopment and play, Leveraging Change Agents in the Treatment Process, an audience member commented on the comforting and authentic nature of Dr. Freedle’s “belly laugh.” Many others in the audience nodded their heads and chuckled in agreement. Dr. Freedle has a playful way of engaging an audience, which unsurprisingly, is neurologically informed. I was lucky enough to be invited by Dr. Freedle to co-present on the importance of play, wherein we facilitated play activities aimed at experiential teaching on the many benefits of play entitled The Archetype of Play and the Neuroception of Safety: Primal Change Agent. Needless to say, the presentation was a lot of fun!

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Play is valuable on many levels, which is evident across species. It is not only humans who play; animals play too. Play has been observed in most animal species, and interestingly, even between animal species. What is evolutionarily significant about play? If it didn’t contribute to natural selection, it would have ultimately detracted from a species ability to survive and would have been wiped out of existence long ago. On a basic level, play is where people and animals learn to socialize and navigate obstacles. It is the playground of practice, allowing us to develop tools, awareness, and resilience for overcoming more complex obstacles later in life. Beyond that it allows us to engage our imagination, which has proven to be an asset even greater than knowledge. After all, one of Einstein’s most famous quotes highlights that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

While it doesn’t take much convincing to teach adults that play is valuable in childhood, some remain skeptical when approached with the idea that it is critical in adulthood as well. In a culture that is achievement and performance driven, what room is there for play? If an activity is not aimed at getting me further toward my goals, why would I waste my time? Well, play lies deep in the sub-brain, and still needs to be stimulated in adulthood. It has implications for our mood and wellbeing, as well as affects our social relationships and meaning we make of the world. While there is a complex neural network stimulated through play, look around and observe what you notice from a behavioral perspective. You may not see adults playing on monkey bars (well, sometimes you do!); you often see them participating in adult forms of play – humor, sports, games, and love. Most parents say that having kids is the best thing that ever happened to them, and fondly reflect on the play within their family story.

In her presentation, Dr. Freedle drew heavily on the teachings of Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play. In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Brown maintains, “Play is the highest form of love.” Beyond the biochemical firing occurring on a molecular level in the brain, we seek connection and belonging, and play serves as the main conduit. Can you imagine a life without play? No fantasy, no storytelling, no humor, and importantly – no relationships or connection… it is difficult to imagine. We need to continue to nurture play in ourselves and communities. As, Dr. Brown says, “the opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” For more on Dr. Stuart Brown’s research, you can view his TED talk here.

April 19, 2016

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Triathlon transitions – great metaphors for life!

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan on his “2016 Road to Kona.” Yes, you heard correctly, Mike is taking another stab at the World Championship Ironman, assuming he is selected to participate through the Hawaii Resident Lottery on May 5, 2016. Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his 2016 races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest.

In his first two posts, Mike shared his insights before and after the Hilo Marathon. With this third installment, Mike parallels navigating transitions in racing, wilderness therapy, and life.  

By Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

“Ooooh…. Yikes, my body feels so sluggish,” I say to myself as I get off my bicycle and start running. There is that familiar feeling -my feet are heavy, my legs feel tight, and my run pace starts out slow motion. The transition is uncomfortable, as my body begins to reroute blood flow from my cycling muscles into my running muscles. In triathlon training, workouts that combine two sports is a called a “brick.” It is critical to practice brick workouts, as it not only trains the physical body to adapt to shifting from one sport to another, but it also gives the athlete a chance to master transition itself – navigating mental and emotional challenges that are inherent in transition. The lessons of transition mastery in triathlon parallel those in life, and importantly, are equivalent to the transition practice that students at Pacific Quest encounter regularly.

Triathlons consists of racing consecutive swimming, cycling, and running sections, and triathletes refer to the two transitions during a race as T1 and T2. T1 is the point during the race where the athlete exits the swim and transitions onto the bicycle. T2 is where the athlete finishes the bike leg, and transitions into the final stretch of the race, the run. While an athlete may be incredibly skilled at swimming, cycling, and running, the winning athlete will have mastered the transitions as well. They are integral to the race and should not be overlooked. In preparing for the Kona Half Ironman this coming June, I am especially attentive to aspects of T1 and T2, including organization, techniques, and anticipating discomfort. Practicing transitions cannot be overstated.

PQ_transition_1

Transition 1 or “T1”

Similar to what I discussed in terms of preparation for the Hilo Marathon last month, organization is a critical skill to triathlon transition. One should lay out their cycling and running equipment in an organized fashion, being meticulous about the placement of equipment, as each piece has its place in the whole. Also sticking to an orderly routine is a must- this is more efficient as it conserves mental and emotional energy. The more organized and methodical the athlete is, the more smooth the transition is.

Athlete’s are sponges for new skills and must remain open to learning valuable techniques. For instance, in my first triathlon it hadn’t occurred to me to roll my bicycle socks into little donuts. This technique allows the athlete to simply roll the socks onto each foot when you get out of the water. With wet feet, it is much more time consuming and challenging to pull socks over your feet the way you would normally. I lost valuable time and felt frustrated and out of balance trying to pull socks over wet feet. Once I learned the donut technique, my next T1 went more smoothly and I felt more confident and level headed as I entered the cycling section of the race. This is a small example of a much larger lesson- learn techniques to be more successful each time.

Lastly, I will highlight anticipating discomfort. In every “brick” workout, I am getting used to the painful discomfort of shifting gears from one sport to another. This allows me to adapt to the discomfort and creates a higher tolerance. While it is physically grueling to transition, it takes a mental toll on the athlete. The physical and mental are inextricably linked. If the athlete allows the discomfort to permeate his mental and emotional focus, the athlete will suffer, and so will performance.

PQ_transition_2

Transition 2 or “T2”

These transitions, T1 and T2, provide relevant lessons for life. Every person encounters transitions life ranging from small day to day transitions to major life transitions. How do people navigate transitions in life? What skills and metaphors from triathlon are applicable? How do these parallel the transitions that Pacific Quest students practice?

At Pacific Quest, adolescent and young adult students graduate through “stages of growth,” while in the program. They move from stage to stage, and with each successive stage, the students must transition to a new physical camp, with increased responsibilities and challenges. This provides a fantastic medium for internalizing valuable lessons for navigating transition. The students learn important tools related to organization (taking care of their belongings and keeping them orderly), techniques for a successful transition (visualizing obstacles, affirming strengths), and anticipating discomfort. The transitions serve as valuable practice for transitions they will encounter in life, whether it is a simple as some of the daily transitions one encounters (shifting gears between home and school) to larger life transitions (starting at a new school, moving, family shifts).

As the Kona Half Ironman approaches, I look forward to employing these tools in race preparation, and on race day itself. Track me live during the race on June 4th by following the link for the Ironman Tracker through the PEAK Self website. With each race, I am able to review performance, and identify what went well and areas where I can improve. I look forward to following up on this blog post with insights following the race, and highlight important lessons learned!

April 13, 2016

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Gardening in LA: Alumni find solace and camaraderie in service project

By: Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

Approaching Wattles Farm from Hollywood Boulevard is surreal.  A short walk from the iconic walk of fame in the heart of Hollywood, one navigates speeding sports cars, stoplights (which apparently aren’t enforced), and screaming police sirens to find the gate encircling the margins of Wattles Farm.  After traversing an ancient avocado grove, one emerges in the 4.2 acre organic garden of eden- a setting that couldn’t be more dichotomous from the immediate surroundings of bustling Hollywood.

The garden was reminiscent of Pacific Quest- meandering paths lined with rocks and downed limbs, tropical fruits draping from tree branches, and luscious garden beds overflowing with lettuce and kalWattles Farm Alumni Evente.  Travis Slagle and I felt at peace as we toured the garden, taking time to absorb every element of the Wattles oasis.  We basked in the familiarity of the natural landscape and reprieve from the urban gridlock surrounding us.

Head Gardenmaster for 23+ years, Toby Leaman, introduced Travis and I to the array of work needed to maintain Wattles garden.  She identified specific areas that our Pacific Quest alumni group could complete during our community service garden project the following day.  Travis observed closely as Toby showed him where the invasive onion grass was overtaking the roses and geranium, as well as where the rock wall was eroding.  While many people may view the immense undertaking Toby outlined as a nuisance, Travis and Toby see potential.  Being gardeners in their heart and healers/role models for youth, the garden is a means to connecting with something greater – a deeper sense of self and greater connection with community.  Excitement grew as we refined our plans for our project the following day.

Our alumni group dug into our community service project at 10 AM.  Smiles, laughs, and reminiscing about funny stories from Hawaii ensued, while the group maintained diligence and attention to eradicating the onion grass. The group overhauled the rose and geranium beds, creating a discernable difference.  Apparently that project wasn’t enough, as the group then devoured the opportunity to weed a long pathway through the avocado orchard.   Toby exclaimed what an amazing group of volunteers we were, highlighting our attention to detail and positive attitudes.

AJandTravisOver a nutritious lunch and closing circle, the group discussed some observations throughout the day.  Many noted “being in the present” and “sharing a common goal,” as being significant aspects of the project. Others shared a sense of fun, camaraderie, peacefulness, and giving back.  Each of these observations speaks to the power of gardening and intention- when we set aside computers and phones, carve out a shared gardening project, we find meaning.  The group observed that the experience was far from insignificant, but rather served as an amazing conduit for connection and leaving a legacy for others in the future.  It was certainly a memorable Sunday!

I want to share a huge THANK YOU to Toby Leaman for being such a warm host and project leader.  I also want to thank the Pacific Quest alumni for their dedication to others and desire to continue to deepen their self awareness. And lastly I want to thank the entire community for maintaining Wattles Farm for others to enjoy.  Community gardens are a growing movement, and one can see layers of significance far greater than just providing salad greens.

March 25, 2016

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Preparation and Performance converge: Mike Sullivan qualifies for Boston 2017 Marathon

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan on his “2016 Road to Kona.” Yes, you heard correctly, Mike is taking another stab at the World Championship Ironman, assuming he is selected to participate through the Hawaii Resident Lottery on May 5, 2016. Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his 2016 races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest.

In his first post, Mike shared his insights before the Hilo Marathon. With this second installment, Mike reflects on the marathon from this past Sunday:

By Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

A marathon is a point of convergence.  It is the point where immense preparation meets performance.  Every athlete strives to maximize performance on race day.  In the Hilo International Marathon this past weekend, I drew upon planning, preparation, routines,  strategy, a sense of belonging, and mental toughness. I have honed these skills bothMikeHiloMarathon in my endurance athletics training and my work with youth at Pacific Quest, teaching youth the importance of self discipline, executive functioning, and resilience.  The Hilo Marathon was a powerful convergence of many psychological factors, which I tactfully aligned, landing me in 5th place overall and qualifying me for the 2017 Boston Marathon

The Hilo Marathon was my first race of 2016.  The race itself started long before race day.  In order to arrive in a calm and balanced mental and physical state, developing routine was a critical tool.  Since recovering from the 2015 Kona Ironman last fall, I have incorporated a morning routine that includes a variety of yoga asanas and foam roller techniques.  The routine takes 45 minutes, and aims to minimize physical injury, and conjure a calm and present emotional state.  It is a mindfulness practice that nurtures mental health and creates a solid foundation for the day ahead.

Mind-Body Training

When it came time to plan out the details for race day, I strove to maintain my routine.  While the race itself is drastically different than training days, most coaches and athletes will advise, “Don’t do anything different on race day than you do in training days.” This advice is meant to calm anxiety within the athlete by de-emphasizing the significance of the feat ahead.  Race events impose increased anxiety with the impending performance apex, applying more pressure on the athlete than a regular training day.  Routines reinforce familiarity and ritual, a major combatant to anxiety.  Thus for race day, I planned a 4:00 AM wake up followed by a mini version of my daily routine.  This helped me to manage race anxiety, however, there is a fulcrum point with racing that thrives on a bit of anxiety.  The neurotransmitters emitted from competition and increased pressure heightens focus, and athletes who are able to harness the balance, are able to achieve amazing feats. My routine kept the levels of anxiety in check, allowing me to calibrate my focus appropriately.

The day before the race I focused on mental and physical preparation.  In order to continue to calibrate my anxiety level, decrease chaos, and minimize mental clutter, I prepared my belongings and mentally walked through my morning routine.  I practiced the order of operations several times to ensure I was prepared and had everything accounted for.  It started with setting my yoga mat and foam roller out in the living room, lining up all my breakfast items on the counter, and then arranging my running equipment by the door– shoes, shorts, nutrition, water, etc.  I awoke before my alarm was set to sound and calmly cruised through my morning routine, arriving at the race 45 minutes prior to the start.  Sports psychologists say it is equally important for athletes to be prepared for unknown obstacles to emerge, however, in this instance I didn’t have to navigate any.  Whew!

MarkandMikeHiloMarathonA sense of community and support flourished and created a positive vibe at the starting line.  Surrounded by many friends and Pacific Quest coworkers, encouragement was abounding. Mark Agosto, my boss and mentor, brought great energy and enthusiasm to the starting line, giving me an extra pep talk and champion-like confidence.  The gun sounded marking the start of the race and the 100+ racers jetted off the starting line.  Spectators cheered and athletes hooted and hollered.  A sense of belonging within a community is widely understood to be important for wellbeing and increased self-esteem.  I am grateful for the Big Island community and all the wonderful connections I have developed through athletics. It certainly contributed to a successful race.

Mind-Body Training & Race Strategy

I ran the first half of the race at a moderate pace – roughly 6:50 min/mile.  This was aligned with my race strategy, a plan I created from studying the course and planning for physical and mental challenges.  The beginning of the course, where it gains more elevation than it loses, is where athletes can burn themselves out physically or mentally. I planned to start at a moderate pace and speed up in the second half.  Indeed, my body was feeling strong toward the second half and I was able to increase my pace.  I never hit a “wall” in this race, and was able to stay consistent through the final miles. I finished with a smile in 2:57:29.

Throughout the race I employed mental toughness I established during training.   I completed 20-mile training runs every Sunday in the blistering Hilo heat leading up the race.  This taught me persistence and proved to myself that I could keep going, despite the aches, pains, and self doubts that emerged.  I used my personal mantra of “keep pushing,” and “you can do this all day,” to maintain a fast pace throughout the race.  I also kept it light and positive, smiling and encouraging fellow athletes along the way.

I meditated on the phenomena of peak performance throughout training and the race.  I thought about the parallels racing has with performance in various contexts.  My mind returns to the organic gardens of Pacific Quest. What lessons from racing are similar to gardening, and can be applied to other spheres of performance?  Whether in a race, an organic garden, or at school, youth must learn to manage responsibility in their daily lives- completing tasks, managing anxiety, overcoming self doubt. Utilizing the same tools I drew on in the race can absolutely be applied to a variety of contexts, whether it is school, job, or an array of emotional struggles.  Check out my PEAK Self article on Seven Tools For Peak Performance for more information.

I want to thank Pacific Quest for the support throughout the race.  I also want to thank the amazing Hilo community, Big Island Running Company, and my elaborate family/friend network throughout the world for encouraging my racing habit and interest in sports psychology.  I will continue to  utilize my own experience and research themes related to sports psychology as I hone my PEAK Self and help others to do the same. Bring on Boston 2017!

Congrats to Mike from your PQ ohana! We are so excited for you!

March 18, 2016

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PQ Staff Spotlight: Mike Sullivan on Mindfulness and Marathon Preparation

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan on his “2016 Road to Kona.” Yes, you heard correctly, Mike is taking another stab at the World Championship Ironman, assuming he is selected to participate through the Hawaii Resident Lottery on May 5, 2016. Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his 2016 races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest.

Up first, Mike’s reflections as he prepares for the Hilo Marathon this Sunday:

By Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Mike Sullivan raceIt turns out that I ran 300 miles during the month of February – something that came as somewhat of a surprise to me. I wasn’t entirely aware that I was putting that kind of mileage on my body during the month. I ran the stats on my computer and learned that my total running time was­­ 40.5 hours, a significant commitment to say it lightly. It begs the question, and I hear this all the time, “What do you think about during all those hours?” The truth is, although I have been asked this question many times, I don’t exactly know how to answer, as it isn’t entirely clear to me.

Mindfulness Training and the Brain

This much is clear though- I have observed my personal thought process and studied the neuroscience of exercise to better understand my experience. I seek to find if my experience may be congruent to others. In fact, my Peak Self project analyzes various athlete’s mental experiences by interviewing them and featuring an “Athlete of the Month” on the Peak Self blog. I have learned that many athletes encounter similar mental phenomena in training.

Here are the top three phenomena I’ve noticed in myself and the mental tools I have employed to maximize the experience:

Mindfulness Training and Perseverance

My mind tends to ruminate on unwanted thoughts or uncomfortable emotions. Without distraction, the mind is left to its own devices to latch onto thoughts or feelings that are left unaddressed, and become a point of focus. One naturally assigns judgment and in my case perseverates, allowing unwanted thoughts to persistently gnaw at me.

Similar to advanced meditation practitioners, learning how to deal with the minds tendency to latch onto negative thoughts is critical, and a necessary step in reaching a higher level of calm and feeling of contentment. In fact, this process of allowing thoughts and feelings to emerge and dealing with them, is a healthy process of mindfulness practice, and supported widely within the therapeutic community. I have enjoyed the process of incorporating mindfulness into running:

Mindfulness Training Tool #1

Tool 1: the practice of acknowledging when certain thoughts appear (or reappear), refrain from assigning judgment (just noticing that the thought is there), and letting it go. Developing this practice has allowed me to find larger moments of calm and content, increasing the spans of attaining a presence in the moment. When one asks me what I think about on those long runs, the reality is that it is an ongoing project, where I continually practice this basic mindfulness technique.

I often find that a wandering mind and “mindless” running leads to sloppier running and less effective workouts. It also leads to dissatisfaction with the experience, as running starts to feel more like a hamster wheel, than actually getting anywhere. For many, the process of becoming present requires more than just acknowledging thoughts and letting them go, it requires one to focus attention on one simple thing (Tool 2). I hone focus on the rhythmic nature of my breath, as well as a mental cycle of checking in repetitively on my running form. This is a cycle starting with my head and working my way down to the bottoms of my feet. I first notice the angle I am holding my head, the tension in my shoulders, how I am holding my abs/core, the rotation within my hips, the size of my strides, and the nuances with my feet (foot strike, roll, etc.). This mindfulness technique engages focus in the experience.

Problem Solving & Mindfulness Training

As the miles add up in any particular workout and I find myself in longer stretches of “being present,” which in turn seems to lead to another important aspect of “what I think about” during all those training hours. The combination of endurance exercise and the mindfulness techniques leads to increased problem solving and clarity in my thinking. I find myself regularly encountering “aha” moments, where I will encounter a novel idea or solve a problem I haven’t otherwise been able to solve. With a clear mind my subconscious is able to make connections that it isn’t otherwise able to.

It seems that the unique chemical environment produced in the brain, catalyzed by exercise and mindfulness, fuels problem solving. According to Bruce Perry, MD, Ph.D., and founder of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), the higher level operations of the brain (i.e., the neocortex and the limbic system) are only functional when the more primitive parts of the brain are regulated (i.e., the brainstem and diencephalon). Patterned, rhythmic behavior stimulates and soothes the lower parts of the brain (responsible for nervous system functioning), establishing a critical foundation for the more complex aspects of the brain to fire. Running is a perfect medium for problem solving! The nervous system is nurtured from the bottom up, allowing the brain to problem-solve in a more effective manner.

While I utilize endurance athletics to access a higher level of mindfulness and problem solving, others seek out a parallel experience through other activities. Gardening, yoga, walking, painting, writing, and other hobbies serve to find presence in the moment and soothe the nervous system. Through working at Pacific Quest, I’ve recognized the powerful role that gardening can play in regulating the nervous system and problem solving. Tending to a garden requires patterned, rhythmic behavior of tilling the soil, weeding, pruning, and planting. There is also significant exercise-like movement in tromping around with tools, building garden beds, hauling wheelbarrow loads, and stirring the compost. Mindfulness and problem solving opportunities abound!

April 22, 2015

Written by:

Family Matters: A Glimpse into the Family Program at PQ

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Family and Alumni Services Director

mikesullivan@pacificquest.org

Family involvement is critical to a child’s resilience and overall success. At Pacific Quest, family is heavily incorporated into the therapeutic process from the start through extensive communFamily_1_FRication, writing assignments and a parallel curriculum which compliments each child’s therapeutic plan.  Therapists introduce concepts related to child development and healthy communication, allowing parents to gain tangible skills and greater understanding of their child’s strengths and weaknesses. Parents also begin to personally reflect on the core qualities they bring to relationships and parenting. Families who choose Pacific Quest are often drawn to the program for just this reason – because they value family and recognize that their child’s success and sustainable growth is further enhanced by the strength of a healthy family. 

Reflective exercises such as journaling and mindfulness practices are a valuable way for parents to deepen self-awareness and create a healthier space to support their child.  It is important to recognize and identify limiting self beliefs, maladaptive behavioral patterns, negative repetitive thoughts, and emerging feelings as families engage in the process of change.  Too often, we (as a society) assign judgement to feelings or behaviors, leading to guilt and shame. Rather than taking this approach, it is essential to explore feelings without judgement and to create a sense of emotional safety where parent and child can try new skills, reflect on what works, identifyIMG_5094 continued areas of focus and learn more effective ways to communicate. 

At Pacific Quest we encourage parents to join with their child by participating in the 2-Day Family Program in Hawaii.  This therapeutically intensive workshop focuses on increasing self awareness, recognizing familial patterns, and encouraging healthy family communication. The program includes experientially based tasks, one-on-one sessions with the child’s Primary Therapist, group sessions, parent-only sessions, therapist and staff presentations on a variety of useful parenting topics and opportunities for families to work together to strengthen relationships. The Family Program allows parents to deepen and improve relationships with their child and gain a small window into all that the child has learned during their time at Pacific Quest.  The beautiful gardens at PQ provide a perfect setting and safe container for families to step out of comfort zones, become vulnerable, and take emotional risks, with the guidance and support of our highly experienced clinical team.

In addition to Horticultural Therapy, a key component of Pacific Quest’s model is a Rites of Passage program.  Families are invited to identify self-imposed “barriers” which may have prevented them in the past from being the best version of themselves. What is it that they would like to sever from at this point in their lives, thus allowing them to be the person they truly want to be.  Students (and their families) are at a threshold between their “old stories” and their “new stories.”  

Family_Yoga_FR-1

The work a family engages in individually and at the Family Program allows them to practice shedding aspects of the “old story” and allow core qualities to emerge so that a “new story” may be created. 

In reconnecting with Pacific Quest alumni families, the challenging work of examining oneself as a parent still looms fresh.  Many will reveal a metaphor, which they connected with while at the Family Program: Just as the weeds will continue to grow and the garden bed needs ongoing maintenance, so does oneself as a parent, and as a person.