“Davis, put on your game face and get out there!”

As a young athlete, “game face” was a common admonishment from my coaches as they sent me onto the field. For those who may have not heard that expression before, here a couple of useful definitions:

From Wiktionary: (idiomatic) The expression of one who is prepared for or is facing a lot of difficult and/or undesirable work, especially when it is imminent.

From the Cambridge Dictionary: serious or determined expression that you put on when you are going to try to win or achieve something.

Colorado Academy, if there is ever a time to put on your game face, it’s now. We are facing a challenging year with lots of uncertainty due to the pandemic. But, I know we can rise to face this challenge. Families have shared with me how truly fearful and anxious they are about the pandemic and what a return to campus might look like. Frustration over not being able to return to normal life is running high. Although “putting on one’s game face,” is an idiomatic expression to buck up or get tough, it’s actually something humans literally do in times of stress. That’s how I want us to approach this yearin a determined and courageous way.

A lot of times my choice for a game face was kind of a mean look. I would try to make myself look as tough and intimidating as possible, as well as determined and strong. I have always been a pretty competitive person, and I would put a lot of pressure on myself when playing sports. I would get nervous and I focus my thoughts inward. I used to swim competitively and can still feel the knots in my stomach when I stepped onto the starting block. In the stress and anxiety of COVID-19, it is relatively easy to have that facial expression in action and attitude. It’s only natural that we are nervous about coming back to school. It’s okay to be anxious to get out of our homes. We are trying to protect ourselves. Although such expressions can psych one up, I am not convinced they actually improve performance or help one manage stressful situations.

My breakthrough came while playing high school baseball. As a lead hitter with a decent record of getting on base, I faced a lot of pressure. I would want to come out swinging, but my coach wouldn’t allow me to swing at the first strike I saw. He wanted me to play the percentage of getting a walk and be more patient (something I am still working on). I was obsessed with boosting my batting percentage and wanted to get hits. I am not sure why, but I decided to change my “game face.” Sophomore year, I made a big change. I smiled when I came up to bat. I can’t remember if a friend dared me to do it, but for some reason I went up to bat with a big grin on my face. It completely messed with the pitcher, who really did not know what to make of a grinning batter before him. As I began to use this strategy more regularly, I found that I was more relaxed. I had less of the “tunnel vision” that stress can sometimes cause. As a result, the hits came and my performance improved.

As part of our professional development week, we asked mindfulness expert Dave Mochel to speak to our faculty about managing uncertainty. Dave has worked for years with Colorado Academy students, teachers, and parents and employees on a neuroscience-based approach to mindfulness. In his presentation, he spoke, “Every momentno matter how uncomfortable or challengingoffers an opportunity for insight, growth, connection, and fulfillment.” In a society that does not embrace struggle, our students are facing a very new reality. We all want to be happy in our lives. We want to have success. We don’t want to deal with discomfort. Even in times without a pandemic, Dave Mochel would tell us that, “discomfort is inevitable.”

How we we respond in these moments will affect our health and mental outlook. Often, we struggle and wrestle with discomfort. We tend to take actions that don’t help our mental state. We complain or wallow or we get angry. Employing those strategies in that struggle, Mochel observes, actually makes that discomfort worse. And, these strategies are completely ineffective at changing the reality around us.

In stressful situations, we engage our sympathetic nervous system. It is our “fight or flight” system that protects us in times of crisis. Hormones flood our systems and boost our heart rates. When we make the traditional “game face” and clench our teeth, we actually make ourselves more stressed out. The sympathetic nervous system doesn’t slow itself down. It is balanced by the parasympathetic system, which works to slow breath, reduce hormones, and restore calm.

In times of high stress, like this one, I want to encourage us all not to engage in “fight or flight.” There are situations we will not be able to control in the coming weeks and months ahead. We can take practical actions to protect ourselves and others. We can make deliberate choices to focus on what is most important. But, we all need to work to stay calm and to be grateful for what we do have.

I know that all of us want to return to on campus learning in a safe manner. We want to be back together as a community. CA has a plan that works toward that goal in a safe and responsible manner. In this moment, we have an opportunity to model for our teachers the value of patience and putting others first. CA is a community of courage and kindness. We care about each other. Let’s all work together to stay positive and live up to our values – with a new game face – with a smile.