“I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety. A little bit of depression. Just being locked in here …. I checked out.” — NBA player Paul George on competing in the playoffs in the bubble.
What does it mean to check out?
For whatever reason, our society tends to think of checking out as an excuse, an indicator that we are lazy. When we check out in the classroom, it is a sign that we just don’t care. When we check-out on the field, court, or track, it is an indicator that we don’t want it enough, that we aren’t tough enough.
But what if that’s all wrong.
Let’s look at it another way. What if checking out is more like the physical fatigue we experience as we make our way towards exhaustion in an athletic contest. Sure, early on we can manage it, fight our way through if we must; but sooner or later fatigue always wins. In endurance events, our brains push us towards giving up or slowing down. When we feel immense discomfort or fatigue and our brain is worried about us causing damage to our bodies, violating our inner balance of homeostasis, it starts by attacking our motivation. The doubts crop up, the inner voice tells us to quit, that it’s not worth it.
As we keep pushing, research shows we have the classic stress response: a spike in cortisol pushing us towards slowing down. And if we don’t take that route, our brains will eventually choose for us, shutting down our muscles ability to work, reducing us to a slow jog or maybe even a walk. All in the name of protecting ourselves from ourselves.
Now, let’s think about this in terms of pursuits that aren’t quite as physical, particularly, when our mental health is not where it should be. When we are feeling bouts of loneliness, depression, or anxiety. What if the brain follows the same path it does for combating physical fatigue. It senses something’s wrong, that we need to stop what we’re doing and regain some semblance of homeostatic balance, that continuing to push forward as we have been will lead to more depression. It starts with motivation, altering the neurochemicals in our brains to decrease drive and increase apathy. This is a nudge towards getting us to do what it commands. And, if like in exercise, we don’t listen, it’ll go to the next step, moving from a nudge to a push: putting us in metaphorical ‘walking’ mode when we were previously running.
Checking out isn’t something to demonize. It’s a clue. Sometimes it simply means fatigue is overpowering the body. Other times it means that something is wrong, that an individual isn’t able to perform to their previous level because their body has shifted to protective mode.
In Paul George’s case, it’s an example of the interconnection of mental health and performance. The former serves as the foundation for the latter. It’s hard to overcome not having the stable platform of mental health off which to utilize your physical and intellectual gifts. The way forward isn’t to push your way through apathy, it’s to address the flashing warning light (be it via rest, community, changing habits, therapy, or if needed, medication) and build a secure platform off of which you can perform.