Earlier this week, I read a post on Patricia Alcivar’s facebook page: “Persistence is a refusal to quit. It’s looking into the face of adversity & saying ‘I like my odds.’ It’s an unwillingness to move aside! I am grateful for a great active morning! Happy Monday!”
A cheerful post, yes. But seen in the light of her back story, Alcivar’s comments are especially inspiring. You see, Alcivar has been on her own since age 15. She experienced sexual, physical, and emotional abuse at the hands of her father (a story she has shared publicly). He left home when Patty was 10, and Alcivar’s mom had a hard time raising her and her sisters. “She was overwhelmed and did not know how to handle it,” Alcivar told Chris Wheat. “I was the middle child and for some reason became the emotional punching bag. I felt it was better to be on my own than in a house where I felt hated.”
Alcivar rented a little room in Queens. “I barely had enough money to eat and get through the week,” Alcivar told me. “The only thing that would take me away from all the anxiety was when I went running. I sent a letter to the president of the New York Road Runners; he gave me a free entry to the NYC Marathon and at age 16, I completed my first-ever marathon. I think I cried for the rest of the day after completing that run. I was so filled with emotion… but the most important thing I realized was that I could do anything I set my heart and mind on. No one thought I could do it except me and that was good enough.” She also took up boxing and did quite well in her amateur career, becoming the the first female boxer to be voted the athlete of the year by the United States Olympic Committee.
Alcivar’s belief that she could do anything became a constant and important part of her thinking style — leading to her successes and helping to prevent problems such as depression. A consistent finding in research on major depressive disorder (MDD) is that people with MDD have difficulty in disengaging from the processing of sad thoughts. That is, they tend to get stuck and ruminate — unable to expel irrelevant negative material from their thoughts and working memory. Recent research conducted at Stanford* suggests that there are some neural bases to these difficulties in cognitive control. Yet we also know from other research that our behaviors can shape our brain and the way that genes are expressed. And this is what I believe has happened with Alcivar. She took a horrific situation and made very specific attempts to overcome the negativity and fear. She practices positive thinking daily — with a clear goal of improving her focus and persistence. Exactly the habits one would need to overcome adversity, depression, or another boxer trying to knock you out.
A few years ago, Alcivar came to me wondering why she was losing focus during bouts. (Not a problem that you want to have in the ring!) She was working to become a professional boxer and knew she needed to address this problem. We implemented a mental toughness training program which she incorporated into her physical training.
Now, as a professional, Alcivar continues to use daily visualization. She regularly posts her workouts on facebook — not out of some narcissistic need, but instead to utilize the social support that she knows is so key to her continued successes. Also, by saying these things out loud (via social media), she commits herself even further to a positive mental approach.
Recently, Alcivar had to make a scary decision to accept a fight against a more experienced opponent to battle for the NY state title. “I was a huge underdog,” Alcivar told me. She didn’t take the fight initially but “took two weeks to rethink my life, goals and fears.” Alcivar kept training hard, visualizing, and building her confidence. “Everything just fell into place when the bell rang,” she said, “and then I knew that I was not leaving the ring unless my hands were raised.” Alcivar won the fight, becoming the NY state title holder in the flyweight division. She is now 7-1 professionally and continues to pursue higher goals.
Oh, and here is today’s post from Patty on her fb page: “Each day, I am reminded of the fight I am up against…an invisible opponent that is breathing down my neck & on my heels. That opponent is my own doubts, fears, demons & insecurities… While these demons are not easily defeated, they are NOT invincible… I drown them out each day by pushing forward, giving my very best in everything I do & not taking the easy way out! RUN TIME!”
Attitude + Behavior = Excellence. Now that’s worth emulating.
*The Neural Basis of Difficulties Disengaging From Negative Irrelevant Material in Major Depression, by Lara C. Foland-Ross et al., Psychological Science OnlineFirst, January 17, 2013