Coaching As An Act Of Faith

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”  ~ Martha Graham

Every athlete is unique; an experiment where n=1. The coach’s role simply to help the athlete remove the impediments to that unique expression of life’s energy and vitality. It is an act of faith that  begins by placing trust in the process of discovery, in the athlete themselves and ultimately in the mystery of that life force.

When done gracefully, coaching becomes not an act of ego but one of service,  to the athlete and to that larger mystery.

Out Past The Edge

018_18The athletes have finished their warm up and are moving to the line for the start of the workout. It’s a tough one, what we call an “edge” workout. They will challenge themselves – going beyond what they’ve done before. 120 yard runs in 19 seconds, 35 seconds to jog back to the start, 30 seconds to rest and then repeat – 10 times.

They approach the line quietly, intentionally, focused. One of them asks again, “How many of these?” A few of them say something encouraging like, “Alright we got this.” But, this is new territory. And then, they go.

10 sounds so far at the start. You take them one at a time though and pretty soon you’re halfway. You can’t see the end but you’re committed now so you keep on going. You get to eight and realize there are only two left. You are past your edge now, outside the comfort zone of what you have done and you’re exhausted and challenged but you’re gonna be ok.

The last two come and go. The final run is actually one of the fastest.

In a recent On Being podcast Ashley Hicks, the Director of Black Girls Run shared a wonderful piece of advice given to her shortly before running the Chicago Marathon. Low on enthusiasm, the clerk in the running store told her,

 Yeah, the best thing for you to remember is that the blessing is outside of your comfort zone.

The athlete knows that the body, in order to adapt has to be challenged, to go beyond what it knows to create a new response; increased fitness and strength is one of the blessings found outside our comfort zone.

There is another blessing out there as well and that is the knowledge that exploring the boundary increases the edge.  10 is possible so now maybe 12.

103_103Everything inside that new edge is in the comfort zone now. Deep in the match or the race or the game,  when you’re feeling that exhaustion,  you remember you have already been here, you know this territory and you know you’re not at the edge anymore. You know you can go further,  faster, harder.

We don’t earn our blessings, we receive them. They are gifts.  So, the athlete’s path becomes a spiritual one. There is the blessing of the practice itself, of learning how to go outside the comfort zone, explore the edge, receive the blessings and continue to grow in new and sometimes surprising ways.

So get out there on the edge, then take that next step, the one that takes you outside the comfort zone. Discover the blessing waiting for you just beyond.



Remembering To Stay In The Moment


She finished the run, leaned up against the wall and closed her eyes. ” How are you doing”, I asked? “Not good” was the response.

We were halfway through her workout. Its’ a point where you can’t see the beginning or the end. Knowing there are six left even though you’ve done six doesn’t really help.

The data says you’re ok. Heart rate, respiration, stressed but on target, but the mind … it starts to run away, “this is hard, there’s too much left, how come I’m so out of shape.” Then …  5 seconds, 3 seconds, on the line again, go.

She finishes the last run, takes a long walk, grabs a bottle of water and in a few minutes she’s good. Out of the pain cave and back in the light. On the way up to the gym we talk about the mental challenge of the work and how to respond. We talk about staying in the moment.

The mind wants to go to all kinds of places, tell all kinds of stories –  “I’m only half way,  I’m falling behind,  I haven’t done this before.”  Here we can borrow a lesson from the spiritual life. Be mindful. Mindfulness has become a confusing term lately. Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn describes it as simply, “remembering to come back to the present moment.”

In meditation we learn to notice, let go, return. We acknowledge the distractions. We don’t fight with them. Then we let go and return to our focus; the breath, a mantra, a sound. For an athlete in training it’s no different. When the thoughts and emotions begin to distract we come back to the moment and focus on that one thing. Your legs are tired and there are six left. True enough. Notice, let go and come back to the point of focus. That may be a spot on the track or a sensation like relaxing my jaw. In competition it’s this shot, this pitch, this lap.

It sounds easy. It’s not. Some talk of mental toughness. I find meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg’s take more helpful. ” We strengthen our minds and our meditation practice each time we recognize these distractions, let go, and begin again… Beginning again is a powerful form of resilience training.”We develop resilience like we develop any quality, through practice.

So, in our next workout we’ll remember to come back to the present, to this one run or one rep. We will build resilience as we build strength or endurance. And then, like strength or endurance it will be there to draw on in competition and more importantly in life.


Athlete as Artist

IMG_2976If you are an athlete, as you enter the arena , any arena, you might consider this. You might see yourself as an artist as well as an athlete and ask, ” what am I creating?” Don’t think too hard about it to start with – just ask and then notice. What story are you telling through the way you move, the way you compete, the way you respond to the ebb and flow of the contest? Does it come from within or is it crafted to please someone else, to match their idea of what it should look like? Is it informed by grace, by a certain quality of character, by an authentic sense of movement and play, or by something bigger.

The scoreboard is a part of the arena. The clock and the numbers are a part of it as much as the lines or nets or balls. But, as my son in law, a former golf pro,  told me after a round of golf, ” A score is just a number. A score is not a story.” It’s the story we will tell after the competition that matters. Let it be yours and let it be one you want to tell and remember. jamie+anderson+slopestyle

The Awkward Path To Discovering Grace

Youth soccer skills“A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.  All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right side solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” groups: fifty pounds of pots rated an A, forty pounds a B, and so on.  Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an A.

Well, come grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.  It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

FROM ART AND FEAR – By David Bayles and Ted Orland

Grace is often born of awkwardness; those first fruitless attempts to put the ball in the hole or get it back over the net. How many times do you have to get back up on your skates or your snowboard before it begins to feel natural? How many jump shots in the driveway before you find your stroke and your spot?

When we are children, when we are playing,  it seems easier to make the mistakes we need to make to move from ugly duckling to swan. Because, of course, they aren’t mistakes – they’re explorations. We discover what works, what doesn’t – a little more of this, a little less of that. We smooth out the rough spots till the movement flows and we get what we want. Did we create it or discover it?  Both I would guess.

UnknownArts and athletics teach us the spiritual truth that grace finds her form in the real world through practice. Both the flowing movements that we see during the competition and  the qualities of character that make sports so great take practice. Speed, strength and agility, along with teamwork, sacrifice, and compassion; developed, honed and refined over time, through practice.

So, I’m invited to set aside the “idea of perfect” today and instead to explore and play. Take the first hundred shots, the first twenty runs down the hill, throw the fifty pound of clay and pay attention. Notice where grace is beginning to emerge and follow her invitation. Where will your practice and play take you this week?

little girl balancing

Making Room To Grow

“The road to freedom is a beautiful system.”  – Phil Jackson.

Every game has it’s rules.  Boy Basketball Large A

– Put the ball in the basket.

– You have to dribble or pass, you can’t carry it.

– And, you have to do it between these lines.

Within that space we’re invited to play with what’s possible.

Setting rules and boundaries is tricky business. Too big, too loose and the structure disappears . There’s activity but no game. Too small, too rigid and creativity is lost. There’s nothing to explore, no room to expand, no place to play.

Once the athlete knows the rules we create structure to explore that space; an offensive system to try to score and a defense to stop our opponent. You find creative ways to accomplish your goal, to meet the challenge. Your opponent responds and you adjust with something new finding more and more possibilities within the space  – between the lines.

You put structure to your training, setting limits on what you will and won’t do, over time creating a system to help you develop your potential, finding a balance that helps you focus in and open up at the same time. One that keeps you safe and challenges you to go further.  In a wonderful paradox the structure sets you free.

Dr. Lenna Liu captures it beautifully in her blog post on children, nutrition and health at On Being. ” As a yogi and an acrobat we practice the paradox of holding strength and softness at the same time. When we have structure we also have the capacity to expand and flow.” 

What structure do you want to create in order to make room to discover your potential – to play your game?

Carried By Surprise

The first player finished his 40 yard sprint and came over to get his time. It was a personal best. We turned back to the start line to give his team mate the signal to go. Half way down the first one said, “Oh this is going to be fast.” The stop watch read 4.79. His last time 4 months ago was 5.21.  As the kids like to say, OMG!

To be sure, we train and practice with a plan and a purpose in mind. There is a goal out there. Hard work and steady progress are the rule of the day. Then, something clicks and our performance takes us beyond what we’ve known or imagined. Like rounding a bend in the river, we get a glimpse of something more.

In the 1968 Olympics Bob Beamon shattered the world record for the long jump. Beamon’s jump was almost 2 feet farther than the previous world record. So far beyond his personal best and beyond what his competitors had done or could imagine that despite it being his first jump,  the competition was over.  Beamon had actually jumped beyond the limits of the measuring equipment. .

There’s energy in the surprises. Even witnessing them is inspiring. Everything expands and a new space to grow and play opens up.

It is as the late Irish poet and theologian, John O’ Donahue says in his Unfinished Poem, “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of it’s own unfolding.”  The athlete knows just what he means.