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.


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?

Creating A Margin

Tired AthleteThe young athlete is tired. The last five days have been a constant stream of activity. School, work, speech tournaments, more work, more speech, more school, tonight training. So we back off. His engine, as we say , is running hot.

The young athlete is stressed. There is club soccer, training to get ready for college, the final semester of senior year with grades, projects, finals and AP testing. On top of that a job and the decision about whether or not to play a spring sport at the high school. Talented, gifted, accomplished and running hot.

Over time, like most athletes, they’ll learn the wisdom of nature; that energy cannot be endlessly spent with out being renewed and that a living system under stress cannot heal itself.

In physiology we talk about the General Adaptive Syndrome or Super-compensation but it all comes back to the simple fact that growth happens in the spaces between our efforts, in the margins. Progress requires effort but, we forget that margin is a non-negotiable as well.

In the spiritual life the practice of Sabbath is essential to health and holiness. Honoring the Sabbath isn’t a suggestion it’s  a commandment. And so it is for the athlete.

Thoreau saw the value of margin, “I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.”

Effort has its place and its obvious rewards while rest can feel like a sign of weakness. But, there is a rhythm to all things like a beating heart emptying its chambers and then filling again. Grace flows in both directions. Give your best effort then,  enjoy a little life in the margins.

Making The Journey Is What Makes Us

One of the players I coach wrapped up her high school hockey career a few weeks ago. And, while there are certainly bigger things on her horizon as she prepares to play college soccer, she found herself feeling that momentary sense of sadness we often feel when we reach the end.

The beauty of the athletic pursuit and it’s power to transform can probably best be understood as a journey. Whether the goal is to reach the top of the mountain or the bottom, the important part, the biggest part, is what happens between the two.That’s where we experience the wonderful grace of being alive. Challenges are met, courage summoned, disappointments overcome and relationships with competitors and teammates are forged along the way.

There’s obvious satisfaction in reaching the destination. Yea!! we did it. But, making the journey is what got us there. Making the journey is what makes us. Grace is not so much at the finish line as on the way. Which is why the end of the season or a career feels bittersweet.

It’s helpful to stop and look back for a moment; to reflect on what we learned, what we’ll take with us and how we’ve been blessed by taking this path.  Then, when you’re ready, it’s time to pack your bags. New adventures and a new experience of that grace await.  Go hard, stay focused, and enjoy the ride. Great clip below from YETI cycles on following the path.

Learning to Wait

DSCF1928I’ve been thinking about waiting during this season of Advent. There is a beautiful rhythm to the seasons; times of growth and action, times of dormancy and preparation. Their nature is cyclical and spiraling not linear. Very few straight lines. Everything unfolding in its own time.

So it is for the athlete as well. We train and practice, we do the work and we wait. We wait for the change, the growth , the adaptation that we’re seeking, the body’s response. We wait for our time, the moment, our opportunity to contribute.  And, it doesn’t come  – not all at once or right away  – until it does. Then we step on the track and our time drops. We make the catch or the throw or the move. What we need, what we’ve been working on is miraculously there.

Athletics, like a spiritual practice, teaches us about waiting.  In her book To Dance With God, Gertrude Mueller Nelson writes, “We equate waiting with wasting time …. But waiting is unpractical time, good for nothing but mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming. As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation..”

The athlete learns to wait gracefully, to resist the temptation to force the action, to rush, to press – instead to let the game come to us.

We learn to pay attention, get in position, do the work and then trust the process, so that when the time is right and the waiting is over, we’re ready. We discover that the grace that’s revealed in the beautiful, flowing action of our movements; the generous quality of our character; or the gift of transformation was at work and growing all along in the waiting.  Enjoy the season.