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.

Love and Joy

The athlete’s journey begins with play. That play manifests itself in the experience of joy and enthusiasm. And, if its encouraged, into a love of the activity. When three thousand Olympic Athletes were asked the primary factor in starting their sport, the number one response was love of activity. We love to play.

” We play because we have an exuberance of spirits and energy…, says Kay Redfield Jamison in her book Exuberance, The Passion For Life … but, we are also exuberant because we play.”

There is something in those movements of gliding and sliding, twisting and turning, running and jumping and rolling over and over that gives us a sense of freedom and delight. That is is the grace of motion:  playful, elegant and transforming.

So in this season of love and joy one of the best ways to experience those is to take time to play, especially if you have snow! As Redfield Jamison writes, ” It is a rare person who remains unmoved by a first snowfall. Snow is magic; it draws us in, jostles memory and stirs desire. It enchants.”   Here’s what enchantment looks like. Merry Christmas!!


Tired AthleteGraceful action starts with rhythm. Every movement is like a measure of music with its own time signature. We see it in the flowing turns of an alpine racer and the quick catch and shoot on the basketball court.  It’s true for a team as well.  Phil Jackson wrote in his book Eleven Rings, The Soul of Success, ” I discovered early that the best way to get players to coordinate their actions was to get them to play the game in 4/4 time. The basic rule was that the player with the ball had to do something with it before the third beat; either pass shoot or start to dribble. When everyone is keeping time it makes it easier to harmonize with one another beat by beat.”

It’s frustrating as an athlete when you can’t find your rhythm, when it’s disrupted by an opponent or lost in a change of tempo or terrain. Rhythm focuses energy. When the rhythm is gone every movement becomes a separate impulse, a constant effort to overcome inertia.  Without the momentum that rhythm provides, powerful, fluid movements become mechanical and awkward and exhausting.  Play becomes hard work.

The great thing is we have the ability to turn it around, to find our rhythm and regain our momentum. We might have to slow it down, maybe even pause ( musicians don’t play on every beat ) then pay attention and listen until we can hear the rhythm and feel the beat again. It’s easier to get back in the game when we remember that grace and power haven’t left us. They’re just waiting for us to find our rhythm.

The Morning Ride

IMG_0710It’s about play. I know it’s a workout, it’s training, it’s exercise. It’s a morning ride on the mountain bike doing extensive intervals, building capacity – all good stuff.  And… it’s about play.

There is something graceful in play, in the apparent purposelessness of an activity. Like the early morning trail ride. And, today it was play. A hard ride for sure and exhilarating. Yet, there is so much more. The movement, the changing scenery, the sun stirring activity on the trail and in town. The small subtle changes on the lake as the water, at first still, calm and clear begins to reflect the light and movement of the new day. There is the fragrance of lilacs that cross the trail like streams awakening and refreshing as you pass through them. There is the occasional early morning athlete on the trail and the knowing nod you exchange in the moment you pass. There are the delivery trucks and the maintenance folks on the empty street of the small town a few miles down that trail that will be gone before the rest of the world is even up to know they were there.

Yup, this ride, this workout is about target HR and aerobic threshold but, as good as the progress that comes with training will feel, that’s not where the grace is today. The grace is in the act of playing.

Stuart Brown, MD,  Director of the National Institute of Play lists the following characteristics of play:

1. Apparent Purposelessness – we don’t do it for it’s practical value, we do it for it’s own sake. Some people might even think it’s a waste of time.

2. It’s voluntary – nobody’s making you do it.

3. Inherent attraction – It’s just plain  fun. It makes you feel good.

4. Freedom from time – When we’re really into it we lose a sense of time.

5. Diminished consciousness of self – We stop thinking about thinking. We stop worrying about how we look. We’re just doing it.

6. Improvisational potential – We aren’t locked in to one way of doing things. We’re open to trying different approaches, messing about, making it up as we go.

7. Continuation desire – It’s fun and when we’re done we want to do it again.

And, there you have it in a nutshell; my morning ride. That’s what transforms it from just a workout into an experience of grace.  I hope I can carry that same spirit and thinking into the rest of the day. I hope you can too. Play with it.