Athletes of Happiness: Walk, Run, Participate
Sunday, February 28, 2016 (written April 24, 2016)
The day after Patriot’s Day, a Massachusetts holiday (April 18, 2016), I saw a blurb on the internet that said everyone who participated in the Boston Marathon was happy whether or not they completed it; whether they ran or walked. And, seemingly, regardless of what corner of the planet from which they came. They are all athletes, regardless of age, or whether in wheelchairs or with a prosthetic legs, or 65 years old; and many who push our human envelope to a maximal point of excellence and possibility.
What is an athlete? An athlete trains in a sport or discipline and gains exceptional strength, agility or stamina. And at a peak of mastery, excels in a physical and mental output that is awe inspiring, both for its quality, and for the amount of dedication and persistence required to get there.
Athleticism, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional, starts with training. And training requires dedication. Training often seems less than glamorous. And similarly to sports training, in my years as a dancer, the exercises for areas of the body required reiteration thousands of times and on a near daily basis, so that, like walking, these positions and movements got incorporated into muscular intelligence and seemed natural. Runners run, all the time. Swimmers swim. Competitors in tennis, football, and the many forms of sport in the world, repeat and repeat what their bodies and minds have learned until, by habit, they perform under stress and in a variety of conditions those masterful scripts.
There is no quick way to become a master. Thousands and thousands of subtle cues, nuances of movement, and orientations of the mind, have to come together in a recipe of as-close-to-perfection as it gets. So training, though mostly reiterative, also includes incorporation of more highly sophisticated, micro-informative material so that performance gets honed to a greater and greater degree. When teaching dance for many years, I had to think through and describe and offer input to students. I found it fascinating that nearly every day a new thought, a slightly different perspective, an additional insight informed both my teaching and the students’ capabilities. It seemed possibility that a never-ending deepening of understanding existed in dance, and therefore in every athletic variation.
Exceptional strength, physically, results from repetition, but also, most importantly, from pacing. Pacing requires an ability to output a more and more exacting ratio of effort over time or quantity. As an example, the amount of exertion has to cover one hundred repetitions of lifting a certain weight or running a certain distance. If too much exertion gets expended up front then the remaining pool of exertion may run out before task completion. I have often read that studies of productivity show that workaholics who stay late in their offices tend to accomplish less and less per hour over optimal energy times. As someone who works fewer days in the office but longer ones, I have learned to pace my energy and to reboot four or five times during the day with healthy snacks, power naps, and stretching or brief exercises. This does not always work because so many variables affect our wellbeing. Fighting a cold, feeling under the weather, dealing with a non-usual stressor, a less than adequate night’s sleep exemplify some common influencers on ability to pace one’s energy over a long period of time to perform well. We also have a chronobiology profile, or a circadian rhythm which, though possessed in common by the human species, has individual variations. I am a “morning person,” but my mother is a “night owl.” Yet, my low point in energy runs typically between 2 PM and 3 PM in the afternoon and I get a “second wind” till about 9 PM. My brain still feels alive, excited and active until then, when Cinderella turns into a pumpkin.
Marathon runners must have stamina or endurance, to maintain and pace their energies over a long distance. They know when to run fast, faster, and fastest. They know when to slow down a bit. These strategies achieve a high level of finesse over time. In the psychological realm of our lives, stamina and endurance have as a partner, resilience, and perhaps patience. Sometimes a situation or relationship requires of us that we hang in there through some hard or disappointing times. It takes resilience to get through a divorce, and it takes endurance and stick-to-itiveness to keep applying for jobs, week after week and month after month of no responses, interviews but no job offers, and job offers that fall through. Eventually stamina and endurance pay off. The goal may not look like the initial vision—getting to the finish line or attaining that plum job. But the goal stands as the result of hard work and sustained effort and has the halo of gold around it, and a happiness banner. The result sports the face of your personal and beautiful best!
Agility includes quickness and grace. A person who possesses nimbleness of mind and/or body moves with efficiency. No mental or physical effort gets wasted. Every moment of the thinking process or the musculature serves the goal with nuanced and masterful economy. No matter the slalom course complicating the landscape or mindscape. Agile people solve problems well because they can think through them, figuring the best path to navigate the situation. You have to be highly in tune to yourself and to your surroundings in order to use yourself in this way.
Athletes of happiness try hard, harness themselves to the task like obedient oxen and plow the field, happy to feel their way, and happy to get to the end of a row.
Guest saddle: In what area of life do you feel most like an athlete? When and where do you try hard, and repeatedly, getting better and better all the time? In what arena of your life do you intend to apply yourself with more diligence and commitment?