Stress and Struggle, Pleasure and Play

Back in August, 2014, a few weeks after the various stressors in my life just got to be too much and everything pretty much fell apart, and a little before our first official session, Jerry came to watch me play soccer. He didn't tell me he was coming and I didn't see him. I didn't know he'd been there until he told me about it at our next poker game.

"What did you see?" I asked him.

"I saw a lot of stress," he said. "You say you love the game but you don't really act like it on the field."

He said this matter-of-factly, without any particular judgment, but I remember I had to fight to keep from bursting into tears. It was a raw time, and there's a way that certain pieces of truth can hit you and force you to confront things in your life. I say I play soccer because I love it, but on the field I experience a lot of stress and not much fun. I already knew I had to make substantial changes in my life--indeed, by the time we had this conversation, I was already doing things to drag myself up from the lows I'd fallen into--but here was a very concrete and hard-to-confront reality: even the things I love I didn't know how to enjoy right then.

We're a year-and-a-half removed from that day, and I've come a long way. It's not that I'm incapable of joylessly churning away at things that should be fun or that I don't do it anymore. But now I'm likely to notice when it happens and try to figure out if it's something that can be changed or if it's inherent in the activity. For example, the indoor soccer leagues here in Boulder have games that start as late as 11:10pm. The games themselves are usually fun, but the cost is tremendous--I won't get to sleep until 1 or 2am, and I wake around 7am, so the whole day after the match is pretty much worthless. Now, I tell my teammates that I simply won't play the 11:10p games.

Diving into stress is a pretty common way for adults to approach competition. I don't know if we learned it from our parents when we were kids or from our coaches when we played youth sports or from watching professionals (for whom winning and losing has a very different significance from that of amateurs) or from all of the above, but people put a lot of ego into winning and losing. Most of my soccer teammates treat the game like there's more at stake than just a fun day at the fields. I unconsciously used to do the same. Now I'm trying to break that habit.

It's hardly just in athletic competition that I can choose stress and struggle over pleasure and ease. I've done more grinding out writing than anyone should do in their life, despite a recognition from way back that my best writing tends to come from approaching the words and sentences with a sense of flow and play. At this point, I've built some of that play into the techniques I work with, but I still have a near-daily struggle to trust that my work can actually be fun.

If you think back to the original idea that motivated the work and writing Jerry and I are doing here, you'll notice that what we're talking about right now applies pretty directly to Tiger Woods (and many other professional athletes as well). There's no pleasure or joy for him in playing the game anymore, and the constant grinding pressure he's put himself under has led directly to the injuries and mental/emotional hole he finds himself in now. Jerry and I are both convinced that the only way he'll start winning again is if he finds renewed pleasure in playing the game. Which is another way of saying he needs to learn to play again.

Honestly, that's true for almost all of us.

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