On Struggle, Flow and the Athletic Model: A Case Study

Back in December, I got to teach a ski lesson to a 25-year-old former tennis pro. The day before, his first on skis, he'd taken a lesson with another instructor, who had gotten him out of the beginner area and up the chairlift onto the main part of the mountain, which by my measure is a successful first day.

We went up the chairlift and did our first run so I could watch him ski. He showed a body pattern typical of beginning skiers. He could ski in a wedge under control, but had all sorts of unnecessary tension in his body, particularly in his arms--beginners tend to clench their poles fiercely, causing tension to run all the way up the arm--and his torso, which he hunched over.

"Let's try this," I told him. "This is a technique called centering." And, as Jerry has described here before, I had him take a balanced, athletic stance, engage the core, raise the diaphragm without tensing the shoulders, and breathe. After a few breaths, I asked him, "Do you notice how free the breath is, how you can easily bring it up from your base all the way to your shoulders?" He did, without any difficulty. "Now that you have that feeling in your body," I said, "try to maintain a centered breath and let's ski a little."

The transformation was immediate. The hunched torso disappeared. He stood more erect, maintaining an efficient, athletic stance. The tightness in his arms dissipated. And his skiing, which had been tentative, began to flow. His balance was better, his movements were more precise and controlled, and he skied with a great deal more confidence.

He was delighted, and now that he had an entry point into feeling what his body was doing, he was excited to explore. On the next run, I gave him a fuller understanding of centering by describing the movement of Novak Djokovic on the tennis court. "Djokovic is astonishing," I told him. "The way he moves, even when he's running down shots that he shouldn't possibly be able to get: he's always in center." Unsurprisingly, to someone who'd spent God knows how many hours on a tennis court, this made perfect sense. "I don't know if you know this," he told me, "but Djokovic is a fantastic skier."

I learned more about him as we continued to ski together. He told me about his professional career. He had taken one year on the challengers' tour when he was seventeen, but had been unable to make his way far enough into the rankings to even begin to cover the considerable expenses accrued through all the travel. He had also suffered all sorts of injuries--at seventeen!--because of the constant pounding his body was taking from endless practice, high-stress match play, and travel.

Over the course of the rest of the day, I provided him with little technical tips, the kind of non-intuitive things that make learning to ski such a challenge, and he picked all of them up very quickly. He made great strides over the course of the day. Interestingly, he quit for the day not long after lunch, admitting that he had so exhausted himself the day before by holding so much unnecessary tension that he felt he needed to stop early, lest he injure himself.

In this story we can see the difference between the common athletic model of fitness and what we're doing with the principles and techniques we talk about here. The athletic model is, in many ways, built on struggle. It is built on pushing the body through the messages the body sends about exhaustion, fatigue and pain, teaching oneself to ignore them in the drive for excellence. While most of the students I introduce centering to immediately release tension, ski with more freedom, and accelerate their learning, he was an extreme case, as befits someone with unusual athleticism. And yet, as much of an outlier as he was among the people I teach--and thus among all people--even at seventeen, an age when recovery is far easier than it is even ten years later, much less twenty or more, he wasn't enough of an outlier to remain healthy in the face of the demands of a professional tennis career.

Yet so many of us labor under the misapprehension that, but for a lot of dedication and a little luck, we could have achieved similar fitness levels as pro athletes. That while maybe we lacked some of the elements of raw talent that point to a professional career--hand-eye coordination, or raw speed, or whatever--our workouts and our overall approach to exercise could match that of professional athletes. What doesn't occur to us is that the simple ability to work out at that level without injury is a rare talent as well. And yet we apply that approach--pushing our bodies against the signals it sends--to how we work out, practice sports, and even live our lives. How many people do you know who say things like, "I've learned to get by on five or six hours of sleep per night?"

This approach is a recipe for disaster.

Because please notice that that bit about how it's only those talented few who can work out at that level without injury isn't even true. Even among these preternaturally gifted individuals, seasons or more lost to injury is the norm, not the exception. Think of your favorite athletes. How many of them haven't had surgery to fix some damaged something or other? The answer is a paltry few. Now for someone making millions of dollars a year plying their craft, this kind of long-term cost might be worthwhile. But for the rest of us, shouldn't we use a different metric to measure the success of our fitness regimes? Maybe one that leaves us feeling better and having more fun?

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