Allowing in Golf, A First Experience.

Last week, Jerry and I went to hit golf balls, our first practice session of 2016. I'd been telling him about my experiments with allowing--the experience with the soccer ball I described last week, as well as further experiments with skiing and tennis serves--and I told him I thought I was on to something. We went to the chipping green and tried it. And the results were extremely promising.

We centered and put a real focus on feeling the core, then allowed the club to move in a relaxed swing, with all the motion generated by core. It worked as we hoped. After my experience with the soccer ball, I wasn't terribly surprised that the ball came effortlessly off the club with much more power than I was used to. The ball flew with a lovely trajectory, right toward (and, with my shots, usually beyond) the aim point.

It was a challenge for me at first to figure out how to control the power. I worried that I'd try to do so by tightening up, and so for the bulk of the practice session, I simply allowed myself to hit long, enjoying how sweetly I was striking the ball and not worrying too much about the result. At the end, though, I felt confident enough to try a shorter chip. I allowed, still all the movement from core, but gently, and I put the ball within two feet of the pin.

Over the course of the session, we reveled in the sounds of our practice. Every golfer comes to love the unmistakable sound of a ball hit cleanly with a square clubface, and that's what we heard. On a chip, it's a crisp little thwack. The ball's flight confirmed the clean strike. The ball would fly through the air and then land with a similarly delicious thump.

Now let's be clear: it wasn't that every shot was perfect. A fair amount of the time I was so excited to see my shot that I looked up before I hit. And sometimes I struggled to allow, and cheated by getting really handsy, which obviously doesn't work. So I'm not describing some panacea. But my best shots that day were the best chips I've ever hit.

For our next practice session, we intend to practice at the range with full swings. For me, the challenge will be to see if I can keep myself from tightening unnecessarily in a misguided search for power. I have a strong tendency to think, "I have to hit it hard." But allowing doesn't feel like hitting it hard. Allowing feels effortless. My expectation is that it'll take some practice to learn to allow. I have a lot of muscle memory to the contrary.

Struggle and Sport

Over the last few weeks I have attempted to outline the many ways that we have been programmed to accept the concept and practice of struggle. I’ve highlighted how we get initiated to it from watching our parents and grandparents struggle to survive. From there, how the awkwardness of puberty and adolescence can leech the joy of moving our bodies out of us. This week I want to focus on how our relationship to sports and athletics has taught us to bring the practice of struggling into our workouts and everyday life.

When I was a student at the University of Colorado, I did an internship as a student strength and conditioning coach. During this time, I was in the weight room on a daily basis with some of CU’s all-time great players, guys like Kordell Stewart, Rashaan Salaam, and Ted Johnson, great college players who went on to play in the NFL.
When they were in the gym they would work out at an amazing level, fighting for every last repetition of every set. They would give their all everyday with the hopes of playing better on Saturday and eventually getting to play on Sundays.

I remember coming into the weight room late one afternoon after a physics exam. Ted Johnson was in for an extra training session. He was on a lifting platform doing a set of power cleans. He was hitting rep after rep with perfect form, and blood was running down his shins (when power cleaning you need to keep the bar close to your body in order to generate the most power). He finished his set and I chuckled and threw him a towel. He looked down, grinned and said “I have a couple of more sets to finish,” then threw the towel back at me. He played 10 years with the New England Patriots and won 3 Super Bowls. That’s the level of commitment a 3-time Super Bowl champion puts in as a junior in college.

Looking back, I would say that these players I mentioned gave their all, sacrificed health and well-being to chase a dream. They all achieved some form of greatness. Ted Johnson won 3 Super Bowls. Kordell Stewart re-defined the quarterback position and paved the way for guys like Cam Newton. Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman trophy and went on to play for my beloved Chicago Bears.

They fought, struggled and bled chasing a dream. There wasn’t any consideration of the future consequences of pushing their bodies to the limits. Right or wrong, they did what they were taught to do in order to get to play at the next level. You might be saying, “What does that have to do with me”? Well, the workout protocols that are the most popular among non-athletes today are based on the same training principles of those NFL hopefuls.

Every day I see people training like they are Heisman hopefuls. They are fighting for every rep, grunting and groaning like their livelihood is at risk if they don’t finish the set. They fight, struggle and bleed on a daily basis, and for what? My guess is because struggle is all they know.

So, why are you going to the gym today? NFL aspirations? To win the US Open? Or maybe to feel better and release some of the stress of everyday life? Now, take a deep breath and ask yourself this; does my workout mirror my goals?

Action Without Struggle: The Discovery of Allowing

A couple of weeks ago I had an interesting experience at the gym. Before my weight workout, I played a little with a soccer ball, hitting some passes against the wall and playing with a dribbling technique I've been exploring. Then I did my weight workout, which included a few exercises that target the legs. After I was done, I went back to the gym to play with the ball again. I discovered that I could kind of let the leg hang and then let the whole weight of it swing from my core rather than use my muscles to swing it. It's kind of hard to put into words. It was like I let myself truly feel its weight and then I allowed its weight to swing. When I succeeded, the result was effortless power. It was almost like I wasn't even using my muscles.

I thought back to a time over the Labor Day weekend when I was watching many hours of the U.S. Open and thought I had an insight about how the pros hit overheads so hard, so I went to the tennis courts by my house to experiment. Basically, I tried to feel the racquet heavy in my hand, and then I allowed the weight of the arm and racquet to swing rather than swinging it. I still remember the last overhead I hit that day. I was using an old ball with very little bounce. My smash landed in the service box across the net and then bounced clean over the fence.

I'm still struggling to put this insight--for it does feel very much like an insight--into words. Right now I'm calling it allowing. The experience of it is action entirely without struggle. I'm very new to the sensation, but I'm exploring it every chance I get. As I continue to experiment, I'll share here what I learn.

Struggle and Movement

Have you ever watched a baby learn to walk? They have this bouncy, rolling gait as its system learns about balance and movement. It’s not effortless, but there’s no sense of struggle either. It’s open and easy with a beautiful sense of flow. And then, at the first sign of trouble, they just sit down. You can almost see their brains processing the data, then they are up and moving again. Recalibrating and making corrections as they totter down the carpet. When did we lose that? That love of movement and willingness to explore? When did we become reluctant participants in physical activity?

For many, it goes back to middle school. As puberty began for some and not for others, our bodies began to look and function differently. Our ability to run, jump and play became as different as our complexions and voices. As we were becoming unique individuals, schools were busy teaching us conformity. And one of their greatest weapons in the battle for conformity was gym class.

Back in my day, we had those awful gym uniforms. Baggy shorts, school t-shirts and, believe it or not, jockstraps. We’d play sports, it didn’t matter if you could play or wanted to play. You were expected to play. If you couldn’t hit a softball, too bad. If you were slow and didn’t like soccer, too bad. Act out, and they made you run laps. For many, it became the most hated hour of the school day. Imagine that. For many kids, the most hated hour of the school day was going outside to play.

Probably the worst part was how they measured success: the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. It comprised the mile run, and two-minute sit-up, push-up, and pull-up tests. The more you could do, the higher your grade was. Physical maturity was never considered, nor was body type or any other thing that makes us unique. If you couldn’t do it, well, you didn’t pass. I still have a certificate of achievement for doing well on that test, signed by President Jimmy Carter. I have a similar certificate for maxing my physical fitness test when I was in the Army. Essentially, it was the exact same test. These are the tests that they use to determine the physical fitness of our military and it is nearly the same test they use to measure our children fitness level today.

For many of us, the struggle with exercise and movement that we develop in school follows us throughout life. For example, my daughter, who’s 23 now, received a C in gym class the fall semester of 7th grade. When I asked her why, it turned out that she couldn’t run a pass pattern. They were playing flag football and they were tested on the ability to run certain pass patterns. She couldn’t do it, and she received an F for that segment of class. She asked me why running a pass pattern was important enough to give her a C in PE? I really had no answer for her. I didn’t get it either. I do know that it really upset her though. I also know that to this day, she still hasn’t developed a healthy relationship with exercise and movement. It’s like a part of her said, If that’s what I have to do to fit in, then no thank you.

Overcoming a negative relationship to exercise and movement can be extremely challenging. Doing it with the current athletic model can make it nearly impossible. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be looking at the relationship of struggle and the athletic model.

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?

The Nature of Struggle Part 2

Have you ever known someone who was good at everything? No matter what they did, they could do it well. It’s like they received a special blessing at birth and live a very charmed life. I used to have a friend like that. He was something special. I would feel better about almost everything when I hung out with him. It was like his sense of ease and grace was contagious. In my fifty years on this earth, I have only known one person like that. At the time, I didn’t realize how rare and special he was.

For most of us the tendency for struggle has been programmed into our psyche. I learned how to struggle from my parents. I am the middle of five children. Growing up, my father was a career soldier. He served 28 years in the army and retired as a Master Sargent. So we moved every couple years to some new place, rarely developed any kind of lasting friendships, and never had enough money for anything but the essentials. We rarely went without what was needed, but there was never a time when money wasn’t tight and a topic of loud discussions.

There is something to be said for growing up this way. I grew up willing to work hard for whatever I got and knew I would have to fight to get ahead in the world. When life got hard, I would put my head down and fight my way through it. Living this way builds lots of character and resiliency in a person. But it also leaves you somewhat jaded with a very peculiar outlook on life.

Now, it was not my parents’ intention to teach me the fine art of struggle. They were just living their lives and doing what their parents did before them. My mother was one of seven children in a small rural town in Ohio. Her grandparents were farmers and everyone worked the farm as soon as they were able to contribute. My father was the 14th of 18 children. His parents were immigrants from Italy. You can probably imagine the struggles of feeding, clothing and raising 18 children.

Now, I can’t say that I knew either set of grandparents very well. But I doubt that their intention was to teach their children and future generations how to struggle. In fact, my father’s parents came to America to offer their children a better life, like so many of our grandparents did.

I am offering up this brief look into my past to help make a point. Most of us have learned to struggle by watching those that raised us. It wasn’t their intention; they were just trying to survive. If you are reading this, you know that life is hard and will give you all the struggles that you can handle. For many of us, the ability to struggle through and overcome has become a badge of honor. Hey look at me, I survived!

Like the fine art of struggling, living with a sense of ease and grace is a skill that can be taught and learned over time. Whether the lessons come in a classroom, the weight room or a ball field as we learn to thrive in one arena we can transfer that ability to the rest of our lives.

The core idea behind the Training Tiger Woods project is teaching people how to thrive. How to use centering, balance and breath to walk the world with a sense of ease and grace, while unlocking the untapped potential that resides inside each of us.

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.

The Nature of Struggle

Two weeks ago Ben wrote about his trip to Vegas to play in the annual soccer tournament. At the end of that piece he surmised that if he had to make the choice today, he would choose not to play next year. That it was hard on his body and just wasn’t fun anymore.

Last year, I went with Ben to the tournament. We had been working together for about six months at that point and one of our major focal points, prior to that trip, was how to play in a three-day competitive event, have fun and limit the negative repercussions associated with playing a tournament. So, I was curious on how things would go.

As a consummate team player and a highly competitive person, Ben seems to bring lots of stress and intensity to the pitch. He knows what the right play is and expects himself to make that play. He’s harder on himself than his teammates, but can get frustrated when this eclectic group of guys fails to play as a team. When we combine that with the stress of playing a minimum of three very intense games in two days, it’s potentially a recipe for disaster physically and energetically for any aging athlete.

In the year between the Vegas trip I went on and this one, Ben had made great strides in controlling the physical and energetic stressors while, increasing his level of fun when playing soccer. Before this trip, we talked about strategies to maximize fun and limit the physical and energetic stress of the Vegas event.

My conclusion after talking with Ben is that it went as well as it possibly could have. He did everything he could to limit the stress. He took care of his body and maintained his sleep schedule. He ate as well as a person can in Vegas, and yet if he had to make the choice today, he would not play in the tournament next year.

Now, I’m not judging my good friend Ben. Until a couple of years ago, I would do the same thing, except my game was racquetball. I would travel to these four-day tournaments and play as many as three matches a day. The stress would be high, I wouldn’t eat well, and I would be wrecked physically and energetically for up to a week after. No matter how accomplished I was in my energy and meditation practice, I couldn’t control the costs associated with playing these tournaments.

So why do we do it? Why do we go out and put our bodies on the line to play a game? Why do we put ourselves in these stressful situations knowing in advance what the potential costs can be?

The short answer is usually because we tell ourselves it’s fun! What Ben and I have both learned is that when you break it down and examine the reality of the experience, it really isn’t. It’s all cost with very little actual benefit.

Over the next few weeks, Ben and I will continue to look at the nature of struggle.