The daughter of a good friend is a runner in high school. Let’s call her Annie. She’d seen my Easy Speed movie about Olympic Swimmer Jeff Rouse and told me she wanted to feel Easy Speed when she ran. We started talking and I asked my usual questions. Why do you run? What does running feel like? What do you like about running? What do you want out of running? What keeps you from feeling what you like to feel when you run?
As is usually the case, Annie’s answers were no different than anyone else I ask, no matter what level of competition or success they were at. It is almost never the act of the thing they are doing that causes the problem. It is almost always the pressures and expectations they feel when they run or swim or ride or perform. The problem is usually the alignment between what they like doing because of how it makes them feel and what they want, what they chase as they run or swim or ride or perform. The better someone gets, the higher level of competition or reward they chase, the higher the expectations get, the more people start telling them how to be better, and the more pressure they feel.
Her answers were perfect. She liked running, but what was not so clear was that she liked competing. I’ve learned this really matters and must be looked at as two different entities. My job is to flush these out and integrate them together. Why? Because a lot of people get good at something because they like doing it and therefore will do it more than someone who doesn’t. People who like running, riding, swimming, and performing do not always like competing. People who like competing do not always like the thing they do. But the best of the best like what they do and they like competing. Competing defined not as winning or losing, but striving with someone to push each other to higher levels. In my opinion, competition is noble, worthy, and elegant ONLY when all sides get better for having competed…and they all want to do it again.
So Annie liked running, but she really wasn’t getting the competing thing. She wanted to win, but worried more about failing than running. We started sharing through email and she kept feeding me information about her experiences. And as is usually the case something popped out that was too obvious to ignore. When she ran on her own after practice, even a hard practice, she was experiencing easy speed– but she was also going faster. This happened several times.
She called me about a race she had coming up and I told her that she should try warming up longer given what she was telling me. Why? I go back to philosopher Gadamer who said that “relaxation is not the lack of effort, but the absence of tension.” My belief was that when she ran on her own, she was running without tension, but not without effort. In fact, my belief is she could increase her effort if she decreased her tension, if she physically burned off the tension rather than try to talk herself out of it with self-talk or imagery or visualization or breathing techniques.
It worked almost immediately. Changed how she ran and how she experienced competing– as long as she did it, which she didn’t always do.
Aaron Peirsol, one of my swimmer friends, described to me how it often took over an hour to get where he felt he could really do his work in the pool. A golfer I work with was regularly bogeying one or two of the first holes in a round until I got her to warm up to the point she got rid of the tension. Again immediate results.
I started noticing this with other people I was working with– they were warming up to get the blood flowing and maybe a little sweat going, but they were not easing the tension.
I think of this as shedding our skin the same way a snake does when it has outlived its usefulness, when it needs rejuvenation. Shedding your skin is burning off the tension that has no place in performance, and while there are many mental techniques to do this, warming up to burn off this tension has helped many people I’ve worked with.
Maybe Bagger Vance said it best– sometimes you have to go through the flesh to get to the spirit. Shed the skin. Burn off the pressure, the expectations, the worries and doubts. Don’t worry about “saving” your energy for the competition because tension wastes and burns energy faster than effective effort.
While Annie definitely got better as a runner, the most important thing is that, in her words, she “found happiness” in these moments of Easy Speed, and while she cannot always get there, she knows what that happiness is and feels some control in creating it. She knows how to shed her skin.
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