Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sports: Golden moments of peak performance

On my list of five reasons I love sports is #4: They provide a "flow" experience: they are completely engaging and challenging.

In studying psychology in college as I prepared for teaching special education, I was introduced to the concept of "flow." Wiki-pedia provides this overview: "Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields."

Richard Bolles in his classic work on finding your life work (What Color is Your Parachute), talks about finding the activities where you lose yourself and time disappears. That's flow. The amount of "flow" time one experiences in a week seems to vary from country to country. In the US, it's less that two hours a week. Yikes!

However, if you know what you're looking for, things are easier to find. If you are looking for flow, you can find it. I consistently find flow in sports.

I love the "mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing." I love the "feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." Time disappears, and so do cares.

During the early 90's my family life revolved around helping my wife with her anti-cancer dietary regimen (Gerson). This diet involved consuming about 5,000 calories a day of high quality foods mostly in the form of juices and soups. All during the day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, we made fresh juices almost on the hour. This didn't leave a lot of time for sports, but...

I bought a portable volleyball net. We live across the street from a small park. On a Saturday, we'd set the net up, and bring a timer. On the hour, we'd take a break, and one of us would go make a juice back at the house. 45 minutes out of the hour, we experienced flow: energized, full involvement. All the cares of life disappeared. We re-created.

If sports can provide flow in the most difficult of times, they can surely provide it under the normal stresses and strains of life.

But flow is more than full involvement. It is "full involvement and success in the process of the activity." Sports psychologists speak of something called "peak performance." In the course of a game, good plays happen. Some plays make the "highlight reel." Momentary success unfolds in a peak performance. Oh, how sweet. Sometimes it lasts the entire game, but more often, it's more fleeting. But by being involved in the activity, chances of these "glimmers of greatness" or "sparkles of athleticism" break out. That's when I know, I am an athlete. And I smile. (I may be on the floor on my back after having made a diving play, but I'm smiling.)

Sports is not the only place flow happens, but for me, it is a consistent occurrence. That's one of the reasons I stay involved as a participant.

Once in a great while, in the midst of an athletic contest, I'll find my mind wandering to some stress situation, usually work-related. I hate that. I resent that. I feel violated by the intrusion. When such a thought occurs, it's usually a sign that something is really, really bothering me, and I'd better do something about lessening the stress. Later, I will deal with the "tresspasser." But right then, I need to get my head back in the game.

Sports are not just engaging, they are challenging. Electronic games use increasingly difficult levels to maintain interest and challenge. Game developers understand flow, and they use it to create games that compel you to keep playing.

A good sports game provides a flow experience and some golden moments of peak performance. But it doesn't stop there. The sports game also provides fun exercise, a social fix, a window into your co-players character, and... the opportunity to develop a strong work ethic. All good reasons why I love playing sports.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sports: A window to the soul

I'm writing about five reasons I like sports. Number three is: They provide a window into a player's character -- for better or worse.

Life is about associations, closeness, and levels of intimacy. I wrote yesterday about how sports can provide us with a social fix. In my opinion, doing sports activities with friends is one of life's great pleasures. It is one of the dividends paid for the time and effort required to get "good enough" for people to want to play with you.

About four years ago I started playing racquetball. I played tennis and handball in my youth, and racquetball is a good mix of both sets of skills. Plus, it's easier to find a racquetball partner than a tennis or handball partner. I had the good fortune to find a suitable partner that began via a conversation at church one Sunday.

Vicci is about five years younger than me, and she's an athlete. We played a few times and here's what I learned:

1) She plays fair.
2) She keeps her cool.
3) She plays hard.
4) She doesn't give up.
5) She has a good sense of humor.

Over time I also learned:

6) She shows up on time, or lets me know she's running late.
7) She appreciates having someone to play with who is like her.
8) She's interested in getting better, and she's willing to take sports advice.
9) She can lose and win graciously: she demonstrates good sportsmanship.
10) She's willing to commit to an on-going sports relationship, because she loves sports in general, and racquetball in particular.

It was always fun playing with Vicci. We started out playing an hour a week, but worked up to being able to play for two hours. Except for vacations, illnesses, and job demands, we played very regularly for three years. She was my racquetball partner until she moved out of state.

I uncovered the character of a splendid soul via the sport of racquetball. It didn't happen overnight, but it happened. Why? Because the artificial pressure cooker that is sports, provides a window into the character of another. In Vicci's case, it was a pleasant view.

It was rare that she got heated and smacked the ball into the wall. More often she turned the anger into more intense and focused effort. Mostly she got mad at herself for not living up to her own standard of play. And that was okay. She is human.

Sometimes she won, more of the time I did. When she would win some games, I would find some YouTube coaching to lift the level of my play. We challenged each other. We celebrated good rallies and laughed at self-inflicted misplays.

Vicci's been gone for a while, and I've been scouting out new potential partners. I need the exercise and social interaction sports provides, but I'm only going to do it over the long haul with someone who I enjoy playing with. Someone who consistently demonstrates that they are worthy of an on-going association and a personal closeness that is developed over time on the field of play. Someone who "plays well with others."

Some learn to play well with others in Kindergarten, and some never learn it. One way to find out fairly quickly is via friendly athletic competition.

That's the third reason I like sports. It's a great way to find great people who play well with others. That's the kind of person I want to play with, hang-out with, and form a relationship with. They've proven their character under pressure, even if the pressure is self-generated via sports.

Real life generates it's own pressure tests. Most of the time, it's not as intense as what is experienced on the playing field, but often those tests are easier to "pass" if a person has learned to gracefully navigate the challenges of friendly athletic competition. Some times the real life tests are more intense, and that's when we each discover what we're made of -- for better or worse.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sports: Providing a social "fix"

I've been thinking of why I like to play sports. My #2 reason was: They provide a social "fix."

I'm addicted to other people. I like them. I need them. Solomon said, "Two are better than one..." I agree, and I like an addict, I need a regular "fix" -- a social fix.

Some sports only take a pair of players, others require teams. Friendly competition and cooperation enhances the enjoyment. Sports give you something to do with other people. Something fun.

I don't like being alone for long periods of time. I spent 1/2 day alone once... in the early 70's... in a redwood forest. Then I hiked back to camp to my travel partner. Then we got bored, so we drove to town.

I like being around people, but I don't like sitting around for hours on end. I'll sit around and "visit" a while, but then... really? Can't we do something? Play something? Do some sports? (I might even help you do some chores. Let's just move!)

Playing sports with friends means that along with the exercise you get some laughs. You share some stories. You find out what makes the other person tick. You also find out how they handle pressure, and winning, and losing. You find out if they are honest. You interact socially.

Did I mention I like that aspect of sports?

Today I played racquetball with my nephew and his brother-in-law. They are in their late 20's or early 30's. (I'm in my 50's.) We had a blast. It was our second time playing. We played for two hours. They're fast. They hustle. We all learned to communicate better, play smarter, and we all had fun.

Just remembering some of the action eight hours later brings a smile to my face. We played hard: we sweated buckets. And we're already trying to figure out when we can do it again. Why?

Because sports rock! I have to say that some of my fondest memories in life involve good times, with good friends (and family), playing sports. It can be magical... and addictive.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Sports: Exercise disguised as fun!

I recently wrote down five reasons I like sports. #1 was... They make exercise fun.

Maybe I like sports because I've learned to make them fun. Maybe that's why I enjoy my job, my family, and even my life. I make them fun too!

Most everyone would agree that exercise is good for you. People were made to move. Being fit: having vitality, functional strength, balance, and flexibility. These are good things. But exercise?

I'd rather do something else. I rather have fun. I'd rather do sports that make me exercise. I grew up playing ping pong, Frisbee, croquette, "pickle," over-the-line, kite flying, marbles, hop-scotch, four-square, dodge-ball, jump-rope, skating, kick ball, and I'm sure a few more. Some of these provide more sweat than others, but they are all fun.

Some people jog, or go to the gym, or just exercise. I can't do it for the long-haul. Exercise is important, so why not disguise it in a game? A sport?

Because then... exercise becomes so much more! It becomes reasons 2, 3, and 4. (Plus 5 and beyond.) But those are posts for another day.

(The city replaced the sewer in front of my house. Now they are going to repave the street. I took some pictures!)