Yesterday’s blog offended a few people. The number of followers dropped by 20 overnight. It’s happened before. Whether it was the topic of excrement, my treatise about crap-spattering baboons or the political criticism leveled at certain political figures… that eclipsed their interest, I’ll likely never know.
But there’s one thing I’ve learned from sports, and I learned it early on. People will form their view of you based on their own prejudices and insecurities.
The old ballgame
At the age of eleven years old, I played on a baseball team that won the Lancaster New Era (newspaper) city championship in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was a prestigious deal to win that tourney. I played in the first game that we won 26-0. At one point during the game, the coach was putting in the second string to take it easy on the other team. He pulled me aside before going to the plate. “I won’t ask you to do this again,” he whispered. “But I want you to strike out.”
Well, I admired that coach and would do anything he told me to do. So I attempted to swing at a high pitch and as luck would have it, the bat struck the top of the ball as I swung up and drove a liner right up the middle. It rolled out to the fence and I trotted around the bases for a double. Then I looked in at the coach and shrugged my shoulders. He gave a quiet nod and knew that I’d tried to miss.
The next game was far closer a contest. Midway through the third inning of a six-inning game, the coach walked out to the mound to make a pitching change. As he stood there, my teammates whispered among themselves. “Is he going with Tommy?” they asked. Tommy was our left-handed first basemen. He could throw hard but was a little wild.
The coach turned to the bench and signaled for me to come into the game. As I was trotting out I overheard the voices of my teammates second-guessing the choice.
We won the game 8-6. I pitched us out of that third-inning jam with men on base, then held the other team to fewer runs for the victory. The next game, we pitched our lead guy Rob and we won the entire tourney.
After that game, the coaches took us all to the Dairy Joy for treats. He told us, “You won! You can have anything you want tonight.”
I ordered both a shake and a cone. I was hungry, mostly, because it was late. As I stood there sipping the shake, a teammate muttered, “Look at that. He bought two things and he didn’t even do anything in the tournament.”
I looked up in surprise. What about the game I won for the team when I came in as the pitcher when we were down by a run? That was nothing?
It taught me an important lesson though. Even your supposed friends or teammates can turn out to be opponents when you least expect it.
Later in the sport of distance running, the competition between individuals was even more intense. It was either run faster than the next guy or be relegated out of the top seven in cross country. Same with track and field, where opportunities to compete in the big meets were based on being in the top three in your event.
As a freshman, I’d already chosen the steeplechase as my event. But the conference was not yet including that event in its meet schedule. That would come the next year, and I won conference championships for successive years after that. But without my event on the schedule, I still wanted to compete at the conference meet. So I participated in a run-off for the 400-meter hurdles, a tough event in its own right. Despite not having run the event all year, I clocked the third fastest time on our team with a 59.2. That bumped one of the regular 400 IM guys off the squad, and I felt a little guilty about that. But then again, I did the same thing in the high jump at 6′ 1.5″. I didn’t place in either event, but that’s sports.
In high school, I was typically the best runner on the team. That came with leadership responsibilities. The pressures of leading a team refined my understanding of what it meant to be prepared, set an example and push forward even when the odds seemed against you or the team. People typically need something to believe in, and setting a higher standard is part of the job.
But taking on a leadership role can also cause resentment when you pressure others to step up. Friends can bristle with anger if you’re hard on them. There were times when I failed in managing the balance of encouragement versus harsh expectation. My own struggles to compete as an individual were projected onto others. There are important lessons to be learned from that too.
The overall pressures of life can be tough for everyone to handle. Even day-to-day existence delivers a long list of things to do, places to go and people to please. Then when real crisis comes along, it’s tough to be strong. “I’ve already got as much as I can handle!” we tell ourselves.
But here’s the other tricky part of this life survival formula. Sometimes it feels like we make life harder than it actually needs to be. We speak up when it might be better to listen. We take on jobs the wrong way and wind up isolating ourselves in those ventures. All kinds of things can go wrong when we least expect it.
Sports as rehearsal for life
In that respect, sports truly are a rehearsal for life. In triathlon, for example, even the transition zones challenge our ability to be prepared. To make things even harder, it’s tough when you enter transition exhausted from what you’ve just done in the swim or the bike, and still you have to muster the mental acuity to think clearly and keep moving. Don’t dawdle. You’re wasting time! I missed a podium place by one second earlier this summer in a sprint triathlon. One Second. Do you think I could have perhaps gained back a second or two in transition? You bet I could.
One of the principal things that sports teach us is that we have to live with the results of everything we do. It is a practice for dealing with small crises in real time. It does not help to engage in coulda-woulda-shoulda after the fact. Better to say, “Okay, I learned how NOT to do that.”
When things come along in life that appear far beyond our ability to handle them, that is when the layers of life experience come into play.
A job loss can undermine self-confidence.
A divorce can gut the people involved.
A death can make one believe it is impossible to go on.
But we all have a wellspring of experience to build upon when a crisis hits. In 2005 when my high school coach found out that my late wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he called to tell me, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”
And that was true. He inspired me to consider all the ways that adversity had been overcome in life. He’d known me since I was thirteen and played baseball for him. Then he coached me in high school track.
So his broad perspective inspired me to open myself up through vulnerability. Because while life can make you cynical when people criticize you for bad reasons, in the end, it is trusting in the goodness of others that builds strength.
Still, outside times of crisis, I’m also my own worst enemy when it comes to creating problems without need. I tend to get too political on social media. And on occasion, I write a blog that offends the very people that have chosen to follow my work. And really, what’s up with that? Wouldn’t it be safer and less complicated to just write happy things?
Well, we can’t live all our life as if it were an apology for existence. When I worked as an editorial writer in the newspaper business. I learned that people read into your words whatever offense they are trying to find. Now social media has turned that into a daily habit for billions of people.
When I encounter that brand of habitual criticism or engage in it myself (I’ll admit), I think back to that moment when my teammates forcibly ignored my real contribution to the victory in the second game of that tournament. The thing that motivated them to discount my effort was elective thinking. They were actually the players that had not played in the most important second game. Their compensatory reaction was to try to bring someone down to their level. That would happen again and again over the years I competed in sports. You have to shove that stuff aside and be bold in what you’re doing. Otherwise you wind up being stuck among the nutters.
Not bagging it
I was eleven years old when I first realized those things. But there were still hard lessons to learn. The very next season when our team had lost most of the guys that led to that city championship, it left me as one of the sole leaders of a much weaker squad. I overhead one of the assistant coaches tell a bystander that we were in a “rebuilding year.” That angered me despite the fact that I knew it to be true. But I was not ready to accept that reality off the bat. Pun intended.
So I pitched like a maniac, winning a series of 5 or 6 games early int season. I also clearly recall the determination and focus I felt in winning a game where we were two runs down with two men on base. I looked down the third base line and saw a gap near the bag. I ripped the next pitch down the line and ran the bases while the ball rolled far into the outfield grass toward the Armstrong plant far past the outfield. I can still see that hit as clear as a day. I knew when I hit it that it was a home run.
But two games later I was in the middle of pitching in the third inning when my arm suddenly went sore and dead. I’d pushed past my ability to carry that team. My father had noticed the loss in my velocity the previous game and was asking if my arm was okay. But I imagined myself invincible. My competitive fury knew no bounds. Plus I was also trying to prove myself tougher than everyone else. Some of that was in response to our own tug-and-pull father-son issues. Such is life, as they say.
Harder than it needed to be
In the end, I was definitely making life harder on myself than it needed to be. Yet that’s what leaders are sometimes forced to do.
Thus if I lose followers of this blog because my beliefs conflict with someone else’s view of reality, then that’s a price I’m willing to pay. After all, I confess my flaws here on a regular basis. But I also argue my points in original fashion, and that’s leadership.
To arrive at those viewpoints, I absorb material from all sorts of political viewpoints. Just like my sometimes contrary views on things athletic (like the current obsession with hydration…) I’m not afraid to express an opinion that goes against ‘popular opinion’. And a lot of popular opinion in America right now is full of cognitive dissonance. Just like those jerky kids on my baseball team fifty years ago, the perspectives of many people are skewed, selfish and uninformed.
What the hey?
Some might ask, “What does politics have to do with running and riding and endurance sports anyway?” That would be missing the point of this blog entirely. For five years I’ve written about how all these endeavors relate and translate to life. I’ve written about topics ranging from fairness to competition, and from corruption to inspiration. I’ve also interviewed many people who build this stuff into their lives and try to make sense of their world through their avocation or vocation as endurance athletes. If people reading this blog take such quick offense at things that tend to contradict their sensibilities, then they never got the thrust of this blog in the first place.
Because I’ve also dispensed quite a bit of practical advice on how to get faster, run longer, ride better and learn how to swim. If that doesn’t suit those who want to find ways to enjoy this stuff more and perform better, I guess they can go find a blog that tells how to run a 5K in under 22:00. Because I’m sixty-one years old and can still do that, and ran much faster in earlier years. I’d say that counts for something in terms of life experience all around.