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Touched by a Book

I find it amazing when a book directly relates to a life experience. When that happens, it always feels as if the author wrote the book knowing what you were going through at that point in time. Upon completion of the Spinning® Master Instructor Camp, I was asked to read two books, “Flow in Sports” and “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind.” As athletes, we share commonality in facing the physical, emotional and mental challenges of our sport, and these two readings help us confront and benefit from them. The philosophies and teachings of the Tao lead us to improvements in daily life and in sports. And, when we find “flow” in sports, we find that extraordinary performance starts to feel effortless.

“Thinking Body, Dancing Mind”

Three years ago, my tennis team finished in first place in our Central Jersey Division, entitling us to play in the USTA NJ Districts Tournament. During this successful season, I was able to find a fantastic doubles partner who complimented my game, and vice versa. My strengths included my deep forehand shot to the baseline, and my speed on the court to get to almost any ball. My partner was an amazing net player, and my goal was to set her up so she could put the point away. It was a beautiful marriage on the court. One very hot, sunny morning in July, my partner and I were driving to our first Districts match together when we received a phone call from our coach. Our best singles player had a tough match in the morning round, and was not physically going to be able to play in her later match. The team had a meeting at the tournament site and decided that I was the next best person to play this upcoming singles match. My confidence was compromised and my fears were growing. But, the team needed me, so I was in, regardless of the outcome.

In reading, “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind,” I can finally explain what transpired that day, and I now have a better understanding of my experience at Districts. It was after that phone call that my journey into the Tao began, starting with The Beginner’s Mind. I wish to relive this experience from three years ago, but now, combined with the teachings of the Tao:

I sat in the car with my doubles partner and strived for a new focus and new strength. I continued my journey with a positive affirmation process.  I needed to believe in myself and convince myself that I could transfer my strengths from my doubles game into a singles strategy. I was fast and I had stamina—I could stay in the match. Could this be enough? The Tao teaches us affirmations for self-image and positive thinking. Three years later, I remember practicing these teachings, however, without the awareness that I have now.

I was at the tournament, it was very hot and my match had been delayed. My opponent looked pretty fit, but I refused to let her appearance indicate her skills. As nervous as I was, I wanted to appear prepared, ready, and confident. I tied on my doo-rag, stretched and did some light warm-up work, psyching myself into playing in this uncomfortable situation. But, was I going to convince myself and perhaps, my opponent, that I was here to win? The Tao has taught me about courage, selflessness and egolessness.

Finally, it was time for our match to begin. I stayed very focused and did not engage in conversation with my opponent. So much information was running through my Beginner’s Mind. I hit well in our warm-up, but so did she. She was definitely athletic, but so was I. I somehow convinced myself that I belonged there, even though I had played only a handful of singles matches. My body language was strong, chest lifted, and I was standing tall. It was 2-2 in the first set. A few good shots and I was able to build an inner confidence that gave me the ability to stay in the match. The Tao has helped me understand this. Nature had balanced the extremes. I had made some mistakes, but also some amazing points. These mistakes have helped me grow and discover a new potential in myself. I was playing with all my energy, both mentally and physically. Next thing I knew, it was 3-6 and she had won the first set.         

We were allotted 15 minutes in between sets. I regrouped . The Tao teaches to take care of yourself. I hydrated and cooled off. I went quiet and visualized the second set. What have I learned about her game? Where in my game could I be more aggressive? The Tao reminds me to use failure as a positive force, keep that positive thinking and self-image, but rid myself of ego.

I walked back onto the court for the second set with my head high, and focused only on the present moment, and not on the set that I just lost. Fear was still present, but I was trying very hard to continue with my self-talk, to convince myself that I could come back, win the second set, and still have the energy to play a third set. Fatigue was a factor. The Tao would have taught me to re-energize through visualization, and focus on my skills that could shorten the points to preserve physical energy. Soon it was 4-4 in the second set, and I was experiencing success. There were moments that were fully enjoyable and exciting. I was hitting overheads into corners that I visualized before I even hit them. So the Tao was present! The Tao helped me understand: “If you win, terrific; if not, feel the joy and satisfaction of having participated.” I definitely enjoyed the experience of participating, but, my ego was still present and I wanted to win. My opponent pulled ahead she won the match 4-6.

In the end, winning would have been great, but I really did fully enjoy the opportunity to participate in this level of play at the tournament.Not only did I feel joy, but I truly believe that the Tao took me to a level of play that I had never before imagined. This book provides me with another affirmation:  “I am a winner, regardless of the outcome.”  Finally, I can move forward from this tennis match!

“Flow in Sports”

Contrary to popular belief, the most satisfying moments are usually when you make something happen or overcome something difficult. That is because life seems to be more exciting when we challenge ourselves, both physically and mentally.

In “Flow in Sports,” the term “flow” is defined as a “harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred.” During feelings of flow, performance feels effortless. And, although flow is associated with optimal performance, winning does not necessarily result from flow. It is more about elevating an experience from “ordinary” to “optimal.” In those moments of flow, we feel alive.  Interestingly enough, the very last line in “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind” (page 294), reads: “celebrate being alive!” Both of these books follow the underlying philosophy of following balance and harmony, and not forcing energy unnaturally. Fulfillment, joy and greatness are all outcomes of cultivating the Tao and experiencing moments of flow.

Experiencing flow, however, is not always easy.  On page 37 of “Flow in Sports,” a flow diagram illustrates how “challenge” and “skills” must both be high for flow to occur. A challenge is associated with an opportunity for action, and a skill refers to one’s ability to act or deal with a situation. The four quadrants of the flow diagram include anxiety, apathy, flow and relaxation/boredom. Challenge and skills make up the two axis. Anxiety, apathy, and relaxation/boredom are considered non-optimal states that result from imbalances between a person’s challenges and skills. Let us explore each of these non-optimal states.

When the challenge is low and the skill level is low, apathy occurs. During a state of apathy, lack of attention and low energy occur. When the challenge is low but the skill level is high, then boredom can result. In sports, we see this when a highly-skilled athlete plays down to the level of his/her weaker opponent and becomes too relaxed. There is a lack of perceived challenge, so flow is compromised. Oppositely, when a person feels that the challenge is higher than their skill level, then anxiety may result.

Fear of failure tends to hold people back from taking on a challenge. The Tao teaches us that failures are lessons which we learn from, and forge ahead. In order to experience flow, we must focus on our perception of the challenge in order to encourage our self to perform better.  Skills, both physical and mental, must be well-practiced to experience flow. A novice skier, for example, would be worried about falling on a difficult slope because his skill set would not be high enough to handle the challenge of the terrain. An expert skier, on the other hand, would have the skills to enjoy the run downhill, effortlessly. Flow can actually occur in almost any situation, if one can modify the level of challenge and skill.

Many of the TaoSport principles are inherent in experiencing flow. Confidence, positive self-talk, focus, self-improvement, motivation, centering oneself and how a person handles distractions are just a few of the key elements to finding flow and being a TaoAthlete.

During my singles tennis match, there were definitely moments when I experienced flow. I was not stressed, I felt comfortable and focused, I was not distracted by my surroundings, and my breath was calm. The challenge was high and the skills required were high, and yet I found happiness in the moment. Although I did not win that tennis match, I focused on how great I felt inmy moment of optimal performance. Years later, I strive to relive that feeling, not necessarily through tennis, but through other avenues in my life. In Spinning rides, I like to find that challenging hill where I lose myself in almost a state of meditation. I am working very hard, but somehow, it feels amazing and effortless…and that is the key to experiencing flow.


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