Coaching Spirit

Here’s one that’s likely to hit you in the feels.

While the media can be really focused on money and status and achievement, in the end we all know that what really makes something impressive is their capacity for empathy, connection, forgiveness and love. People pulling together is always more meaningful than a solitary achievement. The story about the sacrifices of parenting are generally more poignant than any tale of personal victory.

Despite what we claim to value, a great deal of young children are taught to approach sports more like career training, when its most valuable contribution to each player and to society is that it teaches teamwork. It clearly demonstrates the value of chaining human capacity together to accomplish something bigger than any individual could achieve. In this way it is a beautiful metaphor for living.

The truth is, we don’t want enlightenment as much as we think we do. It’s pretty boring. It’s hard to feel something when we feel everything. And then we can’t even share an experience because we are both the experience and the experiencer. In Oneness we are ourselves and everyone else. In Oneness there’s no one to hang out with. Hence the strange dilemma of life.

Imagine the universe using its infinite power to create duality, and opposition, and drama and –bingo! Suddenly we’re all invested and interested in this drama called life. In a strange way, we chose the dramas we experience in life. Nowhere is our use of this opportunity exemplified more than in most sports.

Every sports fan begins each season with the odds stacked against them. Maybe 30+ teams are vying for one championship. 97% of us are essentially signing up for the agony of defeat.

With pro sports we volunteer to participate in a giant public drama where our agony may end up on full public display –we’ll even have uniforms. And every year we take that risk again and again just for that slim chance that maybe our team will do it this year. It’s a beautiful example of people ignoring odds in order to create happiness –for at least a while.

Despite being disappointed for 50 straight years, Toronto hockey fans still line up to buy tickets and every year they are filled with equal excitement. What else would enlightenment look like other than a group of people being thrilled to participate in something they can almost be guaranteed will end in an agonizing drama?

Every league in the world is filled with people happy to sign up for likely failure. So if we can do that with a sport, why’s it so hard with our life?

The truth is, we just want a little bit of enlightenment. Just enough to take the pain away–we think. But then someone explains that to get rid of the pain we must accept the pain. We must become one with our pain. At that point it’s not an obstacle, it’s an experience and we can survive those, easy. It’s what every losing sports fan has to do every time they lose.

As Sam Houston State coach Matt Deggs so nicely puts it, rather than full enlightenment, we want the drama. Because in the heat of that, what we really enjoy is the joy of coming together. We naturally enjoy connection and communion more than the tearing apart and division, and this is how even a losing team can generate a winning experience. Because we can’t really enact enlightenment alone. It needs us to work together.

Sports fields, workplaces, and within our own families, this sort of deep connection and appreciation can exist in all kinds of places. All it needs is a few open people who are prepared to open up, be vulnerable, and love regardless of the setting or the outcome.

The question now is, are we one of those people? And if so, where will we share love today?

peace. s

Winners and Losers

698 Relax and Succeed - What you get by achieving

Sports and games are good examples of how comfortable human beings can actually be with the idea of suffering. We volunteer to play or watch both with the full knowledge that both contexts require a winner and therefore at least one loser as well.

Even if we’re confident, we happily enter the game or field of play at least subliminally aware that we could be volunteering to suffer. In fact, that potential price is what gives the victories their highs. First we volunteer for genuinely challenging competition, and then we play to achieve a weird sort of relief from a risk we ironically chose to take.

I live near a school and during a recent break from some yard work I made a cup of tea and watched part of a junior high Phys Ed baseball game. That game is still going on, but watching it inspired me to write this, so now I’m seeing it out my office window.

It’s important that it’s Phys Ed class too, because the teacher appeared to be quite casual about who was on what team. When that’s the case the kids are not going to have any sort of strong sense of team affiliation. It’ll just be classmates playing baseball. And that’s much different than a team that’s trying to win.

Playing the piano is not the same as playing the piano to win an international competition, or a scholarship or anything where you can win or lose. You can’t lose at playing, but you can lose status, marks, money, scholarships etc.

In a team sport this alters things considerably. People get competitive and they do things they otherwise wouldn’t. But in the Phys Ed. game the kids were all pretty encouraging of one another. They didn’t care who was on what team. They cared about whether or not their friends did well. So you would see cheers from the opposing teams on a good hit. It was very bubbly and happy and supportive.

698 Relax and Succeed - Success consists of going from failure

The close camaraderie and unison that is derived from that game is a part of life that is too-often undervalued. Because we can’t buy relaxation or free time, we can just rent places to do it or buy things to encourage it.

Relaxation is a verb, so like eating lunch or becoming Enlightened it’s not something that someone else can do for us. We have to relax to achieve it and the kind of play those kids were engaged in is a great way to do that with others. We just can’t have a personal objective. Or as a Buddhist would put it: have no attachments.

This is not to say the world of competition and that sweet sense of victory does not have its place in this world. It’s incredibly valuable. It drives much of our personal and societal success. It includes people’s dreams of having their own restaurant, but it’s also the Olympics and the Oscars. It’s us trying to get a scholarship or even beating a sibling in a race for the good seat in the car. Competition can bring joy in the right context.

Business, contests, family rules; those are really just systems and humans live inside them. So it’s best to understand them and use them to our advantage so we can enjoy a life with a lot of winning in it. But that will not seem like much of a life unless we also learn to play. Because winning happens outside of us and play is something we feel inside of us. And that’s the difference between pleasure for our ego versus nourishment for our souls.

When kids aren’t on a team they have no motivation to yell for another kid to run faster, or to hope one trips and falls. They have no reason to express disappointment if they strike out. They have no reason to taunt each other.

Done right these things can be fun and they’re an excellent metaphor for life. But as with our work and our dating and our conversations, we should maintain an awareness of our State of Mind; are we trying to win or are we trying to enjoy our lives?

People who focus too much on winning end up being things like workaholics. And people who do that with love become serial daters. And the people who do that in conversation become tiresome. Winning creates losers and sometimes that’s what we want from life. But at the same time, simple noncompetitive play also has value. Let’s not forget play.

698 Relax and Succeed - Anything I can not transformLet’s move through our days with a mind toward monitoring our objectives. We should ask ourselves directly, are these actions intended to bring me happiness or bring me victory? Because there’s very few fights between couples that truly matter in the larger scheme of things so winning is quite hollow.

With happiness we start to feel it the moment we drop the need to win. It is the desire for those outside objectives—those ego-pursuits—that will lead us to surrender our happiness in the present moment. We must do our best to stay as conscious as we can. We can play and win, but we can’t let the need to win lead us to only compete —for without any play, we’ll have already lost before you’ve even started the game.

Now let’s have ourselves a wonderful day.

peace. s

Feeding Your Mind

You don’t usually think of your daily movement as exercise, nor do you see your food as nutrition. That only happens if you’re conscious about losing/gaining weight, or if you have a medical reason. Otherwise you’re just moving when you’re moving and you’re eating when you’re eating. But let’s take a moment to look at that from another perspective.

482 Relax and Succeed - Please do not feed the fearsIf you are very conscious about your physicality then you will spend less time self-talking with your ego and instead you’ll be fully in your body. When I help a hockey player improve his or her mental game, I’m getting him or her to stop thinking so they can start being. You don’t have to be deep in the playoffs to be in the zone, you can be in the zone when you’re vacuuming. Because that zone has nothing to do with the sport—it has to do with the state of mind of the participant. So yes, eat healthy and keep moving and in shape, but all of that means nothing if you’re not enjoying the life you’re trying to extend. Which is where the food analogy comes in.

Think of your thinking as eating. If you eat junk it might taste awesome, but you will pay for that if you continue to do it over time. There are no rights and wrongs, but there are definitely consequences. So you eat at home and you eat out. Home is your thoughts. You have virtually total control over what gets cooked and how it gets eaten. Away is outside ideas that you get exposed to. So watching your favourite TV show or reading a book or listening to the news, or h482 Relax and Succeed - Before you diagnose yourselfaving a conversation with a friend—all of these things are like dining out. And like food to a body, exposure to unhealthy thoughts will eventually construct an unhealthy psyche.

If you watch shows about crime all day long on TV, then you will definitely become more paranoid, suspicious, and frightened. If you watch COPS all the time you’ll view both the police and the black community differently than if you didn’t watch COPS. This is why psychologists often get depressed. Their job is to sit and listen to people’s worst days all day long. How could that not suck? Whatever you put into your consciousness will generate an immediate result, and over time that result will become a habit.

If your friends all bitch, you’ll start to bitch. If you stand around while people judge people, you’ll start to judge people more. If you watch the news every night you won’t be told the most useful things, or the most important. You’ll be told what will keep you in your seat until the next commercial, and that will overwhelmingly be things that frighten or anger you, and they’ll usually finish off with something to titillate or charm you. But that’s how the news gets chosen. By how likely the story is to keep you seated using primarily fear and anger. They want 482 Relax and Succeed - Everyone tells you what to doyou to be scared or angry so you’ll keep watching. But over time, that pollutes your mind. It gets you to believe in a world that doesn’t exist. The crime rate’s gone down in my city for something like 37 straight years, and yet I’ve never seen the place more worried about bad things happening.

Pay attention to what your mind consumes. Because if you’re not conscious about the effects, you’ll end up inadvertently reprogramming your mind in ways you may not enjoy. Think of every conversation and every piece of media as a plate of someone else’s reality, and every moment you continue to be around it you are spooning more and more of that reality into yourself.

You are what you eat. Eat thoughts and ideas that expand your spirit and you will help the whole world be healthy.

Bon apetite. peas s

The Game of Life

There was something I wanted to write about and I was going to use food as a metaphor, but I believe sports will work better for what I want to say. The reason I add this preamble is that I want to make a distinction between my point here and the somewhat similar point that James Carse makes in his brilliantly insightful book, Finite and Infinite Games. So as much as I’m a huge fan of the book, any resemblance here is merely due to the fact that I also want to use the concept of playing as the basis for my metaphors.

475 Relax and Succeed - This is my lifeSo for the sake of this point, imagine that your life is a sport. When you’re young you just learn to keep your balance and get your body doing what you want it to. Then you develop a sense of basically how this sport works, before you go through childhood and through puberty where you learn all of the rules. By the time you’re a teen you’re pretty much only focused on scoring. And in various ways, that’s what you’ll do for the rest of your life unless you become conscious.

Before you’re conscious you’ll complain about other people, as though them being themselves and living their life is done as an affront to you personally. But think about this philosophically. You’ve got this great opportunity to play, but it’s not like you set up your own game. You need all of these other players, including your opponents. So you can stop wasting energy complaining about the inevitable, and instead you can invest that energy in being grateful that the game even exists, let alone that you have been invited—through no conscious choice of your own—to enter the field of play. So the very fact that you even get to play means you’re fortunate. You have opportunity. The question is, what kind of game are you going to choose to play?

First off, to be physically fit is a key factor for long term success in any sport. So you have eat well, sleep well, and exercise. And don’t do those things because they’re good for you. Do them because they actually feel good. It’s just we’re not usually focusing on how good it feels. We’re too busy telling ourselves a story about how it’s terrible that we have to exercise. The best runners in the world—the Tarahumara Indians—believe you should run at the a speed you can converse in. So instead of a whining internal monologue, go run with a friend and turn your talk sessions into walk/run sessions where you talk about something other than how tired you feel.

475 Relax and Succeed - The best way to find yourselfOnce you can contribute to your own success and the success of those around you, you’re ready to be a part of a team. Because like it or not, life is a team sport. You’ll have players who’ve played in your position and so they can relate better to the challenges you face. And there will be other players who will see the play very differently. If you’re a conservative, concerned defenceman, you’re watching for threats, whereas an optimistic, enthusiastic and aggressive forward is watching for opportunity. So what each of you will think is the right thing to do will occasionally differ due to that perspective difference. So you have to able to appreciate that fact so you can maintain good, helpful relations with your teammates.

Once you’ve committed to being dedicated to putting the team’s goals ahead of your own, you are philosophically ready to play. Presuming you’re also physically ready, the next question is what style of play will you employ in life? We can play by the rules or we can cheat. And how far will we go in cheating if we do cheat? And does this line in the sand move if we’re losing in an important game, or is it absolute? And what if it’s our own player’s infraction? Are we as anal about following the rules then? These decisions define the character of our play. When people think about our game overall, this is what they will generally use as your identity.

The reason your character is important is because next we’ll be discussing how you face challenges. Remember, a sport is a competition. So you will have egos as opponents who will actually put effort into trying to screw you up. You can scream at them, appeal to the referee, or any other thing you want, but without the opponents there is no game. So you can do like a Buddhist and accept that, or you can spend your life complaining about the fact that opponents are inextricably tied to the concept of playing a team sport. Without another team your team is just a bunch of people milling around in similar clothes. So your character is made up of how 475 Relax and Succeed - Being happy doesn't mean everything is perfectyou play. And you maximize your play when you cease to argue with the fact that you cannot have a game without opponents.

As I noted at the beginning, it’s easy to get caught up trying to get laid or get rich or get married or get pregnant or get whatever. But you don’t win at the game of life by scoring more than the other team. You don’t win by having more points. Because the goals are non-transferable. It’s not like when you die some dude with a clipboard greets you and says, “Ah, I see you earned a lot of money in your life. Well because of all of your effort in that lifetime, we’re going to let you be a well fed house cat this time.” No, your status and your accomplishments and your money don’t mean anything once time’s up. So eventually you realize that, and then your game shifts into pro mode.

You’re playing seriously when you realize that this game can end at any time. You’re playing seriously when you realize you can’t take your prizes with you. You’re playing seriously when you realize that you can enjoy trying to win the game, but there’s no way to actually win at life. There is only the playing itself. And so goes the paradox, that the most serious players are those that play for fun.

Now, even if you’re at work, go out and make it play.

peace. s

Understanding Sports Fans

Through the links you’ve shared on your blog I’ve begun to listen to a lot of the same CBC radio programs you sometimes refer to. One of those very programs recently had quite an interesting documentary on the psychology behind being a fan of a sports team. I am not really a big sports guy but the documentary was excellent except that I do not feel that it succeeded at truly explaining the psychology behind what I would call the truly rabid sports fan. Watching people reacting to the Olympics exposes the fact that this behaviour seems almost primitive to me. My hope is that you can provide me with more positive ways to
look at the antics of some of these people who otherwise look slightly insane from my perspective. Thank you very much Scott. I appreciate your assistance on this matter.

Confused by Sports

Dear Confused,

Thanks for the question. Hey, you’re from Jamaica or Guyana or somewhere in that region, aren’t you? If I guessed right then I’m pretty sure you know what group of accents I’m talking about. They’re all quite unique, but they have certain qualities in common. You guys mix the precision of proper English speech with a reggae meter—I absolutely love your writing. Sorry—I digress. I love accents and words and anything “languagey.”

325 Relax and Succeed - Shout out to the loversYes—I heard part of the documentary you’re referring to. It was on the program Ideas, on CBC One—one of my favourites. It was very interesting and well done, but I didn’t hear all of it so I don’t know what sort of explanations they provided. Regardless, I can definitely find something very positive in the behaviour of sports fans for you.

The basis of the documentary’s premise was: why do people volunteer to be fans of teams even though on average they’ll lose and suffer about 50% or more of the time? (A lot more in some cities… ahemo.0) Because this idea was at the core of the premise of the show I’m going to presume that’s the part you didn’t feel was explained. I’m glad you asked, because after considering it for a while I came to realize that it’s actually as heartwarming as it is interesting.

To start with let’s consider our nature. Before we lived alone or in very small groups in houses, we were collections of people. We were tribes and clans and bands. We were together. 80% of the world still group sleeps. Before that we were somehow contained in the unified, ethereal energy of the universe. We were united in our Oneness. And there are aspects of us that know and remember that. It’s just our conscious minds keep blabbing about our separateness so we can’t hear our own knowing. (If this all seems too abstract, stick with me.)

People pair off. They have friends. The vast majority would rather work in groups, people consider loneliness something unpleasant, and around the world solitary confinement is the worst possible prison to be in. So we naturally fit together. We’re a pack animal. But in a world with no packs—in a world with no tribes or clans, we opt instead for teams. We voluntarily 325 Relax and Succeed - Life is like a roller coastercombine our interests with those of others. And why? In the hopes of winning? Maybe our egos think that. But the centre of us—the part that’s still plugged in—knows that we’re not there to winwe’re there to play.

In the confines of the arena of play we will very informatively allow and surrender to the vagaries of sports. We’ll love it even though the outfield is uneven, or the court is slippery, or there’s the uncertainty of injuries etc. It is so easy for a good guy to lose—but that’s precisely what makes it exciting. Like we do with movies we choose to engage in a roller coaster ride. We ride the downs because we accept that they are a fundamental aspect of the ups. Andy Kaufman knew that the more you hated his character the happier you would be when he got beat up (The Man In the Moon). The fact that we volunteer for those experiences represents an enormous lesson if we choose to meditate on it closely.

Now, can an ego get this all muddled? Absolutely. They won’t be participating in this spiritual way, they will be participating in an egotistical one. They won’t want an exciting interesting game, they’ll want to win. They won’t want to share your pain, they’ll want to unload all of theirs onto you. They will feel separate and in opposition. For them the game is a mask—an excuse to indulge in tantrums. For the average person and the spiritually wise alike, fandom is merely a form of remembrance of who we really are and that’s why it feels so invigorating to us no matter what direction things are going. Whether we are cheering happily together or wailing in agony, the point is that it’s a collective experience. That’s what we like about it.  Not the winning or losing.

This surrender into co-experience allows us to join and meld with others. We melt into stupendous cheers, we get chills up our spines together, we become one with the entire experience. We forget there is an us. We do not use our thoughts to create an ego—instead we are simply Being. This is no small thing. This is why people say things like we won,” or “I can’t believe how terrible we’re playing.” There is no separation between us and the group. And the 325 Relax and Succeed - Be thankful for the things you don't enjoyathletes themselves are more like the elders around which the tribe convenes. But everyone is an equal part. Everyone feels the sting of defeat and—by contrast—the elation of victory.

This is actually an excellent lesson in what enlightenment truly is. Enlightenment is not being happy all the time. Enlightenment is being okay with anything. Even death. Because the real you knows that this game goes on long after time appears to run out. So actually comprehend the fact that you choose to suffer when you engage as fan. But because you chose it with your free will you have no resistant thoughts and the result is that you enjoy the experience not for its result, but for the experience itself. Because your spirit is not an ego. An ego does things, but a spirit has experiences. And as long as the experiences are intense and amazing and rewarding then you’ve done the only kind of winning that anyone can ever really do. Have fun playing. 😉

peace. Scott “Slap-Shot” McPherson 😉

PS Here’s the link to the documentary if anyone’s interested:

A CBC Ideas Documentary on Sports Fans: Catching the Game

Preventing Performance Anxiety

110 Relax and Succeed - What worries you
Both the athletes and artists I work with regularly face performance anxiety. This makes sense because both groups perceive that they are in an event they can potentially win. They imagine there is a good outcome and a bad outcome, and so they place considerable mental energy on worrying about the bad one, and yet all that does is attract the bad experience to us by distracting us from our task.

Have you noticed that your best performances always feel relaxed? If you golf, you know our best golf swings our often easiest golf swings; and why is that the piece of art that seemed the easiest to create is the one everyone loves and gives you credit for? This is a nice spot to discuss the Buddhist Illusion. What is that illusion? What is it made of?

The illusion is made from words. The illusion is a conversation we have over top of an event. So while we’re standing off-stage or at a starting-line we’ll be talking to ourselves about success. We’ll be reminding ourselves about the shape and components of failure. We will weigh our competitor. And it’s critical to note that all of those states (success, failure, competitor) are all things that can only exist in our minds—in our imaginations.

If those states of mind were actual objectively real experiences, then everyone would feel the same way and yet they don’t. The experience is individualized and internal. Some competitors are worried about their training, others about their equipment, others about various competitors.

110 Relax and Succeed - Racecar

Prior to a performance or race or competition we will be dosing our brains with all kinds of chemistry based on whatever thoughts we’re thinking as we prepare. But despite all of that thinking, the only thing we have real control over is our actions in the competition.

When I drag race a car, I’m really not racing the guy next to me. Because he and his car will do whatever they’re going to do—I have no influence over that. All I can do is prepare and drive mine the best I can and the rest is the giant math of the universe. Some days my performance would win, others not. I can’t be thinking about the universe’s math. That’s out of my hands. I have to be focused on what is in my hands.

If the only thing in my control is my own performance then I should focus 100% of my attention on that, not on word-based thoughts about the events. I’m not looking for language to describe what’s happening, I’m looking for actual open, focused awareness that then smoothly becomes action, like it does for heroes. It’s a subtle but significant difference.

When a crane is fishing, do you imagine its mind is full of thoughts? Do you think the crane is standing there in the water, perfectly still, thinking to itself that it really needs to get this fish—that its family is hungry and this fish is important? Or that it needs to beat this fish in this contest? Do you think the crane is trying to win? Or is the crane prepared to strike with a speed that can only come from a profound stillness on both the inside and out.

110 Relax and Succeed - Inner peace begins

There is in fact intense activity in stillness. A crane is fully invested in the hunt. With no thought whatsoever directed toward an abstract idea like failure, the crane is left with only Now. There is no outcome. There is no winner or loser, there is only the present unfolding moments and the math between crane and fish; and that is the universe’s math, not the crane’s, and so that is why no thought is given to it.

Can you see that when you are at a starting line, you can be an ego, or you can be like the crane? You can be open and aware, with access to all you know, poised and ready. Or you can stand in the same position, but have your head filled with busy, noisy, distracted thinking.

In doing so you weave an illusory layer of words between you and the experience—between you and your reactions. You can simply look at a golf ball, or you can stand there with your eyes on that ball, but your mind playing words about how you should keep your eye on the ball. That again is a subtle but critical difference that will have a remarkable influence over your performance. Mental discussions about things are not those actual things.

If a crane had to stop thinking about how important this fish was, or how hungry its children are, then it would have to download that thought before it could enact its physical being and strike at the fish. But without that layer of thought, it is simply ready. It may still miss the fish, but again, that is nature’s math not the crane’s.

The crane doesn’t worry itself with things it cannot control. Its mind is filled with being itself, and that will either be enough or it won’t. Athletes and artists would do well to do the same. Be the crane. Be still inside. Because then there is nothing standing between us and the best performance the rest of the universe will allow.

peace. s

Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.