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|Game On! - Page 4|
The Power of Possibility
Another clinical advantage I derived from sports was a kind of transcendental optimism. The Brooklyn Dodgers' management, in the team's most hapless days of the 1930s, coined the marketing phrase, "Wait till next year." It promised fans that the team would deliver league pennants and world championships—a vow it took a decade to fulfill. But the vow helped fill the team's Ebbets Field seats with hopeful spectators who lived and died with every pitch.
To me, though, the implicit promise of all athletic endeavors is actually closer to the motto Carpe Diem, Seize the Day. Every game is its own new beginning, a fresh starting-line in a dash for victories imagined and unimaginable. Every day is the time to leave everything you have on the field to prove your mettle. This is an action-oriented dictum, on the order of Be Here Now crossed with Just Do It.
Even closer to the essence would be the motto Seize the Moment, for it's in the smallest fractionated instances—better known as "plays" or, in a contest's waning seconds, "the clutch"—that players make game-winning shoestring catches, split-second stick saves, and over-the-outside-shoulder end-zone grabs. Even when these moments have been conjured through visual imagery and their skills stamped into muscle-memory through endless practice, they seem to occur abruptly in the game with the surprise and thrill of spectacle. I've executed great plays on the basketball court—impossibly angled bank shots, whiplash-inducing spins—that seemingly appeared from nowhere, without my forethought, leaving me and the other players around me stunned. In those rare moments, it was as if I were within and without myself, both caught up in and observing my own sudden actions. I can only compare it to the experience described by Eugen Herrigel in Zen in the Art of Archery, when the master immerses himself meditatively in the rote movements of archery, and then bows to the spirit that has guided his perfectly launched arrow.
In my psychotherapy practice, I try to teach my clients to seize such magically executed moments on all the playing-fields of their lives and to bow figuratively in deepest gratitude and appreciation. (If this sounds like a form of "self-actualization," then maybe Abe "the Actualizer" Maslow was a ballplayer.) Unfortunately, most anxiety-ridden, anguished male clients are too self-conscious, self-mocking, and therefore self-defeating to believe in the prospect that such moments are even possible. They're so mired in observing themselves critically, even before the event, that their actions lack the alacrity, spontaneity, or joy of peak performances. They're the equivalent of a slumping baseball hitter, uncomfortably fidgeting in the batter's box while ruminating about his stance, awaiting the next wicked curve ball with a sense of doom.
Don was typical in this regard. A lawyer in his thirties, he'd built a successful career in his firm through painstaking attention to writing detailed, persuasive briefs. But when he was assigned to work under a new partner, who put a greater premium on cranking out work (and billing) speedily, Don found his style challenged. In response to his boss's criticisms, he pressed harder. Rather than speeding up, though, his production slowed down, as doubt, hesitancy, and fears of the partner's displeasure hobbled him. He started to sweat profusely while in his boss's presence. He slept poorly at night. After his first panic attack, he made a psychotherapy appointment.
I talked with him about the debilitating impact of becoming too self-conscious. I asked him to tell me about his times of greater ease, when his work and relationships flowed. He'd been a baseball fanatic as a kid, keeping his own statistics on his beloved California Angels. He hadn't been much of a player himself—peaking at the Little League level as a weak-armed second baseman—but loved his experiences of the game, the smell of his glove, the scratch of the infield dirt beneath his cleats. He loved the smoothness of the tapered, white-ash bat in his hands. He had no trouble at all relating to my symbol of the slumping hitter as illustrative of all uptight, psyched-out performers. When I told him that his most important duty in his law practice was to "swing the bat," he immediately grasped what I meant—that he had to step up to the daily challenges and take his hacks without overthinking or tinkering too much with technique. He knew that worrying all the time about his new boss was like trying to hit a darting fastball while keeping an eye on the manager's reactions in the dugout.
Over the next few weeks, Don worked hard to recapture the ease he'd previously felt with writing. But concentrating on relaxing only tightened the grip of his self-consciousness, making him feel like a tense batter, unnerved by the crowd's catcalls, whose bat is frozen on his shoulder. I suggested a more playful image instead. He now tried imagining that he was watching a beach ball wafting toward him, and that his new boss was just another guy with a hot dog in the stands. Writing the brief was as easy as smacking the large, red-and-white sphere with a long-handled broom. It'd never travel that far, but he wouldn't strike out either. Soon, he was immersed again in the flow of creating briefs. He wouldn't be the biggest hitter in the firm, he realized, but was relieved to be swinging freely.