Friedrich Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Might be the truest words ever spoken.
The bus picks my kids up for school at 6:45, before sunrise this time of the year. It's also trash day here in my neighborhood and the truck usually comes before 7:30 so it's easier to take the bags to the alley the night before. I did so last night and neglected to put a new liner in the trash can in the kitchen. So as I got out a new Hefty Bag, my youngest came rushing back into the house because she had forgotten to grab lunch money. It's raining this morning and she was pretty wet when she gave me a hug before darting back out into the dark.
It left drops of water on the trash bag which then caused the bag to stick to my arm and torso. It's a cold, nasty feeling and for better or worse a feeling I'm all too well acquainted with. I don't know how long I stood there staring out the window, but when I snapped out of it I had already broken a sweat and my heart rate was greatly elevated. Over two decades removed from my own competitive athletic career, the mere hint of getting up before the crack of dawn to pull a trashbag (and several layers of sweatclothes) over my upper body, caused my mind, body and soul to lock and load.
Seems kind of silly I guess, but I reckon we all have our triggers that motivate us to do whatever it is that needs doing that day. I used to peel back the blankets most every school day, wrap myself in a lawn and garden bag. Over that I would slip on sweatclothes, always red and blue. Not my school colors. HIS (not going to use his name, but I wouldn't care if he knew) school colors. Then I would run. I ran because I had to make weight Saturday. I ran because I wanted to eat that day. I ran harder because I gassed out in a match once and lost to a scrub that had no business being on the mat with me. The last mile I would be in another world focusing on the raging pain in my legs and lungs, visualizing that ever so slight hitch to the right before going left.
If you could get them to bite, even the tiniest bit on the gambit to the right, their sprawl would be at the wrong angle when you went back left. If you did it perfectly, they would miss completely and they would drop forward onto thin air and you would appear right behind them without being touched. If they didn't bite on the fake, well that would be bad so it had better be perfect. Anyway, now I'm boring you. But the point is I would do this most mornings in the freezing cold and then I would go to school. First bell was 7:35 and dismissal was 2:45. Considering I had been up and running by 6:30, that’s a pretty solid eight hours. But of course I wasn't done yet. Not even close. Off to practice. Two more hours of abusing your body physically and mentally, THEN you get to go home and hopefully you won't have too much homework.
Did I mention I'm hungry? And really nervous (scared?). This Saturday I'm gonna put on a skin tight unitard (glorious blue and gold, OUR colors) and my shoes that I had special ordered with a white on white pattern so that I could color them with special artistic markers specially designed to work on shoe fabric. I had to walk like three miles to the art store but it was worth it. They were blue and gold also. Pretty sweet. Then I would ask coach to tape up both my mangled hands so that I didn't injure them any further. My thumbs were so jacked I couldn't snap my headgear without popping them out of socket. Teammate snapped my headgear for me. Always the same one. He was like a brother to me (I'm an only child) and the ritual made me feel less alone and scared. Then I went out in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands at the big meets and honestly I usually won. But winning is irrelevant to the point I'm trying to make. The whole reason you play a sport in high school are the losses.
Sometimes you get your ass kicked. Anyone can win classy. Not everyone does, but it's not difficult at all to hold it together after success. It's the failures that shape you. Get home Saturday night and hurl my shoes in a rage, my sweet UCLA colored blue and gold kicks that I colored myself, down into the basement because I don't deserve to have them. They would usually land near the scale. A bunch of relatives got together one year for my birthday and bought me a doctor style scale for my birthday. It was a “Detecto.”
And after locking myself in my room Saturday night and devouring an unholy amount of Funyons, Twix, and Root Beer, I would be right back on that Detecto Sunday morning, gauging the damage and calculating the weight cut for the week. Sometimes a Sunday night run was necessary and sometimes I could put my feet up until Monday morning. Dragging myself out of bed to do it all over again Monday morning after a loss might literally be the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I'm 15 pounds over, I didn't finish my calculus homework and today I have an oral examination in advanced Spanish that consists of having a impromptu, unrehearsed conversation with Javier the foreign exchange student from Argentina while the teacher records it so she and Javier can critique me and give me a grade. And I'm still really pissed off about losing. Did I mention I'm broke? No time to work amongst all this fun.
I did all of this before age 20. At an age when you lack the brain development to have the maturity level you have as an adult that helps you get through the day without going to pieces. You know what? A lot of you are doing this right now. Maybe you are beyond all this and it all makes sense to you. Maybe it doesn't, and you are wondering what the hell you were thinking when you consigned yourself to the misery of trying to be an elite student-athlete.
Now I'll get to the point. The reason we endeavor to excel is intensely personal. We all have our own reasons for chasing athletic dreams that 99.999 percent of us will never get paid a dime for chasing or achieving. That's your business. But when you feel desperate, don't despair. You are supposed to find your breaking point. No different than lifting weights. Your sets and reps are carefully constructed so that you are always flirting with muscle failure. That’s why you have a spotter. The big picture is no different. I'll tell you the long term benefits.
When you have been putting in 10+ hour days for free, a workday with the guarantee of a paycheck (grueling cardio optional) doesn't seem all that tough. That's all I have to to do today, and I can eat as much as I want? Piece of cake (literally, haha). I don't fear social failure anymore. What's rejection compared to losing an athletic contest you spent your life preparing for in front of you family, friends and peers? I got a raw deal in a match my junior year, the only match that I ever lost that I blamed a ref for. I got homered, deep in rival territory. I threw a fit. My coaches had to drag me out and on the way out I got hit in the head with a hamburger. Do you know what it's like to sit on a bench bawling your eyes out, realizing not only that you lost but that someone would rather hit you in the face with their three dollar sandwich than eat it? I do. So forgive me if the work day doesn't intimidate me.
I married way over my head because I wasn't afraid to fail. I don't get social anxiety. I used to have to get on a scale stark naked, have my weight announced loudly to a room full of people and THEN I had to get off the scale and stand with my arms over my head while officials carefully inspected my whole body for ringworm. You think a little public speaking, or walking into a room full of strangers (fully clothed) is going to scare me off? Doesn't mean I succeed every time I try, it just means I keep trying.
I was downtown a couple months ago and a guy attempted to take what I had in my hands (and presumably my pockets too) by force. I lost nothing but a couple minutes of my time. Neither the pressure nor the heat of the moment caused me to panic. Every practice is full of physical and mental tests. Reaction, explosion and muscle memory is burned into your brain. Some jackass thinks he is going to victimize me without showing a weapon? Whatever.
I'm not scared of my own feelings and emotions. I have no problem telling people that I love them or that I'm a better person for having known them, and when you learn to do that unashamedly the quality of your relationships, platonic or otherwise, drastically improves. You think you are the only one that feels insecure? Everyone does sometimes. Some people can't be the first one to say it. Doesn't mean they don't feel it. Only one way to find out. You have bounced back from failure before and you will do it again.
None of this would have been possible or apparent to me if I hadn't given my heart and soul to the pursuit of both athletic and academic excellence, despite the fact that at age 45 I am now not particularly athletic or academic. So think about that the next time you ask yourself “why.” It's not a sprint. It's a marathon. Everyone needs to talk once in awhile while they are going through it. Find the coach or teacher you trust and tell them exactly what's on your mind. You will be amazed at the support net you have. Need to talk to someone neutral? Call me. I'll talk you through it and I won't even ask your name.
Shortly before he died, Jimmy Valvano (Google Jimmy V ESPY speech if you ever need inspiration) said
“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special.”
That's real talk. I've done all three just typing my thoughts out here and it's not even 9 a.m yet. All that from a wet trashbag on a chilly morning. Anyway, I've likely embarrassed myself several times over here. Wouldn't be the first time. Don't give up. Don't ever give up.
I've got s*&t to do. I'm out. See ya soon.