Play Your Best Point: A Sports Analogy For Creative Types.
February 17, 2016
I have just learned a BIG THING that has been holding me back all these years of my adult life. I'm going to share it, even though it made me cry to write it, because I've heard lots of creative people wonder about similar struggles. Although I'm about as far away from a competitive athlete as they come, I'm going to explain this Big Thing as a sports analogy.
My Big Thing is wrapped up in these true confessions:
I don't finish what I start.
If I didn't have clients and a need to pay my mortgage, I would not finish anything. And sadly, sometimes that's not even reason enough for me to finish. I love to start. I get about 75% through and I fade, put the project on the back burner and look for the next hit of creative energy.
I don't start at all sometimes.
Setting goals and doing projects far beyond my comfort zone are not for me. To me, they mean disappointment because as I mentioned earlier, I rarely realize the end goals. Setting goals just makes me feel like I've already failed.
I don't give my best effort.
This is a new realization for me! I discovered that I purposely do not put my best effort forth into any project. I give up before it gets tough or take the easiest route to the end.
Here is the back story to this confession.
I was an average student who came from academically successful parents. I am mildly dyslexic, which made testing and learning study skills challenging. My mother was a psychologist and while earning her degree, put my siblings and I through all the testing and evaluations she was learning, including IQ tests of all sorts. By her assessment, I am "REALLY smart", so the frustration over my school performance was ultimately blamed on laziness. I wasn't working hard enough, I wasn't applying myself etc.
I can only remember one time when I did try really hard. I was in college and had a moment of maturity; "I'm going to really do the work and study hard now!" I was going to be a Good Student, studying every night in my dorm room or in the library. I made notes. I tried to memorize my text books. I worked especially diligently in my Art History class because I really loved the subject matter and was so engaged in the lectures. I sailed through my final exam, feeling so great because I was sure I'd finally done well in school because I'd studied for it!
But the result was crushing. I'd only gotten a C. After all that studying and all those years of my parents insisting that I'd be such a great student if I just worked harder, I wasn't. So I did what most people do facing crushing personal disappointment: I gave up. F*ck school and the mysteries of learning and achieving. I turned to the social aspects of college life and rode the next few years with a C average but happy and without heartache.
How this all relates to sports...
Two of my kids play squash, a game similar to racquetball but with a harder ball and longer racket. As I mentioned, I'm new to the world of sports and competition, so I've been anxiously sweating on the sidelines trying to figure out how to get my kids through the highs and lows of competing in sports.
Squash games are played between two opponents. There is no real team effort going on in those courts, and so there is nobody else to pin the blame on after a loss. You live and die by not only athletic skill, but by your ability to keep mentally calm under the immense pressure of a match. I've been in the gallery watching my two kids play squash and I've watched them become crushed beneath their losses and I've seen them rise to heights unimagined while winning.
What I saw was that my kids actually started losing as soon as their first bad hit happened. You could see panic settling in their shoulders when each bad hit led to the next. Point by point, the fear of losing would steal their game.
I also saw that not all the squash kids were losing their minds on the court. Some could just keep their emotions in check and play, play, play. (Kudos to those parents and their kids--you've got the magic!) It occurred to me that the key to every game was to keep a calm head and play each point as it happened. If a point was won or lost, it needed to be quickly set aside so that the next point could be played with a clear mind. If the kids strove (strived?) for each point as well as they could, success was found, regardless of the "winner". Both players were heartily congratulated for fighting valiantly. That was what really mattered--the fight, not the win.
Just play your best point.
This became my mantra to the kids. Losing points merely meant an indicator of a skill they might need to work on. Winning points meant that they had mastered a skill and successfully applied it at the right time. The results of the game became an indicator of skill and composure, not a chance at glorious adoration and rating domination. We simplified the match results. If the athlete could master enough points, then the medal was theirs that day. If they didn't master enough points, the medal would be waiting for them when they did. What mattered was that the point was played to the best of their ability.
So how in the heck does this come back to me and my resistance to successful habits?
Well, I realized that I was doing the same thing in many aspects of my work life. When the pressure is on, and I start wondering if anyone will like what I'm doing, or think I'm an idiot, or see me make a mistake, or make fun of me for even trying, I back off and apply one of my three sabotaging strategies: I don't finish, because that eliminates the final judgement of my work. I don't start, because I don't want to have the pressure of those evaluative expectations if I try. Or, I do a half-assed job, because then I'm okay if it fails since I didn't bother trying. In all of these solutions, my ego was spared and I was protected, for a while.
But I'm watching my kids determine their outcome in the same way I have. And finally, I'm bothered. My only job as a parent is to prepare them for life's challenges, not teach them to give up before they even try. How can I teach that if I don't even know how to do it myself?
So I started giving myself the same court-side pep talk: "Just play your best point, Margot" Each project doesn't determine my current value or even my future value. If I do my very best with it and go all in, I'll just be that much closer to my success. If I play my best point and don't do it right, then I can learn that skill a little better. I've even applied this mantra into other aspects of my business life, too, like when I get concerned that someone else is doing what I'm doing and they might be better than I am. Hey! They're playing on another court! Their game has nothing to do with my game and my next point. I can let them play their match and cheer them on too. MY job is to play my best point in MY match. I can't say enough about what a relief this has been to have finally learned this!
And I also don't want to forget why I love the game to begin with! :o)
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