Rant 33 June 2006: Choose joy
A recent article in the Statistics Canada publication Canadian Social Trends examined people’s perceptions of control over their life choices.
Using General Social Survey data, it attempted to correlate factors that enhanced people’s sense of control over their own lives. Not surprisingly, income and education were positively correlated – in other words, the more educated and richer people were, the more likely they were to feel they had more choices in life. However, the article also noted the role of health and wellbeing:
There was a substantial difference in perceptions of control depending on the health status of respondents. People who rated themselves as being in excellent health, scored an average of 20.0 on the mastery scale, compared to 16.1 for those who reported that their health was fair or poor. While it is possible to take responsibility for certain aspects of one’s health, with measures such as exercise, diet or lifestyle, accidents and some illnesses are beyond one’s control. Therefore, it is not surprising that individuals in less than optimal health feel that their sense of mastery is lower than that of others with little or no health challenges… It should be noted that the relationship between indicators of well-being and perceptions of control over life chances may be reciprocal. For example, feeling in control may be mitigated by health problems or dissatisfaction with life; however, having a reduced sense of mastery could also lead to poorer health or well-being. Indeed, a 2005 study found that a low perception of control over one’s own life negatively affects health outcomes, which in turn reduces sense of control.
Over the decade that I’ve been training more or less seriously, I’ve noticed a growing sense of control over my physical destiny, along with increased confidence and courage. No, I’m never going to be an Olympian, nor will I probably ever slam dunk a ball. I may face new injuries, illnesses, and challenges. Regardless, I feel now that I can take on just about any physical project and succeed reasonably well. I won’t ever be the best, but with enough effort I can be decent. For me, this sense of physical mastery is a direct result of weight training.
Although logically, there must be a point at which I can’t progress any further, at this moment there seems to be no upward limit to what I can accomplish. Things that seemed impossible five years ago are trivial obstacles now.
Three years ago, cycling twenty kilometres one way to work seemed like a momentous accomplishment (and I still swear it’s somehow uphill and upwind both ways). My husband pooh-poohed the idea of me attempting it. Of course, I had to prove him wrong. The first time I cycled that distance, I spent two days thinking I was God, running around and flexing my biceps. A few weeks ago I did a thirty-five kilometre trip as a Sunday jaunt. With a good breakfast in my tummy, I don’t imagine fifty would be all that challenging. I haven’t tried yet. But now I know I will.
When I first saw the Firejock workout some years ago, it seemed unbelievable that anyone could train even five days a week. Faced with a challenging job schedule last year, I resolved to train in the early mornings. Both things seemed impossible to sustain but I was determined. I stocked up on home gym stuff, set the coffeemaker on a timer, and rode my bike to the gym when the weather was warmer. Now, years later, it doesn’t seem odd to me to train twice a day if I feel so inclined. I have to force myself to take rest days on purpose.
In 1996, when I started training, I was about fifty pounds overweight (I say “about” because I just quit getting on the scale). In 1998 when I got married I’d lost about twenty or so of those pounds. I felt good but figured that was all she wrote, bodyfat wise. In 2000 or so, I thought about competing in powerlifting. I looked at the weight classes. Could I make the 52 kg one? (about 114 lbs) That seemed so difficult. I gave it a shot. Several weeks later, lo and behold, there I was at 52 kg. Over the last year, I’d been training steadily but getting a wee bit lazy about proper eating. My jeans were starting to strangle me. Inspired by hanging out with Phil Caravaggio and John Berardi’s lovely concept of “highly effective nutritional habits“, I started putting more effort into my nutrition, especially the preparation of each day’s food. I started running – very short distances and mostly sprinting, mindful of the knees that never seemed to like the activity. I stretched out my IT band carefully each time. So far so good. A month ago, with nary a complaint from my knees, I hit a weight that I hadn’t seen since I had my wisdom teeth out in high school and was eating mashed bananas through a straw for two weeks. I was floored.
I started Olympic weightlifting with a coach some years ago, and dabbled in it on and off. I remember struggling with a 65 lb clean. I quit in 2002 when I left a gym that had the right equipment. A few months ago, I discovered that my new gym had a proper Olympic weightlifting bar, tucked into a corner. I started using it once a week for cleans. After a couple of sessions my groove came back. Three weeks ago, for the first time in my life, I did a bodyweight clean – for a double. (Okay, it was a bit ugly. But it went up, dammit.) I also knocked off a personal pullup record after two hours of boxing training.
I continue to amaze myself. With consistent effort, preparation, and care, my body continues to deliver the goods.
Although I’ve been humbled by injuries and many setbacks and screwups in my training, I’ve persisted. Today, more than ten years older and hopefully wiser, I feel as if I am just beginning. I am fitter, stronger, and in better shape than I have ever been in my life. Right now, anything feels possible with enough work and determination. I keep learning this lesson over and over: I can do more than I ever thought I can do, and regardless of what life throws at me, I am in charge of my own physical destiny.
I received this wonderful piece of writing in email and George Beinhorn, the author, has kindly agreed to let me reprint an excerpt. The full book can be found here: http://www.oceansofenergy.com/book.html
Chapter 2. The Simple Joy of Sports
While I was on vacation in Hawaii last summer, I picked up a hitchhiker on
the winding main road just west of Hanalei. He was a fit-looking young man
who appeared to be in his early twenties. He spoke with a French accent, and
he told me he’d grown up in Tahiti, but that he now lived in France, and
that he was a professional body-boarder. I asked if he rode big waves, and
he said, “Yeah, that’s my thing – it takes lots of wave energy to perform
He said he’d grown tired of the continual travel that his sport required,
and that he was thinking of taking a break, because he was no longer happy
being a professional athlete. His voice thickened with regret as he
described how riding the waves as a child in Tahiti had been pure joy, and
how competition had sapped that pristine happiness. “Competing, you have to
play tricks on your friends,” he said. “You can’t even talk to them the same
I marveled – this young man had accomplished so much, and already he was
career-weary. And some moxie, too, to drop off a two story wall of water
while performing tricks along the way. His voice was firm with the
determination that had made his achievements possible.
I told the body surfer that I’d spent much of my vacation snorkeling at
Tunnels Lagoon. His voice rose with enthusiasm as he described the “amazing
numbers of seashells” I’d find if I swam straight out from the singer
Charo’s house to a gap in the reef where the currents dropped mounds of
debris. “You’ll find many wonderful things!” he said, his pleasure in
sharing contrasting with the weary tones in which he’d described his career
I told him how, when I was at Runner’s World, I would photograph indoor
track meets that would always begin with races for elementary school kids,
and how the crowd would go wild, screaming and whistling as the tiny kids
flailed around the track. I told him how it had struck me that the applause
for the professionals was always much more subdued. The body boarder
appeared to resent my saying this, as if I’d intended to cast a slur on his
sport. “I like competition,” he said sullenly as he stepped out of the car.
I regretted that I hadn’t been able to explain my meaning more clearly.
Putting down his sport was the last thing on my mind. I’d simply wanted to
share a feeling that audiences respond with greater enthusiasm to a certain
naive joy in sports, than to events tinged with too much adult hype and
Reflecting on our conversation, I wondered if the young bodyboarder’s simple
happiness riding the waves as a boy hadn’t helped him to rise to the top of
his sport. If he could recover some of that un-self-conscious joy, perhaps
he could forget his competitors and perform better than ever. It might take
courage, because he’d have to become wholly engrossed in pure “play” again,
and less focused on external rewards. Going his own way, he might even find
himself further distanced from his competitors. But his purity would surely
win their respect in the end, and his joy might even inspire them.
An idealistic scenario? A Pollyanna ending for a Hollywood script? Possibly.
When Michael Jordan joined the Chicago Bulls, he insisted on a clause in his
contract that spelled out his freedom to play basketball whenever and
wherever he liked, including joining in neighborhood pickup games. And when
a reporter asked then-Bulls coach Phil Jackson to characterize Jordan’s
co-star Scottie Pippen in a single phrase, Jackson thought for a moment,
then replied: “The joy of basketball.”
In sports nowadays, it can be pretty hard to find joy. Turning on the TV,
the odds are good that we’ll be treated to the sight of professional
athletes whining, brawling, and preening… As fans, we may have to take what’s dished out to us. But as participants, we can craft our own experiences. Like Jordan and Pippen, we can make a
conscious decision to turn sports, at our level, into a quest for expansion
– an artistic performance, celebration, and spiritual quest.
How can we experience pure joy in sports? We can learn a lot from famous
athletes who’ve shown exceptional qualities as people.
Granted, this is personal, but I’m very inspired whenever I see Ann Trason,
the greatest female ultramarathon runner of all time, handing out cups of
Gatorade at an obscure trail race in the hills north of San Francisco,
motivated by the simple pleasure of helping old geezers like me.
I’m inspired by Mark Plaatjes, winner of the 1993 World Championships
marathon. At the New York City marathon the following year, Plaatjes was
running in the lead pack when an injury forced him to drop out of the race.
Instead of retiring to his hotel room to sulk, Plaatjes hobbled to the
nearest aid station, where he volunteered his skills as a trained physical
therapist to massage the slower runners.
Loving, expansive feelings aren’t exclusive to great athletes, of course,
but can an athlete be considered truly great without them?
A review of 101 studies of several thousand men and women revealed that
negative emotions can have severe health consequences:
People who experienced chronic anxiety, long periods of sadness and
pessimism, unremitting tension or incessant hostility, relentless cynicism
or suspiciousness, were found to have double the risk of disease-including
asthma, arthritis, headaches, peptic ulcers, and heart disease (each
representative of major, broad categories of disease).1
As 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter put it, “The marathon
is too hard a race to waste energy hating your competitors.”
Our everyday experiences tell us that contractive feelings sap energy.
Shorter was right: life is too hard to waste energy hating people. Moreover,
the notion that expansive feelings such as love and kindness promote health
and improve performance is no longer a mere airy sentiment. It’s been
verified by the discovery of the electrical and chemical pathways by which
the effects of our positive and negative thoughts and feelings are carried
to the most distant parts of the body, including the immune system, which is
vitally involved in sports training and recovery.
Bruce Ogilvy, Ph.D., a pioneering sports psychologist, once studied the
factors that had prevented a group of world-class badminton players from
breaking through to the top of their sport. Ogilvy found that the
second-tier athletes tended to beat themselves up mentally for their
mistakes, while the champions simply noted their errors and moved on,
wasting no energy on self-recrimination. The top players inwardly reviewed
their mistakes and quickly turned to the next task. Negative self-thoughts
sap our energy. They are self-defeating.
Is it surprising, then, that so many great players, including Michael
Jordan, have remained positive and expansive, relishing the game until the
end of their careers? …
In Jordan’s own words:
“People talk about my work ethic as a player, but they don’t understand. What
appeared to be hard work to others was simply playing for me. We were
playing a game. Why not play as hard as you can? There’s no pressure in
taking that approach.”2
If joyful, expansive attitudes spread good vibrations throughout our bodies,
they surely won’t stand in the way of sports achievement, and they may, in
fact, give us a powerful advantage. In every area of our lives, positive,
life affirming attitudes are essential for success: in relationships,
business, child-raising, and sports. Even if our goal is only to lose ten
pounds, our joy in the achievement will be amplified if we can devise ways
to shed the pounds “expansively” – perhaps with the goal of having more
energy to serve our family and friends.
It isn’t hard to understand how expansion works. Consider the experience of
people who start an exercise program. After the first few uncomfortable
weeks, they find that they can climb stairs, take out the garbage, and play
with the kids with greater zest and freedom. As fresh energy spreads
throughout their being, they become happier, more alert, and more in tune
with the life around them. Where they were formerly dragged down and
confined by the torporous mass of their own flesh, they now have visions of
surfing on waves of energy. Their awareness – the range and force of their
bodies, hearts and minds – has expanded.
Joe Ehrmann is a former Baltimore Colts All-Pro defensive tackle who now
coaches high school football at the Gilman School in Baltimore. Ehrmann
believes young athletes are encouraged to grow up today believing in three
wrong values: athletic ability, sexual conquest, and economic success. He
calls these “false masculinity.”
“Masculinity, first and foremost, ought to be defined in terms of
relationships,” Joe said. “It ought to be taught in terms of the capacity to
love and to be loved…. And I think the second criterion – the only other
criterion for masculinity – is that all of us ought to have some kind of
cause, some kind of purpose in our lives that’s bigger than our own
individual hopes, dreams, wants, and desires.”
Ehrmann teaches his players a code of conduct that’s starkly different from
the values most young athletes absorb. It includes accepting responsibility,
leading courageously, and “enacting justice on behalf of others.” Ehrmann’s
“Building Men for Others” program is based on empathy: “Not feeling for
someone, but with someone.”
Biff Poggi, Ehrman’s fellow coach at Gilman, happened to read a newspaper
article that quoted the football coach of another school: “You have to push
them [high school football players] to the brink and either they are going
to break or they are going to stand up and be a man.” Poggi took the article
to a team meeting, where he read it aloud to the players, then chortled:
“We ought to get a lifetime contract to play against this guy. We’d beat
them every time we’d play, because he has no idea what he’s talking about.
You understand? Fifty boys together, fifty boys that love each other and
that are well affirmed and well loved by their coaches, will smack those
guys anytime, in anything. Being a father. Being a son. Being a football
player. Being a doctor. Being an astronaut. Being a human being. Being
“That’s not how you become a man. Do you understand me? Because that means
to be a man, you gotta somehow be some big, strong, physical person. And
that’s got nothing to do with it. Trust me.”
———- o ———-
My best performances as a runner are not impressive. Thirty-two years ago,
at age 32, I ran a 5K in 18 minutes, a mediocre time, and it like to killed
me. I’ve never been able to run 400 meters faster than 80 seconds. At age
53, after training hard for seven months, I eked out a 10-mile race in 70
minutes, thereby earning no bragging rights. In my mid-twenties, I spent two
years paralyzed from the chest down (a tumor was compressing my spinal
cord), and although I recovered following two surgeries, my right leg still
isn’t hooked up properly. I’ve got the body of a great African runner – the
biomechanics of a hippo and the VO2Max of a sloth. Yet I find that I can
experience joy fairly reliably by cultivating expansive attitudes when I
In fact, it’s a particular feature of the law of expansion that you don’t
have to be fast, young, talented, or famous to make it work. You don’t even
have to be fit, because you can taste the joys of expanded awareness by
“nudging your edges” and becoming larger in any dimension of your being:
body, heart, will, mind, or soul. You’ve surely met people like that – men
and women who were overweight and unhealthy, but who were happy in the part
of their lives where they expressed expansive qualities — like kindness,
love, or courage.
[N]ear the end of [a] run, I was warming down, feeling a
bit sandbagged, when I passed a lovely field where three Stanford soccer
players, a woman and two men, were practicing a ball-control drill. The
players were gold-rimmed by the late-afternoon sun against the green grass,
and for some reason the scene captured my attention, and I slowed to watch.
A player would run toward an orange pylon, then cut back sharply while a
second player tossed him the ball; the first player then kicked the ball
into the arms of the third player. They repeated the drill over and over,
with relentless skill and fully absorbed attention, and for reasons that I
can’t begin to explain, my heart was flooded with joy. The scene seemed to
embody the Zen concept of “suchness” – it was a thing complete in itself, a
small miracle of beauty and economy, and I nearly wept with happiness. My
fatigue vanished, and I sailed through a nearby eucalyptus grove on legs as
light as air.
A moment of simple magic had released an energy and joy that washed my
fatigue away. What if I could run that way again and again? Could I banish
fatigue by expanding my heart to the point of self forgetfulness? What
lessons would I have to learn in order to repeat the experience at will?
Casting my mind over my three decades as a runner, I realized that I had
experienced a similar joy at other times — an inner warmth of heart, or a
fusion of energy and silence. And always those moments had come when I
succeeded in opening doors through which my awareness could escape the
narrow confines of the little ego and emerge into a wider reality.
1. Daniel Goleman. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books. 1997. pp. 168-169.
The study mentioned is: Howard Friedman and S. Boothby-Kewley, “The
disease-Prone Personality: A Meta-Analytic View,” American Psychologist 42
2. Driven From Within, Mark Vancil, ed. New York: Atria Books, 2005. p. 18