Above the Field of Play turned four years-old on August 4th. One of the many things I’ve learned from sports (and life) is that you can have a well-articulated plan that becomes worn, incomplete, or obsolete. Or sometimes it evolves to something more than you anticipated. Since starting this adventure of trying to capture what is hard to express, but needs to be heard in, on, and above the fields of performance, well…I’ve changed. I’ve met many people, had many teachers in many forms, and been through life challenges that I never saw coming. And I’ve come to realize that my plan needs upgrading.
With that said, moving forward, this space will be about providing information truly above the field of play, but also above the important life spaces that require the same knowledge, character, commitment, and dedication.
Originally, when I considered the space above the field of play, I thought of all the development that occurs in body and mind in to improve and perform in a way that honors the essence of growth and competition. And by competition, I refer to the origin of the word: to strive together. We can’t develop competence of any form without relationship. It doesn’t happen in isolation.
Yet information continues to explode, and lists, systems, and programs arise as if there is a template for the development of expertise. Not so. There are principles and guides that inform the endeavor. And the process is sacred ground that starts with a very clear idea of what you are willing to do, to give, and to give up on the rise to the rare air—the higher reaches above the field of play.
So, I will refer to the fields of play from here on. For if you go deep enough, the process of development and mastery within the whole of relationships is very much the same.
At any competitive level, attention, focus, adaptation, and resilience decide who moves on and who is left behind. They are the mental qualities and skills that are difficult to quantify and missing from the analytics. On paper, two teams or two individuals could look like a toss-up when you consider the measurables. Yet on game day, results reveal that intangibles can never be overlooked. And, therefore, intentional or otherwise, the unquantifiable qualities are an aspect of every training experience. In other words, you are moving forward because you are intentionally getting the most out of experience (learning, reflecting, adapting, improving)—or you are stuck in a headspace governed mostly by past patterns and mood (see the previous post, Bad day: What’s in a Name?). In this “stuck” pattern, others with similar physical skills and abilities are moving ahead. So, you really are never in the same place.
Attention is the cornerstone of development and performance. While this may sound like a bold statement, attention connects to every aspect of preparation and execution. We pay attention to what we value. We attend to what is meaningful and what we are aiming at. It can be no other way as our mind is goal-directed. Deeper, there is a nuance to attention that recent studies have helped to clarify. While this is very simplified, there are two modes of attention, representing different networks in the brain: The Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Task-Positive Network (TPN).
The Default Mode Network is where the mind goes when not involved in a task. The DMN activates during mind-wandering, thinking of self and relationships, episodic memory, other forms of mental time travel such as to-do lists, thinking of the trophy or thinking of losing in the middle of the event, or craving a cheeseburger. In other words, DMN is steeped in the narrative of the past or the future.
The Task-Positive Network activates during specific tasks in the present such as hitting a baseball, shooting a free throw, hitting a drive off the first tee, or writing an essay. TPN requires focus and alertness in the present, moving step by step through the process.
While this, again, is an oversimplification, you can say when one system is dominant the other takes a back seat. Why does this matter?
Attention to a task is expensive. And some research finds that our mind wanders nearly half our waking life (DMN). These major brain systems are part of an architecture that dates back millenniums. Best to work with them rather than make believe we can outsmart them.
Some coaches preach “the process” and “being present.” Sounds like the TPN and sounds like a great idea. But the DMN is termed the “default” for good reason. This system qualifies who we are and how we are over time—a necessity for survival and making sense of our story. Best to establish a rhythm to these modes, and best to engage awareness of the systems within the process.
The practical application of these networks during practice and competition starts with these building blocks:
Developing the skill: Awareness can be developed above these networks. In other words, we can notice whether our attention is not in the present (DMN) or is engaged in the process of a task in the here and now (TPN).
Noticing and Shifting: The rhythm of the sport will decide the ebb and flow of these networks. The important mental skills then become noticing and shifting based on this flow. Football, tennis, golf, and baseball are examples of sports having natural “breaks” between action and inaction (this does not mean that you aren’t processing or strategizing). A gymnast must practice engaging the TPN for longer time spans which vary (floor exercise versus the vault). You have the important task of identifying this rhythm for your sport.
Flow: The feel of “flow” is different in each of these modes. The DMN can be a space of great creativity, insight, and immersion. And the flow of TPN can be developed between and within practice sessions with mindfulness, visualization, and mental rehearsal.
Attention is a valuable resource intensified by clarifying goals and values. Understanding these modes and their place in mental processing can lead to leaps in your mental approach. Awareness of attention and “where” it’s aimed, can help you to continuously develop the ability to shift, reflect, and shift once more. Most importantly, these skills are not just required to develop sport-specific skills—but also resilience.
Every two years (it used to be four!) I find myself saying the same thing around bedtime. “Five more minutes,” which then turns into ten. And so on…The Olympics refuse to make it easy to say, goodnight, and I find my bedtime extended to hours not typically seen. But to lose a bit of sleep to witness some of the highest and best we have to offer seems like a very good deal.
Some of the greatest Olympic moments that filled me and inspired me are still with me like little notes in a lunchbox to “give your best.” Franz Klammer’s Gold Medal Downhill run in the 1976 Olympics at Innsbruck, a breathtaking 105 seconds on the edge of beauty and catastrophe. The 1980 USA Men’s Hockey team (boys versus men) taking Gold preceded by the question, “Do you believe in miracles?” in their semi-final game versus the USSR.
Many, many more each night over the years and they still give me chills. Awe is a need not so often fulfilled. To feel it and live it reminds that we are less than without a sense of awe at our center.
This year, in 2021, we experience the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. An asterisk will remind that the signage signifies a year of waiting. A year unlike any other. But awe still prevails. So many stories and conversations emerge and for many of us we find common ground in the joy of victory and the pain of falling a bit short. This year and years to come, I will remember Allyson Felix not just for her performance but for the person. In a time when role models and real heroes are veiled by celebrities and influencers, she is the real deal. As real and true as they come.
Since her first games in 2004 to the present, Allyson Felix has represented grace, humility, and a level of excellence unmatched. The same can’t be said of a certain four-letter sports brand (rhymes with shnikey) who offered a major pay cut to Felix, negotiated while she was pregnant. But Allyson turned insult into opportunity and crossed the Olympic finish line with her own brand of shoes. Amen.
And while disrespected, Ms. Felix kept her eyes on what matters most to her—at home and away. She did it with her fierce will, boundless determination, and joy evident in her ever-present smile. I can’t imagine a better role model, a better representative of self, country—and her own enterprise.
Some come and go. And some are found out. It’s consistency over time that makes the true champion. Allyson Felix has been consistently great as an athlete and a person. We are blessed to be able to experience her greatness and steadfast integrity from a place so far away from home. Worlds away she is worlds above. Someone to look up to.
Note: This post first published by this author on Afatherspath.org on 8/8/2021
Recently, I had the chance to spend some time with three amazing men on their podcast, The Oak City Sports Show. Eddie Carter, Dale Neal, and Anthony Robinson are more than experienced athletes. They are role models and men asking the tough questions and putting themselves out there. For me, it was refreshing to be able to share ideas and put our heads together to surround some challenging topics. On some level, who you are on the field is who you are in life. Eddie, Dale, and Anthony live that idea, and it’s inspiring to be able to dialogue on unique perspectives. And it seems to me that dialogue is something we need more of…
There are two kinds of people: one who says that there are two kinds of people and one who says there aren’t. That’s a take on an old joke but it applies when people talk of Old School versus New School in the sports world.
But the divide is not so simple. If you take any sport and mention a contemporary versus a player in the past, you might end up in that age-old argument of how that old school athlete would fair today. It’s a fun idea that can also be combative. But the context is different. Motivation is different. The world is just plain different.
We recently lost two Hall of Famers and icons in their sports: In baseball, pitcher, Tom Seaver, and in football, running back, Gale Sayers. Their approach and demeanor may have hinted at Old School, but the metrics say otherwise. Today’s batters, no different than the ones Seaver whiffed in the past, don’t handle 95+ MPH fastballs any better than they did when he won the Cy Young in ’67. And todays’ combine scouts would drool at Sayers’ 40-yard dash, his sub 10-second 100-yard dash, his agility, and strength.
We could argue endlessly, but the point is there is no separation. Within the New School are Old School elements dressed anew. Evolution is Nature’s arrow. And within the Old School, the DNA was passed on to the New in essence, as rare and pure potential.
Greatness is greatness. No need to compare. But rather just appreciate for we are blessed to witness the sublime when athletes cultivate the gift in the context of the present. And we can appreciate, in pre-HD video, Seaver’s leg drive and unhittable heat, and Sayers breaking ankles before the expression existed.