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Massage Today
April, 2002, Vol. 02, Issue 04

Landing on the Edge

By Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB

"What made Sarah [Hughes] special Thursday night wasn't just her skills. It was her approach. She wasn't out for anything except the performance. ... Their strategy was to think only about the performance and not about the results.

That's the way it should be done."

- Sandra Bezic, NBC figure skating analyst

We all have pivotal times in life when we strive toward achievement and then, whatever the result, must regroup and move ahead to the next step. We often can't control the results or even our own exact input. What we can choose is our preparation, focus, and attitude. In the recent Olympics, there were stories in which such choices were compressed into the span of seconds.

Entering Flow

Despite competing at the limits of their physical skill, there are times for elite athletes when their mental focus and physical coordination come together in striking fashion. Figure skater Sarah Hughes had started out her long performance in fourth place, seemingly out of the medal competition. Not having to hold onto a medal position, she was able to focus entirely on her performance. "I didn't want to skate for a gold medal," she said. "I went out and had a great time. I said, 'This is the Olympics. I want to do the best.' " What she created was a technically flawless performance that radiated a poise and joy of life that brought her the gold medal.

Norwegian skier Kjetil Andre Aamodt finessed the difficult course set for the men's Super-G, a course on which many of his competitors missed a gate and didn't finish. Whether it was the combination of experience and strength or just the right timing of practice and training, on that crisp bright morning in the Wasatch Mountains, it all came together for him.

These two stories are about entering flow, a term Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses to describe a state of focus and ease obtained "when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable":

"When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person's entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own."2

Accepting the Risk of Failure

Using duct tape to bind together a broken boot buckle for his final race, snowboarder Chris Klug persevered and won the bronze medal in parallel giant slalom. Glad simply to be alive, liver transplant survivor Klug didn't have time to replace the snapped buckle in the interval between his two runs. At the starting gate, he felt the looseness in the boot, and briefly wondered if he could make it down the hill. "I just said, 'To heck with it,'" Klug said. "If this thing's going to work out, it's going to work out. If not, so be it. I just made the best of it."

Eric Bergoust, the defending Olympic gold medalist in freestyle aerials, engaged the risks to spectacularly win or lose, getting the latter when he was unable to hold the landing of a stunningly aerobatic high-speed jump. "I'm glad I didn't go out there and go conservative and finish fourth," he said. "I wanted to get the gold or last, and I got last." Within any "at the edge" accomplishment, there is both the opportunity for success and the risk of failure. Being unwilling to accept the risk of failure can be the greatest obstacle to success.3

"Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist and poet

Persevering with Tenacity

Brian Shimer, a five-time Olympian, finally won a bronze medal as the driver of one of tw o U.S. four-man bobsled teams, ending a 46-year medal drought in the event for the U.S. Bothered by creaky knees and calf injuries, Shimer almost didn't get to compete. "I did it on my last run in my last Olympics", said Shimer. This is a fairy-tale ending. Who doesn't like that?"

Croatian Janica Kostelic became a World Cup phenomenon in 1999 when she won two consecutive events. Later that season, she injured her right knee so severely that it was uncertain whether she would ever ski competitively again. In Salt Lake City, she set a record for the most alpine medals (four) ever won during a single Olympics.

Both Shimer and Kostelic succeeded through their tenacity against disappointment and physical obstacles.

Accepting Transitions with Grace

Whether we gain our goals or fall short of them, there is an art to letting go and moving on. All competitors eventually face the challenge of becoming ex-competitors. It can be harder to escape our spectacular successes than to leave behind our disappointments; harder to conceive of something new that seems as satisfying. Yet, deep within us, there is always the ability to find new challenges and to extend our connections and capabilities.

"Change can come at any time, but transition comes along when one chapter of your life is over and another is waiting in the wings to make its entrance."

- William Bridges1

There comes a time, whether in starting a new practice, teaching a class, or just in beginning the next massage, that we must bring together our experience, accept the risks of performance, and tenaciously seek the zone of flow. Every massage has a beginning and an ending. For me, each new massage has that element of standing in the sunlight at the top of a hill, watching the snow sparkle before me. One last centering breath, and it's time to commit to my unconsciously stored practice and experience, landing on my edges as they carve the unknown slope.

References

  1. William Bridges, 2001: The Way of Transition: Embracing Life's Most Difficult Moments, Perseus Publishing, ISBN 0-7382-0529-X.
  2. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1997: Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-02411-4.
  3. Annete Delavallade, 1996: Failing to fail can reduce chance for success, Business Review, 21 June. (http://albany.bizjournals.com/albany/stories/1996/06/24/smallb1.html)

Click here for previous articles by Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB.

 

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