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Elan Vitae


  • Michael Scholtz


For some time, I’d been in a morass of negativity about my preparation. My coach tolerated my wallowing to a point, having been under the pressure of an impending physical challenge herself more than a few times. But her tolerance for my whining had its limits, and eventually she offered some sage wisdom that has stuck with me ever since.

She offered this insight matter-of-factly. There was no fanfare as if she thought this were advice that would alter my world view. The statement was more casual and underscored a simple, undeniable truth. She told me, “Preparation will never be perfect. You will have missteps and challenges along the way, and you will never show up having prepared exactly right. But you still have to toe the line and compete. You have to do your best with the preparation you have.”

I have thought about those words many times connected not only to my athletic endeavors, but also in everyday life. Life is messy. Things rarely go as planned. And it is your power to be flexible and to pivot with finesse and agility that often determines not only the outcome you achieve, but your ability to embrace and enjoy the journey.

Flexibility defined in physical terms is the ability to move freely through your full range of motion. You might imagine the ease of movement of a dancer or a gymnast. Applied to how you view the world or solve problems, the definition of ‘flexible’ implies the same freedom of movement. It means the ability to adjust one's thinking or behavior.

The life of an athlete requires an unfiltered commitment to any goal to which you are drawn. To hedge your bets and temper your ambition, focus, or input of energy is to lose before you’ve begun. If you are less than “all in”, you can bet that many of those against which you’ll be competing certainly are not.

To fully immerse yourself in the process of achieving a goal means fully living into your vision every day. Your motivation is the manifestation of harnessed energy that only a clear vision of what you want to achieve can create. The power of this kind of clarity of purpose is mirrored outside the world of athletics by those who have a deep belief in who they are and how they want to show up. One clear example is parents who envision themselves as models and guides for their children, and in whom this attitude gives rise to a commitment to nurturing, teaching, openness, and unconditional support. Another is a business leader who believes in the potential impact of a service or product to such a degree that the mission, culture, and energy of the entire company is uplifted.

Still, no matter how clear the vision, nothing is certain. Therein lies one of the most difficult balancing acts of fully owning a deeply personal vision. You can imagine the outcome you want, believe in it, manifest it daily, and your world can still shift in such an unpredictable way as to render your dream implausible or even impossible. An athlete lives constantly in this intersection of unfiltered conviction that a dream is possible and the simultaneous and ever-present knowledge that they have little control over the eventual outcome.

And there is a subtlety here that is important to understand. Embracing uncertainty is not equal to acquiescing to uncertainty. To acquiesce would mean never committing to the vision for fear that what you want so deeply could be swept away from you. The essence of having a vision is understanding that uncertainty is an inseparable part of your journey and nevertheless leaning into the pursuit of what you want. It is being fearless in the face of the unknown. On one hand you are sure you can achieve what you’re after, and on the other hand and in the very same instant you know that you must be flexible to be successful. At some point on your journey, you will have to either bend or break.

Physical agility is defined as being marked by the ready ability to move with quick, easy grace. It describes the power of an athlete to pivot or change direction seamlessly and nearly instantly, as if equipped with on-board radar that signals the impending need to change course before the actual need arises. In psychological terms agility reveals a quick, resourceful, and adaptable character.

The life of an athlete moves in seasons, whether that be the goals for the coming year or shifting of priorities across different seasons of life. What that means for the athlete’s success is that hesitation to adapt is costly. If you are willing to be flexible with your goals and preparation, but slow to make the shift in direction, you may miss the opportunity. Your ability to adapt quickly may be the thing that makes or breaks your season.

This is not to suggest that to achieve your vision you must be able to pivot instantly, without any emotional attachment to what you are leaving behind. The athlete’s mindset means being able to hold two thoughts at nearly the same time. The disappointment about a lost opportunity is followed quickly by the excitement about what door has now been flung open.

An important point in this description is that this pivot is not instantaneous, but merely so quick as to appear to be so. The reality is there is processing to do and very difficult emotions to fully experience and absorb. And the appropriate length of time to do this processing varies depending on what is being left behind as you pivot.

To the outside observer, the pivot will be seamless. But for the athlete it shows up as providing oneself time and space to experience disappointment, frustration, and anger, while channeling the positive emotions that surface into the drive to achieve what’s next. An example we have seen repeated over many years in many sports is the insatiable drive to rehab after being sidelined, when an athlete whose primary goal has been put on hold by injury puts that same drive into healing mentally and physically.

To adopt an athlete’s mindset in your own daily life can provide you the power to be psychologically flexible and agile. You will be able to set a direction in your life that you believe in, want deeply, and have the courage to say aloud to those who love you. This courage will spring from your capacity to be flexible and imagine your vision as an adventure to experience as it unfolds rather than a test you have to pass.

And you’ll know that when the time comes where you must pivot, you can do so skillfully and quickly, recognizing that there is no pressure to pivot so quickly that you are unable to grieve the opportunity that you lost. Instead, you’ll offer yourself the space to be grateful and, as soon as the time feels right, hitch yourself to those positive emotions that show up when you imagine what’s next.

Photo credit:

Image by prabjot from Pixabay


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