A key lesson of sport is that you get better at what you practice.
There are days practice goes extremely well; you’re motivated, everything clicks, and everything you try succeeds. And there are days when you’d rather be somewhere else, when nothing works as it should, when you’re constantly picking yourself off the ground (depending upon the sport, perhaps literally) and trying again.
One of the main differences between amateur and professional athletes is that a pro knows that while the occasional practice like the first is encouraging and of course fun, its the second kind that both mentally and physically builds champions. Its not that failure is good in itself – in fact our nervous system learns a new skill by repeated small successes. But if you’re always succeeding then you’re almost certainly not learning anything new.
Even an all time great like Michael Jordan emphasized he had to try and fail a new move a thousand times in practice before he might be able to apply it in a game. Its a cliche in sport: to succeed, you have to be used to failing. It also happens to be true.
And perhaps even more importantly, if you’re not used to failing and retrying in practice, you’re unlikely to respond well to the inevitable failures of actual competition. Professionals search for a way to come back to win a championship even if they’re down by four goals with one period remaining, if they’re down three games to one in a best of seven final. And the advice of every coach to their players in that situation is always the same: take it one play at a time. If that play fails, let it go, and concentrate on the next fail.
Don’t waste time and energy berating yourself, failure is part of the game. Sometimes its bad luck, sometimes its bad circumstances, sometimes your opponent is just better on you that day, sometimes you’re just not playing to your normal standard. Its irrelevant, you let it go and concentrate on the only thing you can affect – the next play. That is the lesson every professional athlete learns.
Sometimes it even works. Sometimes it doesn’t. You learn what you can from the loss, then move on to the next game. Or next season.
Masahiko Kimura, one of the greatest judo competitors of all time, said the secret of judo is simple. Fall seven times, get up eight. The extra stand-up is necessary, its the one that gets you out of bed and to practice in the first place. Whether you feel like it or not on that day is interesting, but largely irrelevant. If you want to do serious judo, you practice.
I was at a meditation retreat with Rowan Conrad where the question of what is practice came up. The answer that resonated with me was direct: practice is showing up and meditating. Nothing about succeeding, about enlightenment or peace or even calmness – its simply about being there and making the effort.
There are days when meditation flows effortlessly, and I enjoy them.
There are days when mindfulness comes easily, when I remember it in many of the little things that make up life. And there are days when my mind continuously wanders in meditation, when mindfulness is completely forgotten during the day.
On such days I tell myself, “Good, you have a chance to improve”, remember Kimura, pick myself off the floor (figuratively of course) and return to the next breath. Because its the one that needs my immediate attention.