Watching the Olympics is a massive biannual event that brings the whole country – nay, the whole world – together. Even if you are not that into sports, there is sheer joy in seeing humans perform their best.
I’m sure today, last Sunday, and next Sunday, there will be many sermons preached on that most Olympic of Biblical passages, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, in which Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Not many of my current friends know this, but when I was younger, I was a pretty intense figure skater. I skated 6 days a week, from 1.5-3 hours, for about five years. I quit over a decade ago, but as I’ve been enjoying the figure skating during this Olympics, I’ve been reflecting a lot on that experience, and the lessons I’m still learning from it, though not always consciously.
My ice skating career (handy hint: no one who actually does it calls it “figure” skating, or at least didn’t in the ’90s) was a meteoric rise with a frustrating stall-out. I started relatively late, taking weekly lessons starting at 8 or 9 years old, while most skaters who go far start at age 4 or 5. By 10, though, it was clear this was something I really enjoyed, so my parents let me take the next step. I got private lessons, skated multiple times a week, and after a year or so, I was skating just as well as kids my age and a little younger. I had natural talent, and I really loved performing, so I was motivated to keep progressing, until I was skating with the oldest group. At the height of my career (around ages 12-13), I was skating 6 times a week, with off-ice ballet and other training during the summers, and year-round weight training. I had a head coach, a choreographer, a spins coach, a dance coach, and a jump coach who had competed with Dorothy Hamill, and they were all handsomely paid. I mostly did individual competition, but I was also in an ensemble team that competed internationally, and I took part in two ice shows per year at our local rink. I don’t even remember how many competitions I did. My memory is a bit hazy, but to put my skills in context of what you see on TV, I think the biggest jump I ever landed in competition was a double lutz-double toe combination. I was landing double axels with some regularity, and was starting to practice triple toes, though I don’t think I ever fully rotated them.
But man, oh man, did I stall out. I don’t remember when it happened, exactly, but by my fourteenth birthday, the joy was gone. I blamed the pressure and occasional cruelty of my coaches, my inability to land things consistently, mild exercise-induced athsma, and an inexplicable pain in the sole of my right foot that still flares up now and again. My social ineptitude mixed with the classic middle-school mean-girl social world of ice skating combined to make me truly, deeply, miserably lonely. There were a wide variety of emotional factors, and looking back, I don’t blame anyone for them. I was thirteen. Being a young teen sucks for most people. I had twelve years of maturing to go through before I would even begin to be able to handle the pressure-cooker that is the ice skating world.
So watching these Olympic skaters who really bomb, I am right there with them. I know what it’s like to pop a jump, to try to recover from rattled nerves in the middle of a program. I know what it’s like to be psyched out. I know what it’s like to have your best outcome be to make it to the free program at all. I was never as good as these men and women, and never particularly thought I would be, but I know enough to imagine their disappointment on that world stage.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. Emotional factors were out of my control, and I look back with joy and relief to see how much I’ve grown since then. I have grown to the point that I can watch Olympic ice skating with nothing but delight to see these artists at the top of their craft.
There are, however, a lot of things I would do differently. I have enough emotional distance now to consider what I would try, if I could have my 27-year-old mind in my 13-year-old body. (Youth wasted on the young much?)
- I would engage my analytical brain. I am a thinker and a talker; I learn by asking questions and collecting ideas. It would be a long time before I found my inner geek, but now, I would read up on sports nutrition, fitness medicine, all that stuff.
- I would take my off-ice conditioning much more seriously. I did well at it at the time because it was fun, but I would engage in it more actively and analytically. What weak muscles are getting in the way of my doing this? What exercises will train this up?
- I would do the boring skating stuff. My head coach used tell me to warm up by doing fifteen minutes of laps, forward and backward crossovers, and I just didn’t do them. I don’t think that was defiance; I just thought those things were boring and didn’t understand why I was supposed to do them. I wanted to do the fun stuff. (Repeat: I was thirteen.)
- I would try more and different kinds of cross-training in order to problem-solve. More ballet and other dance. Music theory. Theatre. Am I two-footing my jumps because I’m afraid of falling down? Am I using the ice timidly because I’m afraid of hitting the boards? Maybe I need a few months of boxing. (I did do martial arts, and those two sports mutually supported each other a great deal. But I was always timid about getting hit.) I have always found running miserable, but I would have found another way to improve my aerobic and anaerobic endurance.
- I would have looked for inspiration. Watching these Olympics today, if I was still in it, I would have made a list of skills I wanted to look into, new steps to acquire, looks I wanted to achieve.
- I would have made use of the neglected resource that is my intelligent and artistic mother. Because I was thirteen, I was at that stage where her mere existence was embarrassing. I didn’t even want her to watch me practice, let alone comment on it! This is somewhat understandable, but in retrospect was a terrible waste. If I had it to do over again, I would make her tape as much of my practice sessions as she could stand, then review them with her, and ask her opinions about things. She was limited by having two little kids to wrangle and homeschool as they were dragged to all my practices (good grief!), but I know she had to work so hard to hold her tongue during my impetuous adolescence, and she would have been very happy to share more of that load with me.
- I would look for coaches who would work with my learning style and treat me with respect. I don’t doubt that I was hard to work with; I was outwardly compliant but inconsistent with followthrough. Still, my highest-level coaches, bless their chain-smoking hearts, always gave me this impression that my main problem was that I didn’t want it enough. There was something to this, but most of the time, that just made me constantly psych myself out and second-guess my emotions. If someone tried to coach me that way today, I would say thanks, but no thanks. I need a problem-solver to help me understand myself. You’re my employee, not my accuser.
I could not possibly have done all of these things all of the time. But I would have noted all the possibilities, and tried to discern season by season what I should focus on next in order to continue growing.
Looking at all these problems, I’ve asked myself, why did I even stick with it as long as I did?! The answer was simple: I loved skating. I loved the wind in my face, feeling like I was flying. Jumping was cool, when you could do it, but there was always so much pressure around jumps that they became un-fun the fastest. What I loved most of all was skating to music. I loved feeling the music in the middle of my chest as I skated, throwing myself into it. My favorite thing was to just improvise to music that was playing – I even got a bit of flak for skating to the music of other skaters’ programs! But if they had really good music, I couldn’t help myself. I was hooked on movement. And I loved performing in shows and team competitions, quite different from the enormous pressure of individual competitions, where it was all just about dancing and beauty and inhabiting a character.
That’s part of why I loved watching Jason Brown so much last week. He seems like a sensible hard worker, but you can see that he has that love. It doesn’t hurt that his free program was to Riverdance, music that has always gotten into my limbs to send me spinning around the room since the show first came out on VHS.
Two things I would not have different, if I could go back:
- I did all the fun stuff that I could. It was my hobby, for goodness sake! So I was in all the shows; I choreographed my own programs and show numbers whenever I got the chance; during public sessions I just skated to pop music and having a good time. The ensemble team was the last thing I quit; we did was an amazing number to Swan Lake that won wherever it was shown. I could have done just fun stuff, if I’d stopped competing traditionally and done dance, or only teams, or studied choreography, or done improvisational competitions, or whatever. But even now, I am competitive and ambitious enough that I would probably try to see how far I could go up the mainstream path.
- This wasn’t my doing, but looking back, I would not change how my parents handled things. They probably did not know how deep of a rabbit hole we were all getting into, but they made a lot of sacrifices so I could go as far as I wanted. They never had great ambitions for me; all they cared about was that I had fun. Despite pouring absolutely shocking amounts of time and money into the sport, they only ever encouraged me, and they never once (that I recall) criticized me when I did poorly in competition (which was often). I think they probably got a little exasperated when I was so unhappy that all I would do is complain, but even after I quit, they never once made me regret their investment. They just loved to watch me skate. When you think about it, that’s pretty amazing.
So, that’s a lot of shoulda-coulda-woulda. I burned out; I quit; I moved on. It’s sad, but geez, talk about your first world problems. What is all of this good for now? A great deal, when I think about it.
An enormous factor in all this is emotional maturity, especially differentiation, and especially in Christ. As an aside, Jared’s cousin Jessie who is playing for the Swiss women’s hockey team, and who after their dramatic win over Russia is now guaranteed to make it at least to the Bronze medal match, wrote a lovely little piece for Athletes in Action (a ministry of Cru) that demonstrates just this point. You should go read it yourself, but I’ll give you the crux. After a disappointing first season in college, she says, “I heard that Athletes in Action was going to be meeting on UConn’s campus, so I contacted the new AIA director. This quickly became a place for me to connect with other athletes and to find love, acceptance, accountability and friendship. The next summer, I devoted myself to working my very hardest at my sport, and for the first time, I wasn’t focusing on what my coaches, trainers or teammates thought about me. I was finally able to play freely for the game, not for my identity. Having this newfound freedom and love for the game, my level of play improved quickly, and I even got the Most Improved Player Award the following season.” Jessie gets it, and it pleases me to no end that she was able to get it in time for that spiritual maturity to help her rise to the top of her sport.
But another theme that comes out as I look back at all of the things I would have done differently, is the concept of conditioning. I know my coaches must have explained it to me a hundred times over, but it took a long time to sink in. No matter how much natural talent you have, we all reach a point where, to improve, you have to train your body and your brain to do things they wouldn’t normally do. That’s what the off-ice training was about, and the laps of crossovers around the rink. Without that training, trying to do the big jumps becomes an endless exercise in throwing yourself against a wall. (Kinda literally.)
This is true in almost any discipline you can think of. When I took guitar and later bass lessons, I was supposed to spend 5-10 minutes a day doing “technique,” which meant boring finger exercises that made my knuckles hurt. (I didn’t really do that either. Guess how much I still play the guitar.) This is what the endless scales my pianist brother practiced were all about. There are innumerable examples, most of which I don’t know well enough to describe, but you probably know what I’m talking about. Your body can be trained in a vast variety of ways to have speed, precision, strength, or control, to execute tasks that would be impossibly difficult to do untrained.
Conditioning is the boring stuff. But the thing about it is, you usually don’t have to do it for hours at a time, unless you are really trying to achieve something major. You just have to do it a little, every day. The every day part is what makes a difference.
I really did not compute this as an ice skater. As I said before, I just wanted to do the fun stuff, and from a combination of disobedience and non-comprehension, I would slack off on the rest. The first time I really experienced the difference good conditioning meant, I was living in Ohio. I missed singing, and couldn’t join a choir since I had an evening shift, so I took voice lessons. I had a forty-minute commute at an odd time of day when there was nothing on NPR, so I used that commute to practice – every day, several minutes of warmups and scales, and attentive practice of the few songs I was assigned. I had lessons once a week, and my teacher was amazed at my progress.
It turns out that multitasking is the way to my heart; see the evidence of my becoming a pretty accomplished knitter (if I say so myself). Writing is the other area I’ve seen this in action. A college professor told me that he advised his students to journal a little every day if they wanted to improve their writing. I used to journal; now I mostly blog. I do it because I like it (need it, even), but I’ve tried to keep myself to posting twice a week when I’ve gone through seasons of not feeling like it. That has been essential to finding my writing voice, which is an ongoing process. This is also why I am terrible at video games that require hand-eye coordination; I don’t have time for the conditioning. I prefer point-and-click adventure games, because I like a good interactive story, but I don’t care to acquire the skill of button-twiddling. (No judgment on those who do.)
So let’s be honest. As inspiring as I find Olympic athletes, I doubt I’m going to become one. I would be pleased enough to keep my body healthy and active. I’ve lost most of my baby weight, and I feel like a freaking rockstar, thank you very much. There are many skills I am building, but even if I can become a great writer, or academic, or knitwear designer, those aren’t my primary goals anymore. Those things are means to an end.
It’s back to Paul for me. The “imperishable wreath” he was metaphorically running for was spreading the gospel. I am deadly serious about making that the full-time pursuit of my life. (Every Christian is called to this, and ministers do it as a full-time job in order to empower the whole church to do it.) I know enough now to know that this calling will require me to be at the top of my game, “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” I am learning what sort of skills I will have to build to be effective: things like listening, being present and attentive to people, seeing opportunities, taking relational risks, knowing when to speak and when to shut up, interpreting life theologically on the fly. And above all, staying centered and connected to the Triune God. And what is the equivalent of the conditioning that it will take to grow these skills? It’s called spiritual discipline.
I’ve heard sports metaphors for spiritual discipline all my life. But I always thought, okay, this is just a metaphor to get me to pray and read the Bible, which is what I’m really supposed to do.
But that’s really not how it works. The point of the Christian life is not to pray and read the Bible. The point of Christian life – strike that, of life – is being with God. That’s the fun part. Being in God’s presence, having fun with other Christians, participating in worship, being a part of someone else getting closer to God – that’s the good part! But reading the Bible and praying, and other spiritual disciplines, those are the fifteen minute laps around the rink. Without those, I will never get a good knee bend, the muscle strength, the consistency under pressure, to really knock that fun part out of the park. Not that reading the Bible and praying are always boring – they are really coming alive for me these days, which is awesome. But for long periods of my life they have been boring, I’ve neglected them, and my joy, my witness, my alive-ness, my ability to comprehend the love of Christ has suffered.
There is, of course, a lot more to how this works. Sports is a pretty good metaphor for the Christian life, but it’s of limited usefulness. Our bodies are tools, and if we learn to use them right, they can do amazing things. But sports is not a very grace-filled environment. Like in Jessie’s story, if we are going to find the character to succeed in the demanding, self-made world of sports, we really need to find grace elsewhere.
When it comes to spiritual discipline, our whole persons, body and mind and spirit, are hampered by so many things. We have to do the disciplines, and be willing for God to work in us. But the Holy Spirit has to do the work. And really, the Holy Spirit has to do a lot of work in us to even get us to the point where we are able to do the disciplines in the first place. (Exhibit A is me, if you’ve been paying attention to this story!) Growth is a work that God does in us, and in which we cooperate. But it’s pretty amazing to be able to cooperate, especially when God lets us peek back, to see how we’ve grown. Or, even cooler, to see it happen in others, and every now and again, have the privilege of being the channel by which the Holy Spirit works.
Yeah. God is pretty amazing, and He made us pretty neat. And it’s wild and crazy and beautiful that the work of creation in us keeps going, and that we get to be a part of it. Yup. Cool. Skate on, dudes.