A coach reflects on the healing game
Seven years ago today, my wife took her last breath as I held her hand. We were both 49. She was my best friend for 25 years. I like to think the last thing she saw were the rose bushes outside our bedroom window. She saw beauty in everything and everyone; her gardens, her family, her friends, the morning light.
Each year on this day I make an extra effort to be mindful of helping others or giving back in some way. Molly and I talked about creating something helpful for people when she got better. Something beautiful, like a garden, everblooming.
Some of you may identify closely with my story, others may relate in other ways. Most of all, it’s a story of renewal.
They say time heals. As I reflect on the last seven years, I’m not sure I agree. Time alone doesn’t heal. What one does with time is what counts. It’s always that way.
I walked a lot that summer of 2014. I thought a lot too. Mostly I walked on the beach or in the woods. I was devastated in every sense of that word. “Laid to waste,” as it were. I was lost and without my compass. I wandered.
You are what you practice. I was great at being sad. I practiced every day.
“In the end, just three things matter:
How well we have lived
How well we have loved
How well we have learned to let go”
Intellectually, I knew I needed to let go, but my mind behaved otherwise. My mind had a mind of its own. It clung to memories and played them like short films in my head. Nights spent on the bunk in her hospital room. Trips to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. The chemo cycles. The stem cell transplant. The honeymoon in Nova Scotia. Peaceful evenings on the porch. I’d call her cell number to hear her voice again. Once, I got a busy signal, so I figured she was out painting sunsets in the sky.
The unrelenting stress had taken a huge toll on my body and my mind. It was so hard to be home without her. She’d artfully arranged all the well-wishing cards she’d received — hundreds of them — on our walls. I’d drive home from work but couldn’t stomach going up the driveway so I’d just keep driving ‘till I was too tired to drive anymore. I’m sure I wasn’t great company either. “Just be strong” wasn’t working. How do I “learn to let go?”
I tried to deny it. I tried to ignore it. I tried to fight it. I tried to pretend I was OK. I tried to run from it. I read book after book. Two steps up, two steps back. That was then.
At night in bed, it was just me and my thoughts. In the small hours of the night, as I gathered up the pieces of my heart, I saw a dim light in the distance. Was it the light of joy? I sometimes think it was the darkness that enabled me to see it, like stars on a moonless night. Things work that way you know. And like the stars, that light seemed impossibly far away.
“Tell me, how do I begin again?” ~ Bruce Springsteen, My City of Ruins
Without any say in the matter, I was on the path to the next version of me, the path through heartbreak. A path we all hope we’ll never walk, yet a path each of us walks in some way, to some degree, at some time. I discovered that it’s a well-worn path, maintained regularly by my fellow travelers. The destination is equanimity, which I think is a more apt word than happiness.
When a broken heart heals, it gets stronger. Suffering fosters compassion and leads to insight. Sometimes you need to just embrace the suffering, knowing you’ll be stronger for it. It’s a natural law. Like the stone on the beach that’s been beat up by the current, the storms, and washed smooth. Life’s storms can smooth us out too.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places” ~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms.
You are what you practice.
As a long-time coach and former college athlete, I knew the relationship between practice and improvement. In the arena of life though, I was practicing all wrong. I was focused on the wrong thing. I wanted so badly to be at peace again. That was my goal, and I wasn’t going to lose.
Someone had given me Jack Kornfield’s book The Wise Heart. It sat on a coffee table for a few months but in the fall, I started reading. That was the first, and one of the best, of dozens of books I’ve read on this healing journey. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, The Tao, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I’m a believer that we absorb a little bit of what we read. I also believe that everyone should read philosophy. But reading alone isn’t enough.
When theory meets practice, things change.
In a way, you’re always practicing something. You become your experience. So you have to choose what you want to get better at. Otherwise, you can get better at something that makes you worse. Your lack of personal agency will result in you being at the whim of whatever thought or distraction appears in your mind. You have the power to choose.
Whether you know it or not, you are your own coach.
As a coach, these are the questions I’d ask myself before each season: Given a limited amount of time, what are the qualities and skills, both individual and team-based, that result in success? What can be left out? How do we build a resilient and positive team culture? How do I best train this team? It’s a thought process that involved visualizing in my mind’s eye the ideal way I wanted our team to play, then using the allotted practice hours to make that vision a reality. The longer I coached, the better I got at leveraging time in this way.
Isn’t that what life is about? A limited amount of time? A vision for a life well lived? And in the space between, the practice.
How then, to use my time? What is “my personal culture?” How can I rebuild myself, stronger in the broken places? I was coaching myself now.
A team’s success has a lot to do with how much its players stay in the process of playing the game rather than thinking about the game, or worse, thinking about the outcome. The goal for players individually, and a team collectively, is to enter into a flow state where performance happens effortlessly, the body simply plays, and the mind is still, yet focused. When we’re in flow, we’re happy. Sport mirrors life in so many ways.
The reading helped me to realize that I was stuck thinking too much about the outcome of my game of life. I was stuck thinking that a life without Molly just couldn’t be a good life. My skill set sucked. I needed to get back into the flow of just playing the game. I needed to train my mind to stay present.
Subconsciously, I searched my years of team coaching looking for what I could apply to my current predicament. I realized that when my players got distracted and things looked awful, I’d direct them back to focusing on the drill at hand. Sometimes I’d tell them that we were only going to practice for a minute at a time, and after we did the first minute, we’d go on to the second, then the third. This kept them from getting ahead of themselves. Strung together, these minutes of concentrated focus would create excellent play, resulting in a great practice or a game well played. Practicing how to focus was key. This approach worked really well. It’s always about the process. I needed to train myself similarly.
That’s when I found meditation. It’s where theory meets practice. It’s not about “clearing your head.” I don’t really think that’s possible anyway. It’s not really even about relaxation though I usually find it relaxing. Meditation is training me to relate to my thoughts and emotions objectively. I’ve learned that thoughts and emotions simply appear and disappear as long as I don’t attach to them. I’ve also realized I need to be a more forgiving coach to myself. A pat on the back can be really helpful. I meditate for a few minutes almost every morning and find that the practice permeates my whole day.
Training the mind is very different than training the body. One is done in stillness, the other in action. It’s easier to train your body. It’s more straightforward and the results reflect in the mirror.
Meditation is an exercise in noticing when the mind wanders, then bringing it back to the present. It’s like pressing a human reset button again and again and again. (I once drew a red circle on an anxious player’s wrist and told him it was his reset button — it worked.) Over time and with consistent practice, I’ve found that my mind doesn’t wander so much these days. It’s as though my mind is giving up trying to sabotage me with negative thoughts. In fact, I’m rewiring my brain. I’m doing the reps. It feels good to practice every day. I’m working to be an athlete of the mind. I’m winning again, and feel like I’m seeing things anew. I notice all the beauty when I walk now.
So if you’re stuck in a negative cycle of thinking, if you’re anxious or sad, know that you can coach yourself to a better place. And if you’re doing fabulously well, you can still improve. Read the right stuff, and train your mind through meditation. And if your immediate reaction to this is “I don’t have time,” just think a bit about what that really means. There are plenty of great apps and teachers out there. I use Waking Up and really appreciate Sam Harris’ approach, as well as all the extra content he includes in the app. Headspace and Ten Percent Happier are also great. I really can’t think of a more beneficial use of time. Commit to trying, and know that your progress will be the cumulative result of your practice.
I’m on your team. We got this.