During the Summer Olympics two years ago, I wrote about how to make your biggest dreams come true (read that post here). Well, the Olympics are back! The Winter Olympics started this weekend, and tonight I sat down to watch some of the competition. One of the ladies’ figure skating events took place tonight, and as always, I enjoyed watching the strength and artistry of these women’s performances. I grew up watching the Olympics, and I still marvel. I marvel at how these athletes can do what literally no one else in the world can do, and I marvel at how they continue to demonstrate acts of physical prowess that have never been achieved before. They bring new reality into being. What “they” said couldn’t be done, these athletes find a way to do. I find it incredibly inspirational.
One of the performers, an American named Bradie Tennell, gave a performance that was both technically skilled and beautiful to watch. It wasn’t one of the highest-scoring, partly because she is a relatively new competitor. Even so, the judges and the commentators were impressed. What impressed me, though, was her answer to one question after she got off the ice. The interviewer asked her, “What were you thinking about while you were skating?” She hesitated for a moment, and then said something along these lines: “It might sound strange, but nothing. I just let my brain go on autopilot and I did what I trained.” I thought about that for a little while. All the hours of training, all the repetition, all the discipline that it took to get to Pyeongchang. One might think that an athlete’s head would be buzzing with anticipation and anxiety. But not Bradie. She turned all that down, like the volume dial on the radio, and let her mind be still.
When practitioners of yoga or meditation or similar disciplines speak about what they have learned, they speak about the practice of yoga or the practice of meditation. What is learned comes not from a single burst of inspiration or even enlightenment, but from the practice—the daily repetition, the hours spent letting the mind be still. I practice both of these habits as often as possible, but I know my experience would be deepened if I created even more space in my day to simply practice. Just show up.
There’s an even deeper lesson here as well. What Bradie Tennell’s comments really got me thinking about are the choices we make in how we spend our day and in what we choose to practice. For her, it’s figure skating. For me, it’s the practice of choosing my own thoughts and emotions and practicing how I want to show up with my family, my friends, and my colleagues. This is also the practice that I partner with others to engage in through coaching. A huge part of this practice is learning the difference between reacting and responding. When something happens, whether it’s a car cutting us off in traffic, or hurtful words from someone we love, or getting passed over for a work opportunity, we often get triggered. Our brains tell us to fight, flight, or freeze under stress. That’s reaction—it’s instant and usually doesn’t involve much higher-level thinking. We become angry and defensive, run from the situation, or shut down. Those reactions protect us in the moment, but they don’t work very well for us long-term.
What we can do instead is to choose a response based on the higher-level thinking that our frontal lobes have prepared us to be able to do. Choosing that more mindful response, though, is challenging at best in moments when our bodies are flooded with stress hormones and our hindbrains are screaming at us to get away from the perceived danger.
So what’s a human to do? Practice. We have to practice the mindful responses that we’d like to have under stress when we are not actually under stress. We teach children to practice “calm-down” strategies when they are calm, so that it’s easier for them to fall back on those when they become upset or angry. Disciplines such as yoga and meditation are referred to as practices for the same reason. We practice them so that we can call upon what we’ve learned when we need it most. In a class at my church last week, the instructor reminded us that we need to “flex our faith muscles” and practice affirming our faith every day, so that it is there for us to rely upon when the going gets tough. And we all know the going will get tough, sooner or later.
Consider then, what you will choose to practice:
How you choose to direct your thoughts hour by hour, day by day, will determine whether you are able to respond under stress or simply react. Our responses are not determined by what happens outside of us, but by what we choose to create in the internal world of our thoughts and emotions. Our thoughts will go in the direction that we tell them to—it’s all in how we choose to direct and focus how we think about the people and events in our lives. Bradie reminds us that we are always at choice—even in the middle of the Olympics. So let’s remind ourselves of that, whether we are in the carpool lane, in a meeting with our boss, or trying to get our toddler to put on his/her shoes. What will we choose to practice?