Secrets of a Joyful Athlete

Photo: Free to Use Sounds on Unsplash

There are 37,000 high schools in the U.S., public and private. The top 40 high school cross country teams compete at the Nike Cross Nationals in early December.

Watching the event, especially the post-race interviews, it’s obvious that these are happy kids and happy teams. It’s reflected in the calm, poised, incredibly intelligent demeanor of the winners when they receive their trophies. The girls, more so than the teenage boys for whom being clods is an art form.

Can we say that they succeed because they’re happy? Well, no. But what I think we can infer is that the qualities it takes to be happy are linked to the qualities it takes to succeed. The same human qualities that create happiness are powerful success enhancers.

There are coaches who seem to have a genius for bringing out the best in kids. An example without parallel is Bill Aris.

I wrote about Bill in The Joyful Athlete.

People ask Bill, over and over, how his Fayetteville-Manlius High School (NY) girls’ cross country teams have managed to win the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) an amazing ten times. (NXN, where the nation’s forty best teams compete, is the de facto national high school cross country championship.)

Bill graciously shares his methods. He patiently explains how he trains his runners. And the other coaches suspect he’s signifyin’, as they say in the Ozarks.

Surely he’s pulling their legs. At the very least, he’s got to be holding something back.

Bill Aris

Coaches fall off their chairs when Bill explains that he spends relatively little time designing his runners’ workouts.

“I spend 80 percent of my time on psychological and emotional considerations of each kid,” Aris says. “I put 20 percent of my time into designing the training. I spend most of my time thinking about and trying to get to the heart and soul of each kid, to both inspire them and to understand them. I’m always trying to figure out what keys unlock what doors to get them to maximize their potential.”[1]

Other coaches believe there’s no way Aris can produce national champions, year after year, without huge numbers of kids trying out for the team, and without recruiting.

In fact, Fayetteville-Manlius High School has 1,500-2,000 students, yet just 25 runners turn out each fall for cross country. And Aris doesn’t need to recruit, because his methods turn talented kids into champions.

For my book Happiness & Success at School, I interviewed Nitai Deranja, co-founder of a network of exceptionally successful small private schools. The median high school GPA of the eighth graders at the Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California is 3.85.

How do the Living Wisdom Schools produce graduates who succeed in high school and college, year after year? Like Bill Aris, the teachers are one-hundred percent focused on getting to know the individual child and what motivates them.

When kids are challenged at the upper edge of their own, individual level of ability, they have success experiences every day at school. The spinoff is that they become very happy. At the end of the school year, the kids at the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School beg the teachers to keep the school open during the summer months.

Nitai told me two amusing stories about working with the individual child.

Nitai: I gave an online workshop recently for teachers in Italy. I had to speak through an interpreter, and I wasn’t sure they were getting the concepts, so I told them, “I want you to work on this, and come back next week prepared to share stories about opening up to children’s realities.”

The next week, a woman said, “I was visiting a friend who has two kids, both about two years old. I thought, ‘Okay, here’s my assignment. I’ve got to figure out how to relate to their world.’”

Nitai Deranja

When she looked at the kids she saw that they were chomping very contentedly on their pacifiers. Noticing an extra pacifier lying on a table, she picked it up and put it in her mouth and sat on the floor with these two little babies. (laughs) She reported that the kids suddenly stopped what they were doing and looked up at her and got big smiles on their faces, and one of the kids came over and gave her a big hug.

It was a powerful demonstration of how beautifully this principle works at all ages. How can you expect to teach children effectively, if you can’t get on their wavelength?

Another teacher in the workshop works as a math aide with 12-year-old kids. He told us about a boy in his class who absolutely hates math. The kid came slouching into the classroom with his hoodie pulled up over his head and walked over to a table where he sat down, put his arms on the table, and threw his head on his arms. (laughs)

Stefan, the math aide, watched the boy and thought, “All right, I’m going to see if I can tune into this boy’s world.”

He went over to the table and nudged the boy on the shoulder.

The boy was surprised and said, “What?” Stefan said, “Could you move over a little?”

The boy grudgingly scooted over, and Stefan let himself fall into the chair, put his arms on the table, and threw his head on his arms. (laughs)

The kid started giggling, and finally he picked up his head and they ended up doing some math together. Stefan said it was remarkable how willing the kid was to work on his math when he realized that the teacher could get on his wavelength and sympathize.

What’s the lesson for the athlete – particularly for the self-coached athlete whose “student” is him- or herself?

The secret of happiness and success in sports is to get to know yourself and work with your present realities.

It means that when the training schedule says X and your body is saying Y – believe the body.

If you want to be a happy, successful athlete, it means that you need to find a way to listen to what your body is telling you, knowing that its messages will be different every day.

The “method” is simple: listen to the calm inner messages of your heart.

When your body is sick, it makes you feel bad. When the body is primed with health and energy, it announces the fact by the feelings of the heart.

Those feelings are your personal, internal coach. When you work too fast or too long, the body will let you know by a subtle feeling of unease — of “wrongness” or disharmony — in your heart. Those feelings can tell you, very precisely, exactly how your body can train for optimal results on a given day.

It can take many years to learn to respect those feelings and adjust our training accordingly. Why wait that long? Start making the experiment now! You’ve got nothing to lose but a shopping basket piled high with negatives – overtraining, regression, and poor results will soon become a distant memory.

[1] “The Secret to F-M’s Success: There Is No Secret,” Tom Leo and Donnie Webb, Syracuse.com, December 10, 2010. http://bit.ly/2JT3vnn.