“Beginner’s Mind” for Athletes

Hazie (2nd from left) at a beach outing with Living Wisdom High School students.

In my other life, I manage the website of a small private school in Palo Alto, California. I recently interviewed one of the school’s graduates. Hazemach attended Living Wisdom School from kindergarten through eighth grade. After graduate studies in mathematics at the University of Bremen Germany, Hazie returned to Palo Alto where he teaches math, science, and PE at Living Wisdom High School.

Hazie started karate at age three. Now in his late twenties, he still maintains an intensive practice, driving 50 miles at least once a week to his teacher’s dojo in Lafayette, CA.

I felt Hazie’s remarks might be interesting for aspiring Joyful Athletes, since he addresses important issues of dealing with mistakes, the pursuit of success, process versus results, competition, and how happiness and success are linked. (You can read the full interview here.)

Hazemach: The school culture in this area is deeply focused on the test-taking side of things, so it’s hard for the students to see beyond test results as a measure of the progress they’re making.

For many of our students, it’s a source of inner turmoil. How much progress am I really making, if I’m not spending all my time preparing for tests? Shouldn’t that be where my time needs to be spent? If I spend too much time in nature, if I spend too much time taking care of my body, if I spend too much time learning to socialize, if I spend too much time in service, I must be falling behind.

Q: Which is completely misguided.

Hazemach: It’s completely misguided.

Q: There’s a book called The Happiness Advantage that shows why it’s misguided. It was written by a psychology professor who taught the most popular course at Harvard, on happiness. He’d served as a proctor, advising the incoming freshmen, and after hundreds of visits to Starbucks with the first-year students he began to notice which ones were most successful. And he realized that it wasn’t the students who buried themselves in the library stacks intent on grinding out good grades, it was the kids who knew how to be happy. They were socially aware and engaged – they would create study groups and ask their professors lots of questions. Shawn Achor, the author, now consults with corporations on creating happy cultures.

Hazemach: Don’t we learn things better when we’re having fun? I’ve heard of studies that support it. When I started working with one of our students, she was studying 24/7. She felt she needed to be always studying, and that she couldn’t be doing anything frivolous, like going on outings. So there was a lot of tension in the beginning of the year because we were spending time in nature and service.

But I’d watched her studying, and I’d seen that she wasn’t being productive. She was trying so hard, but she couldn’t focus and so she was falling asleep, and she wasn’t enjoying it.

She said something beautiful recently, “I just wish everybody could recognize that all the other stuff mattered.” Because we spent time in nature and we did our studies outdoors, and she said, “It was so interesting, I didn’t get sleepy. I could actually focus on my work.”

Q: Because her body was relaxing, and her heart was being nurtured.

Hazemach: Exactly. Before, she didn’t want to be interacting with the teachers; she just wanted to teach herself by studying and studying because she thought it was the way to learn. And then she discovered that she could enjoy it more if she heard the teacher’s perspective on why it’s fun and interesting. So her subjects are becoming more interesting to her, and the service projects feel a lot more meaningful, and she’s starting to ask deeper questions.

She said her biggest question right now is, who is she really? And, what a question, you know? But that’s what we’re hoping for, that they are asking big, important questions like that, “Who am I, really?”

Hazie (upper left) with LWHS high school students.

And that’s the first step. The first real step to true growth is when you can ask those big questions – who am I and what am I here for? And not just put your head in the sand and study because that’s what everybody else is doing.

Burying yourself in books is not going to take you to happiness, which is the ultimate goal, right? The ultimate goal is to discover joy, and people mistakenly believe they’re going to find it through studying all the time. But it doesn’t get results.

Q: Shawn Achor concluded from his research that we have it backward in our society – you study so you can get money and be happy someday. Only it doesn’t happen because “someday” never comes and you keep thinking that just one more thing will finally make you happy. But if you can be happy in the moment it’s a powerful aid to getting the external rewards you might be looking for.

Hazemach: I remember having so much fun with basketball, and how I played better when I was having fun. But when I got to high school the coaches were very intense, probably because their job is on the line, and a number of us couldn’t play to the best of our abilities, and we didn’t enjoy it, and it was scary because we were constantly in fear of the coach getting angry and yelling at us.

We were successful insofar as we put in a lot of work, but we could never achieve our true potential because we were being held back emotionally and we were constantly being forced to externalize.

And, in the meantime, we were internalizing all this anger, and we would get upset at ourselves every time we made a mistake. You can’t play freely if you’re getting upset at yourself. It’s one of the biggest blocks I’ve seen for athletes, where they’re punishing themselves inside for their errors, and for not playing perfectly.

Q: There were two sports psychologists in the 1970s who studied the qualities that separated extremely successful athletes from the people who could never quite make the breakthrough into the top ranks. They found that the best athletes were able to change directions. They were able to say, “Maybe I goofed up, but the game starts now.” Whereas the second-tier athletes were blaming themselves, getting down on themselves, beating themselves up and lashing themselves for their mistakes.

Hazemach: It’s something I learned in karate, where it’s called beginner’s mind. It’s a Zen concept, and we don’t actually use those terms in karate, but it’s there in the culture, where you are always approaching things as if you’re a complete beginner.

When you get your black belt, one of the questions on the test is, “What does the black belt signify?” And the correct answer is that it’s the very beginning. You’re just starting, and you constantly come to it with the attitude that I’m just a beginner, so you don’t get hard on yourself for making mistakes. You’re never looking down on yourself, “Oh, you’re so bad.” You’re saying, “I am always in the place of a beginner, and there is always an upward direction for me to go. There’s always more for me to reach up to.” You’re always trying to improve from where you are. It’s very powerful to be able to forget all the negative things and start fresh.

Whenever I made a mistake, I would laugh. That was how I broke the tendency to get discouraged. I would laugh. I have the same problem with piano, and whenever I make a mistake I laugh, “Oh, that sounded funny.” And I’ll move on. I wouldn’t laugh at other people, and it’s not a mean laugh, it’s just about not taking life so seriously. At the end of the day it’s something we can laugh at and enjoy and have a lot of fun with.

It’s fundamental to the approach we take in the Living Wisdom Schools, where mistakes are taken lightly because they’re an expected and necessary part of the learning process. It frees the students from the tremendous pressure that comes from the idea that you’re either perfect or you’re failing. It allows them to move on without beating themselves up, and just find the joy in fixing the mistakes and moving on.

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