Gary teaches 7th and 8th graders. Which is kind of funny, because Gary is 6’5”, was born into a family of large-framed steelworkers, has shoulder-length gray hair and has seen every Stones concert in the Bay Area since 1971 except Steel Wheels. He’s also a minister.
The kids adore Gary. He’s mature – defined as “the ability to expand one’s awareness beyond one’s personal realities.” That’s Gary. The ability to rise above the small self defines a man. And it’s a skill of the heart.
Gary and I were talking about sports. I felt uneasy telling him I no longer pay attention to the professional teams. Gary’s been a San Francisco Giants fan since grade school. Not long ago, he would invite me to go to the home games at PacBell Park. But I would always decline. (Photo: Gary and a student at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California)
I plunged ahead. “Pro athletes are so contractive,” I said. “They don’t inspire me. All those guys with poker faces, competing to be the most cool, who’s got the most cars, who’s scored the most chicks, who’s making more money, who’s just been arrested. It turns me off.”
I said, “I get more out of watching women’s college basketball. They don’t play at the same level, but they play with heart, and women are more about team.”
Gary listened quietly. He said, “Yeah, I don’t go see the Giants anymore. I don’t even watch college sports. I just go to the games at Brian’s school.” Brian is Gary’s son. At the time, he was a senior at St. Francis High.
Not being a dad, I don’t have a real reason to watch kid sports. But when I worked for Runner’s World, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I would occasionally photograph indoor track meets. They were professional events, but before the meets started there would always be races for elementary school kids. The crowd would go wild as the tiny kids flailed around the track – the fans screamed and whistled and yelled, and applauded uproariously when the kids crossed the line. It was moving. The applause was always louder and more spontaneous than it was for the pros.
When I was at Runner’s World, I also photographed events for the magazine’s sister publications, one of which was a martial arts magazine. In 1975, the editor arranged for me to take pictures at a martial arts exhibition at San Quentin State Prison. It was organized by a prison guard, over great resistance by the prison administration and the other guards.
The exhibition was held in a large gym with bleachers on both sides. One side was entirely occupied by black prisoners, the other by whites. Athletes from a variety of martial arts groups gave short demonstrations. At one point, a tall, burly Vietnam veteran led a group of little kids out onto the mat and calmly led them in their routines. When they finished, the applause was deafening. It was very moving – the prisoners loved that the kids were receiving positive images of manly strength.
Later, there was a demonstration a Brazilian martial art. Before entering the prison, I’d talked briefly with the instructor. He was young, friendly, enthusiastic, and athletic. But his martial art was totally about “killer moves.” I recall a takedown that ended with the “volunteer” flat on his back, the instructor’s foot just inches from his throat. In the bleachers, the silence was absolute. The prisoners weren’t inspired. They were moved by the demonstration with the kids, and turned off by images of dominance and intimidation.
With good coaching, sports can help kids grow up healthy in body and mind. Of course, youth sports has its problems. I’ve seen them: the cold, unfeeling father who walks his College Division 1A All-American daughter off the track after a disappointing race. The parent-pressured 10-year-old who sets a marathon world-record but stops running in her teens. Tennis dads, cheerleader moms, Little League parent-idiots.
I’ve never had formal coaching. I’ve always had to learn about training through trial and error. It took a long time before I was able to have confidence in my own training. It took even longer to learn to be a good self-coach — to be kind, encouraging, and discipline with love.
The conditions that help kids thrive and grow in sports are the same ones that help adults thrive. I’ve just mentioned a few of them. We aren’t that different from those little kids tearing around the track. Our needs are the same.
How would you train yourself, if you were a little kid?
Here’s what I’d do. I’d accentuate the positive, and spend almost no time on the negative. If I had a disappointing workout, if I ran a disappointing time, or had to drop out of a difficult race, I’d pat myself on the back and remind myself to take it as a “learning experience.”
Abusing my body with overly harsh workouts or overtraining would be the last thing on my mind. I’d want to ensure that I made steady, patient, encouraging progress.
I would want all my training to be done in an atmosphere of fun. Frank Shorter once said that people get more out of their workouts when they train in places where they feel good running. In the chapter “The Simple Joy of Sports” from my book, I talk about coaches who’ve created a positive, joyful atmosphere around training.
I would cultivate my will power in a well-rounded way. Instead of emphasizing grim, hard-bitten effort, I would define will power as “An increasingly smooth flow of energy and attention, directed toward a desired end.” I’m borrowing that definition from a famous master of yoga, Paramhansa Yogananda. But it just encapsulates what sports psychologists know about achieving athletic goals efficiently.
I’d give myself challenges that wouldn’t crush me, leaving me discouraged. But I’d put myself in situations that would teach me about “rising above it,” “taking it to another level,” and releasing ego.
I would help myself learn to focus my attention. Years ago, researchers studied two types of runners: “associaters” and “dissociaters.” Many recreational runners are dissociaters – they let their minds spin randomly. But the champions are associaters. They keep their minds engaged with what they’re doing. The top marathoners are able to immerse themselves deeply in the present moment, watching their form, checking their need for fuel, monitoring their pace. In my training, I would make concentration not an unpleasant, grueling effort, but a light, enjoyable game. I would teach my mind to sing, chant, and become immersed in the passing moment.
I’d relentlessly encourage positive attitudes — above all, the ability to quickly forget mistakes.
Finally, I would teach myself to “run with soul.” I would listen inwardly for the “still, small voice” that can guide my training moment by moment. I would understand that each of the running “disciplines” outlined above – training the body, opening the heart, creating volition, concentrating the mind – is an approach to the hidden part of me that is bathed in peace, love, and joy.
As grown-up runners, we thrive under the same treatment that we’d give a child.