What Does Adversity Teach You?

I’ve written about my teen years on this blog and how I used to be in competitive gymnastics. It’s a very difficult sport that requires strength, flexibility, fearlessness, and a LOT of focus. With any sport, there’s a lot of psychological stuff going on in the brain. You see this in professional sports where coaches often ask players “What’s going on in your head?” or “Where’s your head at?” Or “Get your head in the game.” Coaches see these underperforming athletes as having all the physical skills they need to play, but they lack focus.

That was my problem in gymnastics.

Lacking focus can also lead to overthinking and then psyching one’s self out. Even my mom said (and this was decades later) that she saw that I was scared back then and would have a difficult time advancing in the sport. I kind of wish she would have told me then so I could have found a way to overcome my fears…but that was a long time ago.

One thing’s for sure: I haven’t forgotten what this taught me about learning from adversity. Or maybe it’s just been within the last few years that I’ve learned from this phase of my life — a phase, mind you, that was very important to me because I wanted to compete in college at the elite level in gymnastics. And what I learned came from an unlikely source: the late author, David Foster Wallace.

In 2015 or so, a guy I competed with at a teenager sent me this photograph on Facebook Messenger:

Me on the right…my teammate on the left. No idea who the guy in the middle is.
Well, that started a little back and forth between the two of us — as that photograph brought back some memories of those years. I was a sophomore in high school when that picture was taken, and, as I wrote before, gymnastics was my life. I trained for about four hours a day, five days a week at a private gym. I even got out of school early so I could work out (so did my teammate). It wasn’t (and isn’t) uncommon for gymnasts to do that when they are in competition, but for two years, that’s what I did. From 8th Grade to 10th Grade, it was: go to school, go to the gym, go home, eat dinner, do homework, and go to bed. Wash. Rinse. Repeat week after week. By 11th Grade (and after we moved) I decided to quit the sport — for reasons you’ll see below in this Messenger conversation with my old teammate (and I’ve only pasted in what I wrote):
I have to say that being in gymnastics was a lot of work, but it did teach me a lot about self-discipline. I was listening to an interview with David Foster Wallace (he wrote “Infinite Jest”) and he was a pretty good tennis player when he was younger. Not anywhere near pro level, but he did win many local matches. He said something to Terry Gross (This was on Fresh Air on NPR) about his inability to move beyond a certain level in his playing. He pegged it on a wandering mind that overthought what was going on during a match. And I thought, “I think that was my problem.” I could get to a certain level in gymnastics, then my mind would start to wander and I would start to doubt what I could do. By the time I was in my junior year in high school, I gave up the sport. Plus, I couldn’t stand my coach, so it was an easy break with gymnastics at that point.
A wandering mind can lead to all sorts of trouble. Mine used to tell me that I was going to injure myself (my biggest fear). Of course, I did injure myself a few times, but I always got back on the proverbial horse and continued. But whether it was an injured leg, a fall where I almost landed on my head, or just the usual rips, scrapes, and bang-ups…it all seemed to erode what little confidence I had.
Knowing now what I didn’t know then (i.e., a wandering mind leading to doubt) is somewhat helpful in tackling self-doubt in my adult life. But it’s a struggle. I don’t want to leave the impression that I walk around always fearful, insecure, and worried about my inabilities. I have plenty of confidence in many areas, but that fear I had in gymnastics often sloshes over to other aspects of my life — and it usually centers on career issues and creative ambitions. I’m dealing with it by trying to stay focused and not overthinking things — because we know where that leads.
[Update on 11/7/17 at 11:18 pm:  I realize that I really didn’t offer any big reveal about what adversity taught me.  First off, Wallace was no paragon of overcoming adversity. He wrote a hugely influential book, battled depression for much of his life, and eventually hung himself until dead. That’s hardly something to point to and say, “Hey! There’s a good example to follow.”  No, what I think I learned from his interview was, in my case, it wasn’t a lack of strength or flexibility that kept me back in gymnastics. It was related to that steely focus you see in elite or professional athletes. The really great ones have an uncanny ability to filter out those voices (some real, like fans, screaming at them from the stands, and some inside their heads telling them they are going to fail) and focus on the game, or in the case of gymnastics, a routine. It may not seem like a big deal, but to me it really is. Some may call it being obsessive, but good artists have that sense of focus, too. You can call it “creative flow,” one’s muse, or inspiration, but really it’s that “thing” that drives one to work in a more pure state of mind where the outside world is mostly at bay. There are times when I’ve tapped into that focus, but it didn’t last because doubt crept in — and I ended up beating up myself thinking what I created was crap.  Wallace’s story about his shortcomings as a tennis player just brought to light what I haven’t understood about myself. That’s why I wrote that he taught me a lesson on overcoming adversity. Now on how to deal with it?  It’s a struggle, of course, because over the decades I have convinced myself that I don’t have the right architecture of the soul to fully overcome it. But at least knowing a source of this doubt is helpful in trying to avoid its trappings. As was said in Dune (the movie): “The first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence.”  I didn’t know where the trap of doubt existed when I was a gymnast. Now I think I do.]

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