When the boot’s on the other foot

A few weeks ago I had a rubbish time playing football. Whilst I was with a great group of people and everyone around me was enjoying themselves, I felt isolated and vulnerable. What was going on here, and what have I learnt from the experience?

I’ve recently moved down to Margate to work on an education website for the East Kent NHS Trust, and had been invited to join the weekly game of football amongst residents of the staff accommodation. I was a little apprehensive about competitive exercise, but keen to get to know people and to go out of my comfort zone a little, so enthusiastically accepted.

I went along expecting a leisurely kick-about on a patch of grass somewhere, but we ended up driving to a nearby astroturf and renting a pitch. It was pretty serious stuff – a group of twenty-somethings in appropriate kit with practised sporting minds and robustly functioning bodies. I was sporting hiking trainers and came equipped with a body that hasn’t been accustomed to proper exercise for at least four years.

We hired a pitch and split into two five-man teams. It was time to be humbled.

I like to think of myself as a competent and dynamic individual. In my work and in my thinking, I enjoy taking on challenges, confident in my skill, impatient of incompetence and anyone not displaying initiative. All these assumptions about myself were abruptly taken away, and I was left scared and weak in this environment. To put it lightly, I was out of my comfort zone and out of my depth.

Slipping and sliding around ill-shod, what little dexterity I mustered was further befuddled by my footwear. The slightly reinforced tips of the shoes jostled my toes in parody of the protection for which they were designed. My football skills and instincts were some way behind the others’ – from skill at dribbling and intercepting to tactical awareness of plays and the fluidities of space. My body wasn’t used to this level of exertion, and it let me know. At first its complaints were noisy, but later they took the form of the desperate pleading of the exhausted. Having never played five-a-side before, I quickly picked up all the rules (albeit by unwittingly breaking each of them in turn), and had my chance to play in each of the positions, botching each one in turn. In short, I was a pretty dreadful football player, and I sure felt it.

I was mute. I didn’t call for the ball – I didn’t know where to run with it if I had it, and if I was passed it, the odds were that I’d lose possession almost immediately; more so, I didn’t feel that I had any authority to call out plays or make suggestions to the other players, even when I could think of them. I hoped to be left alone, to be left with the shame of my incompetence, to not be tested and humiliated again. I was probably scared of the ball coming my way. Time dragged, and whilst some part of me was enjoying the experience, I was desperate for it to come to an end. I was exhausted, and felt ashamed and guilty for spoiling the experience for the other players, who, I must repeat, were a great group of people whose only crime was being good at football and in decent shape.

During the game, the other players really helped me out. They called where I needed to run, and helped motivate me to haul my body around the pitch when my lethargy threatened to sabotage everything. I was very grateful to be managed and commanded, and appreciated their praise and encouragement.

When the game came to an end, I left with two main thoughts. For starters, I felt a rush of empathy for people who aren’t in a position to conform to my own expectations of decisiveness, initiative and competence. It seems clear that the ability to take initiative and engage with challenges is simply a function of one’s ability relative to a specific set of circumstances. Whilst there may be a baseline level of drive and initiative in a person, the potential for this to be manifested seems to depend an awful lot on circumstances. Who’s to say that people who have frustrated me over the years in professional or academic contexts were not simply in a similar position to myself – powerful and commanding elsewhere, but scared and floundering in the environment in which I encountered them? So it’s important to find out which circumstances suit each of us best, and to try and expand on these where we can. At the end of this evening, I was certain that this was my aim.

I was motivated by the prowess and positive disposition of those around me, and, of course, by the desire to not feel so inept and uncomfortable. Here’s how I’ve started trying to do this:

I decided to start working on my level of fitness. Given that the weekly football was on hold for a few weeks, I started going for a couple of runs a week. Just short affairs – fifteen minute round the hospital – but they were tiring enough. Running such a short distance, I was just about to get into the rhythm of running when I would stop. This was hardly ideal, so I needed a new route.

I was given the necessary inspiration two weeks ago. I was chatting to my friend and flatmate Rags, who told me of a ‘short’ run he’d done recently, over to Broadstairs. A simple route, and right down to the beach. It was a gorgeous evening – blazing sun, but with a cool, crisp atmosphere. It didn’t matter that ‘short’ turned out to be 2.7 miles each way. Rags had raised the bar and given me the inspiration I needed to transcend the rather parochial paradigm in which I was operating, showing me that I could aspire to something much larger. So I ran to Broadstairs and back.

I was accompanied by some music (Nas’s ‘Illmatic’), and the horns of several passing motorists. It was a fair distance, but I took it at a steady pace and ran right down to the sand. Turning back and returning up the hill, I ran towards a glorious sunset over Margate and towards a well-deserved shower, dinner and an episode of ‘I Claudius’. I was exhausted, but I was pleased that I’d seized the moment and done it.

I’ve now settled into a routine of playing football on Mondays and going running with Rags on Thursdays. This seems to be pretty sustainable, both in terms of not being too demanding, and in giving me time for other things. And it seems to be improving my fitness – when I played football on Monday I was tired but not exhausted and ineffectual, and I felt a little more confident. I was a little fitter, and so much better able to direct my body to my bidding as I started to get my head around how to play this game. I’d purchased some astroturf trainers since my first match, and these helped give me a lot more dexterity and control. I no longer lost pretty much every ball I started with, and was able to get past and even intercept people from time to time. I managed to score 2 or 3 goals over the course of the evening, and was quietly delighted by this. I was still below the average standard of the group, but not by a problematic degree, and felt like I was starting to build up an image of competence from a completely blank slate.

This new exercise regime has been set up to hopefully take into account the weaknesses of mine that are most likely to derail any conviction to improve my fitness. This desire to do more exercise has been transferred into two set exercise sessions each week, both of which are social occasions. These two factors – dependability/regularity and sociability – make it a lot more likely that this will be sustainable.  By setting a regular time each week, the victory of will has already taken place. Otherwise, it has to be re-enacted, and the time for exercise re-negotiated with my lazy self each and every week. It may be rainy, I may be tired, or be busy with other commitments. I know that there are many reasons for me to not exercise regularly, and many opportunities for one level of my motivations to overpower the other.

Sociability is also massively important. First of all, it’s an incentive: I enjoy spending time in good company, and look forward to having a chat with Rags when we go running. But it’s also a great way of getting the group to impose some discipline on me. So I’ve both made it that I have a social encouragement to exercise, and a social obligation to exercise to avoid breaking social commitments. When combined with regular and dependable timings, this structure should help channel my desire to improve my fitness into tangible results, unsabotaged by internal lethargic forces.

Have you ever wanted to change your routine, but known that this fragile desire alone will not transfer to sustained action in the face of your own established practices and ways of thinking and valuing your time and activities? Have you ever had to set up systems and structures to overcome such a ‘lack of will’? If so, what have you tried, and how has your experience been?

Taking it a step further, what actually is willpower? Is ‘will’ being able to persistently turn one’s focus to something without internal discord, or is it the act of exertion to bring one’s mind to bear on the desired end? Or should we break down the distinction here, and see will as the progressive training of focus?

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One Response to When the boot’s on the other foot

  1. lmm says:

    I think to achieve anything, measurable progress (and feedback) is most important. I wish I could find the link, but I remember reading that top baseball players don’t practice any more than those who never made it – the difference is they’re the ones who train specific things and get better at them, where just playing for however many hours doesn’t really help.
    When I made an effort to lose weight, the main thing I did was to keep weighing myself, most days, and paying attention; I didn’t even consciously modify my diet or exercise a lot, but just by having that feedback in place I was able to lose ~20kg. And then I stopped paying attention and regained it all. I’ve adopted certain routines to ensure I keep writing, but I can’t see much evidence that my writing ability has improved as a result. When I think about it, very little of my achievements seem to have come from “hard work”, doing things I don’t enjoy by force of willpower. If anything the opposite is true; my best achievements have come as a result of simply doing what I wanted to.

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