I remember the first time I didn't want to win something.
He grabbed the back of my neck and snapped me to the mat. I got up. Before I could even bring my head up his bear paw of a hand thudded against my neck and snapped me back down to the mat. Just like I learned in outdoor class, I played dead hoping the 52 year old ex-collegiate wrestler and bear of a man would get bored with his victim and lumber away. Josh's dad sat down on the mat next to me and we both caught our breath. I finally sat up, the pain on my neck reminiscent of the last year which resulted in a freshman record of 2-34. I was asking myself for the millionth time why I came to these off-season practices when Josh's dad grabbed me by the neck again and said, "Jason, if you want to be a successful wrestler, if you want to be a state champion you've got to practice every single day. You've got to practice longer, harder and more often than every other guy."
In that moment it hit me. I absolutely, with every ounce of my heart, did not give two neck slaps about being a state champion wrestler.
The rest of my high school wrestling career went as you might have predicted after reading that last sentence. I never went to another off-season practice and ended up putting together a pretty average career by the time I hung my singlet up. Wrestling taught me invaluable lessons and I formed friendships that stay strong to this day, but I am most thankful for the lesson that came from realizing I did not want to win.
High school sports are so strange because as athletes we spend such a large portion of our overall time in high school practicing for game day. If you were a two or three sport athlete that meant you spent hours nearly every day of the week for at least two-thirds of your year practicing for sports that statistics say 99% of us won't play competitively after high school. While we all know the incredible lessons that playing sports in high school can teach us, the reason I say that these sports are strange is because in adult life we rarely apply the most basic and obvious lesson we learn from our time as high school athletes: practice makes you better. We are all aware of this principle and we've heard it said a variety of ways, but the reason we fail to practice, or invest time in an area we seek to improve in, is because we're missing the other half of the equation.
Practice makes you better... but doesn't always help you improve.
I contend that no matter what you are doing you are practicing for something. Earlier today I got home from work and knew that I had to write this blog, which I do to practice my writing. Instead I chose to practice sleeping. That practice was cut short by my pup Lucy trying to slyly jump on my bed and landing on my face. This was an immediate and abrupt reminder that I should practice training my dog, which I do because I want obedient pets. Instead I practiced playing a new gem-swapping RPG (role playing game for you popular kids out there) on my phone. Today my practice helped me get better at napping and playing games on my phone, but I did not improve.
Some things we practice because our parents, jobs, circumstances or environments mandate it. I'm blessed enough to have a job that allows me to practice building relationships, learning about animal health and selling for eight hours a day. The rest of my day I get to choose what I practice and the reality is I don't always choose the things I actually wantto get better at. As I navigate my early adult life I'm learning that whatever you invest your time in is what you are practicing for.
The reality is, if we don't practice every single day and put in the time in the "off-season" then we won't get better. If we don't practice then we are absolutely guaranteeing that when we hang up our singlets at the end of our career, it will have been nothing but average.
My friend Andrew is a prime example of knowing what he wanted to get better at and practicing it. Know that I'm not using his real name, I am sharing this with his permission and I'm sparing some of the more personal details. Andrew and his girlfriend had been dating awhile and were pretty serious, but still very young when they found out she was pregnant. There were a lot of emotional decisions to be made and Andrew had some hard truths to face. Andrew's life had been completely changed. It was as if the coach had called him into the championship game of fatherhood when he thought it was still the pre-season. He simply hadn't practiced. For reasons no one can understand, Andrew never had to step into the game as his girlfriend decided to have an abortion without telling him. I can't pretend to know how Andrew felt, but I do know what he did about it. Now knowing what was at stake by not being prepared, Andrew started practicing. He now volunteers regularly at a clinic that provides resources for young people who have become unexpectedly pregnant and are considering their options. Andrew puts in the time to get better because he never knows when he's going to get called into the game.
There are so many things in my life that I want to be good at: writing, public speaking, brewing beer, using big words. There are some things I want to be the best at: being a Christian, a son, being a dad. Before hearing Andrew's story I never considered practicing being a dad. And no, I don't mean practice like approaching a random family in the park and asking, "Hey can I borrow your kid? I'm trying to practice my parenting." That is begging for prison time. Andrew has taught me to practice for things that matter. Because of Andrew I've signed up to attend a father-son camping trip with my church to be a mentor for the kids that don't have a father figure in their life.
We never know when our name will be called. What do you need to start practicing?
Every minute I spend practicing my napping or video games is another minute I might be getting better at those things, but not improving. I've joyously accepted the fact that one day my wife is going to give birth to my child and I'll be immediately thrown in the game of fatherhood. I may be able to live with an average wrestling career, but I will absolutely be a state champion dad. Start practicing folks, it's almost game day.