Like today, my tendency as an eighth grader was towards timidity, peacefulness, and reflection. I feared conflict, I was generally non-aggressive. When my friend, John, encouraged me to play high school football, at first I was confused. I didn’t consider myself particularly burly, fast or mean…you know, the football type, but he persisted. As a football coach’s son, he already had a knack of finding football talents in those who didn’t think they had it. He would later become a high school football coach himself (he was born to do it). Anyway, I wasn’t alone on his recruiting list. Once he recruited me, I helped him make sure that the talented prospects in our town came out and played some football. During the years I played, our high school had some of its most successful seasons, due at least in part, to his recruiting and mentoring efforts.
However, let me return to my individual situation. I was (and still am) more the cerebral type, more suited to reading and math than hitting and tackling. I observed the older guys playing varsity high school football, and they were huge, mean and nasty. Even though I was already 6′ 2″ (almost) and 198 pounds in 8th grade–a pretty good-sized kid–I couldn’t see myself as one of these behemoths who played varsity football. My friend John saw it, but I didn’t. In me, he saw a kid that in 3 years would be 6′ 5″ and 250 pounds…a serious college football contender.
He was wrong, of course, about my future physical stature (I am still the same height and weight today as in eighth grade), but he nurtured in my mind a vision of what I could be. Simply put, I was scared of entering the big, brutal world of high school football, and John gave me just enough of a nudge to keep me going. It was peer pressure, plain and simple, but it was the good kind. The kind that makes you more scared of admitting your scared, that makes you push yourself beyond what you would have done without it. In short, I was forced to challenge myself. Metaphorically, I stood on the high-dive for all to see, and I had to jump.
Yes, this story is about challenging myself. It is a vivid memory of my taking on something that seemed way too big for me. From a “change the world” perspective, it is a small quaint story, but from a personal training perspective, in preparing me for taking on the world and teaching me “how to live,” it was monumental. The results of taking on this challenge, despite my anxiety were a lesson that I would take with me the rest of my life. It was the first in a series of similar stories of jumping into something that seemed too big for me, but doing it anyway, having courage and determination.
My football career was longer than I expected and successful in many ways. It taught me about my potential and my limitations. I learned to commit myself to being the best at my position, despite what I thought were my limitations, and it led to the following:
- I realized very quickly that those of my age group were no mightier than me in strength and ability. Different, yes, not necessarily better. In fact, I realized I was gifted athletically in many ways. In the larger sense, it taught me to leverage my strengths while knowing and tending to my weaknesses.
- As a freshman, I was brought up to the sophomore team as a freshman and played at the next higher level. This success raised my expectation of myself, and challenged me to perform even better. I would be called to “the next level” often in my life.
- As a sophomore, I was briefly brought up to the varsity team to practice. Indeed, those big bad burly seniors were more developed, but just a little more, and they weren’t as mean as they portrayed. I realized that success in football and subsequently anything is a matter of time and training, as well as talent. Most of those guys were average football players, simply playing at another level. That brief experience made me realize I had a lot of work to do to become better. I had to challenge myself.
- By my varsity years, I was an all-area player, recruited by several colleges. This additional “skill” (of playing football), combined with my cerebral nature mentioned earlier (i.e. academic grades) made me an attractive recruit to Ivy League schools and the military academies in particular.
- I eventually went on to play some college football at the US Air Force Academy (yet another challenge). Now that was a pool of talent! My time there shaped my view on living and life in many ways. It was there that challenges came at me left and right. Possibly, it was there that I became a little too addicted to challenge…it wasn’t until later that I learned to “throttle back” just a little.
- I did reach the limit of my potential in football. I was cut from the Academy team. Trying to continue had already broken my will (I lost the desire to play) and extended my physical ability. In short, it was a failure of a sort. I certainly had challenged myself, and I had fallen, but I now had the template below to take on future challenges.
- It led to other challenges while also preparing for them and for the possible failures along the way. The psychology of failure and how to recover from it takes some practice. I am not speaking metaphorically when I say that “you have to reach muscular failure to get stronger.” It is scientifically true. The same holds true for making yourself mentally and spiritually stronger.
My personal examples of future challenges and failures include college, marriage, pilot training, meditation, career, and parenting. All of these have been like that football career. In essence, I learned to apply this template to all of life’s challenges :
- Being scared
- Jumping in anyway
- Working hard at succeeding
- Realizing it wasn’t insurmountable, that I could succeed
- Enjoying the victories and the benefits
- Failing along the way
- Choosing between the next step #8 or going back to #1 with a new challenge
- Improving and learning from failure
- Go to step 5
The cycle above never really ends. The point of this football story is to share my experience challenging myself. The successes were fun (see Having Fun), and the failures taught me about myself. I’ve followed this pattern over and over again in many important endeavors. I would have never learned if I had not challenged myself, and in challenging myself I was better prepared to participate, to contribute to my world…
…and the question “Did you participate?” is my next deathbed question.
“Let the perfecting and accomplishment of the things, which the common nature judges to be good, be judged by thee to be of the same kind as thy health. And so accept everything which happens, even if it seem disagreeable, because it leads to this, to the health of the universe and to the prosperity and felicity of Zeus (the universe). For he would not have brought on any man what he has brought, if it were not useful for the whole. Neither does the nature of anything, whatever it may be, cause anything which is not suitable to that which is directed by it.” MA Meditations Book 5