Have Fun, Get Strong

Strength coach, trainer educator, writer, mom to three awesome kids, pie enthusiast. Creating monsters since 2009.

Playing for the Win

David Van Skike

We have all found ourselves working towards a goal and running into long stretches of flat, achingly slow progress with little reward on a day to day basis. The weight on the scale is stuck, the bar is too heavy and slinging a leg over your bike makes your whole body ache. If you train long enough, you know the feeling. Everything hurts and the plan is falling apart. Maybe you should quit.


Whatever the cause, be it a true overtraining event (see next episode), too much stress, or a training plateau, the feeling is basically the same. It doesn’t matter who you are,when training goes wrong, you will find yourself a little sad, very discouraged, and often angry. It’s not that different from a mild bout of depression. You can hear the inner voices already telling you what to do. They are spouting something between Nike and Yoda….Just Do it, There is no Try, Do or Do Not. The message your brain hears is, Keep Pushing.


Sometimes pushing works. Repetition being the mother of learning, there is actually a lot to be said for doing the same thing over and over. However, when you’re stalled, its time for another approach. If working hard is not working, maybe you need to play it.


Play.

Remember doing this?

It’s a simple concept that is gradually drummed out of us through school, study, work. Sadly, the most powerful learning tool in our arsenal, Drop Everything and Go Play, is the very last thing we think of when we’re stuck on a problem. 

 
Sport is passion (from Latin, to suffer). When struggling to move forward, the inner wrestling coach begins yelling in your ear about work ethic, pride of accomplishment and how winners never quit. All of this is, of course, true. What is also true is all work and no play makes jack a dull boy. I mean that almost literally. The psychological effect of repeated efforts with no reward is that you become blunted to the experience. In fact the essential difference between a novice and an advanced athlete is the defense your body puts up against repeated attempts to force adaptation and progress.

Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk, one of the most accomplished hammer throwing coaches of all time, sums it up nicely:

“In our practice, with each year we have become more convinced that the stronger our desires to significantly increase the level of achievement… the less the effect… This is explained by the fact that the stronger the complex of training effects, then the more harmony there is in the defense functions in the body… This in every way possible creates barriers or prevents a new level of adaptation, where in the process of restructuring it is necessary to expend a significant amount of energy resources.”

As you progress, ideally you adopt measures to counter your body’s defenses, whether these be complicated periodization plans, expert coaching, and/or special diet and supplementation schemes to outsmart your body and force adaptation. This is the ideal.

The reality is that at some point, you’re still going to be tired, frustrated and sore, wondering why nothing works and where the fun went. Utterly fixated on the outcome, you forgot the process. In that moment, it’s time to set aside the plan and go play.  In a groundbreaking book on play, Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga defined play as follows:

“Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.”

But as an athlete, playing your sport, it’s all play, right? No. I’d hazard a guess that if you’re pursuing mastery of your sport enough that progress has stalled, you have abandoned the idea of it being a “game” a long time ago. It’s all about balancing between disparate needs and limited energy resources. Strength, endurance, flexibility and skill practice. Train, Eat, Sleep, Repeat. Play is the opposite of that. If training is riding 400 miles a week on your bike, then play is doing wheelies all afternoon. If training is running stairs, play is trying to skip for a half mile at a time. If training is doing throwing drills in a discus ring, play is trying to skip your discus across the grass or bowl it.


A high school weightlifter taking a break
from practice to climb a rope just for fun.

Training too often devolves to total focus on the goal. Play is total focus on doing something because you CAN. There is value in the experience. Play is what I like to call the “thingness of the thing.” It’s immersing yourself in basic activities of your sport for the plain joy of doing it. This idea sounds simple, because it is.

When we talk about the value or need for play, we are really talking about the value of becoming completely immersed and focused on a single activity as Huizinga describes above. Unfortunately, the desire to succeed often removes the focus from the process itself and puts it on the goal. The mindful, focused practice you need to run faster, throw farther, jump higher or lift more instead turns to frustration and staleness. 

Rather than drill down on how you turn your practice into play, let’s instead talk about how it feels. The case I’m making is that the prerequisites for “play” are very similar to the conditions that open you up for that elusive state sports psychologists are in love with: Flow. If play is what you do, flow is how it feels.

This concept has been discussed at great length in sport psychology. In early work on the subject, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi postulated that flow is a state of total motivation: a state of “single-minded immersion” in the task at hand. Similar to the way Huizinga characterizes play, Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as the polar opposite of depression. 

Flow is a feeling of: Complete focus on the task, no attention to one’s self, movements that appear effortless.

Vasily Alekseyev playing in the back yard.

If you’re a competitive athlete, it’s the feeling that…you won that race just a little too easy. If you can’t conjure up a memory of that feeling, think back to all the peak athletic performances you’ve witnessed.  If you are a cyclist, you remember Lance Armstrong on Luz Ardiden, if you are a mixed martial artist you can picture Randy Couture taking apart Vitor Belfort, if you are a strength athlete you can picture Vasily Alekseyev cleaning 562. It doesn’t look like a struggle, it looks too easy. That’s the secret of true peak athletic performance.  It looks easy because it is easy. All the work has been done.

When you are in that mental state, it is not a stroke of luck that it’s too easy. You are expressing thousands of hours of mindful and focused training. Yes, moment by moment it is difficult.  Tremendous effort is expended in the moment, but the central experience is one of ease. That is what play is about, practicing that mindset, that feeling of flow. Get out of your own way and play.

Sadly, flow is not something most of us can simply turn on. You can’t MAKE yourself play any more than you can put yourself  “in the zone.” Flow is probably one of the most elusive feelings in all of sports. There is no magic word. However, there are some things you can incorporate into your practice to make it easier to get there.

Mindfulness.

Okay, maybe not this beautifully.

Meditation is described as a state of “mindfulness”. That is the closest and perhaps best way to describe the essential element of flow. A state of mental relaxation coupled with deep focus and attention to exactly what you are doing. Many authors and teachers have made it their life’s work to teach the ability to reach what is truly an altered state of mind. I won’t try to better them. I will only say that in sport, mindfulness is all about focusing on the movement. Here’s an example. Instead of trying to run faster, trying running more beautifully…Yes. I said Beautifully. Try to make it look “right.”

If you are a power lifter, mindfulness can mean lifting a light weight quickly and with perfect form. If you are a thrower it could be working with a lighter shot put, moving as slowly as possible through the throws or throwing with your off hand. For throwers, I have a favorite which is this: take 4 or 5 throws where you exaggerate all of your faults, do everything wrong and then take one easy throw where you try to make it look pretty. The key is to do this without effort, judgment or intent to throw far.  The last word on mindfulness: when in doubt focus on your breath. For a strength athlete that’s holding your breath tight and creating tension.  For an endurance athlete it’s pacing your breathing in the movement.

Same but Different.


These guys definitely don’t think they’re working.

This is a phrase that’s been successfully co-opted in strength circles, most often by Pavel Tsatsouline. Same but different is a catch all phrase meant to describe how Russian sports scientists use a variety of movements or exercises to simulate the competition lift. Think throwing heavier or lighter shot puts, weighted box jumps in place of long jumping, or the age old practice of using a weighted or lightened bat in baseball. What I mean in this context is perhaps related. If you find yourself burnt out on a training exercise, say a runner putting in road miles for an ultra marathon, “same but different” means you play somewhere else. If you’ve begun to associate the road miles with “work” you should play by running off-road, on stairs at a track, anywhere but where you’ve been. I adopted a more extreme version of this mid season as a criterium and track racer. About July when the roads miles had piled up and races were frequent, instead of putting in more training sessions on the bike, I would go speed skating. Performing the same types and duration of intervals I’d typically use on a bicycle, I’d do them on skates. Skating and cycling being closely related from a physiological demand point of view made this an easy switch and one that felt like play.

Remove expectations.

Ricky Bruch, referred to in his native country as the
Swedish Muhammed Ali.

This may be the biggest issue with the training mindset.  I recommend for anyone struggling with a movement, remove expectations and do it again.  Discus thrower Ricky Bruch, gave this advice to a discouraged young thrower:

“You need an acceptance level. 55 meters is damn good….  you need to lower your tolerance level. Don’t demand too much of yourself. If you accept 42 and 45 meters, you’ll automatically throw farther.”

Playing is not about outcome. I repeat. When you are playing, you are not worried about the outcome. If you’re a runner this means running without a set distance, without a set speed in mind and with the goal of just running. In John Doullaird’s book, Body Mind and Sport, he discusses a critical  mindset for productive practice: play the game without keeping score. Anyone dedicated to an athletic pursuit or a goal knows how hard this is to do. We all count up the weight on the bar, how many miles run, how many goals scored etc. True Play is not about this. The expectations that go along with keeping score and marking progress are what got you overtrained, burned out and stale in the first place. There is no place for that here. You just do the movement, without expectation. Failure is a perfectly reasonable option. You’re shooting free throws and it’s ok to miss.

Chris Kostman, the original offroad roadie.

In highland games a great example of how to do this is a simple warm up.  Go out with a stone and throw it up and down the field, doesn’t matter how far it goes, just do the throw, walk to the stone, pick it up, throw again, feel the movement, feel the movement, slow to fast, the snap at the end. Just feel it.  When I raced bicycles, at least one day a week my teammates would go for what we called “taking the bike for a walk.”  We’d clean our bikes, put on our best race kit and ride very slowly to a coffee shop. We’d drink coffee and then ride … to yet another coffee shop. Along the way we might throw in an impromptu sprint, practice wheelies, stoppies bunny hops. We’d ride down dirt roads and mountain bike trails on our skinny little tires. Riding in the mud on a road bike is not unlike taking an Indy car on an ice rink. It’s silly, it’s fun and it has no real purpose other than to do it.  And that is precisely the point. No expectations, just ride. Just like Bruch’s discouraged thrower, lower your tolerance level and just throw.

Confused yet?

We’ve talked circles around what play means an how that relates to the feeling of flow. The question you’re probably asking is, “Will this make me a better athlete?” My best answer is,  Maybe.  I guarantee beating your head against a wall and quitting over injuries will not make you better. No matter who you are, a division 1 starter or training for your first 10k, we know there is a time to back off and a time to keep grinding. 
 My experience tells me there is also a third way.  When you’re feeling it’s time to back off, go do what  made you want to compete in the first place. This is better than injury and it’s better than throwing in the towel. Worst case scenario,  you get a little more rest and some mental freshness. Best case scenario, over time you will incorporate this appreciation into your daily practice. What now feels like work can eventually feel more like play. Totally immersed in the process.   I offer that this is the key not just to enjoyment but mastery and the essential mindset that separates the contenders from the also-rans.


David Van Skike has extensive experience in the extremes of sports training having competed as both a cyclist and a strength athlete.  With an early career as a bike messenger, Dave began competing in bike racing.  He competed for 8 years as an expert in mountain bike racing, road racing, and later in the velodrome.   After suffering several knee injuries Dave had bilateral surgical relocation of both patellae and was unable to continue his bike racing career.  He was told not to expect to walk, run or cycle without pain. After five years of rehab he returned to near full to mobility via traditional power lifting training. Dave has now moved on to a second sporting life as strength athlete. In addition to competing in highland games, strongman, and the occasional power lifting meet, Dave spends time outside his career as a land use planner to train a broad range of individuals including desk jockeys and masters powerlifters.

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