I figured for the next few weeks going through the holiday season that I would start to write about some of the gifts that I feel lacrosse has brought into my life. This is my overall goal for this site anyway, so I'll probably only touch on a portion of those topics that apply. To start though, the first and greatest that came to my mind was the gift of learning to be present.
I started playing goalie when I was only five years old. Playing goalie is emotionally challenging for any grown adult, much less a young child! First of all, when you are that young, the thought of getting hit with that hard rubber ball is terrifying, as it should be. Those things hurt! (I would love to see a Jackass episode where one of those guys just gets in the goal and they let guys like Paul Rabil wind up and hit them in the legs.) Also, when I first started playing, I acted like every goal that got scored on me was the end of the world and it was my fault that our civilization was on the verge of collapse. I would get so angry every time a ball went past me that I would swing my stick and hit the pipe or into the ground. I was a complete little maniac! No wonder I played goalie…
MY FIRST LESSON...
I remember my car rides home with my dad, Coach Bill Tierney, and he would say, "Trevor, do you really think getting upset is going to help you save the next shot?". It was this first question that would lead me to being present when I played sports. I started to realize slowly that whatever happened in a game, happened. If a goal was scored on me, there was nothing else that I could do about it. I just had to get ready and focused for the next shot and the only way I could do that was being present and focused NOW.
As I got older and wiser (well, not that wise because I was still playing goalie), I became more and more refined in my ability to be focused on the field. I started to realize that there were other things that were keeping me from playing my best. I saw that worrying about the outcome of the game usually only lead to a poor performance and a loss. I saw that being scared of getting hit by a shot was probably going to end up with me getting hit by more shots and more goals going in. If I worried too much about what specatators thought of my performance, then I played poorly. If I let my fear of failing creep in too much, I usually ended up failing. Clearly, I had a lot of fears that were capable of keeping me from playing my best, unless I learned to play and be present. Slowly, towards the end of my college years and into my pro career, I was able to let these things go. Sure...sometimes these thoughts would pop up in my head and I always felt nervous before each and every game that I ever played in, but I learned to stay present through all that.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE AN ENLIGHTENED MASTER!
So, what does "staying present" really mean? I know it sounds like this new-agey "spiritual" term or something that a buddhist monk only knows about from sitting on the top of a mountain. But, it's actually a really simple idea…and at the same time, an extremely challenging one to initiate into your life and activities. To me, staying present just means to be right here, right now (great…right after saying that it's not a new-agey thing, I sound like Ram Dass!). If I just take a breath for a second and stop thinking and see what is going on around me and feel what's going on in my body, I can be present. Being present is my biggest goal in life…it's how I feel "happy" or content. And I learned this from playing lacrosse!
I actually wrote my senior thesis at Princeton on "Playing In The Zone : The Psychological Aspects Of Peak Performance In Sports". (Yep…that's how I snuck my way through one of the "finest institutions in the world", despite being a complete knucklehead!). This was basically a research paper of hundreds of studies that psychologists had done on the different factors that it takes for an athlete or anyone else for that matter to be in the zone or in the flow or completely present. These psychologists and many others have found that there are a number of aspects that contribute to people of all walks of life - artists, musicians, chefs, gardeners, writers and athletes - feeling like they are completely in the flow of whatever they are doing and performing those tasks at an unusually high level.
I WONDER IF TIM TEBOW IS THANKING GOD FOR HELPING HIM BE PRESENT?
You see it all the time in sports. An athlete who is just completely "on fire" is usually someone who is in that peak performance state of being in the zone. They cannot miss and they display their skill at an amazing level for all those watching. Think Michael Jordan in the playoffs, Wayne Gretzky in the Stanley Cup, Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. (Okay, I am seriously dating myself here. Think ummm...Tim Tebow in the fourth quarter?!) They are tapping into something outside of themselves that allows them to play at that level. I know this sounds ethereal, but if this were not the case, why would they not just play at that level all the time from their given talent and skill level? The mistake a lot of athletes make is that they usually get very egotistical after a performance like this and get a big head about themselves. This type of attitude cuts them off from that presence that allowed them to play at that level and usually it is hard for them to get back to that point.
So, as I became a more experienced athlete, my only goal towards the end of my career was to be present in the game. The best way for me to do this during the game was to have a mantra. Mine was, "just see the ball…just see the ball…just see the ball…". That was the only thing that went through my head the entire game! It sounds so stupid, but it allowed me to be completely present as someone was winding up on me and getting ready to shoot a 90 mile per hour rubber ball at my head from ten yards away! When you have to react that fast, you have no time to think at all. The only way I could keep myself from thinking, was to be just be as present and focused as possible.
SAY YES TO RIGHT NOW.
This is why now when I am working with goalies, I have them say "YES" when they are reacting to the ball as I warm them up. I want to do a video about this explaining it in more detail, but basically all the goalie has to do is picture having a window right in front of him where his hands are about three feet in front of his eyes. When the ball hits that window, the goalie says "YES", loud enough so I can hear him and help get his timing right. I learned this drill from my friend and pro tennis coach, Scott Ford, whose website at http://www.tennis-in-the-zone.com/ explains this drill for tennis players in much greater detail.
When I first explain this drill to young goalies, they look at me like I have three heads. (That's an experience that I'm used to, so I don't mind and keep going with it.) As soon as they try it out, they are amazed! Goalies who are usually scared of getting hit with the ball, are no longer scared and are moving and reacting aggressively. Goalies who are usually "guessers" and who are trying to react before the ball is even released, start to relax and just react to the the shot. Goalies who get upset about shots going in (like my younger self), learn to let that go and just take each shot at a time. The best part about it for me is they have fun doing it! Other players on the field can do this drill when they are learning to catch, throw or pick up a ground ball. All they have to do is say "YES" to when and where they have to make contact with the ball.
And why do you think that goalies have so much fun with a simple drill like this? It's because they are present! It's just like we have "fun" when we chill the hell out (ha…I just realized that phrase is actually quite enlightened) and watch a sunrise or sunset on vacation or play with our pets or smile at a newborn. We allow ourselves to be present for a moment and enjoy life for what it is, instead of wanting it to be something different by trying to control the past or future.
THE GREATEST GIFT I RECEIVED FROM LACROSSE...
As I mentioned, in my last couple of years playing, I started to realize the most important thing for me to do each and every game was to be as present as possible. I realized that my career playing lacrosse would not last forever and this was something I had learned not to win, but as a skill that I could use in my every day life. Sometimes, I miss those days terribly when I was in my crease and I was completely present and in the zone. That was when I had my most fun playing lacrosse and felt my absolute best! But, then I realize I can do that every day in my life and I realize how grateful I am that lacrosse taught me that. My greatest wish as a coach and teacher of the game is that this is the lesson that other players learn as well!