Coach was right all along: Just have fun out there

I'm a Millennial. Grew up right in the heart of the everyone gets a trophy era. In second grade, our basketball league had a 0-0 score policy. Everybody was a winner.

But of course that wasn't actually the case. We demolished our opponents. Our schedule on the fridge had the real scores written next to the games. 32-6. 40-4. 16-2. 

So whenever I heard coaches say something like, "Hey, just have fun out there," I viewed that as being soft. Equated it with the Millennial "there are no winners or losers" mentality. Could you picture an old school coach, a Vince Lombardi or Bear Bryant saying something like that? Of course not! I feel like they would storm into the locker room and yell, "Hey, losers, you better win this game or don't even show up to practice on Monday."

In the last post, I talked about how coach was right all along: practice is the best part. I argued how the pursuit of perfection with a practice mentality was a much healthier approach in the long run than worrying if everybody liked the performance.

But I started thinking about this some more and wondered, "Could the practice mentality take all the fun out of it?" Sure, you might be getting better, but isn't it more fun to end a show and say, "Wow! I did great out there!" vs. "It was okay. I missed this part. Messed up here. This could've been better." Isn't it more fun to be your own cheerleader than biggest critic?

I think of an example the famous surgeon Atul Gawande gives about early on in his career when he performed a surgery in front of a seasoned vet who he really looked up to. Gawande thought he did a great job and was ready to hear a glowing review from his hero. Instead, he received detailed pages of notes. You could've done this better. You missed this step. This part too.

Gawande received those notes and could reach an even higher level the next time in surgery. It's difficult, but all of the practice, all of the endless scrutiny pays off because you reach these moments where you do something and go, "Woah, I can do that now?" The fun is in becoming the best you can possibly be.

My question, though, is when do practice minded people ever get to enjoy the performance? Sure, the performance mindset has its flaws, but at least there is more "in the moment" joy. The garage band making mediocre music isn't experiencing the thrill of being first chair in the New York City Orchestra, but at least they're having fun with their friends.

In the practice mindset, do you have to wait until retirement before you can look back and say, "Wow, I accomplished a lot out there. I'm happy." And, if so, is there ever a moment of regret, a feeling of, "Man, I wish I would've enjoyed the moments more along the way."

I started looking at the pros and cons to both approaches. Performance mindset: I love the highs. The feeling after a win. I love that you get to enjoy everything in the moment. But I could do without the heavy nerves beforehand or how crushing a loss or setback can feel because too much of the self is tied into the performance. I don't like being allergic to feedback or not wanting to perform after a good event because I like having that last memory be the positive one.

With the practice mindset, I love the steadiness. The highs might not be as high, but the lows aren't nearly as low. You still have nerves, sure, but it's not nearly as intense. Things aren't life and death because no matter what 1) Your self worth isn't tied to the performance and 2) Worst case scenario, you mess up and find ways to get better. Go get 'em next time. Downsides: This can be less fun in the moment. You're never satisfied. Always striving for better compared to the whole ignorance is bliss mentality.

I was going in circles on this trying to figure out which one was the better mindset. Then, sure enough, same as before, coach knocks on the front door. Hands me the whistle and the playbook. "Hey, just have fun out there."

But this time I heard it differently. It's not soft at all. By saying, "Just have fun out there," coach was not denying that there are wins and losses, because in reality the "0-0" rule is actually the heaviest form of performance anxiety. The belief in the "No winners or losers" rule is built on the fear that for a kid to experience loss would be too shattering to their self-esteem that it needs to be hidden or avoided. But that's secretly communicating the idea that performance equals self. A healthier version is losing, seeing 40-4 on the scoreboard, and having your parents say, "Wow, you guys got crushed out there. Wanna grab some ice cream anyways?"

"Go have fun out there" doesn't mean don't try hard either. It's fun to give it everything you have. It's fun to remember all your lines vs. tripping over them. It's more fun to be in a state of flow vs. being unprepared.

It doesn't deny the fact that losing hurts. Of course it hurts to lose. But if the performance/game/job isn't the ultimate thing in life, then the losses are never soul crushing. And since the self and performance are separate, you can even laugh at yourself and say, "Man, I stunk out there tonight," and feel totally fine.

The pastor Tim Keller uses a great example of this idea in a religious context. He was explaining the concept of grace, how God loves us no matter what we do. The question he was answering, then, was why should we ever try to do something well if we're loved either way. The answer he gave tied back to sports. I'm paraphrasing a little bit here but, "If you're loved whether you strike out or hit a home run, that should be the ultimate pressure release. But even though all the pressure is gone, isn't it more fun to hit the home run anyways?"

And there's coach across the street loading up the minivan, heading to practice. I shake my head and smile. Of course coach was right all along.

Just have fun out there.

Quick note - I'll be performing in the Writing 6 show, "New Year's Revolution" our final show taking place this Friday (Jan. 31) at Second City. Here are some more details on showtimes and how to order tickets. If you can make it, would love to see ya there!

I'll be back next week with a new post on Monday morning. If you'd like to subscribe to the blog, just enter your email in the box below. Thanks for stopping by and see you next week!

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