Poised to play well

Originally published in the Christian Science Sentinel

A quick online search of Yahoo! or Google suggests that there's a relationship between poise and excellent athletic performance. Over 66,000 entries put poise and sports together. Poised is used to describe people ranging from professional football and basketball players in the finals, to a jockey riding in the Kentucky Derby; from Egyptian field-hockey players in a Mediterranean championship, to people taking karate classes.

But what does the word poise really mean? Both Webster's and The American Heritage Dictionary relate it to balance, stability, and composure. It implies a type of freedom, ease, dignity, and calm, shown by the way you carry yourself.

Well, I know in my own attempts to maintain this type of mental attitude while playing sports, I've struggled with how to simultaneously mix in some intensity, love of the game, unselfish teamwork ... more than just a few wins here and there. I've had my ups and downs - sometimes all at the same time.

For example, one year in college, I had a basketball coach who'd yell, "Get angry!" - essentially asking me to take the intensity and caliber of my game up a notch. So I decided to give it a shot against what was considered a strong rival. I concocted some fictitious anger and allowed myself to get caught up in the fervor.

Statistically, I ended up playing the best basketball game of my entire career. That night I was unstoppable. I shot well, I almost had a triple double, and I made some great steals. We won the game, my coach was happier with me than she'd ever been, and my team considered me a hero.

I smiled at everyone that night, but I swore to myself I would never play that way again. Why? Internally, it was the worst game I had ever played. The anger was blinding, numbing, and not very poised. It felt awful to me, and the prospect of having to be angry all the time ran counter to my innate desire to be happy.

So, I took stock of why I played. I loved basketball - it was so rhythmical, powerful, complex. I loved to play - it was challenging and fun. I loved my team - they were great people. And I knew cool people on other teams. These things made me feel good about my game and others'.

But wait, stop, red flag! Can a "feel good" approach really result in a high-quality performance?

In my analysis of my motives, I saw an element that I felt was spiritual. I knew that was a good sign. I had learned from "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy that God is Spirit. Also that God is reliable, definitely not wimpy, and that everything we have comes from Him - is spiritual.

What was spiritual about my motives? They included unselfish love. How on earth do you combine sports and love? Like anything else, it takes practice. What are the results?

Fast forward a few years to tryouts for the Division I New England national lacrosse teams. There I was on the same field with players from Harvard and Yale, and the program from my school paled in comparison to theirs.

It was intimidating ... until I realized that all of us would play well, and I could just enjoy the experience and the people around me. No matter what, we were all going to get what we needed from this experience, and we were going to create incredible plays together - in fact, we couldn't do it without each other. It would be like the Bible promise, "All things work together for good to them that love God" (Rom. 8:28). My fear about what would happen disappeared, and I played extremely well.

In the long run, this approach actually made me a consistent, quality, very happy player in a variety of sports. Excellent players whom I'd never met before sometimes became close friends by the end of a single game simply because of the spirit in which we played, which sprang from a shared poise.

What we most need
is the prayer of fervent desire
for growth in grace,
expressed in patience, meekness, love, and good deeds.
Mary Baker Eddy
(founder of the Monitor)

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