“All of a sudden everything was possible; then what was possible became necessary.”
– Victor Price, The Other Kingdom
“It was, I don’t know, urgent.”
Ehren, a young figure skater is describing how he’d felt prior to one of his best performances.
“I just had to do it. I had to land that jump.”
In this exchange Ehren is expressing conviction. Conviction is defined as “an unshakable belief,” but to me this explanation isn’t adequate. Within myself and within others I’ve encountered there is also a resolve about conviction. After all, “conviction” is frequently used in reference to a guilty sentence in the courtroom. A fierce finality is conveyed through this energetic word.
Lately, I’ve been surprised by how frequently I’m hearing experiences of conviction in relation to some athlete’s best performances. This is contrary to much of sport psychology literature, which advocates for lightheartedness, fun, happiness, and openness to aspects of the sporting experience outside of outcome. Indeed, a relaxed and joyful orientation certainly contributes to a great deal of excellence, and should continue to be sought and cultivated. However, I’m starting to realize that a special kind of intensity, “conviction”, experienced as a glad, focused anger, can also be a resource to drive one’s best. I’ve also seen that there’s a narrow ledge that one walks when driven by conviction, which traverses the quagmire of expectation on one side, and the chasm of desperation on the other. To slip into either can doom a performance, but balancing on the precipice can lead to the sublime.
The article below is intended to share my observations in this vein. I’ll offer some suggestions for accessing your own conviction, while remaining vigilant for the perils of expectation and desperation. I want to emphasize that for me this subject is new and experimental. As individuals it’s up to each one of us to identify our best focus; the fire of conviction might be too hot for you. But, on the other hand, it might unlock a wealth of power.
I’ve experienced the charge of conviction. Mine has taken the form of “fed up with myself,” as seen through a rebellion against my own negative self-talk and limiting beliefs. This conviction came upon me for the first time completely unexpectedly. I trail run competitively, and last autumn adopted the habit of always running the fastest line on every trail, especially if that line is technical. I believe that this habit teaches me to see lines quickly, and also become more agile at navigating challenging terrain. For months I adhered to this rule (I continue to, and have been very happy with the impact it has had on my courage and commitment to running technical downhill). One day, while practicing in this way I slipped and fell backwards, hitting my head on a rock as I landed. I was physically ok, but emotionally incensed. I sprang to my feet, and immediately continued running the fastest line in angry defiance of something I was not clearly aware. Surprised, alarmed, and at the same time pleased by my response I pondered the event for some time afterward. I realized that my angry run following my fall had contained recollections of numerous events in my life: times when I’d allowed myself to be pushed around, kept important feelings to myself, or had shrunk from an opportunity to be original. My conviction took the form of defiance of myself – or rather, the part of me that I no longer wanted to be.
This is how I’ve witnessed conviction used successfully. I’ve seen it most obviously demonstrated in the stories of two figure skaters who have struggled with consistency in their jumping. Clearly, figure skating is not running, but the physical risk of throwing one’s spinning body into the air above ice is surely equal to that of tolerating exertion pain over time. Both skaters have struggled with fear (of falling and embarrassment), and trust (in their own ability to commit to the position needed to enable a successful jump). Both have identified thoughts that help and hinder their performances. When conviction has fueled each skater’s best it was an expression of rebellion against who they knew they could no longer be, and a fierce stand of solidarity with the best version of themselves.
Despite success when utilizing this perspective, both skaters have struggled to remain on the conviction ridge line. Following a great performance has slid down the bank of expectation, losing sight of the path so recently enjoyed.
EXPECTATION AND DESPERATION
“Nothing fails like success.”
– Robin Sharma
It’s interesting how easily, “I have to land that jump because I’m committed to being my best self,” can become “I have to land that jump so that myself and others continue to see me as worthy.” Success can feed confidence, but it can also make the path of “have to” far more narrow and difficult to walk safely. As surprised as I’ve been to see the impact of conviction, I’ve been equally surprised to see the negative aftermath of victory. All of a sudden an athlete has reached a new level of mastery, a heightened status. From this pinnacle, conviction to ascend and overcome oneself can easily morph into a fixation on expectations (one’s own and the perceived expectations of others) to achieve a measurable outcome again and again. The desire to meet these perceived expectations often prompts further descent toward desperation.
Putting the difference between conviction and desperation into words is difficult. Both say, “I have to,” but conviction looks through fiery eyes while desperation pleads on her knees. Conviction takes brave steps of open defiance, while desperation is meek and at the mercy of circumstances.
I truly believe that the key to resilience to this descent is discernment. After our discussion about conviction, expectation, and desperation, Ehren’s assignment was to observe when he was meek and when he was brave. I asked him to notice the sensations in his body, the thoughts going through his head, and the manner in which he skates when experiencing both. I asked him to record all of these observations. Then, when he notices “meek” show up in all these forms, I asked him to substitute meek behavior with thoughts and actions that characterize his convicted self.
Ehren noticed that when he feels conviction, he holds a more “confident posture” in the air. He’s also focused on words which, describe who he wants to be, as opposed to achieving a particular score. Ehren has noticed that meek feelings accompany general fatigue, and thoughts about what he dreads happening. He’s since adopted a ritual to re-energize himself, and has become more adept at replacing fearful thoughts with empowering ones.
I invite you to do the same.
Look at who you’ve been at your best. What commonalities do you see? What thoughts and beliefs make you brave? What do others see in you? Who do you want to be?
Look at when you’ve been at your worst, in sport, in relationships, at work. What commonalities do you see? What thoughts and beliefs make you meek?
Now, lets create a little urgency, a little fierceness: how much longer do you have to experience this sport, this job, this role, this life? Will you let meek thoughts and beliefs take more time from you? For how long, and at what cost? Who will miss out on the best of you? What will matter to you as you age, and opportunities come and go? If something will matter to you then, have the courage to make it matter to you now. Reflect on the words of Mary Oliver:
I am speaking from the fortunate platform of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking for awhile,
he had a lifetime…
– Mary Oliver, “The Three Zodiacs”
Special thanks to Shannon Thompson for contributing this guest post.
About the author: Shannon Thompson is a Mental Performance Consultant based out of Hypo2 Sport High Performance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. Shannon holds a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, her primary clientele are elite endurance athletes, and student athletes from numerous sports at Northern Arizona University. Shannon is also a researcher, focusing specifically on understanding and helping athletes to optimize the moments of highest exertion in training and competition. She is also a competitive runner on the road and trail.
Recommended Additional Reading: The Flow State: The Science of Running in “The Zone”
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