Empirical Lessons from Sports

In my earlier post, I talked about triggers that led me to pick up multiple sporting activities – Soccer, Yoga, Surfing, Poker, and Crossfit – fairly late in my adult life.   And it has been quite a rewarding journey in terms of life lessons that I have learnt from these sports.

Soccer

There are very few moments in your life that provide raw, unadulterated, pure joy like listening to your kid call you Daddy the first time,  slogging day & night for an exam and getting an A+, working hard to get the attention of your first  crush and finally, she accepting your proposal.

Scoring a goal in soccer is one of those moments.   It’s incredibly difficult (for most), requires almost sublime efforts and most importantly, implicit and explicit collaboration with your teammates.  However, when it happens it’s a release of pure joy and excitement (“Pura Vida” as they say in Costa Rica).

Cliched as it might sound, the number one lesson I have learnt from Soccer is that you can never do it alone.  You need a team to deliver and you have to learn to carry the team and sometimes the team will carry you.   Even greats like Messi will be pale shadows of themselves without  their chemistry with the team.  Sometimes a single person, no matter where they are on the field, can lead to the downfall of the team with a poor attitude.

As Jim Collins articulates this in his Masterpiece “Good to Great” –

“Leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.”

Surfing

While waiting for a wave, your mind is wandering thinking about million things and then you start to paddle as the wave approaches, your mind starts focusing on few things and finally, you jump on the board and for a little while you are gliding on water and your mind is focused on only one thing – pure joy. Riding a wave is a metaphysical experience,  in those few moments, you feel connected to the universe around you.

Having said that, if you have not been surfing as a kid and are not in your top fitness shape, then Surfing could be an incredibly challenging sport.  I struggle with this sport on regular basis.  Well, “struggle” might be a gross understatement.   And surfing has taught me two lessons very forcefully,  how to be patient and persevere.

You might have heard this advice before “Be  very patient, learn to identify opportunities and when you feel the opportunity is right, just go all-in and grab it with all your might and you will be rewarded.  As a surfer, this lesson gets drilled into you in visceral fashion.   You wait patiently for the swell, identify which wave you want to ride and once identified, paddle like your life depends on it and enjoy the thrill of riding the wave.

The waves can be unforgiving sometimes.  The dreaded wipe-outs will suck the wind of most resolute person.   Not unlike, the failures/obstacles, we run into anything we try to do in life.  Surfing will make you a strong-willed person who refuses to bow down to such wipe-outs and comes back stronger and stronger every time.

surfing-costa-rica

Yoga

I have been hooked to supposedly one of the extreme version of Yoga called “Bikram Yoga” where the room is heated to 105 degrees with 40% humidity.   In that environment, you have to perform 26 poses in 90 minutes.

If you want to get your heart pumping, in most sports, you have to run or some kind of extreme movement is involved.  However, with Bikram Yoga, while been on your mat, you can get your heart pumping to the max for the most part of the class.  And in that state, you have to follow specific instructions for every pose.  And that’s where you will learn how to stay in present, enter a zone and  become “mindful“.

Mindfulness is defined as a state when you are not thinking about future events (need to feed the dog when I get home) or analyzing the past events (wonder if I did the right job of declining Sally’s offer), but you are there, right in the moment, fully aware of what’s happening.  Your mind is totally engaged and you are experiencing the flow experience as defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi   Pronouncing Mihaly’s name is a flow experience in itself.

And if you can carry this mindful state to your work and daily life, I have empirically noticed improved productivity and elimination of stress to a large extent.  More scientifically, I have observed all my indicators like blood pressure, triglycerides, BMI,  etc. have entered the “ideal” range.  Note,  I was on a low-carb diet and practising yoga religiously on average 3 times a week when I observed this change.   I also dropped 32 pounds from my top weight.

Yoga has been a great learning tool for me when it comes to “mindfulness“, over and above all the health benefits that come with Yoga.

Poker

I believe all human decisions, after we peel through all layers,  boil down to two emotions: Fear and Greed.  And Poker to me is good training ground for learning how to overcome your fear and control your greed.

Let’s talk about fear first.   It’s not uncommon to find yourself in a situation where  all the common cards have been laid down and you are going heads-up against a player and that player decides to go to all-in with his deep stack.  And first emotion, that will emerge inside your gut is fear.  Fear of calling that all-in bet and losing all your money.   And this is when you have to start using your higher-level logical reasoning to take into account all mathematical probabilities, your keen observation of the opponent – whether he is a conservative or aggressive player,  his past bluffing behaviour,  his visual tells (does he look worried or confident), etc.  More importantly, you have to overcome that deep-down knot in your stomach and think about the worst case scenario of losing all your money and what it means to you.   Maybe, sometimes it’s okay to  lose to learn a valuable lesson.  To climb the second (higher) mountain, you need to come down the first mountain.

More often, you will end up playing with strangers and that’s where the real training happens.   If you play in the casino, you will interact with people from all walks of life – blue-collar, lawyers, engineers, grandma’s, etc.   And playing with unknown people will further amplify the fear factor.  Poker teaches you, sometimes in a hard way, how to stay calm under extreme duress and reason through your decision-making.

Gordon Gekko articulated in the movie “Wall Street”  that “Greed is good.Greed is right, Greed works.”  I am not sure I agree with this statement, but your personal greed will get tested a lot in Poker.   When the flop is laid-out and you believe you have the stronger hand,  you will have two options – push out all remaining opponents by betting big and take a reasonable chunk of money (blinds, antes and some bets) with high-probability or let other stay in the game till river (the fifth card) and make more money.  And that greed to make more money can lead to your downfall since you might “drown” at the river card, if your opponent hits his flush, straight, set, quad or whatever that makes his hand stronger than yours.  You are screwed.  In your lust for more money, you gave up a reasonable sum of money.   Poker has taught me how to control my greed and keep accumulating chips at a slow rate with lower risk as opposed to lusting for winning a monster hand.   Side note, I am a big fan of index funds if you can see the parallel’s here.

Crossfit

CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more.Crossfit is full of acronyms.

I have got injured twice while pushing myself hard in Crossfit.  One hard lesson I have learnt from Crossfit is that focus on yourself and your limits.  Don’t look around and see young female athletes squatting 200 lbs, feel competitive and try to do the same.  If you compare, you despair.  Don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself to yourself from yesterday, at the risk of sounding glib.  The progress in incremental and slow.

Conclusion

In part one, I talked about why I started my journey to play multiple sports relatively late in my adult life.  And in part two, I laid out the rewards from this journey.   Soccer has taught me the power of the team. From Surfing, I have learnt to be patient and how to persevere after multiple wipeouts.  I am still going deep into intricacies of Poker, but it has definitely helped me to control my emotions under stress.   Yoga has been life-changing in terms of  health benefits and more importantly, the power of mindfulness.  Finally, multiple injuries in Crossfit have hammered the old lesson “stick to your knitting” into my being.

I wish you success in your journey.

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