Olympic Feldenkrais?

olympic-ringsWhether you are a rabid sports enthusiast or strictly a fair-weather fan, all agree that there is something extraordinary and engrossing about the Olympics. The combination of youth, beauty, perseverance, and the pursuit of one’s personal best, all wrapped in a tricky balance of national pride with admiration for the whole human family – makes for captivating viewing and a positive focus of attention for a couple of weeks.

We have watched thrilling achievements by Houston-area athletes Simone Biles and Simone Manuel. Rumors abound (satirical ones, of course) that Michael Phelps and Katie Ladecky are actually the spawn of dolphins. MIchelle Carter in shot put, Ibtihaj Muhammad in fencing, and Anthony Irvin in swimming, have captured the attention and wonder of the world. Additionally, the rugby team from Fiji, Jamaican dominance in track, and countless other inspirations expand our goodwill and admiration beyond our national borders and sensibilities. The Olympics provide an opportunity to indulge the noble human impulse to be genuinely happy for others when they do well.

Yet, it’s not all pretty. The latest is that US Swimmer Ryan Lochte and friends were robbed at gunpoint while returning to the Olympic Village from a party. [See update below.] Several athletes have been seriously injured. The political and economic woes of the host country are well-documented. Doping scandals dog the usual suspects. Snarky internet memes cast the public’s fickle interest in “niche-y” individual sports and scratch the itch of cynicism. Sexist and ageist comments and interviews by the NBC team have added a time-warp quality to the proceedings. Zika Zika Zika. And, in spite of those obstacles, athletes make the journey for the Gold, and seem to understand that their experience is extraordinary by any measure.

Whenever Feldenkrais people get together, eventually there will be a joke about the Feldenkrais Olympics. It’s a comical oxymoron. The notions of competition, team unity, and speed-strength-power are outside of the intentions on the mat. A gold medal in team tumbleweed rolls? HI. LAR. I. OUS. The most “in” of in-jokes! And yet, there is more than a slender thread of connection. Most forget, or are unaware, that Moshe Feldenkrais wrote a book on “Practical Unarmed Combat.” He was a street fighter who caught the eye and the respect of JIgaro Kano, the founder of modern judo. He earned a black belt and remains a respected figure in the martial arts. As one practices the Method, one learns that it is about much more than lying on the floor and relaxing.

Our amazing Olympians all possess an unusual degree of physical self-awareness. Their intentions manifest in action. They know what they are doing. They focus their attention on the present moment, while simultaneously playing the long game through years of training and aspiration. These aspects of the “inner game” are available to anyone who wants to improve in any aspect of life. You can develop them quite effectively in Feldenkrais classes.

I’m inspired by the older athletes, who have persisted and endured, one for a record seven Olympic games. What’s her secret of sustainability and peak performance, I wonder? I’ve heard many “comeback” stories from athletes who overcame diseases, injuries, and even childbirth to reclaim their elite Olympic status, and then excel again. How do you find that internal combustion engine that keeps the fires of ambition burning? As I hear 35-year-old athletes field interview questions about “retirement” (and don’t know whether to laugh or cry), I see an opportunity for a massive reality check. It’s not just about ageing. The question is: is there life after a personal best? And if so, who gets to define that? How can we develop the resilience to survive success?

I love watching these elegant movers who make everything look so damned easy. The most successful ones seem to pursue progress, rather than perfection. They are engaged in a process, expressed by Feldenkrais the elite athlete: “To make the impossible, possible; the possible, easy; and the easy, elegant.” Anyone who follows that process will improve. The process translates from pool or mat or field to living a full life, well. Go for it!

UPDATE 8/18/2016: The Police Say Ryan Lochte Lied About Gunpoint Assault (New York Times). Most disappointing, to say the least.

Just swim, Michael

This morning, out of the corner of my ear, I heard the CNN sports commentator saying, “Now the pressure is REALLY on. If Michael Phelps wins gold tonight, he’ll get a million dollars. . .”

I hope that Michael Phelps is not like the rest of us. OK, clearly, anyone with 11 career gold medals, eating 12,000 calories a day, is already not like the rest of us. I hope that Michael, at age 23, possesses the self-mastery most of us lack.

B.F. Skinner, the founder of the theories of Behavioral Psychology, has influenced our thinking today. Reward what you want. Win another gold medal, and you’ll get a million bucks. Punish what you don’t want. No gold, no cool million for you! All sorts of parenting techniques, classroom management plans, employee incentive programs, and foreign policy decisions are based on a Skinner model of stimulus and response. To reduce all human action to reward-seeking or punishment-avoidance is simplistic, manipulative, and dehumanizing.

I hope Michael Phelps swims because he loves to swim, and because he’s good at it, and because it’s fun. I like to think that he doesn’t care at all about the medals, but they are nice icing on the cake. They symbolize his achievement, they don’t cause it. Of course, the money would be great. But adding in the reward/punishment dimension is a sure way to sabotage brilliant performance.

Moshe Feldenkrais observed that when one is striving to meet an externally imposed goal, the spine shortens, muscles tense, and the body (and mind) actually works against itself. He called this “cross motivation,” and it occurs when one forsakes one’s internal truth to maintain external equilibrium. There are lots of examples of this: the child stops doing what she’s doing because of the fear of losing parental approval, love, protection. The employee cooks the books to keep his job. The candidate delivers the sound bite, and dies a little inside. Feldenkrais attributed most of our human mental and physical difficulties to the problem of cross motivation.

If you watch Michael Phelps swim, you can’t help but notice that he makes it look easy. He is clearly strong and powerful, but all of his strength and power are focused on moving him through the water with the greatest speed and efficiency. There’s no wasted effort, no struggle, no straining. He is free of cross-motivation! Would straining make him faster? Of course not. Unnecessary muscular effort would make him less buoyant, less mobile, less flexible. Will dangling a million dollars at the finish line make him swim faster? Probably just the opposite, unless Michael Phelps has some great inner resources to draw upon.

The young Mr. Phelps has already learned how to tune out a lot of the hype. He’ll need to rely on “the cultivation of detachment,” the ability to care without caring. Tonight, he needs to swim like it’s just another day at the pool. Of course we project our own hopes, dreams, and foibles onto Olympic heroes. Of course we live in a material world that can be difficult. But let’s not weigh him down with expectations and judgment. Leave him alone, and let the guy swim.

One of my great friends, an actor in Chicago for many years, had this advice about auditions: “You already don’t got the job.” His point is this: go ahead, audition, compete, give it your best shot. What have you got to lose? If you don’t get hired, then nothing changes. You can’t lose something that you don’t have! I hope Michael Phelps has someone keeping him steady and light-hearted. You already don’t got the million bucks. This is one of the best ideas I know of for staying in the present moment. Whatever you wish to accomplish, go for it. The worst that can happen is that nothing will change.

I’ll be cheering today, and I’ll be thriled to watch him. If I could give Michael Phelps some advice, I’d give him a maternal hug and say, “Just swim, Michael.” It’s a reminder of something he already knows and practices. We can learn from him.