I ask people about their passions a lot. Many tell me they have no passions, which makes me sad for them. I don’t think passions are something you find lying around but something you create and build from small interests through self-awareness, effort, and dedication. It means they haven’t created something they could have. They either never invested enough to find out what it took to create a passion or, if they did, capitulated on the effort. Or they’re young enough not to have had the chance yet.
I’ve written before about the sink-or-swim moment experience in college that taught me the meaning of competition — that I had to work hard to make something of myself and the decades of reward it brought me. Ultimate has been one of the greatest sources of growth and reward in my life. Oh yeah, and fun and friendship too.
I forget if I’ve written about playing ultimate in Shanghai. At 41, my body has a fraction of the physical potential of ten or twenty years ago, but I’m not playing at the Nationals and Worlds levels I played at then. I’ve learned to get reward from other parts of the game than just winning games and tournaments. Obviously comparing my ability to someone in his mid-twenties doesn’t make sense.
Passion on the field
I didn’t grow up playing sports much. What sports I played I didn’t excel at until late in college or so, to the extent I did then. In ultimate you have to lay out — that is, dive for the disc. Since you play without pads, that means landing on hard ground, sometimes at full speed from several feet off the ground. During seasons I played intensely, my body’s landing points — since I nearly always laid out to my right, I landed on my right knee, hip, and elbow — were perpetually scabbed over. Before they healed I’d lay out again and scrape the scabs off.
Sorry if that sounds gross, but to a young man, it showed intensity, passion, and sacrifice for the team. You had to get the disc and if that meant pain then so be it. You knew the emotional reward of teamwork and improving your skills would outlast any fleeting pain or injury.
Still, it took a long time — years — for me to overcome my fear of laying out — or rather of landing — a fear many players never learned if they started playing sports intensely as fast-healing, low-to-the-ground kids.
Eventually laying out became one of my greatest joys, though I never laid out like some of the greats, never having overcome my fears completely.
In the middle of a recent game a teammate threw me a leading pass just in front of me. I reached out with my left hand as I ran at top speed — a fraction of my old top speed, but still using everything I could put into it. I can still see my hand outstretched, mere inches from the disc as it moved faster than me away from me.
I wanted that disc!
So tantalizing and elusive, just out of reach.
So within reach if I dove.
With the disc moving away from me faster than I could run only by diving could I catch it. I had to get my feet off the ground. But what about after catching it?
My mind raced. In a split second it considered the risks. Against the exhilaration of catching it, I feared how I would land, how much more brittle my bones might be than before, how much longer I’d take to heal, how my skin might scrape against the dry ground, and thoughts like that. How many people play at this age? I don’t have the support of a team training together that rewards sacrifice. One jump could end sports for me. Should I do it? What shame would there be in letting it go?
A lifetime of development and competition arose within my mind, still within that split second. I never got as good as players who laid out faster and higher than me yet came away with no injuries for their great form that kept them from injuries. Great form ironically only comes from lack of fear of the consequences that causes your body to contort, risking greater injury than when you dive fearlessly.
In my career I shamefully skipped laying out more times than I care to remember. In the moment of not laying out your fears overcome you. You’re in your mind. You don’t think about anyone else because you’re living in fear, avoiding pain. Yet once the moment passes, you become acutely aware that everyone was watching you. They all saw you give in to your fears where you could have overcome them. Your teammates feel disappointed. You have to face them and apologize. Your competitors may feel glad you sucked and relieved at their luck, but probably disappointed in you too for playing below your potential and not giving them the best game you could.
Yet I lived through all those disappointments. To a great life, for that matter. What shame would there be there in just one more? I could find ways to live it down. I’m 41, for chrissakes. Who can blame someone for not playing like he was a decade younger? Most people give up on all of sports, not just one tiny piece of them, long before 41. These become your thoughts — sirens for complacency and mediocrity.
Complacency feels so tantalizingly easy in the grip of fear. Mediocrity seems not so bad. Nearly everyone is mediocre — that’s what mediocre means — so what’s wrong with being like most other people?
Amid these thoughts, doubts, concerns, and fears, something amazing happened. I found myself in the air! I had lept. Laid out for the disc.
I never consciously decided to jump, to dive, to lay out, but there I was. I just did it. Actually, I should restate the last paragraph. I didn’t just find myself in the air. Not consciously diving doesn’t mean the lay-out just happened. That’s the beauty and challenge of competition. Nobody takes a single step for you. Nobody requires you to try to win. You can always choose not to compete, which doesn’t even mean you choose to lose or quit. But if you choose to compete to win, you may have coaches and teammates, but you have to take every step, run every sprint, risk every injury, or whatever your field of competition demands, from chess to starting a company to the corporate board room.
I’ve written before on my choice to compete to win in ultimate. That was in college. Since then teams of mine made semi-finals at co-ed Nationals, placed 11th at Worlds, and lost the game to go to open Nationals by two points (yes, I’m bragging. On your blog I think you should brag too). I’ve played a lot of ultimate. I think it’s safe to say it’s in my bones, even if I can’t physically play like I could before. But I love the sport no less than ever.
And I’ve had other life experiences that contributed to how I compete. I forget if I’ve written about how learning leadership and teamwork in Business School contributed to how I played ultimate, but it helped — to the point I winced at the selfishness in my play before. I can’t change that now, but I can play the best I can now. And that means playing with all I have, which by now means playing unconsciously.
For my gut to take over made the moment all the more rewarding and meaningful. I knew the right choice for myself, the question was overcoming my fear and doing it.
And I did it. But doing it wasn’t on my mind in the moment.
I hope I can describe the feeling in the moment. Shanghai summers are hot and humid. For months your sweaty hands can hardly solidly grip the wet and slippery disc. But this mid-September day was cool and dry. I don’t remember jumping. I don’t remember flying in the air. I remember feeling the solid grip of my hand clenching the dry plastic of the disc, clamping on it. And gripping that disc that solidly without your feet on the ground feels so comfortable it feels like home.
My mind focused on holding on to that disc. As I fell to the ground — on my left side for the only time I can remember, the alienness of that hand’s grip already increasing the exhilaration and sense of achievement — I cared nothing about whatever pain would come my way. Falling feels a lot like flying while you’re still in the air.
That selfless intense focus of personal achievement, giving it up for the team, is one of life’s great thrills and lessons, transcending the moment of play, transcending everything else in life for the moment.
Of landing I remember only two things. One, a jumble of limbs flailing about, battered by the confluence of gravity, inertia, and hard Earth. The other my grip, ever solid, of my hand on that piece of plastic. When everything came to rest, I was on my back, damaged in foreign places I’d never bled from before — the back of my right shoulder and the top of my right forearm. My right thigh was bruised. How did those spots even get hit? I don’t know.
The ground knocked the wind out of me. The roots of my teeth hurt from the collision somehow — my teeth! — mainly on the right side. Had I hit my head? I don’t know.
The pain felt glorious because I had caught it.
I didn’t die. No bones broke.
I was already finding meaning in my achievement. In the waning years of my ultimate career, with my physical potential declining, mentally and in my gut, I had committed fully, uninhibitedly to a play. I sacrificed my body for the team. And I won. I got the disc. I got the feeling of that solid grip.
I was in pain. In ultimate if your defender counts ten seconds on you after you catch the disc, it’s a turnover and I didn’t know how long I’d take to get up. I called an injury time-out. For whatever shame not laying out might bring, there is zero shame in calling an injury time-out, so I did. Walking off the field I realized the pain wasn’t that great, even after the adrenaline faded. In fact, I got back in the game a point or two later.
As I’m editing this post today, two weeks later, the scab on the back of my right shoulder just finished healing and coming off a day or two ago.
Great players lay out higher and farther while running at higher speeds. They do it multiple times per game. With others laying out next to them. This one play hardly makes me élite or increases any feats from my just-barely-elite-but-not-solidly-so-even-at-my-peak level of play. I played pretty well and touched the top levels of play and even earned being covered by other teams’ best defenders at times, but never dominated play.
It means I overcame one of my greatest fears in one of my greatest passions, and felt its reward, viscerally in that grip and the glorious, lingering pain from landing and emotionally in the reward I’m trying to communicate now. At 41, I can safely say I committed to sacrifice as much as anyone does in laying out for a disc, completely let go. And I flew. And I caught the disc.
The play brought back memories of a few great plays, undoubtedly made rosy in my memories. I won’t go into them to describe what they mean to me.
- Playing for New York Ultimate against Boston’s Death or Glory, two of the sports’ great teams of the time, I threw a pass for a goal in front of probably the largest crowd I’d played in front of. It was a beautiful loopy forehand that went out of the field of play, over the spectators, and came back in for an easy catch for my teammate in the back right corner of the end zone. The crowd roared to their feet. I think few people would have seen that the player was open or that that throw was possible. And I nailed it. Players on both teams congratulated me.
- Once in college at Columbia I laid out for a disc, one of my first near full speed dives. I remember running up the left side of the field, just like this play the other day, and catching it (with my right hand that time). I remember looking at the line of my right arm, leading straight to my teammate downfield, cutting for an open for a throw for a goal in the front left corner of the end zone. But I had to land and get up before I could throw it. I also knew if he was open on the left side, his defender would have to overcommit to stop that throw on the left, meaning he could make a second cut and be wide open for a high, loopy pass over the whole field to the back right corner. He made that cut, I made that throw, and we scored.
- Playing at Penn in graduate school against a club team on defence a player I covered had a step on me in the goal. The throw to him was enough behind him that I could have blocked it with a layout, but I didn’t dive. I thought of this non-play when I wrote above the feelings of complacency and mediocrity giving up creates. Those feelings at least contributed to my later playing for New York and other élite teams.
- Playing Masters (over 33 or so years old) around when I was in Business School and 35 years old, I got three or four defensive turnovers, leading the captain to exhort the rest of the team to play better on D, like me. Like learning to lay out, I had to learn to play defence with intensity, teamwork, effectiveness that came naturally to others. Business School’s lessons in teamwork and leadership taught me some of what I had missed.
My captain’s recognition in that Master’s game, along with the layout the other day, tell me I became a complete player. Yes, most great players become complete players early in their careers. And becoming complete does little when this many years beyond being able to compete in serious games.
But many players never become complete. Many players never know what it means.
I believe I can say I earned it.
And, man, do I love laying out!