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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bhagavad Gita and Figure Skating (Mahabharata Notes #16)

The phenomenon of "choking" in competitive sports is well known. It refers to those high-stake moments when a competitor performs far below his normal ability, as if he has forgotten to be himself. Choking is particularly in sports that require highly precise techniques, such as figure skating. After years of watching skating live, it's become clear to me that, in an important competition, figure skaters routinely achieve no more than 70% of the highest level of difficulty they are capable of in practice. This level can drop further if the skater is temperamentally sensitive to the psychological pressure. For skaters often called "headcases," he might fail on techniques in a critical championship that he would succeed with 90% certainty in practice. Why? Perhaps the reason is that figure skating is exquisitely affected by the skater's mind. I have done a little bit of recreational swimming, running, and skating, and found that skating demands the most attention and concentration. Therefore, when the brain is wandering toward the thoughts of winning and losing, it is so easy to lose focus, which destroys one's technique.

The fact that many of my favorite skaters are prone to "choking" has vexed me for years and led me to wonder years why the mind fails them. Do they unconsciously sabotage their own success? Or does the chance of choking increase with how badly one wants to win? If so, how does one suppress the desire to win for a few minutes in order to focus on just the skating?

This is why, when I first read one of the themes in Bhagavad Gita, "detach from the fruits of your action," I immediately felt a tingling inside my skull. There is something profound and subtle about this seemingly paradoxical about the advice.

And this phenomenon is not limited to sports, for in life the wish to have something does not often lead to choices toward its realization. Thinking about what you want may spur you on sometimes and paralyzes you other times. The problem of self-defeating behaviors is complicated and difficult to remedy.

I don't know whether the Gita's advice works for skaters, but it seems to me that it should. For those whose desires tend to choke them rather than inspire them, it seems that a detachment from the fruits (eg, medals, glory, fame) can be a convincing approach to a mental calmness that at least suppresses, if not removes, the ripples and waves sabotaging one's techniques.

It would be impossible to ask skaters not to care about their placements in an important competition or not to want to win. They would not be training and competing if they did not want it. The goals drive them and define them as competitive athletes, even if the drive seems detrimental to some skaters who are otherwise worthy and wonderful. Therefore the "detachment" from the fruits and rewards of one's action seems a weak lie that is insufficient to convince most people.

Ah, but the marvelous author(s) of the Gita had obviously thought about this problem, for his next piece of advice takes us one step further. How does one detach from the fruits of one's action, when desires are the very force driving us to do anything in life? "Offer your actions as a sacrifice (its original meaning) to me, the all-encompassing god," says the god (ie, Lord Krishna) to his friend and disciple Arjuna. Action is your duty, and your duty is to me, not to yourself.

Even to an atheist like me, this advice seems like an ingenious trick that could work. If you believe in a god, any god, offer your best effort to him, or her, or it. If you don't believe in any god, you can still offer your effort to anything else you care about. When I talked to my skating judge friend about this idea, she immediately followed, "Yes, one can offer his skating to the skating god, or the ideals of figure skating, or the art of figure skating, or just the ice."

Hence I came to understand what the Gita meant in "selfless actions." Sure, one could interpret this as a call to work for the welfare of others and the progress of society, but I think it can also mean something else --- by removing (or at least weakening) one's preoccupation with the self and the future surrounding the self, it becomes easier to focus on performing the necessary action at hand (eg, skating a program to one's best ability) and diminish the anticipation of winning or losing. I remember the title of a book by psychologist Mark Goulston, "Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior." I don't much remember the book's messages, but the name has stuck with me, for it is certainly true that most of the time the person who stops us from taking action is ourselves.

All these may be regarded as tricks to achieve success, for one who is not a believer, which seems to go against the argument that the past and future are both illusions and only the present is real, or that the consequences of one's choices are of no concern. But even as mental tricks they are surprisingly clever tricks, certainly better than anything I've read in self-help books.

Curiously, I am by no means the first to pick up the connection of the Gita to competitive sports. A few weeks ago, but way after I thought of figure skating in this context, I happened upon the factoid that the golf movie "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (directed by Robert Redford) is based on a novel that was based on Bhagavad Gita. In the movie, Bagger Vance (ie, Bhagavan, ie, Krishna, played by Will Smith) calms the war-shattered nerves of R. Junnah (ie, Arjuna, played by Matt Damon) in a golf tournament. Like figure skating, golf is also a sport that relies heavily on precise techniques that are sensitive to ripples of the mind.

1 comment:

Eugene Xia said...

These competitions are crazy. You practice for years and you are judged for 5 minutes of performance at a particular place and time. You can have a cold or other temporary illness, but they don't care. The judging is all subjective and the judges are biased. Nobody should get into this business.

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