When I was nine years old, my parents signed me up for softball. I had never played before, and my skills were lacking. I remember chatting nervously with my dad in the car before my first practice, and him commenting on how talkative I was that day. As the season got started, I wanted to like it, but for me, playing softball never really clicked.
After every game, our coach would give out coupons for ice cream at a local ice cream shop, to the players who hit home runs and made great catches. Game after game, I tried to hit the ball, rarely making contact, and stood picking daisies in the outfield, hoping a ball didn’t come my way. Once, as luck would have it, I did manage to hit the ball, and hit a double. My teammates and coaches had to yell for me to run to second base. That night, the coach gave me one of the “home run” ice cream tickets, and I still remember the feeling. I knew I wasn’t as good a player as the kids who could hit home runs, but he was encouraging me for trying my best.
That same year, my mom signed me up for a few different activities for the first time, to try them out: soccer, all of which I remember is eating orange slices after each game, and once falling to the ground and having the wind knocked out of me; and auditioning for a play at a local kids’ community theater. I might not have had the skillset to succeed in sports, but when I got onstage for the play, for my shy, childhood self, it was like I suddenly felt at ease talking in front of a group of people for the first time.
Unfortunately, some of the rehearsals for the play were the same nights as softball practice. My parents told me I could try to do both, but I would have to choose which one to miss on conflicting nights. Of course, I picked softball. After that, since I wasn’t practicing at home or during practice, not surprisingly, my softball skills did not improve. I halfheartedly participated in a few games; and wished to be in more plays. On the night of the play itself, I remember running across the stage during one scene, and feeling totally free and happy.
Now that my oldest son is in school, he is getting to the age when he can participate in team sports. This winter, he and a few of his friends are going to play on a soccer team for the first time. As my kids start trying new things, like sports, music, and other extracurricular activities, I want to encourage them to pursue doing what they love, and when they find it, to work hard and try their best.
There is research that supports doing an activity until you reach “mastery level,” in order to feel accomplished, happy, and satisfied in the feeling of a job well done. In Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, author and parent educator Dr. Laura Markham writes:
We raise children and hope they will have the motivation and courage to tackle challenges and master them, as that is the source of true success.
. . . We always want to master the challenge before us, whether that’s running a fast mile, creating a loving marriage, enjoying a career that provides for our family, or giving back to others through volunteer work.
I didn’t reach mastery level in softball, but I did continue to pursue my love of reading and writing, and even acted in more plays, including the lead in a college production of The Diary of Anne Frank. I have felt the most grateful, happy, and truly satisfied, at times in my life when I was working hardest to do something I loved: when I completed my senior thesis in college, getting married, supporting my husband in his career, and having kids.
The author continues that, once you achieve mastery doing something that you love, it is possible to enter a state called “flow,” which is that feeling time of standing still while you do something that you truly love, and know how to do to the best of your ability, like singing a song, throwing a football, reading a book, or riding a bike. The activity is challenging, and it is that element of completing a challenge, of doing something and doing it well, that allows us to feel accomplished.
. . . Practicing the cycle of mastery is the most reliable way to enter that fulfilling state called flow in which time disappears. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the originator of the idea of flow, defines it as being so involved in an activity that we’re transported into pure focus and joy. Athletes call it ‘being in the zone.’
While I didn’t ever get “into the zone” while playing softball, I did learn a valuable lesson in how it felt to participate in a team sport. I think it is important to try new things, to learn what you like. I want my kids to feel confident that they can try something new, work hard to master it, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes along with it. Finding what you love, and working hard at it, is almost certainly one of the keys to success, and I want to take that theme into the new year. Work hard, love hard, and most of all, just try your best.