Warriors, Kings and Mental Set

There was a moment at lunch where I couldn’t believe how my education, career choice and need for community all blended perfectly. We had just finished a good solid workout with the Coyote Point Kettlebell Club. I had this idea to experiment in a group setting the Double KB Clean and Presses by building the skills up over many sets. Of course, I woke amazingly sore the next day, so I know it worked for me.

By the time we got to Peter’s Café on Millbrae Avenue and El Camino Real, I was famished. One of the signs that your training is working is your ability to toss into your mouth everything in sight for a few minutes. I ordered three items. Yes, it was a vegetable filled delight, but I was starving.

Joe Lightfoot, a young medical school graduate from Manchester, England, had joined us for the past few weeks. Wisely, he is taking a few months off to work at Stanford University, sometimes known as the “Utah State of the West Coast,” and, even wiser, spend days with me. I made a joke and realized that my only British accent is a falsetto mature woman’s voice from “Monty Python.” He asked about why Americans enjoyed “The Flying Circus” so much. My argument is that after watching “My Mother the Car,” “That Girl” and “I Dream of Jeannie,” many of us were ready for a new kind of humor in America at the time.

From there, we turned and talked about education and, before you know it, I asked about Beowulf. Joe had read it, but didn’t remember much. Now, my first Masters degree (in history) was this and that and this, but my focus was on Beowulf. I still love it and, yes, I hated the recent film.

I began to describe one of the two great insights of the book that I discovered. I noted on my twentieth or so reading that the Warriors in Beowulf speak in a certain manner: Pure Present. When Beowulf is asked about his past exploits, he seems to ignore the question and press on. When asked about the future, he barely acknowledges that he will have one…maybe.

You see, Warriors live in the Pure Present. What happened before isn’t important because I might die right now. Tomorrow? Why even discuss it? There are movies that deal with this idea well, like “Thirteenth Warrior,” which is based on the great book “Eaters of the Dead,” by Michael Crichton. The book is based on Beowulf, so, well, who should be surprised?

Who lives in the Pure Present? Well, I always thought I read this first in the writings of George Sheehan, the running guru, but I couldn’t find it again. If anyone can help, please do, but those who live in Pure Present are:

The Dying. There is a wonderful clarity when you find out you are terminal. Hey, good news: everyone reading this is terminal! We are all going to die! I have never once thought of that as a negative thing. When I read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, I came away with the gem that if we have a “Why” to live, we can live with any “How.” As one speaker told me years ago, the Dying have this amazing ability to finish things that are important and not worry about things that are not. I can’t put the “secret to life” any better than that.

Children: Kids seem to live in the now. The famous marshmellow experiments with children where they test kids’ self discipline and ability to put off things is funny to think about. Tell a kid “we are going to Disneyland” and you are going to be pestered to death about this trip. A year, a month, or a day and you will be hearing “is it time to go” over and over and over again. I think about how many years summer vacation used to seem as a kid and how I would wait for years (!!!) for a new comic to come out each month. Delaying gratification is something kids struggle with because there is no future, it seems. And the past? When my dads and uncles would talk about World War II, I used to think: “Blah, blah, blah. That was TWENTY years ago guys!” Now, I have shoes I wore twenty years and they fit and look fine.

Artists: what have you done for me lately? I always think that Brittany Spears will be on a talk show in about thirty years and I will have to do that “Oh, yeah…she was the one” kind of thinking we do with former stars. Mel Gibson’s tirades would be okay, if it wasn’t for all of his recent flops. Pull out a list of stars from the 1970s and try not to laugh when you keep thinking: “what happened to him/her/them?” I feel for them, really. I used to work with Steve Mond, a child star whose credits include “1941” and “Different Strokes,” and he explained how hard it was to be a child star and to “never be treated normally.” It changed my view on everyone in the entertainment industry. I am sure that the original cave painter had to hear that his “newer work” didn’t stand up to the classics of deer and handprint.

Athletes: drop a ball in the endzone and that will be the only memory that anyone will have of your career. Athletes live by the last throw, last jump, and last play. When people ask if I like to go to Highland Games still, my injury keeps me from competing, I always tell them “God no.” There is nothing worse than being the guy who looks like the guy you used to be. From second to second, the athlete lives with no past and no future.

This is a terrible way to approach coaching, parenting, teaching and life, of course. Oh, I guess you could do this, but I can’t recommend it. The author of Beowulf offers another option: the King. In the King’s speeches in Beowulf, there is always this formula:


Abraham Lincoln nailed this in the Gettysburg Address, a speech that is the model for saying the right thing well. He begins famously:

“Four score and seven years ago…” He invokes a sweep of history that leads us here.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” and Lincoln brings us to the great question about whether or not we can endure this struggle.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” And then, Lincoln reaches us beyond the now far into the future.

Years later, I was being driven to a weightlifting workshop and looked out the window. I asked my driver, “Is this Gettysburg?” The driver shrugged and said: “Yeah, it was like a battle or something.” Sometimes the job of changing the world involves more than three set of three or Front Squats.

My job as “Coach” is to be a King and teach my athletes to look at things like Kings. I always start off my athletes with stories of other people who have taken the same path. I learned this from Dick Notmeyer: “Oh, there was a guy like you who had weak legs. We didn’t do anything different, just kept on going on a simple path. Oh, they will come around.” I tell the throwers the first day about state champions who were struggling with that same problem and how we overcame it by coming back every day and getting a little better every week.

No matter how much we train the body, really what we are doing is training the mind. It is going to be hard to have a Warrior mindset with regards to Arousal Control as we are going to only have that one Pure Present vision. Honestly, there are times where you as an athlete, parent, or person don’t need a live or die mentality.

It’s just a warm up.
It’s just a swing.
It’s just a doughnut.

And, “next year” does exist for most of my athletes. It’s rare that we have to deal with the end of the world as coaches. Now, there are some times where it is true: high school seniors forget that this is probably the last time they will compete. Certainly, no one is going to fill the stands to watch you play pick up games with your school buddies. Also, the papers and news teams won’t be there either. I can’t tell you how many seniors have told me the week after the season ends that they want to tell the juniors that “it all happens so fast.” The play “Our Town” does a better job of explaining this and when the Stage Manager is asked if anyone realizes how precious life is, he responds:

“”No. The saints and poets, maybe–they do some.”

The saints are always worthy of a discussion when talking about life. As we always joke: “The difference between a Saint and a Sinner? The sinner thinks he is a saint and the saint thinks he is a sinner!” I imagine we should include the saints into our little list of those who live in the Pure Present. We do one transgression and “poof,” I guess, and no more saint! I don’t believe that, of course, but it is fun to discuss.

This poor senior football player (or whomever) wants to go back to the locker room, like the Rich Man of the Bible Story, and tell those juniors and underclassman not to miss a practice, workout or session and live….LIVE…every minute of that last season.

They can’t hear you, King. My wife and I have joked about a syndrome called BBD: Bigger Better Deal. Why work out when you can throw daisies with that cute girl or drink booze at a friend’s house or play video games? There is always something that seems more fun, more BBD, than doing cleans, squats or sled pulls. I know…go figure!

I think the first time you realize something is over is when King thinking begins to emerge. I have been in love…and lost. W. B. Yeats said it better:

“Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.”

It was sung beautifully a few years ago, here:

When love crashes down upon you, like an athlete who has failed, you draw yourself up by knowing the path (your past), knowing where you are (the present) and hoping for a better life ahead (the future). My senior year, my track career came down to one throw at the Sectionals. I got in the ring, felt the wind rise and, like a fool, adjusted my feet to catch it better. The best throw of my life went out of the sector by about two feet. It was all over. My dream of going to the state meet was over.

Two years later, at the small college state meet. I got into the ring. It was a home meet for the best thrower in the state and I knew that I had to make him think. The local press had predicted that he was probably the only sure bet that evening. As I entered the ring, the winds came up again and I smiled knowing that the universe was just playing a game with me. It became my tradition of smiling just before I won. Two seconds later, the discus was in the air on its way to a state championship.

That’s it. That’s it right there: do you see how important a Kingly view is for the athlete? I used my experience to calm myself. The three Mental Set skills are:

Arousal Control
The Etching-Reaction Scale
The Physical Relaxation-Physical Tension Scale

Arousal for a Warrior is an “Eleven.” (See the last blog for details.) Every war movie has the clichéd screaming battle scene, but I could see myself getting pretty fired up to take on Edward I as they did in Braveheart. But, this is not going to get you through the Super Bowl. The first time a high school team has a game with TV timeouts, you can visibly see them flatten emotionally as the game goes on. It is hard to hold the intensity when everyone is waiting for one guy to wave his arms to get back into the game.

Arousal for a throw literally varies from the kind of competition venue to the kind of competition implement. It is really hard to do the Olympic hammer with a lot of arousal, it is simply too complex!

Extremes in either etching or reaction also need a lighter dose of arousal. Yes, you need to play with arousal control across the technical needs of your sport or activity. But, finally, you also need to fine-tune the amount of physical relaxation to physical tension you need.

Bud Winter’s impact on my career is hard to diminish. His text, “Relax and Win,” changed my approach to training and, later, my coaching. Basically, I learned that excessive tension, a fine thing in the weightroom, was hurting me in my sports. I had to teach myself to sleep on command, use sweat to prepare myself mentally, and use cue words to etch my mind. As I read this book, I bought meditation tapes, sleep tapes, and various devices to teach myself to relax, calm down and let myself get out of my own way and win.

Yes, when you deadlift: maximal tension. No question about this, you want to teach yourself to wedge under the bar and you are going to be as tight as you can make yourself. This is why I used to wear a mouthpiece while lifting: I was grinding my teeth apart! But, for the hundred meters, you need to be able to relax and let things happen. It should come as no shock that Usain Bolt’s coach is a part of the Bud Winter’s family of coaches.

It’s very hard to be “calm” when you think that this is a “do or die” moment. Bud’s original classroom was training fighter pilots in WWII to literally not freeze up in a “do or die” scenario. It is a tool you must have for every quadrant.

Be sure to see the subtle difference: you need to be calm to let your body work and still be able to react. But, you may need to ratchet your tension up or down according to your sport or occupation. Proper Arousal Control is a trainable skill: you NEED to practice at various states from hyped up to almost asleep and the whole range in between. It is a foundation of my approach to sports.

Again, the strength coach has the whole toolbox at their disposal. We can teach calm movement with Turkish Get Ups with a half a glass of water on the fist. We can teach intensity with max deadlifts. Of course, etching is much of what we do for the “Skill of Strength,” but we do have some games and toys that teach some reactive skills. As for combining arousal with physical relaxation, we can simply warm up or become more advanced and work on mediation. I’m a fan of that, obviously.

So, broadly: we need to coach the Warrior sometimes, but our job is to BE Kings. Think past-present-future and align your Mental Set Triads to the skills needed to succeed.

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