I have recently taken up boxing.
(Here is a video of me training)
After watching all of the Rocky movies in one week, my son decided that he wanted to learn how to box. We found out that there is a famous boxing club right here in Portland, Maine and that one of their teachers and contenders for the middleweight title lives across the street from us. Seemed perfect.
(I can almost hear Burgess Meredith yelling from here)
My son wouldn’t do it unless I joined him, so now I am learning to box.
I have no instinct for boxing or fighting, so this is really new territory for me. And while it is fun to punch a bag, the work is also really hard. We are drenched in sweat by the end of an hour and I am usually feeling frustrated with myself for not being able to master the simplest of movements. This frustration has led me to see a connection between boxing and the work that I do around communication.
Don’t try so hard.
Maybe that sounds counterintuitive, especially if you visit the boxing club and see how hard people work, but it makes sense. Here are three reasons why trying too hard can take you farther away from your best self.
- It makes your body tense
The improvisation teacher, Keith Johnstone has taught and written for years about the absurdity of trying hard and how it can adversely impact our performance.
(A photograph of Keith from a recent workshop I attended)
He even did a Tedx talk titled “Don’t Do Your Best.” Keith’s point about trying hard is that it ends up being more like a performance than an action. You learn as a young student that when you show the teacher that you are trying hard, he/she will praise you and maybe even help you succeed. You want to signal to the world that you are trying because that will keep you safe from criticism when you fail. Rather than make you perform better, however, it makes you tentative and forced. For example, if you are presenting or speaking publicly, this tension forces your larynx to constrict and your diaphragm to contract, which makes your voice to go thin and eventually hoarse. If you are punching a heavy bag or learning something physical, this tension actually makes your body awkward and off-balance. When you watch some of Muhammad Ali’s fights, you can see how loose and supple his body is. He looks relaxed in there, never mind that someone is trying to punch his head off of his shoulders.
(He looks like he could take a nap)
2. You start watching yourself
The act of learning something new can trigger us to be more self-conscious, which switches on the judgmental and critical part of your brain. When you become self-conscious, you think that you can see yourself making mistakes. Why is this bad? Namely because we are unable to be objective about ourselves in any moment, and thinking that we can do this leads to bad information. When you try to imagine what other people are seeing and thinking about you at any given time, you are doing that entirely from inside your mind. It is impossible to watch yourself, and to do so makes you self-conscious and awkward. You can see this in public speakers or politicians who are thrown off their game by something that they didn’t expect (often for speakers it can be something as simple as the projector or the microphone not working). When you are relaxed on stage and not thinking so much about how you are being perceived, you are much more relaxed and (ironically) in control.
3. You are no longer present
I cannot stress this one enough. As soon as you go up into your head and start thinking about what you are doing, you go blind to the moment. In the case of a performance, when you are standing in front of a room of people or in a boxing ring, you can quickly become overloaded with the information around you. Our brains will want to make sense of all of this information, and we may quickly want to switch from our fast thinking brain (the intuitive part of our brain) to our more slow, analytical brain (the part that wants to analyze and judge). As soon as you move to the part of the brain that solves problems, you lose the ability to react to things immediately as they happen. (Daniel Kahneman wrote about this in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.) You will naturally be slower because your focus and your energy are on trying to figure out the future rather than deal with the present. This is just fine when you are trying to work out a math problem or figure out where to seat Aunt Joanie at the wedding, but it doesn’t do you any good when you are standing up to give a speech. Or when another person is trying to hit you in the head with his/her fists…
(Rocky’s advantage is that he doesn’t think)
When you are learning something new, you have to reconcile the gap between what you intellectually know you need to do and where you actually are in the process. When you try too hard, you take yourself out of the present moment and into a future place where you are already “good” at this skill. This thinking can stunt your learning because you are more focused on trying to push past the awkwardness than you are in learning how to get better.
In the end, what I am learning about boxing is how important it is to be in my body and how often I am not. The physical movements are not natural to me. Each practice is an opportunity to let go, get out of my head and focus on the problem at hand.
I also get to enjoy the experiment. No matter how hard I try, it only gets harder. Better to let go and trust in the process.