PE is a required course in Illinois, where I grew up, for all students in every grade kindergarten through twelfth and held each school day. In my opinion it’s really a great outlook on health. I not only was physically active in PE, but we were required to learn anatomy taking tests on bones, organs and muscles. I learned how to use weight training machines as well as free weights all in a safe setting. We even learned about nutrition taking tests on calories and figuring out our BMI.
We also took many physical tests. In elementary school it was the sit & reach and flexed arm hang. In high school it was timed runs. And one test I will never forget was a middle school sit up test.
Sit-ups of the ’90s consisted of laying on your back with your arms crossed in front of your chest almost with the fingertips holding your shoulders. While a partner sat on your feet simultaneously holding your ankles to the floor, you’d draw your torso up off the floor and touch your elbows to your bent knees and back down for a count of one.
I was pretty good at sit ups. Pushups were and continue to be a challenge for me, but sit ups I could do. This test was to assess the maximum amount of sit ups we could do in 60 seconds. We were assigned an ankle holder who would also be our counters so we couldn’t pad our numbers…for what reason we would do that I am not sure, but that was what we did anyway.
The time started and I sat up again and again. I could see the other kids. Their pace drove my competitive spirit and up and up and up I continued on and on. My counter passed 40, and 50 and 60, 61, 62…and time. 62. I was stoked! More than one sit up per second was pretty awesome. I was proud.
The teacher called out our names as she marked our scores in her gradebook. When I gave her my score, she asked my counter to confirm. He did. She refused to take my score. “You couldn’t have done 62 sit ups in 60 seconds.”
She literally refused to believe my score was accurate. If I am one thing in my life I am honest. Actually it is a quality others dislike in me and a quality that got me in trouble with my mom as a kid. Instead of a cover up, I just straight told her what I had done. Me an Abe.
My ethics combined with my competitive spirit were shaken when my teacher continued to take scores from my classmates after she had publicly humiliated me by calling me a liar. As the class was ending, I stood and spoke my truth pleading to get my score recorded in the meaningless gradebook. Each stubborn statement I made was countered by an equally stubborn comment from my teacher. Finally I said, “let me do it again.” She paused. She agreed. And she would also be my counter.
The entire class gathered around before heading to the locker rooms to see what drama would unfold willing to be late to their next class to see who would be the victor in this sit up version of Hunger Games. We had all just moments ago put all our energies into our max efforts towards these sit ups; I was sure to fail in claiming legitimacy simply due to muscle fatigue. All the kids watching built a literal wall of grey school required PE uniforms of intimidation as they stood around staring at me laying there on the floor. And, my disbelieving teacher’s face was at my knee level, her hands pinned my ankles to the floor as she began a 60 second timer for the second time.
I started again, up and down and up and down. My shoulder blades would only graze the floor before I would spring up again tapping my elbows to my knees confidently as to not have a missed count or error for which my teacher could claim to be the winner in this middle school debate of integrity.
I didn’t count and I didn’t listen. I was a machine. Up and down and up and down. My eyesight was blurred looking into space at nothing as I simply went up and down over and over again. I could feel every acute movement of my shirt and tap of my back to the mat and the elbow to knee. My actions were exaggerated as the world around me seemed to have disappeared.
My teacher did something wrong that day; she told me I couldn’t.
Since this time, I have had coaches at the collegiate level say I wasn’t a leader while having been voted team captain by my teammates as a junior. As a teacher, I was told both that women don’t make good leaders and that I was too young to be an administrator just months before earning a job as high school assistant principal at age 32. One of my supervisors laughed at me when I informed her I was seeking a job as principal; the 2020-2021 school year will mark my fifth year in just that exact role.
Tell me I can’t…I dare you.
What is this? What is happening here that make a person instead of feeling defeated and giving up actually push forward? Break limits? Counter stereotypes? And even physically outwork personal bests?
Laurence Gonzalez is an author of one of my favorite books, Deep Survival. This is a look at the psychology of those who survive dire situations and those who do not and why. Gonzalez suggests that the more we can have control of our fight, flight and freeze aspects of our brain in our regular, daily life, we can carry that calm into a situation of danger. It is a paradox that this sense of calm can actually fill us with spurts of energy when called upon. It’s an intense focus of knowing exactly what must be done in that moment to stay alive. It is a moment of conviction to go a little farther, only to find many of those tiny moments of conviction linked together to ensure life instead of death.
George Mumford, a mindfulness instructor and mindful coach for the Bulls during the second Jordan era refers to “not trying” in his book the Mindful Athlete as a way to be in the zone. It’s almost like “trying” interferes with excellence. And when a basketball player stops trying, stops pushing, he/she actually can see the court in a new way, almost outside of him/herself. Again, in this calm there is a partner of intense focus and knowledge of what must happen in that moment to get the “W”.
In Atomic Habits by James Clear he talks about the zone which he calls “flow”. When athletes become so focused and they are at peak performance this flow allows them to perform at rate 4% better than normal.
These concepts seem contradictory. To win by not trying. Or to gain a boost of energy from a place of calm. But this is exactly why we can do things we are not supposed to be able to do. Let this paradox give you courage the next time you are challenged. This paradox is the reason you can when others tell you you can’t.
Just for fun…
4% of 62 = 2.48 (about 3)
62 + 3 = 65
MIND BLOWN! My middle school version of me…who would have thought. I was in FLOW!