Sport demands certain things from athletes. They are required to train mercilessly, going beyond the pain barrier when necessary. Not only that, a certain mental attitude that epitomises the work ethic is essential. At the very top of the requirements is an essential self-belief. It isn’t enough to be good at a sport. The true athlete demands to be the best.
What, as writers, can we learn from this? Well, there’s that uncompromising determination to work to achieve the very best effort. It means to go beyond “I did my best”, on the assumption that none of us really knows what our best is until pushed to our limits, and beyond. The goal-oriented persistence of never giving up, of never being truly satisfied with our achievements. Saying “I’ve done a good three hours’ writing” would, in the terms of the athlete, become “I’ve only done three hours’ writing”.
But, there’s a danger inherent in this, too. Some athletes overtrain. By doing so, they suffer more injuries, often during their training. Every muscle has an ultimate limit, beyond which it is simply impossible for it to go, safely. So, too, has the mind. It can be exercised, just like a muscle, and its limitations are less definable, but still there is the risk of mental exhaustion, or even mental injury. It is, therefore, essential that we know our limits, even if we only discover them through hard testing.
If we, as writers, treat our occupation casually, then we can’t expect to achieve great things. If, however, we treat it as a vocation, then we are on the road to true success. If we can’t give of ourselves beyond our own expectations, if we don’t put in an heroic effort, then we remain hobbyists. If, on the other hand, we drive ourselves to ever greater efforts, devoting an increasing amount of ourselves to our calling, then we can at least take some satisfaction in having truly striven for our dreams.
There was a time when I would be so driven that I would suffer excruciating migraines when I wasn’t writing. I also risked being dismissed from the jobs I had to take, to live off, by becoming too engrossed in writing, lunch breaks that went on too long, the spell only broken by some instinct of warning, at the last moment. For months, every spare moment would be consumed by the need to write. And then, at my ultimate limit, I would crash. Mental exhaustion would bring it all to a halt. Then, for a while, I would live a relatively normal life.
I’m not like that now. Years of employment and family responsibilities eroded all that ‘mental muscle’. It’s far from uncommon. It’s also very right that it should happen. However, now that work is history and there’s only myself and my wife, I find myself beginning to push my limits again. I’m back in training, and it’s far more painful than it was in my youth. It’s prone to interruption as purely physical problems override mental exercising. Bad health cannot, will not, be denied or defied. Drug therapy carries a cost, too.
I would love to be a mental athlete again. I’m forced, however, to accept that I’m now incapable of that. That doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t improve my mental conditioning! I may never again run a mental marathon, but I can certainly prevent myself slumping back into that horrible semi-vegetative state which gripped me for several years. Writing helps, but other exercises are essential. I acquired a short term memory loss problem, and this persists to some degree, but I’ve successfully decreased its impact. True, a migraine will still often wipe out a load of recent information, but that’s something that can’t be helped. The impact of multiple analgesics has lessened with more mental effort on my part, just like the athlete who undertakes physiotherapy following a muscle injury.
So, an we learn from sport? Yes! We can learn from both the positive and negative aspects. Training is good. Determination and self-belief are vital. Overtraining is bad. So is doping. Avoid the negatives and embrace the positives. Your mind will serve you better and you just may reduce the mental erosion caused by time and other life responsibilities.
I would make one final observation. Many athletes are very selfish They pursue their dreams without any real consideration for others. I don’t suggest that we writers behave the same way! There’s a middle path, where we can pursue our dreams while being considerate of others. In fact, I think it’s essential that we follow that middle path. Our characters are drawn from those we encounter in life. If we train so hard, and compete so ruthlessly, that we isolate ourselves, then a large part of our source material is lost.