Play – The Secret

This article is part of a series exploring research done by professor Jeff Elison and Don McGrath for their upcoming book about mental training for rock climbing, tentatively titled Vertical Mind.

In a previous article, we went into depth about the thought process needed to rewrite your mental scripts that are holding you back in your rock climbing. In this article, we discuss Play, some research from my 50 Athletes Over 50 book, and why Play is an important part of your training.

I was about two thirds of the way through the 50 interviews I did for my 50 Athletes Over 50 book, and interviewing one of the athletes.  I was saying that it looked like loving a sport is significant in living a strong, healthy life.  The interviewee caught me a bit off guard by asking me why this is the case.  I had no good answer, just that the information from the interviews showed that this is consistently true.  Our exchange launched me on a quest to understand why this is so, as passion seems to play a great role in staying active.

Around this time, I became aware of research done by Professors Nikola Medic and Patricia Weir’s teams from McMaster University and Canada University of Windsor.  Their study examined the motivations of masters athletes, and it was based on surveys of participants in the 2004 Canadian and United States Masters Track and Field Championships.  In response to the question “What is the top reason that you maintain your motivation to train?” the most common response was “Enjoyment/Love of Sport.”1  I could easily agree, since the over-50 athletes I interviewed said that they, too, loved their sports.  Yet, I felt like there was something missing.

1 Medic, N., Starkes, J.  L., Young, B.  W., Weir, P. L., and Giajnorio, A. 2005.  Master athletes’ motivation to train and compete: First order themes.  International Society of Sports Psychology (ISSP), 11th World Congress of Sports Psychology, Sydney, Australia, 1, 1-3.

Overweight and Under Motivated

As with many other experiences I’ve had in doing research for the book, the answer came when I least expected it.  I was attending a talk by Dr. John Ratey, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University.  In his book Spark, the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain he explains the neuroscience behind the benefits of exercise.  Some points he makes are how exercise prepares the brain to learn, lowers stress, controls hormonal fluctuations, staves off addiction, improves moods and focus, and even reverses some aging effects in the brain.

During his speech, he told us that we have shocking levels of obesity in the United States.  Sixty-seven percent of people are overweight and over 30 percent are obese!  Worse, 20 percent of our four year olds are obese.  He also informed us of the prevalence of several diseases associated with obesity, including Alzheimer’s.  Dr. Ratey said that a higher incidence of this disease is seen in obese individuals, and went so far as to refer to Alzheimer’s disease as type 3 diabetes.  Diabetes is thought, in part, to be managed by keeping a healthy weight through regular physical activity and eating appropriate foods in proper portions.

Dr. Raty also commented that people in today’s culture seek convenience, so we don’t have much need for physical activity to accomplish daily tasks.  By comparison, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers and endurance predators, who covered an average of 14 miles per day.  I reminded myself that with the passing of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the Information Age, the amount of physical exercise the average person now gets is much less― less than one mile per day.  The promotion of a high calorie, fast-food mentality combined with a sedentary lifestyle in a high-tech society, makes the need for physical activity among our children even more acute.  We wouldn’t trade places with a caveman, but clearly, exercise can play a big part in preventing obesity.

Play is Powerful

Dr.  Ratey suggested that all children have an innate instinct for active play, but that society both pulls and pushes us away from it as we mature.  We are pulled away from play by the busyness that results from the complex demands of work, family, social, and other responsibilities.  We are also pushed from engaging in this pleasure by societal norms that value hard work above play. 

In our society, working hard to the point of sacrificing personal joy is typically held in high regard, and worn as a badge of courage.  In many environments, whether at work or at home, people who make time for fun are seen as slackers.  Unfortunately, this attitude instills excessive seriousness and fear in those who would otherwise be playful.  Some studies show that employees who enjoy their time at work are more productive.  Fear seldom drives healthy behaviors, and our well-being suffers when we yield to these external pressures.

According to Dr. Ratey, nearly all animals play, and active play has a critical role in the development of strength, quickness, and agility.  He added that play also helps us to deal with uncertainty and the unexpected.  Our bodies actually have mechanisms that make us want to play.  There are things called mechanoreceptors that sense the forces exerted by our muscles, and when stimulated give us a pleasurable sensation.  We also know that when we exercise hard wonderful brain chemistry kicks in and gives us the sensation of happiness.  Feeling good is a powerful incentive for physical activity.

But most compelling for me was Dr. Ratey’s statement that one of the best ways to activate creativity and playful thinking, is to move our bodies.  After hearing this, I had a revelation.  It occurred to me that the 50 athletes I interviewed have been able to keep their love of play.  By their ability to rouse their childlike urges to visualize playing and to engage in play, it appears that they can regenerate their love for movement and fun.  In interviews, they told me that they felt enthusiastic about their workouts, and that the disciplines that went along with a sport seemed more like fun than work.

Now I got it.  The promise of play, of fun, keeps athletes coming back for more.  Those I interviewed routinely tap their innate instinct to play, which feeds the joy of movement and makes it easier for them to work out regularly and stay with it.  The movement in their workouts further stimulates the play instinct, and this connection creates strong motivation to return for the next workout.

Play and Your Rock Climbing Training

As we discussed in the previous article, practicing skills in a safe (playful) environment is a critical step in rewriting your scripts. These scripts determine how you respond in a situation and are key to high performance climbing. Practicing in a playful environment allows you to safely accomplish the repetition required to build strong scripts. Imagine practicing taking leader falls in unsafe situations. You would not get to practice many times.

Practicing in a safe playful environment also allows you to experiment with movements that you are not comfortable with. An attitude of playfulness, without being focused on the outcome, allows you to experiment and learn what movements feel like. For example, suppose that you want to learn how to mantle better. Rather than practicing on a high-ball boulder problem, you would practice on a top rope, where you could safely experiment with different methods. It is important to be focused on the learning process rather than the outcome. In this example if you managed to belly flop your way through the top out on your first try, not taking the opportunity to experiment, then you missed the learning experience. You will continue to belly flop your way in the future, rather than become a mantle master!

So, incorporate Play into your training routine in order to accelerate you skill development, and as a bonus you’ll probably have more fun too!

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