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A trial run for permanent change

Nov 26, 2010

One year ago today I was 20 pounds overweight and afraid that my days of playing competitive ultimate were over.  I hadn't been successful in making the top level ultimate teams in the area when I had moved here several years ago and now I was 32 years old.

One year ago today I woke up and decided to go for a run.  It was not an intense run.  It was not a long run.  It was more like a trial run.  All I knew was that after a season of minor injuries and playing in casual tournaments “for fun” I was not happy.  But I did not know if I was ready to commit to the kind of work I would need to do to play on a competitive club team again.

We tend to think that we make decisions first and then act on them.  Decisions are supposedly based on a logical calculations to determine the choice that will give us the greatest utility.  But if making logical decisions and taking action on those decisions worked, the United States would not be in the midst of an obesity epidemic and the gym would be crowded long past January 15th.

Research by Antonio Damasio and others indicates that decisions are actually made by the part of the brain that controls our emotions!  The part of the brain that controls logical reasoning is just along for the ride.  Its role is to create a believable story about our decisions after the fact.  Thus, we tell ourselves that our decisions are based on impartial logic.  The true order of decision making is as follows: Emotions --> decisions --> actions --> logical explanation.  We fail whenever we attempt to change the order to logic --> decision --> action.

So how do we get things in the right order?  How can we start with our emotions if we have little control over them?

In their book, The Influencer Kerry Patterson and four other authors give examples of how physical environments and other factors cause people to change their behavior.  Like the brain science researchers, Patterson argues that attempting to change the behavior of others (or of ourselves) with verbal arguments does not work.  Instead, one of the best ways to change behavior permanently is to find a way to allow people to try the desired behavior temporarily.  It turns out that our emotions are just conclusions that our brain creates out of patterns of experience.  Providing experiences allows the emotional part of the brain to form new and better conclusions.  We can short circuit this process when we decide before we try.

So the day after Thanksgiving I went  for a run.  No commitments, no decisions about the future.  I was just going to try a little and see what happened.

It wasn't until sometime in mid January, after working out for six weeks, that I came to believe in my capabilities.  I don't remember the date but I do remember that I was running on the treadmill.  It is difficult to explain, but it was as if I suddenly believed that everything I wanted- getting in shape, losing weight, making the team- was possible.  I also knew that I had started early enough that I could it without the pain and torture I had imagined would be required.   Once I believed it was possible, how could I say no?  Only then did I begin training in earnest.

Since starting Ulty Results last March I have had many conversations with players who feel too injured, too unfit, or too old to be the athletes they want to be.  I know how you feel!  If you are in any of those categories right now, or if you are just not sure about your athletic ability, I encourage you to ignore what you believe and just begin.  Call it a trial run.

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