Applying Power (in Life and in Sports)

More than half my life has been spent in Sports World.  And I can tell you, without reservation, that sports are indeed a metaphor for life.  Consider the concept of power.
Right now, I coach a power sport–dragon boating.  (Do an internet search on it if you aren’t familiar with it. . . . it’s pretty cool.)  Here’s a picture in case you want the general idea:
dragon boat

Dragon Boating

For our sport, we need to be sprinters, not marathoners.  We need to be strong and we need to have good technique; in that way, we can apply our power and move the boat.
All winter we train, lifting weights and practicing technique in an indoor paddle pool.  We coaches talk about the fundamentals of the stroke, starting at the bottom (this is called leg drive).  We are trying to show the proper way to translate the strength earned from weight training into power through the water.  Basically, the legs/lower body are way stronger than the arms, and so they supply the power to move the boat.  Even though it might seem counterintuitive, trying to paddle by pulling with the arms is nothing more than spinning your wheels.
Here’s a concrete example.  Members of my team are asked to do a fitness test on an erg (rowing machine).  We coaches need to measure each paddler’s strength, and therefore, their contribution to the boat.  Now, whether a paddler is racing or fitness testing, they are trying to generate a buttload of energy, or watts.  To do that, you need power (power = force x velocity).  Power makes watts.  (What are watts, exactly?  Long story short, it’s how we coaches can see if someone is literally pulling her weight.  For example, if you weigh 100 lbs and you get 100 watts, you have pulled your weight…… if you weigh 100 lbs but you get 75 watts, you are NOT pulling your weight……. and if you weigh 100 lbs and you get 175 watts, I want you on my team.)
Still with me?  I know, I don’t like math either.  But hang in there…… almost done.
OK, so think about times you’ve been on a bicycle.  Let’s say you were trying to go down a hill very fast.  If you were in the “granny gears” (the smaller rings), you probably just ended up “spinning your wheels.”  Your legs would be flying at a ridiculous cadence but you wouldn’t be going very fast.  BUT if you put the hammer down and shifted into the bigger gears, you could fly.  Your quads would be pushing hard, and your strength would translate into power and watts.
Same on the erg.  If you put the resistance damper on a lower setting (say, on 2) and yanked on the handle and pulled a really high stroke rate (that is, over 35 pulls per minute), you might not get such a good score.  But you’d sure be winded!  Now, try that erg with a decent amount of resistance (maybe 4 or 5 on the damper) and biiiiiiiiig hard pulls at a nice steady rate (a stroke rate of 25-30), and you’d rock out.
In both examples above (the bike and the erg), you need great, strong leg drive.  Velocity AND resistance matter.  Don’t be fooled by fast stroke rate alone.  A high stroke rate will FEEL like a big intense effort.  But in reality, you won’t have much resistance to create a lot of power.  Remember that power is velocity TIMES force.  Let me ‘splain.  No, there’s no time.  Let me sum up.  BIG GIANT LEG DRIVE MOVES THE BOAT BEST.  Make sense?  (I’m sorry if it doesn’t….. I’m trying to type this while watching the Olympics, and I keep getting distracted by Apolo Ohno……)
So how is all of this a metaphor for life?  Well, just like on the boat, using your “leg drive” (i.e. your stronger muscles, whether those be literal or metaphorical) and a proper technique will translate into more success.  Why put things into an easy gear and spin your wheels?  Why not rely on your strengths and make bigger strides?
Go forth and be powerful, everyone. . . .

Elephant & Rider: A Tale of Motivation

As a sports coach, one of my jobs is to help motivate.  I suppose, ideally, each person would find her own motivation, but we all have days when we are a bit off, so I know that at any given practice, at least one person will not be at her best.  And some days,  the whole team might be suffering from a general malaise.  Sigh. . . .

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, author Jonathan Haidt writes about a Buddhist metaphor for motivation.  The conscious mind is the rider, and the unconscious mind is the elephant.  As the logical one, the rider is able to see the big picture, to plan, and to reason.  The elephant, then, represents emotions and impulses.

Bottom line is that each of us needs to learn how to train our elephant.  By being patient and not necessarily acting on our emotional impulses, we can find the key to motivation and self-improvement.

One of the things that helps me train my own elephant is to find that which is greater than the “quick fix.”  Remember, that emotionally-driven elephant is a heckuva lot bigger than the rider.  So I have to find something REALLY compelling to keep that elephant on the road I choose.

In a sports setting, I can use motivators that might seem a little negative or taunting.  For example, I might push an athlete by asking, “What are YOU going to do for this team?  What are YOU going to give RIGHT NOW?”  I often encourage my team members to find out what they are made of, to push more than they thought they could give.

But in a personal setting, when you don’t have a coach yelling in your ear, how do you dig down deep and wrangle that elephant?  Are you able to focus on that big-picture goal and wisely and gently keep your elephant’s eyes on the true prize?

Who guides your actions, elephant or rider?


The Lesson List

Coaching is one of those things that makes you pull your hair out with a smile on your face.  All season, you push, motivate, hound, and shake your head.  Every now and then, you have that glorious moment when your athlete “gets it” or scores or overcomes.  And sometimes, it all comes together for the whole team, and they dig down deep and find what they are made of ON RACE DAY!

This past weekend, however, it all came together for me.

On Saturday, I coached two teams at a local dragon boat festival.  A dragon boat is a long canoe for 20 paddlers, a steersperson, and a drummer.  It originated in China thousands of years ago, and most of the races are sprint distances.  Here’s what it looks like in action:

Dragon Boat Race

Now, I need to make a confession here.  To look at me, you might see a 5′ 2″ person who looks young for her age–in other words, I look like a little girl.  But in reality, I have a surprising amount of rage contained in that small body.  I HATE when people don’t use turn signals or when they throw cigarette butts out of the car window.  I FUME when people don’t say please or thank you.  You don’t even want to know what I wish upon animal abusers, terrorists, and selfish people.

So on race day, when a situation arose that I considered unfair and unsportsmanlike, well, I reacted rather strongly.  By the last race of the day, I was dropping more F-Bombs than Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas.”

The thing is, though, as a friend pointed out to me later, I actually managed to direct that righteous anger in the right direction.  In my pre-race motivational talk to one of my teams, I talked (okay, ranted) about racing with integrity, with heart, with purpose.  I wanted to fire them up to race as good sportsmen and sportswomen.

I don’t mean to justify my bad language or my anger.  It really did feel like a good lesson learned for me–I took a “character flaw” and tried to re-purpose it for good.

So all weekend I have been thinking about Learning Lessons and how that really is the main point of life, in my book.  It occurred to me that, instead of a typical Bucket List, where people usually just list fun adventures or vacations, maybe a Lesson List is what would motivate me.  (Hmm, okay, so that came out sounding a bit uptight and puritanical….. perhaps I should put “learn to have fun” on my list.)

Anyway, for me I think a Lesson List is the way to go.  It fits with my beliefs and my personality.  Here, then, are the beginnings of my Lesson List:

  1. Learn to have fun.  🙂
  2. Learn to play the drums.  I regret giving up music lessons in junior high, and I think music is so very important.
  3. Continue to learn how to use my “gift” of anger in better ways.
  4. Learn to be more compassionate.
  5. Learn patience.


How about you?  Would a Lesson List work for you?  What would be on it?



Pick the Right Exercise Shoe for You

Since I advocate fitness and write about Sporty Stuff here, I thought I should write about shoes for your workouts.  Most workouts will require some kind of footwear, and it’s important to have good shoes for your activities.  In general, I recommend running shoes for most exercise.  Running shoes will offer a variety of features (feet-tures??) to accommodate all sorts of arches and such.

(Note: I am not going to address the barefoot or lightweight shoe category here.  This article only describes “standard” shoes that most of us will use.)

OK, so right off the bat, let me dispel the notion that any one company makes the BEST shoe.  In fact, lemme tackle a few Shoe Myths that are circulating out there.

  1. The more expensive shoes are better.  In general, this is not necessarily true.  Yes, the higher price can indicate that a shoe has more cushioning.  And yes, the shoe manufacturers will usually spend more time wear-testing and researching the expensive shoes.  But you may not need all of that.
  2. All ________ shoes are ________.  If I had a dollar for every person who thought that all New Balance shoes are wide or all Nike shoes are narrow, I could retire to a beach on the French Riviera where a man named Jean-Pierre could feed me bon-bons and soft cheeses all day long.  Each of the shoe companies makes a ton of shoes, some narrow, some wide, some cushiony, and some not.  So you just need to find the one particular shoe—from whatever company—that fits you best.
  3. All sneakers are the same, so I can just get any pair from the department store.  Running shoes are actually manufactured for different foot biomechanics and uses.  There are a few basic categories:  Neutral, Stability, Motion Control, Lightweight Trainers, and Racing Flats.  Some have added “corrective” features and some are designed for racing.

So how do you go about choosing the best shoe for you, then?  And what do all those categories mean?  First, let’s look at the Technical Terms that you will need to know.

  • PRONATION/SUPINATION.  These two terms refer to the foot’s motion when you are in motion.  When you walk or run, you will generally strike the ground first with the outer edge of your heel.  (If you look at the heels of your shoes, you might notice that you wear out the outer edge first.)  Then, as you continue to move forward onto the forefoot, your foot will roll inward to some degree, so that by the end of the footstep, you will be pushing off the middle of the foot.

Pronation means that the forefoot rolls inward excessively.  Look at the forefoot of your current running shoes.  If you notice that the inside edge (big toe side) of the sole is worn down, then you are a pronator, meaning that you push off on the big toe portion of your foot instead of the middle.

Supination means you are not rolling inward enough.  If you notice that the outside edge (pinky toe side) of the sole is worn down, then you are a supinator, meaning that you are not rolling inward enough, or at all.

The body creates this rolling motion in the foot in order to provide natural cushioning.  In other words, it is deflecting the impact of the footstrike.  So a little bit of pronation is OK, but excessive pronation can cause injuries or problems, such as bunions.

Remember that these two terms refer to MOVEMENT.  Just because you have flat feet does not necessarily mean that you pronate.  A flat-footed person CAN pronate, but so can a high-arched person.  So just looking at your arches does not necessarily tell you what your biomechanics are.

Now that you understand the biomechanics, you can choose the right type of shoe for yourself.

  • NEUTRAL SHOES.  The Neutral (also called Cushioned) category is for the person who does not have any biomechanical problems (meaning you don’t pronate excessivelyl) or for the person who supinates.
  • STABILITY SHOES.  Stability shoes are for pronators, and come in a wide range of pronation control.  Some stability shoes will provide a small amount of control, and others will provide a lot.
  • MOTION CONTROL SHOES.  These shoes are for excessive pronation.  They will provide a lot of control of excessive motion (hence the name).

These three categories are a good place to start your shoe search.  Once you narrow down the category of shoe that you need, then you can go about further refining your search.  Some of the other factors that you will want to consider are your build (smaller or larger frame), how much use you will give your shoes (that is, how many miles will you put on them), and the shape of your foot (some shoes are cut wider and some are cut more narrow).  The staff of your local run shop can really help you here.  They will know how each of the shoes fit, and they can help you choose the best shoe for you.

Some further words of wisdom for the intrepid shoe-shopper. . . .

  1. Running shoes have about a 400-500 mile lifespan, so be prepared to get new shoes about every six months.  You can’t tell if a shoe is worn out just by looking at it.  If you have worn down or through the sole of the shoe, it is definitely dead.
  2. If you wear orthotics, remember to bring them with you to the store so you can test out the orthotic with the shoe and make sure it fits.
  3. Running shoes should fit so that you have about a thumbnail of space between you and the end of the shoe. Check for this space when you are standing up, not sitting down.  Remember that a tight fit does NOT mean support.  You need a little extra room in your running shoes to allow for proper foot biomechanics.  In general, expect to go at least a half size larger in your running shoes.
  4. Bring your old running shoes with you to the run shop if you can.  The staff person can look at the wear pattern on the soles of your shoes and help you choose a great new one.

You are now armed with some good information to help you in your search for the best shoe for you.  Now get out there and run!

The No-Excuses Home Workout

One of the biggest excuses for not exercising is “I don’t have any time.”  But if you are really ready to start doing SOMETHING, then here is an easy at-home routine you can do with no equipment and only 20 minutes.  These activities can be done in one spot, so you can even do this routine in front of the TV.  You really have no reason not to try it!

Do each exercise for one minute, and rest for :30 seconds between each exercise.  Try this circuit twice for a simple 20-minute routine to jump start your day!

  • Knee Lifts (standing in place, touch opposite elbow to knee)
  • Squats (feet at least shoulder-width apart)
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Wall Sit (lean against a wall with legs bent at 90 degrees, keep back and head against wall)
  • Plank (that is, hold the top part of a pushup, keep ear-shoulder-hips-knees in a straight line)
  • “Superman” back extensions (lie on stomach, arch back so that shoulders and chest come off floor)

Please be aware that fitness activities are potentially hazardous activities.  Ensure that you are physically capable of performing these exercises and that you have no conditions that would be aggravated by performing this routine.  Questions?  Please ask here, or email me at

Pick Things Up and Put Them Down

Did you know that . . .

1.  If you don’t strength train, you will lose an average of 5 pounds of muscle tissue (called disuse atrophy) per decade?

2.  You can increase muscle mass by 2-4 pounds and increase muscular strength by 40-60% after only 8-12 weeks of strength training?

3.  Loss of muscle tissue results in a decrease in your resting metabolic rate (the number of calories expended at rest)?

4.  The slowing of metabolic rate is associated with an increase in body fat?

5.  Strength training raises your resting metabolic rate by 7-8% after only a few weeks?

So even if you did strength training just twice a week, you would burn an average of 120 more calories AT REST (this is on top of whatever you earned from the workout) than a non-strength training person.  Even if you did nothing else, that would result in an average weight loss of 1 pound in a month.

Now get to it!

Sports: My Greatest Teacher

This past weekend, I traveled to a competition with the women’s dragon boat team that I coach.  For this particular race, I got to participate not only as a coach but also as an athlete.  For various reasons, I have not been able to paddle much myself over the past few years, so this event represented more than one challenge for me.

In a previous post, I wrote about my belief that our Higher Selves choose lessons for us to learn in each particular lifetime.  I believe that my Higher Self nudged me towards sports and fitness as the best “university” for me to learn my particular lessons.  I’ve played sports and competed since I was twelve years old, and for better or worse, I’ve become the person I am because of it.

For example, this weekend I was practically bombarded with life lessons.  In a forty-eight hour period, I had an opportunity to learn about

  • being both a leader of a group and a part of that group,
  • pulling on my “big girl panties” when it was race time even if I wasn’t feeling particularly fierce at that moment,
  • graciously accepting the support and love of my teammates instead of thinking that it’s weak to do so, and
  • finding the best in each person in the group and fostering that quality.

There were so many more little moments of learning and understanding.  This weekend was a symbol for all the lessons I’ve had in a lifetime of sports.

What about you?  What’s your “university” for life lessons?  Share your “alma mater” here!

Pep Talk

Sports and fitness have always been a part of my life.  I began to play organized sports when I was twelve years old, and I have been a coach and personal trainer since 1993.  The lessons I have learned from athletics have been priceless.

For me, the most valuable lesson has been discipline.  Learning how to clear the mind and prepare for anything is truly a gift, and one that keeps giving in all areas of life.  I believe that getting the mind set for action is like cleaning out the attic, clearing away the cobwebs and getting rid of stuff you didn’t need anyway.

I use four guidelines to get my mind set; these guidelines are useful for any task, from running a marathon to solving a problem at work.

  • SIMPLIFY.  Get rid of what doesn’t work.  I mean this literally as well as figuratively.  Old clothes that you haven’t worn in years, old habits that don’t contribute anything to your life.  I know of people who will not go to a workout unless the hair, makeup, outfit is just right.  I see two problems here.  First,  most people are not really watching you; they are more worried about their own appearance or their own workout.  Second, if you have done your workout correctly, you will need to shower after the workout anyway!  By hanging onto inefficient habits and unfounded beliefs, not only have you wasted your own time, but you have also caused yoursel unnecessary stress.
  • BECOME MINDFUL.  I encourage everyone to develop a strong kinesthetic sense and to realize that the body is not separate from the mind.  Being more aware of yourself can literally turn up the volume on your senses.  By paying attention, by thinking about what you are doing, you might be pleasantly surprised at what you see, hear, taste, or feel.  You might even find that what you thought was a lack of coordination was really just an undeveloped sense of your body.
  • BECOME ACTIVE.  Put the emphasis on you.  You are an active participant in your life, not a passive victim.  Raise the standards for yourself and constantly strive to outdo them.  Robert Browning once wrote, ” a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  Let this be your guiding principal in all your endeavors.
  • VISUALIZE.  Visualization techniques are not just for Olympic athletes.  You can use them to perform better and conquer any challenge in life.  First, quiet your mind by breathing deeply a few times.  Then visualize yourself accomplishing your goal as though a camera is filming from the perspective of your eyes, not as though you are taping yourself from the outside.  This is important.  By mentally viewing the scene as if you are DOING IT, not as if you are WATCHING IT, you will have greater success.

Be patient with yourself as you develop your new mindset.  Remember that you may have spent years NOT paying attention.  And remember that mistakes are not failures.  Rather they are opportunities to learn more about yourself.  Conquer the mental chatter that is trying to talk you out of success, embrace the challenge, and always keep learning.