by Max Sirak
One of the things I love about sports is they’re a low-stakes environment in which to practice high-stakes skills. For most people, most of the time, the results of a sporting match don’t affect the long-term quality of their lives. This is what I mean by “low-stakes.” In the grand scheme and scope of our lives, the outcomes of games rarely matter. Which is what makes sports such a great place to practice skills that really can and do impact our lives for the better. This is what I mean by “high-stakes.”
There are things we can all learn and hone in and through the context of playing or watching sports to help us build happier and healthier lives. Teamwork is one of them. Learning what it means to be part of a team, play well with others, and sacrifice individual accolades for the greater good are all lessons which can be gained and groomed via sports but apply to the larger fields of life.
The graceful handling of victory and defeat is another. Play or watch sports long enough, and you’ll eventually be given opportunities to encounter both ends of this spectrum. You’ll feel what it’s like to win and what sort of behaviors that warm feeling motivates. Likewise, you’ll also brush up against limitations and defeat and be given a chance to explore these colder consolations and the behaviors they motivate.
Working together, getting your way, or not are pretty obvious places where sports mirror life. No revelations here. Which is why I’d like to step away from the surface (whether hardwood, grass, water, ice, or clay…) and take some time to explore a more subtle realm, that of thought. Specifically, how the thoughts you think make you feel.
My allegiance to Cleveland sports has been documented. The first column I wrote in 2018 was about emotional maturity. I used the fan-sponsored 0-16 parade as an example of how we can choose to respond, based on the people we want to be, to our environmental cues instead of simply reacting to them. We don’t need to let circumstances and results, both of which are largely out of our control, dictate how we feel.
The last time the Browns won a football game was Christmas eve, 2016. For those who’d rather not count, that’s 635 days. It’s been even longer since they’ve had a winning season (2007), a thing which has only happened twice this millennium. And, in the course of this incredible ineptitude, we fans have seen defeat come in spectacular ways.
The team’s lost because on last-second drives by their opponent. We’ve lost because of our own last-second disasters. One time, in what we affectionately refer to as Bottlegate, the fans in stands actually costs us a game (See or read for yourself). Then there was a game we won in regulation, but then ended up losing after time expired (here).
All of this is to say – we Browns fans have been losing for so long, in so many remarkable ways, that we’re shell-shocked. We’ve got (s)PTSD. ( The (s) is for ‘sports.’ Lower-case for lower-stakes). When watching a game, there’s an impending sense of doom that looms over us because of our past. We expect disappointment because that’s what we’ve known.
And that’s the problem.
What I Learned Watching The Browns vs. The Jets
The game started like so many I’ve watched in the last 18 years. I was with the same group of guys, watching the same type of game. There was more misery than mirth. Our offense looked pathetic. Our defense looked decent, but not good enough. We were losing by 14.
Then something happened. Our quarterback, who hadn’t played well all season, got hurt. The rookie we drafted with the number one overall pick, a 23 year-old kid named Baker Mayfield, entered the game.
The team came alive.
We scored points.
Eventually, we tied up the game.
And that’s when the dread hit.
I could feel it in the room I was in. The collective (s)PTSD of our jilted fan base began to take hold. All six of us got silent. We were waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something to go wrong, as it always had for so long.
Sitting there entertaining thoughts of, “Oh, no… Here we go again… We’re going to find a way to lose… That’s so Cleveland…,” I became aware of how this internal monologue was affecting my body.
I felt less energized. My shoulders drooped. My posture sagged. I stopped engaging with the people around me. All of this because of the thoughts in my head.
Realizing in real time the parasitic relationship between what I was thinking and how I was feeling, I decided to try something. I picked up my phone and texted my buddy, also watching the game, “We got this.”
Did I believe it at the time? Nope.
Did I feel like a fraud even while I was typing it? Absolutely.
It felt like one of the most disingenuous things I’ve ever put into words. Calling it half-hearted would be a disservice. It was sixteenth-hearted at best.
But you know what? Saying it stopped my sinking spiral.
I won’t lie and say I felt my energy surge. But I can confidently say it halted the depressing descent. For the remaining 15 minutes of game (which is easily 45 minutes in normal time), I focused my attention on my what I was saying to myself.
“We got this. We’re going to win. We’re going to stop them.”
Then, the other team started driving down the field and scored.
The (s)PTSD returned. “Oh, no… Not again… It was supposed to be different…” Only this time, I decided to derail this train of thought before it got fully up to speed.
“No. Stop it, Max. You’re feeding what doesn’t feed you. It’s not healthy.” Then I started repeating to myself, “We got this. We got this. We got this.”
Now, as I’ve said, in the course of our statistically improbable badness, I’ve seen the team lose in many different ways. So, even when we came back and took the lead with 60 seconds left in the game, I knew there was plenty of time for us to blow it.
“Here we go again. They’re gonna drive down the field and sco….”
“NO!!!!” At this point I had to practically scream to surcease the momentum of these well-worn thoughts.
“We’re going to win. We’re going to win. We’re going to win.”
It was the meekest, most pathetic statement I might have ever uttered to myself. But even though I didn’t believe it, it stopped me from feeling worse. And that’s the point.
Self-soothing. Taking actions to make yourself feel better, not worse.
My automatic, default thoughts born from bitter past experiences were like vampires. They were sucking the life out of me. Each one draining a delicious vittle of my vitality and making me feel crappy.
In order to change this habit – I needed to leave behind what I’d known and instead imagine a future that made me feel better. And, wouldn’t you know it, it worked.
Reality Is Overrated
Conjuring up fantastical thoughts about how I wanted things to be gave me energy. They fed me.
Were they based in reality? No. Of course not. We’re talking about the future. No thoughts about it are based in reality because it’s a construct. Which is precisely why I wanted to share my story.
All of us spend time thinking about the future.
The specifics of how we spend that time is choice.
Courting thoughts about everything falling apart diminishes you.
Feed what feeds you.
When you think about the future – do it in a way that gives you energy, not takes it. Think thoughts that boost you up, not bog you down.
All the bad things that’ve happened to you don’t matter. At some point you’ve got to quit allowing these experiences and the stories you tell about them to dominate your present perspective.
Or, as Baker Mayfield would go on to say in his post-game victory press conference, “The past is the past. You gotta hit the reset button and take the next step forward.”
Max is a ghostwriter who just finished his first book. Neat, huh? If you’re so inclined you can listen to him and his friends on their podcast.
- Baker Mayfield – By Erik Drost (Baker Mayfield) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons