What You Can Control

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For many years, I coached youth competitive soccer (football for Europeans, or pretty much anyone in the world outside of the United States). I am a big believer that team sports can teach us many important life lessons, such as hard work, perseverance, and the ability to work with other people to reach your goals (no pun intended).  When I had the opportunity, I’d tell my team how the lesson I was teaching them that day related to their lives.

In the spirit of “sports teaches you about life,” very early in the season, typically during one of the first few practices, I would call my team over and have them take a knee.  As they’d look at me with curiosity, I’d say, “there are going to be times we’ll have to play in bad weather, there will be times where the other team is going to play cheap or dirty, and there will be times when the referee makes a bad call, or doesn’t make a call they should have.  You can’t control any of those things.  YOU only control two things in soccer, and you only control two things in life: your attitude and your effort.  Because those are the only two things you control, those are the only two things I want you to worry about.”

I’d go on to teach my teams to have an “I don’t care” attitude.  If we had to practice or play a game in the rain, I don’t care, it just means we’re going to get a little bit wet, we won’t melt.  If the other team plays cheap, I don’t care, we continue to play hard and fair, they way we were taught to play.  If the referee blows a call, I don’t care, part of the game (and part of life) is overcoming adversity.  I never allowed my teams to claim we lost a game because of the referee.

Too often in our lives, we spend time and energy worrying about things over which we have absolutely no control.  There’s a wonderful line from an amazing essay by Mary Schmich that says, “don’t worry about the future.  Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.  The real troubles in your life are apt to be the things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4:00 pm on some idle Tuesday.”  

If you can’t control it, why are you wasting time worrying about it?

As far as the things you CAN control, every day when you wake up you CHOOSE your attitude for the day.  You can choose to be happy, optimistic, or content.  Or, you can choose to be unhappy, pessimistic, or disengaged.  Either way, recognize that it’s YOUR choice, and recognize your attitude doesn’t have to be permanent.  Even if you were unhappy yesterday, TODAY is a different day and you can CHOOSE a different attitude.

Effort works the same way.  You CHOOSE how much effort you’re going to give in any endeavor.  Another lesson I taught my soccer teams was that, as soon as they stepped onto the field, whether for practice or in a game, I expected their best effort.  I expected them to give 100%.  If they were unwilling or unable (due to illness, injury, etc.) to give that to me, I expected them to tell me and I would find a different role for them that day.  Perhaps they would help me run drills if it was a practice, or maybe they’d help me monitor playing time so I could make effective substitutions if it was a game.  But, if they were on the field, it meant they had committed to giving 100%, their best effort.  

No excuses and no exceptions.

There are things we do in our lives because we want to; we enjoy the activity, and we get satisfaction from being involved.  For those things, giving our best effort is generally easy.  But there are many things in our lives we do because we have to.  Often, we’re tempted to give less than 100%, to give the minimum effort so we can get by.  Unfortunately, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  We don’t like the activity (cleaning the house, for example), so we give the minimum effort.  Subconsciously, this reinforces the fact we don’t enjoy the activity, so we find ourselves disliking the activity more and more, and giving less and less effort.  A downward spiral.

There is an inspirational quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. that goes, “if a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.  He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'”  Giving your best effort while doing something you dislike can actually help rewire the way you think about it.  Your subconscious says to itself, “we’re working hard at this, giving our best effort.  It must be something that’s important and we like doing.”  Over time, you’ll often find that even if you never truly enjoy the activity, you’ll at least find it much more tolerable.

Attitude and effort.  You choose both.  Every day.  Those are the only things you control so, for today, let them be the only things you worry about.


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