Stay with me on this one…
I was running the other day while listening to “Some Work All Play” (SWAP) podcast which is a husband and wife team of ultra-trail running champions, Megan and David Roche, talking about cutting edge science as it relates to training, racing, coaching and life.
This episode was about “the ability of an athlete to continue performing at a high level after a prolonged period of exercise” (called in science, “fatigue resistance”). In the pod, Megan and David point out the inability of the most recent scientific study to pinpoint how and why resistance improves. It is a mystery of training, genetics, and feel.
The conversation turned to the role of the nervous system and specifically vulnerability as a possible part of the answer, in essence making public your most glaring private weaknesses.
The Roche’s talked earlier in the pod about research on soccer penalty kick success and pointed out the authentic swagger of Lionel Messi who stepped up at arguably the biggest moment of his life to deliver the ball in his unique style, that everyone in the world knew was coming. He approaches the ball and stutter-steps, waiting for the goalie to flinch one way or the other, and then just dribbles it in the opposite way. If the goalie had the courage to stand still, Messi would look like an idiot. But no goalie does. Messi has more courage. He is willing to stand before the world completely exposed. And as a result, he won the World Cup.
My current running coach, Christopher was on the staff of several Olympic teams in years past. He witnessed coaches that were physiological visionaries. But they left out the emotional and, in fact, spiritual. When I signed up to work with him, he warned me that we would focus less than a third on my athletic training plan. The rest would be to increase my ability to bring vulnerability to my training and particularly my racing.
During the last half marathon I raced, he had me focus on people in succession who loved me unconditionally at certain challenging points during the race. I had something close to a psychedelic trip during the race feeling the very close presence of my loved ones, some now passed on, during the points of maximum effort and physical challenge. I ran nine minutes faster than my previous best half marathon. As Christopher says, rage can only get you so far. It’s a closed emotion. With love and vulnerability there is no upper bound.
Back on the pod about vulnerability, Megan brought up her former mentor and Professor at Stanford medical school (Megan is an MD) Dr. Anna Lembke. Lembke is the Chief of the Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University and the foremost expert on the opioid epidemic in the United States. She is also the author of Dopamine Nation.
In other contexts, the SWAP pod has discussed Dopamine Nation as it relates to the distinction between dopamine (which is never satisfying, causing increasingly intense craving, withdrawal, and addiction) and endorphins which bring about a peaceful state of mind (i.e., for max performance you don’t want to be jacked up on dopamine, you want to be calm as endorphins flow through your body at the lowest possible heart rate). But this time David and Megan pointed out the counter-intuitive opening of her book in which Dr. Lembke admits in detail her problematic addiction to young adult erotica, things like Twilight, then 50 Shades of Grey, devolving to the point that she was reading random things on the internet in draft form full of typos for a “fix.”
The point of Dopamine Nation, using a scientific approach to the brain’s physical pathways, is identical to Richard Rohr’s primary conclusion, using a spiritual approach, in Breathing Underwater: we are all addicts.
Dr. Lembke didn’t open Dopamine Nation by sharing her extensive research and expertise about how dopamine negatively impacts all our brains. She opened with her own embarrassing, shameful, destructive addiction. By freely admitting her profound weakness, her humanity, her unique cracks in her armor of scientific excellence, her deepest truth with courage and authenticity, she released an unexpected power. She clearly had a powerful set of research to share with the world. But the authentic opening was just the hook to help make her book a bestseller.
So far, we have discussed how I was able to perform better by opening my heart up during my half-marathon, how Lionel Messi comes to the ball with openness and vulnerability, how perhaps Olympic coaches are missing something crucial by just focusing on training physiology, and how Dr. Lembke used her own addiction in the face of all her scientific fame to prove that we are all addicts, even her. In each of these cases vulnerability did something extraordinary for the person being vulnerable. But the true superpower is the impact vulnerability has on those who witness it.
Having the courage to be vulnerable invites others to be vulnerable as well. There is a massive positive ripple effect. It works for great leaders and coaches, and is the core of the recovery process. If I have the courage to take my mask off, you can too.
A big shift in my life occurred at the many cocktail parties I still find myself attending. The conversation among men generally revolves around what you “do” and an even more specific conversation, implicit or explicit, about who has the most money. All with alcoholic beverages in hand.
These interactions, as a sober alcoholic, have always been awkward at best, actively painful at worst. In the recovery literature we are instructed not to sit in the corner with a long face at such events, but to see what we can bring to the party. For decades, I was completely unable to follow that advice. I resented everyone getting drunk. I resented the questions about work and money even more.
About a year ago I started just telling the radical truth, damn the consequences. When asked what I “do” by a guy with a martini in his hand who just told me how rich he is, I reply that I “help guys get sober.” Which in fact is what I have realized, at 58, is my calling in life.
The reactions I have gotten have completely changed how I feel about these events, and myself. The guy with the drink always takes a beat as he thinks about whether my honesty has just given him permission to be honest too. Then he tells me about his dad or his son or his best friend who is a drunk. Sometimes he even starts talking about his own drinking.
With that one tiny phrase we are no longer in the realm of men beating their chests. We are having a heart-to-heart conversation. I did it to free myself. But in the process, it turns out I freed a bunch of other men too.
One example sticks out. I sometimes have had a hard time with the board member of a not-for-profit with whom I serve. He is a prominent politician, tends to think he knows everything, and generally drives me up the wall.
At the most recent board meeting my tiny little sentence came up in conversation when this gentleman asked me what I was up to.
Out of nowhere, this buttoned up very conservative gentleman started telling me how much we have in common. His dad died of alcoholism and his brother has never been able to get sober and has ruined his life as a result.
The biggest change in this case was the impact it had on ME. His willingness to be profoundly vulnerable with me completely changed my opinion of the man. I had been judging him unfairly the whole time. His struggles have been very similar to mine. And the ease with which he became vulnerable showed me a depth I had overlooked in my own shallow reactions for way too long. My feelings changes to pure love for someone I used to dislike—love that I still feel writing this now—in the span of a ten-minute conversation.
Talk about your weakness. Where are the cracks in your armor? What are you addicted to in a destructive way? It takes courage to lay it out there. But it is a muscle you can grow through practice.
The last study the Roche’s cited on the pod, involved the difference between coaches whose athletes made it to the Olympics and those whose athletes won Olympic gold medals (traits as perceived by their athletes, in this case swimmers). You guessed it. Vulnerability. What Christopher witnessed first-hand has started to change at the highest level of sport. Coaches who showed weakness allowed their athletes to do so as well and, in the process, become the best in the world.
A huge thank you to my editor on this one, Julia–one of the very best writers, friends, runners, and Ragnar Relay partner on the planet.
A related column I wrote 12 years ago now for the Boston Globe.
Tom Matlack | Father, Husband, Sober Seeker of Spiritual Enlightenment
Folks celebrating 26 years of sobriety and 20 years of marriage today. Publishing this piece as a way to summarize my joy and gratitude. I am one blessed man. It would mean a lot to me if you would read it and pass along if you are so moved. Namaste. Big love all. hashtaglove hashtaggratitude
This post was previously published on LINKEDIN.COM is republished with permission and republished on Medium.
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