The first time I competed in a swim meet, I was six. I made it to the end of the pool where a timer placed a red plastic poker chip in my hand. I hadn’t expected to get anything for finishing, so I was happy! And curious. What did this poker chip mean?
Someone guided me over to a yellow table where a woman sat writing names and times on colorful ribbons. I gave her my red poker chip, and she handed me a red ribbon. Still, so happy!
And then I noticed the blue ribbons, and I knew that there must’ve been a blue poker chip.
I don’t remember learning how to swim or figuring out that I could make it the length of the pool without stopping. My focus was on the poker chips.
My mindset shifted as I got older, and success slowly began to mean something more than a poker chip.
Once I had moved on from age group swimming, I started training for longer races like marathons and triathlons. When I started writing out my own training plans for these races, I began to value the process. But whether I realized it at the time or not, the outcome still held more weight.
A few years ago, I had enough. I was burned out. The source? I didn’t meet my own imagined, unrealistic, and perfect expectations. I still focused on the poker chips – sights sets on the next finish line and ignoring all the little things that were happening in each workout.
Not only that, but I found myself asking the same question:
Did I even enjoy what I was doing?
Running. Coaching. Writing. When there wasn’t a poker chip on the line, did I have fun?
As burnt out as I felt at the time, I expected the answer to that question to be a resounding NO. But instead, I learned that I had no idea. No one had ever asked me this before, and I certainly hadn’t asked myself.
But I wanted to figure it out. I stayed away from all finish lines and found myself, literally and figuratively, in places like yoga studios – the last place that anyone would ever hand out a poker chip.
The lesson? Something very zen. The purpose of any activity, sport or otherwise, is not to be the best. The purpose comes from within. It is not about a poker chip.