During my years in graduate school, I was a volunteer swim coach for a youth swim team in the Chicago area. One of my favorite parts of that experience was helping to develop performance goals for swimmers, along with developmental standards. As another coach memorably put it, “If you don’t stretch your limit, you set your limit.”
It’s one reason why I’m so attracted to the book, The Power of Full Engagement, written by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Like me, Loehr and Schwartz learned from the principles of athletic coaching and applied them to coaching business professionals and other leaders.
The primary markers of physical capacity are strength, endurance, flexibility, and resilience. These are precisely the same markers of capacity emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Flexibility at the physical level, for example, means that the muscle has a broad range of motion. Stretching increases flexibility.
Just as athletes must learn to exert themselves and recover in order to stay at a high level of performance, so also we must all learn to find better ways to spend and recover our energy physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. We gain physical strength by exerting energy at a higher level than usual, then allowing ourselves time to rest and recover. Similarly, we become emotionally stronger through periods of exertion and recovery. Loehr and Schwartz put it this way: “To build capacity, we must push beyond our normal limits, training in the same systematic way that elite athletes do.”
So much of addiction and mental illness is about limiting ourselves by avoiding feelings. We use our drugs of choice – and compulsive behaviors – as a way to avoid feeling unwelcome emotions. When we are able to accept parts of ourselves that we had previously denied or repressed, it releases energy that can be used in other ways to pursue what we enjoy. The parts of ourselves that we deny or ignore tend to atrophy. And the longer we avoid building our capacity, the harder it becomes to overcome inertia.
This is why treatment for addiction is referred to as recovery. We recover energy, not only through rest, but also through pushing beyond our normal limits and developing new capacity. And just like pushing our physical limits can be painful, it can also be emotionally painful to address what we’ve been avoiding.
Becoming fully engaged is about spending our energy more intentionally in ways that are consistent with our spiritual values and goals, our sense of who we are and who we want to become. Being fully engaged is about discovering the abundance of inner strength and wisdom we have when we are willing to let go of what we cannot control.