A great learning experience (which totally sucked)

Discover how one big disappointment taught some important lessons about the role of values and what can happen when things are outside the sphere of influence.

My school was much like any suburban public school, except for one thing – its strange cult-like obsession with rugby.

Being part of the team required an unusual dedication. For me it meant waking annoyingly early, riding my bike through the frigid morning air, then subjecting myself to torturous training sessions, filled with sprints, push-ups and other pain-inducing drills. We all trained ridiculously hard. Doing well in exams came a very distant second to getting on the field and smashing the opposition. While others worried about their marks in the HSC, we obsessed about winning the state knockout tournament.

This obsession helped us succeed. At times every kid in the school would be pulled out of their maths, science and English classes so they could cheer us on as we blitzed some other hapless team. Week after week we won and eventually we reached the semi-final of the tournament. The game would be played as a curtain raiser to a sell-out match at the Sydney Football Stadium. I couldn’t be more excited, except for one thing… I was picked on the bench.

Being on the bench sucked. The thing I cared most about I had absolutely no control over. All I could do was sit there and watch on as our team started to play really, really badly. We kept missing tackles, dropping passes and giving away penalties. A knot of nervous tension sat uncomfortably in my stomach. My foot wouldn’t stop tapping. With every referee’s call I would throw my hands up in the air, jump out of my seat and yell all sorts of abuse. We were losing and there was simply nothing I could do about it.

I desperately wanted to be on the field. I knew if I was on the field I could take action. That thing I valued so much would suddenly be back within my sphere of influence. Once on the field I could concentrate on playing the game, rather than just sitting there, tangled up in all those really intense emotions.

I never got to run on the field. We lost. We all felt shattered. A bunch of tough-nut teenagers silently sat in the change room, wondered where it all went wrong and tried to hide our tears. The coach told us it was “a great learning experience.”

At the time I just wanted the coach to shut his big stupid mouth and stop trying to placate us with pathetic clichés… but when I look back now I realise the whole experience did actually provide me with quite a few valuable lessons.

1. It’s easy for some values to dominate

When I was 17 rugby took over. With the amount of time and energy I dedicated to rugby, there was far less available for things like learning or fun. As we grow up its easy for major values such as work or family to squeeze out others like looking after your health, or maintaining your friendships. At times its helpful to step back, examine your values and work out which ones may require a little extra attention.

2. Important values create big emotions

If I didn’t care about winning that game, I wouldn’t have felt so nervous and I wouldn’t have felt so shattered when we lost. Strong emotions are not bad – they are simply a sign that we care deeply about something or someone. If your child runs across a road, you may feel intense fear. If a loved one dies, you may experience intense grief. It’s a very normal human reaction.

3. Being outside the sphere of influence is difficult

Whether you are sitting on the bench of a rugby game, waiting outside an operating theatre or sitting on a plane which is experiencing ‘technical difficulties’, it can be a very challenging, nerve-wracking experience.  There are many times in life where we can’t simply dive in and take action. It helps to have a few coping strategies stored away for these situations.

4. Letting your reactive mind take over isn’t the best strategy

Sitting on that bench I kept growing more frustrated and more wound up until I eventually transformed into an angry, ugly dickhead. I completely lost my cool, called the referee all sorts of inappropriate names and suggested he stick his whistle in a very inappropriate place. When you let your reactive mind take over it’s very easy to become someone you are not proud of and do things you later regret.

5. You can’t solve problems from the past.

Many years after this game I met up with some former teammates. There were plenty of comments like “if only I didn’t throw that pass…” and “If only I didn’t drop that ball…”  Despite being replayed over and over in the minds of many, the result of that match never changed. It’s very easy to keep replaying a scenario and keep berating yourself for not doing the right thing… but it’s not at all helpful.

When you do revisit the past, it’s important to be kind to yourself. Making mistakes is part of the learning process. Rather than being ashamed of actions previously taken, it’s far more beneficial to grab hold of those lessons, return to the present moment and focus on the valued actions you can take right now.