Learning To Play Again

Have you ever noticed that sometimes life goes in circles, taking you right back to the same place place you were years before, and again doing the same familiar things. This past week I was back over in Qatar and Dubai, embroiled in the usual struggle and for the most part with a routine of doing almost exactly the same thing as the previous visits. The sentiments of this familiar and vivid deja vu felt as if time and space we just illusory and had me wondering if all the life lived in between visits had ever been real at all.

In all major sports, and swimming is no different, many of the most prestigious competitions are held in the same places year after year; Wimbledon in tennis, The Masters in Golf, the Monaco Grand Prix in car racing and the FINA World Cup in swimming to name a few. For the competitors involved these events become like months in their calendar, revisited year after, marking the passing of time.

Round and round we go, back here again, year after year. However, is it really the same competition and are we still the same person? They say we can never step in the same river twice. My journey may take me back to the same place again, but I envision it as an ascending spiral; going up and around, gaining experience, awareness and operating simultaneously  on more levels with additional upward spiral.

Hotel rooms become modern day mostaries, in a foreign land removed from society they provide the peace, solitude, and escape from our normal daily routine that melts days, weeks, and months together. This monastic escape, solitude and welcomed peace gives us the chance to reflect and look back on things objectively which in part facilitates the upward trajectory of the spiral.

On returning to my cool, dark hotel room, I unpacked my bags from the competition and hung up my swim suits to dry. Still in my track suit with my body exhausted, but my mind still racing and sharp from earlier espressos, I replayed the events from the evening’s competition in my mind.

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the energetic kids playing annoyingly in the elevator ride on the way up to my room and the many nervous stressed out looking athletes I had seen earlier in the competition that prompted an epiphany that would surely level me up again this time around. I remember how it hit me with such lucid clarity that one of the hardest things to do in life is to play and have fun on command at a specific appointment. It takes the better part of a career to master.

I imagined those happy kids from the elevator being brought into the middle of a circle of grandparents and old relatives at Christmas or Thanksgiving and being told “Now play Children! We want to watch you have fun. Now hurry up we are waiting!”  Its quite funny to imagine, but if that were the case, I am sure that the children would freeze up. They just wouldn't be able to do it. It is impossible to force fun.

Yet, that is exactly what we athletes and performers must do. We all must master the art of life in which we play and have fun at a set time and place. Think about it, the best performers and athletes look like they are absolutely enjoying themselves out there. Playing music has to be one of the highest forms of art.

Part of the reason this is so hard to do is because society is constantly telling us to be serious and making play seem trivial. Think about the expressions of the people you see in the military, in court, in the the news. Everything is always taken so seriously, reminding us that life and death is at stake. At what point exactly do things get serious?  It comes as no surprise that playing and having fun are impossible to do for serious reasons. Why do we always need to justify everything to ourselves to avoid things seeming trivial?

I imagined all of those stressed out looking serious athletes in the ready rooms earlier, sitting in silence waiting to compete. “Why so serious? Was life and death really at stake? Was I too serious tonight?” I wondered introspectively. “I had to win, I had to make a certain time, I had to obtain the desired result.”  Society’s brainwashing had me subconsciously justifying to myself why things were not trivial; why they should be taken seriously and weren’t just for fun. With that attitude I could never be like the children in the elevator. I laughed at myself remembering fondly when swimming was blissful, out there spontaneously playing in a usually boring elevator ride for the sheer intrinsic goodness of it.


Stress and fun are actually two extremes of the same thing; in the way hot and cold are both the extremes of temperature. Why are we always stressing ourselves out ? Lets embrace spontaneity and triviality to heat things up by adding some fun into our lives. In that moment of clarity in my monastic hotel room I learnt again how to play. Back again, doing the same thing in the same place, spiraling up but  actually getting more fun and enjoyable each time around. @georgebovell