“The demon you can swallow gives you its power. The greater life’s pain the greater life’s reply.”
Conviction has always come upon me by surprise, calling me to face her with sharp insistence. There’s something urgently real about her; she stings with the edge of fleeting time. “Be you now,” she demands. There’s a fierceness to her tone, and a tremor. This is not play, practice, or make believe, but real life. This is a sudden inner battle of dire import. You must win.
Have you felt the call of conviction? Light as a feather in the small of your back, “as urgent as a knife?” My first memory of conviction was while trail running last autumn. I’d recently adopted the habit of always seeking the fastest line on every trail, especially if it’s technical. I trail run competitively, and this habit teaches me to see lines quickly, and also helps me become more agile at navigating challenging terrain. One day, while practicing in this way, I slipped and fell backwards, hitting my head on a rock. I was physically ok, but emotionally incensed. I sprang to my feet and immediately continued running the same lines in angry defiance of something I wasn’t clearly aware. Surprised, alarmed, and at the same time pleased by my response I pondered the event for some time afterward. I realized that my angry run following my fall had contained recollections of numerous events in my life: times when I’d allowed myself to be pushed around, kept important feelings to myself, or had shrunk from an opportunity to be original. My fall presented the option to regress to my meek past self by returning to the safer, easy path, or to claim a spirit more courageous as my own. The conviction that arose took the form of defiance of myself – or rather defiance for myself- a fierce refusal to be the person that I could no longer be.
Conviction is defined as “an unshakable belief,” but to me this explanation isn’t adequate. Within myself and within others I’ve encountered there is also a resolve about conviction. Whether driven by thought or emotion, conviction is a decision. After all, “conviction” is frequently used in reference to a guilty sentence in the courtroom. A fierce finality is conveyed through this energetic word.
“It was, I don’t know, urgent.”
Ehren, a young figure skater is describing how he’d felt prior to one of his best performances.
“I just had to do it. I had to land that jump.”
Lately, I’ve been surprised by how frequently I’m hearing experiences of conviction in relation to some athlete’s best performances. This is contrary to much of sport psychology literature, which advocates for lightheartedness, fun, happiness, and openness to aspects of the sporting experience outside of outcome. Indeed, a relaxed and joyful orientation certainly contributes to a great deal of excellence, and should continue to be sought and cultivated. However, I’m starting to realize that a special kind of intensity experienced as a glad, focused anger, can also be a resource to drive one’s best.
There’s a narrow ledge that one walks when driven by conviction, which traverses the quagmire of expectation on one side, and the chasm of desperation on the other. To slip into either can doom a performance, but balancing on the precipice can lead to the sublime.
“All of a sudden everything was possible; then what was possible became necessary.”
Victor Price, The Other Kingdom
The first time I recognized conviction used successfully was with to two figure skaters who’ve struggled with consistency in their jumping. Both skaters have wrestled with fear (of falling and embarrassment), and trust (in their own ability to commit to the position needed to enable a successful jump). Both have identified thoughts that help and hinder their performances. Developing the skills to consistently land jumps can take years for a skater. The athletes I know train six to seven days a week, sometimes twice a day. They work on several jumps in every training session. This means that they can fall upon the ice several times a day for years before truly mastering a skill. One can hardly blame skaters for sinking into self-protective habits, holding back on an attempt, or succumbing to moodiness, despair, or self-pity. I witness all of these in our conversations:
Me: “What do you need to do to become more consistent with your triple loop?”
Me: “What’s getting in the way of commitment?”
Skater (In a slightly despairing tone): “I lack the feel…maybe I’m tired? Maybe frustration? I don’t know…”
Then one day we’ll speak and the skater’s energy is different. They’ve had a great day; perhaps they’ve landed a jump for the first time, or the first time in a program.
Me: “What was different?”
Skater (his voice bright with clarity): “I just had to land it. There’s no good reason why I can’t.”
I have never given an athlete conviction. They’ve always found it within themselves. Something brought them to an edge – usually a moment of rebellion against who they knew they could no longer be, and a fierce stand of solidarity with the best version of themselves.
“If you win these battles enough, that battle against yourself, at least for a moment, it becomes easier to win the battles in the world…[yet] the battle is not really against the self…It is really a battle for the self.”
- Mihayi Csiksentmihalyi, Flow
Despite success when utilizing this perspective, both skaters have struggled to remain on the conviction ridgeline. Following a great performance each has slid down the bank of expectation, losing sight of the path so recently enjoyed. It’s interesting how easily, “I have to land that jump because I’m committed to being my best self,” can become “I have to land that jump so that myself and others continue to see me as worthy.” Success can feed confidence, but it can also make the path of “have to” far more narrow and difficult to walk safely.
As surprised as I’ve been to see the power of conviction, I’ve been equally surprised by the negative aftermath of victory. All of a sudden an athlete has reached a new level of mastery, a heightened status. From this pinnacle, conviction to ascend and overcome oneself can easily morph into a fixation on expectations (one’s own and the perceived expectations of others) to achieve equal or superior success again and again. The desire to meet these perceived expectations often prompts further descent toward desperation. The line between conviction and desperation is fine but distinct. Both claim, “I have to,” but conviction steps bravely with open defiance, while desperation feels at the mercy of circumstances. Conviction looks through fiery eyes while desperation pleads on her knees.
The key to navigating the conviction ridgeline is discernment. After our discussion about conviction, expectation, and desperation, Ehren’s assignment was to observe when he was desperate (which he described as feeling “meek”) and when he was brave. I asked him to notice the sensations in his body, the thoughts going through his head, and the manner in which he skates when he’s experiencing both. I asked him to record all of these observations. Then, when he notices desperation show up in all these forms, I asked him to substitute meek behavior with thoughts and actions that characterize his convicted self. Once we’ve found conviction within ourselves once it’s possible to find him again.
I’m trying to do the same.
Conviction will look different within all of us. Mine is an internal demand full of belief. She says, “in this world there is only one of you,” and insists that something or someone needs who I am.
Perhaps the most beautiful account of conviction I’ve encountered was offered by a friend with especially dark internal demons. You’d never know to speak with him, so warm and content he appears (but you never know with anyone, you know.). He and his children have a daily ritual that is incredibly short and simple, yet so full of love that he chooses to be here today and tomorrow with them over and over. For my friend conviction is a soft, graceful choice.
Let me leave you with a little urgency, a little fierceness: how much longer do you have to experience this sport, this job, this role, this life? Will you let meek thoughts and beliefs take more time from you? For how long, and at what cost? Who will miss out on the best of you? What will matter to you as you age, and opportunities come and go? If something (or someone) will matter to you then, what would it look like for it (them) to matter to you now?
Something or someone needs who you are.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking for awhile,
he had a lifetime…
- Mary Oliver, “The Three Zodiacs”
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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