Nine years ago, five of my girlfriends and I took a trip to Solvang, California for “Golf School.”  We were young, and mostly terrible at golf, and were really using it as an excuse to visit wine country.  But we packed up our Beginner’s golf clubs, and showed up on a course one cool morning in April.

We had the entire cast of characters that weekend.  One Teacher’s Pet.  One Class Clown.  Two Natural Athletes.  One Hard Worker.  And one Exotic Outsider.   To be fair, none of us fit our labels exactly.  But we did manage not to strike anyone with a wayward ball; or hurl divots at the Teacher’s Pet.  We DID manage to learn the basics of how to play golf: the ideal plane of a swing; how to take the club away from the body; the point at which your hands should stop rising, and begin the descent with a club.  We learned how to get out of a sand trap, and how to putt a long putt.

Mostly, we were schooled, just like the brochure promised.  But one of the most important lessons I learned that weekend wasn’t about how to angle a club or position my feet – it was about creating habits.  

To change your swing, our instructor told us, you had to repeat the activity for sixty days.  The exact swing, as we had been taught.  He explained to us that muscle memory needed help; and that to get our bodies to do what our minds wanted, we had to put a club in our hands for sixty days in a row, and repeat the “right” technique.

Now, when I got home, I stuck to this little mantra pretty well.  But it was April, then May. I got distracted.  Twenty days later, and I was pretty sure I had no muscle memory left.  I had stopped practicing, and was working more, playing less.  And I was right.   The beauty of the swing I discovered in Solvang was gone by mid-summer.   

At first, I beat myself up.  “You can’t finish anything.”  “Would it have been so hard to do this for 60 days?”  “Look, you wasted that money!”

But an  interesting thing happened that year.  I fell in love with golf.  And, despite the fact that I wasn’t repeating the stroke, I still got better.  It’s a crazy “sport”, where you ride around in a cart and hit a little white ball.  It’s infuriating, and expensive, and only when I’m unemployed am I any good at it (because I have LOTS of time to practice).  But I’ve found, in the intervening nine years, that even though I wasn’t able to follow the rules of Golf School exactly – to practice for 60 days, to groove the memory, to have “expert” technique – that I’ve still maintained a love for the game. 

Why?  Because I had a foundation to work from.  I understood the mechanics of the sport.  And I discovered that when I did practice – even if it wasn’t daily – that I really liked being outside, and taking out some frustration on a little white ball, and sharing some laughs with some good friends.

The lesson I learned was even more important:  even if you’re not good at creating new habits, or sticking to the “rules” of a sport, doesn’t mean you should STOP playing.  And that lesson has been liberating.  Why?   Because I don’t force myself to be “perfect” at a given sport to play it.  I don’t require that I run 12 minute miles, or always hit a forehand ace.  I’m not afraid to be the slowest runner on a course, or to have to take an extra few minutes to get to the summit of a hike.  I give myself permission to be an imperfect – and diverse – athlete. 

And, just like that toddler you know who doesn’t have a favorite stuffed animal, I find that once I pick up a new sport, I don’t play it EVERY time I have an opportunity.  But I DO have the ABILITY to play it, if I want to.  And just that knowledge opens up many, many doors for me.  If I have a friend who doesn’t play racquetball, but does play golf, we can spend 5 hours outside on a Sunday, (okay, admittedly, riding) on our favorite course.  And when the Chicago weather suddenly blesses me with a sunny day, I throw on my bike gear and go for a long ride on the lakefront.   I get to set my activity to fit MY mood, and that’s pretty darned liberating.

So my thought for today is really just this:  don’t underestimate the power of learning something new, and trying a new sport – even if it’s just once.   Because what I think you’ll find is that, over time, you’ll return to that active endeavor when you need it. 

And you’ll find yourself becoming not just a runner, or a walker, or a golfer – but an athlete.   A Big Girl, or Big Guy, all-around, athlete. 

And we could all use more friends like that.

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