Your Center of Gravity

Your center of gravity. It gets higher as you get older. Not necessarily because you grow taller, but because you grow stagnant. That made absolutely no sense, but I’ll try to explain. I have been experiencing this for over a decade.

At least one child a day in my PE class gets hurt. Nothing too badly. A trip here and they land on a knee. Someone may get tagged too hard. Others may just have a cramp. What I love is that most of these injuries are because students give 110%. Not because I am a good teacher, but simply because of the nature of the class. We play. And kids play hard at the elementary level. It’s as though they are doing the work for me. I’m grateful to have the best job on the planet. 20+ self-starters, six times a day, for 45 minutes, five times a week. It’s a success story every day. Imagine if I had a business with employees like that!

Not too many years ago, I reluctantly started asking myself why kids are so resilient? What is preventing them from serious injury? Each year, my first unit is gymnastics. The potential for injury can be high depending on the skill or activity, the dynamics of the class, or having a truly fearless child. No matter how much you try to protect kids, or try explaining how dangerous activities can be, sometimes it seems like these heeds are almost a challenge for certain students. Some kids are simply natural dissenters. I have no problem with that, I love the independent thinking and the attitude of “question everything.” Sometimes I think that’s stifled all too often in a child’s life because of our laziness, finding it easier to try and contain this creative energy rather than groom it once set free. I’ve been teaching long enough that I know that these are just natural accidents. Kids aren’t trying to be defiant; they’re trying to break free. Explore. It’s an assumption of risk in life. One they are willing to take every single day without hesitation. And it seems we are hell bent on denying them this instinctive tendency. But when you play hard you sometimes fall hard. What I couldn’t wrap my head around was that most kids simply bounce. Hence my tendency to stifle their excited exploration and curiosity of what their bodies are capable of. Some of these audacious practitioners do end up at the nurse’s office and may come back with an instant goose egg with an ice pack,  or a bruise, or an abrasion with a blanket of band aids (because they do possess magical healing powers), but almost all will not be held down by the weight of the ice or the glue of the band aids. Within minutes of crossing through the threshold of the gym doors, they continue playing as if nothing happened. Did it hurt? I’m sure that it did! Kids are so focused on playing hard, they don’t care. The pain doesn’t hurt. Kids are also elastic. Not everything is truly formed yet in their bodies including their bones. This elasticity must be evolutionary by nature or kids would be pieces of a broken jigsaw puzzle throughout their childhood. Is that an excuse to be hazardous in my teachings? No way. But I do know that kids are quite pliable and don’t mind testing those limits. I must find the balance of curiosity and safety.

But… what I also realized is that their center of gravity is low. For all my years of teaching in the classroom and coaching outside the classroom, I have stressed that your center of gravity is very important for balance. And if you are balanced, you are strong. If you are balanced, you are fast. If you are balanced, you are resilient. When your center of gravity is at the perfect height from the ground below you, yes, you still fall, but not as far. You still fall, but not as hard. Kids’ center of gravity is naturally low because of their height, but the thing is, it’s not about height anymore. We lose sense of that center of gravity as we get older. We lose that drive to play, to test our limits. We begin to form a bubble of perceived danger.

I’ve always considered myself a very immature adult. Everyone from my wife, to my kids, my parents, and of course, my friend(s) can vouch for this. In my defense, I think it has served me… almost well (50.1% of the time), and other times, it knocks me off my feet. Either way, I would say up until my late twenties, my center of gravity stayed low. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Starting in my 30’s, I had lost it.

I stopped being playful (but stayed immature nonetheless). I stopped adolescent physical behavior. I was trying to “grow up.” The angles within my joints along with the distances between my synapses started opening. There was no more need to be explosive off the ground. To squat or jump high. Lateral shuffling was for basketball defense, not golf. Basic playful movements were now beneath me. Basic ranges of motion had retired with my mentality. Since the mind and body are built around efficiency for survival, my mind had become rigid and my body stiff. My mind lost its range of motion.

Don’t think for one second that range of motion is all physical. Where do you think your range of motion originates? From your brain. The body follows the mind. Reservation. Hesitation. Doubt. Fear. These split-second moments add up over time. They widen the gap between the ground of our perception and our center of gravity. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits talks about the 1 Percent Rule and its application to time:

“The 1 Percent Rule states that over time the majority of the rewards in a given field will accumulate to the people, teams, and organizations that maintain a 1 percent advantage over the alternatives. You don’t need to be twice as good to get twice the results. You just need to be slightly better.

It’s a process of accumulative advantage.”

So, you see, I wasn’t maintaining my advantage over my own mind. I was slowly giving it away to comfort. No, laziness. And that 1% giveaway for over a decade knocked me down. But now, there’s no nurse to visit. No band aid to instantly heal my wounds. No pliability in my bones. Terra firma comes at me quick and hard now.

Karl Rhonke, well known for being the father of Adventure Education (Formerly known as Project Adventure), tells us, “People are at risk when they learn. This risk may be physical, social, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual in nature.” Risk is danger. Whether perceived or real, this danger sharpens the focus. Mine focus got blurry. My center of gravity was becoming so high that I was afraid to do anything. The lack of risk taking was becoming so habitual that it started to make me rigid. I was alive but becoming filled with rigor mortis mentally, physically, and spiritually. It was a paralyzing stiffness that kept me on the straight and narrow, a path that had no destination. A path with no scenery. A path with walls. I was avoiding adversity.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was an awakening of sorts for me. First, I couldn’t even kneel. Getting up off the floor quickly felt like what a knight in armor must’ve struggled with if they hit the ground. The lack of range of motion in my head held me back from learning. Fear of my partners held me back from trying. Even with mats under my feet, the height of my center of gravity was convincing my mind that what I was doing wasn’t in my best interests. This fragility holds me back all the time. I’m scared to go hard. I’m scared to move quickly. I’m scared that I won’t find strength. It was the first time in my athletic life that I didn’t attack a sport with aggression. I don’t mean with malice; I mean with no reservation. My center of gravity was too high. I had lost my nerve. Now that I think of it, I lost it a long time ago. When I think back, I remember a time I was at a friend’s bachelor party. It was a weekend in north central Pennsylvania. Part of the fun was going mountain biking. I had been out on the trails a few times before, but nothing technical. This experience wasn’t technical, and it happened to be on a trail that I had been on before. I was with a handful of guys who were all in my age bracket. Once we set out, it was obvious that I was the outlier. My uniqueness was my lack of… well you get the picture. It was an eye-opening experience for me when I was five minutes behind everyone after maybe a mile of trails. My relic of a bike felt as though it was 10 feet off the ground. Everyone else in front of me attacked the terrain without hesitation. My whole ride was hesitation. That was my downfall. Hesitation. Thinking too much. Worrying. What if? I’m not saying I should’ve thrown caution to the wind; self-preservation is important. My problem was every time I saw an obstacle, I hesitated in my mind on how to negotiate it. Imagine a soccer player waiting for the ball to hit them in the head instead of attacking the ball with their head? They’d be jarred for a bit. Or a football player standing flat-footed thinking they are going to be able to block or run through the line. The inertia is stagnant. You will lose. I stopped attacking life.

Recently, I started lifting. It’s been almost 20 years since the last time I moved some weight. It was a shock how high my center of gravity really was. This of course was in the physical sense because of the missing neuromuscular sense. My muscles had no idea how to fire in the proper order to move a minimum amount of weight. Use it or lose it. Again, the body follows the mind. I was benching as much as I was squatting. Think about that. I could push with untrained arms, as much as my TRAINED legs could. I walk every day. Stand out of a chair. Ride my bike. Stand still even. All things that carry my 185-pound (give or take a couple…) frame all over the place. And I can only lift as much as my arms that couldn’t even bang out 20 push ups right now. My functional strength is dissipating. All because my functional mentality is getting soft. This lack of pressure on my center of gravity is allowing it to rise. My balance is becoming offset.

Use it or lose it. It is true. I never thought that I wouldn’t be able to perform certain tasks anymore. My center of gravity, a fragile helium balloon, rising, only to be eventually pulled down. Not because of strength, but because it popped, forced out of the air to plummet to the ground. That’s too low. That’s not balanced. As a physical education teacher, I have always considered myself active. I need to move every day in class. I need to be able to demonstrate certain skills. But these skills were individually done. There wasn’t much of a dynamic nature to them. Nothing chained together. Nothing complex. Pass a ball here. One handstand against the wall there. Nothing in combination anymore. Nothing moving in one direction and changing to another. Everything at the same level. Stagnant. And so that became my being. I couldn’t dribble a basketball from one spot to another, or cross the ball over quickly, or pull up short to shoot. I could only dribble while walking. Barely able to show kids a layup. There is no more three step approach to jump and spike a volleyball. Or even just jumping in place to block one. At the elementary level! The roads on the map of my mind for these movements are slowly becoming pothole filled and crumbling. My neuromuscular coordination is a path laden with weeds. It’s a depressing transition from paths blazed and paved from years ago that had become as big as interstate highways, to now a failing infrastructure. The budget for repair is up to my will.

I was just talking to a friend this morning on a bike ride about how jealous I was of his impromptu trip to bag a high peak in the Adirondacks. I shamefully (ego, that’ll be another discussion) told him that I can’t hike anymore because of my knees. Walking downhill is excruciating. Perception is reality. And the reality is, I don’t hike anymore! It wasn’t because of my knees, it’s because I lost the drive to hike. Sure, I walk downhill from time to time and it hurts, but it’s something that I don’t ever practice. Something that I stopped training. That certain angle in my knees and the muscles used at that angle had atrophied with my will. I gave up as soon as the arthritis challenged me. My mind lost its nerve. Its edge. It is turning into a dull blade. As anyone who cooks can tell you, a dull blade is actually more dangerous than a sharp blade. The dulling of my mind is becoming a danger to my being. I need to sharpen that edge.

It takes effort. A plan. Discipline. A desired outcome. It takes paying attention to the little things you avoid on a consistent basis. I need to keep focusing on the flexion of my knee. The rotation of my shoulders. The rotation of my head. The folding of my torso. The sharpness of my mind. I need to go through and remove the weeds in my paths. Mow them down. Plow the unfertile earth beneath the useless growth. Repave the roads. No. Cement the roads on the map of my mind. If nothing else I have learned in this life, I have at least learned that the mind will find a way. If I want it to. Sharpen the blade that is my will. And cut down my center. They are one in the same. If our age can grow in number, why can’t our mind grow in creation? The body follows the mind.

Balance means you’re getting everything done in life that you should be. Strength can be a metaphor for persevering through all these things. You’re not lowering your standards by lowering your sense of gravity, you’re becoming more balanced and stronger as a human being traveling through your life. Maria Popova recently wrote that “…remembering that humility comes from humilis – Latin for low, of the Earth.” Other defining words from this root are low, lowly, small, slight, shallow… adjectives that describe something that is lower to the ground. Being lower. Having a lower center of gravity means to be humble. Knowing this, we must constantly be in the pursuit of improvement. That we need to understand we know nothing. That we cannot be satisfied with our stagnation. That we must always be looking to improve. To seek balance in life. Balance is strength and speed of mind and body by the lowering of our center of gravity through the constant pounding from our search for improvement. Freud said, “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” Let’s go struggle. Because we should’ve never stopped.

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