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What Slacklining Taught Me About Goals And Discipline

I went through a hipster/hippie phase at the end of high school. I was always a pretty outdoorsy kid, spending a lot of time hiking, camping, and just being outside in general. I contribute a lot of this to my ability to be a fairly well rounded (though never a true standout) athlete. So it was of no odd coincidence or happenstance how the summer between my Sophomore and Junior year of high school, while at a wilderness boys camp, I learned to slackline.

A photo from the summer I spent hours learning to slackline (circa 2010)

If you don't know what slacklining is, it's a weird invention which I believe originated in the rock climbing world. You anchor climbing webbing or a strap between two solid objects (usually trees) and tighten it as much as you can until it makes a tight rope with a little extra slack to it. These days, you can buy fancy setups online which have ratchet straps and are easy to setup, and are usually 1.5-2inches wide. When I learned, we didn't have such convenience, and rigged 1 inch nylon tubular webbing between two trees with some carabiners and some friction science to keep it taught. We spent hours learning that summer, and while I no longer have a slackline setup of my own, the lessons I learned about goal setting and discipline have carried on since.

With slacklining, and in motivation in the gym, you have to keep your eyes aimed at the anchor point in order to not fall off the line.

When you learn to slackline, you have to learn a crucial lesson: don't look at your feet. To stay on the line, you have to focus on the anchor point, or where the line meets the tree. The closer you look to your feet, the more your balance quivers and the line starts to bend side to side, eventually casting you off to the ground beneath it. In the gym, this is not much different from what you have to have in order to make sustainable progress. Your goals are your anchor point, and the trajectory towards it can often be shaky. The mistake most people make in slacklining and in the gym, is looking down at where they are right now. They lose focus on the end, and look down at their feet; they start to look at their current state. Things become shaky, and if you don't reorient your vision at the anchor point, you fall off. This applies to the gym so eloquently, as the moment you start to deviate your vision from what anchored the journey in the first place, the harder it becomes to keep moving forward.

In slacklining, and the gym, the hardest part is the middle of the journey. It's easy to start and easy to finish, but the distance in-between is where most people lose it.

When you're walking a 30-40 foot span on a 1 inch wide piece of webbing, you feel like your fighting for dear life to stay on (even when the drop is all of two feet). For almost everyone, the easiest part of walking on a slackline is the first five feet, and the last five feet. The distance in-between is the hardest part. The line shakes more, has more give, and you start to get more fatigued as you strain to keep balance. This is just like the gym. We see it so often at the beginning of the year as people come with their resolutions. But six weeks later they're gone. They've gone past the initial step, but once they hit the middle part of the journey they fall off. The path got shaky, and they start focusing on where they are and not where they're going. They look down, and the road gets even shakier. They get off the line because it's too hard.

This is where I see so many, including myself at times, fall away when it comes to training. They see an initial dip in the number on the scale, the weight on the bar shoots up, and then they start to have clothes fit better. For athletes, their sprint times may drop, vertical jump increase, or they may find themselves with a few quickly improved metrics like exit velocity off a bat increased. But then there's a middle part of the journey. Where habits have to be maintained and continually built. Life starts happening and the path becomes shakier. Maybe a set back happens. Something takes the focus off the anchor point; the gaze drops from the anchor point to your current state. And you fall off.

Now, falling off isn't a death sentence. When you learn to slackline, you often hang the line about 30 inches off the ground. The same thing with your training journey and goals. You don't anchor the path to something completely unrealistic. You can always get back on the line. Sometimes you can do it right where you fell off at, or sometimes we take a step back to a more stable point in the journey. You work at it, and it more easily takes off to build a more sustainable path. The process doesn't have to be over. You just have to get back on the path, and refix your gaze on the end goal. And the more you do so, the closer you'll move towards it, and the easier the path becomes.

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