Writing through that Hangnail

Why Writers Should be More Like Athletes


Of all the people I know, I’m the one least engaged in sports. I don’t follow any activity that involves hitting a ball with a stick-like apparatus. I never go to sporting events, professional or otherwise, or even watch the Olympics on TV. If I thought hard, I might be able to come up with the name of three or four famous athletes, but I don’t know the difference between one team and the next. I barely know the difference between one sport and the next.

But my lack of engagement in sports doesn’t mean I don’t admire the people who do them. In fact, I’m awed by the feats of strength, precision, and endurance that athletes perform. Who would imagine that a human being could throw a baseball over 100 m.p.h.? Or run more than 26 miles in 2 hours? Or perform a dazzling triple axel and land, perfectly balanced, on a blade less than a quarter inch wide? How much talent does that take? And, more importantly, how much discipline?

That’s where writing comes in. Writers, I believe, could learn a lot from the discipline of athletes. If we could all manage even a weak imitation of the work ethic and dedication it takes to excel at sports, imagine what we could do.

For one thing, athletes do not procrastinate. If you are trying to become an Olympic skater or a pro golfer, you simply can’t say, “I think I’ll sleep in today. Tomorrow, I’ll work twice as hard.” Training your body just doesn’t work that way. You can’t make up for lost days — you simply lose them.

Procrastination can be just as deadly to writers. If you want to take your talent as far as it can go, you have to work — not just when you feel like it, but whenever you can. Miss practice today and chances are you won’t make up for it tomorrow, or ever. You will simply have one less opportunity in life to make your writing shine.

Athletes do not say, “I just can’t focus right now. Think I’ll have a drink.” Writers do. Often. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard my coaching clients, my students, and, for that matter, myself say, “I couldn’t write today. I just wasn’t into it.” It’s hard to imagine such an excuse coming from someone trying to make it in the majors. Even a good high school athlete knows better. That’s because athletes have figured out something that many writers don’t get: Focus isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you do.

Athletes work through pain. Many writers stop writing at the first yawn. “I’m just so exhausted,” we whine. “I’ve got a headache. My feet are itchy. I think I’m getting carpal tunnel syndrome. OH MY GOD: IS THAT A HANGNAIL?” It’s hard to imagine a gymnast complaining that her butt’s getting tired from so much sitting.

Giving yourself a day off because you’ve got the flu is one thing — a conscientious athlete does that, too. But we writers should do reality checks whenever we consider taking a sick day. Is our discomfort enough to justify missing a whole day (or hour) of writing? Is it sickness we’re suffering from, or laziness? Are we really ill, or just freaked out? It’s surprisingly easy to convince yourself you’re not feeling well when your only ailment is the blank page.

Of course, most of us are operating on a less competitive level than that 100-mph fastball- throwing pitcher I mentioned earlier. We’re not trying to win gold medals. We’re just trying to get a poem published. But we’re still hoping for success in a career that makes mincemeat of most people’s dreams. We have a whole world of editors, publishers, and readers out there all ready to tell us we’re not good enough. The absolute best hedge against all that rejection is to be good enough. And one way to do that — the only way, actually — is to work more like athletes and less like, well, writers.