Fork in the Road

by Cheryl McLaughlin

It was one of those third-shift nights.  I was done with the busyness of the day and the silence of nighttime surrounded me like a huge bubble—that safe place where I could finally hear myself think—when I sat down to write yet another practical, bulleted how-to article, “The 7 Keys to Managing Competitive Stress.” But this wasn’t just any article. It was an opportunity, for I was one of the few professionals—and the only woman—asked to be a contributor to The Sport Psychology Manual for Coaches, a publication which would be used to train coaches throughout the country. Once again, I was up against a should have been done yesterday deadline and I was praying for clarity.

What are the 7 things coaches need to know to help their athletes manage competitive stress? I asked as I placed the numbers 1 to 10 down the page. (It’s helpful to brainstorm a few extra for good measure.) I set the alarm on my ACT contact management software to beep me in five minutes and jotted down notes. Short, timed writes, I’ve learned, help me write fast and freely.

When the tone rang, I stopped, sat back in my chair and looked at my list. Fifteen pretty good ideas.

Not bad. The challenge was to choose the seven best and put them in order.

I placed a 1, 2, or 3 beside each idea. 1 would be the most important, 3 the least. I was hoping for seven 1’s or a combination of 1’s and 2’s, though in reality it is never that easy. But this time, I was lucky. Five 1’s emerged and two 2’s. Perfect.

I set my ACT again for five minutes and asked myself the key question for Point #1. What are three things coaches should know about competitive stress? I scribbled down notes as if taking dictation. (Have you noticed how much easier it is to write when you’re responding to a question?)  I continued this process for the other six points. Within an hour I had a detailed outline.

Writing these articles had become second nature to me, as they are a staple in the game of success in the professions of both sports and business.. You write articles that people can scan easily; you highlight the key points and use sidebars to provide essential information in as few words as possible for those who don’t have the time or the desire to read.

I looked at my notes. The information was clear enough. The part I struggled with was getting started. That damned first line. Yes, I know you shouldn’t start there, but I’m always listening for that launching pad for the piece.

But this night when I sat forward to bring my fingers to the keyboard, I was like that wiggly child who drives teachers crazy—shifting in my seat from cheek to cheek, my upper body writhing as if I was wearing an itchy wool sweater, and my knees bobbing, sometimes together sometimes alternately—pulsating. I know I don’t sit well, but this restlessness was making me crazy

I leaned forward again to type, opting not to start with that dreaded first line.

My brain felt cloudy, as if filled with mushy cotton balls. What I really want to say is, I typed to get started. My fingers responded stiffly, jerkily as if they were translating barely perceptible Morse code messages from my brain.  I write best with my eyes closed, when I can feel what I want to say and my fingers flow—just like when my flute seems to sing the song in my soul. But this night as I focused on what I should say—on what I needed to say—a piercing pain in my left eye and pressure like a vise gripped my brain and made it impossible for me to think clearly, let alone write. This shouldn’t be that hard!

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply into my belly, held my breath for as long as possible and exhaled slowly to the count of eight—a tool to quiet my overactive, left, logical mind that can think too much and kill the performer.

YOU MUST LEARN TO WRITE DIFFERENTLY. It was that deep voice from the volcanic underbelly of my soul. I’ve heard it before, but this time I was shaky. What does that mean?

I closed my eyes again, taking another deep breath, hoping for an image to come up on my mind’s movie screen. A curvy, white Casper-like presence with a cherubic face smiled at me as she squeezed her way out of a nearly closed jail-like box, and the meaning became clear: the curves of my artist’s soul must be freed from that how-to bulleted box.

I need to go write stories.

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