We’ve all felt it, even if you weren’t an athlete. That anxious feeling of desiring something so much that your emotions actually get in your own way. You’ve probably fallen for someone so hard that your own palpable desperation drove them away (At least I’ve heard that happens to people 😉  These feelings are so powerful. We all know it, and we’ve all felt it.

Like fire, strong desire can warm your house, or it can burn it down. Through nearly 20 years of chasing my baseball dream, I finally learned the art of desiring greatly, but playing calmly. As a boy, these desires were experienced as dreams, and the more you desire something, the more you tend to dream about it. So it’s safe to say I was fairly consumed with surreal fantasies of hitting the big homerun right at the critical moment, of winning the big game, and of one day running out onto a big league field, under the bright lights. These remained mostly exciting fantasies while I was young and untested, but as my athletic prowess and reputation grew, I also experienced sinking self doubt. It was the fear that I would let myself down. Fear that I would disappoint my dad, not to mention, friends, family, church, and even God…fear that I would be a nobody.

Now you have to understand something about me. I spent most of my young life walking the fine line between healthy boyhood longings, and a distorted love that completely connected my worth to my performance. The experience of seeing the pitch clearly, then feeling the tingle in my hands as the ball connected perfectly with my bat, and watching the white dot rocket over the outfield wall as the crowd roared…well, that was as close to heaven as I could fathom at 16.

The Christians among you could say this sounds like idolatry. Well, yes….to a degree it was. But just give the 16-year-old JSlay a break for now, because there’s something to be learned here.

The positive side of this was that my passionate desire became a deep reservoir of fuel I could draw from over the years. It kept me pushing through all the hard times—and there were so many!  Some of those included working through month-long slumps, pushing through the pain of another timed lap during conditioning at GA Tech, working through two shoulder surgeries, a back surgery, and every sprain and pulled muscle you can imagine. I once even had a tiny shard of broken glass embedded in the ball of my foot for TWO YEARS – WHILE PLAYING. At times, the physical pain was tremendous. Without this reservoir of desire these major setbacks that would have broken me, I am sure of it.

Jslay KneelingThe negative side was that I was so inconsistent. By the time I was leaving for college on a full ride to Georgia Tech, the scouting report on me was that I was a really talented hitter that would go from unnecessary slumps, to brief periods of brilliance. My game was a rollercoaster because of my unbridled emotions. My feelings toward baseball, and my place in it, were so huge, I often sabotaged myself. Once my big moment finally arrived and it was my turn at bat with the game on the line, I would find I couldn’t even breathe correctly. My legs would turn to rubber and my vision would blur. The coach would give signs to me as I stared past him. I’d dig into the batter’s box and 15 different scenarios would fly through my head, making me think fast, yet react slow. I was a mental amateur, and I stayed that way for far too long. I’d swing with all my might when, in reality, I had the talent to hit a bomb with just a flick of the wrists. After the third big swing and miss I would walk back to the dugout—sometimes so numb with emotion—that I’d have preferred to walk off a cliff rather than grab my glove and jog out to right field. This would usually last for 3-4 games before I’d finally stop caring so much and snap out of it—which became a mental paradox for me during those years.

The only way we turn pro, in sports or any other endeavor, is to understand how to make our desires work for us. We must learn how to keep time with the softer rhythm of our inner pendulum swinging back and forth, back and forth. From deep desire…(tick), to getting good sleep (tock), to pre-game prep…(tock), to in-game awareness…(tick), and the emotional fortitude to walk to the plate with confidence in the 9th inning when the game is on the line, and you’ve gotten no hits yet that day….(tock).

There’s nothing wrong with having strong desires. If you’ll let them, they can drive you further and sharpen your edge. We felt these feelings as children, and we recall it when we see young untested boys playing fearlessly against a stronger opponent, or going cliff diving without a care in the world. In fact, we would do well to let children’s nonchalance rub off on us more often. Here’s a big secret: Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, and Ken Griffey Jr, all heroes in their sport, never lost their big desires. They just learned the secret of harnessing their emotional fuel, so that they could live the dream while enjoying the moments.

Here’s the deal. At the end of the day, the dreams arising from our desires are usually mental pictures of OUTCOMES. Outcomes that in reality we have only minute control over. In baseball I could not control who the pitcher would be, what pitches he would throw, or where the ball went after I made contact. However I was in full control of my preparation, my attitude, breathing rate, and my calm-focused vision. As a high performance athlete, these are the things you actually learn to spend the most mental energy on. If this sounds simple, it is! However, when you are standing over a 10 foot putt to win the Masters for the first time, it might be the most difficult thing in the world. Any great athlete or achiever will know what I’m talking about.

As a mental amateur, I had several games where I went 0-4 after hitting 4 sweet line drives that happened to land in the outfielder’s glove and I felt like a failure. Does that actually make any sense? The result of that type of thinking usually caused me to try harder the next time, yet perform far worse for longer.

As a mental pro, I occasionally went 3 for 4 with two seeing eyed singles and a duck fart (see footnote below)[1], just barely floating over the infielder’s outstretched glove. I knew I had performed poorly, but had merely gotten lucky. The pro takes pride in the first performance scenario, and the amateur in the second. Sports, like life, involves quite a bit of luck from day to day, however, achieving our long held dreams are nearly always a result of the long game, which involves far less luck—and the good luck and bad luck typically even out over time.

Terrible slumps are not usually for a lack of practice or a technical flaw, but rather because we try to set the world on fire and make our dreams come true in every game. On a personal and teammate level, it’s actually rather selfish to be this way. I tried too hard because I often believed it was all about me, me, me.. and believe me, others feel this.

JSlay SwingingUltimately, we find over time that any fulfillment of our dreams is the result of our incremental behaviors, habits, and choices, repeated time and time again, with gradual improvements happening, that untrained eyes can’t see. This takes a quiet mind, clear vision, steady breathing, and trust in our talent and preparation rather than our momentary effort. By breaking your game up, figuratively speaking,  into the smallest slices, and focusing completely on each one, you can slow down and actually enjoy each moment. Each little moment becomes pleasurable-the cool of the evening grass when walking to the plate, the crunch of the dirt under the metal spikes, the measured breathing as the pitcher winds up, the taking of the first pitch—‚just off the outside corner, which sets your timing— and on and on…The big “hits” or achievements in life are just a result of the stillness you feel within the fog of battle. And they do come.

The game actually becomes more fun, not less. You begin to see the ball again, enjoy your team again, and become a joy to be around. It’s like an alcoholic who finally finds long term sobriety. He begins to experience so much more of life and wonders at the man who once only found pleasure in the bottle. This happens in sports and in life.

Whether it’s success in sports, overcoming addiction, building a business, changing culture, or healing from loss—most goals worthy of effort take a LONG time. This is difficult to remember in our age of immediate gratification, but when we begin to find joy in the small behavioral wins, moment by moment, and day after day, we then begin to do our best work, because we actually enjoy it more. And that my friends, is the recipe for harnessing your desire and achieving your dream.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?[g] 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

J-Slay Made in the USA

[1] Baseball Lingo:

Seeing-eyed single: A “seeing-eye single” is a softly or moderately struck ground ball that goes between infielders for a base hit.

Duck Fart: Yes, that’s what we called an embarrassingly weak fly ball, softly landing over the infielders head. It actually makes some sense, if you think about it for a second: The idea was that, thanks to its feathers, the flatulence of a duck would be pretty muffled and soft, much like a bloop single.