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Feeling Behind? Maybe You Need a New Perspective

All my life I've been behind everyone else.

It may come as a surprise to hear someone like me say this. Afterall, I was captain of a Division I college track team and I have a Ph.D. in particle physics. How is it possible that such a person could have spent his life playing catch up?

Scarcely a day goes by that I don't feel like the world is running away from me. Past achievements build some confidence, but they aren't the cure to all discomforts.

I've come to believe that I feel behind because all I see is the next milestone and the people who are still out in front of me.

It feels good to stop sometimes and look back to see how far I've come. With this perspective it's easy to feel like I'm the leader of the pack. But if I keep looking this way, then I'm not moving forward.

If you don't feel behind, then you might want to ask yourself if you're looking in the right direction.

Behind, All the Way to the Podium

For years I had been antipating the 8th grade because that's the first year when I could try out for the track team. I was a bouncy kid and liked jumping over things. I wanted to be a high jumper.

But what I found on that first day of practice was that you had to run to be part of the track team and running really hurt.

Mr. Mobley was an angry coach. As our giant mass of gray sweatsuits swarmed slowly through the hilly streets, I could hear his voice whipping us forward.

I found myself at the back of the group wheezing while a few superstars climbed the hills like racehorses. I was a remedial runner.

I felt very behind.

For weeks, all I could think about was quitting. Many did quit, but I couldn't imagine giving up so quickly on something I had wanted for years.

After six weeks, our basic training ended — thank you, God — and the workouts got easier as we began to specialize.

In spite of my natural bounciness, I struggled to learn the Fosbury flop and developed a mental block against landing on those old metal bars. I believe I cleared 4'6" that year (1.37 meters).

Several other new jumpers cleared higher heights. I felt behind as a runner and now as a jumper.

But even though I wasn't the best, I liked high jumping. It was a challenge and, in spite of the metal bar, less painful than running.

I joined the team again the following year and improved my personal best to 5'8" (1.73m) which tied the freshman record. Yet, I was still not the best on the team. Others consistently jumped 5'10" (1.78m) and I continually wondered why I couldn't manage the same.

By my senior year of high school, I was the only high jumper left from those I had jumped with three and four years earlier. By now I had improved my personal best to 6'4" (1.93m) and set the sophomore and junior records.

I was the best on my team and I won a few small meets. Still the bigger schools had kids who could jump higher than I could. I'm thinking especially of Brad from Blue Springs. He had jumped 6'8" (2.03m) several times. I couldn't imagine myself ever being able to jump that high. I wasn't even six feet tall and Brad was about five inches taller than I was.

Eventually, the state meet rolled around at the end of the season. I had jumped 6'6" (1.98m) a couple times that year, shattering the all-time school record. But Brad was still out there.

Kids I had never seen from all over the state showed up to compete. Some of them were stunning physical specimens. During warm ups, they would take three steps and scissor the bar at six feet.

On top of that, I was the shortest in the competition at just under six feet. Though I had worked all season hoping to reach the state meet, I now felt as though standing on the podium was beyond reach.

Nonetheless, I had become a true athlete that season with a strong mental game so I would make the best of it. Maybe I could jump a personal best at least.

I began my normal routine of short sprints and meditative stretching to stay warm and calm as I waited for my turn to jump.

I sailed over 6'0", 6'2" and 6'4" as expected. I could clear those heights in my sleep. I had great clearance on the last jump at 6'4" so it was shaping up to be a good day.

Yet nerves still had a hold on me.

At 6'6", my personal best, I faltered. I missed my first two attempts. That was bad for a few reasons. First, if I missed a 3rd time I was out of the competition. Second, several people had already cleared the height on their first attempt which means if I went out I wouldn't place in the top six. Finally, even if I did clear 6'6" (1.98m) on my third attempt, I was now at a disadvantage.

When two jumpers go out at the same height, the tie is broken by counting their misses at that height. If they are still tied, then their total misses are tallied and the one with the fewest gets the edge. The number of misses often determines the outcome of a competition.

Once again, I found myself behind trying to play catch up. Once again, it seemed, the rest of the world had passed me by. For all of my trying, I still lagged behind. For a moment I could see myself at the back of that gray pack of sweatsuited eigth graders heaving and wheezing their way up the big hill.

But I didn't let that thought take hold. My routines and experience that year had given me a certain mental toughness. I had been in dire situations before and more often than not, I had been able to summon the strength to meet the task. Still, I felt the uncertainty of previous years when I would usually falter under the pressure, when I didn't have that winning mindset.

Now, my last chance at the state meet and I had already faltered with two misses. It was not looking good.

My turn came and I had one shot to clear 6'6" and move on. I took my mark, breathed deeply, rocked gently, then began my approach. I attacked the curve, leaned into the plant leg and drove up with my arms and lead leg. I felt the pure sensation of a good take off. I felt my body rotating around the bar. My hips dropped. My feet lifted.

I did it. I was moving on.

Several jumpers were still ahead of me on misses and the bar was placed at 6'7" (2.01m), a height I had never cleared before.

One by one the jumpers made their attempts and none cleared the height, not even my arch-nemesis, Brad, from Blue Springs.

What was going on? Were they all choking? Or had they simply reached their limit?

My turn came. I toed my mark. I followed my routine. I began my run and attacked the take off. As I sailed over the bar my leg brushed it, but the bar stayed up.

I had cleared 6'7", a personal best, and put myself into the lead.

A couple other jumpers cleared 6'7", but I had them on misses. Brad went on to clear 6'8" which left me in second place. A proud finish.

Standing on the podium, I felt victorious. I had overcome the odds. I never gave up, and the mental toughness I had developed launched me from the back of the pack to near the front. I could hardly believe that I had bested some of those other athletes.

Winning at Writing

When it comes to writing, I once again feel behind. Several people will read this blog entry, but I look around the web and see blogs with 100K+ readers and wonder how I have a shot at competing. Maybe you feel the same way. Then I remember the story of a young high jumper who always felt behind. And I'm encouraged.

In the end, you may falter, you may feel intimidated, but it's about living up to your potential. So few people ever do that. Many people with more talent than you will never achieve what you do.

It is your courage that sets you apart, the courage to persevere even when the odds are stacked against you.

I have come to relish this position, of being the underdog and pushing forward.

As I write this, I'm back in eighth grade struggling to build my skill and mental toughness as a writer. There are many out in front of me leading the pack and I wonder how they do it.

No one would bet on me today. But someday they'll wish they had. One day they will be surprised.

Keep going, my fellow writer. Keep chugging along. The biggest difference between winners and losers is that the winners keep looking forward even if it means feeling like you're behind.

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