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Follow the Fear

Here's the last post in the series on the connection between improvisation practice and IRONMAN(tm) training. Seems like the right time to acknowledge my fear that there are probably very few people interested in both, let alone practicing both.


But I'm one of them. And that's enough. So. Despite my fear, I'm following through. It's important enough to me to organize what I came up with over the course of long training rides during an isolating pandemic. Am I afraid that nobody cares about the connection between improvisation and endurance? Yep. I'm even a tad worried that it might cost me coaching clients. Nobody wants to think of their coach as a loon. Nevertheless, I followed the fear into the unknown.


Which I learned from practicing improvisation and training for triathlons for years and years. In the immortal words of the incomparable Jeff Michalski, "You gotta learn to love the bomb."


IRONMAN(tm) & Improvisation OVERLAP

Superficially, they are as far apart as anything can be. Triathlon training asks for solitude while improvising requires cooperation. Triathlon training is physical and improvisation is mental. Triathlon performance can be distilled down to scientific principles, while improvisation is ultimately artistic. Objective vs subjective. Jocks vs Thespians.


Look a little deeper though and true practitioners recognize that the mental training for triathlon is just as critical as the physical and that the physical aspects of improvisation are in the service of the mental. Suddenly, they are slightly less far apart.


They both connect the mind to the body. They both ask that we remain fully present in the moment, despite distractions. Both adhere to the incontrovertible and unsentimental logic of if/then. Perhaps the most important similarity between the two is that, when practiced properly, they are both great ways for grown ups to have fun.


I'm not saying they completely overlap, I'm saying both practices help the practitioner improve performance in the other practice.


Overlap 1: Mind-Body connection

So whether we practice improvisation or train for triathlon or regularly do both "IM-Prov"--btw, does this read as "Eye-Em-Prov" like I read it?-- we're starting a conversation between physical capacities and mental capabilities.


By practicing that conversation, we improve the connection. By continually practicing, training, doing, thinking, acting, you can create a self-affirming loop that improves both.


My coaching philosophy is informed by practicing this positivity loop.

First do what is necessary. This is the minimum required to get started (btw, it might also simultaneously be our maximum capacity). For example, to run a 5k the first necessary step is just to put on shoes.


Then do what is possible. Staying with the 5k example, maybe the only possible thing we can do today is walk around the block. Next week it might only be possible to get around the block twice.


Soon we are doing the impossible. We sign up and finish the 5k in xx:xx time.


We have successfully leveraged the Mind-Body connection. Now we can continue the practice. Repeat as needed. The connection will improve, the physical challenges may increase and the mental game will change.


Overlap 2: Being Fully Present

When Tim Baltz, our team coach, started rehearsals for our iO Harold team, Neapolitan (back when iO Chicago was open), he reminded us to leave our day at the door. Whatever stresses, successes/failures, complaints/constraints or whatever other bullshit was happening "out there" in real life, should be left out of the process.


That didn't make it easy. Like so many things in life. Simple doesn't mean easy.


But it did make it easier to rehearse and play. Anything that prevented open and relaxed practice could safely be left for later.


Same with triathlon training.


The easiest way to accomplish this is simply (HA!) by breathing. Just focus on breathing. That's the base, the foundation. When I find myself thinking anything irrelevant to simply breathing in and out, I let myself be aware of the thought. Acknowledge it. And then get back to breathing.


When training is going well, one can become aware of how the body is working. Where is there tension to release? What muscles, joints, areas are working properly? Technically sound? Still relaxed? Still present in the moment?


Now, it's no coincidence that the people who helped guide iO Harold teams were called "coaches" (or that the performers were placed on "teams"). Again, I touched on this in a previous post on Del Close.


iO coaches were experienced, knowledgeable and perhaps most importantly, patient. They shared insights (often repeatedly) to help performers learn best practices, avoid common pitfalls, and reach their maximum possible potential.


So I hope you'll forgive me for taking this obvious opportunity to suggest that most triathletes also benefit in similar ways from the guidance of a good coach.


Overlap 3: If/Then

Improv coaches often suggested that improvisers ask themselves, "If x is true, then what else could be true?" This often lead to great comedic ideas.


Epic example is here in the JasonEntry scene. I could easily spend 2,000 words describing how if/then fuels that scene from start to finish but I'd rather you just contact me sometime so we can admire it together. IF you'd prefer a more well-known example, THEN consider any movies from the John Wick franchise. IF you kill his dog, THEN he will take revenge.


Similarly, in triathlon training IF we want something to be true (say, finish 140.6 distance), THEN I train for it. Conversely, IF I train for a full IRONMAN(tm), THEN I will be able to complete one.


IF you hire a triathlon coach, THEN you get good guidance toward your goals.


Overlap 4: Grown-Up Fun

I talk about this idea in a previous post, too.


Improvising is playing pretend. Triathlon training is swimming, biking and running. Simple. Yes yes, I said it before that simple doesn't always mean easy.


Grown ups like to make things complex. We like to take our practices seriously. We like analysis that requires deep consideration and our unique perspective. Sure there are some useful guidelines and principles to keep in mind. But really, it's all supposed to be fun. Hire a coach to do the structuring and analysis.


IM-Prov is just way easier than we make it. If you're not having fun, you're the asshole.

Finally, I need to acknowledge that this blog content really wanders pretty far from what the title may have promised. All I can say to that is... well... yes. Acknowledged. Sometimes we end up pretty far from where we started. Which isn't always a bad thing.


But if it helps, here's a quote commonly attributed to Bruce Lee:

In one summary run-on sentence then: Practicing IM-Prov fosters a healthy mind-body connection and being fully present because if you do, then you will have fun.

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