Sunday, 26 March 2017

Uncommon Compassion

I saw a video on YouTube the other day about a young girl who was wanting to learn how to skateboard.  The skate park was full of teenaged boys who were being loud and obnoxious which can be incredible intimidating for anyone let alone a younger elementary school girl.  She was all ready to go with her helmet, protective padding and of course her skateboard.  She was apprehensive at first to get on to the ramps and try it out until her mom encouraged her it was a community skatepark which meant she was allowed to use it just like everybody else.  

When she got on the park the boys where zooming past her from every angle.  Some of them weren’t showing any concern for her personal space.  One of the boys approached the girl thinking the worst the mother got ready with her best “she is just as entitled to use the park as you are.” But, then something surprising happened the teenaged boy instead asked if he could help her with a few things and when she said yes he gave her some pointers on how to fix her feet as well as her technique.  He stuck with it and even protected her from the other guys when they weren’t being considerate of her despite being ridiculed by some of his friends.  The little girl left with a very different experience than had he not been there which is so special. 

I couldn’t help but remember back to one of my experiences when I was going to college at NAIT in Edmonton.  It was the summer and I was training to be part of the women’s team again in the fall but I had a problem there wasn’t a lot of places where I could go to play pick-up. Many of my teammates were working or had moved back home for the summer.  As is the case for many female athletes you get used to playing against guys in order to have a good run and to get better.  I heard from some of the guys on the men’s team that there were runs at Common Wealth Stadium where the Edmonton Eskimos’ CFL Football team plays so I decided to check it out.  

I am not going to lie it was a bit of a rough crowd because at the time the locations around that stadium was intense.  It was also one of those runs that if you don’t win you are waiting hours to be able to play again.  It was also an atmosphere were guys would argue over whether something was a foul or not for what seemed like hours.  There were even blood stains on the floor from when some of these arguments got escalated.  At first I would just go and watch and shoot around on the side.  It wasn’t long before I started to be invited to play with some of the regulars when they were short a player.  I soon found out that many of the guys were part of the Edmonton Eskimos football team.  They told me that basketball was the first game they loved but many of them either stopped growing or had a more physical build that lead them to excel further at football.  

I remember one day I was at the gym and I wanted to get in on the game.  I was as usual the only woman in the gym.  I started asking around who had “Next” I was pointed to a white guys in his early or mid-thirties.  I asked him if his team was playing next and he said yes.  Then I asked him if he had a full team to which he responded No.  When I asked him if I could play on his team his response still sticks in this mind to this day.  He looked up from tying his shoes and said “Are you kidding? I’ll get killed if I have a girl on my team!” I just looked at him stunned and White Dude went back to tying his shoes.  

One of the CFL guys heard him say that to me and he immediately stepped in and said “You can be on my team! We Got Next after them”. It just so happened White Dude picked up a couple of guys from the team that lost right before his game so they ended up winning.  Now the team I was on was playing against him. I ended up scoring a couple of the baskets and we lost by 1 point in a very good close game.  As I made my way off the court White Dude came over to me and shook my hand at half court.  He looked me in the eye and said “Good game!”  I was a bit stunned that he was brave enough to come over like that after being so blatantly sexist a few moments earlier. I think I stayed around to watch a few more games and made sure to thank the football guy for stepping in and letting me play on his team. 

On my ride home I was so disappointed and hurt by White Dude but I was also so impressed by the football guy who stepped up and came to my defence.  I went home pulled out my sports magazines and made a collage of the male basketball players and then I pulled out all my fashion magazines and actually found female heads that matched the positions them men’s bodies were in and glued them over top. It was hard at that point in time to find actual pictures of female athletes.  I left that up on my wall for years as it was my way of making a statement that I was just as capable as the guys were.  It looked so powerful to me and helped me to not get caught up in someone else’s definition in terms of what I was capable of.  

It wasn’t long after that that whenever I would go to the Common Wealth other football players would invite me to be part of their team.  Some of them would downplay it and say “I’ll take the girl I guess” when we were making school yard picks so that they looked like I was getting the sympathy vote we would catch other unsuspecting guys off guard that didn’t know me.  One time I hit 2 threes on one guy before one of the guys on his team yelled at him and said “Man, D-Up there is a reason she is playing with guys!  She can play!” I still hit a couple more shots on him even when he was trying.  

I think it is so powerful when people help to create an environment for people who are outsiders to feel included.  I really liked in the skateboarding story when the boy asked if he could help the girl before just starting to help without getting permission.  Some people refer to this unsolicited advice as “mansplaining” because some men have a bad habit of thinking they need to fix things or women are doing without their permission. If you are going to provide help you should ask if the person wants it first.  It is much less intrusive than just giving it without knowing if it will be received. Plus, sometimes the recipient knows more than you so it isn’t necessary to explain.  

The last point I want to make is many times male teenagers get a bad reputation for acting like jerks especially when they are in a group together.  They are often loud, aggressive and act intimidating. I would love to know that some of my players and young men I work with take a step outside the box and surprise people with showing uncommon compassion. Just like the teenage boy did for the girl at the skate park and the football player did for me in the pickup game.  Compassion and care go a long way and give people the gift of support which helps others in marginalized groups feel a sense of power and a feeling they do belong.  Who knows if the little girl will continue to skateboard but I know I continued to feel comfortable in male dominated environments due to the kindness I was shown by those football guys.  You never know how a small act can spark someone else in a very big way or the long term impact it will have.   

Sunday, 19 March 2017

James Clear's Article - Grit: A Brief Guide on Building Mental Toughness

One of the places that nearly every single player can build is mental toughness.  I often refer to James Clear who writes amazing articles on finding personal greatness.  Here is what he has to say on this topic of Building Mental Toughness. 

Grit: A Brief Guide on Building Mental Toughness
by James Clear

If you want to become more mentally tough, then you'll want to read this article.

Grit is one of the hottest concepts in psychology right now. Researchers are talking about how athletes can develop more grit and mental toughness in their training, how teachers can foster greater grit in the classroom, and how individuals like you and I can build grit into our daily lives. In this short round up, I'm going to lay out a summary of what grit and mental toughness are and share a few of my best resources on the topic. 

What is Grit?
First, let's define grit. In technical terms, grit is the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals. Sometimes you will hear grit referred to as mental toughness. Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the leading researcher on grit, suggests that grit is a strong predictor of success and ability to reach one's goals.
Duckworth's research on grit has shown that…
West Point cadets who scored highest on the Grit Test were 60% more likely to succeed than their peers.
Ivy League undergraduate students who had more grit also had higher GPAs than their peers — even though they had lower SAT scores and weren’t as “smart.”
When comparing two people who are the same age but have different levels of education, grit (and not intelligence) more accurately predicts which one will be better educated.
Competitors in the National Spelling Bee outperform their peers not because of IQ, but because of their grit and commitment to more consistent practice.
If you'd like to dive into the details, I wrote about Duckworth's research here.

For a video explanation, you can watch this short TED Talk, which explains the concept of grit and how it helps foster mental toughness in our everyday lives.

How to Be Mentally Strong
As a quick primer, let me lay out three simple steps to develop grit and become more mentally strong.

Step 1: Define what grit or mental toughness means for you.
For you, it might be…
going one month without missing a workout
delivering your work ahead of schedule for two days in a row
calling one friend to catch up every Saturday this month
Whatever it is, be clear about what you’re going after.

Step 2: Build grit with small physical wins.
So often we think that grit is about how we respond to extreme situations, but what about everyday circumstances?
Mental toughness is like a muscle. It needs to be worked to grow and develop.
Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to just do nine. Choose to create when it would be easier to consume. Choose to ask the extra question when it would be easier to accept. Prove to yourself — in a thousand tiny ways — that you have enough guts to get in the ring and do battle with life.

Step 3: Build strong habits and stop depending on motivation.
Grit isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions over and over and over again.
Mentally tough people don’t have to be more courageous, more talented, or more intelligent — just more consistent.
Grit comes down to your habits. It’s about doing the things you know you’re supposed to do on a more consistent basis. It’s about your dedication to daily practice and your ability to stick to a schedule.

Examples of Grit
Mentally tough athletes are more consistent than others. They don’t miss workouts. They don’t miss assignments. They always have their teammates back.
Mentally tough leaders are more consistent than their peers. They have a clear goal that they work towards each day. They don’t let short–term profits, negative feedback, or hectic schedules prevent them from continuing the march towards their vision. They make a habit of building up the people around them — not just once, but over and over and over again.
Mentally tough artists, writers, and employees deliver on a more consistent basis than most. They work on a schedule, not just when they feel motivated. They approach their work like a pro, not an amateur. They do the most important thing first and don’t shirk responsibilities.

3 Articles on How I Develop Grit

If you'd like to see additional resources like the best books to read on grit and mental toughness as well as a complete list of the articles I have written on these topics, then check out the grit category page here

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Former Player Profile Mahershala Ali - Oscar Winner

This week's blog has to do with a young actor that you may have seen in movies like The Place Beyond the Pines, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Netflix series House of Cards.  Mahershala Ali just recently won an academy award for his role in the movie Moonlight.  The reason I decided to highlight him this week has to do with learning to deal with shifting directions in life.  So many times I hear young basketball players tell me how much they would like to play in the NBA.  Playing at that level is a very admirable goal but I speak from the heart when I say it isn't for everyone.  I think it is made to look much more glamorous than it is in reality.   I personally think there are many other worthwhile things to achieve depending on your individual goals.  Having a goal to play professionally is amazing but so is following the path of your particular life by applying the same passion to those pursuits that call you.

The article below was done written back on October 20, 2011 by the school where Mahershala Ali attended school at St. Mary's College in Moraga California.  
(  This is the same school where Patty Mills from the San Antonio Spurs and Matthew Dellavedova from the Milwaukee Bucks attended and played basketball as well.  Learning to listen to the path of your life and being brave enough to follow it is admirable in its own right.

Mahershala Ali ('96)


Name: Mahershala Ali.
I was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, and I went by Mahershala Gilmore while at SMC.  I changed my last name in 2000, and from 2001-2010 I was known professionally as Mahershalalhashbaz Ali. 
In the spirit of simplicity, I've presently settled on Mahershala Ali. I'd love for people to be able to say my name. Especially with the work I do. So, I'm ready to embrace this version of my name now. Easier for all!
Major: Mass Communication
Class of 1996.
Born in Oakland and raised in Hayward, Ca.
My fondest memory of the Communication Department would be the Oral Communication class, taught by the late Br. Ray Berta. You'd be hard pressed to find a student that didn't absolutely love him. He was a light, and passionate about his students. Brother Ray actually changed the trajectory of my life through his Oral communication course, which was truly just an acting class in disguise.
My fondest memory in my time at SMC was doing Spunk my senior year. Spunk is a George C. Wolfe play, which features a collection of Zora Neale Hurston writings. I felt a peace during that period of time that seemed to give my life a defining purpose. At 22 years old, I'd experienced some great highs and lows, and I think I really wanted to find an in . . . an opening, a beginning. I needed something that would help me understand myself better. Spunk as a process, as an experience, inspired me in a way that nothing had before.
This might sound strange, but I don't miss SMC. At all. I miss the professors. Victoria Trostle, Denise WitzigBrenda HillmanRebecca EngleBr. Ray Berta – they all had a profound effect on me and my well being. In a sense, I didn't know where I was, or what I was doing there . . .  I was a scared kid just trying to hold it all together. 
The first semester of my junior year, I was basically failing Victoria Trostle's documentary film class. My father had died a few days before school started. I had mentally checked out. I didn't really care, and didn't feel like caring. She called me in her office a few weeks before finals, and first, talked to me about what was going on in my life. We came to an understanding in that meeting. My father's death was an absolute tragedy, yes. But it wasn't going to be an excuse to fail. And then she walked me through the necessary steps to pass her class. I can't say I miss that, but I appreciate it to this day. 
I went to SMC on a basketball scholarship. But when I graduated, I no longer thought of myself as an athlete. Honestly, I kind of resented basketball by the end of my time there. I'd seen guys on the team get chewed up, spat out and I was personally threatened with being shipped off to the University of Denver. All in the name of wins and productivity. 
I experienced a very clear, palpable transformation while in college. I started writing and performing my poetry. I competed in poetry slams, and began to take my academics more seriously. I always took school seriously, but I think I did better in college because I started to understand how I learned, as well as the concept of "finishing" began to take root.  I can't say I retained much of the information from my classes, but I understand how I learn, and I understand beginning, middle and end, which in turn leads to finishing. I can't think of two tools more powerful or useful in the "real world."
"In a nutshell, I came to SMC wanting the fullest experience as a student athlete, and left wanting to experience life as an artist and well rounded person." 
My road after college was somewhat interesting. First, I knew I was taking a year off, and second, I knew I had to go back to school. Rebecca Engle, who directed Spunk, and was leading the theater program at SMC, had somehow managed to set up an audition for me with the California Shakespeare Festival, located in Orinda. Long story short, I made the cut as an apprentice, which meant I was grouped with other young actors, studying and pursuing the craft. It was an intense four months. The training was closer to my experience as an athlete than a student. At the end of the day you'd be exhausted, and then you'd have a show to do that night. I think I had an advantage in some ways. I'd done that for years as a student athlete.
Most of my peers had been acting for quite some time. Socially, I was a bit out of my element. They knew all the cool avant garde films, plays, writers. I had only read Shakespeare in pieces – a few monologues, some sonnets, but not a play in its entirety. I actually auditioned for The California Shakespeare Festival with two poems I'd written. And suddenly I'm on the main stage, with professional actors, playing Montjoy in their production of Henry V.  It was a great role for me at the time – enough for them to offer me a spot as a professional the following season. (Which never happened, because I was going back to school . . .)
My Grandmother had always told me to have three options. As I had gotten closer to graduating from SMC, I noticed she would say that more often. Cal Shakes had sort of fallen into my lap. Up until that point, I was looking at doing one of three things, grad school for creative writing, law school, or perhaps . . . just maybe . . . a graduate program for this acting thing. 
Cal Shakes was done at the end of that summer. It was 1996. I had a good, go-to, hookup job while at SMC. I could work on the ferryboats in San Francisco for almost $20 as hour, as a deckhand. But I decided against that, because I was worried I'd get comfortable, and get stuck. So, I took a job making minimum wage at The Gavin Report, a record industry magazine targeted at music insiders. I recorded spins, meaning I tallied how much a given record was played on the radio in a week – the absolute definition of boredom.  But I got a lot of free music and even met the Notorious B.I.G. the week he died. 
Again, I played basketball on full scholarship while at Saint Mary's, so the extent of my bills were probably gas, and my trusty pager.  I had done a few interviews before graduating that May, the traditional corporate entry-level positions, which are terrific if that speaks to you. That's part of the college experience, actually. Your family wants to see you grab that diploma on Saturday and walk into a great job on Monday. But that terrified me. I didn't feel suited for that.
The day I had become serious about grad school was the day Victoria Trostle, a professor from the Communication Department, handed me a card. It basically said that I needed to go further. I needed to be around other students/ actors, acting teachers that would push me. And I needed to think about getting into one of the best programs in the country. I still have that card. 
In February of ‘97, I auditioned for NYU's graduate acting program. The audition was at ACT in San Francisco. Yale and NYU were the best graduate acting programs in the country at that time. Yale received my application a day late . . .  and wrote me a letter saying they wouldn't be seeing me as a result of my tardiness. 
I did two monologues that day, York, from Henry VI, and a piece I had written myself, a poem of sorts. I was asked to stay, and do the pieces again for the legendary Zelda Finchandler. I distinctly remember her looking at her watch while I was performing. Damn. 
It had to have been an act of God, because I was invited to NYU in March for the Top 50.  50 students, hoping to be one of the final 18. And I got in. It was three gut-wrenching, soul-searching, tortured years of self expression and exploration. But I wouldn't trade it for the world. I can confidently say that I would have never gotten there if it weren't for the guidance and love I received from the professors at Saint Mary's College. 
Getting through the program was incredibly difficult. Three years, six days a week, and you're there a minimum of 12 hours a day (except Saturday – Saturday's usually a bit lighter). Voice, speech, yoga, Alexander technique, scene study, the list goes on. Oh yeah, and whatever play you're rehearsing at the time. 
I started to become more comfortable with myself, and own my individuality in a deeper way. New York forces you to do that. If you embrace it, it can really change your life. 
By the end of my second year, I was feeling pretty burnt out. I was seriously contemplating dropping out. It was so damn hard. It's not something I can really explain. That type of work takes a toll on you. Three of my classmates dropped out. Two in the first year. The expectations you put on yourself in that type of an environment can either make you or break you. I became so aware of my weaknesses, limitations, my vulnerability that it made me more conscious of my soul. And if I was going to take on the stories of other people, real or fictional, they needed to be infused with spirit as well. My search for a greater understanding of who I was, in connection to God, is probably what got me through that period. 
I finished NYU in May of 2000. I was really fortunate to walk out with an agent, and two jobs in hand. I was the lead in an indie film called Making Revolution, and that followed with the lead role in a play called The Great White Hope. A few months later, I booked a pilot and did the first season of Crossing Jordan.
I've been working professionally for 11 years. I've been in blockbuster films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Predators; I've done a number of TV shows, including The 4400Crossing Jordan, and Law and Order SVU, and I'm looking forward to seeing recent projects come into fruition. This summer (2011) I did a film with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes, called The Place Beyond The Pines. I think it's going to be an amazing film. I'm really proud to be a part of it.
I'm heading to Vancouver in a couple of days to do an episode of a new show called Alcatraz. It's an amazing, complicated, troubled character, which is both the good and the challenging aspect about the gig itself. As much as I've trained and worked, auditioned and rehearsed, at the end of the day, I don't know what the heck I'm doing. So please, wish me luck. 
My life is first and foremost about balance. I deal with trying to balance the water of spirituality with the vessel of religion. I find, that if I begin there, if I exist in that space, things fall into place in an organic manner. I'm healthier on that path. 
And funny enough, now I'm a sports nut. Way more than in college. I don't care to play basketball anymore, but I love to watch it. If my TV is on, it's usually on ESPN. 
And it brings me great joy seeing the success of the Gaels under coach Randy Bennett. I met coach Bennett in the spring of 1991, in my junior year of high school. He was an assistant coach at the University of San Diego, and the first to offer me a scholarship. He was genuinely disappointed when I turned down USD for SMC. He was the hardest call to make upon coming to that decision. I loved that guy! I'm actually glad he wasn't at Saint Mary's when I was there, because I probably would have had a great experience as a player and never discovered acting. 
It's difficult to describe what kind of person I am, because I'm conscious of how much I've changed over the years. SMC gave me structure for the areas where I've struggled with discipline, and freedom where I've struggled with rigidity. And to this day, I have to tell myself that I'm a student. Things go better for me with that approach. When I remind myself that I know very little, I learn so much more. 
The best advice I could give to any student would simply be to listen. Listen for your life signs. And respond accordingly. Intuition is a muscle, and it's developed in the manner of call and response.