Ten Things You Can’t Control, so Can Quit Worrying About
The meme above has been doing the rounds on Twitter over the past few months.
Players are often advised by coaches to ‘control the controllables,’ a phrase that often gets them looking in the wrong direction. I posted the following as a counter argument.
10 things ‘you’ (a human being) can’t control, so can stop worrying about
- Your #attitude
- Your thinking
- Your #mindset
- Your #motivation
- Your passion
- Your body language
- Your coachability
- Your energy levels
- Your behaviour
- Your #focus
Just play, have fun, ❤ the game
The conversation that ensued has been thoughtful and instructive. (You can find it here.)
Some of the questions have been highly relevant in clarifying my own thoughts and the way I communicate them.
With hindsight, I have added the words ‘human being’ in parenthesis, to place the word ‘you’ in context. The reason for doing this will become clear later in the article.
The premise of the post was not to start a debate about what whether or not we can control the controllables, and if so, what attributes or behaviours are or aren’t controllable, coachable or desirable.
It was intended to point to the true nature of who or what might or might not be in control of thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and therefore to point out the hidden flaws inherent in the original meme.
There is a widespread misunderstanding about who or what are we referring when we say ‘I’ or ‘I’ am’?
Or from a third party perspective, to what we mean when we say ‘you’ or ‘a human being’.
This misunderstanding is at the source of much that coaches and players are struggling against on a daily basis.
I’m sure the original meme was an innocent attempt to help coaches help players ‘control the controllables’ as a way of mitigating insecure and anxious feelings.
But unfortunately, it will have the opposite effect due to the way it is being interpreted.
This article will hopefully explain why.
Are ‘You’ Your Body?
“You are not your job.
You are not how much money you have in the bank.
You are not the car you drive.
You are not the content of your wallet.
You are not your f***ing khakis.”
Tyler Durden. (from the film ‘Fight Club’.)
When most people say the words ‘I’, or ‘I am’, they believe they are referring to the person they see in the mirror. The main character in the story of their lives. The body and mind that memory make us feel are so familiar.
But is that what they really mean?
If you had an accident and lost a finger or a toe, would you be any less ‘you’? If you indulged over Christmas or on holiday and put on a few pounds, would that make you more ‘you’ than you currently are? When you have a haircut, or trim your nails, do you mourn the departure of a little bit of ‘you’?
If the answer is no, that would suggest that ‘I’ or ‘I am’ is not referring to your body.
You refer yourself to ‘having’ a body, not ‘being’ a body. Your body is referenced in the same ontological category as your car, or your house.
Again, this suggests that who you really are, your essence, what you call ‘I’ or what someone else would call ‘you’ is not physical. This isn’t to deny the body, to dismiss it. But is your body what is essentially you? Your body is known by something. You are aware of it.
So, what comes first, the knowing or the known?
Are ‘You’ Your Mind?
If the words ‘I am’ are not referring to an entity made from flesh and blood – from matter – what is the true nature of ‘I’ or ‘You’ (if referred to by a third party).
What is a ‘human being’? Could it be your ‘mind’ or ‘ego’? The collection of thoughts, memories, labels, possessions and beliefs which fit ‘you’ into your worldview? Could this be what we are advising to try to control the controllables?
Is your mind a controllable? If so, who or what would it be controlled by?
Let’s conduct a little thought experiment:
If you stripped away everything that belongs to you but isn’t you: Everything you know. All your memories and imaginings, thoughts and feelings. All the labels, would you still refer to what remained using the words ‘I am’?
Would there not still be a sense of being? Of is-ness, of existence? A sense of who you are that has been the same for your whole life?
You were referring to the same knowing of being when you were five years old, ten years old, when you were 25 years old and today. You will still say ‘I am’ when you are 90.
But the body and the mind to which you refer will be very different from the one you were referencing at five.
Is who you really are that which is always changing, something that comes and goes? Or that which stays the same? Something constant, permanent, consistent? If the answer is the latter, that would suggest that who you really are is not ‘the story of you’.
You are not the ‘egoic self’. The thoughts, feelings, memories and beliefs which make up your perceived identity. ‘You’ are something else.
Who Are You?
So, if you are not your body, and you aren’t your mind, who are you?
Well. Do you know your body? Are you aware of it? Do you know your ‘mind’? Are you aware of the stream of thoughts, perceptions and beliefs from which it is comprised? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then you can say with some confidence that who ‘you’ really are is some form of awareness.
A form of knowing. You are ‘what knows’.
When I say ‘I am Sam,’ what I am referring to is the knowing of the bodily perceptions and sensations and the thoughts and feelings of Sam.
But I am not those things.
They are known by what I refer to as ‘I’ or ‘Sam’. The body and mind are not what is aware of them.
This has profound implications when it comes to the assumption that ‘you’, as in the body and the mind, is what is in control of your thoughts, feelings, attitude and behaviour. Yet this is the premise from which the advice to ‘control the controllables’ arises.
How can an entity which itself is comprised of thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions, be the primary source of other thoughts, feelings sensations and perceptions, and therefore be somehow ‘in control’ of them?
Where did the original mentations come from? What was their source? Wouldn’t that be the original ground of ‘control’ or choosing?
If however, if that which we refer to as ‘I am’ is simple knowing, awareness, or consciousness, this question does not exist.
We are just left with knowing. A neutral space within which experience occurs.
This is what we call ‘I’. This space just is.
It doesn’t choose or have control of the experience that takes place within it, any more than the space within the room you are sat in, chooses who enters or leaves, or chooses the activity that takes place.
It just remains as pure presence.
That which we refer to as ‘I’, the basic knowing of our experience, doesn’t choose the thoughts that arise within it.
It doesn’t control when they come or when they go. It doesn’t choose the feelings, the attitude, the energy, the behaviour, the effort or the body language. It is aware of all of those things, but it allows them to be as they are, when they are.
It does not have agency. It does not control. There are no controllables.
All experience just plays out within it.
The Clown That Takes the Bow
So, from this simple thought experiment, a brief but important enquiry into who you really are, you may have uncovered something both surprising and perhaps alarming.
‘You’ are not who you believed yourself to be.
You are not your body.
You are not your mind.
You are not your attitude.
You are not your past.
You are not your future.
You are not the labels you have attached to yourself, or that the world has attached to you. We look for a body, and we find an amalgamation of feelings, sensations and perceptions. We look for a mind, and we find a collection of thoughts, memories, beliefs and imaginings.
Take a moment now. Look for a chooser, a controller, a doer or a decider.
Can you find one?
Or do you just have an experience, which is followed by a thought which represents a chooser, or a doer, who claims ownership of the deed and fortifies itself in the process?
This is the illusion, the myth of ‘control the controllables’.
The illusion of ‘You’ is like the clown that takes the bow after the opera singers have left the stage. It wasn’t present during the performance or the experience, but it appears afterwards to take the credit, or apportion the blame.
In fact, the real ‘You’ is what comes before all experience. It’s the stage on which the performance takes place. When you say the words ‘I’ or ‘I am’, you are referring to the pure, present, knowing awareness of experience, prior to that experience.
The implications of this new knowledge are profound for coaches, and for those that they are coaching. Especially if you are working with young people.
In my experience, children are much more in tune with who they really are than adults. They don’t have the layers of belief and conditioning built up over years of living in a society and culture based in materialism.
If you have young children, spend a few minutes watching them. They live as pure presence, pure awareness. Experiences come and go but they don’t hang on to them. This is why they are more present, less controlled, more creative and express themselves more freely than most adults do.
They are not trying to be a label, or to become someone they are not. They have no concept of ‘control the controllables.’
They are just being.
Are the problems we are experiencing in youth sport caused by people who are trying to get somewhere and become something, and therefore who feel the need to be in control and wish to impose that misunderstanding on those they coach?
Or by children who are just happy being who they are and are playing sport because they love it?
It seems to me that a priority for any coach should be to allow this innocence, freedom and clarity to remain unfettered for as long as possible.
As part of the Hippocratic oath states, ‘First, do no harm’. Unfortunately, memes such as the ‘Ten Things’ can do significant harm.
They point coaches and subsequently players in the direction of the most serious mistruth afflicting humanity. Toward the illusion of a separate, egoic self. Towards doer-ship. Towards control. Towards becoming. Towards the personal.
Away from our true nature. Away from presence. Away from being.
Away from love.
A young athlete who is present, who is in love with the game, who is in love with life will express all of the attributes and behaviours listed in the meme more often than not.
But they will do it effortlessly and with enthusiasm and joy. Not from duty or to try to get somewhere in the future.
They will get to practice early, they will be enthusiastic (the coach will probably praise this enthusiasm as effort and hard work), they will express positivity and passion. They will be engaged, curious and learn quickly. They will want to play on after the session has finished.
If as a coach you want to see all the things on the list, the first thing you need to know is that they are always present in every single player you coach. Your job is to allow them to shine through.
If you aren’t seeing them, it’s because something is getting in the way of that child expressing them.
(Most likely they are being led to believe that they are on the path to becoming someone, or something.) Not because they aren’t in there to begin with.
It seems to me that the most important thing a coach can ever learn, is who they really are.
It is the knowledge which underpins all other knowledge. It should be the first and most important element in the curriculum of every coach education program in the world.
Almost every coach I speak to, does what they do to help other people have a better experience of sport and of life. Unfortunately, due to the conditioning and the cultural norms of the society we live in, they have come to believe that experience can and should be controlled.
How can you help other people with their experience if you don’t know how the human experience, including your own is created?
Who is more likely to have created the ‘Ten Things That Require Zero Talent’ meme? A coach who has a particular outcome in mind and has an attachment to that outcome? Or a child who just plays sport for it’s own sake, because they love it?
It was suggested that all things on that list could be described as ‘talent’ in themselves.
If talent is defined as our innate capacity or potential, then I agree. What all of those things do not require is choice, control, effort or any kind of doer-ship. They will all be expressed effortlessly when the coach and those being coached are just in the moment. When they are not trying to control the controllables.
When they are being who they really are.
If you have any questions or comments about the myth of ‘control the controllables
We’d love to hear from you!