Discipline. The word snaps to a picture of a single-minded focus an Olympic athlete glorified in a 30-second Nike commercial. Or perhaps we remember the repeated, mind-numbing practice and drilling we suffered as youngsters. Appropriately we were disciplined for not practicing or caught skipping anything we deemed unpleasant. Unfortunately, none of these examples explains what discipline is or what it is important. We are misled into equating discipline with focus, with repetition, with punishment.

There is a broader use of the term. We study disciplines. Be it medicine, engineering, or anthropology, each discipline is a field of study requiring different approaches depending on the problem they are trying to solve. In sport, discipline will depend greatly on the problem athletes are trying to solve. Aggression in boxing may be a great asset, but devastating in archery where finding a Zen like peace of mind is critical. Likewise, consider how a marathon runner differs from a sprinter in size, training, and nutrition.

Yet as this documentary has shown, there is something fundamental that connects all of the athletes from rock climbing to sledge hockey to karate. They share a common spirit that resonates with our life pursuits. At some level, we recognize that what they are fighting against is similar to what we are all fighting against: ignorance. It may be ignorance of ourselves, our environment, or our opponents.

Discipline, then, is the way in which we push back ignorance. Sometimes it involves mind-numbing repetition to condition the body. Sometimes it involves sitting front of a TV watching a video replay and strategizing for the next game. Sometimes it involves mentally rehearsing and finding the calm in the maelstrom. The discipline must fit the challenge.

What I didn’t understand as a 10-year old sitting on the organ, is that practicing and thinking about how I practiced would make me a better player. I practiced because my parents told me to. For most of us, this is how our discipline starts, as commands from higher authorities: “Look both ways before crossing”, “practice makes perfect”, “Your homework is…”. If we’re lucky, we eventually realize there is a link between the action and the outcome.¬†Discipline becomes a means for continuous improvement.

In sports, coaches motivate and correct the athletes. Good athletes not only use coaches and mentors but are also problem solvers of their own ignorance. They find better ways of training. They realize that practice by itself is insufficient as it is very possible to practice the wrong way. They seek to have their weaknesses or vulnerabilities exposed.

To what extent does the discipline applied in sports apply to the disciplines in life? Clearly some do and some don’t. More on this in the next article.