brain space and basketball

For some unimaginable reason, at the ripe old age of 37 I decided to take up playing basketball.   It’s a strange choice to make, having never played before, but I knew some guys that were playing, and I needed the exercise, so…..why not?  Now mid-way through my second season I’m still feeling very much a rookie, and trying to figure out the skills that the guys half my age who I play with and against take for granted.

On Saturday night something very small, but very significant happened.  Not only did we win (a minor miracle in itself), but in the midst of the hustle and bustle inside the key (a very busy place indeed, and where I spend most of my time as one of my team’s two “bigs”) I found myself with the ball in hand, and for the first time with the tiniest bit of mental space to think consciously about what to do with it.

Until now, when I get the ball in my possession I’m all about getting rid of it as fast as possible – whatever first opportunity presents to pass or shoot, I take.  No thinking, no weighing up options, just react.

On this occasion however, as the ball landed in my hands and I looked up to see a wall of opposition players in front of me, I ran through the basketball players classic three options – pass, shoot or dribble. Somehow there was the brain space to make a conscious choice to drive and shoot based on the options available. It was brain space I’ve not had on a basketball court before.  I reveled in the moment, and then executed my choice.  Naturally,  I still missed the shot!

It’s a pattern I’ve encountered before, this first moment of brain space.  When first taking on any new activity, it all seems insurmountable.  Every fibre of my being is concentrated on the immediate task at hand, with limited capacity to process more deeply what’s going on around me.

As an aspiring outdoor education instructor in a former career, I was at first completely bound up in managing  pure physical safety, with little capacity to think deeply about the process my young students were engaged in.  As time passed and the safety aspects became more familiar, I found myself with moments of opportunity to think about process, about what next, to notice the dynamics among my group.  It took the time to become comfortable with the primary skills before I could start to develop the tertiary ones.

You might have encountered something similar. Learning to drive for instance, is a classic example.  The learner driver has almost no capacity to concentrate on anything except the immediate task at hand.  Any distraction – music, scenery, conversation – can be literally fatal.  As the primary skills develop, so does the capacity to process other inputs – to share a conversation with a passenger, to notice the surroundings, to simply enjoy the experience of driving.

The same is often our experience any time we encounter something new – and that’s as much the case for communities or groups as it is for individuals.  When your church or group first tries something new, or first encounters changed ways of being and sharing, it takes everything you have just to stay afloat.  The experience of change and of new experiences can be overwhelming and leave us with the feeling that everything is too rushed, too unfamiliar, too out of control.

But eventually, bit by bit, those moments occur when the newness of everything isn’t the primary experience – when we can enjoy, or think about process, notice the scenery passing by, or decide whether to shoot, pass or dribble based not on the first available option, but on having the brain space to think it through.

I’m still a very poor basketball player, but I’m looking forward to my next game to see if I have another one of those moments when I get the ball in my hands.  Next time it happens, I hope I sink the basket.


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