One of my diversions when I’m not picking things up is photography. I spent many years as a professional artist and you never truly lose that eye or the need to let it stretch its creative legs periodically. Sometimes I just wander around with a camera and see what looks good, but sometimes I set myself little challenges, like, “What can you do with this lens, that filter, or buy shooting from this particular location and not moving from that spot?” It helps me recognize the filters imposed by limitations and sometimes to see things more clearly in other aspects of my life and sometimes to spot filters that I have unknowingly applied and with which I limit my own perceptions.
Friday morning I had an unexpected pocket of time and I very much needed mental clarity, so I grabbed the camera and a prime lens (this means it can’t zoom) and wandered along a trail a ways. I wanted to see what I could do with that lens and how it would limit me or help me see things that I had not before noticed. I didn’t initially plan to take this particular path, but somehow I found myself scrambling up a steep trail, sloshing through mud and trying to avoid skidding on leaves, looking for I’m not sure what sort of inspiration, but knowing that I would know it and photograph it when I found it.
Only I didn’t find it.
The further I climbed looking for exactly the right thing, the less interesting the scenery became. I finally stopped at a perfectly ordinary spot on the trail and debated with myself whether to go on or not, and while I checked the structural integrity of my dodgy knee and wondered what to do, I sat down and looked around. There was nothing in this spot that made it any different from another, on first glance.
But then I noticed the leaf. It was kind of a pretty leaf, different from most of the others around it, having come from a tree further downhill. Really, though, it was perfectly ordinary apart from the fact that it was delicately balanced on the edge of a rock on this rather vertical trail. I wouldn’t have noticed it had I not stopped and sat down. As I sat with my equally ordinary and limited lens, I wondered if it could be something special if maybe what needed to change was not what I was looking at, but how I was seeing. It had caught my eye in the first place, so there was something there. I just needed to look closer. And differently.
I swung the camera to grab a shot of the leaf with its parent tree in the background, but the composition was wrong. The trail winding uphill in the background needed to be a part of the shot; where the leaf had come from was important, but less intriguing than where it seemed to be going. So I adjusted the angle, crouching down low to the ground. Still wasn’t right. I backed down the trail a bit, adjusted the focus and got still lower, trying to catch the trail winding uphill in the background, but the F-stop needed tweaking to bring the leaf into sharper foreground focus while keeping the background blurry, but not so blurry as to not see the trail. More camera adjustments were made after which I found myself lying face-down on the rocks, lining up the trail and the leaf as best I could, and shooting a range of exposures.
As I lay there in the mud and leaves, my mind drifted back to work and the metaphor that I was seeing in this leaf started to sink in fully. These past couple of weeks have been a bit of a rollercoaster work-wise. Coaching is fantastic fun when it’s going well and a cauldron of confusion when things aren’t aligned properly, and sometimes things appear or threaten to go badly for any number of reasons. Sometimes athletes (and coaches) don’t sleep or eat well before they train, have bad days at work or home, get sick, or encounter other stresses in life that necessarily compromise training. Sometimes the numbers that have been planned are not the reality that can be achieved. Athletes cannot always do what they “should” be able to do; even the hardest working and most consistent ones have off days, weeks or even months. The human part of the equation is not a fixed variable. And that has to be okay. In fact, it’s more than okay, because the human part of it is what makes it equally possible for people to have superlatively good days, despite all potential reasons for things to tank.
To make everything more complicated the body of an athlete and their mind are intricately woven; you can’t train one without making certain to train the other and, inevitably, one periodically holds the other back. Sometimes the training plan that the coach thinks makes sense on paper is not what the athlete truly needs; coaching is about more than just numbers and technique, it’s seeing skills (sometimes skills only marginally related to lifting) that are missing and helping the individual understand and learn those. Sometimes the depth of focus needs to be adjusted so that the whole context is seen in the right proportions and the viewpoint altered before real progress can be made. Often the coach needs to be able to do mental gymnastics to look at things from previously unimagined angles, angles that make sense to another individual but are foreign to the coach, so that the athlete as a whole and unique person is considered. It’s not always easy. Scratch that. It’s often bloody difficult. You have to be able to see the person in front of you in new ways.
Perhaps that’s where photography comes into it for me and these little exercises in training the mind’s eye are of more value than I give them credit for being. I’m by no means a fantastic photographer; the action of making and creating the photographs generally gives more pleasure than the results. When you’re crafting a photo, the subject matter is invariably important, but a truly exceptional photo uses the lenses, filters, depth of focus, shutter speed, exposure, and setting of the subject matter to its best advantage. A leaf on a trail is nothing, but a wet, cold, tiny, leaf, clinging adamantly to a rock and seen in the context of its uphill “journey” is a different phenomenon. What that leaf needed to make it special wasn’t something it didn’t already have, but rather for someone to see the whole picture. I needed to adjust my vantage point, to get down on its level, see the context in which it was located and understand what made it significant and unique. I had to tweak my depth of focus so that I could put the backdrop in context and, while understanding where it had come from, envision where it seemed to be “going”. The leaf was one in a million leaves littering the trail, but taking the time to really see it was what made it stand out. Maybe that’s something that I’m still learning to do better, to look past obvious limitations and see how to remove those with different tricks of vision, approaches, perspectives, and filters. Maybe that’s part of how photography (and other pursuits outside of the gym) will hopefully make me a better coach and athlete.