Lessons from Slacklining

In late September I agreed to set up a slackline for The Great Outdoors & DIY Weekend show to be held at the International Centre in Toronto on November 26-28, 2010, where I would demonstrate the walk and provide the opportunity for people to try it.

Slackline is a piece of long one-inch-wide webbing tied between two trees or anchors.  I had tried slacklining, i.e. walking on a slackline, 3-4 times in the past year but never succeeded in walking across an entire length without falling.

I agreed to do the demo thinking that I had lots of time to practice before the show.

I started to practice in the weekend of October 16th, setting up a slackline between two trees that are 18 feet apart in front of my house. After an hour of practice, I couldn't walk past even the midpoint. I began to have doubt in myself.

I am 47, probably too old to try this cool sport.  People will laugh at me at the show.  The line there will tied to two pillars that are 20 feet apart!

The more I thought about the show the less focused I was and I fell off the line more quickly.

I'm going to do this for myself, I talked to myself silently. I don't want think about the show anymore.  I don't care that people will laugh at me.  I will not laugh at myself as long as I know that I have given my best effort.  I accept who I am and whatever I can do and whatever foolish things I get myself into and whatever effort I make, unconditionally.

I told myself to focus on the practice now and enjoy the present moment.  The stress was gone.  I began to have fun.  After a long while, I walked past the midpoint. I ended the practice with a peaceful feeling, knowing that regardless how well I would walk in the Show, I would feel fine about myself.

People will actually learn from me that participating in a new sport is not about becoming super good at it.  It is about having fun, enjoying the experience, which I will be doing in the show.

The following weekend of Oct. 23rd, I practiced slacklining with a friend in High Park.  I set the line just about 12 feet long between two big trees to help generate success.  After about an hour, I was able to confidently walk across the entire length for several times!  My friend did the same even it was his first time trying this sport!  Then we set the line about 26-30 feet long. We couldn't even walk more than 10 feet because the line became very wobbly. It was getting dark.  We ended our practicing day happily.

The next weekend (Oct. 30th) I practiced in front of my house again and I was able to walk across the entire length of 18 feet three times!  I felt confident that with a few more practices I could easily walk the 20 feet length in the Show.

On Nov. 6th, I practiced in front of my house again but couldn't walk across the entire 18 feet even once!  My body had lost the memory of The balance it had learned the previous weekend.  Many times I fell off just in first 2 or 3 steps.

It will be a disaster show.  I can’t repeat my last week’s success, let alone to build on top of it to walk across 20-feet length whenever I will be demanded to do so in the show.

I put a short ladder under the slackline near the midpoint, to see if I could walk to the ladder.  As I walked towards the ladder, the line pressed down against the ladder hard and became less wobbly.  After a few attempts, I made it.

I felt relieved that I could use this trick in the show to avoid a disaster performance.

The next day I practiced in a small city park in downtown where people chatted on a bench or walked by, sometimes with dogs.  I needed to get used to slacklining in public.  The distance was about 18 feet.

I fell countless times.  Especially when I walked near the other end of the line, the psychological anxiety took over and I would lose balance and fall.  Now I knew how tough it is for the competing sports teams to try to score or stop the other team from scoring in the last a few minutes in a game.  It's not just about skills.  It's a psychological game.  I imagined that I still had a long way to walk when I neared the other end, it worked.

To maximize my chance of repeating my success, I took the approach to slow down, one step at a time, focusing on making a balanced step in the moment, instead of thinking about walking across the entire length.  This helped tremendously.  I was able to walk across the entire length repeatedly even when a passerby tried many tricks to distract me (with my encouragement), and also when a group of young men walked off the street to the park to watch me to perform.

I knew that in the Show in less than 3 weeks, I would fall many times before my body would regain that balanced memory for me to walk a descent length in front of the onlookers.  That would be fine.  I would tell them that's where my skill level is, and I would accept myself completely for that.  I would also use the short ladder to help me achieve almost guaranteed success of completing a short distance without falling and then slowly move the ladder to increase the length of the walk.  The short-distance walk would also be helpful for the visitors to try to complete an uninterrupted walk.  It would be fun!

November 10th. I walked the 18ft length between the two big trees in front of my house as many times as I wanted!  It seemed that, finally, my body begun to remember the motions.  I felt like riding a bicycle, not very smoothly, but able to stay on and go for a distance.  For the first time, I practiced walking backwards and also, stepping directly onto the line near the midpoint without the support of the tree at one end of the line.

November 16th, ten days before the show, I went to a park and set up a slackline obviously longer than the 18ft span between the two trees in front of my house.  For half an hour, I couldn't walk past 1/3 of the length.  "Where did my body memory go?!" I wondered with frustration.  It was windy and the line was vibrating even without me standing on it.  But I didn't want to buy that excuse.  I knew that I just didn't have the degree of control of the balance I had last time when I crossed the 18ft length almost at will.  Because the line is long, I had to set it up higher this time to my waist level (previously it was at my crotch level - just to avoid potential injury), so that when I walked close to the center point the line wouldn't touch the ground.

I kept trying, sometimes fell only after 1-2 steps.  I fell hard on the ground a few times when the springing line catapulted me sideways: once landed on my hip, once rolled on the ground to lessen the impact. This line was probably more than 20ft long but not by much.  I needed to be able to walk this length.  Again, I felt the pressure of the show, and worried about my "failure" or sub-par performance.

You see, everyone who performs in public wants to impress the audience.  They do not aim to extract audience sympathy for a struggling performance.

In our society, people are conventionally measured and judged by the results they deliver, not the effort they have put forward. Conventionally, we put much pressure on ourselves to deliver results expected by others, and we become used to work and live to meet others' expectations, not our own.

"What is my own expectation of myself right now?" I asked myself silently.  It was getting dark.  The park was empty.  "I expect myself having fun getting on this line repeatedly.  I will not practice and walk this slackline for others.”  So I was on the line again.  The whole world seemed fading away.  There was just me, the line and the two trees.  I finally found the feeling of keeping the centre of my gravity in line with the slackline as if we are an integrate whole.  My feet shook and the line swung side to side.  I fixed my sight at the tree anchor in front of me, keeping the centre of my gravity inline with that anchor despite of swinging.  I reached the mid-point.  Without letting my guard down, I kept focusing on centering my gravity.  I came close to the tree.  I imagined that there were still a long way to go and kept moving safely one step at a time.  I hugged the tree.

I wanted to repeat my success, but succeeded only once in half an hour.  It began to rain.  I told myself that I would give it one last try.  I fell after two steps.  I took the slackline down, marked the distance between the two trees with the webbing, headed home.  At home, I measured the marked webbing.  The distance was 25ft.

November 26, 2010, the first day of the Show, after a couple of falls, I walked across the entire 20ft length of the slackline while a Global TV crew filmed me. Click here to watch Global TV’s report on this. (Note: Global TV's video news links expire in 2 weeks.)

In summary the lessons I have learned from slacklining are:

1. I can try new things without being inhibited by my age.

2. I will measure my success in an endeavour by my level of enjoyment and amount of effort.

3. I will focus on what I am doing, one step at a time, while keeping my sight on my goal or destination. (Keeping my eyes on where I will be; keeping my mind on what I am doing, one step at a time.)

4. The most important audience of my performance is myself.  I will perform for myself first, then my family and friends, then the society.

---- Xiaoping Li