Play to Play
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
“Fields of play simply do not impose themselves on us. Therefore, all the limitations of finite play are self-limitations.”
I began practicing my handstand in 2013. Up until then, I’d never considered the possibility of balancing on my hands. I’ll never forget the uncertainty I felt, like traveling to a foreign land, when I walked into a wall facing handstand for the first time. Being upside down made me lost and confused, and it took my breath away. Kicking up in the middle of the room sent chills down my spine as I didn’t know how to pirouette or cartwheel out of a failed attempt. I practiced 5 days a week; shoulder and wrist mobility, bodyline drills, heel-pulls, toe-pulls, kick-ups, etc. My teacher told me the goal was to hold a thirty second free-standing handstand, and I became focused on conquering this goal. Thirty seconds became the top of Handstand Mountain. It was a tumultuous road; a love/hate relationship. Over a year into the climb, I finally held a thirty-nine second handstand. Victory! I celebrated like it was the Super Bowl. I sent the video to Alexa and my mom, and posted it all over social media. There were even tears. I’m going to Disneyland!
Then, the next day arrived. I woke up, and the magic wore off when my teacher said that the new goal would be sixty seconds. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “Wow! Dude, I just won the handstand game! I haven’t even had my parade down 5th Ave yet!”. Despite the rain on my parade, I reluctantly began the trek towards the next peak. When I arrived at the top of El Sixty Seconds, the celebration began all over again, but before I could break out the Champagne, I was told of two other ascents; Mount Press Handstand and the Handstand Push-up Peak. So, the march continued. When I stumbled to the top of the Mount Press Handstand, and was about to plant my flag, I was told of another summit that could be seen in the distance, Mont Stalder Press Handstand. With each new summit, two new peaks appeared, and the map grew larger and larger. Eventually I discovered one arm handstand climbs and soft-acrobatic routes.
In our culture, the word game often refers to winning and losing scenarios. We are in the business of winning, conquering, and controlling. We want to win it all; the board game, the baseball game, the job game, the relationship game, the politics game, and the life game. We are a culture that plays to win. And, if the game can’t be won, well then it isn’t a game worth playing. To bring it back to mountains, this is why people pay tens of thousands of dollars to get ushered to the top of Everest. They want to win the Everest game, even if it means not actually playing. Playing would require learning to climb and speak Nepalese, and becoming engulfed in mountaineering culture to a point that Everest would be a single stop on the journey of a thousand peaks. The problem with winning and losing is that these terms insinuate an ending or completion; the game is over. This is the “play to win” mindset, and it’s an unfortunate state of affairs.
I’m interested in an alternative definition of game. These alternative games are systems and scenarios that offer us (stealing from James P. Carse, who is quoted at the top) boundaries to play with; rather than boundaries to play within. They are played for the sake of continued play. And, these games are recursive, as you can find games within games within games.
Much like the attitude I had toward many things, I Initially approached the handstand game with the “play to win” mindset; I was going to be a winner. I also thought I’d won the muscle-up game and the front squat game. If I’m being honest, it took me a number of years to grasp that there was no game to win. It is thanks to teachers and participation in a living practice that this lesson was instilled in me. I realized that the games were being played to grow into more elaborate games, or to develop new games, or to benefit other games. The muscle-up game allowed me to play the forward and backward roll games, and eventually the ring routine game. It also allowed me to have more robust shoulders when I decided to play the Brazilian jiu-jitsu game. And, the front squat game allowed me to play Olympic weightlifting games, and provided brave knees for jumping, dance, and acrobatic games.
I meet a lot of students with the “play to win” mindset. But, this is not their fault, it is built into the culture; win, win, win! They show up for class and attempt to conquer the movement game. However, the game, to their disappointment, is about continuing to play. It Is about playing games that grow and evolve, and lead us into new games. We don’t keep score and there are no winners and losers. There is no top of Movement Mountain. Frankly, I’ve watched a number of people walk away from the movement game because they can’t handle the way we play. A number of years ago, one of my teachers, Ido Portal, said, “Maybe it’s not for you. More likely, you’re not for it.”
Some might argue that there are wonderful games that have winners and losers; like chess and BJJ. I don’t define checkmates and submissions as wins and losses. These are small and necessary failures (trips, falls, and slip-ups) within much larger games. A skateboarder doesn’t consider a fall, when attempting an ollie, a loss worthy of giving up skateboarding. Skateboarders must fall repeatedly to learn the ollie game, after which they find new games. I think of chess and BJJ in the same way, the failures are part of the larger games being played. Something is learned in each checkmate and submission. It is only a loss if you stop playing.
We aren’t born with a “play to win” mindset. Like all other mammals, we come into this world wanting to play for the sake of play. But, indoctrination starts early with the notion that playing to play is a waste of valuable time that could be spent winning. The “play to win” mindset wreaks havoc on society. It prevents people from taking risks for fear of losing, and creates a culture of “us” vs. “them”. It also colors our perspective on buying goods. Consumer culture tells us that in order to be a winner you MUST have this, that, and the other thing; if you don’t have the new iPad you are a loser! People chase express lines to the top of peaks that they assume will make them winners, and are confused when they arrive and still feel empty.
The idea of winning is seductive because it gives the façade of control. But in nature, there is no winning and losing; no control; just the cycle of life. The game of life is not a game to win, it is a game to be played. So, go play to play.