When I was 12 years old, I hated long-distance running as much as everyone else.
I still remember my soccer coach Bill Stengel making us run eight laps around the field before every practice. It was so frickin’ boring. We’d cut the corners when he wasn’t looking and lie about how many laps we’d done if we thought he wasn’t paying attention. Every practice we’d concoct new ways to get out of it.
It was a chore. It was repetitive. It sucked.
And then this one kid moved into our neighborhood. His name was Kevin Blue.
He liked to run for fun. As in, that was his sport.
When you’re 12, and you tell people you like to run for fun, you might as well tell people you eat broccoli for dessert. People think you got dropped on your head or something. It’s not normal.
But he was a persuasive kid, and he became my friend, and so he convinced me to go on a couple of runs with him.
He was a lot faster than me. And he was competitive. He would start off easy and then start pushing the pace until my lungs were burning and my legs were heavy and my body would give in and I’d fall off the pace, hands on knees, doubled over with exhaustion. So those runs sucked, too.
But one snowy winter’s day, he introduced me and a couple of other friends to a workout he called tennis-ball fartlek. Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play.”
The rules of the game are simple: A group of runners jogs around a field (we did this on a local golf course – which was perfect for it), while one of the runners carries a tennis ball. The runner carrying the tennis ball can go whatever relaxed pace he or she wants, but the idea is for most of the run to feel comfortable and easy. And then, when the mood strikes, the runner with the ball throws the ball, and then all of the runners sprint after it. Whoever touches to the ball first is the next leader. That person then dictates the pace next and is the next to throw the ball. Repeat until you’re tired.
It was awesome. I loved it. Unlike a normal run with Kevin Blue, if I could get the ball, I could control the pace and slow things down where I could keep up and still breathe.
Pretty soon, it was I and not Kevin who was recruiting kids to play tennis-ball fartlek. And soon after, I was going for runs even when Kevin wasn’t around. Even after Kevin moved to California, I still kept running. And then I started running to my friends’ houses to play to so I wouldn’t have to ask my parents to drive me.
That’s what triggered my love of running. A game called tennis-ball fartlek.
By the time I was in the 8th grade, I was running all the time. I set a new school record for the mile and the half mile, and I’ve been running ever since. From one mile up to 100 miles.
Sometimes people ask me how I’m so disciplined about running all the time. But it has never been a matter of discipline for me. Ever since I started playing tennis-ball fartlek 26 years ago, getting up and moving around and running has been a matter of play. So to ask me about how so I’m disciplined to run is like asking a four-year-old how they remain so disciplined about wanting to play all the time. It’s just what I do.
And I think there’s a lesson there for cultivating any new habit. We all love games, and we all hate work. But what we view as games or work may be a matter of perspective.
Figure out a way to turn the habit you want to pursue into a game you love to play, and you’ll have a new way of life. The trick is to create a game that keeps your interest long enough for the habit to stick. If you can do that, you’re most of the way there.
So the next time you’re trying something new, don’t try to stress about discipline or personal resolve. Think of tennis-ball fartlek and come up with a creative way to foster a long-lasting love of your new game.