Badminton Book Corner: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I know what you’re thinking. “Bird by bird? Isn’t that a writing book? What does that have to do with badminton?”

Yes, it IS a writing book, and it has a LOT to do with badminton. In fact, it has accompanied me on my entire badminton journey so far believe it or not.

How so? Well, if you are not familiar with this bestselling book, let me tell you the story that leads to the title. When she was little Anne’s brother was crying because he had a huge project about dozens of different birds due the next day. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the project in such short time he was having a meltdown. His father put his arm around him and said, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.”

Anne says that’s how you should approach writing a book, to not get overwhelmed with writing the whole thing at the offset. But actually this is how I approach badminton. At the beginning, a game can seem so long, and if you begin to lose, making up four, six or even eight points can seem insurmountable. But to avoid feeling overwhelmed I have always quietly said to myself, at the serve, “just take it bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.” All I try to do is focus on getting one point. Not the point difference, or not enough to win. Just one point. Then the next.

Truth was I first read this book perhaps 15-20 years ago and haven’t read it again until now. I don’t know why I have always thought “bird by bird” to myself but I’m going to guess it has something to do with the fact I’m American and we call shuttles “birdies” so it brought it to my mind the same way “ghostbusters” always comes after someone saying “who should we call?”(Yes, I know it’s “who you gonna call,” but no one actually says that in real life.)

While it is a great book for motivating writers I don’t really need that anymore. After so many years of constant writing I know who I am. I am not now, nor ever will be, the lyrical writer who dances over language and metaphors and whose prose ends up as fridge magnets.

I’m more like the annoying girl you overhear at a coffee shop who says “like” and “literally” a bit too much and you inwardly roll your eyes and think “kids these days,” yet you keep listening and by the time you finish your cup of coffee you wanna introduce yourself because you think I might be fun to hang out with.

So I don’t need this book for writing advice anymore. I’m motivated to the mostest. Yet motivation is motivation and a lot of it works for sports. I’m still shaky and unsure of my identity of “athlete” so I decided to pick up the book again. Surprisingly this book works great.

The oddest, yet most appropriate piece of advice comes from a Mel Brooks quote:

“Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.”

She goes on to explain it.

“It means, of course, that when you don’t know what to do, when you don’t know whether your character would do this or that, you get real quiet and try to hear that still small voice inside. It will tell you what to do.”

Now, just change “whether your character would do this or that” to “what to do in a game” and you have some homespun badminton advice. Because while playing badminton our conscious mind gets in our way too much. If you have the fundamentals down, if you’ve done your training and your drills, it’s time to leave that all behind. Stop your critical mind, stop your scheming and just “listen to your broccoli.”

“You need your broccoli in order to write well….You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side…Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”

I love that phrase, “being militantly on your own side.” Because if you aren’t rooting for you, then who is? You have to be your #1 biggest supporter. No matter what the odds, no matter how crappy you are playing, you need to root for yourself.

I also found some advice for badminton in a radio station metaphor.

“I need to bring up radio station KFKD, or K-Fucked here. It is perhaps the single greatest obstacle to listening to your broccoli that exists for writers. If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.”

Well, if that doesn’t nail it on the head, what does? Like a writer, a competitive badminton player must believe that are the best, because why else play? Why else dare to dream of standing on the podium, a medal in your hand unless you have some feelings of specialness, knowing how gifted and brilliant you are or will be.

But at the same time you constantly berating yourself for sucking. Angry at your age, you limitations, angry you have to work hard to beat someone who is a lower level than you. Filled with a seething jealousy as you see someone improve faster than you while simultaneously thinking that no one in the history of the world has made such strides as you have. God our brain is annoying.

So what is her solution to silence this radio station?

“I sit for a moment and then say a small prayer–please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written.”

She also suggests breathing. This is a good suggestion for players in a game with a million thoughts running through their head. Just take a few deep, calming breaths between rallies and get out of your own way.

The last piece of advice I want to share comes from the section on writers block of all places.

“The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is you are empty. This emptiness can destroy some writers, as do the shame and frustration that go with it.”

There is no such thing as badminton block, but there is a plateau, and I would argue that psychologically they are the same thing. The time when the player feels stuck and a long period without improvement or even a slight decline in skill can destroy confidence. If it goes on for awhile, weeks or months, it can kill desire to play entirely. So what to do? Again the writing advice works for badminton players too.

The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given–that you are not in a productive creative period–you free yourself to begin filling up again.

So don’t get angry or frustrated that you’ve hot a plateau. Just accept it as a normal part of the process. Don’t berate yourself, get angry when you play or think there is no use to playing anymore because you’ll never improve.

Just accept that right now, your body and mind aren’t going to help you they way they have in the past. That right now there is a disconnect, and it happens to everyone from time to time. Just keep playing, make the games enjoyable and don’t even pay attention to winning and losing. Just accept it and trust yourself and don’t waste your energy fighting it with anger or frustration. Just remember that badminton is fun, and remember why you fell in love with it in the first place. So go out, play against people at a lower level if you really need a confidence boost, and enjoy yourself.

Bird by Bird is a great book with a lot of advice for the badminton player. Although if you are not interested in writing, or painting, or some artistic passion in addition to badminton, you can maybe skip the book. The parts about plot, writing groups, shitty first drafts isn’t gonna add a lot to your life. If you do have an artistic passion I’m gonna guess you’ve already read this book because of it’s fame, and don’t need another suggestion from me. (But if you do, read this book! Why have you not already?!)

But I would suggest that badminton players step out of the “sports book” world from time to time, and read books of other topics. Because you never know when you are going to find a gem that will help you in badminton.

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