One of my favorite movies is Field of Dreams. I love how the film fantastically blurs the distinction between past and present as it gives Shoeless Joe Jackson and his fellow Chicago “Black Socks” one more chance to play baseball. I resonate with its emotional cheesiness and not-so-subtle commentary on the dangers of American consumer culture that seem to be even more relevant today than they were in the late-80s. All that liberal mumbo jumbo aside, the part that always seems to get me choked up is how a father and son capture one last chance to fix their past miscommunications and finally have a catch on a beautiful summer evening in Iowa.
As the movie closes, Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, asks the unknown young catcher, John, who we clearly recognize as Ray’s father, if he wants to have a catch. John, with a peaceful look of understanding, answers, “Yeah, I’d like that” and thus brings us full circle to the film’s earlier question concerning the divine nature of Ray’s Iowa baseball field. In this 2017 AP article, Clint O’Connor asks why, 30 years later, this scene still seems to be the thing that resonates with audiences. O’Connor suggests a myriad of valid reasons each exploring the various influences on and impacts of the film, but I’m left wondering how having a catch with someone can create such a powerful human connection.
Let me take a step back. I’ve mentioned my love of metaphors in previous posts, and if you ever want to really dig into the influence of metaphors, I highly recommend Lakoff and Johnson’s The Metaphors We Live By. When I use the text in a classroom, I will have students do an exercise where they explore a common metaphor and unpack its meaning with a two to three page essay. When I say “unpack” what I mean is they explore the metaphor and how it works. In other words, they look at how two naturally dissimilar things are being equated as the same thing for the sake of creating an experiential understanding of both. If I’ve lost you, let me slow down. I will use one of Lakoff and Johnson’s quintessential examples: argument is war.
Equating argument to war can both emotionally and intellectually explain how we understand one or both of the ideas. For anyone who has never actually been to war, it might be difficult to grasp an experiential understanding of war, so let’s start with argument because we’ve all had an argument. Arguments generally require allies. Usually, we will enlist the help of others to build up our defenses against attacks by our enemy. We marshall those defenses into position and, without warning, will exploit the weaknesses of the other side. We find ourselves making concessions with our normal values and ethical behavior during arguments and we are willing to win at all costs, even if that means inflicting collateral damage. We often injure ourselves as badly as our opponent in the name of victory. Arguments generally do not play by clear sets of rules and neither side seems to trust the other to make concessions in the name of clearing the air. Sometimes it feels as if the argument continues simply for the sake of continuing the argument and not actually winning. By the end, we usually can’t even remember how it all started.
Let’s come back to having a catch. Earlier this week, I heard a podcast where the guest explained how, as a child actor, her acting coach used the metaphor of having a catch to convey techniques for having an on-camera conversation. At four years old, the actor couldn’t even read the script so the coach had to connect with her on an experiential level. “Imagine that you are having a verbal catch with your Movie Mom,” he told her. “Make eye contact, wait for her to acknowledge your lines; she’ll catch them, then send you hers, and you will be fine.”
The 10-second comment on the podcast hit me. The metaphor was so simple and in its simplicity, made such clear sense. I couldn’t let it go and I thought about it all week so let’s play with it for a bit.
A safe and effective catch requires at least two actively involved people and usually takes some time to develop. There’s a warm up phase, a portion where both participants get a sense of the other person’s physical capabilities. After the warmup, the participants might start picking up steam with harder throws, pop-flies, grounders, or other types of tosses. As long the other person knows what to expect, she’ll move to catch the incoming ball, and often enjoys the unexpected challenges of an off-target throw. Sometimes, people start too hot and heavy. Maybe both participants are excited or come with a little bit of pent up energy. In these situations, the frenetic pace doesn’t last and things settle into a more steady routine. Sometimes the catch serves a specific purpose. It could be practice. It could be training. It could be a pitcher getting ready to take the mound. Or it could just be a way of passing time. Whatever the reason for having the catch, both participants will often bring their own agenda, but for the catch to continue, they both eventually concede some of their original expectations. There may even be situations where a third person joins the catch. Invariably this doesn’t last and one or more participants will leave. This isn’t to say that three-person catches aren’t worthwhile, they just don’t always serve the same purpose as a two-person catch. Whatever happens during the catch, both people owe the other person a degree of patience. There’s spoken and unspoken communication. Eye contact, body language, or some kind of short-handed language convey the rules. Violation of those rules can mean the end of the catch. But it can also be an opportunity for clarification. However, no matter what happens, throwing a ball too aggressively, or catching someone off guard with an unexpected throw is seldom acceptable. And in the end, everyone’s allowed to put their glove down and walk away.
We’re still talking about having a catch, right?
As I think you can see, the first part of the unpacking game allows us to explore how the metaphor works. I’d bet your mind kept going with the similarities between catches and conversation, and you probably identified a handful of connections that I missed. That’s good – it means we have an effective metaphor worth exploring.
However, there is a second part of the metaphor game that requires us to explore what the metaphor hides. If we return to the “argument is war” example, imagine the types of choices we make with our language when we talk about an argument. To explain how an argument feels, we chose words and phrases that could also explain aspects of war. Therefore, if language is simply a manifestation of our emotions and emotions generally precede our behavior, by exploring the language we use to explain war, we might be able to gain insight into why we act so violently in arguments. It’s not that we actually think argument IS war, but our language suggests that we UNDERSTAND argument in the same way feel when at war. And because those feelings are so visceral, perhaps by shifting our metaphor away from connecting argument and war, we open the door to changing our behavior. What if argument was a dance? Would it still be an argument? Would it feel the same? How would our behavior change? Again, I recommend reading Lakoff and Johnson.
But first, let’s come back to this catch thing. My son Josh plays baseball and he often asks me to have a catch with him. I would love to say that I always say yes, but sometimes I use the excuse that I am too busy, too tired, or make up some other excuse in order to say no. But as we just saw, if a catch is a conversation, perhaps my unconscious understanding of some unspoken conversation with my son is influencing my feelings towards the catch. What’s my reaction to Josh’s request actually tell me about my relationship with my son? With my own father? Oh boy. And this brings us full circle to why I fall apart during that final scene of Field of Dreams. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
I’ll leave that emotional minefield for another day but for the sake of this blog, I’ll offer some of my other thoughts on conversations I have in the gym. As a coach, I find myself in conversations all day. I often feel exceptionally unprepared and emotionally unqualified to transition from one-on-one to group back to one-on-one types of conversations. The amount of emotional intelligence required to effectively navigate those situations surprises me. And I don’t generally enjoy surprises.
But as I thought about these conversations in the context of a catch, I started to realize that it’s not the conversations I have a problem with but rather my inability to recognize the shifts in the spoken and unspoken rules. People aren’t changing the rules, they are just throwing me a different kind of ball and their way of communicating may have been something I wasn’t able to pick up on. So I get confused. And when I get confused or feel unprepared, my default reaction is sarcasm. And to many people, that sarcasm can look like anger. And just like that, without knowing it, someone gets a ball in the face.
But, luckily there is always someone in the gym willing and able to help out.
The gym has this unique and strange way of offering us some pretty messy and vulnerable personal interactions. And as much as our time together is about fitness, we also get the chance to be surprisingly authentic and emotional.
So, perhaps that’s my take-away this week – always be on the lookout to back someone up. If the conversation looks like it’s going south, see if you can help the other person out. Throw some easy softballs or a few dribbling grounders until we all get caught up. Let’s set each other up for success. If you want to have a catch, I promise I’ll keep saying yes when you ask.
See you in the box.