“The best of men is like water; water benefits all things and does not compete with them.” 

-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8

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While watching my son Matthew’s soccer game this weekend, I heard his coach yell, “Boys, find your shapes!!” I know little to nothing about how to play soccer. Luckily, Matthew plays goalie so it’s easy for me to figure out what he’s supposed to do during the game – block the ball from going into the goal. As for the rest of the players on the field, I am just impressed at how fast they run. But when I heard the coach direct his players to “find their shapes” at various points in the game, I was struck by both how quickly and how effectively they reacted. It made me think of similar language we use in CrossFit.

I first heard someone use the word “shape” in regards to a CrossFit athlete during Kelly Starrett’s CrossFit Mobility Seminar in 2014. Dr. Starrett’s use of the term had to do with making structurally sound positions with the body. These positions optimize human movement and performance. In other words, transitioning from a hollow body shape to an arch, such as

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Moving this way allows an athlete to create an immense amount of torque about a fixed object while safely protecting the spine during gymnastics movements like kipping pull-ups

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or bar muscle ups

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Similarly when I heard Matt’s coach use the term “shape” this weekend, he was talking about an optimal structure or position for his players to take on the field in order to maximize their offensive and defensive reactions. When out of position, and thus absent of effective shapes, the players allowed asymmetries that the other team could exploit. Conversely, when they made the correct shapes, they effectively defended and then counter-attacked, often scoring a goal. It was really cool to watch.

As the game went on, my nerd-brain began to think about the power of the shape metaphor.  Soccer games are dynamic. Like in ice-hockey or basketball, the coach doesn’t have the time or the ability to specifically tell each player what he wants them to do. When he or one of his players recognizes a loss of position, they have just a few seconds to react. Trying to explain what needs to happen in expanded, literal language means a missed shot or an opponent break-away and goal. Metaphorical language like, “find your shape” succinctly and effectively conveys hundreds of hours of practice and months of drills delivered in just three words. 

Move this conversation onto the gym floor and you will find me cueing athletes to hit their shapes – arch, hollow, squat, etc. If I’ve done my job in the warmups and skill sessions of a class then my language gets similarly effective responses from my athletes in the workout.

But what about the “shapes” we use in other aspects of our lives. What is the shape of your perfect day? What are the indications that you are out of position? What are the asymmetries that you allow to develop and can then be exploited? Do you have any effective cues that get you back into the correct shape?

In my case, I use the metaphor of water to help guide me when I feel as if I am struggling to effectively shape the intention and structure of my thoughts.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu tells a story about a man who seeks the advice of a Taoist master. After traveling hundreds of miles, through the harshest terrain, the man arrives at the feet of the master and asks him for the secret of success. Instead of giving the man an answer, the masters asks, “What is the shape of water?” 

The man, frustrated after his journey, hastily replies, “Water? The shape of water? What do you mean, water has no shape!” 

So, the master patiently fills a cup with water and gives it to the man to drink, as he is obviously thirsty. The man, now confident that he sees what lies behind the master’s question, answers, “The cup! The water’s shape is the cup.” 

The master smiles and then pours the water into a pot, once again motioning at the man for an answer. The man, now a bit more cautious, answers, “The pot? Water is the shape of the pot?”

At this, the master pours the water onto the ground, where it initially pools into a shallow puddle before flowing into the crevices and holes in the sandy earth. The man, once again confused, looks up from the master with tears in his eyes and says, “Water has no shape but is also all shapes. How can this be?”

The master, taking a deep breath, gently leads the man to the river at the base of the hill by his house. The master bends down and points to a rather large stone near the bank of the river. On the shore-side of the rock, nearest the river bank, the rock is rough and jagged; but where the water flows against the rock, it is smooth and polished. The master smiles as he looks back at the man.

The man, now composed, says, “The water never stops. It consistently passes by the rock as the rock rigidly holds in place. Slowly, the water has smoothed the rock to a polished surface and will one day completely wash it away. This is the shape of water.”

At this, the man sits on the rock with his feet in the water and closes his eyes while he breaths. The water flows between his legs. The master returns to his house.

Often I find myself holding onto my day with the rigidity of a stone. I have systems. Plans. Expectations. These anchor me and my emotional state. But like the rock, I find that if too rigid, my emotions become rocky and jagged. Hard and unmoving, I painfully bang up against other obstacles. In that moment, I think of the water and I ask myself if I can let go. I breath and I loosen the grip on my expectations, hopefully flowing around the obstacles and perhaps letting the jagged edges of my thoughts be polished to a smooth surface. 

Finding what shapes best serve you, in the gym or in life, can be a worthwhile exercise. If you get lost, stop. Take a seat on that rock beside the river of life and let yourself ponder, for a few moments, what shape is water. If you figure it out, let me know. I’m still working on it.

See you in the box.

-Coach Jack