Swinging for the Fences

Game-changing plays in any sport and at any level are tremendously exciting. Whether we're watching Pop Warner football, middle school recreational soccer, high school basketball, or Major League Baseball, an extraordinary athletic play makes us stand up and cheer. If our team takes the lead as a result, so much the better.

Attempting to make a game-changing play is known as swinging for the fences. But forcing the action in this way is not always a good idea. People who want to be healthy and well can gain value from considering the contrast between swinging for the fences vs. staying within themselves.

For example, if you've played any team sport for any length of time, you know a little bit about what this feels like. Bottom of the ninth, your team is two runs down. You're at the plate with two runners on base. What's going through your mind? Hit a home run, that's what. One swing, game over. Forget situational hitting, you're swinging for the fences.

Or you're the quarterback of your football team. Your team is behind but the score is close. You know you need to make a momentum-shifting play. You've got years of mental images in your head of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady using the vertical part of the field, going downfield, way downfield. You call the play, take the snap, drop back three steps, and heave the ball toward your wide receiver racing to the corner of the end zone. The Hail Mary pass you've just thrown is the football equivalent of swinging for the fences. But your deep pass could just as easily be intercepted instead of resulting in the difference-making touchdown.

The analogy holds true in all sports. The game-winning penalty kick in soccer. The thundering, momentum-shifting slam dunk in basketball. The dominating volleyball kill shot which drains the spirit from the opposing team. Each key moment is a sport-specific swing for the fences. Again, the opposite result could just as easily occur.

We can see that striving to make a big play is often a mistake and can easily lead to a loss. Forcing the action never works. Smart athletes stay within themselves, letting the game come to them. The best athletes are able, more often than not, to rise to the occasion when an opportunity presents itself. Then, in the context of the flow of the game, you'll see the baseball flying over the fence or the beautifully arcing touchdown pass floating into the hands of the receiver.

This is especially true regarding exercise. When it comes to exercise, slow and steady wins the race.1,2,3 Trying to do too much usually results in an injury, which sets you back and wastes precious time in the recovery process. In strength-training, for example, lifting big weight is not the goal. Progressive, incremental gains are what build lifetime fitness. Aerobic exercise is similar. Going for a five-mile walk is a bad idea if you haven't walked at all in six months or more. Going for an eight-mile run when you're used to running three miles is another bad idea. Gradual increases in time and distance are what works.

Swinging for the fences is great when it happens. In exercise and fitness, achieving a personal best is cause for celebration. But in exercise and fitness, personal bests result from much effort and preparation. When you have a long-term, solid base of fitness, you can swing for the fences with confidence.

1Schellnus MP: Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps - altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? Br J Sports Med 43(6):401-408, 2009
2Gyurcsik NC, et al: Is level of pain acceptance differentially related to social cognitions and behavior? The case of active women with arthritis. J Health Psychol 16(3):530-539, 2011
3Dumke CL, et al: Relationship between muscle strength, power and stiffness and running economy in trained male runners. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 5(2):249-261, 2010

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