Me and Kerri

The popularity of a recent post I wrote about the Pop Rocks and their rendition of a Pittsburgh Steelers fight song leads me to believe that people enjoy stories about youngsters.

Some of you might recall a young lady who won everyone’s heart during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Her name is Kerri Strug. It’s difficult to believe that she was seventeen or eighteen years old at the time; she looked much younger. In any case, I couldn’t help comparing her career ambitions with my own. So I wrote an article about our similarities.

I’ll blow off the dust and let you take a look at it. Feel free to let me know what you think.

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When I grow up, I want to be just like Kerri Strug. Actually, Kerri and I have a lot in common already. She’s a petite female gymnast; I’m a rather large freelance writer. She’s a teenager; I’m a member of AARP. The only difference is that she’s won a Gold Medal; I’m still striving for my first major victory.

Perhaps our differences are more significant than I’m willing to admit. But we do have much in common. Each of us spends hours practicing to perfect our skills. Then we display those skills for a panel of experts. Kerri’s experts are called judges; she performs routines for them. My experts are called editors; I submit articles to them. Each of our “performances” consists of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everything we present must be executed flawlessly in order to have the most positive impact on the experts.

On the surface, the similarities would appear to end right there. Kerry has been highly successful. I haven’t. However, there is one more similarity that I believe is the most important. We both perform at our best during practice… and somewhat less than our best during the heat of competition. The reason is simple. The pressure of knowing we must perform at our best for judges/editors makes it difficult to do so.

Kerri’s hard work and experience have diminished the disparity between her practice sessions and her “live” performances. I hope to do the same. I’ve studied Kerri, as well as a number of other athletes, to see what I could learn from their successes. One of the things I’ve noted is the use of slogans. “Go for the gold!” has a nice ring to it, but I like the rhyming ones better. “Back the Pack!” is great… if you’re from Green Bay. “Sack the Pack!” works well for those from other cities. The one I like best is “Refuse to lose!” which has been used by a number of professional and amateur teams. The  embarrassing thing about “Refuse to lose!” is that most of the teams that have adopted it lose anyway.

I decided I needed a slogan. I wanted something to remind me to do my best at all times – not just when I’m practicing. After careful consideration, I chose “Expect the Check!”  It’s a phrase that gives me confidence as well as incentive.

As with many things in my life, I couldn’t stop there. I came up with a slogan for each phase of my performance – as well as a few general ones. Hopefully they’ll help me write my best when it counts the most and I can begin to “Stash the Cash!”

My slogans for the basics of my craft are:  “Plant the Slant,”  “Flux the Crux,” and “Seal the Deal.”

Plant the Slant reminds me how important it is to write a clear concise opening. If I want to grab an editor’s attention, I must use an interesting approach to quickly get to the point of my article. In gymnastics terms, this is the mount. Whether Kerri is using a springboard to mount the balance beam or I’m using a bit of humor to introduce my topic, we both have to jump into our routines in an impressive manner. If either of us wobbles during the initial phase, we lose points and lower the expectations of our audience.

Flux the Crux reminds me to massage the message that is the body of my article. Every sentence must stand on its on merit while inviting the reader to move onto the next. The sentences must flow smoothly to form a logical progression. If I use a simile, an analogy, or an anecdote, the words within them (as well as around them) must fit perfectly.

For Kerri, this means combining back-flips, handstands, somersaults, and other moves in a fluid, coordinated fashion. She must be in total control of her movements at all times and cannot hesitate between moves. If she stops for too long, she loses points. If I get bogged down in a sentence, I lose readers.

Writers can also lose points if we fail to complete a move, seem unsteady or disorganized, or move onto something else without a smooth transition. The body of our routines must be carefully choreographed and flawlessly executed.

Most importantly, the body must flow naturally from the opening. The core of the performance must extend from and enhance, the promise of the introduction. The opening sets the expectation level; the body must meet or exceed those expectations.

Seal the Deal has a double meaning for me. First, it reminds me to finish my article with a flourish – making sure to tie up any loose ends and affirming that the flow has continued gracefully throughout the composition. Second, it reminds me that this is my last chance to sell the story. I must persuade the editor to buy my work and, at the same time, leave him or her wanting more.

For Kerri, this is the “dismount.” She knows that a flawless performance can go for naught if she stumbles on her landing. She must end her routine with the same strength and poise as she started it. She must land solidly on both feet to demonstrate, beyond doubt, her skill and control. I must do no less.

While these three slogans keep me mindful of the fundamentals of writing articles, they do nothing to relieve the pressure of trying to impress an editor. I had to come up with something more. Once again I made a connection with athletics. The Nike commercials urge us to “Just do it!” That seemed like a good place to start.

I’ve often read about athletes going into a “zone” where they forget about everything except performing. They let their bodies take over and just go with the flow. It can be best described as almost a Zen state of meditation. They don’t think about what they’re doing, they just do it. Yogi Berra, the former New York Yankee’s catcher, described the Zen of hitting by saying, “If I thought about hitting a baseball, I could never do it.”

With these thoughts in mind, I came up with two more slogans: “Ignore the Score,” and “Block the Clock.”

Ignore the Score reminds me to simply write the article without trying to make it perfect. Thinking about whether or not an editor will buy my work gets in the way. I have to push those thoughts aside and simply write. Later, as I polish the work, I can allow myself to consider what an editor might think. But during the initial drafts, I can do much better if I allow myself to simply enjoy putting my thoughts down on paper.

Block the Clock is my way of avoiding what I call the “Charlie Brown Syndrome.” From time to time, Charles Shultz had his main character being asked to do a book report. Inevitably, Charlie Brown opens the book to the last page and says something like, “Two hundred pages! I’ll never be able to read two hundred pages!”

Deadlines can have the same effect on writers. “July 11th! I’ll never be able to complete this assignment by July 11th!” A deadline is just one more distraction that hinders my efforts as a writer. Therefore, I ignore it.

Fortunately, I’m not a procrastinator. I can afford to not think about deadlines… as long as I don’t miss them.

On the other hand, the only deadline Kerri Strug faces is just prior to a routine. Once the judges have acknowledged that it’s her turn to perform, she has a specified time limit to prepare herself mentally. Then, off she goes.

Kerri Strug may be young enough to be my daughter, but I’ve learned a great deal from watching her. The most important lesson is that while hard work and experience can’t be overlooked, they’re not enough. To win a Gold Medal, one must do whatever it takes to eliminate distractions and perform at the highest level possible.

Finally, I recognize I have one advantage over Kerri. My performances don’t depend on the condition of my body. This is extremely fortunate. I doubt editors would be impressed if I had to stuff my 270 pounds into a skimpy unitard.

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To get an update on what Kerri has been doing since her Gold Medal award performances in Atlanta, visit her web site.

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