Beginner’s Mind: Becoming a Student of Sport

Snow banks along a river running through a snowy forest

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“Beginner’s mind” is a phrase that was used often during my dozen years of active training in the Japanese martial art of Aikido. The phrase originated with Zen Buddhism and denotes an approach to learning or, in a broad sense, experiencing life with an open mind and a willingness to embrace the new, unknown, and unfamiliar.

As refreshing and hopeful as it can be to start over or begin anew, for most of us (particularly those who’ve established ourselves as experts, or at least veterans, of our respective professions), this is no small task.

Snow-covered lake near snowy mountains
Cross-country skiing at Grass Lake on March 8, 2016. © Jared Manninen

Beginner’s mind is, in essence, the act of being vulnerable. You are admitting I do not know.

But here’s the thing—if there is ever a single key that opens the door to a life of happiness and fulfillment, this is it.

By embracing an attitude of curiosity and wonder, you become the explorer you once were as a child. You see life with fresh eyes and seek to discover the answers to life’s mysteries, both great and small.

Snowstorm and a forest along the banks of a river
Cross-country skiing at Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Area in the Euer Valley on March 24, 2017. © Jared Manninen

I began seasonally working at a cross country ski center on the north side of Lake Tahoe during the winter of 2014-2015. A friend who I knew through Aikido managed the ski center and had asked if I was interested in making some extra money during the winter.

I was born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, grew up in Minnesota, and have Finnish blood running through my veins.

In spite of these “credentials,” however, my winter sport while growing up was wrestling. And before that first winter, I can only recall one other time on cross country skis.

Blasphemous, I know, but it’s the truth.

Mountain covered in snow with storm clouds overhead
Cross-country skiing around Woods Lake, Winnemucca Lake, and Frog Lake on January 22, 2018. © Jared Manninen

My entry into the world of cross country skiing began at the tail end of multiple years of drought. At that point in my life, I was 40 years old and had all but given up on participating in snow sports beyond the occasional snowshoe hike.

Although I consider myself a quick study, regardless of life experience there’s no getting around the awkward and potentially embarrassing phase of learning new body movement, as well as the challenges behind learning, assimilating, and then effectively transmitting new information.

I also found myself surrounded by competitors, instructors, life-long skiers, and even some former, current, and up-and-coming Winter Olympians.

Although I felt intimidated by such a deep roster of talent, I couldn’t resist the urge to immerse myself in this new discipline. So even though I only skied a handful of times that season, whenever possible I enlisted the services of my co-workers (many of whom were high school racers) or an instructor who had some spare time.

Purple skies and snow with a silhouetted tree
Cross-country skiing at Grass Lake during last light on January 23, 2019. © Jared Manninen

My most humbling and profound experience occurred on the day I tackled a whopping 5km beginner’s route.

In my younger days I had run marathons, but this was something different.

At about the third kilometer I had to stop to catch my breath. As I stood there, I spotted a skier performing double pole drills. The skier’s technique was flawless and the rate at which she got up to speed would impress any fan of drag racing.

I realized that the skier was one of my high school co-workers, so as I made my way down the trail I stopped to say hello. I should’ve just nodded or waved while skiing past her.

She wasn’t rude. She was simply in the zone, and it was obvious that my idle chit chat was a distraction from her training. I quickly said goodbye and then shuffled back to the ski center.

That day the point was hammered home that willpower and athleticism would never replace proper technique, and that learning proper technique required dedication and discipline.

Not surprising, that same skier is now a member of the US Ski Team.

Groomed cross-country trails in the morning light
Cross-country skiing at Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Area on Upper Crazy Horse on March 11, 2019. © Jared Manninen

Even though I didn’t retain many of the tips I was shown during my first season, that wasn’t the point. More importantly was that I experienced the enthusiasm and passion for the sport inherent with avid cross country skiers, as well as understanding that the art is a lifelong practice not just something you pick up in an afternoon group lesson.

What can I say? I’m hooked.

The supportive community and the level of physical fitness achieved from consistently cross country skiing are benefits enough.

However, I most appreciate the freedom and independence cross country skiing affords me, especially during a season in which many people suffer from feelings of isolation.

Man taking a selfie while cross-country skiing in a snowstorm
Cross-country skiing in a snowstorm on Echo Summit on March 14, 2018. © Jared Manninen

So, winter has become my favorite time of the year, and with each subsequent ski season I gain more confidence and proficiency but I’m always open to feedback regarding my technique.

And, at heart, I’ll always be a beginner.

Cross-Country Skier Magazine Fall 2018 Issue #38-1 Cover
The copy of Cross Country Skier Magazine (Fall 2018, Issue #38.1) where my essay “Beginner’s Mind: Becoming a Student of Sport” was published. This particular issue was exceptional due to the fact it featured articles about Jessie Diggins’ and Kikkan Randall’s gold medal victory in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Click the image to purchase a copy of this magazine from Cross Country Skier.

Audio Transcription of Beginner’s Mind: Becoming a Student of Sport

For those of you who are interested, here’s an audio transcription of the article by none other than yours truly. It’s just shy of 4 minutes long.