The Wabi-Sabi of an Athlete: The Power of Imperfection

In Japanese culture there is a concept known as wabi-sabi. It is the appreciation of imperfection. How can the appreciation of imperfection make you a better athlete? Imperfection can empower you.

In Japanese culture there is a concept known as wabi-sabi. While it makes for a funny sounding phrase to those who don’t speak Japanese, it stands for an elegant concept. As explained by Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers:

Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
It is a beauty of things modest and humble.
It is a beauty of things unconventional.

The philosophy is about appreciating flaws. So much so that artists will intentionally chip their pottery or leave a piece unevenly finished to achieve the ideal of wabi-sabi. The concept is about beauty on a primal level, stripped down to pure authenticity. From this perspective, everything becomes perfect exactly as it is. It is perfect because it is imperfect. Like Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi is about being right here, right now.

So I imagine you didn’t load up Breaking Muscle today to ponder Zen koans. But as an athlete, the philosophy of wabi-sabi has something to offer you, as well. You are going to walk into the gym today as the person you are right now. You will make mistakes, things will go right, and things will go wrong. Imperfections will exist.

Here are two ways embracing imperfection can empower you as an athlete:

Training is imperfect by definition.

Training is practice. Practice is where you have freedom to do things incorrectly over and over again. Each manifestation of imperfection is an opportunity to learn. In other words, every time you screw up, you create a situation you can examine, a strategy you can adjust, and chance to try again. With no penalties.

As children we might go exploring in the woods and find a fallen tree. We stand on the log and attempt to jump to another. We jump and fail. We jump and fail. We jump and land. We learn through trial and error – through imperfection.

When we are adults we should continue to jump and fail. Sadly, instead, we put meaning onto things. We imagine we should be perfect without practice. We stop failing, but we also stop jumping.

Successful athletes never stop jumping. They know the difference between training and performance. They know failure in the gym is a gift. A gift that represents one fewer potential failure on the field. Imperfection is an opportunity to move one step closer to perfection.

Over time you will become both more and less perfect.

If only you had started training in your sport ten years earlier, right? If only I had started jiu jitsu as a teenager. If only I had started CrossFit in my twenties. It might have made all the difference.

wabi sabi, wabi-sabi athlete, asymptote, training perfection, wabi sabi athleteIt is one of the lasting ironies that as our skills and our minds come closer to peak performance, our bodies begin to falter. It is as if our mental acuity and absolute perfection are always getting closer without merging, a spiraling asymptote that could continue forever. Meanwhile, nature is wearing down our physical faculties, a line that most definitely comes to an end. For those of us transitioning into the “mature” years of our athlete’s life, these diverging forces become more and more apparent.

And so, we are becoming more perfect and less perfect simultaneously. We are a living, breathing piece of wabi-sabi art.

Robyn Griggs Lawrence of Mother Earth News wrote of the philosophy:

Wabi-sabi finds beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, accepting the cycle of growth, decay and death. It’s slow and uncluttered, and regards authenticity above all. …Minimalist wabi-sabi respects age and celebrates humans over invulnerable machines. It finds beauty in cracks and crevices and all the marks that time, weather and use leave behind. It reminds us that we are transient beings – that our bodies and the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which they came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the impersonal sadness of liver spots, rust and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

An Athlete’s Wabi-Sabi Life

Perhaps it is our bad knee that makes us exactly who we are. There is a story to that knee. A story rooted in a glorious performance, or a hard-fought effort, in a series of events that was the only series of events that could bring you here to today.

Perhaps the missed deadlifts, the failed reps, and the dropped weights must happen in order to come back next week for your personal record. Without each failure you wouldn’t make the myriad of tiny adjustments that edges you closer to your goals.

Or perhaps you will never set a record again. But maybe every day from here on out is still beautiful. Maybe today is beautiful because you are being you, exactly as you are, with your achy joints, your stiff hamstrings, your least favorite exercise in front of you, and still a love in your heart for your life as an athlete.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.