What do you like to do with your “free time”? Or, perhaps more apt, do you get any time that is free? Time during which nothing has been planned, time that is okay to spend lost in thought, time that is completely…yours?
For adults, such time is often seen as a luxury, a bonus. Having it or prioritizing it can cause us to feel guilty and thinking that we should be doing something more “productive.” We often are quick to give it up, too, as if having “nothing” planned for a given moment obligates us to fill it with a scheduled activity if someone asks.
Typically, this isn’t a problem when we were kids; in fact, the younger I picture myself the more free time I think I had. And of the many things I would do with that time (riding my bike to no place in particular, inventing games in my room, playing outside), quite a few centered on my favorite sport — hockey. I collected hockey cards, attended hockey games, counted down the minutes until the start of Hockey Night in Canada, the televised game of the week.
One of the top players when I was growing up was the goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, Ken Dryden. Unlike a lot of professional athletes, Dryden demonstrated an intellectual side. He took a year off from hockey to complete law school. He has written several books and has served in Canadian government.
Among his books is one called The Game, a cerebral, philosophical inquiry into the game of hockey. In the book he discusses the importance of free time. He is lamenting the fact that children these days spend so little time just playing hockey for the fun of it.
He writes, “It all has to do with the way we look at free time. Constantly preoccupied with time and keeping ourselves busy, we treat non-school, non-sleeping, or non-eating time, unbudgeted free time, with suspicion and no little fear. For, while it may offer opportunity to learn and do new things, we worry that the time we once spent reading, kicking a ball, or mindlessly coddling a puck might be used destructively, in front of TV, or ‘getting into trouble’ in endless ways. So we organize free time, scheduling it into lessons – ballet, piano, French – into organizations, teams, and clubs, fragmenting it into impossible-to-be-boring segments, creating in ourselves a mental metabolism geared to moving on, making free time distinctly unfree.”
Dryden goes on in the book to introduce the reader to one of his teammates, a player of amazing ability by the name of Guy Lafleur. Lafleur was the star of stars, the best player in hockey for most of the 70′s. Dryden talks about how Lafleur would literally spend hours alone on the ice, fully immersed in the moment. He believes it is during this time that Lafleur’s elite skills developed.
“It is in free time that the special players develop, not in the competitive expedience of games, in hour-long practices once a week, in mechanical devotion to packaged, processed, coaching-manual, hockey-school skills. For while skills are necessary, setting out as they do the limits of anything, more is needed to transform those skills into something special. Mostly it is time – unencumbered, unhurried, time of a different quality, more time, time to find wrong answers to find a few that are right; time to find your own right answers; time for skills to be practiced to set higher limits, to settle and assimilate and become fully and completely yours, to organize and combine with other skills comfortably and easily in some uniquely personal way, then to set loose, trusted, to find new instinctive directions to take, to create.”
Dryden makes his point well about an elite athlete like Lafleur, but I think the same need for “unencumbered, unhurried time” exists in us all. Being on sabbatical last year helped me consider the importance of free time. I made sure I took time to think and reflect, time to go for walks, and, perhaps most importantly, I took the time to do things that may seem frivolous to others but help me find my center.
“But without such time a player is like a student cramming for exams. His skills are like answers memorized by his body, specific, limited to what is expected, random and separate, with no overviews to organize and bring them together. And for those times when more is demanded, when new unexpected circumstances come up, when answers are asked for things you’ve never learned, when you must intuit and piece together what you already know to find new answers, memorizing isn’t enough. It’s the difference between knowledge and understanding, between a super-achiever and a wise old man. And it’s the difference between a modern suburban player and a player like Lafleur.”
Put another way, it’s the difference between any of us plodding along in life or moving closer to reaching our full potential.
by Andy Smallman