Check Your Shoulder

Check Your Shoulder

I coach youth soccer. If your eyes just glazed over in insta-boredom I understand, but bear with me a sec. One of the things we work on with the kids is spacial awareness, knowing where they are and where their teammates are at all times, especially in those magic moments when they get the ball.

“Check your shoulder!” we yell, which is what you ought to do as the ball is approaching to see how much room you’ve got to operate, and to plan your next move, even before the ball arrives.

‘Check your shoulder’ is a thing I do in traffic, too. See where the cars are. See where the spaces are. Anticipate the timing of it all.

‘Check your shoulder’ is a thing I do when I’m riding with friends, also. Have you ever been out with a group, and someone gets on the front and starts to hammer and drops everyone without even noticing? They didn’t check their shoulder, and now the paceline is broken. Or even worse, you’re riding two abreast and someone makes a move without assessing the space first. Brakes squeal, curses fly, and in the worst cases, bikes pile on top of each other.

I think of this spatial awareness all the time, how some people develop it and some don’t.

The grocery store is perhaps the most grating example for me. Quite how you can stand in the middle of an aisle with a large metal cart at your side and not wonder if you’re in the way is a zen koan that has dominated too many of my post-shopping meditations. Ain’t nobody checking their shoulder in the grocery store. But the grocery store is just an example. These things are true wherever humans come in close contact.

On some level, I have come to think of this dynamic less as actual spacial awareness and more as a sort of unspoken spatial politics. How much consideration should you give other people? How is public space collaborative, versus the zero-sum game many seem to view it as? If I let you go, then I lose. If you let me go, then you lose.

In my mind, this is the wrong view. We all have lives to live, and our most precious resource is time. To be able to move efficiently through the world is to gain time that you can spend in zen meditation or, more realistically, with your kids. And so I think it behooves us all to dance a little with each other. When you get on the front, you pull me along for a bit, consciously and conscientiously, and then I pull you along, and in the end we get there faster. But that analogy is too clean, too clear how we each benefit.

How about this?

I’ll sit in here, in this paceline, and just hold my place. I’ll ignore the nattering voice in the back of my mind that feels we’re all going too slowly. We just rolled out, and I’m impatient. I’ll resist the urge to jump out of line, stomp to the front, and yank the whole group up the road to suit my whims. We’ll move as one, the group of us, and in our shape there is speed, yes, but also support. We are riding bikes, but we are also communing. We are more than the sum of our parts. We are efficiency and connection. We are amplified together.

And that’s what we try to get the kids to see, that growing spatial awareness makes the team function better, more smoothly, more effectively, and we all get to feel the magic of it, and sometimes we even win.

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  1. rides in be

    As a soccer Dad and cyclist you had me from the first paragraph. However when we went to the grocery store I was in deep. I don’t go to zen meditation in those moments. Instead I start to write sermons, develop proverbs and tell parables dreaming that somehow I could open peoples eyes and change their basic way of relating to others.

  2. TomInAlbany

    Another zen koan: Step back to gain perspective. I blame the narrow, grocery store aisles for having to stand in the middle so I can see the bottom and the top shelves. That said, I do ‘check my shoulder.’ I try to make sure I’m not owning the entire aisle – and I’m sure to excuse myself when I have to walk between another zen practitioner and their perspective.

    Spatial awareness and anticipation are just something I’ve always used. It frustrates/maddens me when some people will go zooming along the highway and drive right up to someone’s bumper and then sit there for a few miles before getting frustrated and finally go around when they could have changed lanes and maintained their speed long before they got to the bumper.

  3. James Fitzgerald

    I have been a ride organizer, leader and guide for hundreds of rides and trips over the last 45 years.
    One value I try to maintain, and instill, is that a good leader leads from the front AND the back.
    Checking your shoulder should become automatic.
    I agree with everything Robot said here.

  4. Dave

    Soccer, cycling, hockey, shopping … all examples of activities where the ability to handle proximate concerns while maintaining situational awareness is a skill that makes teams, and others lives, better. I’m certain these skills can be taught, but in my experience there are some people who just can’t seem to achieve real proficiency. I suspect in many cases it’s because of poor eyesight, balance or some other physical deficiency but in others it just seems to be a mental issue that keeps them from ‘getting it’. Maybe their brains aren’t wired to handle spatial problems? Or maybe they just don’t care.

  5. Steve Boehmke

    funny. I’m a big guy, and when waiting to get in an elevator in the US, people give stink-eye if there are 10 in there already. In Japan, they welcome you in, like “we can fit more! Come on it!” haha… different spacial normalities.

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