“I lost my edge.” Athletes and professionals mutter this when they struggle with their skills and when they begin to feel their skills eroding or when they feel competitors starting to surpass them. I think the idea of keeping our edge generates powerful ethical and psychological insights about what how high achieving individuals live. What does it mean to play at the edge?
Think of edges in two ways. First, edges can be sharp, dull or somewhere in between. Generally dull edges do not function efficiently; cutting or acting takes more effort and is less responsive.
Second, edges function like boundaries. Athletes and people confront several ways of being at the edge. They grapple with the edge of their own talent, training, character or focus. Individuals also face the edge of the skills and training required to succeed in their endeavor whether sports or any professional capability. Individuals live at the edge where they rub against other competitors. Finally individuals risk falling off the edge of their emotional, moral or professional lives.
When a person plays at the edge of their talent and energy, they marshal internal energy and attention. This internal organizing helps them function with maximum effort and efficiency. People at their edge push their skill and attention and energy. They see each achievement as a new boundary, a new edge to perform that they hone as an edge, but one that they struggle to surpass. Individuals perform flat out and they are always pushing themselves to get better at what they are doing. This level of acting can exhaust people quicker, but being at the edge keeps athletes and people more alert and functioning at high levels. Facing a competitor playing at their edge forces contenders to push themselves harder. Self-aware individuals know the risks they take by treading at their boundaries, but risk it to succeed and win.
A person cannot drive to the borderlands of their sport unless they thrust to the edge of their talent and effort. At the edge, the best athletes and minds develop new strategies, new skills, new training approaches to exploit the possibilities of the game and persons. Facing the best, taking risks, trying new ways or mastering old ways, constantly adapting to the other side’s moves and training, all involve living at the edge.
I am not talking about being “edgy” for the sake of being cool or hip or being “edgy” for the sake of style of calling attention to oneself. To keep your edge in performance, involves internal discipline, self-awareness, situational attention and risk taking.Being at the edge takes harsh honesty about one's own potential and effort. It means the courage to fail and the resilience to get back up and try again. Competing at the edge entails remembering that no one in your field is standing still and you don’t get better by being comfortable.
Unfortunately falling of the edge can wreck a moment or a person or an execution. Playing at the edge is not the same as playing out of control, but it can easily evolve into out of control. Losing control like honing a blade so that it becomes too sharp but thinned and brittle,
Keeping an edge requires self-knowledge. People who risk the edge need to know their limits but always be pushing slightly beyond them. Edges can loom as precipices that tempt folks to fall off. On the other hand, once a person achieves an edge and masters it, the edge becomes solid ground for them. They live and act, and soon enough the edge dulls. They take it for granted and live that way too often. Pushing to the edge or sharpening skills, requires endless recalibration of skill sets and character and what one can do. It means not only being self-aware of strengths but motivated intention to push them as well as compensating for weakness.
In a critical way playing at the edge can alert athletes when they need to pull back. People use the metaphor to climb a mountain to capture the drive and ability needed to play at the edge in any area. But mountain climbing is dangerous and people fail, start-over and fall off edges. Sometimes individuals discover edges we could once transverse are blocked or no longer within our skill set. This does not mean quit, but it involves self-assessing, changing focus, developing new or undervalued skills and character to keep playing and competing.
Falling off an edge can lead us to get back up and try again but it can also warn us to change paths and proficiencies.
At the same time keeping your edge can mean always looking for an edge on your opponents. This drives innovation and work ethics. But, left unchecked by integrity and strong rule enforcement can lead persons to cheat. It may mean using PEDs or figuring out ways to live at the boundary of the rules or push them until caught. The dynamic of the edge cuts both ways and takes integrity and strong support from peers and leaders to stay on the edge and not fall off.
Being at the edge creates its problems. Keeping the edge should not be confused with being “on edge.” We’ve all been there, some of us more than most. You know the moment when a person is so tightly wound up that they startle or jump. They tighten up under stress or anticipation. The tightening narrows perception, cuts speed and reaction and dilutes situational awareness. People on edge overreact and often react to the wrong stimulus, it makes them vulnerable to fakes and tactical misdirection as well as undercutting fluid and smooth relations with their fellow teammates. It makes it harder to listen because a person on edge internally constricts their focus and filters out important information.
Managing and leading professionals who live at the edge requires a different approach then just managing those who are good or even very good, but living within their comfort zones. Managing egos, keeping team together and just refining skills around the edges makes good sense. But this leadership style does not lead to maximum performance but it will minimize errors and that can count for a lot during long haul seasons or professional actions. Eric Wedge the present manager of the Seattle Mariners sums it up in a very existential way. “You’ve got to play every day like it’s your last.” This creates a moral and psychological edge that needs to be managed and watched.
Life and performance at the edge is critical to highest achievement and professional growth. But edges cut both ways and can erode a player and force them over the boundary if the individual and their managers do not manage the moral and psychological balance needed to live at the edge.
Growth and achievement lie at the edge of potential and challenge.