“Peaceful Warrior“–the movie version of the novel, “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” written by former Olympic gymnast turned bestselling author Dan Millman–hits theaters up and down the West Coast this weekend. (Over the course of June, it will make its way East as well. To watch some clips from the movie, click here.)
As a former serious gymnast myself, I was impressed with the fact that “Peaceful Warrior” faces head on the fears–both real and psychological–that gymnasts struggle with, especially as they move higher up the competition scale. Olympics TV broadcasts often glorify gymnastics, sensationalizing the extreme disappointments and the exciting and unexpected successes (especially of the women), but fail to truly explore the mind games competitive gymnasts face on a regular basis. It is not uncommon for gymnasts to conjure up all sorts of demons regarding especially difficult moves, as is the case in the movie, where viewers are privy to the nightmares Dan (the main character) has about his routines on the rings.
I remember vividly the fears I associated with particular flips on the beam; with the enormous concentration needed for vaults; and with hitting the spring board just right, to get enough height. I remember playing these moves over and over in my mind, imagining myself crashing in all sorts of horrible ways–in a manner similar to the visions Dan has of himself falling from the rings and mangling his body.
In my case, as the mind games got overly intense and the fears grew too enormous to withstand, I eventually quit. Yet the plot of “Peaceful Warrior” turns instead on Dan’s chance encounter with a man at a local gas station whom he learns to call Socrates (played by Nick Nolte). Socrates teaches him how to quell the demons with Eastern philosophy and a range of Zen meditation techniques (which sometimes come off rather “Karate Kid”-like).
Through Dan’s relationship with this mysterious man who doles out wisdom left and right–such as, “You are not who you think you are”–to a confused and, at first, resistant Dan, Dan learns to master his fears, become the moves of his routines, and overcome a potential identity crisis involving the loss of his Olympic dream and his future as a gymnast. The movie is ultimately of the inspirational genre, yet rather than have it turn on the simple theme of “the comeback,” it explores the notion of becoming spiritually centered as foundational to the possibility of a comeback.
Be warned: Viewers may cringe at the inevitable and rather corny allusions to “The Karate Kid,” as well as the familiar, cliched philosopher-sage advice continually emerging from the mouth of Socrates. (It gets a bit over the top). But the way the film develops the relationship between becoming spiritually centered and finding success in life–particularly in sports (and most specifically, gymnastics)–is intriguing nonetheless. The story is sure to have athletes, both former and current, reflecting on their own self-conjured mind games and demons, and whether Eastern philosophy and meditative practices might be helpful in conquering these common psychological struggles in the world of competitive sports.