Football season is starting up again. In fact, tonight I’m heading to a Tennessee Titans/Minnesota Vikings pre-season game, and this weekend is both Notre Dame’s game against Texas and Michigan’s first game with Jim Harbaugh as Head Coach. Should be fun.

This comes at a good time for me, because I am just now restoring to my life some of the hardship and challenge that I’ve been missing. This absence has revealed itself not only in my body, but also in my soul. Let me explain.

I believe that human beings have an inherent need to press against physical performance boundaries. I’m convinced that we are meant to challenge ourselves, to force ourselves to new levels. It makes us healthier. It schools us in self-mastery. It frees us from the mundane and the sloppy. It awakens our souls and drives us to our best.

It can take a thousand different forms. The eighteen year-old might strive to break his 250-pound bench press record. The 90-year-old man may want to break his 10-lap mall walking time. The 35-year-old mother of two might hunger to break her best time in swimming a mile. The 50-year-old might train to place in the next racquetball tournament at the Y. There is no end to the possibilities.

We need this physically, of course. All the experts agree. We need to push our bodies to new levels of performance. It helps us drop weight. It lowers our blood pressure and cholesterol. It builds muscle. It also sends those inner signals to the body that say, ”Shape up, baby. Big challenge on the way.” This makes us better at everything from sex to computing our taxes.

All of this is important, but I also love what breaking barriers means for the soul.

For the last 7 months, I have either been sitting at a desk writing and editing, or I’ve been traveling the world to speak and consult. It has been a highly productive season and I’m grateful for it. I’m always careful to do at least a brief workout everyday. In a Manila hotel room I’ll do pushups, squats, and planks. In an Iraqi hotel pool, I’ll swim laps for half an hour. Often, I do more.

Yet working out isn’t necessarily the same thing as breaking a barrier. My soul, your soul, needs to be in pursuit, needs to be roaring after its prey, needs to be defying performances past.

I’ve noticed in these past months what I’ve noticed in past years: sedentary living leads to deadness of soul. It makes me passive, pleasure oriented, and dull.

When I declare war on myself, when I determine to assault a seemingly unreachable physical goal, that’s when the best Stephen Mansfield starts to emerge. He is hungry. He’s competitive. He stops eating Oreos and starts downing protein drinks. He makes time for what’s important and acquires a healthy, aggressive, eager, take-it-by-storm attitude toward life. I already have a good deal of that as a product of my faith and worldview. When I add determination to defeat a performance barrier to the mix, I come together. All I am blends into a whole and launches into battle.

The other results? I pray more fiercely. Excuses dissolve and bitterness follows. I’m drawn to aspiring people. I work hard, celebrate big, and damn the dull and the trifling. I sleep fully. I revel in the pain of improvement. I live in joy. I dream big. I read better books, throw things away more easily, and think nobler thoughts.

Now, you. Whatever your age, gender, or athletic level, set a physical goal that is just out of reach. Declare war on it. Defeat it. Celebrate it. Set another that is harder, bigger, and more intimidating. Tell some friends about it. Now you can’t chicken out. Get going. Don’t make it your life. Don’t talk about it all the time. Don’t call it a hobby. Just make it a part of what you are. Let it change you. If you have to buy a lot of equipment and take expensive trips, you have the wrong idea. I’m talking about how many pushups you can do in the morning. I’m talking about getting your walk down by five minutes. I’m talking about beating that loudmouth on the court with sportsmanship and skill.

Ah, there it is. The soul flush with fresh, oxygenated, pulsating blood. Go after it. Always have a new physical performance goal in sight. It will help you recapture the sense of adventure and the wildness that you’ve lost.

Don’t forget to tell me about it. I love hearing the stories.

That’s it. Have a good Labor Day weekend. And go Notre Dame. Beat Texas!

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