Control is never achieved when sought after directly. It is the surprising outcome of letting go.
-James Arthur Ray
Focus on What you can Control
If you ask an athlete in a particular sport about what their goal is for a given game, the response will be predictable. In most team sports, the answer will be “to win.” In an individual sport such as running, golf or bowling, it may be for a personal best score or time. Although these are appropriate goals in an ultimate sense, should this be what an athlete is focusing on at any given point in the contest? I would vehemently respond “no,” and to do so is often times more detrimental than helpful, and only leads to frustration.
Why? Because no baseball player has ever won a game in the first inning (in fact, no one player can single-handedly win any team sport). No marathon runner has ever recorded a personal best marathon time in any one mile of the race. And it is impossible to throw the 12 strikes necessary for a perfect game in bowling in the first frame. To focus on these goals only places undue stress on the athlete and distracts him or her from concentrating on the aspects of performance that are in their control and are necessary for success.
What to focus on
So what can you control, and by extension, on what should you as an athlete be focused? Let’s take bowling as an example. It is every bowler’s goal to bowl a perfect 300 game. We’ve already established that you can’t do that in any one frame. So what can you control in the first frame of a bowling game? You may say that your goal should be to roll one strike in the first frame. Close, but no. You cannot fully control whether your effort results in a strike. As anyone who bowls is well aware, one round object hitting a bunch of other round objects often yields unpredictable results. The only variables a bowler can truly control is their past preparation up to that point, the thought in their mind at that moment, and their effort.
Release yourself from the result
I recently read a great comment on a bowling message board: “a 300 game is not an accomplishment, it is a reward.” The same can be said for a hole-in-one in golf, a personal record in a speed sport such as running or cycling, or winning the game or a championship in a team sport. These outcomes are rewards for hours and hours of dedicated practice and proper execution. Success and enjoyment in sports are both best achieved when the athlete releases him- or herself from the result of their performance (e.g., the strike, the clock time), and instead measures their performance solely on how well they performed on those variables they could control at the moment. In fact, if you ask bowlers who rolled a perfect game, most of them will tell you that shooting 300 was the last thing on their mind at the time. That is no coincidence.
Don’t look at the Score board
Try this experiment the next time you are participating in your sport: go the entire contest without looking at the score. If you are bowling in a league, don’t look at the scoreboard until the end of the game or, if you can stand it, not until the end of all three games. If you are a golfer, ask someone else to keep score, and don’t look at the card until the end of the round. If you are playing in a team sport and it is appropriate to do so, don’t look at the scoreboard until the end of the game. I think you will be surprised by several things. At first, it will be very difficult to resist the temptation. But after that, you will experience a freedom that allows you to focus on what is important, and the end results will be greater enjoyment and better performance.
There is much more to say on this topic, especially as these concepts apply to particular sports. If you have any questions, feel free to send an email (DrRich@mindforsports.com) or post your question as a comment to this article, and I will respond.