Sunday, June 22, 2014

Good Morning Jack

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 22 June

m  u  s  e

Good Morning Jack…

It has been difficult putting my thoughts into words these past few weeks.  Were I playing a piano I would say I’m feeling all thumbs.  There aren’t any easily found reasons for the problem.  I have a vague sense maybe I am in another of life’s transitions.  We aren’t machines.  We all have both intellectual and physical potentials that can be met on any given day but there aren’t any guarantees that we will achieve them.  You see it demonstrated all the time in the performance of sports figures.  A pitcher in baseball who throws a no-hitter has proven his potential but it is something he may achieve only once, possibly twice, in a career.  It takes the convergence of a number of factors, like a perfect storm, to render such an outstanding positive performance.  Our pitcher is likely to be at his physical best when he denies the batters of the opposing team a single base hit but he is also backed up by the errorless fielding of his teammates.  Primarily, though, the pitcher’s state of mind has to be at the top of its game.  I think this is the most difficult aspect to achieve.  Extending one’s concentration, focused on one skill, over the space of hours is foremost a psychological accomplishment.  The ultimate drama of golf is on the putting green where one’s physicality is almost irrelevant.  Succeeding here requires the ability to ward off all the negative mental distractions that we associate with pressure.  The same can be said of one kicking the winning field goal in the closing seconds of a football game.  You may habitually kick successful field goals from twenty-five yards out during practice but when there’s only one second left on the clock and your team is down by two points and the fifty thousand fans packing the stadium are all relying on you… well, that’s pressure and all bets are off.  You can’t afford to think which is why the opposing team invariably calls a time-out. 

You have been given the time needed to ponder all the possible things you might do wrong.  You easily imagine the dreadful consequences of your failure to make three simple points with a routine kick.  The ball veers wide right and everyone’s heart sinks.  You let down your teammates.  You’ve disgusted the fans.  You choked.  People can lose their job for this.  How would you make your house payment as a washed-up ball player?  Your wife and kids are depending on you to perform at a level you achieve with boring consistency.  Simply kick the ball through a wide gap from only twenty-five yards out.

Still the act requires a fluidity of motion.  It’s like the shortstop throwing to first base to get the runner out.  Your performance is best when you don’t give it a thought.  Over the years you’ve practiced a thousand hours to develop what is termed muscle memory.  It’s an act as unconscious as tying your shoes.  Having to think about what it is you need to do while you are in the act of doing it is courting disaster.  The ball sails high over the first baseman’s outstretched glove.  The six foot putt misses the cup.  The field goal is squibbed off the helmet of an onrushing lineman.  The corruption of our confidence has resulted in the very disaster we most feared.  Here is the ruination potential of pressure.

The one characteristic shared by people that succeed to the top rung of their profession is the psychological strength to not crumble under pressure.  The best of the best most likely thrive in pressure situations.  The high stakes of the moment actually inspires them to more effectively focus on what it is they need to do.  In fact, people with this psychology are most likely to flub something of apparent small consequence.  The failure here is not due to encroaching fear of failing but of simple inattention.

We are not machines.  The very human qualities that make us extraordinary work against our ability to perform at top flight levels with a day-in, day-out consistency.  Were it otherwise we would all be deprived of the entertainment value of suspense and drama.  Field goals would never be missed and no one would show up for the game.


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