It’s the time of year where I watch an awful lot of sports (at least as much as my schedule and my family will allow). While watching a basketball game this weekend and thinking about the experiences my high school freshmen son is having with basketball this year, I was reminded of my own journey as a basketball player.
Growing up, I loved basketball. I’m not sure if it was because of love of the game or because I was always tall and thus expected to play basketball, but I played a lot growing up. I practiced often. I went to basketball camps. I listened to my coaches. I worked to out hustle everyone else on the floor. And, by the time I was in high school, I spent most of my time on the bench during games. For whatever reason, I never got over the top as a high school basketball player.
I’ve heard interviews with many gifted athletes who describe how the game “slows down” for them. When they are on the floor, it feels to them as if everyone else is playing in slow motion. The great players can anticipate what’s going to happen and react before it happens. It’s a thing of beauty.
Basketball never slowed down for me. When I went into a game, my heart sped up. I was constantly in reactive mode and I don’t think I ever really felt comfortable. Ironically, years after graduating from college, I played some pick up basketball with a group of college age kids, and I remember feeling far more confident as a basketball player on the floor even though my core skills had diminished. The stakes were very low, but I finally felt as though the game had slowed down (or maybe it was just me). And I actually had better results.
I think when athletes describe the game “slowing down,” what they are really describing is their experience of being calm when the storm rages around them. Calm is an often overlooked but very powerful component to peak performance. From my own experiences with great leaders and coaches, calm is a common characteristic. When things are really going haywire and people around them are emotional or irrational, they remain calm and focused.
Where does this calm come from?
I don’t have definitive answers, but instead some speculation as to why some people have greater calm in pressurized performance situations than others.
- Natural talent – First, I think some people have natural wiring that helps them perform better in these situations, particularly when their talents are matched to their role.
- Confidence – Having confidence in your own ability (even sometimes blind confidence) goes a long way towards feeling settled and calm in a chaotic situation
- Competence – Feeling prepared and, specifically, more prepared than your adversary provides a good foundation for successfully navigating through pressurized situations.
- Focus – I know from my experience as a young basketball player, I completely lost my focus when I went into the game. I quickly became overwhelmed by everything except what my individual role was–and it hurt my performance. Those who can maintain a sharp focus on the task at hand gain a huge advantage.