Calm: Slowing Down the Game

Calm: Slowing Down the Game 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

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.  
What do you think?  Where does calm come from?  Why does the game of sports or the game of business “slow down” for some people and not others?

    Jason – Your article reminds me of when athletes speak of being in the "zone" – those instances where time seems to stand still, their focus is laser-like, and they almost seem to be outside their body looking down at their own performance.

    I think focus certainly plays a key part. I think it's also the countless hours of practice and repetition that take over to the point where you don't have to mentally think about what you're doing. You just do it (all due respect to Nike). Mihály Csíkszentmihályi talks about this in his research on positive psychology (being in the "flow")and intrinsic motivation.

  • Buzz Rooney

    I think your points are spot on, Jason. Calm is critical in our work lives, whether it's an office or the court. I think that's why I love sports and the arts — watching people "do their thing" at the highest level is just so awesome!

    And I think it's becoming more critical for people to recognize their calm places because that where our zone is. So many people take on jobs and roles where they are uncomfortable and frenzied in the name of "stretching" themselves instead of finding peace and prosperity in the calm zone. It always ends badly.

  • brad mccaul

    First, things, whatever they may be, whether internal things like thoughts and feelings and physiological states like breathing, or external things like shooting or catching a basketball slow down when the activity of the higher brain (the executive brain) and the lower brain (the emotional/motor/physiological brain) become one. In the literature this is referred to as brain coherence. It is a state of unity between mind and body, thought and action, and illustrates the systemic axiom of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.That is something transformative occurs in a state of organismic coherence that elevates us into a place, a state, an experience of, in your words, “calm”. Coherence is a term we use when we are describing a state of total unity where everything, for however long or short, is working in complete synchronicity and we find ourselves in a state of wholeness. A common illustration of this state of coherence is when we inhale and in that moment of holding our breath before we exhale everything stops, and therefore unites. 2 great examples of this is in tennis when you here the grunt following the striking of the ball and in golf when the exhale follows the meeting of the club with the ball. In these examples we are coordinating or cohering our breathing with a specific physical action.
    the most important aspect of nurturing coherence and a state of calm is staying present to the here and now–being aware of where you are and what your doing at any particular moment.
    Thanks for the post–Brad

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