penalties

Over 9 million people in Spain were glued to their TV sets as the quarter-final match between Spain and Italy in the 2008 Eurocup went to penalties. They were perhaps surprised, as was I, that none of the first 12 penalties was missed. The thirteenth penalty was the first one where the ball didn’t enter the net, which is almost enough to make one superstitious. If we want to understand how such a high level of accuracy is possible, we need to bear in mind that top-level competitors are trained to focus. Before the penalty shoot-out, both Italy and Spain had struck the woodwork in extra time. However, this apparently didn’t affect their concentration when it came to taking the penalties.

This happened because both teams had learned to focus. When the Spanish midfielder Xavi Hernandez hit the post in extra time, he had two options: on the one hand, blame himself for missing, curse his bad luck, or even obsess about the miss, becoming depressed in the process; or, on the other hand, eliminate all negative thoughts from his head and completely focus on the game in progress, with the firm intention of taking advantage of any chances that might come his way. Most of us, who do not have the benefit of the training received by top sportspeople, would very probably have instinctively chosen the first option. However, this would have led us to waste our energies on getting angry with ourselves, which is both highly unpleasant and, ultimately, pointless. In contrast, if we’d chosen the second option, we would have carried on playing unburdened by any tinge of self-recrimination.

The alternative we choose depends on where we concentrate our attention. To pick up on the ideas of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at the University of Chicago, our inner energy stems from what we focus on. This focus influences our thoughts, our acts and even our ability to be happy. What we dwell on forms the building blocks of our overall mentality. What’s more, we can train ourselves to control what we focus on.

Focus has basically two functions. On the one hand, it selects the information which we consider to be important. It acts as a spotlight to highlight a particular aspect of reality or, if you’ll forgive the movie simile, as a lightsaber to dissect what we see. On the other hand, focus retrieves information from our memory in order to arrive at the correct interpretation of events, as has been shown in different pieces of research.

In a study carried out in 1981, Cohen showed two different groups of people a video of a woman dining with her husband on the occasion of her birthday. One group was told that the woman worked as a waitress, the other that she earned her living as a librarian. The group that was told that the woman was a waitress remembered afterwards that she’d been drinking beer in the video and had a TV. However, the group that was informed that she was a librarian recalled that she had been wearing glasses and had been listening to classical music (fairly debatable stereotyping, it has to be said, but thus functions the mind). So, what we focus on can be influenced. Further, we are all very good at shaping our own memories in accordance with what we have decided to pay attention to and common stereotypes.

All of this may come as something of a revelation. You may have believed that your thoughts were spontaneous, possibly contradictory at times, but in any case something that was beyond your control. However, science tells us that this isn’t the case. An external event first appears in our mind merely as information, bereft of any positive or negative connotations. It’s us -the type of person we are, with all our experience and our baggage- who interprets the information.

Rafael Nadal is another very well-known example of a top sportsman who is trained to deal with adversity. Possibly, one of the keys to his success is his mental strength and, by implication, his power of focus. When Nadal makes a mistake on court, rather than play it over repeatedly in his mind, he has the ability to concentrate on the next point and push the mistake to one side. At crucial moments, he decides not to devote any energy to something that will not bring him any benefit. Possibly, this is one of the best things that we can train ourselves to do. So, for example, if we are speaking in public, if we have made a mess of the first slide, we mustn’t be plagued by this for the rest of the presentation and be continually reproaching ourselves. Or when we get angry about something we’ve done, we mustn’t persist in thinking about what we should have said, done or communicated. If we do, we’re living in the past and serving up a cocktail of bitterness which will ruin the present. So, telling ourselves “I won’t think any more about that” is a conscious decision that is within the reach of all of us, and will have a decisive influence on our quality of life.

As I wrote in a previous post, optimists focus on a different aspect of reality than pessimists. To some extent, it is true that our personality will influence what we pay attention to. However, the reverse is also true: what we focus on has a big effect on our personality. If, little by little, we train ourselves to focus our attention in a positive way, we will eventually be able to even modify the way we view what has happened. Who knows, if we choose to be gentler with others and with ourselves, we may be able to have more civic societies, deeper personal relationships and a better quality of life.

Take-aways:

  • First of all, when something happens to us, we need to accept that we are neither what we think, nor what we feel. We all have an inner guide that helps us to decide what to focus on. So, when a negative thought comes into your head, keep it at a distance and put it under observation.
  • Secondly, decide to what extent a particular thought is helpful. If it isn’t, say to yourself: “I’m not going to waste any more energy on this.” Focus your attention on other things which are on your mind, so that you can reduce its impact.
  • Choose some ‘anchor points’ –for example, quotations, images or songs- that help you to distance the thoughts that you do not want to occupy yourself with. For instance, whenever an unpleasant idea comes into your head, repeat an inspirational saying, imagine yourself lying in the sun or hum a piece of music so that you can divert your focus of attention.

Round-up:

We can control what we focus on in order to influence our thoughts, our acts and our ability to be happy.

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