When I was in high school, I played on the tennis team, starting out at the bottom of the totem pole my sophomore year, but getting to the 6th slot as a senior. Anyway, my coach and opposing coaches noticed how much better I played in practice than in matches. When just "hitting", I was loose, placing solid ground strokes and firing decent serves. But in matches, I tensed up and was easily beaten by almost anyone who could chase down the ball and get it back over the net. My coach asked me why that was, and I had no good answer.
But I didn't have to wait long to get one. As part of a writing assignment in college, I interviewed a sports psychologist. I described my problem and asked her why I had it, expecting a complicated answer. She replied very directly.
"Mike, that's simple. What's going on is you are changing your focus. When you practice, your focus is on your performance. When you are playing, you are worried about the results of the match. Your focus has shifted to the outcome. Nobody can play well when they are constantly worried about the score."
I was flabbergasted. It all made so much sense. Why hadn't I thought of that before?
She went on to tell me all kinds of pertinent stories, such as how the legendary John Wooden would address the same topic in the huddle with his players. They would say, "But Coach, look at the score, we're losing!" And he would reply, "I don't care about the score. Do what I'm asking you to do, and the score won't matter." And ironically, by focusing on performance, Coach Wooden had tremendous success - you certainly can't argue with his results.
This concept would prove very valuable to me later in life, even in relatively low pressure situations. When I was in a young rock band and we'd be getting ready to play to a tough crowd or open up for a really good band, some of the guys would get nervous about the gig. I would say to the them, "Listen, forget about that other band. Forget about how the audience reacts. We're a good band, and we've practiced these songs over and over. Let's focus on playing them as well as we've practiced them. If you frig up, laugh at yourself and move on, because if we have fun, the audience is more likely to have fun. But if we're not having fun, they won't have a good time no matter what we sound like." I'm not sure if this helped the other guys or not, but I know it helped me.
And now, in my professional career, I'm lucky that I'm not in a lot of high-pressure situations on a regular basis. But sometimes I am, and when I have time to prepare, I can focus on my performance to deliver my best. Let's take public speaking, particularly delivering prepared speeches or presentations. I generally get quite a charge out of it; the bigger the group and higher the profile, the more excited I get. But I won't kid you, that excitement is accompanied by serious nerves - my hands shake and my throat goes dry. If I start thinking about how the audience will react, I'm dead in the water.
So I keep my focus on my performance. When I received an award from my peers in 2011, I had to give an acceptance speech in front of about 400 of them, many who I admired greatly. I must have practiced that speech about 40 times, including a dozen tweaks. I wanted to inspire them the way they inspired me. And when it came time to deliver, I was a wreck. But I focused on my performance, remembering each point, recalling each transition in order. No notes. It probably lasted only 10 minutes, but it felt like an eternity.
Pretty sure I nailed it, though. Folks couldn't stop talking to me about it the rest of the conference.
But that's enough of me puffin' out my chest. That's not why I'm writing this piece. No, I'm writing to pass along this bit of advice that has served me so well for so many years. Develop your skills, practice them over and over, and then when it comes time to deliver, make sure your focus stays where it should: executing the task at hand. Forget about what might happen if you screw up, or if folks don't like the results. If you focus on the performance, the outcome will take care of itself.
This can apply to sports, public speaking, writing code, or just about any job you can think of. None of us is good at everything, and those of us who are really good at something have probably practiced it quite a bit. Sure, talent can take you to the game, but it's hard work that lets you take home the trophy. And you won't win every time; sometimes you miss the basket, sometimes your product fails on launch, sometimes you sing an amazing song in front of the wrong audience. But if you set aside the worry and focus on delivering what you've practiced, you'll succeed more often than not.
And there's always something new to practice, something new to learn. Heck, I'm still not very good in those classic high-pressure, confrontational situations that others seem to handle like second nature. I may never have the quick wit of Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlet character in The West Wing, or be able to keep my cool like Liam Neeson in Taken.
But maybe one day I'll be able to play a match of tennis just as loose as I am in practice.