The ball lands in front of me.
I look up.
It’s just me against the Greek goal keeper.
What do you think goes through an Olympian’s mind in this moment?
Let me add a little more context.
In 1993 I wrote in an application to the Queensland Academy of Sport that I wanted to play water polo for Australia. Sydney 2000 Olympics had been announced and they were my goal.
So began the quest to become an Olympian. I didn’t make the Sydney team. (I’ve written about some of the ups, downs and inspirations of that journey.)
But now, after everything, it’s Athens Olympics, 2004. And I’m in the team.
It’s game 3: Australia vs Greece.
The water polo pool is indoors.
There are 6,000 Greeks going berserk. The sound is deafening. You literally can’t hear another person speak unless they’re yelling close by.
Somewhere in the crowd, in that sea of Hellenic blue and white, are dotted islands of Australian supporters – including my family – decked head to toe in green and gold wigs, face paint, t-shirts, you name it.
We know this is a critical game to stay in medal contention.
It’s 30 secs from half time and we’re ahead by one goal.
This moment then, is the culmination of the roller coaster of 11 years of training, games, selection, rejection, injuries, recovery and chance. All of which means that the opportunity to put us two goals ahead going into half time is up to me.
So, back to the moment at hand.
What do you think goes through an Olympian’s mind in this moment?
Let me share:
Get me out of here.
I always miss these in training.
I always miss these in games.
I wish someone else was taking this shot.
Hang on. You have to think positive.
This is your turn.
This is the Olympics.
Your family’s in the stand.
I can be a hero!
I can score this!
[If you’re an athlete, I’d love to hear about your experiences in moments like these in the comments too.]
There’s probably 5-10 secs for me to think this all through in various cycles as I sprint in with the ball towards the goal.
I pick up the ball.
The Greek goalie saves it.
As I drop down from the shot, I see my team mate swimming towards the goal on the other side of the pool. This could have been the simplest of passes for the simplest of goals.
I sink to the bottom of the pool mortified.
I bounce back up just in time to see the Greek goalie launch the ball the full length of the field to one of his players.
They pick up.
Instead of being 2 goals up, we’re now even.
In water polo, we call that a 2 goal turnaround.
And now I have to swim to the side of the pool for the half time huddle to face my team and coaches and try to regroup.
Any athlete will tell you about momentum. What it means to have it and what it means to lose it.
This was a gut wrenching kick in the teeth.
Sadly, this is not one of those rise-from-the-ashes stories where I scored the winner later on (haha I wish!). That didn’t happen. We lost the game. We ended the Olympics in 9th position.
Was that all from my one missed shot? Of course not. I know that. My rational self knows that.
But my inner critic?
Well, let’s just say I’ve replayed this moment in my mind many, many times.
The ending never changes.
There are a few lessons to draw from this story.
The critic, the optimist and task focussed attention
What’s interesting to me on reflection, and with new insight into these kinds of moments, is that neither the “negative”, nor the “positive” thoughts were useful to me. Both the critic and the optimist were distractions.
It’s why the obsession with positive thinking is a myth. Science is validating millennia old traditions like mindfulness and acceptance to help us better navigate these moments.
What is necessary here, is task focussed attention to act positively.
That means being present and focussed on the most important things I need to do to give myself the best possible chance of success.
This is where mindfulness kicks in. It becomes the scalpel between my reaction (uncontrollable) and my response (choiceful).
It stings a bit to say, but the most important things to do in a 1 on 1 shot in a crux moment in an Olympic Games are exactly the same steps I’d been taught and had practiced since I was 13 in my club games.
Step number one on the mental checklist: Always lift your head up and look around to assess the situation.
With just that single action, I could have seen my team mate and 100x’d the chances of the team scoring the goal. Not to mention that it would have solved my fears altogether. I wouldn’t have had to take the shot at all.
Checklists can help
Checklists are an awesome tool for maintaining and practicing task focussed attention.
They obviously wouldn’t have worked in a pool, but I know a person who was negotiating an 8 figure deal with government. This was a crux 3 months for them.
When we spoke, the deal had been done. They’d won the bid – their largest deal to date – and it was time to get onto the next stages. A huge success by any definition.
Throughout the negotiation process though, when usually they found flow and loved the work, they’d felt neurotic. Sleep was hard to come by. The whole experience felt like a struggle. It had been vastly different dealing at this scale with government compared to private sector. Extremely strict rules for information and stakeholder access meant they felt like they were flying blind.
I knew they had an investment checklist that they used to assess these types of deals.
I asked them: “Did you stick to your deal checklist?”
“Yeah. But it felt horrible.” was the response.
I actually consider this to be high performance. In some ways even more admirable than accomplishing something while being in “flow” or when everything is running smoothly.
While flow states are powerful (and have some cool science behind them), if we have to wait for “flow” or can only perform with “flow”, then that’s a huge precondition and obstacle to doing the important work.
For me, confidence sits in this same bucket.
If we only ever act positively when we are feeling confident, how will we ever start?
In fact, in some environments, confidence might be your worst enemy. For example in investing. If you feel confident, is that because you simply like the idea or the CEO or the branding? Or have you actually been through your due diligence checklist and done the boring work of cross checking with experts?
Doing what matters, in this case sticking to an investment checklist, while experiencing the tough thoughts, emotions and sensations can be really hard.
[If you’d like more, The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande is a great read and talks about the application of checklists in hospitals, on flight decks and other high stakes environments. If you’re interested in Flow have a look at: Flow by Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.]
Recognising and expecting non-duality
Like the colours in the yin yang symbol above, my Olympic moment also highlights a pattern of positive and negative showing up side by side and being inextricably linked.
It’s a fractal pattern too, meaning that what shows up in the moment – the positive and the negative, the critic and the optimist, the high and the low, the fear and the courage – also plays out across the minute, the hour, the day, the week and the lifetime.
I find it liberating to recognise this in my own experiences:
- the joy and love I experience with my children and the anger that shows up when the toys aren’t put away.
- achieving my Olympic dream while experiencing shame and embarrassment of nerves and a media mistake.
- the exhilaration and stabbing discomfort of jumping into an icebath.
- the distress of my father dying and the opening it created for conversations long overdue.
- the excitement before delivering a workshop and the fear of no-one being interested.
I also find it deeply humanising to recognise this in others’ stories and situations too:
- the person starting their new dream job sitting with the discomfort of feeling like a fraud and eating alone because everyone else is consumed by end of financial year activities.
- the anticipation of a wedding day mixed with the tension of family dynamics.
- the health care worker juggling their commitment to service and wondering how to keep their families safe through COVID.
- the Ukrainian who shows up to a client coaching call after driving for 7 hours to after a missile strike.
- the leader who’s been up from 4:30am to 10:30pm every day for the last fortnight because their team is halved by the flu but they keep trying to act positively because supporting their team is too important.
- the teacher trying to navigate the state requirements for assessment for the kid who had to miss the exam but still deserves a fair shot.
- the idea that in a world of digital, the value of face to face increases.
We typically don’t experience too much anxiety putting the washing on the line.
But my observation is that the more important something is, the more likely the tough thoughts, feelings and sensations are to show up.
We experience tough “stuff” not because we’re inadequate, weak or broken.
We experience it because we care.
My new inspiration
You may have read this passage from US president Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I always assumed he was writing about third parties (and maybe he was!).
But what if the critic that doesn’t count is the one parked in my mind?
Is that a part of me that I have to learn to accept?
It sure seems like it.
For 42 years the critic and the optimist have been with me. Nothing I’ve ever tried has made them go away. They just find new ways to maintain a voice. No amount of pushing away or arguing stops them. No amount of chocolate or ice cream will drown them (Sweet tooth? Guilty.). No amount of caffeine will silence them.
The crucibles are tough but I can learn from them. They can help me uncover and deepen my understanding of what truly matters. Then I can bring those lessons forward with me to do more of the important and be the person I want to be in the process.
And while the pattern seems easier to spot in the more extreme experiences, it’s there in the smaller moments too when I take a second to really look at them.
And if I can recognise this in myself, then I can open my eyes and look around.
My mum was a doctor and would come home and tell us about the “courage in the suburbs”. It’s true.
Humanity is extraordinary.
There’s no need for instagram highlight reels or polished veneers. The fear and the courage, the joy and the tension, the excitement and the boredom, the love and the suffering – we all sit with these dichotomies and still get up every day.
The person on the bus, the single parent, the child in front me, the colleague I’ve just met. Everyone has their own battle whether we know it or not. It doesn’t matter what the scorecard, bank account or trophy cabinet says.
It’s inspiring and it’s right next to me, everywhere I look.
So often I seek one half of the experience and deny the other, but I want to celebrate the whole and the fact that we all share it. I’m trying to practice sitting with the tension inherent in both sides of the yin yang. I’m trying to practice accepting the bad with the good and the good with the bad.
In a strange way, maybe there’s nothing to be done. I’m already sitting with the tension. Maybe I just need to remind myself to make it a conscious choice to accept it.
As The Editors sing: every little piece of your life, will add up to one.
It’s true for everyone and it’s true for me.
So I’ll take the whole please. I’d like to get better at bringing all of who I am to everything I do.