Saturday, March 22, 2008

Eyes on the Prize

What lessons can we learn from the physical world that also apply to the higher realms of the mind and the spirit? The old quote "eyes on the prize" is actually very practical advice!

It occurred to me that lately I've been biking, playing tennis, and discussing golf if not actually playing. And each of these activities has some variation of that same "eyes on the prize" lesson. Tennis in particular has the idiom "keep your eye on the ball", repeated so often perhaps people stopped thinking about what it really means.

The most accurate tennis shot comes when you keep your head still as you make contact with the ball. The natural impulse is to pull your eyes and attention away a moment before contact, swivelling your head so that you can follow your own shot and see where it lands. But that motion can result in a shot that's off-center or that goes off-target. Now, a tennis match involves hundreds or thousands of shots, but the outcome hinges on maybe a dozen or two critical moments. The more important the shot, the more temptation there is to be distracted, the more important it is to focus on this lesson at that moment. If your opponent is at the net and you must hit a precise passing shot, or you have a seemingly easy put-away close to the net, that's the time to keep your head very still and your attention focused on the ball as you hit it. Even for a moment after you hit it, since you'll either win the point or not based on how well you execute.

In tennis, experience means being able to visualize the whole court, pick a target, and hit that target without looking at it, while looking at the ball instead. You'll hear this same advice applied to the serve; look at the other side and decide on a target, then concentrate on the ball while executing the service motion. Like magic, the ball will seek the target more accurately than if you peek at the other side partway through the swing.

Cycling has different considerations, but along the same lines. You might have noticed, if you spot something dangerous in the road and fixate on it (a rut, a pebble, a bump, a gate), you are likely to ride straight at it despite a fervent desire to avoid it. Muscle memory doesn't know how to interpret a negative directive, "don't go there". You have to turn the impulse into something positive -- focus on some area away from the danger zone and steer towards it. Depending on how treacherous and steep your path is, you either focus on what's immediately in front of you (avoid this obstacle, reach that next milestone), or you let your imagination wander farther ahead to your ultimate goal (the finish line, home sweet home).

Golf offers a third variation on the same theme. As in tennis, you perform the same precise movement over and over. As in cycling, you are going for a positive goal that's a long way off, but it's important to avoid obstacles along the way (the trees, the water, the wrong fairway). During the golf swing, again you should keep your head still and focus on the spot where the ball is, even for a moment after you've actually hit it. The golf course is big enough, and usually unfamiliar enough, that you can't visualize an entire hole the way a tennis player pictures the court. But you can form a mental image of an intermediate target, something that if you can fly the ball over it probably means you're on-target. You want that target to be something positive (the green on the other side of the water hazard) rather than a negative obstacle (the tangled brush where you'll never find the ball).

The lessons for life almost write themselves. Focus on the positive steps you're taking towards your goals and to avoid potential problems, rather than fretting about the dangers themselves. Keep executing until success is ensured; don't look away too soon (the old "counting your chickens before they've hatched"). Concentrate on the things you can control (the ball), don't be distracted by your opponents or the hazards along the way. Gain experience and think ahead, so that you can either visualize your whole plan, or (if the whole system is too big or complicated) pick the right intermediate target to know you're on the right path.

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