A paradox lies at the heart of all athletic judgment. To succeed requires passion and commitment, but achievement also demands cool judgment under immense pressure. In the heat of athletic competition especially in a contact sport, opponents will strive to deceive or intimidate or push or shove an athlete to throw him or her off their game. Coaches will even calling a time out to “ice” an opponent’s penalty shot aims at that end. Opponents try to “get inside your head” and distort an athlete’s judgment.
Mind games, physical intimidation, teasing, trash talk, pushing and shoving have one aim, to jumble an athlete’s fine tuned pattern recognition and judgment. The heat of competition disrupts the cool of judgment.
The capacity to channel passion and intensity into refined perception and quality judgment is the hallmark of any successful professional and especially athletes. The stress of endless competition within a person’s teams and against other opponents magnifies this.
The need to keep your cool stands in marked contrast the emphasis upon honing physical skill. Cognitive discipline, energy and time must be devoted to master the physical aspects. The excitement, however, of competing presses upon this cognitive control of the body.
Cool means excercising trained perception and judgment under chaotic conditions. In “the mind’s eye” reminds us how powerfully visual humans are; almost 70 percent of our perceptual energy is devoted to vision. In his or her mind’s eye athletes and professionals call up trained knowledge and assessments. They see, assess and judge; sometimes the judgments are so honed that they look like reactions or intuitions, but are really trained exercises of experienced judgment.
A firefighter, social worker, doctor or athlete all have the same obligation to think and act professionally under pressure. This means relying upon the trained intuition and a schema of knowledge and reaction that they have trained to engrave in their minds and bodies.
I use the word obligation because in team sports or activities, team members rely upon an individual to keep cool. Team members execute their own charges while assuming their teammates will do the same. If one person fails, the entire scheme falls apart.
Court leaders like setters, quarterbacks, catchers, middles or point guards demonstrate this best when they read unfolding situations and call plays. Players must recognize deceptions and traps. All the team members play off and coordinate with each other even when a broken play occurs. This built up trust and mutual understanding permits decision makers to make something from nothing.
This can only occur if players are paying attention to the play and to each other. It only can occur if their minds are fully integrated with flow and demands of a situation. An angry player misses cues or gets even or makes mistakes or commits fouls. A player replaying a mistake or the last play will not be crisp in the present play. When athletes “lose it” they start a cascade effect on their team and offer opportunities to opponents.
Keeping your cool may be natural for some phlegmatic types but most athletes and professionals have to learn it the hard way. When a player arrives at a professional self-discipline, they arrive at much higher levels of consistent achievement and help all players around them be better. Being professional means being mature and keeping one’s cool enables players to trust and react with confidence in each other’s consistency.
To keep your cool is central to athletic ethics and success. I think this is why I find the hockey enforcer so profoundly wrong. Designating a player to lose their cool, attack and try to hurt others violates any moral defense of sports as a worthy activity. The bounty hunting in the NFL violates the same moral code. To make uncontrollable and unpredictable violence a required part of an athlete’s job stabs at the heart of sport ethics and human achievement. The ugliness of the modern American hockey game as well as the psychological and physical cost to the so called “enforcers” speaks for itself.
Keeping cool is at the center of high quality execution, performance and team cohesion. This reality reminds me of a hoary old truth from Rudyard Kipling’s IF.
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same…
You can be an athlete.