Sunday, February 2, 2014

Focus: The Eye of the Tiger

 Before his unfortunate sex scandal made him a polarizing figure in sport, Tiger Woods was seen as a model of competitive fire.  And while many aspects of his dominance merit comment, the one I am going to call your attention to in this piece is the issue of his focus.  In his heyday, he was known for his clutch play down the stretch, the absence of errors, and a trait his father honed in him and predicted would undo his opponents: his killer instinct.  If we could trace the source of his successful ability to bear down during important moments, the thing we would want athletes to emulate would be the look in his eye, the eye of the tiger, if you will.  Of course, he has this focus on every shot, but you will notice it particularly on his short game shots, and most supremely on his putts.  Watch him stalk a putt and you will see the picture of competitive focus.  My recommendation to you is that you try to add this skill to your repertoire.  To find the eye of your inner tiger, try the following set of skills.
            Directing: Yoga gurus for millennia have commented that a critical aspect of attention is our ability to direct it.  Without some concerted effort, attention wanders, and with it our cognitive, and indeed, physical energy.  Yoga connects sharpening the mind’s eye to our ability to control where we focus the vision of our actual eyes, and calls this skill 'the drishti’, a Sanskrit word which means, "the gaze."  It has the quality of being intense and soft at one and the same time.  It burns deeply, yet feels cool.  It is equally quite engaged and yet detached.  If it burns too hot, we will become overly activated, and yet if it becomes too cool, the very focus we are looking for will slip away.
            Filtering: I have mentioned this skill in a prior post ("Focus?"), but I will reiterate it here. We correctly think of focus as an act of directing our attention, but it is important to say that it is also an act of filtering out distracting inputs.  Many have said that expertise involves increasingly being able to distinguish salient versus irrelevant factors.  The filtering skill is a version of this, but doesn't require you to be a black belt in martial arts or a Jedi knight.  It does require that you sift out the noise of your thoughts and emotions and be present to the relevant factors of the task at hand.  Strong emotions, perceived slights, and dwelling on past or future moments are all things that should get filtered out if we want to get the eye of the Tiger.  In fact, Tiger's father bragged about coaching this skill in Tiger by intentionally trying to distract him during his putting routine as a child: jangling keys, coughing, whistling, and stomping his feet.  He was goading Tiger to work on the skill of filtering.
            Practicing: As can be seen from the example of the Woods family, the filtering skill can be practiced.  Nor does it need to be done in a cruel, Earl Woods kind of way.  Try this drill: Sit or stand about four or five feet from a picture on a wall, preferably one without text.  While maintaining a good posture, find a spot about the size of a quarter on the picture to focus on, and try to keep both your visual and attentional focus on the spot.  Can you achieve 'one-mindedness', that unbroken concentration that does not waver, and stays a medium-grade temperature?  You may notice that your eyes wander.  You may notice that your attention rushes to many things other than the task of just looking.  You may notice that you slouch, or get hot or cold: all inputs to notice, dismiss, and gently return your attention and your focus to your spot.  Remember: the goal is not to become so united with your spot that you feel as though you have left your body or the present moment and have melded with the picture.  The goal is to remain focused on the spot and be able to notice, but filter out, distractions by bringing your attention back to the task of focusing on the spot.  Try it for three minutes three times a week, and then increase your time to five minutes per session.  Easy drill, hard practice.
            Whether you are a fan or a detractor of Tiger Woods, you have to admit that the Tiger years were a wonder to behold for the definitiveness of their dominance, their duration, and the sustained clarity of vision that was required for so protracted a period.  You would definitely say that one of the main ways he outplayed his opponents was that he outconcentrated them.  You might also say that what has led to his demise is the fact that he let his all-too famous gaze rove a little too far of field.

1 comment:

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