“He played as if fear——of Roger Federer, of Centre Court——never entered his mind.” This is how a New York Times sports writer (July 3, 2010), described Tomas Berdych as he battered his way into the finals at Wimbledon to play Spanish tennis titan Rafael Nadal.
Flipping a few pages back in the sports section was a chronicle of the undoing of Brazil in the quarter finals of the World Cup. To what was Brazil’s defeat attributed? Not superior play by Netherlands. Nor to better, more skilled Dutch players. No, simply to a “loss of composure.” Under duress for the first time in this World Cup, would Brazil react “with resilience or agitation? Could it take a punch or did it have a glass jaw?” Evidently with both its “equanimity and self-control” “shattered,” Brazil proceeded to “disintegrate.”
Fear, frustration, panic, anxiety: these are the emotions that bring out the worst in human performance. At our best, we learn to control them, banish them, instead focus our minds on the things and emotions that serve us, that bring out the best in us.
It is not easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it. It requires practice and disciplined effort. Yet focusing our minds, directing our thoughts, mastering our moods, shaping our emotions: these are skills like any other. They can be taught and learned.
We may never obtain the laser focus or the mental discipline of a Michael Jordan but we all, with practice and rehearsal, can move the needle a bit closer toward calm, cool, collected, and confident composure, and a bit farther away from mind-numbing fear and performance-sapping failure.
“What are fears but voices airey?
Whispering harm where harm is not.”
— William Wordsworth
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
— “Dune,” by Frank Herbert, Bene Gesserit litany against fear