At one point in Super Bowl LI, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady faced a 21-point deficit to the Atlanta Falcons. No one wants to face that kind of hole. But there Brady was, staring into it.
How did Brady pull it together?
It's hard to say exactly how the Patriots dug themselves out, but they did. In the last quarter, they scored again and again. And for the first time in Super Bowl History, the Patriots pushed the game into overtime. When Brady was asked in the post-game press conference what he was thinking, he said, "I wasn't thinking much. I was thinking we just gotta score."
"We just gotta score." To me, that says 100-percent locked into the moment. Note Brady didn't say he was thinking about how many points they had to make up. And he wasn't thinking about the bad plays that got them there. By staying focused on what was right in front of him, he was able to make moment-by-moment decisions, come back from that 21-point deficit, and win.
Present focus is a skill in any sport.
It's not easy, but it's critical. And it's not just critical in football; it's also critical, I learned recently, in the warrior's sport of Pentathlon. If you've never heard of Pentathlon, know that it's been around for thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks invented it, and then it was resurrected in 1912 for the Olympics. In terms of what it is, just think of everything a soldier might have needed to deliver a message and put it into one sport: fencing, shooting, running, swimming and horseback riding.
I learned all this about the modern Pentathlon when I interviewed U.S. Olympic pentathlete Nathan Schrimsher. Besides interesting facts about the sport, he taught me a powerful lesson. He told me that, in life, just like in sports, you have to run your own race.
The future is unwritten.
You have to understand that in each event in the Pentathlon, the competitor gains points that determine his handicap for the final run. These points are like a lot of things in life that aren't in our control. And on top of that, the horse a Pentathlete rides is chosen randomly. When all these factors come together, it makes the competition really difficult to predict. Nathan put it this way:
"I've seen people do really poorly in fencing and swimming and riding and come back and win. So what if you draw a bad horse or finish last with the foil? Put it behind you, you still have a chance."
Another Pentathlete I talked to was Dennis Bowsher. He competed in the 2012 Olympics, and he agrees with Nathan. This is what he said about dealing with the unpredictable in Pentathlon:
"You've got to throw away that negative thoughts and be in the moment for the next event. In fact, fixating on a win is as bad as fixating on a loss. The most important thing is to face the task that's in front of you and do your best right then. It's all about mental attitude-- refresh, reevaluate and re-engage. I just put it in that dark space. That way there's no light, I can't see it."
Both Nathan and Dennis practice this skill--focusing on the moment--just like they practice shooting, running and riding.
Focus eliminates fear.
So, clearly focus comes in handy when you're 21-points down in the last quarter of a football game, and clearly it counts when you're given a random horse to ride. But I've even heard from wrestlers and rock climbers that the key to success is focusing on the present. Nate Carr, a wrestler and coach, has a technique where he writes his failure on a sheet of paper and then, in his mind, crumples it up and throws it in the fire. When he gets out toe mat, fear is gone. The famous mountaineer Matt Segal claims that when you're climbing, you can only focus on the three feet immediately in front of you. "Don't look down, don't look up," he says.
When Tom Brady, famous Pentathletes, wrestlers and mountaineers are all following the same path to success, it makes me think they're onto something. By distancing themselves from the past, they're able to act freely in the present. Whether you're imagining crumpling pieces of paper, putting negative thoughts into that "dark space" like Bowsher, or just saying to yourself over and over again that you "gotta score," focus on the here and now. You might be amazed at where you end up.