In sports, we have a lot that we can control that directly impacts our performance. We determine how much we practice and our level of preparation. We control our sleep, recovery, and nutrition, which allows us to improve our physical gifts. We are in charge of how we approach competition and what actions we take during it. This directly impacts how well we perform on any given day.
Of course, performance is variable. We might have a stroke of bad luck, or our opponent might be having their best day in months, but when compared to many endeavors, in sports we have a large degree of influence over our performance. And that’s largely a good thing.
Our level of perceived control changes how we respond to stress. If we have control over a stressful situation, our cortisol (a stress hormone) response is dampened. Control doesn’t just alter our hormonal response, but also how we perceive emotions and pain. In the athletic realm, when we believe that our performance is out of control, we report feeling more pain and suffering. When researchers peered into the brains of subjects with fMRI machines, they found that when pain was controllable, participants had lower rates of anxiety, along with a decreased amygdala (fear center of the brain) response. In addition, their prefrontal cortex (rational part of our brain) had increased connectivity with the amygdala, meaning that not only did they have a lower “alarm” response from the amygdala, but a better equipped “brake” (the prefrontal cortex) that was able to step in and put out the fire of pain and panic much quicker.
But how do we handle something where we lack just what we crave?
In his book The Hot Hand, Ben Cohen sets out to explore the science of streaks. Is the elusive idea that someone can “get on fire” real or a figment of our imagination? We’re used to thinking of this in terms of sports (Think: the NBA shooter with the hot hand). But in exploring our belief in steaks and the scientific reality, Cohen took a detour to a task that can be streaky, but not in the way most of us desire: farming.
In The Hot Hand we’re introduced to Nick Hagen, a former musician who practiced at Julliard, before diverting paths and taking up the family business, sugar beet farming. He went from nearly full control (music) to being at the whims of circumstance (farming). “The most important variables are out of my control. I can get a good night’s sleep, eat a hearty breakfast, plan my day to the minute, only to step outside and watch my crop get shredded by a hailstorm, or wilt under drought, or drown in a flood.” How does Hagen handle such uncertainty? In the book, he lays out the five lessons that he’s learned in the transition from music to agriculture:
Remember the long game.
Control what you can control.
Prepare for the worst and hope for anything remotely better.
Always stick to principles over patterns.
For most of us, currently taken from a life where we could predict what would happen next week, next month, next year to one filled with uncertainty, I couldn’t help but think of how relevant Hagen’s advice is to us right now.
Playing defense doesn’t mean being afraid, it means accepting reality and learning how to deal with it. Remember the long game means keeping perspective. Control what you can control means that even if your world is thrown out whack, latch on to activities and routines that ground you and your work. Prepare for the worst and hope for anything remotely better means doing your part to mitigate risk. No, don’t panic, prepare. And if the weather turns out to be better than you thought, you’re no worse off. And finally, always stick to principles over patterns means stay true to your values and craft. Know what you stand for, know what you value, know what is tried and true, and fall back on that during difficult times.
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