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Sun, Sept. 22

Piacenza: Balancing act

What makes a great team athlete? Physical strength, speed and ball-handling skills for sure. Add to that the ability to adapt moment-by-moment to the game action and willingness to “go for it,” to see and act on a sudden opportunity by taking decisive action.

Athletes train by both conditioning their bodies and practicing specific skills needed to succeed at their position on the team. But most, even — or especially — outstanding performers, will tell you that as important as the outer work is, their mental game can have just as much of an impact.

To “psych up” for a game or be “psyched out” by an opponent are common terms for the mental and emotional effort needed to generate confidence and withstand messages designed to undermine that confidence.

All of us face challenges as we run, ramble, zig and zag around the field of our lives. We prepare ourselves with education, training and hands-on experience. If we’re lucky, we’ve had a confidence-instilling childhood. If we’re very lucky, we eventually understand that our mental game can be a big factor in our success or defeat.

In present-day society, people tend to measure themselves by how they fare in the outer competition. A lot depends on material success, including access to education, the health and well-being of families, freedom to choose where to live and work. Having competed in corporate America for over 30 years, I found it was easy for my focus on the competition to overwhelm the reasons winning was important.

Interestingly, that overzealous focus rarely correlated to good results. Frustration, resentment and misunderstandings seemed to multiply when I “lived” my job and had not only my financial well-being, but my emotional and ego satisfaction fully invested in the outcomes. This wasn’t the same thing as doing my best, seeking to improve my performance or expanding my opportunities for input and influence. As Steven Covey explains in the business classic, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” I was ignoring the need to “sharpen the saw.”

To sharpen the saw essentially means to switch focus to the mental game; to do the things with family, friends or spiritual community that increase motivation and confidence. For me it also meant doing the things that promote a quiet mind. Ironically, the ability to perceive a larger context for my work, to analyze outer circumstances more objectively, seemed to increase when I devoted at least a little time to withdrawing from the tumult of the outer game.

While self-reflection — reviewing my actions and behavior, what I enjoyed, what went well or didn’t — was helpful, meditation (sometimes known as “contemplation”) was better. Meditation is not necessarily a formal practice. Sometimes my most effective meditation is just sitting on the deck with my cats, a gentle breeze moving the trees and my attention completely captured by the intense blue of the sky peppered with clouds. What all meditation has in common however is letting go of thoughts. Thoughts are the root of comparisons, of feelings of less-than and better-than that can rob me of my sense of peace.

A quieter mind helped me to see a little farther down the field, to better appreciate and collaborate with others, to keep from mistaking impersonal decisions for personal insults. This yielded far better results than total absorption in the outer game.

When I work at balancing outer and interior life, I feel more even-minded, less judgmental of myself and others, less fearful and more hopeful. When misfortunes strike, I may lose balance and drop the ball, but I know that clear blue sky is waiting when I’m ready to get back in the game.

Alexandra is a past president of Prescott Area Leadership and member of the board of Boys to Men. She and her husband have lived in Prescott for 11 years. Comments are welcome at apiacenza@cableone.net.

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