People who play games with a clock, which is to say, most team sports, know inherently that the time allotted to periods or quarters or halves is not absolute, but can be manipulated. They know that they can speed up or slow down play based on what is best for them at any given time. People who play individual sports, or sports where the race against time is not an obvious aspect of the game, need to learn how to use time strategically, because left to its own devices, it will work against you. For example, at certain crunch times in your event do you speed up, slow down, or become completely disoriented with respect to time? People who have had the experience of a mental collapse, or choke, or even slight, but costly, mental lapse know that time is one of the dimensions that they lost control of as they slid into their demise. These people often say things like, “Before I knew it, I was shaking the guy’s hand” (having lost), or “It all seemed like just a blur.” Whereas people who were able to master the moment can tell you with the utmost specificity what happened when and how they reacted, as if they were narrating a movie frame by frame. The fact that we lose track of time is completely understandable because it is such a deeply entrenched cultural phenomenon, particularly for hard driving athletes embedded in hard driving cultures. Fast gets rewarded, where as we have the impression that slow gets left in the dust. But, actually, if we think about it, most of our wisdom comes retrospectively, which means that we were ignorant to the lessons taught in the moment. Thus, it only makes sense that if we could slow down time, we might, might, have the opportunity to learn important lessons as they are happening, and not need to wait until later to see what was right there in front of our face. It’s often remarked that the truly great athletes respond to the moment because they can react to inputs as they are coming in, and notice them calmly and with bare attention. They don’t need to wait for the post-game analysis to see what was happening and how they should have reacted. Here are some skills to help you become one of those players who reacts in the moment rather than one who regrets after the fact:
Find Time Opportunities: Together with your coach, find the parts of your sport where you can control time: game breaks, intervals between points, even ways within points to hasten or relax the pace. All of this should be done with the rules of the game in mind, which is to say, though you are being strategic, you are not cheating or resorting to gamesmanship. Then, practice those skills. Often.
Review Tape: If you don’t tape your matches, start doing so. It will be valuable, particularly during losses, to see how you react to being under pressure, particularly with respect to time. If, when you are watching, and you notice yourself speeding up, try to remember the emotion at that moment: excitement, anxiety, anger. Remember that emotions are OK, but we succeed by lopping off the peaks and valleys of those emotions when we are playing. (There are skills for that, too.)
Mindfulness to time: In your non-sport life, pay attention to time. Are you impatient when waiting for something? Do you rush through things you like, and plod through things you dislike? Notice if you lose track of time. Say things to yourself like, “I’m rushing,” or “I’m being impatient,” if those things are true. Or, “I’m dallying,” or “I’m avoiding,” if those are true. Make these observations and take appropriate curative action without judgment.
Practice patience: Try the “watched pot” drill. Fill up a teakettle with water, set it on the stove on high, and stand there until it boils. Notice all of your urges to leave, notice all of the times you are fighting the process and rushing the pot along (“come on, already!”). When you notice this, bring your attention back to the pot, to your breath, and say to yourself, “it will boil when it boils.” There are all sorts of variations on this drill of patience in your life: in the car, in store lines, with your children and partner. Believe me: the world will be better for a more patient you.
Practice bare attention: Find a drill that focuses you just on what’s happening. For example, I often tell squash players (or tennis players) to try the “bounce-hit” drill, which is to simply say (in your head) “bounce,” or “hit” when the ball is bouncing or being hit. Banish any other thought, but those two: bounce and hit. This drill can be tailored to any sport.
Don’t just do something, sit there: Yes, meditation. Many athletes have discovered the performance enhancing power of meditation, and almost all of them praise its ability to slow down time and put the power of controlling it increasingly into our hands. Being fully present is both completely necessary for athletic success, and a skill that can be practiced. Some of that presence comes with the joy we experience in playing our sport, but it is greatly amplified when we practice having a widely observant mind, consciously free of distracting, time-hastening clutter.
The Romans knew that time slips through our fingers as we focus absentmindedly on other things, and so they gave us the phrase “tempus fugit.” Unfortunately, we have mistranslated that to say, “time flies,” as if it were a bird. Whereas they were telling us that time escapes, we lose track of it, it is a fugitive. With these skills, you can be in a better position to be its warden and master rather than its plaything and chump.