One of the difficulties in sport, and also life, is how to deal with situations that aren’t going the way we had planned or want. We all want to do well, but the reality is often different. Over 25 years in high level sport and business, has taught me that one of the critical skills necessary to navigate these critical moments, is the ability to be neutral.
I often use Roger Federer as the ‘godfather’ example of the ability to be neutral. It has elements of emotional intelligence and control all wrapped in one. If we were to drop in on one of Federer’s matches, and had no sense of where the match was in terms of score and could only use his emotions to determine the place of the match, it would be at best an educated guess of whether he was playing well, playing badly, about to win, or about to lose. Why: the art of being neutral.
Being neutral at a conceptual level involves the ability to frame what is happening beyond
positive or negative. Too often athletes are caught in a like/dislike framework which
emotionally attaches them to negative feelings such as frustration, anger, and disappointment. Athletes also often struggle with the option of having to be positive in that moment and convince themselves that this is an opportunity for something good. Successful navigation of critical moments often lies in the ability to take neither a positive or negative stance and instead be mentally neutral. On a Likert scale it would be sitting in the middle of a three-point scale. Neutral is the ability to accept the situation and in essence disengage emotionally from it. Acceptance is an under rated skill. Gonzales in his wonderful book ‘Deep Survival’ talks about accepting your new reality. He highlights in life or death situations how accepting your new reality allows you to move beyond things like denial (“This can’t be happening to me/now”) to making the best decisions possible under the circumstances. Whilst not life and death, sport has similar critical moments that require similar decision making. Being neutral is not apathy, or a lack of desire. It's the ability to be ‘Ok’ with what you can’t control and critically allows athletes to then quickly focus in a meaningful way, without the distraction of emotions, on what they are going to do to change the situation based on what they can control. It's often the difference between success and something else.