Here watching the French Open tennis tournament this week has got me wondering why the most elite athletes in tennis still have concentration lapses. Why do they miss so many shots, make so many unforced errors, have to psyche themselves up between each shot?
In fact, why do any of us need to do this?
Do we not train people from a young enough age to be able to focus for long periods of time? Is this even a trainable skill? Are we really only capable of brief periods of intensity? Are the unforced errors in tennis similar to the unforced errors in surgery or in driving a car? Wouldn't the world be better off if we all could focus intensely for hours, performing at our highest levels without the errors that occur due to lapse of focus?
Most sports injuries I see in orthopedic practice are the result of loss of focus. The world-class skier momentarily loses edge control; the recreational skier gets going to fast, the skater "slips" and the dancer lands poorly. These are all "mistakes" in tasks done a million times, yet they can happen easily when slightly distracted.
To me, intense focus for long periods of time seems like a trainable skill.
If monks can sit over documents and transcribe them faithfully for hours on end, could we do this in our daily lives or in our most important sports events? What if we started focus training at a young age? Error-free activities would be practiced in writing, drawing, sports, etc. A premium on focus for minutes, then hours would be rewarded. Errors from loss of focus would be penalized more severely, for example two points lost for an unforced error in tennis. What if we institute penalties for adult self-inflicted mistakes to incentivize a safer world, diminishing "accidents" that so often result from distraction rather than intention?
The cost of loss of focus is enormous. From self-inflicted harm to damage to others, the range of destruction is breathtaking. Yet the tools for training this skill seem weak.
But back to the psyched up tennis players at the French Open: Swearing, grunting, talking to themselves between points, jumping up and down at the baseline, calling out themselves to do better... this is the best we can do? Time for a crowd-sourced global conversation on human performance and mental fitness. Time to block bust the conventional thinking that to err is human.
Or is the constantly digitally connected, multitasking, hyperactive, shifting behavior of youth heading us in another direction?