Relaxed Concentration Unlocks a Secret to Winning: Not Trying Too Hard

A few years ago I attended a silent “concentration” meditation retreat where we spent many consecutive days examining our breath in microscopic detail. The teachers gave very specific instructions we were to follow from the crack of dawn through to dinner.

About halfway through the 10 day retreat, I met with a teacher 1:1 to discuss my practice. It was going okay but not great — I hadn’t yet arrived at a place of deep samadhi. After hearing a bit about my experience, the teacher gently asked me if I felt “close” to the breath. I reflected for a moment on what he meant by the word “close” and then I nodded and said yes, I felt close to it — hovering, almost. He encouraged me to “back off a bit from the breath, don’t be so close. Be more spacious in your awareness of the breath. You’re overexerting.”

He then led me through an exercise. Take one hand and hold it out in front of you palm face up, he said. Take the other hand and hover it directly over the other hand, not quite touching. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Not much. Now take the top hand and squeeze the bottom hand tightly. Clench it. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Some, but it was muddied and overly tight.

Now, he said, gently rest one hand fully on top of the other. In that position, I felt all sorts of pulsing and heat sensations in my fingers. This is what you need to do in your practice, he said: gently rest your attention on the breath sensations, and you’ll know more. The action verb is: Rest.

In summary, he told me, you want to exert effort in meditation practice but not more than necessary: “A bird flaps its wings and then soars on momentum, and doesn’t flap again until it needs to.”

If you spend time in Buddhist meditation settings you’ll hear variants of this advice frequently offered to “achiever” personalities who mistakenly think the more fierce their effort, the more plentiful their likely results. “Don’t try so hard to make something happen” “Soften your gaze” “Ease up” All different ways of getting at the simple but hard-to-follow guidance: Just relax. 

Relaxation, as Tim Gallwey says, happens only when allowed, not as a result of “trying” or “making.”

“The art of relaxed concentration unlocks a secret to winning: not trying too hard”

In sports, you sometimes hear coaches tell players to ease up, to back off, to loosen their grip on the bat, to “let the game come to them,” to remember to have fun. There’s such a thing as applying too much effort: You get trapped in your head, you begin to overthink what you should say and do, you lose concentration when trying to swing the bat or shoot the ball.

Of course, it’s possible to bring too little focus and too little effort to meditation or sports or any activity and require the opposite advice.

But generally, for driven people in business who are performing in a high stakes setting, “backing off” seems to be the more commonly needed medicine: To soften our gaze, to let some of our emotional energy around the issue pass away. Less “I need to do a great job” and more “I want to have fun with this, I trust myself, I love myself.”

It’s counterintuitive to think that if we try less hard, if we quiet the mental self-instructions and stop trying to remember every last line and best practice…that somehow we could realize a better outcome in a business setting. But sometimes our intense focus on the outcome and conscious attempt to be perfect at every little piece along the way is the very thing that inhibits our ability to succeed.

The Inner Game of Tennis

Along these lines, I recently read Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, which reinforced the advice I received at the meditation retreat. It’s an awesome book especially if you’re learning to play tennis, as I am.

Gallwey’s argument is that relaxed concentration is the master skill — the “inner game”. It supersedes all other skills of tennis. While playing in a match, amateurs focus on the outer game of particular physical mechanics. Experts focus on the inner game and sink into a deep zone of relaxation.

The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.

So, it’s not about all the micro stroke feedback you get from your coaches. When you’re fully dialed in, you stop thinking about where your grip should go and how to move your feet, your mind is still, and you just play:

Perhaps a better way to describe the player who is “unconscious” is by saying that his mind is so concentrated, so focused, that it is still. It becomes one with what the body is doing, and the unconscious or automatic functions are working without interference from thoughts. The concentrated mind has no room for thinking how well the body is doing, much less of the how-to’s of the doing. When a player is in this state, there is little to interfere with the full expression of his potential to perform, learn and enjoy.

Self judgment can emerge with too much active thought as you try to perform your best:

 But judgmental labels usually lead to emotional reactions and then to tightness, trying too hard, self-condemnation, etc. This process can be slowed by using descriptive but nonjudgmental words to describe the events you see.

He offers a fun example of how to psych out your opponent — ask them to explain what they’re doing and why they’re having success:

To test this theory is a simple matter, if you don’t mind a little underhanded gamesmanship. The next time your opponent is having a hot streak, simply ask him as you switch courts, “Say, George, what are you doing so differently that’s making your forehand so good today?” If he takes the bait—and 95 percent will—and begins to think about how he’s swinging, telling you how he’s really meeting the ball out in front, keeping his wrist firm and following through better, his streak invariably will end. He will lose his timing and fluidity as he tries to repeat what he has just told you he was doing so well.

Here’s his advice to tennis players:

So before hitting the next set of balls, I asked Joan, “This time I want you to focus your mind on the seams of the ball. Don’t think about making contact. In fact, don’t try to hit the ball at all. Just let your racket contact the ball where it wants to, and we’ll see what happens.” Joan looked more relaxed, and proceeded to hit nine out of ten balls dead center!

For example, let’s assume it is your serve that you decide to focus your attention on. The first step is to forget all the ideas you may have in your mind about what is wrong with it as it is. Erase all your previous ideas and begin serving without exercising any conscious control over your stroke. Observe your serve freshly, as it is now. Let it fall into its own groove for better or worse. Begin to be interested in it and experience it as fully as you can. Notice how you stand and distribute your weight before beginning your motion. Check your grip and the initial position of your racket. Remember, make no corrections; simply observe without interfering.

In close:

When a player comes to recognize, for instance, that learning to focus may be more valuable to him than a backhand, he shifts from being primarily a player of the outer game to being a player of the Inner Game. Then, instead of learning focus to improve his tennis, he practices tennis to improve his focus. This represents a crucial shift in values from the outer to the inner.

(Thanks to Josh Hannah and Brad Feld for recommending the book.)

2 comments on “Relaxed Concentration Unlocks a Secret to Winning: Not Trying Too Hard
  • Great post, and I think it applies in a lot of areas. In psychotherapy (especially when I was in training), several colleagues and I found that we’d bring our own expectations and demands into the session and miss the subtle moments where there’s a breakthrough of affect or feeling. Driven people seem to struggle with this concept, all around.

    P.S. I’ve been enjoying Mark Epstein’s “The Zen of Therapy” lately, which also touches on some similar points.

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