“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Buddha

One of the beautiful things we love about participating in, and watching team sports is the collective feeling of success when people come together to achieve a goal. We also appreciate how any success, or failure, is a shared endeavour that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. As the late, great Johan Cruyff said…

“Choose the best player for every position and you will end up not with a strong eleven, but eleven strong ones”

In previous posts we have explored a couple of themes around the lack of control over outcomes we have in complex environments and the fact that those closest to the centre of the complex system (this changes moment to moment) have the most information and thus, the greatest power to influence the outcome – in a team sports setting this is the player on the ball.

We have also looked at how, instead of trying to control the environment and bend it to our will, we are better off being able to have a framework within which we have the ability to flex and adjust our positioning to the flux in the system.

To have the ability to adapt successfully, we need to be able to pick up on the cues within the environment that tell us about how it is behaving in that moment, we need good noticing skills. The greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi, has scored over 800 goals in just over 1000 professional matches. To be this prolific, one might assume he is sprinting everywhere to be on the end of every attack the team has. In fact, Messi is famous for walking around the pitch, watching the game, which his former coach Pep Guardiola describes as creating a map of the opposition.

This leads me onto the title of today’s post – Presence. To be able to notice the subtleties of what is going on in front of us, we need to be present in the moment. We need to be able to take in a vast range of stimuli from the environment, accept them, sort them, and create an action plan appropriate to the situation. The research would suggest that expert level athletes have fewer visual fixations, for longer periods of time and greater “quiet eye” time (Mann et al, 2007), i.e. they are better able to filter what information is valuable.

Many would perhaps say this is focus, but I would describe this as presence over focus. Focus can be misconstrued as “laser-like” and the narrowing down of vision which may result with focussing on the wrong stimulus, at the expense of others. Whenever we start becoming reductive in complex environments, we can run into trouble. Presence allows us to accept whatever is happening in front of us.

We will have a richer experience for being more open to more of the picture in front of us, viewing it as a whole. Think of the great impressionist painters (Monet, Renoir, Pissaro,

Manet, Seurat), focus on a small part of their paintings and they make little sense, only when you step back and take in the whole image is their full beauty revealed.

Complex systems also exist at different scales. As coaches and leaders, we must work on the presence of those we lead in key moments, as they are closer to the action than us, so have more useful information at their disposal. Simultaneously we must also be present ourselves to notice and filter what our players, staff and the environment are communicating to us (how good are we at listening? What other information are we taking in other than speech?)

As ever, in a complex environment there has to be ebbs and flows and we cannot expect ourselves to be fully present, all of the time. We need therefore, to identify when in the week we need to be most present (that key pitch we have to make, Friday night dinner with our partner or when we are on the touchline or in the coaching box on a Saturday afternoon) and engineer our environment to help dial up our presence.

Some questions to consider…

· How do you periodise your week for presence?

· What activities take you away from presence?

· When you have been at your most present, what led you to that point?

· What habits or states increase your presence?

· What do you need to let go of, to become more present?

“The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Mann DT, Williams AM, Ward P, Janelle CM. Perceptual-cognitive expertise in sport: a meta-analysis. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2007 Aug;29(4):457-78. doi: 10.1123/jsep.29.4.457. PMID: 17968048.