Get your head in the game

When I was younger it was my dream to represent Australia in basketball at the Olympics. My earlier childhood memory was watching Michael Jordan play for the USA Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and he was captivating. Fast forward to 2016 and a basketball career never played out for me, but I'm still an avid fan of the game. As I write this the 2016 Rio Games are winding down. The Boomers (Australia's Mens Basketball Team) have had one of their best Olympics yet, playing strongly throughout the opening rounds and even threatening the (eventual Gold Medal winning) US side. After being strongly considered as medal favourites, the Boomers fizzled out in the finals, losing against a better Spanish side in the semi-finals and missing out on a long-coveted and elusive medal. It will go down as one of the most disappointing finishes to a campaign, perhaps in the team's history - to come so close and narrowly miss out.

The key match up going into the game would be between two NBA stars: Aussie Andrew Bogut and Spaniard Pau Gasol. As it turns out, both players performances determined the outcome of the game. Gasol played magnificently, producing stellar play as he inspired his team to victory. Bogut on the other hand struggled with fouls throughout, taken off the court halfway through the game as he fouled out. After the game he criticised the referees for calling soft fouls:

They (the referees) will look back at the tape and see how obviously bad they were.
— Andrew Bogut

Bogut also said of Spain: "I don't blame Spain. If the referees are calling it, you keep doing it." What he means is that the Spanish players recognised the tone of the game (that the referees were calling soft fouls) and played to the whistle, disabling Australia's star players and maximising the opportunities given to them. It's something every young athlete learns: just because there are referees and rules, does not mean the game is always fair - play to the whistle. 

We see athletes and celebrities have meltdowns and reactions all the time. They jeopardise their whole career in one stupid moment. Obviously, famous people aren't the only people who slip up - they just do it famously. We've all had that experience where we've put others offside but something we've said or done: when your spouse hears you whisper annoyances under you breath, when your coworker misinterprets a joke, when you forget a specific instruction or request, and especially when you forget a birthday or anniversary! 

It's clear to see that how we handle our emotions and reactions is incredibly important. The way we do that is by growing our Emotional Intelligence. Having poor Emotional Intelligence results in those moments of disconnect with ourselves or with others. But growing our Emotional Intelligence enables us to better reach our potential and to more positively influence others. Emotional Intelligence is split into different competencies, which if understood and implemented allow us to do life better.

So what does Emotional Intelligence look like? A few years back I reunited with some high school buddies to start a social basketball team. The fact that it was a social league did nothing to dim my competitiveness. In the middle of one game where we were being thrashed, I was going for a shot and got fouled...or at least I thought I had been fouled, the referee didn't see it. In reaction I grabbed the ball and heaved it - right in the direction of the referee. I got called for a Technical Foul, which are given for acts of misconduct. I immediately took myself out of the game and recollected myself: why did I do that? How did I let myself get so riled up? I later profusely apologised to the referee, my teammates and the opponents for losing my cool. 

My foul was an obvious moment of having little Emotional Intelligence. I failed to understand my own reactions and to regulate them. By exploding and throwing the ball, I wasn't showing empathy or seeing things from the perspective of the referees (or my teammates or opponents). My outburst instantly put the refs offside with me, rather than motivating them to work with me. It gave my opponents an edge, by showing them how rattled they were making me feel. And it affected my teammates ability to trust me; and pulled their mood down. Not only did we lose the game, but I had lost the respect of all those who witnessed my reaction. Had I been more present in the moment, or had the Boomers responded to the situation, perhaps there would have been very different results.

So, obviously it's of benefit to us to have others onside with us, and here we encounter the "dark side" to Emotional Intelligence: that we can use it to manipulate situations or people to benefit ourselves. Adolf Hitler is someone who spent years mastering his gestures and body language so as to win people over. The strategy of the Spanish basketball team is similarly cunning in manipulating the situation for their benefit. 

Though it could be used for manipulation and personal gain, growing our Emotional Intelligence ultimately can be used to serve others and be a positive influence in the world. Martin Luther King Jr masterfully understood emotions and was able to deliver his speeches with a carefully crafted mix of passion and reasoning. We find an invitation to use our Emotional Intelligence to serve others within the Scriptures. When talking about the two most important commandments, Jesus says:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
— Mt 22:36-40

What we're talking about here is being the best version of yourself. And this Scripture invites us to consider that the best best version of yourself places others first. In order to serve others well, we have to be aware of their needs and feelings in any given moment. And understanding how our words and actions impacts upon them will help us seek the most helpful words and actions in that moment. Growing our Emotional Intelligence allows us to most positively influence others,  and eliminates those moments where we put others offside.

But how do we actually grow Emotional Intelligence? 

  1. Practice mindfulness: throughout our day we place our attention on numerous events, feelings and emotions. We also neglect to pay attention to many, many more things that happen throughout our day. Mindfulness practice is about growing our awareness of our self in the world. When we are mindful, we are more aware of our feelings, emotions, reactions and behavior, and how these impact ourselves and others. There are heaps of apps available that have different meditations and mindfulness practices. A great one is Smiling Mind, which has several courses designed to improve mindfulness.
  2. Ask others for their perspective: by asking others how they perceived an action or something you've done, you can gain further insight into your behavior. If you have upset someone else, as well as apologising and reconciling, ask for their perspective on the event or occurrence and ask how you could avoid similar situations in the future.
  3. Name your emotions: Emotional Intelligence is, after all, about emotions. But how often do we stop to name how we're feeling throughout the day or in different situations. Part of this practice is expanding our emotional vocabulary. I heard about this in a podcast once: our emotions can be limited by the language we use, e.g. if  I constantly describe situations as "frustrating", than I will mainly experience situations as frustrating. Developing a emotional vocabulary can help in relating to others and empathising with their experiences.

Rather than being a passive spectator, watching as life happens to you, being Emotionally Intelligent allows you to get into the game, to be proactive (rather than reactive) and have a positive impact in the world and with others. Would Emotional Intelligence have helped Andrew Bogut and the Boomers in that Bronze medal match? Maybe, maybe not. What is clear is that when it counted. Bogut wasn't in the game. We can apply that metaphor to our own journey to do life better:

we have to be in the game to achieve our goals.