Torah Musings: Lessons from the NFL: Conquering Fear through Focus


Lessons from the NFL: Conquering Fear through Focus

Sarah Pachter

Walking up to the podium, my heart racing, I stare out into a sea of faces and suddenly feel a pit in my stomach as I struggle to remember the words of my presentation. The audience waits expectantly as a take a sip of my water, buying me a few extra seconds before the inevitable moment comes when I must open my mouth and begin.

This may sound like the description of new speaker anxiety, but even after 13 years and countless public speaking engagements, I still feel a rush of nerves every time I am asked to present. The feelings of fear and anticipation can sometimes get the better of me, causing me to fluster, even when my preparations could not have been more thorough. Thankfully, a lesson from an unlikely source helped me learn to conquer my fear and use it to my advantage during public presentations and in all areas of my life.

Dave Ramsey, a financial guru and bestselling author, was lecturing to an NFL team and spoke with a few of the players post-speech. Risking being tackled to the floor, he asked one of the larger players a question that was laced with a bit of chutzpah:

“There is something I never understood about football players. You are literally being paid millions of dollars to essentially do one thing: catch a ball. And yet, from time to time you mess up. Like the ball on a fumble, the game could end up slipping through your fingers. If it were me, and I were paid millions to catch the ball, I would make sure I succeeded every single time.”

Thankfully, the player took it well. He laughed while responding, “You are actually spot on! The skill level of every NFL player is actually so high that merely catching the football is an easy task. Our hand-eye coordination is so good that we could practically catch a ball in our sleep. If the ball is thrown correctly, there is no reason it should not be caught. There are only two things that can potentially get in the way: fear and loss of focus.”

Despite already knowing that football players were brimming with strength, Ramsey was shocked by just how much these 300-pound men could destroy. They are so fast and strong that the impact of their body running into a car could total it.[1]

The player continued to explain to Ramsey that as they are about to catch a ball, players hear the pounding footsteps of their opponents running towards them for the tackle. The moment they hear these powerful bodies moving towards them, their hearts begin to race with fear, knowing the impact could be painful and destructive. The fear causes them to shift their focus, and by the time they turn their attention back to catching the ball, they have missed it. That one moment of fear can cause them to lose it all. 

The other obstacle to success is focus. Sometimes players are running towards the ball for a simple catch. They think they have it in the bag, and they know that with the catch, they will win the game. Images of the crowd going wild play across their mind. They can see themselves celebrating on the shoulders of their teammates and being interviewed on television. All these images cause them to momentarily lose focus, and it can even make them miss the catch.

Hearing how these football players could go from catching every single ball thrown to them during practice to dropping a seemingly simple pass during a high-stakes game, I thought of my own experience speaking to large crowds. When running through the presentation in my head beforehand, I can easily remember every word. But when the time comes to stand in front of an audience, my confidence may go out the window – all thanks to that pesky little emotion known as fear.

Fear can be paralyzing, even for the strongest of us. We freeze up and won’t take the risks we need to in order to achieve success. But allowing our fear to get the better of us can cost us not only success, it can also undermine our self-confidence and ability to achieve our goals.

What is the solution to conquering this all-consuming fear? Focus.

Focus is arguably one of the greatest challenges of our generation. We live in a world of minimal focus. Putting ADD and ADHD aside, the general population can hardly get through a normal chore without being tempted and succumbing to a multitude of distractions: scanning through social media, sending a few texts, or shooting off a quick email.

People in the corporate world complain that they can be in the office for three hours and are only able to accomplish 30 minutes of the work they set out to perform because they are continuously receiving distracting emails that take them away from their initial assignment. I know many people who prefer to work in the early mornings or late into the evening to avoid this very problem.

If we want to reach our goals, in any arena, long-term focus is a necessity. Much like in football, one cannot focus for a mere few minutes and become successful. Success takes focus over long stretches of time, and only with it can we achieve what we deeply desire.

We see this concept in the Torah idea of kovea itim. We are asked to spend a consistent, focused amount of time on Torah study daily. Day after day we set aside time to delve into Hashem’s words and try to internalize them. It is a lifelong pursuit, not merely required for a few weeks or even years. This commitment is a training ground for achieving depth and success in every area of our lives.

Just as wearing glasses focuses our eyes to perceive an image with better quality, focus in life leads to quality results. Through this, success can be gained, be it spiritual, financial, or even emotional.

But here is the real kicker: focus can help you turn your fear into motivation. Fear, although paralyzing at times, can be an incredible motivator. When I know I have a large presentation coming up, rather than worrying about how many people will be in the audience, I use the idea of a large crowd and the initial fear it instills in me as a tool to work harder and prepare even more. The fear is merely a distraction that in no way deters me from my ultimate goal. By using my fears – the size of a large crowd, forgetting the words to my speech – I am motivated to use all my energy and focus on my goal, working even harder to ensure my presentation will be a success.

The next time you feel the sensation of fear creeping up on you, try to control it. Use laser focus to harness that energy to achieve your goal – rather than fumbling at the finish line.

[1] Dave Ramsey, Entreleader pgs. 83-85