Last month in New York, the obscure and aging Roberta Vinci faced No. 1 ranked Serena Williams in the semi-finals of the U.S. Open. While Vinci had had a lot of success in doubles tennis over the years, she had never before even reached the semi-finals of a major tournament in singles in her entire career. By contrast, Serena had already won three majors that year, and was considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time who was still playing at the top of her game. Vinci was a 300-to-1 underdog. No one gave her a shot at winning.

Alex Korb
Source: Alex Korb

And yet she won.

In the post-match interview, she was asked, “When you woke up this morning, what gave you the belief that this moment was possible?”

She replied simply, “No,” and laughed. No, no, no. She did not think it was possible, so she tried not to think about it. “In my mind I say, ‘put the ball on the court’,” Vinci explained. “Don’t try and think and put all the ball[s] on the court. Don’t think that Serena is in the other court. And run.” She laughed. “Put the ball and run. Don’t think, and run. And then I won.”

Vinci’s attitude cuts strongly against today’s happiness and positivity obsessed culture. If you’re feeling like something is impossible, then you’re told that you’re just not thinking positive enough. You’re supposed to visualize yourself winning. You have to think that you’re destined to win, or you’ll fail miserably. And, yes, for some people, in certain situations that’s enough. But it doesn’t always work. If you really believe that something is impossible, or that you won’t succeed, then trying to convince yourself otherwise can increase your anxiety, and actually get in your way.

Sometimes the best way to reach a difficult goal is to stop trying to convince yourself that it’s possible, and just take things one step at a time. As Timothy Gallwey writes in his classic sports psychology book, The Inner Game of Tennis, “When one is emotionally attached to results that he can’t control, he tends to become anxious, and then try too hard. But one can control the effort he puts into winning. One can always do the best he can at any given moment. Since it is impossible to feel anxiety about an event that one can control, the mere awareness that you are using maximum effort to win each point will carry you past the problem of anxiety.”

Focusing on the effort, rather than the goal can help keep your brain from getting in your own way. Part of the reason this works is because being more highly motivated to accomplish a goal actually increases the brain’s response to errors (Bengtsson, 2009). The more important a goal becomes, the more a mistake will trigger the brain region that sits at the center of attention and emotion, the anterior cingulate. That increased anterior cingulate activity is intended to keep you focused on doing a good job, but it can become a problem if your brain’s response to errors becomes so large that it’s distracting.

So if a goal intimidates you, stop focusing on it. If a goal seems impossible, stop trying to “accomplish” it. I’m sure the phrase, “be in the moment” has been shoved in your face a million times. Well that’s what that means. Thinking about the goal is not being in the present. The goal is somewhere off in the future. Forget about it. Just hit the ball, and run.

REFERENCES

Bengtsson SL et al (2009) “Motivation to do Well Enhances Responses to Errors and Self-Monitoring” Cerebral Cortex

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About the Author

Alex Korb

Alex Korb, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at UCLA, is the author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.

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