Never rely on your pre-frontal cortex
I stood at the penalty spot facing the Kop to look up at the goal just 12 yards in front of me, and marvelled: “How could anyone miss at this distance?” (Yes, I did – and I will leave you to marvel how this actually could have happened!) Well, tell that to Gareth Bale – and to all those penalty takers who simply miss the 24 x 8 foot goal just in front of them altogether, in his case in the Euro game against Turkey by miles. Even when there is a goalkeeper, the odds must be firmly in the penalty-takers favour. However, as we all know it’s one thing to take a penalty on a training ground and something else during a penalty shoot-out in the Euros. As France's star forward Kylian Mbappe knows only too well. As he lined up to take his team’s fifth penalty in the shoot-out against Switzerland, he knew a miss would mean his team missing the quarter finals. The pressure must have been intense. “The kick I am about to take will be the most important kick in my entire career!” He later apologised: “Very difficult to turn the page. The sadness is immense after this elimination, we could not reach our goal.” His failure will linger even for a lifetime, as Chris Waddle and Gareth Southgate know all too well. The problem is simple: it’s a case of overthinking the consequences of missing. Once you start thinking what you are doing rather than simply relying on instinct, a different part of your brain is activated, that part which isn’t very good at taking penalties. The lesson for penalty takers is clear: Whatever you do, don’t let your pre-frontal cortex get involved. It will let you down.
And that’s a lesson for all sports, for all of life in fact. It was an elderly Methodist minister who years ago offered some key advice – although he would have been younger then than what I am today! When you lead the congregation – he told me - in saying the Lord’s prayer, think about anything – your dinner, your favourite soap, anything other than what you are saying. And he was right. Of course, I know the Lord’s Prayer very well. I could say it in my sleep – and I hope I do. But in taking a service of worship, you owe it to your congregation to say the right words. Any mistake, even a hesitation, will cause everyone to stumble. And again, if it is a very special service where you know you can’t afford to get it wrong, you can’t afford to overthink what you are saying. You are much safer in relying on instinct. Maurice – who will be reading this blog – told me of a watching a church service on television in which the bishop managed to mangle the final blessing even though he would have done it a thousand times. The lesson for Maurice was never to rely on memory but to make sure the script is always in view. One of my favourite authors is Ray Bradbury; he reflected “Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things.” “Don’t think, just do it” would have been good advice for the apostle Peter. In the main story in the Bible on the danger of over-thinking, here Peter finds himself – of all things – walking on water. You know this remarkable story, of how the disciples see Jesus walking alongside them but on water. “’It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.” (Matthew 14:26) It is impetuous Peter who speaks “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus says. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.” (v29) So far, so good. But understandably Peter is struck by a sensation of self-awareness: “What on earth am I doing?” Even though it was his idea in this first place, something we need to realise in applying the story to our own lives. So Matthew tells us: “But when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” Which, of course, Jesus does. Peter would have been better advised to start thinking about cleaning all those nets or fixing the hole in his mother-in-law’s roof. Anything rather than to think about the extraordinary thing he was doing. But there again, as disciples of Jesus he wants to teach us how to walk on water, to do the impossible, to refuse to be limited by our expectations. But this is what obedience to Jesus looks like. The danger is always self-awareness, when we look to our own resources or when we allow our history to shape us. I guess the knack is to develop our instincts so that we do without over-thinking what God would have us do. This means learning to trust, to obey, in the host of the little things in our lives – the equivalent of the training ground. Trusting Jesus, by trusting him in the small things, becomes part of us, preparing us for the big thing. The congregation being addressed in the epistle to the Hebrews was facing a time of testing, the equivalent of a penalty shoot-out. And they were understandably nervous. The answer to the danger of over thinking, being only too aware of our own weakness, our predicament?’ “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end.” (Hebrews 12:2)