Imagine you’re Zlatan Ibrahimovic. You’re sitting on the bench in a sold-out stadium for your new team’s first game against crosstown rivals LAFC. The hype of the game is massive. The hype of your arrival in MLS is even more massive.
But you probably shouldn’t play. You arrived from Europe the day before and haven’t even practiced with your team.
Even so, you enter the game mid-way through the second half.
And just six minutes later, you create one of the most memorable moments in MLS history by smashing a swerving, 40-yard half-volley over the goalie’s head and into the net.
Zlatan’s technical skill was clearly remarkable. (Like Madonna, Zlatan gets first-name treatment.) But his situational awareness was even more impressive.
Later, when the team gathered for a tape session to review the game, coaches highlighted a pass defender Ashley Cole made 50 yards from goal because they felt Cole should have held the ball longer.
“What should Ashley have done here?” assistant coach Dom Kinnear asked.
“He should have shot,” Zlatan said. A few players laughed. Who shoots from that far away?
“I’m serious,” Zlatan said. “He should have shot. You don’t see it?”
Kinnear says Zlatan came up to him after the meeting and said, “The goalie was off his line (relatively far away from the goal) the whole game.”
Kinnear reviewed the tape and realized Zlatan was right. “He knew when he subbed on that the goalie would be off his line, and if he got a chance he would shoot. Only Ibra would have scored that goal,” Kinnear said.
Go back and watch the video. Zlatan trails the ball as two players jump for it; he’s focused on the outcome, but he also takes a split-second to see where the goalie is positioned.
He knew what to look for — because he already knew what to look for. That’s what incredible athletes do. Wayne Gretzky. Lebron. Serena. (Two more first-namers.) Tom Brady. Research shows that professional athletes — in all sports — are better at processing complex and rapidly-changing information. (What Dr. Jocelyn Faubert calls “perceptual-cognitive performance.”)
While that attribute may be innate, still: Research shows that, with practice, even elite athletes can develop even better information-processing ability.
And here’s the kicker: Research also shows people who aren’t professional athletes can, with practice, quickly improve their ability to sift through unnecessary data and detail to better focus on what is most important.
Yep: With time and effort, anyone can improve their perceptual-cognitive performance.
Like Warren Buffett, who estimates he spends 80 percent of his workday reading financial statements, business reports, and journals. Buffett is constantly looking — but with time and practice, he’s also learned where to look.
Like billionaire Roger Penske, who told me one of the ways he would quickly evaluate a car dealership’s attention to detail was to check how neatly defective parts from warranty service were stored before being returned to manufacturers. “If they keep that area well organized,” he said, “they likely do a great job everywhere else.” Penske is constantly looking — but he’s also learned where to look.
Or like 7-time NASCAR championship-winning crew chief Chad Knaus, who told me that after interviewing potential job candidates he would often walk them to the parking lot to say good-bye. And to check out their cars.
“I don’t care what kind of car they drive,” Knaus said. “Old, new, expensive, inexpensive… none of that matters at all. But I do care about whether they take care of their car. If food wrappers are lying on the seats… if the car isn’t clean and well maintained… I figure if you don’t take good care of your stuff, you aren’t going to take good care of ours.” Knaus is constantly looking — but he also knows where to look.
Kinnear readily admits he didn’t “coach” Zlatan. (If Mike Trout showed up to play for your company softball team, would you try to coach him?) But he did put together notes on opposing teams for Zlatan to review.
Still, he was never sure whether Zlatan found the information useful, especially since he sometimes pointed out player’s weaknesses or opportunities created by other team’s tactics the coach himself hadn’t spotted.
“He did some things over the years there where you end up thinking ‘this guy isn’t really just a player, he’s a bit of a genius,'” Kinnear says. “He just sees the game at a different speed. His vision is just completely pure.”
Your “vision” can be sharper, too.
Spotting patterns, identifying essential ingredients, and uncovering what matters most isn’t an innate talent. Like any skill, that level of presence and focus requires practice. For athletes, that practice might be visual and reaction drills.
For you, that might be shutting yourself away to focus — really focus — on your financials. Or eliminating distractions and potential interruptions when spending one-on-one time with employees so you can answer the question that wasn’t asked.
Or, when you think you’re right, gaining greater clarity by seeking information or data that may not back up your judgment.
Because we’re all constantly looking.
The genius lies in knowing where to look.