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When time slows down

On the art of performance under pressure, improvisation under improbable circumstances

Torino Jazz Festival @OGR Photo by Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images for OGR

Kenneth note: As part of an offseason series, I asked Field Gulls writers to write not about the Seahawks, but about anything they’re passionate about. This is John’s entry.

As a kid growing up in Paris, centuries ago, I devoured every hour of televised sports the tube had to offer. Frequently, it seemed like events were seeking me out instead of the other way around. Brimming with special vividness to this day are France’s bittersweet run through the 1986 FIFA World Cup, plus just about every Roland Garros French Open final from the 80s (go John McEnroe, Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, but never Ivan Lendl). Especially pungent in my memory? The ‘88 World Series, wherein unlikely hero Orel Hershiser led my Dodgers to glory. Happened to be stateside that fall. Already knew instinctively to root against the A’s and their over-hyped Bash Brothers.

No matter if I was glued to the TV for an afternoon of Formula One racing (the Ayrton Senna-Alain Prost rivalry could dominate page one headlines) or the final stage of the Tour de France (which sped past my back yard fence one year, no lie), sports beckoned around every new day’s corner. In junior high, I taught my French friends how to play baseball. We were the only house on the block with a basketball hoop. My brother Mark and I once organized neighborhood Olympic Games in our playground, complete with prize money to the gold medalists.

Competition, within the structure of sport, comprised an integral part of my childhood and a mostly-healthy passion for it has accompanied me into adulthood. Well. More like technical adulthood, because every man is secretly still 12 at heart, right?

The more sports I watched, the more the puzzle of “How do you cope with the pressure of the big moment?” dropped anchor in my mental space, and never left. Not least because I’ve had the chance to be in big-pressure moments musically. As many of you already know, I’m a piano teacher (don’t bother asking for lessons! I already have 60 students and 40 more on the wait list), with a background in performance. I participated in contests held at the Paris Conservatory. I’ve played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in front of 2,000 people at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus. Here’s a link to an original arrangement of Beethoven themes I performed for a couple thousand more at my alma mater a few years ago. I haven’t done anything remotely along the lines of “appear in a nationally televised NFL game,” and I’m not a world-class pianist, but I’ve often been on the spot with a lot of people watching. I’m equipped to answer a couple of interesting — to me — questions:

How do you act when the moment is large, maybe larger than your preparation set you up for? How does it feel when the competition heats up, when the lights are on and the sometimes uncountable sets of eyes await your effort? How does it feel when it goes well — and then, nightmarically, how do you act when it goes south, and the show must, must, MUST go on?

Pressure, pushing down on me, pushing down on you

  • People can fold

When it’s clutch time, some people shrink. I see it in recitals, in fourth quarters of important ball games, in ninth innings, in powerpoint presentations, in relationships. Not everyone is mentally strong at all moments; humans have different skillsets. There are good communicators and bad ones; good athletes and bad ones; people who can sing in front a crowd and those who really should stick to shower serenades.

  • But sometimes there’s no perceptible change

With all eyes on them, some folks are unflappable. Pressure gives them pause maybe only a little, maybe not at all. Through experience or natural talent or mental fortitude or what other reason you can devise, some people are at home under the spotlight, seemingly unfazed by all the attention. If you get stage fright, or have trouble speaking in public, a performer’s apparent calm demeanor will never cease to wow you. Professional stage actors, solo musicians, many pro athletes fall in this category.

(Free hint: sometimes their calm is authentic, and sometimes they’re covering up exactly the same nerves you would have in that situation.)

  • And people rise to the occasion, don’t they?

Trick question. This third group of humans doesn’t exist. Rising to the occasion is basically the same as performing like you would at your best in a casual setting. Your performance isn’t impacted by the nerves, the conditions, the audience, the anything.

Frequently, people close to me would compliment me on my poise, saying things like “you did even better on stage.” I smiled and nodded and thanked them, but deep down I knew they were fooled. I simply didn’t fold. I came through like it was another practice.

Probably one reason Pete Carroll talks so much about treating everyday situations like championship opportunities. So that the big moment — even the biggest moment — doesn’t scare as many people off.

When it goes right

But when a performance sails smoothly from highlight to highlight, from anticipation to climax to resolution, the sensation is quite unlike any other.

  • The rush

Words are adequate but imperfect in describing the sensation of capturing an audience, or of nailing exactly the task you were put on stage to execute. The rush is chemical. It’s mental — but you feel it in your heart, your feet, your bloodstream, your everywhere. The applause is like a drug, which you would enjoy fully, except for...

  • The trance

Imagine the sensation of a pleasant dream, so pleasant you know it to be an illusion, and you choose to remain asleep, to savor the experience. That’s the best approximation I can muster for how it feels to be under the lights and in the zone at the same time. If a Seahawk ever made a playoff-winning field goal, or a kick to win a Super Bowl, or, heck, any important field goal at all, ever, he’d probably go through the trance first, and it would wear off into joy. I presume. Something to test this season perhaps.

  • And time slows down

Top athletes cite the above phenomenon time and time again. I’m no revolutionary; many others have spoken of how a major league batter isn’t supposed to have enough time to recognize a pitch and adjust his swing to connect squarely with it. Likewise, an NFL quarterback isn’t supposed to be able to go through his progressions and the dozens of variables attached between snap and release. And yet. Here we are, watching Nelson Cruz send 98 mph fastballs back faster than they came; here we are, watching a soon-to-be-crumpled Russell Wilson put the ball on the numbers to his third receiver even though a pass rusher broke through the pass “protection” within the fractured play’s first fractional moments.

Neither of those feats should be doable. Unless — unless the arc of time is bendable. And maybe it is! I’ll play 20 notes in a single second in one hand while thinking about the other hand’s current and future responsibilities, while planning ahead for the next batch of 20, while glancing out to the crowd so they know they’re on my mind too. I might throw in a wrist flourish, a head flick, or a sly smile.

There simply isn’t enough time in a single second for the brain to process that much information, unless one “tricks” linear time into giving it to you. Unless time slows down to accommodate you.

Fine. There is no back door. What’s really happening is the brain unlocking more of its potential than usual. You know that misnomer about how we only use ten percent of our computing power upstairs? Pretty sure that prolonged practice opens more pathways, and the right person can let those neurons do their thing in a public performance setting.

But it sure feels like you used a cheat code on time.

And then. And the. Sometimes, circumstances stack up against you, and to get out of a sticky situation, you have to improvise.

Poop hits the fan. Now what?

Allow me just a few final words on what it feels like to make something out of a shifting situation, pockmarked with the perils of live performance.

Improvisation is commonly associated wth extended jazz riffs, ad-libbed lines, quick thinking. I’m no Russell Wilson, not by the stretch of the most elastic imagination, but I’ve been on the spot and had my figurative left tackle fall down. Without the ability to improvise, I would have been lost. I like to think of it as the skillset to save it all if the situation goes south. Another form of preparation. some would call it a gift.

The power of improvisation is what, then? I call to mind the image of a mental map.

I subscribe to the notion that an NFL quarterback running for his life has something like a self-updating map of the field and an idea of where there are plays to be made, even in crisis mode. Because when I’m doing my scramble drill on the piano, hoping to save a phrase or get out of a loop that took me eight measures forward or backward, I’ve got a destination in mind. There’s an escape route, if I can only get there in time.

So I make up a route. A spin move here, a pump fake there. An extra set of four chords that I know will work together because I tried them last week in another song. Some rhythms that match their predecessors, a real phrase from before, a minor adjustment that connects us to the way out, and voila! the promised land is a step away. If I can avoid the sack and just

then a negative becomes a positive. Lemonade is made. Because I have that guy at the sideline, who broke free, just like we rehearsed. And I can complete that pass.

The thing I’m trying to get at here is improvisation is not magic, not chance — it’s a skill, and that practice at it helps. And that you need it, because sooner or later, the proverbial fan flings feces into a otherwise tidy room, game, or performance. It’s going to happen. Might as well be prepared.

And an accidental motto is born for your 2018 Seattle Seahawks: “It’s going to happen. Might as well be prepared.”