Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

10 steps to positive focus in work and life.

I’m delighted to present the first in a monthly series of blog posts, written in collaboration with Sarah Fenwick, record-setting extreme sportswoman, Chartered Sport Psychologist, Master Executive Coach, and leadership consultant to corporates and adventurers. We will be exploring the psychology behind some of the lessons we learn through adventure. Today – how to focus on the success you want, rather than the obstacles in your way.

“Ski the gaps, not the trees.”

That always seemed to be one of the silliest pieces of advice I was given as a novice skier. Let’s get real here. I might face-plant in the powder of the gaps and fill my goggles with snow, but the gaps aren’t going to hurt me. Those trees, though…..

Those trees are evil. I may not be an irresistible force on skis but those trees are undoubtedly immovable objects. When you run into them at speed, it hurts!

“The skis will go where you look.” That was also clearly nonsense. I’ve had my two skis abruptly part ways and head in two entirely different directions, neither one where I was looking, and the results weren’t pretty.

I learnt to ski as an adult and it was a slow, awkward process, driven by conscious learning rather than the intuitive discovery of children. With time, I came to realise that some advice only applies once you are good enough to use it.

Gradually, my ski control became a sub-conscious process, my body learnt to make the fine, intuitive adjustments faster than I could deliberately think them through and it became true that the skis would go where I focused. I started to see that if you skied down a slope staring straight at a tree, you’d ski into it.

Nevertheless, I certainly wasn’t going to ski through a forest without keeping a wary eye on where exactly those trees were. It still hurt to run into them! The challenge was to see how far I could push the tree into my peripheral vision while still having a beady eye on it.

The result was a series of heart-stopping near misses. Somehow the tree would sidle imperceptibly towards me and then abruptly leap into my path, resulting in a frantic swerve, a high-speed wobble and probably a crash into a snow-drift.

Finally it dawned on me that the truth was simple: you get what you focus on. A tree in my peripheral vision was still a tree I was obsessed with, afraid of – drawing my attention away from where I actually wanted to go.

I’m not suggesting you ski into a forest without taking an overview – a rapid mental snapshot of the nature of trees, the depth of the snow, the angle of the slope. At that moment I identify the obstacles I need to avoid and plot the line of gaps that will carry me safely through.

But once I’ve committed to the descent, then I need to let go of all the possible problems and give my full attention to success –  focus on the gaps, one leading to the next and the next, slide my way through in an exhilarating fast dance to where the slopes open up below.

Ski the gaps, not the trees. Focus on what you want, not on what might stop you. It turns out to be very good advice.

The art of focus, skiing powder through trees in the Rialb valley.

The art of focus. Skiing beautiful powder through the Rialb forest in Andorra, my winter backyard. Skier: Curig, photo: Cathy O’Dowd.

Sarah Fenwick shares the psychology behind my experiences, and tools to help us all focus on success.

Have you ever had one of those ‘I got what I focused on’ moments? I know I’ve had plenty, and I’m sure most readers will have their own experiences of that realisation – whether you wanted it or not, you got what you got because that was where you’d placed your focus!

These experiences are sometimes referred to as ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’. We have an uncanny knack of expecting something to happen, usually based on our beliefs, and then behaving in a such way that our expectations become reality. We’ve proved our beliefs to be right and so we’ve further strengthened them. This is all well and good when it is a positive belief or expectation. However if our focus is based on a negative or limiting belief we may well get exactly what we don’t want.

When Cathy enters the tree thinking ‘if I hit a tree I’ll hurt myself ‘ or ‘there are so many trees it’s difficult to ski my way round them’, she finds the trees have a knack of leaping into her path…… and her belief that they are difficult to ski is confirmed.

When she switches her focus to ‘ski the gaps’ with the expectation that they will carry her safely through, she’s challenging that previously held ‘limiting belief’. By focusing on directing her skis where she wants to go, she enjoys an ‘exhilarating fast dance’ through the trees, a positive, self-affirming experience. With each successful experience, she reinforces a new ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where ‘one gap leads to the next’.

10 steps for creating self-fulfilling prophecies that will focus you towards success in work, leisure and sport:

  1. Identify what you want to achieve and how you will know you’ve achieved it.
  2. Notice when your limiting beliefs or self-fulfilling prophecies occur and hold you back – what triggers them? Note down your limiting beliefs.
  3. Replace the limiting beliefs with ‘believable and achievable’ positive beliefs that focus on what you want to achieve.
  4. Think about and vividly imagine what success would look and feel like.
  5. Look for and collect evidence (e.g. past successes) to support these new positive beliefs
  6. Develop new self-talk phrases to support these new positive beliefs.
  7. Before any potential ‘trigger’ situations connect with your new positive beliefs, feelings and self-talk.
  8. Enjoy achieving – remember how good it feels.
  9. Practice, practice, practice.
  10. Decide how you will stretch yourself even further

Find more from Sarah Fenwick on her website, Twitter or LinkedIn.


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