Anticipation is the king of talents, because it’s so mysterious and powerful. How does Sidney Crosby know just where the puck is going to end up? How does Larry Ellison know just when to close the deal? How does Clapton know just when to make that chord change?
The usual answer is that it’s some kind of instinctive magic — a sixth sense.
The real answer is that it’s high-speed pattern recognition: a learned ability to look at telltale signs and accurately guess where the action is headed. It’s not about instincts. It’s about information processing.
Check out this video for a beautiful example. It’s one of those Science of Sport shows where they analyze the abilities of world-class athletes — in this case, Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s a pretty fair soccer player.
Scroll ahead to 6:20, and you’ll see a remarkably cool experiment that reveals the source of Ronaldo’s true ability — his eyes and his brain. By watching body language, arc, and speed, he can calculate where the ball is going to be, even in pitch-black darkness.
So the question becomes, how do we improve the speed of our information processing? A couple ideas:
- 1) Eyes-Only Practice – Set aside practice time where you focus just on absorbing information — sort of like an NFL player would view film. A baseball player could stand at the plate without a bat, tracking the flight of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. A musician could watch a concert, trying to sense the architecture of each solo (ears instead of eyes, but you get the idea).
- 2) Interrogate Top Performers – Seek out the best, and ask them to describe what’s going through their heads at key moments — what telltale signs they’re looking for. They won’t always be eloquent — as Ronaldo shows — but his words and body language are still helpful and revealing.
- 3) Do a Little Every Day – As the video shows, the anticipation is not something Ronaldo was born with, but rather a skill that he built over thousands of reps. Treat your observations the same. You won’t be good at the start, but each time you observe intensively and with a purpose, you’ll get better at figuring out what’s going to happen next.