A couple months ago I read a story where Maria Sharapova at the U.S. Open (please don’t ask why I follow stories about Maria Sharapova). She had fallen behind in a match and during a break, her coach told her to “get your act together.” We've all had moments when we have to tell ourselves this, and we’ve all had moments when coaches, bosses and friends look at us and simply say or scream “get your act together.” It’s good advice, foundational really. So what does it mean and why is it so ethically important?
This is an imperative phrase, an order to oneself. Like much sports oriented ethics urgency drives it.
The key when we use this phrase is that:
Things are NOT going well.
I may be losing or I may be ahead but losing momentum, or the momentum is shifting and my performance has become erratic enabling the opponent to take advantage of my weaknesses and flawed execution.
Things are not going well with my performance and the flow of the game. This might also mean that I am not playing at my highest level. More possibly my performance has devolved into inconsistent execution and decision-making. This requires pulling oneself together and getting your act together.
In my case I usually use it when I am having a discussion with myself or among several selves with me/myself/I all disagreeing or pulling in different ways. This internal disagreement implies two things. First, our internal self has fragmented and is pulling against itself. I, as a person, do not have a coherent and stable approach to the challenge before me and my performance suffers.
Second, this internal division undercuts my focus and stability of execution. One time I may focus upon one tactic, then another or I may lose aggressiveness and let my opponent dominate the tone of the play. Or the next moment I may be overly aggressive and not wait for the game to come to me. So I force bad plays rather than waiting for the right opening and pouncing much like Suz Tzu would suggest.
Operationally this means that my game and bahiavior become inconsistent and fighting each other. Consistency goes down leading to more inconsistency as I experiment with different options or different parts of my brain suggest different solutions. Cognitive efficiency decline as does cognitive unity of purpose and integration of perception, decision and action.
Now the language gives us a way out.
Get your act—orders the person to take responsibility for the situation. In sports and life the “get” is a bossy little word that demands attention and action. But the critical words here are ACT TOGETHER.
The word ACT means that the situation requires a person take on a role.
Being an elite athlete involves taking on and mastering a role. Mastering the skills and character and demands of the sport require that people take on a Role an Act—this act involves having a script and role. We PLAY games just like we go to PLAYS.
Athletes play a part and take on a role. The role involves a strong level of scripting and practice to refine the skills and character. Good athletes like good actors invest their heart and soul and skills into the role they act out. They read, study and practice the character and role over and over.
Being an athlete is not the total identity of the person. It can become that just like being a lawyer or scientist or police officer can fill up a person’s entire identity. But the fact that it is a professional role and an act with a strong script enables a player to say “get your act together, Pat.”
This cognitive moment permits the athlete so recall the trained script, to remember the planned actions and the cues that other actors/players give out. More important the act requires, as in a play, constant annotations to address changes in the opponent or audience.
The athlete, like any good professional, takes a script and role—an ACT—but they must improvise within the role and go off script given the surprises and interactive nature of competition. They draw upon the character and the skills but as in improvisation respond to the cues and actions around them. During a time out, the coach an athlete may literally rewrite a script or add a new scene on the run.
This approach to life sets true athletics apart from the totally scripted and predictable world of professional wrestling with its scripted outcomes or the world of fixed athletics with its fixed outcomes. Athletes enter a competition with a script but no guaranteed outcome.
Athletic competition like professional life starts with learned skills and character that prepares us to play within the rules. But innovation occurs, situations change and opponents prove to be better or have developed new skills or to be more cognitively present and beat us.
So when Maria Sharapovo or any of us tells ourselves, Get your act together, this pushes us to remember the physical gestures and mental mind sets and perceptual pattern recognition that we rely upon to success. We need to take back on the role and unite our warring selves into one role, one person and one ACT where mind, perception and body engage the context.