The power of calm concentration – the unfashionable but essential mental skill

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated August 2019

We hear a lot these days about the importance of a positive mental attitude and how we must develop the ability to recover, renew and be resilient (the 3 R's) in the face of difficulties, energy-sappers and setbacks. 

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For example, in the recent European Champions League final in soccer we heard that Tottenham Hotspur prepared for the biggest match of their lives by sharpening their self-belief and mental toughness through arrow bending and fire-walking.

Positive Attitude and Resilience are, of course, very important but unfortunately not the whole story in terms of equipping us mentally for success in challenging ventures. 

Certainly these skills were not enough for Tottenham to defeat the favourites Liverpool and record an historic victory in this prestigious match!

What is missing here?

Let’s take a simplistic example:

How would you feel if your Pilot or Surgeon high-fived you and talked cheerfully about how they have totally come to terms with their previous setbacks (crashes and patient deaths)?

You probably would be somewhat anxious about what you were getting yourself into?

I suggest the missing mental skill is “Calm Concentration” and along with Positive Attitude and Resilience, Recovery and Renewal they form a three-legged stool which will be unstable if any of the 3 legs are missing:

Positive Attitude


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Resilience, Recovery and Renewal                    Calm Concentration

The 3 essential mental success skills 

I believe there are 3 simple but crucial skills in "Calm Concentration":

1. Fixate on the essentials

For example, in aviation the practice of “Sterile Cockpit” means the flightcrew only concentrate on take-off when taking off and only talk about landing matters when landing. Other very important but less urgent topics are simply saved for less critical sections of the flight when a safe cruising altitude has been reached.

2. Eliminate unnecessary mistakes

I like the tennis term “unforced error” – in other words a mistake you were not forced to make. No-one can promise to make no mistakes whatsoever but we can promise to avoid the avoidable ones by following processes such as checklists when performing repeatable tasks.

3. Display clear-headed agility

Agility can be defined as dealing with the unexpected well. This involves quickly reviewing your options, assessing risk and reward of each option and using this information to make a reasoned decision in an appropriate timescales for the circumstances at hand.


Though currently unfashionable, neglecting the mental skill of "Calm Concentration" will put almost anything challenging you attempt at high risk of failure.

One of the most effective ways to develop this essential mental skill is through team-based scenarios and business simulations where the participants are confronted with a routine operational decisions interlaced with unexpected dilemmas in a time-pressured but safe learning environment. The other key aspect of this that the participants are given time for self-reflection and the opportunity to try again!

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More about Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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