Dealing with Leadership Penalty Shots


Have you noticed that football placekickers pause briefly before the ball is snapped? The same is true of futbol (soccer) penalty kickers. And basketball free throw shooters. And hockey penalty shooters. And golf putters. And pitchers. In fact, the most successful athletes in any sport have developed a skill that is called “Quiet Eye,”1 the moment an athlete takes right before certain behaviors to carefully focus on a single location–the location that is critical for success in the following action: the uprights, the net, the rim, the hole, the mitt, … Leaders may not exactly be athletes, but there is an important application of Quiet Eye for leaders, too.

Professor Joan Vickers, from the University of Calgary, is one of the originators of the Quiet Eye concept. She is quoted in an article in the Atlantic saying, “Your brain is like a GPS system. It detects target, speed, intensity, and distance.” The Quiet Eye moment is what tunes the brain’s GPS to the correct coordinates, enabling superior performance and results.

What about leadership? How does Quiet Eye apply to the daily task of leading?

Leaders face penalty-shot situations every day. Whether you are on offense or defense…whether you are the goalie or the shooter…you are defending or making several penalty shots each and every day. Every urgent email, phone call, or pop-in conversation is a penalty shot. Every time a subordinate has a “teachable moment” is a penalty shot. Every crucial or strategic conversation with a colleague, boss, client, or supplier is a penalty shot.

Each of those scenarios, and more, is an opportunity for Quiet Eye.

What does Quiet Eye look like for leaders?

In athletics, the Quiet Eye moment is a time to pause, focus on the target, filter out extraneous information, and coordinate mental and physical resources toward the goal.


Slow down. In athletics, this pause is a matter of only milliseconds. In fact, in Vickers’ original article on Quiet Eye, she defined the pause as “more than 100 milliseconds.” That may seem very short, but in fast-paced games like hockey, tennis, or ping pong, 100ms may be an eternity. In leadership, though, the pause could be anywhere from several seconds to several days. The purpose of the pause is to allow time for an intentional, conscious search of your experience, knowledge, and wisdom to inform the situation. Not taking time to pause could dangerously handicap your next move.


Give attention to what is truly important. Identify and clarify the current goal. Align that goal to values, mission, and vision. Your Quiet Eye moment will help you synergize an action choice that supports all of these strategic elements.


This is the other side of focus. Filter out what is not relevant. Unhealthy emotions. Gossip. Fear. That voice of your previous boss who doubted you. These are the factors that undermine your ability to respond to the current reality in a healthy and strategic manner.


Pull together your resources and synthesize a strategic action. Your resources include your experience and wisdom, your skills, your knowledge, and your God-given talents. Resources also include organizational assets such as information, tools, strategies, programs, and so on. Don’t forget people. Often, the best response to a “leadership penalty shot,” will require you to obtain help from others. Make it a team effort.

Pause, focus, filter, and coordinate.

This is the leadership version of Quiet Eye and it will make your leadership penalty shot success rate climb.

Related Reading:
Taking Risks,” Scott Yorkovich
Fear & Failure,” Robert Gerwig
Slow Down for Taking Risks,” Scott Yorkovich

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

1: Miles, Charlotte (May 11, 2012). “Quiet Eye – What is it and where does it come from?” Retrieved November 29, 2015 from

Photo by Abigail Keenan. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

One thought on “Dealing with Leadership Penalty Shots

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.