Be the Ball: The Art of Iron Focus


In college, my brother, Tommy, spent a couple of summers volunteering at a school for students with severe disabilities.

He was a teaching assistant, providing one-on-one academic coaching to middle schoolers.

One of his favorite students was a sixth grade boy. I’m not sure what his disability was. In any case, this particular kid hated math.

Tommy was trying to help him with worksheets, but the boy kept trying to change the subject. He wanted to talk about video games, comic books, girls he liked… anything except the math problems in front him.

“Focus!” Tommy said to him several times a week. “You need to have iron focus!”

I loved the phrase, but I eventually forgot all about “iron focus”… until last week, when I saw it in action.

Iron Focus Makes a Comeback

I took my six-year-old daughter, Helen, to her Wednesday soccer practice last week, as usual.

We arrived early, and Helen and a few other girls each took a ball and started dribbling it in a random direction.

Suddenly a voice rose above the chaos. A voice of authority: Helen’s voice.

“Everyone kick your ball away except one person!” she ordered. “We’re going to play a real soccer game.”

Predictably, nothing happened. Everyone just kept running around until practice started. I was proud of her for trying, though.

During the scrimmage at the end of practice, Helen just couldn’t get possession of the ball. She was frustrated, but she didn’t give up. She just doggedly continued to follow the ball. She cheered when her teammates scored goals, even though she never got a chance to score one herself.

On the way back to the car, Helen threw a small water bottle to my helper, Romaine, and they started playing catch with it.

water bottle

Helen was having her usual difficulty catching small, hard objects. Historically, she had always flinched away from them.

On her fifth try, Romaine reminded her to keep her eye on the ball– or in this case, the water bottle.

That’s when I saw it. She widened her stance and raised her hands a bit higher. A look of intense concentration appeared on her face, a look I suddenly recognized as one of iron focus.

At that moment, she had a breakthrough. She went from catching nothing to catching three out of four throws.

Like Father Like Daughter?

I saw Helen use iron focus again, just the next day– this time in the swimming pool. She put on a burst of speed to pass the kid in front of her. For the first time, I saw her do a perfect flutter kick.

Then, on Saturday, I watched Helen at her second ever swim meet. I had missed the first meet, so I was completely unprepared for what I saw: Helen swam harder and faster than I had imagined she could. It was wonderful to watch.

I had caught a ball before, in the long-ago days before muscular dystrophy took the strength from my arms. But at that swim meet, my daughter showed me a glimpse of an athleticism completely outside of my own experience.

But I did recognize a part of it. Her iron focus was the same technique I use to get work done: zoning out the world and concentrating on a single goal.


  1. Thanks, Peter! My wandering mind takes far too many detours. I needed this. Much appreciated.

  2. Looking forward to the newsletters… love the iron focus, that is what makes Peter Gimbel a great Dad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *