David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath, continues his excellent tradition of presenting psychological science in a way that is interesting and accessible. Admittedly, I appreciate that Gladwell makes psychology “popular,” though in this case the science is fairly light and the emphasis more on storytelling. Gladwell takes on the topic of why and how underdogs beat the favorites more than we think they should. He examines three aspects: 1) the advantages of disadvantages, 2) desirable difficulty, and 3) the limits of power.

An interesting idea from the advantages of disadvantages essentially revolved around the idea that people/teams that aren’t good enough are more willing to do difficult things that can become advantageous for them. For example, Rick Pitino was able to convince teams lacking talent (relatively speaking, of course) to be in great condition and then utilize a full court press to make their opponents uncomfortable and tired.

Tellingly, when other coaches come to learn Pitino’s techniques, they often leave knowing that they will not be able to get their teams to practice as hard as is necessary to be in shape to make the system work. The problem: their teams are just good enough to not be desperate to try anything. They’d rather be comfortable and good than get out of their comfort zone for a chance to be better.

What difficult (and, often, creative) thing could you do that would turn your disadvantage into an advantage?


Just Tell Me I Can’t

Jamie Moyer’s career served as inspiration for many people, and his memoir, Just Tell Me I Can’t, illustrates why this was so. Moyer’s modesty prevented the book from being a true autobiography, and it reads more as a conversation between Moyer and his sport psychology mentor, Harvey Dorfman, on the mental aspects of pitching.

Among many gems from Dorfman, one of my favorites was, “Good learners risk doing things badly in order to find out how to do things well” (p. 125). While seemingly simple, I have seen many people (and certainly been guilty of it myself) stop improving because they were afraid to look foolish once having achieved a certain level of comfort at a particular task. As Dorfman said, it is the truly great learners who do not worry about how others perceive them, and continue putting themselves in uncomfortable situations such that they can learn and grow.

The entire book provides many strategies, tips, and insights into the process of learning and growing and the benefits of hard work and effort. While the stories and anecdotes are all shared in the context of baseball and pitching, they are easily applied to any realm of performance – including the performance of your life.

Damn Few

Damn Few is a memoir and inside look at Navy SEAL training by Rorke Denver, who served both as an active duty SEAL and later as an instructor for basic and advanced SEAL training. Denver also starred in the movie Act of Valor, which brought to the screen fictionalized accounts of true events from his career.

From a performance psychology perspective, this quote from Denver provides insight into the mentality necessary to make it through SEAL training, “I knew one thing already: However relentless the instructors, however high the demands, I would find a way to get through BUD/S. I was not going to quit…that positive self-talk, that sense of absolute inevitability, that refusal to even consider anything else-that turned out to be the elusive key to doing well at BUD/S. I was already getting into the SEAL mind-set” (p. 26). It is apparent from Denver’s account that becoming a SEAL is more of a mental test than a physical one, and the extremes to which SEAL candidates are pushed provide support for the nearly limitless capacity of our minds – and how rare it is that we truly test that capacity, let alone even approach its limit.

So, if you are seeking inspiration or motivation for a difficult task in your life, try reading about the experiences of these incredible warriors. Your challenge will be put into perspective very quickly.

The Sports Gene

The Sports Gene by David Epstein provides an interesting counterbalance to the recent pendulum swing in sport to the nurture (i.e., practice) explanation for expertise. Popularizing (with the inherent changes and oversimplifications) Ericsson’s research on expertise, books such as The Talent Code, Talent is Overrated, Outliers, and Bounce have spread the idea of expertise being accessible to anyone via deliberate practice. While I am a huge fan of Ericsson’s research and use it both in my sport psychology consulting and my own life, assuming that expertise is a result of nurture alone seems to overlook many obvious inborn advantages (as an aside, Ericsson did acknowledge that the demands of particular sports lent to genetic advantages, for example, height in basketball).

Enter The Sports Gene, which delivers the latest research on genetic linkages to aspects of performance in a user friendly, engaging, and fascinating manner. One of the findings I was particularly intrigued by was that near elite athletes actually practiced more than elite athletes prior to age 15. However, by age 18 the elite athletes had accumulated more practice than the near elites. The explanation for this seemingly counter intuitive pattern was that elites sampled various sports in their childhood and early teen years before specializing in their later teens. In contrast, the near elite athletes specialized earlier, thus accumulating more hours in the sport, but did not go on to achieve the success of the elites (factors such as overuse injuries and burnout were large contributors).

This is an extremely important finding, as one of the consequences of the popularization of Ericsson’s research has been for parents, coaches, and sport administrators to encourage early specialization in kids, with the belief that the sooner the kids accrued 10,000 hours of practice the sooner they would achieve expertise. It is now apparent that this approach is, in fact, counter productive to becoming an elite athlete.

Nurture Shock

Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman presents recent science relevant to parenting that contradicts several assumptions and commonly held beliefs. Among the topics covered are surprising revelations about praise, sleep, lying, and self-control.

Relevant to performance, a point of interest was that parents of teenagers feel that arguing is destructive to the relationship, while the teenagers themselves feel it is productive. Part of the reason is that parents report holding onto the negative affect from the argument longer than do teens. More importantly, the teens view arguing as an important way to be heard and assert their growing power and independence.

Similarly, in Eleven Rings, Phil Jackson says that he always welcomed debate from his players because it showed they were engaged in solving problems.

So, the next time you are involved in an argument or conflict, perhaps there are other, more productive, ways of understanding what is happening.

Love 2.0

Love 2.0, as the title implies, provides a new and unique perspective on love. Barbara Fredrickson is one of the foremost researches on positive emotions, and her investigations of love provide a fascinating picture that is quite different than our (or at least my) romantic notions of love. In short, Fredrickson demonstrates biological, physiological, and neurological evidence that love happens in moments of connection rather than as an enduring bond that lasts a lifetime. Thus, familial, husband-wife, and parent-child connections last (or not) over time based on the extent to which the people involve regularly relate to one another in a caring and compassionate manner.

All well and good, but what does this have to do with performance? I would argue a great deal. I cannot think of an example of a performer who performs in isolation. Most athletes have a coach. Most performers have an instructor or mentor. And the exceedingly few who do not perform with others or with a coach/instructor have a support system of people who make it possible for the performer to devote the time and energy necessary to hone skilled performance. In all cases, the new ideas presented in Love 2.0 can help to sustain, grow, and balance the relationships necessary for performance.

Further, Love 2.0 begins and ends with self-acceptance. The meditation practices and other suggestions for incorporating more love and openness in one’s life not only create a more balanced, focused, and inspired individual; but they also create a sense of ease, comfort, and confidence in oneself that provides a foundation for motivation, consistent performance, and resiliency.

Performance Psychology: A Practitioner’s Guide

Performance Psychology: A Practitioner’s Guide, edited by Dave Collins, Angela Button, and Hugh Richards, may be the first textbook I have ever read cover to cover. That’s after 15 years in graduate school and academia. Perhaps more than anything else, this speaks to the utility and readability of this text. Yes, it is dense with information. However, for the reader motivated to learn about the topics covered, the information is presented in an accessible fashion with suggestions and examples for application throughout.

Although impossible to summarize an entire text, I’ll include one example here that I found particularly useful. As reader’s of this blog know, focus is a major theme of my work, and thus I was interested in the 5 principles of effective concentration in skilled performance presented in the book:

1) Decide to concentrate – it won’t just happen by chance

2) Focus on only one thought at a time

3) Your mind is “focused” when you are doing exactly what you are thinking

4) You “lose” your concentration when you focus on factors that are outside your control

5) Focus outwards when you get nervous

Filled with similarly useful and through provoking insights throughout, I would recommend this book for anyone interested in an in-depth examination of how current science can be applied to performance.

Focus Fridays: Reconnect with the routine

For many, Friday is the end of the work week and time to start daydreaming about the weekend. Thus, I am introducing a new weekly post that will feature tips for utilizing Fridays as a reminder to practice focus and maintaining (or improving) performance and productivity.

This week, the challenge is to reconnect with the routine. Routines serve a wonderful purpose: they allow us to perform automatically so we free up our brains to do other things (like daydream about the weekend…). However, there is also a reason the word routine is synonymous with tedious, mundane, and boring.

Today, see if you can bring a new focus and energy to something that has become tedious, mundane, and boring for you. There is a reason you are doing whatever it is over and over, so it must have some importance. Can you reconnect to why it is important? Can you discover (or rediscover) something about this act that you have never noticed before (or something you haven’t noticed for a long time)? Are you still doing this job the same way as when you started? Why? Can you do it better with all the practice and understanding you now have?

Eleven Rings

Eleven Rings documents Phil Jackson’s unprecedented number of NBA championships. From his days as a player, through coaching the Bulls and Lakers, Jackson’s unique style is informative for anyone in a leadership position.

Basing much of his approach in the tenets of Zen Buddhism, the book is a pragmatic introduction to many of the concepts discussed in this blog (e.g., focus).

Among many leadership gems, one I particularly enjoyed was, “As a leader your job is to do everything in your power to create the perfect conditions for success by benching your ego and inspiring your team to play the game the right way” (p. 334).

For anyone interested in adding aspects of Zen philosophy into their leadership or personal life, wanting to diversify their understanding of leadership, or simply intrigued by one of the most successful modern coaches, Eleven Rings is a worthwhile read.

See it – Feel it – Trust it

One of the simplest and most effective ideas I teach is called Cook’s Model of Concentration after the model’s creator, David Cook. Cook’s model is a strategy to prepare oneself either pre-performance or pre-skill execution.

The model utilizes a funnel analogy in which concentration starts broad and gradually narrows as the performance of the skill nears. At its widest point, the performer observes the situation and takes note of anything relevant to the task (e.g., opponent/defense, potential distractions, weather, etc.). Next, concentration begins to narrow as irrelevant aspects of the environment are ignored and the performer begins to prepare a strategy to meet the demands of the task. Once a strategy is developed, the performer visualizes executing the strategy and the task/skill, emphasizing the feel of the performance. Finally, at the narrowest point of the funnel just prior to and during skill execution, the performer enters the trusting mindset where they have committed to their strategy, seen and felt themselves performing the skill, and can now turn off their mind and trust their body to execute the task.

Although this may sound elaborate, Cook’s Model can be shortened to See it – Feel it – Trust it and is extremely effective at allowing performers to go through a pre-performance routine designed to grow their confidence and increase the likelihood of successful skill execution.

With practice, See it – Feel it – Trust it can be completed within the space of one or two centering breaths and can be applied to just about any performance situation. If you regularly practice See it – Feel it – Trust it, it will become automatic and have a positive impact on your confidence and your performance.