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.


One of the key distinctions we make in sport & performance psychology is between process and outcome. Performers are typically focused on outcomes: winning, money, fame, medals, accolades, media coverage, etc. While these outcomes are certainly desirable and seductive, an important lesson we teach is that becoming overly focused on outcomes actually makes the achievement of outcomes less likely. This is because getting too wrapped up in outcomes distracts us from the process of performance. Process is all of the things we do that allow outcomes to happen. Process includes technique, strategy, strength, speed, nutrition, sleep, rest/recovery, etc. Another important distinction is that outcomes are largely outside of our control (for example, your opponent has something to say about your likelihood of winning) while process goals are typically within our control (we can execute our technique regardless of our opponent or circumstances). Finally, outcomes gain attention because they are easily measured: you don’t have to try and figure our whether you won or lost.

In order to counteract the shortcomings of outcomes, my mentor Dr. Rick McGuire developed a formula for success that provides us with a process that is (with one exception) within our control and that gives us a way to measure success (more information can be found in his book Coaching Mental Excellence):

SUCCESS = Ability X Preparation X Effort X Will

Ability, often called talent, is the raw material we are born with. This is the aspect of the formula for success that is out of our control as it is a gift from our parents. Unfortunately, our society gives undue credit to talent, oftentimes valuing it over people that have to work hard to achieve. We also often limit ourselves by believing that we are not talented enough. In most cases, this is simply not true. As referenced earlier, Ericsson, whose work has been popularized in the Talent Code and Outliers, has provided evidence that expertise is almost entirely determined by the extent to which one has engaged in deliberate practice – the next part of the formula.

Preparation, or practice, is how we develop our ability/talent. Without preparation, our ability is unusable. Preparation turn ability into capability – skills that we can reliably and effectively use in our performances.

Effort is how we deliver our skills in the competitive arena. Giving great effort takes tremendous willpower and courage. It leaves us exhausted and exposed, vulnerable to the critics. It is also often mocked by our culture, which idolizes performers who make it look “effortless.” Unfortunately what is missed is that the performances look effortless because the performers have put more time and effort into preparation and competition. The greatest performers are always the greatest practicers (for example, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Mia Hamm, Peyton Manning – all are respected for their tremendous preparation and effort). These “naturally talented” athletes appear that way because they have already outworked their opponents before stepping into the competitive arena.

And sometimes all of the ability, preparation, and effort that a performer has is not enough. This is the true meaning of competition. It is the “moment of truth,” “crunch time,” when the competition is decided. It is the point at which the performer feels they have given all that they have to give, and then realize that the competition demands more. Will is the choice to find more. It is willpower, cultivated through all of the hours of preparation and effort, that allows them to deliver the little bit more that they did not know was possible.

This is SUCCESS. Taking the ability that you were born with, developing it into capability, putting forth maximum effort, and then willing yourself to do more than you thought possible. When you do this, do you need to know the outcome to know whether to feel great about yourself or not? What more could you do? You are a success. And if you happen to not get the outcome you were hoping for? While there is not always another chance to win a gold medal, there is always an opportunity for more preparation, effort, and will. SUCCESS!