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.


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.

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.

The Power of Habit

Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit identifies the ways that habits shape our lives – and performances – and also how they can be changed once we become aware of them. A habit is simply the result of a loop in which we are cued by a trigger, unconsciously activate a routine, and then receive a reward that satisfies a craving (again, usually this craving is outside of our awareness). Habits serve the function of saving processing effort in our brain, which means we are meant to be unaware of them. This is what makes changing a habit difficult. But, once we are able to bring a habit into awareness, Duhigg provides a four step process for changing a habit:

1) Identify the routine

2) Experiment with rewards

3) Isolate the cue

4) Have a plan

Duhigg also provides several examples of athletes and performers achieving greatness because they developed the right habits. Michael Phelps visualized success under adverse conditions, which allowed him to swim for gold despite his goggles filling with water. Tony Dungy took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from a laughingstock to a Super Bowl winner (although he wasn’t coaching when they won) by changing habits so they could play faster by not (over) thinking.

As the author notes, the real power of habit is recognizing that your habits are your choices.

How are your habits impacting your performance?

What habits could you re-engineer to be more productive/effective?

Have a Good Crappy Day

I first heard this from Dr. Ken Ravizza. A lot of times we show up to the “big” competition with heavy legs, a nagging injury, a cold or flu or worse, a recent breakup, relationship stress, jet lagged, tired, stressed, or just in a bad mood. Then there is bad weather, bad food, bad officiating, nasty fans, and teammates that are distractions. And it is tempting to think, “This just isn’t my day.” It is just a fact that sometimes we are less than 100%. In fact, we are almost never at 100%.

However, many times we show up with 80% to give, but think it is just not enough and so end up giving only 60%. The self-fulfilling prophecy that it was not your day comes true. But what if the prophecy only came true because you gave 60%? What if 80% was enough that day, but you didn’t give yourself the opportunity to find out?

And here’s the real catch: we never know ahead of time how much we truly have to give! We may think we have 80%, but if we give ourselves a chance find that we feel better as the performance progresses. Developing a mindset of giving all you have on any particular day starts with training. Get the most out of training sessions when you don’t feel great. Like everything else, this will show up in competition as well.

Have a good crappy day!

The Black Swan

The Black Swan provides access to the unique perspective of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. While at times I found his writing style less than appealing (though I suspect this is an instance where if I knew the author and his personality I would actually find the writing humorous and entertaining), his message is certainly thought provoking and worthy of serious consideration. In short, black swans represent occurrences that are both unexpected/improbable and highly meaningful. The name comes from the fact that years ago all swans were thought to be white. Every time a white swan was seen, it added more and more evidence to support this belief. However, it took the discovery of only one black swan to completely disprove the belief. More recently, the housing market crash was a black swan because previously it was thought that real estate always increased in value. This was true – until it wasn’t.

This line of thinking has many implications for performance. One of the most interesting is that Taleb would say it argues against the hedgehog principle made famous in Collins’ Good to Great. The hedgehog principle comes from accounts of great companies focusing on the one thing they can do best in the world (or in their industry). However, the analyses used to support the principles in Good to Great were all retrospective analyses. In other words, hindsight. As we know, hindsight is 20/20. Taleb would argue that it is only in hindsight that you can know what your best thing is because it involves a lot more than just you (for example, market conditions and the fickle whims of consumers). While we do not always like to acknowledge it, there are many things that influence our success that are outside of our control, and if you believe the black swan principle, are completely unpredictable ahead of time. The black swan strategy involves less overspecialization and more redundancy (another idea that is anathema in the efficiency-focused world of business and performance). This allows for you to capitalize on what you do well while also providing a buffer for the unexpected events that can dramatically change the conditions in which you are operating.

The Rule of 1/3s

Simply put: 1/3 of your performances will be average, 1/3 will be great, and 1/3 will suck. Keeping this rule in mind can help add needed perspective throughout your career.

When things go wrong, it is just getting one of the sucks out of the way so it is more likely the next time will be a normal or a great.

As you continue to develop your skills and improve your standards change and greats become normals. Just keep in mind that as soon as we perform a great, oftentimes we expect it to become a normal. It is not a normal until you are reliably performing it 1/3 of the time.

Understanding the Rule of 1/3s helps keep you on the Mastery path.

The Rewards of Punishments and Punishments of Rewards

The Sports Illustrated cover jinx. The Madden Curse.

These are examples of our beliefs about the effects a little positive publicity can have on performance. Studies have actually been done providing “evidence” that the jinx and the curse exist. But there is a much simpler and more straightforward explanation than superstitions and magical thinking.

When an athlete or performer is graced with positive publicity, it is usually as a result of an extraordinary performance. Think what that means: literally, extra-ordinary. Far above average.

Therefore, by definition, it is more likely that the athlete or performer’s subsequent performance will return to ordinary. In light of the recent extraordinary performance, ordinary performance feels like a curse. In fact, it is also likely that the athlete’s performance will be slightly below ordinary. Again, this is the meaning of ordinary or average.

A .300 hitter doesn’t hit .300 every game. Some games s/he hits .400, some games, .200, some games 1.000, some games .000. The average over time is .300.

For leaders, managers, and coaches, this also explains the odd phenomenon of why your athletes/performers do better after you punish them and worse after you praise them. It is not because you have filled them with fear/motivation from your punishment or they have become complacent/lazy due to your praise. It is simply the return of their performance to “normal.” Normal is an increase after poor performance and a decrease after great performance. (see Mastery)

Lean In

Lean In is a necessary read for anybody interested in performance and how to make our society more successful. Written by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, the book contains a great deal of wisdom and interesting anecdotes about women and the workforce. For example, she is the “female” COO of Facebook, while CEO Mark Zuckerberg is just CEO. There is no such thing as “male” CEO because this is viewed as the norm – and statistically it is.

Indeed, the statistics are frightening: women account for 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs, 14% of executive officer positions, 17% of board seats, and 18% of elected congresspeople. Perhaps the most famous, and alarming, statistic is that women make less than men in equivalent positions. The numbers are worth repeating: in 1970 women in America made 59 cents for every dollar their male counterparts made. As of 2010, through all of our society’s reform and enlightenment, women make 77 cents for each dollar men make.

40 years and 18 cents.

How much better could our society perform if all contributions were valued equally?

Sandberg graciously focuses the book less on what men have done wrong and more on how we all can make steps to correct this injustice and ineffectiveness. It is an essential read for all of us interested in a higher performing society – women and especially men.

Curious? II

Another interesting quote from Todd Kashdan’s book:

“Many prodigies in a wide variety of disciplines start off by playing music, writing poetry, or shooting hoops because it feels good, but this pleasure is often obliterated by the pressure to succeed. Basically, when curiosity and interest disappear, the benefits go with them.” (p. 37)

Although few of us are prodigies, most of us can probably relate to the inherent pleasure of an activity at times (or often) being undermined (or overwhelmed) by a focus on results. (I believe it is the focus on results, not this kind of success, that Kashdan is talking about)

Do you think the golfer that is cursing at his clubs starting golfing as a way to increase his anger or because he enjoyed figuring out why it is so hard to hit the ball straight?

Did the doctor that is now rolling her eyes at her patient choose the profession hoping to be jaded by people or because she was interested in helping others and solving mysterious ailments?

Reconnecting with the curiosity that led to our professions and performance domains can help us reclaim what we found to be so interesting about them in the first place. And then you’ll perform better, just as when you first became curious. And then you’ll be more likely to get caught up in results….only this time maybe you’ll remember that curiosity is what allowed the results to happen in the first place. Isn’t that curious?