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.

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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?

Thinking, Fast and Slow

If you are interested in finding out more about why and how humans make choices and our (ir)rationality then Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is definitely for you. This book has informed, influenced, and changed the way I think about many things, and provided the psychological understanding and evidence for many other important ideas.

An example of this is the parameters under which skill and expertise can be developed. With the recent attention given to Ericsson’s 10 year/10,000 hour rule of expertise, it has become apparent that the rule holds up better in some environments and settings than others. Kahneman identifies 3 conditions that must be present for skill/expertise to develop:

1) an environment that is regular enough to be predictable (for example, this is the purpose of the rules in sport)

2) an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice (Ericsson provides some specific parameters for deliberate practice)

3) rapid and clear feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions (Ericsson and others also identify the critical role of a coach/teacher/mentor in skill development)

If these conditions are not present, then skill/expertise cannot reliably be developed. An example of this would be the stock market. This is why so many (and the existing evidence) argue against the utility of financial advisors. While some have experienced success, it is primarily due to luck as opposed to skill/expertise that is readily repeatable.

Trust: Competition Mindset

In most domains of performance, much more time is spent practicing and preparing for competition than actually competing. This is obviously helpful for skill development. During practice, our mindset is analytical, focused on error detection and correction, and self-monitoring. This mindset is essential for skill development, but as discussed earlier is counter-productive to skill execution.

In order to successfully perform the skills we have trained, we must be able to shift to the competition, or trusting, mindset. In the competition mindset, we let go of conscious control of the movements necessary to perform and allow our learned skills to be automatically executed. The competition mindset is a skill in and of itself (and a difficult one at that), and thus requires practice just as any other skill we wish to develop.

The spectacular performers of Cirque du Soleil at times deliver over 400 performances in a single year. They are masters of the competition mindset, and this is part of their stunning showmanship. For the rest of us, we must intentionally cultivate the competition mindset by dedicating time to practicing in the mindset. This means setting aside time to simulate competition and performing skills without technical feedback, self-monitoring, and coaching. Similar to a physical periodization regimen, how you incorporate the different mindsets will vary based on the time of year. Typically, it would be effective to spend a greater proportion of practice time early in the season to the practice mindset. However, some time, perhaps 5-10%, should still be spent in the competition mindset. Later in the year as skills have been developed and refined and physical training is tapering, the majority of practice time will be in the competition mindset. These sessions will likely be shorter in duration and higher intensity (with some variability depending on the performance) and focused on developing trust in executing the skills already mastered.

No matter what your performance area, spending time in the trusting mindset can be a welcome relief from our tendency to be overly critical and caught up in our own heads. Give yourself time to enjoy performing the skills you have developed. It will result in more effective and consistent performances while fostering confidence and motivation.

SUCCESS

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!