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“It was the best feeling ever. It was like I could do no wrong.
‘Maybe you can't play over your head at all. Maybe it's just potential you never knew you had. —Fran Tarkenton, Football Hall of Famer
Peak performances are awesome experiences. They should be sought, though not chased nor expected. When an athlete improves her mental skills, she increases her chance of having a peak performance and her chances at staying in the zone longer. Leaders are mentally tough not only because they get into the zone more often than others, but also because they learn to “have a good, sh–ty day.” Fortunately, the strategies leaders use to get in the zone more often and perform better when they are not there are the same.
Awareness of what defines a peak performance is useful. Two descriptions of what many people would call an indescribable experience follow:
‘At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort, while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly becomes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of everything, that you have wings. There is no more precious moment in life than this, the white moment, and you will work very hard for years just to taste it again. —Yuri Vlasov, World Champion Weight Lifter
‘When you’re in the zone, you have switched from a training mode to a trusting mode. You’re not fighting yourself. You’re not afraid of anything. You’re living in the moment in a special place and time. Athletes in the zone see everything with clarity. They are relaxed, they perform with a quiet mind with no indecision and no doubts. They can almost anticipate what is going to happen. They are totally absorbed. —Gary Mack, Sport Psychologist and Author
My definition? I believe that a peak performance is an extremely positive experience characterized by the mind and body working in harmony to achieve a process goal. In this experience, the athlete is totally engrossed in the moment; other considerations that could weigh on her mind temporarily cease to exist. There is no fear of failure active in consciousness. The athlete is energized but not anxious, narrowly focused on appropriate cues, and confident. She often feels like time has slowed down.
Confident, Not Cocky
‘Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-given; be thankful. Conceit is self-given; be careful.
‘You expect success. You respect failure. —Greg Norman, Golfer
Once an athlete finds herself having a peak performance, she will want to stay there as long as possible. Unfortunately, inherent pitfalls are waiting for her at every turn, trying to bring her back “down to earth.” While she is in the zone, she is, by definition, extremely confident. This confidence is super, but it is easy for her to become overconfident. When she is confident, she is tempted to think that she can do no wrong. She seems invincible, but if she is smart, she knows she is not. When she goes over the edge and becomes overconfident, she actually believes that the game is easy or that she is in some way invincible. Reality will bite her in the backside for this mistake, usually sooner rather than later.
The overconfident softball player makes assumptions and loses her edge. A hitter swings at everything, a fielder forgets to watch the ball into her glove, or a pitcher assumes that this pitch with two outs, nobody on, and the nine-hole hitter up is less important than other pitches. It is appropriate for the pitcher to have confidence that she can have a 1-2-3 inning, for the fielder to expect to catch the ball, or for the hitter to expect to hit it hard, but there is a limit. Knowing where that delicate balance lies is a tightrope act. With humility and alertness, awareness of how to avoid a bad fall can be acquired. This is all part of her learning process for approaching potential.
While searching for the balance of appropriate aggressiveness, an athlete can help maintain a peak performance by excusing mistakes as part of the normal process of learning her boundaries. The hitter’s poor swing decision (e.g. swinging at a ball or a pitcher’s pitch with less than two strikes) was bound to happen at some point, so she should not let that mistake bother her. She should certainly learn and adjust, but if she is bothered, she is likely to lose that zoned-in feeling. The emphasis of the mistake in her self-talk creates a feeling of concern, which is the opposite of the feeling she has when she is in the zone. Instead, she should maintain the fantastic, confident attitude that brought her to this point by focusing on what she learned and all the things she is doing correctly. Ultimately, she wants to maximize confidence – more is always better – without becoming cocky. She achieves this by respecting the difficulty of the game.
Peak performances are awesome experiences. Despite the fact that they should not be expected, they should be sought. Leaders know how to maximize their chances for successful outcomes on the diamond. They also recognize that the same mental skills that increase the chances for a peak performance also lead to best effort performance even when they are not “in the zone.” Their goal is always to play the best possible at this point and time, and leaders do this by creating an ideal state, committing to a plan of attack, and focusing on the task at hand.
When discussing why we do it that way, leaders are unimpressed by the answer, “Because that's the way it's always been done. ”
“It is a sad fact that most practice, even at the highest levels of sports, is merely mindless, low grade exercise and not consistent with practices that could be called maximally effective training methods. ”
Smart teachers adjust the old saying “practice makes perfect” into “practice makes permanent” or “perfect practice makes perfect.” Indeed, practicing a skill wrong will make a person better at doing it wrong. Practice must be designed with quality in mind, as opposed to quantity. Two great repetitions will cause an improvement; 102 bad repetitions will not.
Leaders coach themselves. They know they are good, and they know why they are good. They take advantage of coaches and teammates who can help them coach themselves more effectively, but they always try to find answers for themselves first. The mental laziness of dependency on others for answers is foreign to them.
Leaders design their own practice effectively. Skill development is not assured just because execution is better after a number of repetitions; true learning requires retention and transfer. This can only be measured by performance at a later time and preferably in the game context. Proficiency at a drill is not the goal; leaders work to get better in the game. Their goal is not to look good, but to be victorious in competition.
For example, some hitters look like superstars hitting the ball hard until they get into the game. Unfortunately, if they do not know how to get their pitch in the game with good timing, this skill in practice will not transfer. There are many superb batting practice hitters who cannot hit .250 against decent pitching. Leaders design practice wisely, making sure that it avoids illusions of confidence and leads to positive outcomes against quality competition.
When designing practice, the stage of skill acquisition is important to consider. At the earliest stages, props and aids to indicate how to do something can be very helpful. So can keeping conditions constant. These strategies can also be motivational for more advanced performers by allowing them to achieve objectives. Unfortunately, they have very little true learning potential beyond the early stages of skill acquisition.
Other practice design issues will directly affect the rate of true learning in the brain. Will skills be practiced in parts or wholes? Making practice like performing requires execution of the whole motor program at once. However, fixing a mechanical flaw can often be best achieved by identifying and working on the precise part that is flawed before integrating the adjustment into the whole movement. Will practice be massed or distributed? Massed practice means repetition have little or no rest between them, so the motor program does not have to be re-planned on each repetition. For advanced performers, this means that the repetitions after the first one in massed practice often have little or no learning value. If a practice segment will work on skills A, B, and e, will they be blocked (AAA, BBB, eeG) or variable (A, B, e, B, e, A, B, A, G)? Again, the motor programming required to work through the contextual interference within variable practice usually makes this practice design worth the extra effort.
An athlete gets an illusion of confidence when she makes an improvement in practice that is hollow because there is no retention or transfer. Often, she is dependent upon external factors such as a coach's instructions to execute the skill. If she learned new skills, which cannot be truly defined until later, she will be able to execute these skills under pressure and use her learning as part of effective adjustments.
Another illusion of confidence forms when the drill is easier than the competitive situation. Batting practice is a prime example, as many hitters want the batting practice pitcher to throw straight balls down the middle of the strike zone at a medium speed. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what the pitcher will be trying to do in the game. A leader does not complain when the batting practice pitcher throws a ball; she appreciates the opportunity to practice her swing decision. She uses variability of practice to enhance learning by encouraging her batting practice pitchers to “mix it up,” throwing pitches with different spins and speeds, including some that are slower than what she will face in the game and some harder (or simulate this by moving closer). Also, she does not worry that her confidence will be shot if her last swing of the round did not produce a line drive. Instead of asking for one more pitch, she uses her time between rounds to think about making effective adjustments.
Applying the principles of motor learning (brain pathway development) listed above is not as difficult as it may initially sound. Application to tee work is a great example, and this is a practice situation that is often made to be too easy. Hitters often practice with the ball placed in the middle of the strike zone, but this will not make her better at hitting the pitches on the comers. However, practicing on (or off) the comers will transfer to improved skill at hitting the ball down the middle. Some hitters will read this and think, “okay, but I just use tee work to get my back loose.” Why not loosen up and get better, faster, at the same time? Leaders use tee work to get multiple repetitions practicing the swing that they want to use in the game.
Leaders want to work at and just beyond the edge of their ability level, not well within their comfort zone. They actually practice getting jammed by an inside pitch by putting the tee farther back in their stance than normal. It is not that they want to get jammed, it is that they are realistic and want to have a fighter's chance when inevitable challenges occur. They practice being early on the outside slow pitch by placing the tee outside and forward. They practice hitting off-speed pitches even during tee work by sometimes slightly separating the stride from the swing (for all locations). Also, they take the time to move their feet or the tee so that they can hit the low outside pitch on one swing and the high inside pitch on the next swing. Such a variable practice schedule improves learning. Perhaps they were taught this, but perhaps they just assumed it to be so because they noticed it was harder this way. The logical rule is true: harder is usually better! And by the way… when leaders finish their tee work, their back is loose!
Leaders make practice as much like the game as possible. Scrimmages accomplish this goal fairly well, but there are physical limits and risks that often prohibit scrimmaging. During drills, leaders imagine that it is a scrimmage or “real” game and go game speed. Infielders imagine a fast batter-runner going down the line so that they will not have to do anything faster than normal when they face that blazing runner in the game. For team defenses, leaders in the infield do not “cheat” while practicing bunt coverages or first and third situations. Even though they know what is going to happen next, they see the play, then react, which causes their like decision making to different possibilities to be as close to the same as it will be in the game as possible. Of course, it is impossible to make practice exactly the game, but leaders strive for perfection by controlling the variables that are available to be controlled.
Leaders are creative and figure out ways to make practice relevant. They use the games to identify weaknesses, and then they design drills to focus on turning those weaknesses into strengths. For example, a hitter notices that she is swinging at pitches she would rather have taken. She also notices that her timing is either early or perfect, but it is seldom late. She uses this information to identify a need for greater patience in the batter's box. Then, she persistently asks, “How do I get more patience?” She might ask teammates, coaches, and the internet. She might study hitters who seem to be good at this skill. She might go stand in the batter's box without a bat while her pitcher teammates are throwing bullpens and have pretend at -bats, really swinging an imaginary bat, if appropriate. She could then evaluate her swing decision and timing for this practice. She might try as simple a strategy as saying “be patient” to herself as the final pre-swing thought. She might add a deep breath to her routine just after getting the sign from her third base coach. She will try several of these and other strategies until she notices timing mistakes are significantly reduced in frequency and half of the mistakes that remain are late.
Leaders learn skill that will serve them in many situations by practicing with a determination to get better, faster. Practice would not be practice to them without attention to details, creativity, and hard work. They work to develop a true confidence, not the illusion of confidence that comes from performing an easy drill effectively. They are not satisfied with being good without knowing why they are good. They constantly look for answers about what works so they can repeat it anytime. They get so used to working just beyond the edge of their current skill level that this becomes their norm. They seek out practices that would make others uncomfortable and likely to complain. Of course their attitudes about practice are contagious, so because of their competitiveness and maturity, leaders help build a culture of excellence.
Watching the Women's College World Series Confirmed Why Harvey Scouted Aggressiveness
Harvey Dorfman was the greatest mental skills coach I have known. Harvey was brilliant, insightful, and caring, and I could rattle off many other adjectives. People who met him, including me, rave about the impact he had on their lives. People who read his books (The Mental Game of Baseball, The Mental Keys to Hitting, The Mental ABCs of Pitching, or Coaching the Mental Game) rave about the impact his words had on their sports careers. Harvey was a national championship goalie in soccer. Harvey was a state championship coach in girls basketball. Harvey was a two-time World Champion in Major League Baseball. Why did the Oakland A's, Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Scott Boras hire him to be their mental skills coach? More than any of the adjectives above, what made Harvey unique is that he was very, very aggressive.
Harvey would tell the story of meeting a boxer he idolized when he was a kid. I expected the tough guy taught him something like, “It is always a good idea to avoid a fight if you can.” Or, “being a great fighter is for defense, not offense.” This reflects how I was raised, and it is not bad advice . . . unless you need someone else to lose for you to win. The impressionable, young Harvey was told by his boxing hero, “Best thing I can tell you, kid is that if you're face to face with a bully, make sure you get the first shot in.”
When a major league team sent Harvey to get to know a potential first-round draft choice, the biggest thing Harvey wanted to figure out about the kid was how aggressive he was. I thought about this as I watched the 15-inning marathon game between Florida and Nebraska at this year's Women's College World Series. Nebraska was leading 2-0 in the 5th inning when Florida scored 6 runs without the benefit of a Hard Hit Ball. One play stood out to me: a routine grounder to an infielder. This player went for a tag on the lead runner and it looked to be an easy out until the runner successfully avoided the tag. Many would not notice this play first in a game like this. They might make an excuse that the runner may have been out of the baseline, or that it was just bad luck. The reality is that the fielder did not go after that out, that tag, aggressively. Later in the same inning, she had another chance to get her team an out, but she needed to dive for a seeing-eye single and she did not. She probably hoped the shortstop would make the play after she let it go by. Players who lack aggressiveness often think, though they know better than to say it aloud, that “this is not my fault.” Perhaps the thought is subconscious.
An aggressive competitor wants the responsibility of winning! She is not just along for the ride with her star pitcher and teammates. She may or may not be a star, but either way, she wants to be a spark, to contribute significantly to the win. She embraces challenges and lives for opportunities to do something special on the diamond. On offense, she hopes to get the extra at-bat in the seventh inning. On defense, she hopes the ball is hit to her. On the bases, she knows the percentages and looks to take an extra base. Everyone fears failure. Not everyone acts scared. Aggressive people do not let their fear impact their behavior. If they think it is best to say something, they say it. If they think it is best to do something, they do it. Harvey did not mince words. His players gave him a t-shirt that said, “Help, my mouth keeps moving and I can't make it stop.” He called it “brutal honesty.” “Don't tell me you want to make the big leagues if you'd rather rest than lift weights after a game,” he would say. People act out what they want most. Winners act out aggressiveness!
Being aggressive is very much different from being stupid. Controls are needed, or balance is lost. A baserunner must know the outs and game situation. A hitter must pay attention to the umpire's strike zone and the pitcher's tendencies. A fielder must know the situation and avoid rushing. The call for aggressiveness is not permission to ignore the need for intelligence and self-control. It is simply a reminder that intelligence and self-control will not win when the level of competition gets to a championship level unless they accompany a lot of aggressiveness.
Like any skill, the mental skill of aggressiveness can be practiced. Motivated behavior, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, comes from particular patterns of self-talk. If you can figure out what your ideal balance of aggressiveness with control is, then you can pay attention to what leads to arriving at that balance in games. Then, you can develop a pre-performance routine designed specifically, in part, to get you there. This is what the great competitors do to maximize their consistency.
Aggressive competitors take initiative in practice. They work to put aggressive and legal tags down every chance they get, including pre-game infield/outfield. (Do you (or your team) pay attention to this “little” detail?) They invent drills to work on their specific weaknesses. They do not wait for a coach to tell them there is a problem. They assume a leadership role, working relentlessly to make themselves and their teammates better one step at a time.
Aggressive hitters recognize the wisdom of a popular saying in the Dominican Republic: “You can't walk off the island.” Why not? Because the Dominican is an island and if a baseball player is going to motivate a major league team to sign him and buy him a plane ticket to America, it will not be because he walks well. It will be because he hits well. Be aggressive.
The most important coach any athlete will ever have is herself. During a softball game, each athlete has two roles: coach and athlete. A leader coaches herself, and sometimes others, between pitches. When it is time for action, she stops coaching and becomes an athlete.
Self-coaching is a product of self-talk. Self-talk is simply thoughts, the dialogue going on in a person's head. Self-talk is usually in the form of actual words, although it sometimes takes the form of pictures or concepts. Right now, your self-talk is the words you are reading, although if you pause from the text, your mind could venture off in a thousand different directions. Even while you read, you can have distracting self-talk or you can be focused singularly on the task at hand. If athletes could simply not think, their talent would probably flow uninterrupted into their performance, but humans think… a lot. Estimates indicate that the average person has between 25,000 and 75,000 distinct thoughts per day (and scary though it may be, that over half of them are negative).
A softball player has many, many thoughts during the course of a game and those thoughts affect her performance. Just like gravity affects a person who does not understand what it is, these thoughts will impact performance level whether she has awareness or not. The pertinent question is not, ”Will I talk to myself?” That answer is set in stone. The question is, “Will my self-talk optimize my performance?” That answer is very much a variable.
Self-talk impacts performance in many ways, including directly affecting attitudes (including confidence), communicating mind to muscle, directing focus, learning skills, making appropriate adjustments, and increasing or decreasing other mental skills such as intensity or toughness/courage. Personal demons can lead to the following obvious examples of poor self-talk:
I'm terrible. This is unbelievable. We have to win. I need to score on this play.
In contrast, the world's greatest athletes think the following phrases right before they perform:
This is going to be awesome. I'm ready. Let's do this. I love this game. This is a great opportunity.
The following irrational or distorted patterns of self-talk relate in some way to confidence, dealing effectively with pressure, or both. Discouraging these inappropriate patterns does not tacitly accept negative outcomes. Rather, it promotes putting “failure” or competition in a proper perspective and using each experience constructively. The first goal is awareness, thus allowing an adjustment to occur.
Many athletes are relieved when they realize that these poor patterns are not unique to them or even unusual. What is unusual is having the discipline to convert bad habits into new, better ones with a decision to change and diligent, persistent effort.
The Far From Perfect Perfectionist
I'm not what I ought to be, Not what I want to be, Not what I'm going to be, But I am thankful that I'm better than I used to be. -John Wooden
Elite athletes are notorious for being perfectionists. They leave out the last line of that little poem. The idea that perfection is essential is obviously false yet often believed. With perfection expected, the horrible self-coaching that ensues can be debilitating. It is often represented by the bad word “should.” Simply replacing this with “could” (e.g. “I could have made that play and would have if I had been at my best”) is incredibly healthier.
The degree to which an athlete is a perfectionist is obviously on a sliding scale, but there is a clear pattern that this is more common in female athletes than males. A typical high-level softball team is likely to have one-third to one-half of its players who are extremely hard on themselves. Perfectionists should know that this personality trait is fantastic because it causes them to work hard and pay attention to details. However, it also is a negative when it causes them to snowball their mistakes. This happens, particularly in games, because they beat themselves up and dwell on the past. They lose enthusiasm, confidence, and focus. They need to recognize and adjust by remembering that nobody is perfect, so it makes no sense to expect perfection. Forgive to forget, without settling for mediocrity. This is achieved by striving for perfection, but never expecting it.
All or Nothing
Outcomes are easy to judge. Too easy.
Polarized thinking is the tendency to view each outcome as an absolute success or an absolute “failure,” which is almost never the case. For example, a hitter may miss the hitting the ball on the sweet spot by a millimeter. Despite doing nineteen of twenty things very well, she makes a “loud out” instead of hitting a home run. If the poor outcome is viewed as completely bad, the athlete may fail to repeat all the good things she did, thinking the entire process needs to be changed. If she thinks, “Another fly out? I'm horrible,” she may fail to make a subtle adjustment that could lead to a major change in outcomes.
There are an unlimited number of similar examples. Perhaps a pitcher has great movement and velocity, but misses location by six inches. Perhaps the entire team is focused and committed to the plan, but they are not having fun, so they do not find their ideal state. Leaders consistently gain confidence even through adversity by remembering the good things they did and by making an effective adjustment on their singular mistakes.
Never Say Never
Never lose hope. Dreams do come true. Just believe and never say never.
Related to the all or nothing mentality, athletes tend to overuse the words “never” and “always.” Examples: “I always screw up in that situation” or “I can never run a mile in under six minutes.” Athletes should avoid these words because they are usually not true. Unfortunately, they are likely to become true if the athlete believes in them. They will return to being false as soon as she ends that belief. Self-fulfilling prophecies are real and common. Almost every athlete has limiting beliefs about herself, and they are just that: beliefs that keep her from approaching her potential.
Of course, exceptions to this rule exist (e.g., never say never). Therefore, every time a competitor is tempted to use an absolute, she should ask the question “Must this be true, or could there be an exception?” If an exception is even remotely possible, she should phrase the idea differently. She can at least change “I'll never do that” into “That's a tough one. I don't know if I'll ever be able to do that.”
History is full of success stories about people who believed they could when conventional wisdom said they could not: man cannot run a mile in under four minutes, man cannot walk on the moon, or a team that barely reached the playoffs cannot win the championship. In professional sports, it is quite common to see the “Wild Card” team win the Super Bowl or World Series. Athletes must be careful not to allow self-fulfilling prophecies to prevent achievement. This often occurs subconsciously and then continues indefinitely because without awareness, no adjustment is possible.
Athletes must also be wary of another, sneaky version of “I can't.” “I'm not” means the same thing. Examples of this “yellow light” include “I'm not good enough to compete here,” “I'm not tall enough,” and “I'm not smart enough.” Instead of saying “I'm not,” or “we're not,” an athlete should express the idea as a challenge. Instead of “We're not going to be able to win this,” she can think, “It will be an awesome upset (or comeback) if we pull it off. I'll do my best and see what happens.” At the very least, she can say, “I don't know if we can do it.”
Hate the Word Hate
Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits. -Hannah More, English Religious Writer and Philanthropist
Exceptions exist. Hate is a strong word- usually too strong. Many people use this word carelessly or haphazardly: “I hate running,” or “I hate getting out of bed so early.” Athletes should say what they mean, even when speaking to themselves. A leader does not “hate” running because she weighs all the positives and negatives honestly. Running leads to improvements in skill and condition, which lead to winning. She loves winning, so even if she finds running tedious, she will not say that she hates it. It is natural to dislike some things (or traits in certain people), but athletes will have more positive energy when they avoid the word “hate.”
There's No Crying in Softball (Catastrophizing)
Distance not only gives nostalgia, but perspective, and maybe objectivity. – Robert Morgan, Poet
Catastrophizing means imagining the worst possible thing that could happen and thinking that this outcome is terrible and would be difficult to ever overcome. This perspective leads to large waves of emotions, rather than the even keel that marks the tough-minded leader. There are no catastrophes in sports, other than a rare severe injury or death. With a proper perspective, no single loss or “failure” will ever be viewed as a catastrophe, because it will have no direct impact on the athlete's identity. The pressure-inducing thought “I need to” is then replaced with the thought, ‘This is a great opportunity to” or “I would like to.”
Brett Favre said, “Football is important but not as important as you once thought it was. When you lose a family member or something tragic happens, that stays with you forever.” Baseball relief pitcher and Hall of Famer Goose Gossage said, “Every time I come into a game, I think of my home in the Rockies, and that relaxes me. I tell myself the worst thing that could happen is that I'd be home fishing there tomorrow.” Losing is bad, but it is not a catastrophe. Often, asking “What's the worst that could happen” will help an athlete realize that she is catastrophizing and is therefore likely to let her fear negatively impact her behavior.
No Fair, No Kidding
Things tend to turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things tend to turn out.
The fallacy of fairness is the idea that life should be fair. Thinking or saying, “This is not fair” (or, “Unbelievable” to mean the same thing) is often a disguise for a person wanting her personal preferences versus what someone else thinks is right or best. It leads to an emotional response that interferes with an effective rational response. Thinking that life should be fair is analogous to an athlete banging her head against a brick wall in an attempt to break the wall. It will not work, but it will hurt. Leaders recognize that overcoming obstacles that seem unfair is a necessary step towards success. Plus, they not only recognize that life is not fair, they emotionally accept it — even embrace it. They make unfair circumstances their challenge rather than their problem. Doing so gives them a competitive edge, and they know it.
It's All My Fault
The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt. -Ayn Rand, Author
Many athletes assume disproportionate guilt, taking too much personal responsibility for a disappointing outcome. The weight of the world will not promote a relaxed peak performance. The idea that any softball player is solely responsible for her team's loss is false and can lead to dangerous conclusions such as “My teammates must hate me” or “I'm worthless.” Team games are exactly that- team games. It is easy to focus on the last play in a close game, but keep in mind what John Wooden preached: a free throw in the first minute of the game is of equal value and therefore equal importance to a free throw in the last minute. Like many of Wooden's lessons, this lesson is logical and simple, yet often forgotten.
Balanced Rationality is Bad (Permanence)
Great leaders not only emphasize the good and de-emphasize the bad for themselves, they vocally help their teammates to do it, too.
Permanence, or a one-trial generalization, is the idea that a single outcome is destined to happen over and over. This is actually a fantastic belief when the outcome is good, but horrible self-talk when it is bad. When an athlete executes a play perfectly, she should expect to do so the next time the same situation comes up. A balanced rationality would also expect bad outcomes to repeat, but this is not a useful expectation, nor does it need to be true. An athlete may perform poorly one time in cold weather and decide “I stink when it's cold.” This is obviously not the positive, relentless attitude that will lead her to perform up to her potential. The best athletes in the world emphasize one-time good outcomes as likely to happen again, but view a poor outcome as an aberration from the norm. Perfectionists tend to do the opposite, beating themselves up for each mistake and having thoughts like, “Here we go again” or “Today is not my day!”
Excuses Are Sneaky
The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely the one who dropped it. -Lou Holtz, Football Coach
Acceptance of responsibility for personal behavior is critical. When confronted with a dilemma or tough situation, a person either will find a way or find an excuse, but never both. Excuses are like candy at Christmas: abundant but not healthy. As an athlete increases her acceptance that she is completely responsible for and in control of her behavior, which is all that can be controlled, she will develop an intolerance of excuses.
Most excuse makers agree with the preceding paragraph, yet they unwittingly continue to make excuses. These excuses sneak up on them in various forms and often include words or phrases from the poor patterns of self-talk listed above. Perhaps the excuse maker's ego is fragile, needing the protection of excuses. It will eventually teach her the benefits of accepting responsibility and the pitfalls of fearing ”failure,” hopefully sooner rather than later. Awareness is the first step because without awareness, no adjustment is possible. Leaders drop their safety net and do their best, one step at a time, regardless of environmental difficulties. No matter what potential excuses exist, she can always do her best.
You win the mental side of the game when you give your best effort one step at a time, accept whatever happens, and do it again. Your best effort is always good enough.
To achieve potential, the team must be greater than the sum of its parts.
Ubuntu: I am what I am because of who we all are.
Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships. -Michael Jordan, Basketball Hall of Famer
Teamwork is the beauty of sports. You become selfless. -Mike Krzyzewski, Basketball Coach
The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team. -Phil Jackson, Basketball Coach
For an individual to fully tap into her personal power, she needs support from others. It is the way humans operate. Positive energy is more than just an idea. Proving the mechanisms for this to academic standards is difficult, but the proof is in the effects. What works? Teams (sports, business, familial, or any teams) full of mutual respect for one another and teams with a culture of excellence, enthusiasm, and forgiveness work. Teams with great chemistry work.
Leaders in every industry want to put their finger on how to build chemistry. The answer is analogous to pursuing a peak performance in that there is nothing that can guarantee it will happen, but it is appropriate to pursue anyway. By following certain principles, chances are maximized. This starts with a shared goal; team members have to care about the welfare of the team as a whole. If winning is not a universal priority, problems arise.
This book promotes the philosophy that “doing your best,” in and of itself defines success. It is important to notice that being successful maximizes the chances at winning. Leaders do their best to get better, faster, to promote winning. They also want to see their teammates get better, faster, to promote winning. They do not carry any resentment for the progress of teammates. They pursue, support, and celebrate learning. They also want to be healthy, stay out of trouble off the diamond, be in good standing in the classroom, and be part of a team that others would want to join. They want these things in large part because they promote winning.
Leaders not only have a vision of the goal of winning, they also have specific ideas about how to achieve this goal. They do not know the future, so specifics will vary, but they know that industriousness, positive energy, teamwork, and consistency are fundamental building blocks of success. They are like a rock; they do not get blown over by the shifting winds of circumstance. Their core beliefs about what is right are constant.
The next step for a leader to build chemistry is connecting with teammates. Teammates do not have to all like each other. Respect, however, is a requirement. Respect requires acknowledging the other person's value; leaders make each team member feel important. Every member has an important role in making the team better, and their success is something the leader needs to help her reach her softball goals. For example, the last players on the bench are needed both to make teammates better and to be ready to perform when they get an opportunity.
Leaders communicate their appreciation of other people's value in many subtle ways every day. They smile, celebrate successes, and share struggles. They will not be betrayed in a moment of weakness, which is important since respect can be lost in a hurry, because their appreciation for teammates is sincere.
Many people lose respect for another when they disagree with her. This is avoided by remembering that either party could be wrong or partially wrong and if it does happen to be the other person, by forgiveness. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” leaders recall. They realize that the past had to happen exactly as it did. Had they experienced the same things in life as another person, they are just as likely to be behind where that person is in life and softball as ahead of it. However, the future is unwritten, so they hope and work for perfection in others (without expecting it), just as they do for themselves.
When respect is present, the critical pursuit of empathy naturally follows. Empathy is the ability to understand and be sensitive to the thoughts, attitudes, feelings, desires, and actions of another person. It is a skill like any other: some people are naturally better at it than others, but all people improve their skill with quality practice. Babies are incapable of empathy. They are only able to think about what they want, not the motivations of others. People with Attention Deficit Disorder have a disadvantage for learning empathy. It is very difficult for them to think about both what they want and another person's point of view at the same time. Empathy is a challenging skill for everyone. It is impossible to see the world exactly as another sees it because everyone brings a unique set of experiences and DNA with them to the present moment. But leaders get closer.
The simplest way to practice empathy is to listen. Listening and hearing are different. Listening requires attention to what is being said rather than waiting to speak. Leaders care about the welfare of others and they also have the confidence necessary to let their current thoughts about what they want go. They know that if these released desires are important enough, they will have no trouble retrieving them from memory later. This allows them to focus on the task at hand: listening. Just as a hitter sees the ball big by being undistracted from the task at hand, effective listeners have a singular focus- figuring out what the speaker is trying to communicate.
Another component for developing empathy is curiosity. Being empathic is relatively easy when two people's motivations are similar. It is when there is disagreement that curiosity becomes critical. Rather than judging others, leaders attempt to figure out why someone would hold a different opinion or point of view. Curiosity leads to questions and questions lead to answers. Leaders connect because they are focused listeners and because they ask the right questions to figure out what the speaker is attempting or needs to communicate. Doing (or saying) nothing is easier than doing something. Superb leaders are rare because they not interested in what is easier, just what is better.
But how can a leader respect a teammate who does something contrary to her core values? Perhaps the leader values hard work and the offensive behavior is to not run out a pop-up, despite knowing that there is a chance the defense will make a mistake? The assumption is that the batter does not care about the team. She is too selfish to hustle. Curiosity leads to a different conclusion: the lack of hustle likely comes from the precise opposite of not caring enough. It is caring too much. The pop-up disgusted the hitter so much that she had an emotional reaction that led her to forget to do her current job of sprinting to second base. Is this selfish behavior? Yes. Is it laziness? Not at its source. Armed with empathy, the leader is able to connect with this teammate, maximizing her chances of helping.
Often, mistakes are clear, but their sources are complex and hidden, even to the offending party. In his classic book, The Mental ABC's of Pitching, Harvey Dorfman tells the story of a young professional pitcher who came into a minor league championship playoff game in the ninth inning of a tie game with a runner on second base and two outs. The first two pitches were strikes, but the next two were wild pitches that allowed the winning run to score. Afterwards, Harvey asked him what happened. The college graduate did not want to make excuses for himself, but he finally revealed that his college coach had a rule against giving up hits on 0-2 and 1-2 counts. The rule was this: allowing a hit means the pitcher will run “until he dropped.” Dorfman: “Psychology 1 01 : stimulus-response; conditioned reflex.” All the pitcher thought about in those counts was, “Don ‘t throw it anywhere close to the strike zone.”
CONFIDENCE LEVEL CORRELATES HIGHLY WITH PERFORMANCE LEVEL
Great performers trust their skills and believe that things will go well. Muhammad Ali said, “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.” It is a valuable pursuit to figure out how to obtain and maintain a high confidence level before and during a game. Unfortunately, it is a common misconception that a person either has confidence or she does not. In fact, confidence is an attitude and attitudes are controllable. Great athletes imitate the thinking patterns of the other greatest athletes in the world.
Confidence comes from preparation, self-esteem, and one other significant factor. Most people think this other factor is past experiences. Actually, confidence comes from the way people think about the experiences they have had. This distinction is subtle, but huge because the past is not controllable, but the way athletes think about the past is completely controllable. Once it is time to perform, preparation and self-esteem are constants. However, an athlete's confidence in her ability to execute this next play is very much a variable. Preparation and self-esteem are worthy of discussion elsewhere. This article focuses on how to use self-talk to consciously increase confidence right now.
Many athletes have never thought about this subtle distinction that confidence fluctuates not based on experiences, but on the way they think about these experiences. Therefore, they typically emphasize their most recent experiences. This is a natural pattern of self-talk. When they do this, the belief that confidence comes from experiences becomes true. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that is fine when recent experiences are good, but very damaging when recent experiences are bad.
A leader's job = Give her team her best effort.
Best effort requires a confident attitude.
Attitudes come from thoughts.
A big part of a leader's job is to think in patterns that maximize her own confidence.
Did Cat Osterman lose confidence after giving up a hit? Did Jessica Mendoza lose confidence if her first at-bat of a game was a strikeout? Do any of the greatest athletes in the world allow their confidence to suffer because of a single mistake or episode of bad luck? Of course not. They use the experience to learn, and then they flush the past from their minds. Since they were already good and now they learned more, their confidence rises, even after a mistake. If needed, they lean on thoughts about past peak performances to consciously build their confidence. With practice, an athlete can quickly image her P.P.P.P. (Personal Past Peak Performance) to bring that confidence to this moment.
I am a smart and strong player.
I will give my best effort and accept whatever happens.
I will play the game one pitch at a time.
My best effort is always good enough.
I am confident because I am prepared.
I am talented and excited to play today.
I will trust my teammates and my ability.
I am fast.
I am [insert desired trait].
I have a great screwball.
I have a great [insert skill].
I am in control before each pitch.
I am confident and decisive.
I use enthusiasm to do special things.
I hold myself and others in high regard.
I can handle any adversity that comes my way.
I act based on my plan, not in reaction to things outside of my control.
I always play aggressively and under control.
By my aggressive approach, I create magical moments.
I enjoy training.
I am a lean, mean machine.
I will relentlessly do my job for my team.
I will prepare so that I may move with poise and confidence.
I constantly strive for perfection.
I never expect perfection of myself or others
We will raise the bar and I will hold myself accountable.
Every day and in every way, I am getting better and better.
I love softball and the challenges it provides.
Since confidence is largely the direct result of particular thinking habits, making the commitment to consciously gain confidence by using effective patterns of self-talk is a top priority for leaders. These patterns allow athletes to hang on to and thus benefit from successful experiences and let go of, or de-emphasize, less successful experiences. This unbalanced relationship of emphasizing positives and de-emphasizing negatives is the secret to consciously increasing confidence. Negative thoughts are de-emphasized, or flushed, by focusing on something else, like the next pitch. If they are stuck in the brain because of negative emotions, they will get unstuck with forgiveness. Forgiveness is a critical skill for de-emphasizing thoughts that could seriously damage an athlete's confidence.
On the positive side, affirmations are simple, positive, self-directed thoughts such as, “I am a smart and strong hitter.” They are a form of mental practice that can be used away from the diamond, in practice, or during games. They are reminders of past successes, personal strengths, or positive expectations that an athlete gives herself to increase her confidence. They are used anytime an athlete says simple positive statements to herself often repetitively.
Affirmations may seem tautological and effusive, but if it improves performance, then it has value. They are like the statements a great coach would make to an athlete at just the time she needs to hear it to maximize her confidence. Since she is the most important coach she will ever have, and the most reliable, she can benefit by systematically using affirmations during her pre-performance routines. This is particularly valuable for the athletic personality which tends to get stuck thinking about negatives. Every athlete/scientist should put affirmations into her experimental design to see if they help.