Shaun White reacts to poor performance at Olympic halfpipe in Sochi

Performing When It Counts

A case study in performing your best when it counts the most:

Shaun White just finished his highly anticipated run at a third straight Olympic gold in the snowboarding halfpipe. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned for the Winter Olympics poster boy. This year, Shaun White finished a disappointing fourth place. Ever the gracious sportsman, White gave a thoughtful interview just moments after his frustrating finish. When asked what the difference between this Olympics and the previous two were, White responded, “I think I’ve been here too long [. . .] I think I’ve just been thinking about it too much.” Apparently, White felt that spending an entire week in Sochi, as opposed to his normal routine of flying in a day or two before competition was at the root of the problem. He felt that those extra few prep days hurt him.

Excuse me, but doesn’t that go against the conventional wisdom about preparation? Is there such a thing as too much? Well, whatever the conventional wisdom is or isn’t, empirical scientific data resoundingly supports White’s beliefs about over thinking and performance. Sian Beilock Ph.D. is a Cognitive Psychologist and Chief Investigator at the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago. She is arguably the world’s leading authority on the science of performing under pressure. What her and her team have found again and again is that thinking hurts performance. People often call this phenomenon “paralysis by analysis.” In one interview, Dr. Beilock explained the phenomenon in this way:

“The idea is that when you’re performing a skill that’s highly practiced, something that runs mostly on autopilot, it’s better to often just let that skill go. Your body knows what to do. And when your prefrontal cortex, the forward part of your brain involved in thinking and reasoning, which houses your cognitive horsepower [. . .] gets too involved, you can actually disrupt or flub your performance. So sometimes, it’s better just to go with the flow in those highly practiced sorts of tasks.” (Excerpted from interview with Diane Rehm)

We talk a lot about the role of preparation in developing skill on this blog. All that stuff about 10,000 hours and skill development is supported by many of the top academic researchers in the world. And yet, at times, it seems that being highly skilled isn’t enough. Even if an athlete has developed their skill to an elite level, they aren’t guaranteed to perform their best when it counts.

Many would say that Peyton Manning is a good example of this. Here is a guy that has absolutely DOMINATED the rest of the league in the regular season. No doubt, his legendary work ethic and preparation have helped him acquire an unmatched mastery of the passing game. Peyton’s philosophy, for years, has been to leave no stone unturned when it comes to preparation. Here is one quote of many in which he expresses this idea:

“The thing that gives me peace of mind at night after a game, or after a season, is that I knew that I did everything that I could to get ready to play that game. I couldn’t have prepared harder. I couldn’t have studied any more tape. I couldn’t have spent any (more time on) last-minute details, talking to my receivers. I went into that game ready.”

I think that there is a lot of wisdom in Peyton’s philosophy. Obviously it has served him well. But maybe that relentless focus on preparation has hurt him in high-pressure situations. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I am certainly not in the camp that says Peyton is a choker. Anyone that knows anything about football, or about performance, knows that in order to accomplish half of what Peyton has done, you have to be extremely mentally tough. I am just looking at this from an analytical standpoint, trying to understand what accounts for Peyton’s drop in efficiency and winning percentage when he gets into the playoffs. Surely, part of it is that his competition is better in the playoffs. But is there more?

Stat sheet for QB Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning 2013-2014 Season Stats


(Here is a look at Peyton’s postseason stats this year. Notice that his efficiency rating (RAT) dropped from 115.1 in the regular season to 94.2 in the post-season. This is a pretty standard trend for most of Peyton’s illustrious career.)

To answer that question, let’s look at the Seattle Seahawks, and how they prepared for the Super Bowl. Pete Carroll, known for his unconventional approach to the NFL’s most stressful job, did whatever he could to keep his team loose for the big game. His goal was to make sure that his players were out there reacting, not thinking. To that end, he allowed his players to enjoy the city and the media frenzy surrounding the Super Bowl. He didn’t push his team to work extra hard, even though they had two full weeks to prepare for the game. Instead, Carroll stuck with the basic routine that had got them there. If anything, he scaled things back. The Seahawks reportedly shrank their playbook for the Super Bowl. Pete Carroll simply wanted his team to go and execute a plan that allowed his players to feel comfortable and confident. He wanted them to be aggressive. He wanted them to play without thinking.

Clearly, the plan worked. The game, a 43-8 trouncing of Manning’s Broncos, was one of the most lopsided in Super Bowl history. Although this result surprised many, it wouldn’t have surprised those familiar with the science of pressure performance. The best bet for players, coaches, and parents that find themselves in a high stakes competition is to stick with a normal performance routine and keep things simple. Don’t fall victim to the over-preparation trap. That isn’t to say that you don’t work hard. Rather, it is to say that you maintain a loose attitude about big moments. Michael Jordan, arguably the best big game performer of all-time, liked to call those moments “fun.” Embrace the challenge. Enjoy the opportunity to be involved in a high-stakes competition. And most of all, just go and be yourself.

Pete Carroll at Superbowl XLVIII

Pete Carroll at Superbowl XLVIII

Coach John Wooden

Life-Changing Lessons from the Greatest Coach in Sports History: John Wooden, Part Two

Early on in my college career, all I cared about was being an elite quarterback. I wanted to have all the stats and the rewards that come along with being a successful QB. In a very real way, being a successful quarterback with an NFL future was at the heart of my identity. I can’t tell you how bad this hurt my performance on the field. For starters, I never stayed at a single school longer than a year and a half in college. I was always transferring to another program, looking for greener grass. I wanted to go to someplace where the coaches would take me under their wing and groom me to become a great college quarterback – one that would get drafted into the NFL. I felt like my success was determined by outside factors. I was constantly focusing on what coaches were thinking about me and what that meant for my career, instead of just getting better. The ironic thing is that the more I focused on trying to please my coaches, the more I underperformed and convinced them to lose faith in me.

After a lot of soul-searching, almost a decade of research on the topic of sport psychology, and consistent competitive application of the principles that I have learned along the way, I have become a totally different player than I was back then. It didn’t all happen at once, though. It was a process. And I’m sure that I still have more growth on the horizon. But I learned that we perform best when we simply focus on being the best we can be. I’ll never forget the day that this really hit home for me. I was on a bus on the way to a game with the San Jose Sabercats when my close friend, and the then starting quarterback for the Sabercats, Mark Grieb, asked me a question. “Dan, if you do everything that you can to prepare for a game and in that game you execute to the best of your ability, and you still come up short, should you feel bad?” I thought for a second, then responded, “No, I don’t think you should.” Mark, who is arguably the greatest AFL quarterback of all time, said to me, “you’re right. That’s why you just have to do the best you can and let everything else go. I learned that right after college when I read Wooden’s book.” Mark was referring to the book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations. He told me that that book changed who he was as a player. He said that Coach Wooden’s advice helped him to be at peace with simply doing his best and that that attitude translated into him becoming a much more clutch player. He told me that there were times in college when he had faced the pressure and not responded well. Then, he changed his outlook and became a three-time Arena Bowl champion and the most efficient quarterback in league history.

San Jose Sabre Cats' QB Mark Grieb

San Jose Sabre Cats’ QB Mark Grieb


To those who watched, it must have seemed as though Mark just had the “it” factor. He had that perfect combination of genes that helped him perform best when it mattered most. But that isn’t how Mark thought of it. He hadn’t always handled pressure situations well. There was something else behind his ascendance. His “clutchness” was brought about by an evolution in the way that he thought about things.

Mark is done with his playing career now and has moved into the coaching ranks. Currently, he is the Head Coach for Menlo College in Northern California. Last Sunday, I texted him during the Super Bowl. We were both feeling bad for Peyton Manning. Here was a guy who is one of the greatest of all-time who was just getting killed out there. Nothing went right for Peyton. And, as you watched it, you just knew how bad the media was going to go after him the following week. I texted Mark that it wasn’t right that Peyton should take all the blame for the loss and he texted me back with this:
“It’s the deal you sign up for when you decide you want to be a QB. You get too much praise and too much blame.”

What Mark was saying, basically, was that you just can’t worry about what anyone else says. It’s just part of the ‘deal.’ This is the type of thing you’d expect to hear from a Wooden disciple. Wooden talked often about ignoring the criticism and the praise that you get as an athlete. He felt that all it could do was distract you from your goal of being the best you could be. Wooden wanted the ‘peanut gallery’ comments, whether good or bad, to be treated as white noise – as nonsensical background chatter that you just learn to ignore. Like Mark, he wanted his athletes to treat these distractions unemotionally – like a “deal you sign up for,” but that you don’t take to heart.

As athletes, we will always hear voices from the outside that don’t contribute to our success. Sometimes those voices can come from our own teammates, coaches, and even family and friends. But we have the choice of whether or not we let those voices into our psyche. When you decide, once and for all, to focus only on being your best (nothing more or less), you can let go of all of the pressure and opinions of everyone else. That’s when competition is fun. That’s when you are successful.

I have mentored a lot of young quarterbacks since my time as a struggling college athlete. Many of them come to me with concerns about their athletic future and about fears over whether or not their coach will put them on the field. One thing that I can’t express strongly enough to these young players is that there are no guarantees in sports. There is no safe place where you won’t have to compete for everything you have. Steve Young had to do it in college and in the NFL. So did Tom Brady. There are many more names in every sport that I could list that have had to fight for everything they’ve gotten. The bottom line is that YOUR ONLY SECURITY IS YOUR OWN COMPETENCE. If you raise your level of play high enough, it will be difficult for your coach to keep you off the field. On the other hand, if you don’t perform well, there is nothing that the friendliest of coaches can do. They have to find someone good enough to replace you. It’s their job. That’s why your best bet is just to get really good. You can do that by constant effort and deliberate practice. Drill yourself relentlessly. Remember, repetition is the mother of skill.

Once you accept the idea that your own competence is your only security in sports, you’re on your way to being a mentally tough player. You will get off of the never-ending treadmill of trying to please coaches and spectators and embrace the struggle and journey of constant personal improvement. I can promise you that if you do this, you will find a joy and meaning in sports that you haven’t found before. Struggle and adversity can bring out your best if you’re not afraid to face them. I wish you the greatest of successes in your athletic pursuits. I want you to fulfill all your goals and dreams. I cheer for the dreamer. I am one myself. It is my pleasure to serve you in your journey to become the best you can be.

John Wooden Portrait

Life-Changing Lessons from the Greatest Coach of All-Time

This is the first of a series of blogs about one of the all-time great figures in sports, the peerless Coach John Wooden:

It’s hard to find a more dominant role model in sports than John Wooden. Here is a guy who coached his basketball teams to national championships in ten out of his last twelve seasons at UCLA. During that stretch his teams won a record, seven national championships in a row, as well a staggering streak of 88 consecutive games. To put Wooden’s numbers in perspective, the coach with the second most championships had a total of four. Wooden has more than doubled the championship success of any other coach in the history of NCAA men’s basketball.

It is quite an impressive feat to more than double the total championships next greatest coach in history, isn’t it? I mean, think of it in terms of another long-held record, like Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career home runs. Could you imagine if another player beat that record by, say, 800 home runs? Statistically speaking, that’s exactly what John Wooden did in NCAA men’s basketball.

The most fascinating thing about all of this is that Wooden wasn’t focused on winning or on championships. In fact, he tried to avoid those words altogether when addressing his team. He purposefully avoided talking about “winning” because he believed that it would cause players to become tight as they worried about the outcome. Instead, Wooden defined success as “knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” I know that to many, this sounds like a cheesy adage propagated by kindergarten teachers to make kids feel better. But consider the source. I mean, who knows more about winning than John Wooden?

The secret to Wooden’s philosophy is that it enabled his team to let go of factors that they couldn’t control and improve what they could control. This type of focus leads to impervious mental toughness- the kind that can win 88 games and seven national championships in a row. Psychologists have a couple of terms that describe this kind of focus in athletes: “Mastery-Oriented,” and “Process-Focused.” A brief definition of each term is provided below:

Mastery-Oriented: (Synonyms: Task-Oriented Antonyms: Performance-Oriented, Ego-Oriented)

To be “mastery-oriented” means that your motivation for playing sports is to have fun and get better. Mastery-oriented athletes focus on personal progress above comparative progress. “Performance-oriented” athletes are just the opposite. They enjoy sports only when it allows them to feel superior compared to their opponents. They are focused on satisfying and protecting their ego. Mastery-oriented athletes, on the other hand, focus on constant improvement by continually pushing the boundaries of their abilities through deliberate practice.

Process-Focused: (Antonym: Outcome-Focused)

The process-focused athlete focuses their attention very narrowly during practice and competition. They focus only on the task at hand instead of the potential outcome and personal meaning of the competition. This enables them to free up psychological “bandwidth” to deal with what is actually happening and what they have a degree of control over. The process-focused athlete chooses to focus on a specific objective that is relevant within the confines of the competition itself (e.g. “staying between your man and the basket”). Outcome-focused athletes, on the other hand, feel more anxiety and distraction during play. Study after study has demonstrated that athletes that keep their attention channeled on the here and now experience greater levels of performance and fulfillment from their sport.

So, where do you think you fit on this continuum? Are you more “mastery” or “ego” oriented? Do you tend to focus more on the process of competition or on the outcome? The really cool thing about being “mastery-oriented,” and “process-focused” is that anyone can do it. The psychologists that developed these terms weren’t describing fixed traits. Rather, they were describing malleable habits of focus and personal meaning that athletes develop during their careers. If, after careful personal inventory of your own behaviors and attitudes, you find that you fit more into the “ego-oriented,” and “outcome-focused” camps, be encouraged that you can change. You can improve your habits and overcome the factors that lead to low confidence and poor performance. Start today by focusing on improving some small aspect of your game just for the sake of improvement. Then, when you have the opportunity to compete, focus on executing to the top of your ability rather than worrying the outcome. If you do your best, you should hold your head up high regardless of the outcome.