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.


Dealing with Low Motivation

Study after study has shown that an individual’s willpower is one of the best predictors of lifelong success. Certainly, this is true for athletes. We’ve all heard stories about athletes with an iron will… athletes that subjected themselves to decades of rigorous discipline before they achieved their ultimate successes. I get really inspired by these examples, don’t you? I mean, who doesn’t get pumped when they watch the training montages in Rocky movies. Something about seeing Rocky transform himself as he runs through the neighborhood, pounds dead cows in a meat locker, and chases chickens to the sound of an epic soundtrack gets the blood pumping. But is real training like this? I don’t know about you, but my last cardio workout wasn’t accompanied by hundreds of school children running alongside me, chanting my name, and leaping for joy when I finished.

(If this reference seems confusing, watch this)

Real training is about lifelong commitment. It is about pushing yourself no matter what, even when you have zero motivation. The greatest athletes understand this. Muhammed Ali publicly admitted that he “hated every minute of training,” but somehow he found the strength to train himself into the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. How are elite performers able to do this? How do they squeeze every ounce out of themselves – especially, when they don’t feel like it?

I am creating a series of posts over the next couple of weeks that digs deeper into that question. For now, though, I will give you one pointer that has helped me when I’ve needed a boost of motivation: View your workout goals with a growth mindset. This means that you realize that where you are today can be improved upon. You are not permanently stuck at your current level of fitness. More importantly, you are not permanently stuck with your current level of motivation. Both of these things can be improved. What is important now is that you take a small step toward your goal. Don’t build your workload so big in your mind that it discourages you from taking action. It’s great to have big goals, but these goals can impede progress if you don’t focus on small, gradual improvements. Accept where you are right now and put your focus on getting a little better every day. Taking action right now, even if it’s for just five minutes, will benefit your body and mind. It will give you momentum to build upon. It will strengthen your resolve. Don’t let the opportunity in this moment pass. One small step can put you on the course to accomplishing your dreams.

I would love to hear any feedback that you have about what motivational strategies work best for you. Please share your insights with us in the comment section.

Now go get ‘em!


The Difference Between Tom Brady and the Rest of the Universe

Analyzing others’ success provides us with some of the clues we need to accomplish our own goals. We titled this article, “The difference between Tom Brady and the rest of the Universe,” because we want to emphasize some of the reasons that Brady, and others like him, are so dominant. It’s easy to assume when watching Brady throw pinpoint 65 yard bombs that he is naturally endowed with different tools than the rest of us. This type of conclusion, however, ignores the fact that Brady struggled to even see the field in college. It also ignores the fact that Brady was a sixth round pick in the NFL draft, having 198 players chosen before him.

tom-brady-nfl-combine1If Brady’s abilities were always there, wouldn’t they have been apparent sooner? The truth is that Tom Brady relentlessly pressed on through adversity, honing his skills and gaining experience, until he became so good that no one could doubt his ability.

If perseverance were the only factor that led to Brady’s success though, there would be a lot more all-world quarterbacks. Plenty of athletes give everything that they have during their careers and still don’t get the results they’re looking for. One major difference between Brady and other dedicated quarterbacks is the strategy that he used in going about his goals. For starters, Brady didn’t get there alone. People like Bill Belichek, Charlie Weis, Wes Welker, and others, have been keys to Brady’s success. In his career, he has consistently put himself in a position to succeed by surrounding himself with greatness. In fact, he is so dedicated to surrounding himself with greatness, that he restructured his contract (took less money) so that his team could afford to have other top performers on their roster.

This commitment didn’t start in New England, though. Brady has been doing it his whole life. Before Brady ever stepped into a collegiate locker room, much less an NFL one, he sought out private quarterback training from a man named Tom Martinez. Martinez was a master quarterback coach who worked with Brady from the time he was 13, until the Coach’s recent passing this February. He played such a crucial role in Brady’s success that Brady’s father, Tom Brady Sr., once said, “Tom Brady would not be the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots without Tom Martinez.”

martinez-coaching-brady-300x247 We were fortunate enough to have Coach Martinez as part of our Winning Edge staff before his passing. He was very excited to see the impact of bringing his knowledge to the masses. We hope that we can help carry the torch by providing our athletes with the tools that they need to be successful. One of the most important messages that we can pass on to all of you is that nobody succeeds by themselves. Guys like Tom Brady are where they are because they sought out the best coaching they could find, and worked relentlessly to master what they were taught.

Working relentlessly to master what you’ve been taught doesn’t mean that you mindlessly go out and throw the football until your arm falls off. Rather, it means that you engage in extremely focused practice, working on the exact skills that will help you succeed on game day. We had the opportunity to see how Brady practices firsthand, when Coach Martinez invited us to a few workouts in which he trained him. Although these were just informal off-season throwing sessions, Brady and his receiver, Wes Welker, were extremely methodical in their approach. Before we get into how they practiced, think for a moment about how most quarterbacks and receivers practice in the off-season. The vast majority go out and work on the execution and timing of various routes in their offense. There is nothing wrong with that. Practicing accuracy and route running will improve execution. However, guys like Brady and Welker aren’t interested in just “improving execution.” In their workouts, every drop back, throw, and route was an attempt to replicate a real game situation. They even practiced their signals. Rather than saying “ok, let’s run some slants,” Brady gave Welker a hand signal and said something like, “let’s run this play against Cover 4.” When they had perfected that specific situation, Brady would say, “OK, imagine the same coverage, but the linebacker over-plays you. Work your adjustment to that.” They continued working on extremely specified situations for about an hour before Brady told Welker, “This is the last one.” It wasn’t. They were still on the field for about an hour after that “last one.” They didn’t stop until they had executed each play with exact precision. Watching Brady and Welker practice gave us a better understanding of why they have accomplished so much. In a couple of hours they got more done than most athletes do in a week or a month.

When you practice each scenario to the point that execution becomes automatic, you are prepared to dominate on game day. Great players know that world-class performance requires world-class preparation. Everything that Brady and Welker did had a reason and a purpose. They would never waste their time mindlessly “playing catch.”

brady-super-bowl-300x232They are interested in being world champions. Every moment in practice was focused on developing the exact skills necessary to win games in the fall. Winning Edge 7-on-7 leagues are designed to give players that same quality of practice. Our leagues provide an environment focused on replicating real game situations. Every down is designed to make players practice the real life scenarios that they face in the fall. We look forward to watching you improve as you participate in this environment. But improvement doesn’t happen by itself. In order to get better, you’ll need to develop a plan for each situation and practice your execution of that plan until it becomes second nature. There is a champion within you, waiting to be unleashed, if you are willing to practice like one. Only you can take the steps necessary to let that champion out. You can do it! The decision is up to you.


The Most Important Book for Any Athlete, Parent, or Coach

One of the most inspiring books that every athlete should read is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. In this book, Coyle investigates places around the world where impossible amounts of talent spring up, seemingly with no explanation. Statistically speaking, talent should be spread out across the population. That is how most genetic statistics work. Sure, some populations tend to be taller, or fatter, or any other specific variation; but within that population, there is usually randomness to the statistics. For example, it is highly unlikely for everyone in a single neighborhood to be over seven feet tall. We all know by experience that genetic variations, such as height, are more spread out.

Yet, when it comes to talent, isolated pockets of expertise are far more common. Coyle calls these places “talent hotbeds,” and he found many in his investigation. He looked at a slew of these “hotbeds” in fields ranging from academics to skate boarding. In each, the ratio of elite performers was drastically out of the range of statistical probability. For instance, one humble tennis club in Russia, called Spartak, produced more top-20 women players than the entire United States combined!

How does sort of thing happen? According to one common understanding of talent, some have it, and some don’t. Yet, the existence of “talent hotbeds” flies in the face of that type of assessment. If talent were simply a genetic variation, then places like Spartak would be as common as the previously mentioned 7’0 and taller neighborhood. It simply wouldn’t happen. In the case of talent however, hotbeds are the rule, not the exception. What is even more interesting, though, is that Coyle found that these hotbeds all tended to share the same characteristics. Whether it was the soccer-crazed ghettos of Brazil, or an expensive world-class music academy, the students and teachers all seemed to be operating by the same set of principles.

In The Talent Code, Coyle assimilates these principles into three central ideas. The first of these is what Coyle refers to as “deep practice.” Deep practice means practice that is focused on challenging individuals at the very limits of their ability. Scientific research has shown that this type of practice causes physiological changes in the nervous system of those who engage in it. When someone consistently engages in a challenging activity, specific neural adaptations occur that create more proficiency at that specific task. One of the ways this happens is through a process called “myelination.” When individuals push themselves to the edge of their ability, a neural insulator, called myelin, wraps itself around neural circuits causing those patterns to be more efficient. As these patterns become more efficient, the ability to perform challenging tasks (such as hitting a curveball, or executing a back-hand-spring) becomes easier.

This is why practice makes us better. It comes down to science; when someone practices, their body is developing neural adaptations. The more one challenges themselves, the better they will get, period. This process never really stops for the elite performer. Extensive research by authorities on human expertise have shown that it takes about three hours of deliberate practice per day, for roughly ten years, to become world-class in any field.

The second principle that Coyle discusses is “ignition.” In order for someone to be willing to put in the ridiculous amount of work that it takes to be an elite performer, they have to want it really, really badly. Many times, this deep desire or “ignition,” happens as a result of being close to something really exciting. For example, Larry Fitzgerald was a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings as a youngster. Experiences like that helped Fitzgerald develop the love for the game that drove him to his current success. Ignition also comes from experiencing the thrill of competition. Michael Jordan grew to love basketball during his boyhood battles against his brothers. He later attributed the dedication he had as an adult to the “love of the game” that he developed in his early years. Another way that we become ignited is when we see people whom we consider to be “like us,” achieve great success. Baseball in the Dominican Republic has almost become a religion as a result of the string of successful Major Leaguers that have come from the island. There are many examples like this. Coyle argues that having role models that we can identify with helps us to see our own potential. It creates a fire within us as we ask to ourselves, “they did it, why can’t I?” Regardless of how one becomes ignited (there are countless ways beyond what we’ve mentioned), it is abundantly clear that those who enjoy the highest levels of success have a fire burning within that causes them to work much harder than the average player.

The final principle that Coyle points out as universal to all great successes is “master coaching.” In all of his research, he noticed that the great performers always had great coaches who taught them. No matter how much someone works at something, if they aren’t working on the right things, they won’t reach the highest levels of success. Whether by luck or design, elite performers have the opportunity to cultivate their skill under the watchful eye of a “master coach.” The qualities of “master coaching” are too numerous to be covered in this article (we will get more in depth in another entry). To summarize though, Coyle points out that these coaches are often those who have come very close to achieving great success themselves. For one reason or another though, these coaches didn’t reach their objectives. Their failures caused them to ask questions, and in that process these coaches acquired golden nuggets of information that they are able to pass on to future generations. That story is true of Bill Walsh. It is also true of Tom Brady’s private coach, the late Tom Martinez (whom Coyle writes about in his book). These coaches tend to be more observant than instructional. They know how to say the right thing at the right time. In pursuing your goals, try to find a master coach to help you along your way. Make sure that you are always placing yourself in an environment in which you can develop your potential.

We can’t be too complimentary of Coyle’s book. Every parent, athlete, and coach should become familiar with its concepts. It is one of the major inspirations behind our company. We incorporate these concepts by providing an atmosphere that allows players to practice the exact skills that they will need on game-day. Greatness is cultivated just as much in the off-season as in the regular season, and we have built our business trusting in your commitment to improve all year long. We believe in exposing athletes to the best coaching available. Our objective is to create our own “talent hotbed,” as we see a disproportionate number of you go on to have success in high school, college, and beyond. Winning Edge is determined to help its athletes reach their goals. Reading this book will help you along your path. It will take the “mystery” out of elite performance. Once you understand and incorporate the principles of The Talent Code into your life, you will begin to accomplish goals that may seem impossible today. You can do it! The decision is up to you.

Click here to purchase The Talent Code

Click here to read Daniel Coyle’s blog (it’s a must-read!)