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


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.


Are Elite Performers Born or Made?

iceberg-illusionMost of us have had the experience of seeing someone perform at an extremely high level and having the feeling that that person is fundamentally different from the rest of us. We may see this type of performance while watching the Olympics, or some other world-class event, and suppose that the participants are “gifted” or “special.” I imagine that that is how most people felt when they saw Mozart composing his own symphonies at age 5, or Tiger Woods sinking 30-foot putts as a toddler. Certainly, geniuses such as these must be born with the ability to perform such feats… or are they? You see, most of us fall victim to what Dr. K Anders Ericsson (the world’s leading authority on expert performance) calls the “iceberg illusion.” We can see the masterful performance before us, but, like an iceberg, we are unable to see the huge mass underneath the surface. In the case of Mozart and Tiger Woods, these young prodigies received thousands of hours of practice before they were even five years old. Both were trained by parents who were experts in training their specific skills. Most of us never think about what’s under the surface of an elite performance. However, when we do look under the surface, we find that the performers are not extraordinarily gifted. To the contrary, they are extraordinarily prepared.

Dr. Ericsson discovered the “iceberg illusion” by spending the greater part of his life analyzing what separates expert performers from the rest of us. In one co-authored paper he wrote, “consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.” If that’s the case, then how are these superstars “made.” Many of you may have already heard of something called the “10,000-hour rule.” This rule says that elite performers do not reach the pinnacle of their field until they have practiced their craft for 10,000 hours. Ericsson is a proponent of this rule, but he believes it is more complicated than that. 10,000 hours of any old type of practice will not yield world-class results. The 10,000-hour rule only works if the individual engages in what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is practice that is focused on developing relevant skills at the edge of one’s ability. Its impact can only be seen as performers consistently focus on attaining higher levels of mastery in their training. In practically every case, a top performer has been guided through their years of “deliberate practice” by an expert coach.

The great news about Ericsson’s research is that it shows us that we can all achieve greatness. The bad news (or at least the news that brings us back to earth) is that in order to be the best, we have years of sacrifice guided by demanding coaches ahead of us. Our advice is to find something that you love to do, and don’t let anything stand in the way of developing yourself into the type of person that can achieve your dreams. You can do it! The choice is up to you.