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?
(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.