How to Fix a Slump


Ever see this diagram? (It’s from comedian Demetri Martin.)

I like this, because I think it’s true. From the outside, success looks like effortless progress; from the inside, we discover the journey is a lot more complicated. In fact, the most interesting part of the line is where it turns sharply downward, into one of those nasty-looking tangles where progress stops, development stalls, and frustration rises. It raises an interesting question:

What’s the best way to fix a slump?

Normally, when we hit a slump, we experience an overwhelming instinct to ignore it — to shut our eyes and just try harder, and hope things change.  That makes sense — and it feels satisfying. But is it the best way?

We find an interesting case study from Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder. Drafted in 2005, McCutchen was a can’t-miss prospect, a first-round pick who performed outstandingly well for two years in the Pirates minor leagues — until, suddenly, he hit a dry spell. He stopped hitting. His average dropped to a puny .189. This was it: McCutchen’s slump, his crisis; his line was headed straight for the basement.

In this case, the Pirates organization used a surprising strategy. When McCutchen hit his downturn, they flew hitting coach Gregg Ritchie to visit him. Ritchie carried a piece of paper:  a print-out of McCutchen’s hitting flaws — specific, targeted problems with his swing mechanics that Ritchie had noted a year and a half earlier.

Until that moment, McCutchen didn’t know the list existed. But now, working with Ritchie, he used this list of flaws like a blueprint. He lowered his hand position; he shifted his weight — together, player and coach fixed his swing. And it worked: McCutchen got out of his slump, and kept moving up. He’s now an All-Star.

I like this story because I think it gives us insight into how to best handle these downturn moments. We instinctively want to do it alone; to lift ourselves back on that upward track out of sheer will.

But what works better is to approach the slump more like a science problem. Cool off the emotion. Collaborate and gather information. Figure out the shortcoming, and start re-wiring the improvement. In a word, be agile.

I also like it because it shows the importance of organizational agility. The Pirates handled this well, because they understood when to make the intervention. Coach Ritchie knew all along McCutchen’s swing had potential problems, but he didn’t try to fix those problems early on because his swing was working (as McCutchen said, if coaches had tried to correct him, he would have ignored them — and rightly so). No, the Pirates wisely waited until the the problem arose — until they had McCutchen’s full and desperate attention. Then, together, they went to work and built a better swing.

Fixing slumps is not about solo strength. It’s about group agility.


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12 Responses to “How to Fix a Slump”

  1. Ashley says:

    Whilst I like the story Daniel I have to disagree with a large part of it. There are many examples in my sport, golf, where players have looked for a technical solution to what is often a confidence problem. Players like Ian Baker Finch won a British open then went looking for more distance and never played golf to the level required again. David duval, number one in the world but I believe changed things and never regained form. I think many sports players can get too technical and there are plenty of examples of players with technically unusual swings who remain great eg. Jim Furyk

  2. djcoyle says:

    I think you make a good point. Emotions play a massive role, and it’s fair to say that role seems even more magnified than usual in golf. I mean, it’s fairly rare to hear of a soccer player whose kick is suddenly off due to “confidence” (well, maybe except for England in a penalty shootout)– or a trumpet player who’s lost confidence — but it happens to golfers’ swings all the time. I think some of it has to do with the nature of golf — solitary, silence, stillness between each action. It’s the one sport where the mind — and conficence — has maximum opportunity to wreak havoc on the skill.
    So let’s assume somebody has a slump of confidence. What strategies tend to work best to fix that?

  3. Scooter says:

    The takeaway I got from this is that when we’re in our own slump, I’m often tempted to make major changes when in all actuality the remedy may lie in very slight modifications. Of course, knowing which minor changes are necessary is obviously necessary. Thanks for posting this–your timing couldn’t have been better!!

  4. GHale says:

    Golf is a very precise type of game so the solution to a slump would have to be very technical and precise as well. Here would be how I would approach a slump in golf.
    1. Do not address confidence at all in the beginning
    2. Begin working on a new and slightly different golf swing (yes I know this is difficult and time consuming but everything worthwhile is.)
    3. When they get the technical aspects down perfectly begin drilling constantly at a driving range. Give specific goals to hit, I.E. targets and distance they need to lock on to. When they are hitting these distance and accuracy targets regularly their confidence will go sky high and they will be dying to get on a golf course.
    4. Then they can go play with the coach by their side to tweak their game while playing and if need be go back to the range for more tweaking.
    Excellence is always a work in progress!

  5. djwestphal says:

    One excellent tool in approaching a slump of confidence could be hypnosis. Reinforcing or changing subconscious beliefs for success in a sport could only help. We become what we think about and providing a scaffold to rebuild successful ways of thinking is the realm of hypnosis. I am surprised it is not used more commonly in sports.

  6. IHolloway says:

    I like the story very much and for me it summarises instruction. You must first calm the student so they spare receptive to change, and only change what is going to benefit their performance.
    Ashley I have to disagree with your golf examples. Both the example are of players whom were at their peak, so why change? With Ian Baker-Finch, would the added yardage make that much difference and really how much yardage is going gain? Luke Donald tried that road and quickly stopped and focused on what he should do to get the ball in the whole quicker. He targeted his mid irons, wedge play and putting. Using a much more specific practice philosophy under the guidance of David Alred he became world number one. David Duval had health issues and loosing all the weight might not have helped but at the time there was a big push to be fitter and stronger?
    Sports like golf are technical but it is the instructors job to coach the player to not only create a technique but make sure they can perform on the golf course. This goes down a whole new road of the way they practice and prepare so they bridge the gap between the range and the golf course as the two are very different.

  7. GHale says:

    Hypnosis is a great tool. I have taken several hypnosis courses and have used it with great success on members of my Jiu Jitsu and MMA team. While hypnosis is a great tool it is only part of the solution though. There are still some technique modifications and a lot of practice that must go into solving the confidence problem.

  8. Rod Roth says:

    First, what a great diagram, Dan! I see myself, right in the middle of the frickin’ squiggly part. Now, on the confidence issue: Nomar Garciapara told Mia Hamm to focus on something small when she was in one of her confidence slumps (Gary Smith, The Secret Life of Mia Hamm, Sorts Illustrated, 2004). I do this when I panic over successive losses in my futures trading. Very helpful to break my method down to small things and then rebuild my approach.

  9. Elizabeth Kane says:

    Learning how to deal with a slump is even more important than celebrating a victory. It’s in that slump that we find out more about ourselves as artists and athletes: how to think, how to let go, how to discard a technique that doesn’t work anymore. Sometimes we get so involved in the way “we’ve always done it” (a swing or a bowing we’ve practiced a million times) that we can’t see the forest from the trees.

    Letting someone come in to our practice space, a place that’s probably the most personal and intimate space for a musician or athlete, is already hard to do. I like this idea of a coach coming in and approaching the problem in a scientific way. When we’re given specific ways to overcome our problem, we can see ourselves out of the slump, and ultimately realize it didn’t really have anything to do with our losing our “talent” (which coincidentally can give your confidence a nose dive if you link the two together).

  10. Ashley says:

    Thanks for the replies to my comments. I understand the point of IHolloway in saying these players that I used as examples weren’t in a slump per say, they had just won major events. However confidence can be extremely fickle and I wonder if IBF felt he was on the edge of a slump when he went looking for technical answers? Watching the Novak practice game on YouTube with my daughter this morning reminded me of a good strategy I used to use to lift confidence and get out of slump – play, not your normal game but something to make you look at things differently. In golf that could be, nine holes with two clubs, mix up the holes first tee to third green ( make sure the course is near empty and no committee around), killer on the putting green with your mates. Anything to ge t you thinking different, like a kid again. Pele before a game of soccer would visualize himself playing on the beach as a kid with mates.

  11. Cody Groves says:

    I guess there are different kinds of slumps, but i think maybe confidence and technical aspects of a persons “game” are interrelated, sort of like a relationship between 2 people. If you don’t nurture the technical side you wont play good, and you may lose confidence, if you don’t help your confidence you may get into a cycle sort of of and spiral down. The same may happen if you don’t pay attention and nurture your emotions, you can focus all day on technical stuff but if you don’t have confidence, or motivation, before hand your actions may not go as well. Altogether though, I find that facing problems alone, is a lot harder than facing them together, I guess it gives you more hope or something 🙂

  12. Sean D'Souza says:

    Here’s how I see it:

    Most people can’t draw.
    There’s a reason why.
    They have a brain virus (which is not unlike a slump).

    Here’s what happens when someone asks you to draw.
    Your brain runs a program.
    The program says: Execute program. Draw, you silly fool, draw!
    And the program starts to execute. But even as it’s executing the lines of code, it runs into a virus.

    The virus crashes the program.
    And you can’t draw.

    A client of mine (let’s call him Jon) was on an article writing course
    And he did the entire course.
    But he couldn’t get down to writing an article.
    So here’s what he did.
    He read more on the topic.
    He even did another course.

    But every time Jon sits down to write, the same problem occurs.
    The ‘article writing program’ kicks in.
    And then the ‘virus that’s linked to the article writing program‘ kicks in.
    And his ‘article writing program’ crashes.
    No matter how he tries to write articles, he’s going to fail. And fail forever. (No, I’m not kidding)!

    So how do yo get rid of this brain virus?
    Actually you can’t.
    Your brain has thousands of viruses running around. And trying to get rid of them is a waste of time.
    It’s easier to write a fresh program for your brain instead.

    So how do you write a fresh program?
    In Jon’s case, he has to stop writing articles.
    He has to do a completely different activity.
    e.g. Make a movie instead.
    e.g. Describe how he met his wife.

    When he does this activity, the virus can’t kick in.
    Because the virus is embedded in his ‘article writing‘ inability.
    So now Jon’s having fun. He’s talking about how he met his wife, and how he goofed up on the first date, and how they went to the cafe down the road. And Jon doesn’t know it yet, but he’s writing an article.

    The next step is to put structure to Jon’s story
    Step 1: How did you run into your wife to-be?
    Step 2: Where did you go for your first date?
    Step 3: What were you nervous about on your first date?

    When Jon answers these questions his brain is relaxed.
    He’s having fun.
    And he’s not accessing the ‘article writing program’ of his brain.
    As we put structure into his story, he recognises that the structure is from the ‘article writing system’, but because he’s not running the exact ‘article writing program‘, the virus doesn’t kick in at all.

    This means that Jon is now able to get started on a whole new program.
    A program that uses new code. Plus some borrowed code from the old program.
    As he advances, he’s able to learn how to write articles, even though it was an impossible task before this very moment.

    In effect, he’s bypassing the brain virus.
    And that’s what you have to do to learn a skill.
    If you’ve struggled to learn Spanish before, you have a virus embedded in the ‘Spanish learning program’.
    If you sit down and try to learn it, you’ll fail, because the virus already exists.
    But if you sing a song in Spanish like: ‘Ensalada, de fruta fresca’ and see ‘fresh fruit salad’, you’ll learn Spanish while having fun.
    The fun part is important, but not critical (Essentially fun only allows you to relax. Relaxing the brain is critical).

    The critical part is bypassing the virus.
    Albert Einstein was reputed to have once said: “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”

    What he means is:
    Your existing program has a virus.
    You have to bypass it.
    Or you’ll never really learn no matter how many times you try!

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