Anticipation is the king of talents, because it’s so mysterious and powerful. How does Sidney Crosby know just where the puck is going to end up? How does Larry Ellison know just when to close the deal? How does Clapton know just when to make that chord change?
The usual answer is that it’s some kind of instinctive magic — a sixth sense.
The real answer is that it’s high-speed pattern recognition: a learned ability to look at telltale signs and accurately guess where the action is headed. It’s not about instincts. It’s about information processing.
Check out this video for a beautiful example. It’s one of those Science of Sport shows where they analyze the abilities of world-class athletes — in this case, Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s a pretty fair soccer player.
Scroll ahead to 6:20, and you’ll see a remarkably cool experiment that reveals the source of Ronaldo’s true ability — his eyes and his brain. By watching body language, arc, and speed, he can calculate where the ball is going to be, even in pitch-black darkness.
So the question becomes, how do we improve the speed of our information processing? A couple ideas:
- 1) Eyes-Only Practice - Set aside practice time where you focus just on absorbing information — sort of like an NFL player would view film. A baseball player could stand at the plate without a bat, tracking the flight of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. A musician could watch a concert, trying to sense the architecture of each solo (ears instead of eyes, but you get the idea).
- 2) Interrogate Top Performers – Seek out the best, and ask them to describe what’s going through their heads at key moments — what telltale signs they’re looking for. They won’t always be eloquent — as Ronaldo shows — but his words and body language are still helpful and revealing.
- 3) Do a Little Every Day – As the video shows, the anticipation is not something Ronaldo was born with, but rather a skill that he built over thousands of reps. Treat your observations the same. You won’t be good at the start, but each time you observe intensively and with a purpose, you’ll get better at figuring out what’s going to happen next.
The biggest enemy of talent isn’t genes, or opportunity, or luck. It’s poor practice. Because poor practice wastes time, creates bad habits, and, worst of all, gives us the deceptive feeling we’ve accomplished something when, in fact, we haven’t.
Trouble is, poor practice is tough to identify. Perhaps in the future, some genius will invent a Practice-o-Meter that flashes bright red lights and sounds a horn when it detects ineffective, time-wasting practice. Until then, however, we have to make do with simpler methods.
So here, based on interviews with teachers/coaches and a sampling of scientific studies, are some warning signs that your practice is shallow — along with a few suggested cures.
- 1) Symptom: Robotic sameness of performance. If you are doing the same thing over and over with no variation, you are not practicing deeply.
- Cure: Make it tougher. Change one or more factors to stretch yourself. For example, if you’re shooting basketball free throws, try them from a variety of distances. If you’re doing algebra, set ever-shorter time limits. Constantly switch it up so that you’re always making and fixing mistakes.
- 2) Symptom: The lack of “dammit” moments. Learning something new is like walking into a darkened room and figuring out where the furniture is located — when you make a mistake, you should feel it. Effective practice contains lots of “dammit” moments. Making mistakes should carry an emotional burn that helps you do better next time.
- Cure: Keep score. Turn it into a game, so that each mistake carries a larger consequence.
- 3) Symptom: Failing too much. The “sweet spot” of practice is when you make mistakes 20-40 percent of the time — not so seldom that you’re comfortable, not so often that you’re thrashing. Randomness does not make for good practice.
- Cure: Make it easier. Eliminate some variables; simplify the task so that you are chunking one thing at a time, until you get back to the sweet spot.
- 4) Symptom: Total boredom
- Cure: Quit and do something else. Come back when you’re fresh.
Overall, aim for quality over quantity. It’s far better to achieve 10 minutes of deep practice — which is really tough to do — than practice shallowly for an hour.
It’s been a busy week around here for my book that came out last month, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France – Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored with former Postal rider Tyler Hamilton.
It’s basically the inside story of what some are now calling the biggest fraud in the history of American sports. The world they lived in was half James Bond, half Sopranos, and half All the President’s Men. Okay, that’s three halves. But you get the idea.
The big news is that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency just released its 1,000-page report detailing its case against Armstrong. Twenty-six people gave testimony, including eleven former Armstrong teammates (including Tyler, of course.)
You might think the USADA report would by dry-dust reading, but it’s precisely the opposite. It’s kind of amazing. It’s filled with telling details, stranger-than-fiction anecdotes (like when Armstrong wanted an illegal cortisone pill and two teammates, rather than disappoint their demanding boss, shaved down an asprin and gave it to him as a placebo), and an irrefutable stack of hard scientific and financial evidence. Reading the report, you can’t help but feel a mix of horror and deep empathy for the riders — and you can’t help but wonder what you would have done in their place.
If you’re interested in a taste, here’s a Cliff’s Notes version from Outside magazine. And, for the more ambitious among you, here’s the whole report: including a 200-page summary and the supporting materials (the affadavits are a good place to start).
I know it’s a sad story. But it’s also an important one — for the riders who are standing up and speaking out, for their families, and for their sport, which now has the chance to move forward. Like Tyler says, the truth will set you free. It sounds corny, I know. But man oh man, is it ever true.
PS – Tyler is going to be on Anderson Cooper 360 tonight (Friday) at 8:00 Eastern — tune in, or check TSR’s facebook page for more information.
These two videos happen to speak to the same massive question at the heart of parenting: how do you help your kid succeed at something new and difficult and scary?
In the first video, Natalie is trying to learn to ride a bike. Her dad wants to help. Things <cough> don’t go particularly well.
Why? From the first moment of the exchange, the dad is trying to take command of the situation. He keeps saying her name (“Natalie! Look at you! You’re doing it! We’re gonna keep going around the block! Keep going!”). Even when it’s abundantly clear Natalie is having none of it, the dad keeps up.
He’s doing what we’ve all done: trying to nudge, persuade, cajole a kid past the difficulty using language and emotion. He’s trying to create success by narrating success. Meltdown ensues.
Contrast that approach with this video of a father and a four-year-old kid taking on another biking challenge. Here, the interaction is completely different. The kid is in the position of control, not the parent. You can see it from the first moment, where the father doesn’t tell the kid what’s going to happen — instead, he asks a question.
DAD: Oh, I’m first?
KID: You’re first.
Instead of narrating the process, this dad is almost entirely silent, except for the occasional praise for the effort (“Good work, pal!”). The messages are implied, not spoken — follow me… this is fun… I’m right here.
This silence creates something vital, because it allows the kid to narrate the process, which he does beautifully: “I can do it just the same as the other guys now… Yeah, oh yeah, buddy.” We see it most vividly at 4:10, in the moment just after the kid wipes out. The dad doesn’t come to the rescue; he’s present, but he doesn’t say a word, except to ask if the kid is ready to go.
To sum up:
- 1) Seek to put the kid in the position of control.
- 2) Speak minimally and avoid commands; instead, ask questions that lead to action.
- 3) When they encounter a problem, avoid rushing to the rescue. Create opportunities for resilience.
The larger point is, kids are smart. You can’t con them. To take on challenges they need to be in control. They need to be given the room and motivation to encounter the challenge honestly, and a parent’s role is to help create the conditions where that can happen — then to step back.
Not for lack of trying. To improve focus, most of us use a common-sense method: we actively remind ourselves to do it. Coaches yell it from the sidelines — Come on, focus! Parents instruct their homework-doing kids — Stop texting and just focus! We talk to ourselves — Focus now!
The problem is, that method usually doesn’t work. Urging focus is sort of like kicking the tires of a car that won’t start. It feels satisfying, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is that our brains crave the steady-state of comfort, not the effort of focus.
So the real question is, how do you nudge people out of their default setting? How do you design learning environments that tilt people toward focus?
I was thinking about this last weekend when we went to Chicago and rode bikes along the lakefront, that wide, paved stretch that fronts Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful day, so the lakefront was packed with hundreds of bikers, skateboarders, rollerbladers, joggers, and kids, everybody zipping in and out at high speed. Then we noticed something strange: no guardrails.
The paved area went right up to the lake, where there was a five-foot vertical drop to the water. No rail, no fence, no safety device of any kind for miles. To fall in would have been a problem, especially for small kids who were darting around.
But here’s the thing: nobody falls in. When they got close to the edge, everybody tuned in. The lack of guardrails makes people pay more attention. It sends a clear signal — Hey, the edge is right here — that improves focus.
(This isn’t the only place like this. A few years back, traffic engineers in Holland made an unlikely discovery: the best way to make intersections safer was to remove all traffic signs. Drivers became more attentive; accident rates dropped.)
So how do we design for better focus in a classroom? On a sports field? During a homework session?
The answer is, do the same thing. Remove the guardrails. Send a clear, unmissable signal — Hey, the edge is right here.
Here are a few ways to do that:
- Post a calendar with important dates circled, and count them down. How many days until the tournament? Until the big test? Until the report is due?
- Set out “north-star” goals. Some schools, like KIPP, constantly remind kids about college. For example, they name classrooms after the college the teacher attended; they post signs above the bathroom mirrors that ask: Where are You Going to College? Those signals work like churchbells; they ring often, reminding the students of the bigger goal.
- Have learners grade themselves each session. A top soccer coach uses a two-level system: players either gave their absolute best, or they did not.
The larger point: none of this involves talking, or urging people to focus harder. The goal is to design the environment so it does the urging for you.
I’m curious: what other ways do you have to improve your focus?
Whether you’re a parent or a coach, an athlete or a musician or a kid, there’s one piece of advice that you’ve heard a zillion times: follow your passion. It’s a beautifully tempting idea, because it implies each of us has a calling, a destiny.
It’s also crummy advice.
Here’s why: follow your passion (FYP) is based on the notion that our passions are fixed and unchangeable, and that our main job is to hunt after that passion as if it were so much buried Spanish treasure. The idea is, once we discover it, we’ll find happiness.
The problem is, that’s not true. Yes, there are a lucky few who are seized by a desire in childhood and spend the rest of their lives happily following that narrow road. But for the vast majority of us, life is more complicated: we are faced with tough choices, branching pathways. And when we base our happiness on FYP’s treasure-hunt logic, we create a cascade of frustration (Why aren’t I happy? Should I switch paths? What’s wrong with me?).
The key fact to realize is that passions aren’t fixed — they’re flexible and alive. They grow and change in connection with our abilities and accomplishments. For a useful insight into this, check out this piece by Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and author of the new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, who devastatingly debunks the Myth of FYP. His argument is based on two basic truths:
- Point #1: the thing that people love about their lives — that X factor that gives them the feeling of passion — usually has less to do with the specifics of a pursuit, and more to do with the bigger factors: the feeling of self-efficacy, accomplishment, and the joy of having a mission that impacts the world in a positive way.
- Point #2: The early years of any pursuit are filled with struggle and difficulty. The love of a craft grows alongside our skills.
I’m Exhibit A. Though I loved books, I didn’t grow up burning to be a writer; I turned to it after college, after I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor. My early years working at a magazine were fun, but also hard and frustrating. If I’d been constantly asking myself, “Is this truly my passion?” I would have been frustrated. But as I got better, I started to enjoy it more and more. I wrote short articles, then longer articles. Then decided to try writing a book. It worked — not because I’d followed my passion, but because my passion grew alongside my skills.
To be clear: this is not to say you shouldn’t do what you love. You absolutely should. But you should do so with the right expectations. As Newport points out: don’t follow your passion. Let your passion follow you, by cultivating it through hard work.
Science is showing us that when it comes to praise, kids operate like light switches. Certain types of praise switch kids on by boosting their motivation and willingness to take risks. Other kind of praise switch kids off.
There are lots of interesting experiments here (many by Carol Dweck), but here’s the takeaway: avoid praising for abilities, and instead praise for effort.
Here’s why: when you praise for ability — that is, when tell someone they’re a natural-born Einstein, or a Mini-Michael Jordan — they unconsciously tend to protect that status by taking fewer risks and forgoing opportunities to make more effort. (After all, we’re status-based creatures — why risk genius status?) When you praise for effort, on the other hand, studies show that kids are willing to take on harder tasks without complaint, and perform better.
The problem, however, is that we parents and coaches seem to be hard-wired to praise in exactly the wrong way. We instinctively praise ability and status. When a kid shows us their latest magic-marker drawing, we say, “What a great artist you are!” When a kid does his first trick on a snowboard, we say, “Hey, you’re little Shawn White!”
The key to effective praise is to focus on the process, not the person. Put the emphasis on what was produced, not on the kid. This sounds sort of chilly, but the effect is actually the opposite. For instance:
- So, instead of saying, “Wow! You’re such a great artist!”
- Say: “I love that picture! Tell me about it.”
- Instead of, “You’re an awesome snowboarder!”
- Say: “That was great! How’d you figure out how to do that?”
- Instead of, “Another A-plus! You’re so brilliant at math!”
- Say: “Another A-plus! You must’ve really studied hard for that test.”
See what I mean? Instead of just being a cheerleader (You’re so awesome!), use praise to go a notch deeper: to start conversations, spark reflection, and create more of a bond.
In the search for effective praise, the best example I’ve ever come across consists of just two words: Well done!
You don’t need to rehash the accomplishment, or elevate the kid to superstar status. All you need to do it be present, and to show that you saw what they did, appreciate it.
What other phrases work for you?
This is the single best speech on creativity I’ve ever seen. It’s from Jack White, rock star and former upholsterer. I love this because it shows that creative work is not about magic and mystery. It’s about designing an environment that helps you make new connections in the brain you already have. (The whole clip is useful, but if you’re short on time, skip ahead to the 40-second mark.)
Here are the takeaways:
- 1) Inspiration is hugely overrated. Don’t wait for the clouds to part and rays from heaven to come down. Do the work, every day.
- 2) Scarcity is fuel. Luxuries of time and space don’t help creativity; they strangle it. Constrict your time and choices; it creates clarity.
- 3) Avoid comfort. Don’t settle into patterns, but seek ways to create tension
“Force yourself into it. Force yourself…. Deadlines and things make you creative. But opportunity and telling yourself, “Oh you have all that time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in your palette you want, anything you want…” – that just kills creativity.”
Of all the key moments in talent development, the most important and mysterious is the first ten seconds. The first few swings, the first notes, the first stumbly tries. It’s a tenuous time, because it’s a psychological fork in the road. Either you get the Good Feeling (“Hey, this is kinda fun!”), or the Bad Feeling (“Awww, I’ll never be any good”). In short, it’s either an on-ramp or a stop sign.
The deeper question here has to do with design. Namely, how do you create an environment that creates more on-ramps and avoids stop signs?
As it happens, I just came across some videos that do a nice job of teaching how to do just that. They feature Diddy, a two-year-old kid in Yorkshire, England. His father, a PE teacher named Stuart Owen, has videotaped his experiences coaching Diddy in number of sports. (And it’s working — the little dude is pretty amazing. Click here to check out the full set.)
While the videos are useful for parents, I think they also provide a nice blueprint for anybody who wants to start out on the right foot.
- 1) Keep it small. Don’t be ambitious. Focus on one simple core action, not a whole complicated series of them.
- 2) Have a clearly defined, do-able target. Don’t aim vaguely or abstractly — this is about creating a small game, with clear feedback so the person can instantly see for themselves where they’re at — how they can get closer next time.
- 3) Make it fun. Create an environment free of judgement, and where successes are celebrated like crazy.
The payoff of this design is evident: you can see how much Diddy loves it. Not because he’s being praised (which is nice), but rather because he’s in an environment tilted to help him discover an immensely powerful fact: trying new skills, while it feels strange at first, isn’t that hard after all.
Self talk is the world’s most mysterious language. We all do it constantly — you know, that whisper that comes into your head at key moments, the one that says, okay, take a deep breath… keep your weight on the balls of your feet… now go! — but it happens mostly unconsciously, and nobody talks about it.
Which is strange, because when it comes to skills, self talk is a massively useful tool. For example, studies show that skilled athletes tend to self-talk more often, and in a more planned and consistent manner (less-skilled athletes tend merely to react). Sprinters who self-talk run faster. Good self talk functions like an early-warning radar system, helping us to identify key moves and navigate problems. Done well, it’s like having a coach inside your head.
But here’s the question: if self talk is a good thing, how do we get better at it? Is it possible to teach it, the same way you’d learn any language? With that in mind, here are a few tips — some from experiments, some from my observations.
1) Keep it short and chunky. Good self talk is never chatty or complicated. It divides the skill into its key moves, and uses those as clear cues. For example, with a golf swing:
- Say this: “Smooth arms, still head.”
- Not this: “Okay, let’s keep the takeaway smooth, relax your posture, make sure to keep your head still through the backswing.”
2) Make it vivid. The more vivid the image, the easier it is to remember, and to do. For example, with a violin player working on posture:
- Say this: “Stand like a tree.”
- Not this: “Make sure you stand up straight.”
3) Keep it positive. Don’t focus on what you want to avoid, but on what you want to accomplish. For example, for a soccer player practicing penalty kicks:
- Say this: “Keep tempo; hit it clean.”
- Not this: “Don’t rush the shot, don’t get under the ball.”
Finally, and maybe most usefully, fluent self-talkers don’t just talk to themselves during their performance; they also do it before and after. Self talk is like a game tape: you use it to preview what’s going to happen, and then afterwards you use it again to walk through what happened, and figure out how you might do it better the next time.