That is, we prepare ourselves by banishing doubt and visualizing the positive. We vividly imagine ourselves making all the right moves with fluid grace, with zero mistakes or missteps. And it feels good.
What’s interesting, though, is that when you look closely at world-class performers, most don’t use this feel-good approach. In fact, they do the opposite — what you might call the Feel-Bad-First approach.
It goes like this: First they focus on the mistakes — and figure out, in detail, how they will react to them. Then they visualize the positive.
A great example of this is the Green Berets, the U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers. Teams spend weeks training for a mission (most of which happen at night). On the day of the mission they follow a two-part routine.
First, they spend the entire morning going over every possible mistake or disaster that could happen during the mission. Every possible screwup is mercilessly examined, and linked to an appropriate response: if the helicopter crash-lands, we’ll do X. If we are dropped off at the wrong spot, we’ll do Y. If we are outnumbered, we’ll do Z.
After some hours of doing this, the team takes a break and has lunch together. They socialize, relax, and maybe take a nap.
Then they spend the afternoon in phase two, talking about everything going exactly right. They review each move, visualizing each step, and vividly imagine it going 100 percent perfectly.
You might call this Balanced-Positive Approach: equally split between negative and positive, and ending on the positive. Notice the complete wall of separation between the two phases. They don’t toggle back and forth between positive and negative. The two phases are kept as separate as night and day: first comes all negative, then all positive.
Many top performers (Peyton Manning and Steve Jobs jump to mind) embody this approach. Half the time, they are persnickety, chronically dissatisfied, negative, doubtful, obsessed with potential failures. The other half of the time, they’re incredibly positive, confident performers.
This isn’t surprising. The balanced-positive approach helps you avoid the pitfalls of positivity — namely, that you get surprised and demoralized by failure — and replaces it with a preparation that matches the reality of the world and also leaves you ready for performance. Good things and bad things will happen, and you can’t control either. But you can prepare.
If you have any other tips on preparation you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.
Quick thought experiment:
Let’s say you’re the parent of a kid who really, really loves skiing. (It could be soccer or chess or tennis or math, but let’s make it skiing.)
Let’s say that by grade school, your kid is dominating their peers. Stories about their prowess begin to spread. Then it happens: you get approached by coaches, scouts, national-team types. They have an important question for you:
Your child is brilliantly talented, and their talent requires support. We can provide your child with expert training, the best coaching, and world-class competition. Let us take charge — let your child join our program, train and travel with us — and we will help them reach their potential.
What do you do?
For many of us, the answer is simple: we’d say yes. It’s the same logic you use when you take your car to a mechanic instead of fixing it yourself: experts know best. (Never mind the dizzying contact high you’d get from having a kid in a world-class talent-development program.) It would be almost irresistible.
And it also might be exactly the wrong thing to do.
Meet 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin. Everyone will be meeting her soon enough. As a World Cup slalom champion, she’s likely to become one of the big stories of next month’s Sochi Winter Olympics. (I recommend reading this marvelous profile by Bill Pennington.)
But to understand why, you should understand that Shiffrin is a useful case study for the reverse approach to parenting a talented kid — what you might call the Do-it-Yourself approach to talent development. It’s an approach that focuses on 1) valuing the daily skill-development process over competition; 2) maintaining family normalcy.
As her father Jeff recalled:
“These top-level coaches would tell me that Mikaela was just ripping up a racecourse. And I would say: ‘Yeah, I agree, but she’s just 9 years old.’ And they’d say, ‘What are your plans for her?’ And I’d answer: ‘Plans? Well, tomorrow she’s trying out for a part as the angel in the Christmas play.’”
In the Shiffrins’ telling, much of Mikaela’s development was built on homespun methods. To teach balance, they bought a unicycle. Instead of racing big courses, Mikaela spent time skiing an icy 300-foot hill, working on perfecting her technique. In summer, they used in-line skates and broomsticks to simulate slalom gates.
To be sure, Shiffrin competed at a high level, and worked with some of the finest coaches around. But every decision was built around the daily process of mastering skills — which captured Mikaela’s imagination more than any medal. As Kirk Dwyer, Shiffrin’s coach and headmaster of Burke Mountain Academy, puts it,
“She truly believed that the focus should be on the process of getting better and not race results. She does that to this day. Everyone on the World Cup says they want to race like they practice, but how many actually do it? Mikaela can because she’s not thinking about trying to win. She’s thinking about getting better.”
If the big sports programs are akin to the factory-farm approach to developing talent, you might call this approach Free Range Mastery. It sounds revolutionary, but it’s really not all that different from the approach followed by Bode Miller, Serena and Venus Williams, and of course, Tiger Woods. A few reasons why it works:
- 1) True ownership of the skill-development process. In big programs, the power is held by the coaches, creating a tendency for the kid to become a highly obedient automatons — achieving for others, not themselves. In the free-range approach, however, the dynamic is reversed. The kid (and parents) remain the master of the daily process, able to innovate, test, and ultimately drive the improvement process.
- 2) More adaptability. Big programs, by necessity, tend to put everyone into categories and timelines, with the associated grid of expectations. If you don’t achieve X by age Y, then you have the risk of being perceived (and perceiving yourself) as a failure. But talent development is never a one-size-fits-all experience, and the line of progression is rarely smooth. Keeping things loose — being able to take some time off, or test-drive a new coach or fresh approach — is beneficial in the long run.
- 3) Fewer demotivating experiences. A kid’s desire is a fragile thing, and nothing extinguishes it faster than getting crushed on a big stage. Controlling the big-pond competitive environment allows skills (especially emotional skills) to grow at their own pace.
- 4) Embracing the power of normalcy. Doing chores, homework, and being a regular kid whenever possible acts like a powerful drug, helping to build emotional skills, resilience, and the foundation to deal with whatever comes along.
But perhaps the biggest reason the DIY approach works is because it is aligned with the way skill actually develops: not through splashy public accomplishments but by something quieter and closer to the bone.
Jeff Shiffrin put it best:
“Some people might call our approach intense. But it’s not, because the motivation is not to be better than other people at something. The motivation comes from a belief that almost anything can be mastered if you’re willing to put in the hours to master it. If you’re going to do something, do it as best as you can.”
Mistakes are beautiful.
Fail fast and often.
Errors are opportunities.
All of these are basically true. But the real question isn’t whether mistakes are valuable. The real question is, how do we tap into that value? How do we take better advantage of our mistakes?
A while back, a Harvard business professor named Amy Edmondson decided to explore this mystery by investigating the organizational habits of hospitals, measuring the quality of the leadership and worker relationships in eight institutions.
Edmondson discovered something surprising: the best-run hospitals reported ten times more errors than the poorly run hospitals. Investigating further, Edmondson found that the real difference wasn’t in making mistakes (all the hospitals made about the same amount). The difference was in reporting them. Well-run hospitals operated in an open, transparent manner; mistakes were seen as opportunities for discussion and improvement. Poorly run hospitals, on the other hand, were filled with fear, uncertainty, and silence. Employees thought that “heads would roll” if they admitted making mistakes.
In other words, the better hospitals weren’t necessarily smarter or more talented. They had something more powerful: a psychological safe zone: a shared place where mistakes weren’t hidden, but discussed in the clear light of day.
To understand why this effect is so powerful, you have to understand that our brains are keenly sensitive to safety, and react with the equivalent of an on/off switch. When we get signals that we’re safe, we can relax, switch on, and perform to our potential. But when we get signals that we’re unsafe, we instinctively revert into what some call the “critter state”: fearful, twitchy, hunkered down. We switch off.
With that in mind, here are a few ideas on how to create a sense of safety:
- 1) Send the message early and often. Our brains are built to decide whether we’re safe very early in any interaction. The earlier you send the signal — making mistakes and talking about them is okay — the more effective it will be.
- 2) Be systematic. Capture mistakes in notebooks, or through an open review process. Encourage the dissection process. Treat mistakes not as a verdict, but as information to be sifted over and over for connections and ideas.
- 3) Model it. No signal is so powerful as a leader who is open about their own mistakes, even small ones.
Happy New Year!
Do the Academy Awards give an Oscar for Most Inspiring 40-Second Video? Because I’d like to nominate the above video, from coach Trevor Ragan of Championship Basketball School. Suggested title: “Super-Psyched Little Dude.”
This kid is not merely excited. He is super duper excited, in a way that is both focused and contagious. A psychologist would say that he is deeply engaged. As Trevor writes, this engagement fuels a subsequent rocket-launch of learning and improvement. As it usually does.
Engagement is perhaps the most important, yet least-understood element of the talent-development process. Where does it come from? Why does it happen in some learners and not in others? How do you sustain it?
The biggest problem, I think, lies in the way we think about engagement. Because real engagement is easily confused with its far-less-productive twin: mere fun. That confusion — which is like confusing lightning with a lightning bug — lies at the core of some of our barriers to effective learning.
We’re all familiar with classrooms, sports teams, and offices that are absolutely brilliant at engineering fun, yet far less brilliant at producing real improvement. The late coach Tom Martinez called them “ice-cream camps” — places where the focus was not truly on skills, but rather on the sweet, entertaining buffet of activities that filled the day.
So the real question is: how do you spark engagement and avoid the empty calories of mere fun? Here are a few ideas:
- 1) Spend time designing a game that is built around the specific skills you want to teach. Aim to place learners in their sweet spot: tasks that are not too difficult, and not too easy.
- 2) Talk less. Real engagement doesn’t happen when a teacher or coach is talking (a recent MIT study showed that student physiological arousal essentially flatlines during lectures). Engagement doesn’t come from words, but from actions and involvement.
- 3) Aim for swift feedback. The most engaging games are transparent: you don’t need a coach or teacher to inform you how you’re doing, because the game tells you.
- 4) Keep it social. Engagement operates like a virus. As the video shows, small groups are a good way to increase the odds of those viruses being transmitted.
- 5) Do the minimum: The leader’s role is to do nothing except to keep things moving. Set the stage, then back off and let it happen. A good leader’s job is sort of like cloud-seeding. You can’t make the lightning strike happen. But you can design the conditions where the chances increase.
That’s not to say that fun isn’t a vital ingredient — it is. But the key is to understand that fun should be the seasoning, not the main dish.
Every teacher or coach worth their salt knows that there’s no moment more important than the moment feedback is delivered. Do it correctly, and the learner takes a step forward. Do it poorly, and the reverse happens.
The deeper question is, what’s the secret of great feedback? We instinctively think that effective feedback is about the quality of the information — telling the learner to do this and not that. But is this true, or is there something else going on?
A team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and elsewhere recently set out to explore that question. They had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback.
To their surprise, researchers discovered that there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they deemed it “magical.” Students who received this feedback chose to revise their paper far more often that students who did not (a 40 percent increase among white students; 320 percent boost among black students) and improved their performance significantly. (See the study here.)
What was the magical feedback?
Just one phrase:
I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.
That’s it. Just 19 words. But they’re powerful because they are not really feedback. They’re a signal that creates something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection.
Looking closer, the phrase contains several distinct signals:
- 1) You are part of this group.
- 2) This group is special; we have higher standards here.
- 3) I believe you can reach those standards.
The key is to understand that this feedback isn’t just feedback — it’s a vital cue about the relationship. The reason this works so well has to do with the way our brains are built. Evolution has built us to be cagey with our efforts; after all, engagement is expensive from a biological standpoint. But when we receive an authentic, crystal-clear signal of social trust, belonging, and high expectations, the floodgates click open.
I think the lessons for teachers and coaches are pretty simple:
- First, connect: like John Wooden said, they can’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
- Highlight the group: seek ways (traditions, mantras, fun little rituals) to show what it means to belong in your crew.
- Don’t soft-pedal high standards. Don’t pretend that it’s easy — do the opposite. Emphasize the toughness of the task, and your belief that they have what it takes.
If you have any ideas, stories, or examples to share about how coaches and teachers achieve this kind of connection, I’d love to hear them.
Every day, in every profession, we hear people celebrated as “great coaches.” And it’s mostly true. The worlds of sports, education, and business are brimming with legions of talented, remarkable coaches — perhaps more than at any other time in history.
But here’s the question: what does being a great coach really mean? Is it a flattering catchall, or is there a more useful way to understand the essence of what the best coaches do?
When you look deeper, I think great coaches come in three evolutionary types. You can think of them as three species, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
First, there are great coaches of behavior. These people tell you what to do, how to do it, and when to show up. They focus their energy on making sure things go as planned. You might think of these as the Daddy Coaches, old-school guys. You show up, they’ll provide the machine to make you better. Their key asset is their system, their process (Exhibit A: Nick Saban.)
The second type of great coach is one who deals in knowledge. They are focused on the information — what to learn, when, and what it means. They deal in the currency of ideas and techniques, and on making sure the right links are made at the right time. You might think of these as Teacher Coaches; they’re found more in quieter, individual pursuits. If behavioral coaches are about the what, knowledge coaches are about the how and the why.
But there’s a third type of great coach. A mysterious type who often go overlooked, because what they do doesn’t look like coaching. It looks more like magic. Because these people have the ability to alter someone’s destiny in the time it takes to eat lunch. They aren’t about the how or the why — they’re completely, utterly about the who. Their core skill is to see someone in a way that they don’t yet see themselves; to give their lives a larger narrative, sense of belief, a higher purpose.
You might call them a Soul Coach. And a perfect example in my profession would be Peter Kaplan, who died of cancer last week at 59.
You likely have never heard of Kaplan. He served as editor of several publications, most notably the New York Observer from 1994 to 2009. His real job, however, was hiring, mentoring, and serving as godfather to an entire generation of top journalists far too numerous to list here. To writers, he operated like a favorite uncle, constantly giving them targets to reach for, and nurturing the belief that they could do it. As one put it, Kaplan was Dumbledore, and NY journalism was his Hogwarts.
It’s instructive to see how he used his skills. As Doree Shafrir wrote, getting hired by Kaplan was “like getting tapped for one of the most thrilling secret societies in the world.” In his New York magazine piece, The Wizard and the City, John Homans describes the scene:
[Kaplan’s] signature move was this: He’d escort his 24-year-old quarry into his office in the New York Observer’s townhouse, cock one of his groucho eyebrows behind his big round horn rims, pause, clear his throat, pause again, clear his throat, pause. Some more inarticulate noises. And then, if you were lucky: “Do you wanna be a star?”
What a come on! What young writer wouldn’t say yes to such an offer? And with that, Peter had implicated his prey in his own vast ambition, which made for a fantastic ride. Peter thought that journalism could change the world, and he mythologized himself by mythologizing everyone around him, imagining career trajectories and inflection points, allowing his people to believe preposterous things about themselves — which sometimes came true, partly because he believed in them himself…. He was prepared to find something in all people, from his dentist to the counterman at the Viand coffee shop. He was never a snob. And when you’d entertained him, said something he found smart or funny, brought him a tale of human foible, he let you know it with that big laugh. So entertaining him became part of the mission.
When we think of the greatest coaches, I think it’s good to remember the Kaplans. Not the ones with the information or the system, but the ones who had the simple human ability to connect, to communicate their belief in us, and who worked to make that belief come true. Information gets replaced; systems grow outdated. But the nice thing about inspiration is that it leads to other things. It never really ends.
As Phil Weiss wrote:
[Kaplan] taught me how to be a writer. Even in the hospital in his robe with tubes in him, he wanted to nurture me. That was the reveal in Peter’s life: He loved the role of nurturing people’s gifts. All his creativity and glamour and imagination he poured into others, and yes, that gave him power. A lot of the celebration of Peter now is a reflection of that power; and the widespread grief includes many people like me, people who lost someone who so believed in them that he got them to believe in themselves, now what will we do? That’s the way we’ll honor his spirit, to live up to what he thought of us, to show him, tapping his cigar in the clouds, that he wasn’t wrong.
When it comes to providing warm, happy feelings, this video is better than a plateful of turkey, stuffing, and sweet-potato pie (well, almost). Kelvin’s story is vivid proof of T.S. Eliot’s words: “The great ages did not produce more talent than ours. But less talent was wasted.”
One of the most fascinating areas of science is the study of pressure performance. It’s fascinating partly because we’ve all been on both sides. We’ve all succeeded, and we’ve all choked. (Well, except for Derek Jeter.)
The question is, why? Our instincts say the answer lies in our character — with our innate cool, our grace under fire. But is that true?
A Harvard professor named Alison Wood Brooks recently gave us new insight into this mystery. She didn’t study the Super Bowl or the stock market — instead she performed an experiment using perhaps the most terrifying pressure known to humanity:
It went like this: Brooks brought a group of volunteers together, then surprised them by informing them that they would be soloing the first verse of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” A short time before they performed, subjects were told to repeat one of three phrases out loud.
1) I am calm
2) I am anxious
3) I am excited
Then Brooks used voice-recognition sofware to measure the quality of their vocal performance — pitch, volume, and rhythm. The results:
- “I am calm” performers scored 53%
- “I am anxious” performers scored 69%
- “I am excited” performers scored 81%
Here’s why: the mantras functioned as psychological framing devices. The “I am calm” group performed poorly because the words denied the reality of the situation. Their words claimed they weren’t nervous, even while every cell of their body was vibrating with nerves. The disparity created tension, so their performance suffered.
The “I am anxious” group told the truth, but it wasn’t a useful truth. The negativity hurt their performance — though it’s important to point out that they didn’t do as poorly as the “I am calm” people.
People who said “I am excited” performed better because the frame was both useful and accurate enough. They acknowledged the heightened emotion of the situation and funneled it in a positive direction. It wasn’t the truth, exactly, but it was aligned with the truth, and thus proved useful in dampening nerves and enabling better performance.
“When your heart is already racing, you can use that high arousal in a positive way by being energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate,” Brooks says. “People’s intuition is to try and calm down. You are better off running with your high arousal and channeling it in a positive direction.” (You can find out more about her study here.)
For us, I think the lessons are useful.
- 1) Mantras are useful
- 2) Don’t BS yourself. Embrace the excitement.
- 3) When in doubt, be positive (duh, but still)
Anybody got any other pressure-coping methods they’d like to share? Please feel free.
Some of you might remember Karen X. Cheng, the Bay-Area resident whose “Dance in a Year” videos went viral a few months back. (Backstory: Cheng, an amateur dancer, posted daily videos of her 365-day transformation from rank beginner to dance goddess.)
Here’s some news: Cheng seems to have started another viral phenomenon through a new social-media website. It’s called GiveIt100, and it’s based on a simple idea: you practice something for 100 days and share video each day.
I highly recommend checking out the site’s project page — just roll over a video and it starts playing. You can see people learning Russian, doing pullups, unicycling, drawing, painting, programming, juggling, playing guitar, you name it. You can see the clumsy early attempts smoothing out into fluency and speed. You see the disbelieving smiles.
Of these inspiring stories, perhaps the most inspiring is Cynthia, who suffers from MS and who is using GiveIt100 to share her daily progress toward learning to walk again. (Tip: keep Kleenex handy.)
I could see this site being useful for students, teachers, coaches, and athletes of all ages; either posting their own sessions or learning through the experiences of others. I could imagine it being used as a source of coaches and mentors. Or as simply a source of daily motivation (after all, who needs a pep talk about daily discipline when you can see and feel the proof?).
I have a hunch GiveIt100 may be a glimpse of the future of talent development, because it uses the power of social media to support good habits, provide useful models, and help people coach themselves and each other. And also because this approach is aligned with the fact that when it comes to developing talent, it’s not so much about who you are — it’s about what you do.
Have any of you guys tried it yet, or know anybody who has? What do you think?
One of the nice/strange things about my job is that it strongly resembles being a parachute jumper. You drop out of the sky into interesting places, where you meet people, explore, and look for patterns.
In the past two weeks, I’ve had in-depth conversations about performance with two professional sports teams, two schools (one inner city, one private), one special-forces unit, and one huge multinational business.
Here’s the weird part: in a profound way, they’ve all been the same conversation.
They’re all obsessed with that elusive, magical quality we call character. Grit. Resilience. Reliability. Ownership. Because, as the work of Paul Tough, Angela Duckworth, and others have shown, character supports performance the same way a concrete foundation supports a house.
So it’s with a sense of karmic happiness that I bumped into this remarkable story about a high-school football team in Ohio that was struggling with precisely the same issues, and which found a straightforward solution that’s worth sharing.
Actually “struggling” is putting it kindly. Until a few years ago, Bedford High’s team was terrible. The team was in shambles. No discipline. No identity. How bad was it? The coach, Sean Williams, says that when a Bedford player scored, his teammates on the sidelines would yell and complain because they should have been the ones who scored.
Then, two years ago, Coach Williams made an innovative move that surprised everyone.
He brought in a character coach.
Like many useful innovations, this one feels completely revolutionary and forehead-slappingly obvious at the same time. The thinking goes something like: we have a strength coach and an offensive-line coach – so why in the world shouldn’t we have a coach to focus on the most important element of all?
So Bedford did. Two times a week, led by a 31-year-old entrepreneur/coach named Keith Tousley, the team started gathering in sessions that were part motivational seminar, part group therapy. From the article:
On Monday, to accompany his talk, Tousley gave players a worksheet titled “How we WILL BEAT Kent Roosevelt.” Every player sat quietly and filled in blanks as he spoke. The worksheet had nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Among the sentences players completed were:
“Find ____ in what you are doing.”
“Stay _____ .”
“Compete for something ____ than yourself.”
One of the benefits of this approach stems from the fact that character is contagious. A Bedford player named Tyvis Powell was one of the first to get on board with the new program, and now, according to Williams, “all these guys are mini-Tyvises.“ Another benefit is that improvements in character tend to cascade into every other area of the team and individual success — classroom, family, and beyond.
So, did the experiment work? Let’s just say this year’s team is 9-1, and playing tonight in the state playoffs.
The real question is, is this a model that could be adopted in schools, businesses, teams? What are the challenges/opportunities involved with establishing “character” as a distinct quality to be improved? What do you think?
UPDATE: Bedford won 21-14, advancing to the state semifinal.