Thursday, June 14, 2018

Raymond Floyd, Corey Pavin, Shinnecock, & the Life Lessons of the US Open

Everyone wants to know how athletes manage situations of intense, seemingly unbearable pressure. Kids famously practice putts saying in their heads, “this is for the US Open,” to accomplish the job of all play: simulate mastery over situations that seem well beyond control.  This year, in advance of the US Open at Shinnecock Hills, the USGA has done us a great favor and provided video interviews with the winners of two previous winners at that storied venue: 1986 (Raymond Floyd), 1995 (Corey Pavin), calling these segments, “My US Open.”  I encourage you to watch them in full, but I wanted to comment on two moments from Floyd’s and Pavin’s because of the window they provide into supreme moments of good cognition when the stakes are as high as they can be.

Raymond Floyd and the Stepping Away Skill

Perhaps the most important shot of Raymond Floyd’s victory was his third on the 16th hole in the fourth round.  When he is in his crouch, on the cusp of hitting the ball, he walks away, distracted by the noise of some cameramen off in the fringe.  You can watch the action starting at 3:25 in the video:  As you saw, having noticed that he was distracted, he stepped away, and yelled at the photographers.  Whether or not you think his yelling at anyone would be a good move for him in that moment, his remarkable skill was stepping away rather than just going ahead and hitting.*   Many golfers know how difficult it is to step away when you have committed to your shot and are on the cusp of making it, particularly at that moment, with that kind of pressure, when nerves are on a hair trigger.  As you look at the video, try to put yourself in his shoes, and ask yourself if you would have had the presence of mind to hold off your shot, rather than be distracted, be irritated, hit anyway, and make a mess of it. This video segment is a terrific testament to the power of stepping away when all is not just right.  This is a skill you can practice, too, and I encourage you to do it, so that it’s not foreign to you when you need it.

Corey Pavin and the Self-regulating Power of Prayer

One of the more famous golf shots of the modern era is Corey Pavin’s four-wood into 18 in the final round of the US Open in 1995.  We remember him running to the top of the hill and, seeing the result of the shot, raising his arms in exaltation.  What his narration of this moment brings to our attention is that after his bit of celebration, he thought he was showing too much emotion, getting too worked up, knowing that, in theory, such elation could derail effective action.  He then tells us that he gets down in a crouch, and says a prayer to help calm his nerves, and the video shows a close-up of him doing this:  (, start viewing at 5:20).  Now, whether or not we might think he was being a bit too uptight by punishing himself for showing too much emotion, he reveals in his video that prayer, or taking a pause to regulate his emotional response, is one important skill he relied on at this most crucial moment.  This is another skill I recommend that you add to your repertoire.  It doesn’t need to be prayer, per se, but, I do suggest that you work together with your coach to come up with several techniques for regulating your emotions, and work on how and when to insert those skills into your sport since they will invariably be sport specific, and each sport will have its myriad of situations which will demand these skills.**

Both of these moments have two very important skills in common, and I recommend you work them into your repertoire as well.  The first skill is a keen awareness of your inner state***, and it is the sine qua non of successful sporting life and life in general, and it is a sub-skill of mindfulness writ large.  It is absolutely crucial to know what it is you are experiencing, as you are experiencing it, so that you can know how to respond to it effectively and in the moment.  I have written about the many forms of mindfulness in sport in this blog, and in a sense, working on one aspect is as good as working on all aspects of it. But, this is crucial: we spend so much time in our culture, particularly if you happen to be male, squelching, suppressing, or fleeing emotional experience, much to our detriment.  And it is engrained in us that success in life and sport requires an eradication of our emotional experience.  “Just do it,” we are taught.  But, many a tragic moment in sport and life has as its seed disavowed or unacknowledged emotion.  So, keen awareness of your inner state is about as crucial a skill as you can imagine. Secondly, both players make use of a mindful pause during their action. For Pavin, it involves a prayer in a prostrate position.  For Floyd, it involves walking away from his duties to ream someone out.  But, both men knew they needed to intervene in the action, take a pause, and then return to the action.  In doing so, they are mastering not only themselves, but that most elusive of all demons in sport, time.  They are orchestrating the moment, rather than being pawns of it.

*Note: As you can tell from my commentary, I think it is generally antithetical to good performance to engage in the kind of yelling Raymond Floyd did in that moment.  And, as you can also see, he defends his actions staunchly.  He did what he did so that he could know that they wouldn’t do it again in when he went back to execute his shot.  Still, generally, in this day and age, you see players’ caddies do the work of managing such exigencies for the player.  This kind of orchestration between player and his entourage is key.  You do not want to further enflame your anger, and then need to perform the delicate kind of surgery required of your nerves in this kind of situation.  Clearly, it worked for Raymond Floyd, but I think this is more a testament to his concentration skills, and perhaps to his particular fiery constitution.  While this is not the focus of this post, I write frequently of adapting the correct ‘landscape of the mind’, and I encourage you to court one that is lukewarm rather than excessively hot or cold.  The skills I discuss in this post all work toward a well-regulated, or lukewarm mental landscape.  Which leads me to another point:

**Note, too, how different these players are with respect to their response to their emotions.  Corey Pavin does not trust his happiness, or rather, knows that he should keep it under wraps, as if it is something unseemly. We don’t know if he is praying to stay calm, or to ask for forgiveness for showing excessive pride.  But either way, he thinks he needs to do it to stay in his performance zone.  Raymond Floyd on the other hand, seems to feed off his fire.  He is making of his fingers a pretend gun and shooting at the hole when the ball goes in, he is winking at his caddie (an action whose derivation he couldn’t even fathom), he is yelling at people in the rough, and increasing rather than slowing his gait.  He is clearly a different animal than Corey Pavin.  Whereas he is not holding anything back, Pavin is urging himself toward restraint.  So, what this tells us is that not everyone’s competitive engine revs at the same speed. It is a tricky, but vital, thing to know what your range is and how to cultivate a landscape that keeps you in that range.  One important aspect a sport cognition specialist can help you with is, in conjunction with your parents and coaches, know which temperature suits you best in competition, and how to keep yourself revving at that perfect heat throughout your competition.

***While I have not used her language, Marsha Linehan’s “Mindfulness of Current Emotions” skill (her Emotion Regulation Handout 22) is a useful reference here.  She has been one to successfully integrate Buddhist mindfulness practices into Western mental health practices geared towards managing extreme emotional states.  See, Linehan, M.  2015. DBT Skills Training Manual, 2ndEd.  Guilford Press. New York, New York, pp. 403 ff.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Everything I know about squash I learned in my first clinic

I recently served as a referee at the match up of two very highly ranked college teams.  It was a great deal of fun.  The level of squash was something I practically did not recognize from the last time I saw collegiate squash.  Here are the country’s top level amateurs: deft of racket, swift of foot, rife with grit, fire, and flair, but not at the expense of good conduct, directed both at their opponent and the referee.  All in all, it was three hours very well spent.  But, what was so remarkable was not the level of talent, but the stark reminder it served of some simple basics of the game.  In fact, I came away from the afternoon thinking of that book title, “All I really need to I know I learned in kindergarten,” because the stuff that won on this particular day is the stuff that wins on any given day, the stuff you’d pick up in an introductory clinic on what constitutes good, which is to say, winning squash.  Here’s the stuff:

Fitness: Given that these players train five days a week, you’d expect that they’d all be in super shape.  And, they were.  Nevertheless, you could definitely see that there were certain players that were fitter than others.  And for those who were less fit, that weakness got revealed and exploited through the match, and, in fact, could have been the deciding factor.  For the less fit player, he didn’t seem to understand that he was breaking down on that level, though from this side of the glass, it was obvious.  So, remember: you have to be willing to play a succession of very long, very hard points, and be just as physically able to play the next long, hard point without blinking.  There’s no long half time in squash, no tagging out to someone on the bench.  Essentially, there’s nowhere to hide in that ruthless, relentless, well-lit little box.  Everything falls apart when fitness does.

Fireworks from the racket: These players could do almost anything they wanted with the racket, digging the ball for improbable retrievals to send it anywhere in the court; cross-courts to the nick, soft, feathery drops, recovery shots between the legs, behind the back, and over head.  Nevertheless, the most punishing place to put the ball, the place that coughed up the loosest balls from the opponent were the basic, straight rails, those balls that hung tightly to the wall, and bounced well behind the service box.  Good, long, consistent length was the foundation for every other bit of flair from the racket.  It was all predicated on being able to hit tight rail after tight rail.

“Don’t hit tin.”  Hashim Khan’s famous dictum is as salient today as the day he uttered it.  It was astonishing watching how detrimental hitting the tin was: a momentum killer, a spirit suffocator, and a gift to the opponent that just kept on giving.  Invariably, the player who lost the match had hit the preponderance of the tins, and each tin further sealed his fate, rendering a comeback, new life, and hope impossible.  Of course, I was not privy to the heated strategy sessions that team mates and coaches had with the player during the game breaks, but I had the strong urge to barge into the losing player’s confab and say, “hit fewer tins!”  As always, some tins are forced errors from an opponent’s good shot, but it seemed like more often, the tin was the result of poor shot selection, going for too much, and therefore examples of poor sport cognition, a message of desperation that was clearly sent to the player who reaped the benefit.  So, DON’T HIT TIN.

Vocalizations were usually bad for the vocalizer.  I find it’s best to simply keep your mouth shut, no matter the intensity of the emotion you are feeling.  Again, it was usually the player on the losing end of the battle who was yelling or muttering.  Such utterances do not help the player, and only send the signal to your opponent that you are having a temper tantrum inside your head, and not adequately focused on right thinking.  Simple, “nice shot” to the opponent, reasonable appeals to the ref, and maybe a spirited “c’mon!” suffice.  But, generally, a cool head is the one that does not vocalize anything, and also does not say mean spirited things internally to the self if a mistake is made, or when under extreme pressure.  Keep the landscape of the mind cool, self-compassionate, and widely observant for the best results.  It is a great, beautiful, and necessary thing for an athlete to have fire.  The trick is to keep that fire as a smoldering, motivating heat, and not let it become an immolating conflagration.  Harsh and loud vocalizations fuel the fire toward the direction of a bonfire.  Save the vocalizations for the off-court celebration after your victory.

Just some tidbits I re-picked up from my first days of squash on this day of truly wonderful play.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Radical Acceptance*: Embrace Reality to Start Winning

In this picture here, a 19-year old Sergio Garcia celebrates having won the prestigious low amateur honors at the 1999 Masters.  Later that summer, he had a famous battle down the stretch with Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship at Medinah.  At the time, many people felt as though Sergio and Tiger would be a rivalry on the order of Jack and Arnie.  Writing from this vantage point, we know that prediction not to have panned out, as Tiger went on to win 12 more majors, and Sergio went 74 starts in a major before finally breaking through this April at the Masters.  In the intervening 18 years, Sergio experienced some incredible heart breaks featuring some uncanny luck of his competitors, all of it driving some brutally scathing self talk.

As I wrote in this blog in 2012 after he shot a dreadful 76 dropping him out of contention in the Masters, Sergio was asked what he lacked to win a major tournament, and he replied a dispirited: “Everything.”  In 2013, he was asked again what the problem was, and he stated, somewhat more desperately: “I’m not good enough,” he continued. “I had my chances and opportunities and I wasted them. I have no more options. I wasted my options. … Tell me something I can do.”
This year, when his tournament-winning birdie putt dropped on the first playoff hole, Sergio ended his long drought.  I’m sure I was not alone in the sport cognition world to wonder what had changed in order to bring this about, since, given his history of bad luck and scalding self talk, this victory would have to entail miraculous alteration in his cognitive approach to the game.  And, in fact, I was right.  Speaking after his victory about his ups and downs at the Masters, Sergio revealed that somehow since his disaster in 2012, he acquired the skill of Radical Acceptance:
“When I came here in ’99 as an amateur, I felt like this course was going to give me at least one major.  I’m not going to lie: that thought changed a little bit through the years because I started feeling uncomfortable on the course.  But, I kind of came in peace with it the last three or four years and I accepted what Augusta gives and takes.  And because of that, I’m able to stand here today.”

When people talk about the most important traits of successful athletes, they often don’t mention the ability to accept reality as one of them, because we often think it is so important for athletes to have outsized egos, as if the ability to succeed depends upon the ability to dwarf reality’s hold on us.  And while I think dreaming big is a key element to success, it is important to separate out dreams from reality, because as the Buddhists will tell us: a sure fire way to suffer is to be at odds with reality.  The problem, from a cognitive point of view is that, too often, people confuse accepting reality with approving of it, as if one were being something of a patsy to accept reality.  We see this in our clinical practice when it comes to trauma or other negative life events: “If I accept it, I must be saying it’s OK,” without noticing that the inability to accept the event cements it as one that will not be overcome.  While a great deal could be said, and has been, about acceptance, here are some aspects of it I want to mention which elevate it from mere spiritual or psychological flimflammery, to a truly transformative power in your sport life and in your life as a whole.

1. The first step is to notice non-acceptance.  The first aspect of reality refusal you need to attune yourself to is that you are engaging it in.  In the sport context, this often involves some form of a tantrum: throwing a club or racquet, yelling at an ref or opponent, or just yelling in general, or thinking in your head that you’re the most unlucky person who ever walked the earth.  While some of these actions seem hyperbolic, every athlete engages in them to some extent.  The successful ones notice it and do everything to move quickly from reality refusal to reality acceptance.

2. Refusal to accept reality keeps you stuck.  If you continue to be in a state of disbelief about something, you will never see your way clear to the answer because your disbelief blinds you to potential solutions.  When you throw a club, a racquet, or argue with the ref or God, you are mired in the moment that has already past rather than seeing your way to potential solutions in the present.  Plus, you can also see that there is some entitlement in disbelieving reality, as if you don’t deserve negative things to happen to you.  As he even acknowledges, Sergio had a big plate of entitlement, winning 1999 low amateur honors, and coming from brilliant Spanish golf lineage: Severiano Ballesteros, and Jose Maria Olazabal (the winner in 1999) both multiple Masters’ winners.  He expected good fortune to rain down upon him.

3. The best opportunity to change your reality begins the moment you accept it.  This fact is the reverse of corollary #2.  Accepting reality is an extremely liberating cognitive move, even if the reality that requires accepting is painful.  It is far different to be in an accepting posture no matter how much your face stings, rather than in a tantrum about how the very thing that is happening isn’t or shouldn’t be happening.

Now, you would think that golfers have more opportunity that other athletes to practice acceptance given that the “rub of the green” is built into the sport, the random, unfair, even bizarre things that happen on the course over which we have little or no control.  Dwelling on them in disbelief just gets in the way, inhibiting success in the next shot.  But, as Sergio’s press conference makes clear, you can be in an 18-year long fight against reality and not know it.  Once Sergio accepted some basic realities, his reality changed, and with it, his entire life.

*The term, Radical Acceptance, as used here is borrowed from Marsha Linehan and her system of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, as laid out in her “Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder,” (Guilford Press, 1993), and the accompanying skills manual, “DBT Skills Training: Handouts and Worksheets,” (Guilford Press, 2015).  Readers will note that Linehan has borrowed heavily from the Buddhist position on acceptance, but, as far as I know, the term “radical acceptance,” is her coinage, adding the notion that acceptance must be full, entire, and all the way to the roots.  It can’t be faked, or half-hearted. I encourage you to investigate the wisdom entailed in her “reality acceptance” skills, of which skills #2 and #3 here are only two.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Just Do It?

Recently, in my clinical practice, I have been hearing the word “just” an awful lot.  Perhaps more precisely, I must have been hearing it for a while, but am now listening to it in a new way.  It is usually in the following contexts: “I just need to get over it,” or “I just need to move on.”  “S/he just doesn’t get it.”  And I have begun to notice that the word, used like this, hides an entire skill set necessary to just do the very thing people are talking about.  Of course, that’s the power and brilliance of the ad campaign: don’t get bogged down in a lot of thinking, just do it.

While I think there’s a lot to be said about quieting and simplifying the noise in the head—just see my last post--, there are two main problems I have with this usage of the word: oversimplification and self-blame.  Both get in the way of peak performance, and both should be guarded against.

Oversimplification.  As I alluded to above, I have begun to hear the word “just” in my practice as a signal that there is some skill, skill set, or process that is being elided when someone says something like, “I just need to get over it.”  I usually ask when they are imagining when they say “just,” and I usually get an answer that is akin to “I’ll just wave a wand.”  So, there is some magical thinking going on.  For example, when people or athletes are talking about getting over a major loss or trauma use the phrase, “I just need to get over it,” they are usually using some rather strong defense mechanisms like denial and avoidance about what it would actually take to get over it.  As a result, they are usually almost guaranteeing that they won’t get over it, and won’t reap the valuable lessons that come from loss, or even, trauma.  And often, it’s usually not that they’re over-thinking the event, it’s that they’re thinking incorrectly about the event, which, again, guarantees that they won’t get over it, and even runs the risk having it happen again.

Self-blame.  I have also been noticing that this usage of the word “just” has behind it a good well of self-blame, because, in our magical thinking culture, we think we should be able to “just get over it.”  So, when someone says to me, “I just need to get over it,” I think both about the unseen, unknown skill set necessary to do so, but I also probe for some sense of shame or self-blame that the person must be experiencing since s/he hasn’t been able to do so to this point.  In this sense, the word is a signal to the kinds of cognitive traps we fall into when it comes to major losses or trauma.

So, what’s the answer?  Well, as I have written in other posts (Scott’s Lytham Opportunity, August, 12, 2012), the main task is to turn toward rather than away, and look at the event with your therapist or coach in as much picayune detail as possible.  “I guess I just choked,” becomes, “I really need to get better at breathing or narrowing my focus toward the end of my match/game/event.”  Or, “I need to really prepare better for all stages of the competition, beginning, middle, and end.”  “S/he just doesn’t get it,” means: “I need to be more interpersonally effective and communicate to her/him what it is s/he’s not grasping, and what’s so important to me about that fact.”  In either case, those point to skills either not learned or not employed in important moments.  Finally, a great deal of self-compassion is to be brought to bear on this practice.  There’s a perfectly valid reason you don’t have that skill set or couldn’t bring it out at the desired moment.  Shoring up that gap is precisely the value of engaging in sport or therapy: so that you can acquire it and bring it to bear the next time.  Yes, definitely don’t forget the self-compassion.  After all, you’re just human.