Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"Focus?"

“Focus!”  This utterance must rank as one of the most frequently offered bits of sports exhortation you are likely to hear at a sporting event.  Participants, parents and coaches alike all seem to toss this pabulum out as some sort of magical panacea as a goad for better performance.  And, indeed, we all seem to know what it means: play has gotten messy; errors are piling up; the score is going in the wrong direction; the mental chatter is whiney and disjointed.  Gone is the kind of effortless, effective clarity of vision that comes with excellent play.  We are mired in slop.  So, with this encouraging imperative, we are trying to right the ship, get back on track and home in on the matter at hand.  The problem, though, is that this simple injunction “focus!” begs the very question: “On what?”  When we frame the question this way, we realize that at least one true thing about focus  is that we are always putting our attention somewhere, and that when play goes sour, it represents an attentional shift rather than a loss of attention.  In short, it’s not that we are not focusing, it’s that we are putting our focus on an improper resting place.
    Try this thought experiment.  Imagine that one of your senses has suddenly become more acute by a certain factor.  Imagine, say, that you were all of a sudden miraculously invested with the smelling capacity of a dog.  Now, imagine performing an important task like writing a paper, preparing an important report or playing a competitive sport event under these circumstances.  You would constantly need to tune out the incredible number of smells bombarding you and pulling for your attention and bring it back to the matter at hand.  You would constantly struggle to filter out the prominence of the smell data from the other, more relevant data that you needed to notice in order to perform your best on that task in that moment.  I hope you get the analogy: it is more apt to say that a player who has lost attentional focus has really lost his or her attentional filter.  Now, I grant you, encouraging a player to “Filter!” rather than “Focus!” is decidedly less glamorous, but perhaps more apt.  Secondly, focus is that rare sport skill that is both a skill and a state of mind.  We rarely say “I was really in a backhand state of mind,” when our backhand is particularly hot, but we do say, “I was really focused,” to describe being in the zone.  Nevertheless, the more we treat focus as a skill, and therefore, practice it, the more likely we are to reproduce that glorious state of mind that good focus produces, that state of mind in which our highest potential emerges.  In the remainder of this post, I will offer you some suggestions of how you can more consistently have the kind of focus which is the bedrock of excellent performance.


  1. Garbage in-garbage out.  Someone once told me that a famous dictum of computer programming is “garbage in, garbage out,”  meaning that any problem, no matter how small, with the code that creates a program will surely result in a poorly running program.  Such words prove equally true for mental focus.  When you are putting your attention on the distracting inputs so readily available in sport competition--bad calls, ambient noise, spectator’s heckling, personal animus toward an opponent--you are adding garbage to what could otherwise be better cognitive code for your program.  The answer here, well-known to all top athletes, is to learn to focus on inputs that are useful and contribute to good performance: sticking to a strategy, picking up cues of your opponent’s bad play for you to capitalize on, an encouraging mantra, keeping your emotional thermometer even-keeled.
  2. Change the channel.  As I said above, when we are playing in a way that feels unfocused, our attention has shifted from more valuable inputs to less effective ones.  The first skill here is to have mindful awareness of the very fact of the attention having strayed.  That is, you have to first notice that your attention has wandered in order to shepherd it back to an input of your choosing.  Here, it is useful to have a mental picture that helps you visualize this change.  I have offered the image of using the TV remote to change the channel as a useful rubric, but you can generate an image that works for you.  Secondly, re-focusing rituals are always helpful: taking a stroll about the court; re-tying your shoes; taking some deep breaths.  As you do these rituals, tell your mind what you want it to focus on for the next point.  The point here is that you are being intentional with your attention.  You are directing it rather than chasing it, its master rather than its slave.
  3. Practice, practice, practice.  If, as we are arguing, focus is a skill just like any other--though, perhaps, more valuable than any other--then it follows that the way towards better focus is to practice better focus.  Mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises and physical disciplines like yoga, tai chi, qi gong are all excellent ways to hone attentional capacity.  But everyday life also offers endless opportunities to practice.  Start noticing attentional drift in your daily life.  Start practicing ‘one-mindedness’, that quality of immaculate concentration on one thing.  As you practice being aware of your attention and focusing it, you will be able to do it better in competition.  Secondly, practice better focus when you practice your sport.  Whatever form of practice you are engaged in, put your attention on it.  That sounds simple, but we are all too accustomed of going through the motions, deleting a bucket of range balls, slopping our way through a drill, dogging it.  What we are doing in these instances is strengthening the ability to be unfocused rather than honing attentional capacity on the whetstone of one-mindedness.

More and more people seem to decry the barrage on attention that modern life entails.  Cell phones, text messages, televisions in every conceivable public space, social media all corrode our ability to maintain sustained thought on one thing at a time.  There is no doubt that our attention is being increasingly bifurcated and that the bifurcations are bifurcating.  But, much as I myself incline to nostalgic arguments about the good old days, sages from Seneca to Siddhartha have been pointing out that the human mind is rather more like a puppy than a laser beam, but that like (wo)man’s best friend, it can be trained to sit.  Wise men like these argue that our supreme cognitive challenge is to cultivate a tranquil cognitive landscape that successfully navigates rocky shoals with the kind of equanimity that enables right action.  We know the stories of Earl Woods fiddling with coins in his pocket or dropping a ball on the green as young Tiger was putting.  Jack Nicklaus talks of his pre-shot crouch as so focused that someone could have blown a fog horn near him and he wouldn’t have heard it.  What these examples make clear is that if we want to float & sting with the gods, we must first master the fun house of our own mortal consciousness. The stakes are high, the rewards inestimable.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Charlie Beljan & The Panic Miracle

I don’t know if you caught it, but this year at the season-ending PGA tournament, the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, something miraculous actually did happen.  Tour rookie Charlie Beljan, needing a big weekend to finish in the top 125 and thus keep his card for next year, not only accomplished his goal, but won the tournament.  In doing so, he jumped from 160th on the money list to 64th, more than doubled his earnings for the year, snagged a two-year exemption on the Tour and saved himself from returning to the dreaded q-school, the Calvary of all Tour wannabes.
But, that’s not the miracle.
The miracle happened on Friday.  Not feeling well before the round with chest pain and shortness of breath on the practice tee, he nevertheless chose to play, largely because he was cleared by the Tour medical staff, who found nothing “medically” wrong with him.  But, at several points in the round, he was seen hunched over with hands on knees, or resting on the ground, or trying to take huge gulps of air.  As he acknowledged later, he actually thought he was going to die.  He spent Friday night in the hospital where, again, doctors found nothing medically wrong with him and it was determined that he was having a panic attack.   And we still haven’t gotten to the miracle yet.
Let’s take a look at just some of the symptoms of a panic attack, as outlined by the DSM-IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders): accelerated heart rate, trembling, chest pain, feeling of choking, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, de-realization (“this isn’t happening”) and sense of impending death.  So, clearly, the miracle here is that he managed to shoot a 64 under the grip of symptoms such as these.  Indeed, after a birdie on the fourteenth hole which brought him to 9-under for the day, he was officially on “59 watch.”  He may be the only player in PGA Tour history who at one and the same time was on both death watch and 59-watch.  Most of us couldn’t deliver the club head to the ball under these circumstances, much less play the round of our lives.
But let’s look a little closer at what a panic attack is and how you might handle one, should it occur.  From the symptoms I listed above, it is clear that, regardless of the external reality, the body is responding as though it is facing an existential threat.  Indeed, these symptoms are all reactions of the sympathetic nervous system, one of whose main jobs is the injection of adrenaline and cortisol as part of the body’s “fight or flight” response.  Now, I hear what you’re thinking: “Give me a break, Matt. This guy was playing a round of golf, he wasn’t being chased by a lion in the Serengetti.”  Here, we remember that trauma and stress are in the eyes of the beholder.  That is, the degree of stress attached to an event is up to the person experiencing it, not those of us commenting on it later around the pinochle table.  From Charlie’s point of view, he was fighting for his life: his tour card was on the line, he had just become a father, with the attendant stress of providing for his family, and he was staring down the barrel of the twin indignities of q-school and begging for tournament exemptions.
To address a panic attack, we have to realize that one of the main triumphs of any form of stress is that it steals us away from the present moment and forces us to focus on future outcomes, generally dire (“I’m going to lose.”  “I’m going to miss this shot.”  “I’m going to die.”).  So, the first step is to have some awareness when you start getting nervy and the self-talk is becoming anxious.  Remember that nerves are a sign that you care and are engaged in something important, not a sign that you are panicking.  Every athlete gets nervous.  Take it as a sign that you are alive, not dead, and doing something for which you have trained hard and are well prepared.  You are lucky to be in this position.  If you transition from nervous to panic, center and ground yourself in the here and now.  Respond to the negative self-talk with mantras like “I’m here”  “I’m not dying (losing, missing)” “stay tuned,” “isn’t this great?!”  You may even need to lightly pat or pinch yourself.  By continuously bringing yourself back to the here and now, you can avert the precipitous slide into dismal future projections.  Secondly, as to that most common symptom: hyperventilating.  When we hyperventilate, we are not oxygenating our blood, and the oxygen deficit leads to light-headedness and an increased urgency on breathing, but with diminished returns.  This is why so many panic attack sufferers say, “I can’t breathe!”  Here, the fix is obvious: breathe!  But, breathe gently, not frantically.  The breaths should be long, extended inhalations that bypass the chest and go directly into the belly.  Exhalations should fully empty the lungs.  (This takes practice. The belly should go out, not in, when you are deep breathing properly.)  People often ask me how long they should continue belly breathing.  The answer is: always, but certainly for as long as the stressful situation pertains.  For Charlie on Friday, the answer would have been the entirety of his round.  The fact that he was seen on multiple occasions literally gasping for air showed that he wasn’t breathing properly.  The third solution is to find a way to be distracted from the stress.  This can be difficult during a competitive situation, but any sporting event, and particularly a golf round, affords many opportunities to bring our focus away from the stress of the moment and onto other things.  It’s useful, during a hiatus in actually performing the actions of the sport, to bring the attention to one’s sensual experience of the surroundings: the smell of the air or grass, some beautiful sight, often plentiful on a golf course (a dramatic cloud formation, the play of light, a pretty bird), or some ambient sounds.  When we put our focus on these things, we generally exit the battlefield of the mind and attend to experiences that are occurring in the here and now.  We leave our world and enter the world.  In moving out of our head and into the senses, we more fully enter the moment.
        In this regard, Charlie’s panic attack may have been his saving grace.  In focusing on the fact that he thought he was dying, he thus turned earning his Tour card into a matter of little significance.  Still, I don’t recommend that you try that strategy.  Having a panic attack and thinking you’re dying might help you avert some other stressors, but it’s not generally the way to float & sting your way to victory.  And while it is metabolically and metaphysically true that we are dying every minute, let’s save that ultimate reality for later and invest our energies in being here now.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Scattering & Husbanding: The energy economy of bad conduct

Recently, I have been helping US Squash out at some junior squash tournaments, particularly in the area of refereeing and conduct.  In this role, I have had the opportunity to witness, up close and personal, the various forms of bad conduct that infect any competitive event: ball abuse, racket abuse, referee abuse, opponent abuse and, reality abuse.  While my role is to help younger referees deal more firmly and effectively with these sorts of outbursts, and while I could dilate extensively on the importance and value of good sportsmanship, my main message here is that bad conduct is a sign of bad cognition and, as such, corrosive of good performance.  Like all instances of faulty cognition, you should do your level best to root it out whenever you feel it, notice it, or if you’re lucky enough to have a good referee, be given a conduct warning for it.
Of the many reasons why bad conduct results in bad performance, the one I will call your attention to is that it is a total waste of energy, an athlete’s most precious and finite resource.  When you are freaking out about the last point, you’re well on your way to losing the next one.  And furthermore, when you are squandering your energy that way, you are draining your tank and re-fueling your opponent’s, who notices and capitalizes on your little tantrums.  So, in the energy economy of competition, bad conduct is a lose-lose scenario.  In this article, I am going to call your attention to the three most prevalent conduct errors I witness and provide direction about how to channel your energy more effectively.  When you fall prey to them, you are scattering your energy.  When you avoid them, especially in tough times, you are husbanding your energy.

  1. Imprecating: You hit a ball into the tin, out of court, or fail to retrieve an opponent’s winning shot, and yell any or all of the following: “OH, MY GOD!!!” “JESUS CHRIST!!!”  “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!”  “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??!!”  “WHAT THE (expletive deleted)??!!!” Sometimes these outbursts come in singlets, pairs, or as a tricolon crescendo.  In this scattering error, you appeal to some absent tribunal, some Olympian counsel for answers as to why the universe has turned suddenly inimical.  Zeus snickers, “foolish mortal, plaything of fate,” as you go on to lose the next several points and petition the divine ever more vociferously.  The first fix for this error, which aims at husbanding energy, is to keep it inside and find a way to transfer the negative energy to positive.  Follow this husbanding routine: note the mistake and validate the frustration to yourself (“Damn!  A tin.  That’s a mistake.”)  Then, give yourself, again, to yourself, an encouraging correction (“Get the next point!” “Hit it higher!”).  In moments of extreme frustration, pace around the service box, tie your shoes, check your strings.  But do so, all the while being clear that you are re-focusing your mind for the task at hand and giving yourself a pep talk.  Don’t use that time to continue wallowing in your misery.  Following this routine will minimize the damage from a mental error, get you back on track, and, most importantly, save vital energy for when you need it most.
  2. Disputing.  Things are not going well.  You have lost the last few points and the whining din of negative self-talk has become deafening in your ears.  Because you haven’t succeeded in re-focusing the mind, you become disputatious.  You question the referee’s calls, doubt your opponent’s retrievals, question appeals for lets and strokes, since obviously these things must be at fault for your poor play.  These external disputes are signs that inwardly things have continued their downward spiral.  That is, you are externalizing an internal struggle, all the while leaking and sputtering energy willy nilly.  The husbanding fix here is a bit tricky.  It requires some mindful attention to the self-chatter.  Has it become whiney, harsh and tinged with anger and righteous indignation?  If so, notice it and nip it in the bud!  Give yourself a quick scolding (“Come on!  Snap out of it!”) and then administer a pep talk (“Let’s play a couple of really strong points.”)  Even if you don’t win them, commit to changing the cognitive landscape toward the positive.  If you lose an entire game in negative talk, make sure your primary intervention during the game break is on the cognitive thermostat.
  3. Storming.  Things have reached their nadir.  Now, when you lose a point, instead of just imprecating or disputing, you storm in the following ways: ball abuse: kicking the ball, slamming the ball into the tin after the point is over; racket abuse: nicking the side wall with a violent swing, throwing the racket into the corner, or even breaking the racket on the wall.  You also abuse reality: change the score, claim that a ball retrieved on the 2nd and a half bounce was up, swear that the opponent’s ball was out even though it was two feet inside the line.  In this frame of mind, a conduct warning or stroke can be the best signal that you have really lost your tether to the rational world.  The referee is trying to give you a lifeline back with that warning, though you take it as further proof of all the forces arrayed against you.  When things have reached this point, often a strong intervention from the entourage is the only fix.  A coach can help.  S/he can speak truth to the madness (“You’re going to lose if you carry on like this.”) and get you focussed on the present (“Just play one point at a time.”), as well as give you a good strategy.  But just as often, words don’t penetrate the rabid frenzy, and a parent provides the best intervention, who, after warning you once, will default you from the match if the tantrums don’t stop.  No doubt, this is the nuclear option, but it should be left on the table for players who can’t manage their own behavior.  Of course, if a parent doesn’t step in, a good referee will oblige by awarding your opponent a conduct match, the ref’s nuclear option.

   In this piece, I have outlined three forms of bad conduct, all of which betray poor cognition.  I have also written with an eye toward young athletes, but we know well that athletes of all ages fall into these traps.  And, while I have focused on squash, these remarks apply equally well to all sports. Indeed, to all life.  An important thing to recognize about poor conduct is that it violates the two main injunctions of good sport cognition: that you stay present and that you focus on the things you can control, not those you can’t.  When we are in a bad mental framework, and letting that framework ooze all over the court, it is because we are perseverating on past moments, as well as on negative rather than positive inputs.  Secondly, we can’t control referee calls, an opponent’s good play or bad shenanigans, but we can control our own conduct and play.  A huge step toward being able to control these two variables is by controlling our emotional response to the challenges of the moment. Controlling emotions saves energy.  Freaking out squanders it.  It is only by husbanding our energy rather than profligately scattering it that we avoid getting mired in the hellish quicksand of bad cognition and can get down to the more joyous and liberating business of floating like butterflies and stinging like bees.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ryder Cup, part II: Liberty & Fraternity

Last week, I wrote about some faulty cognition among the American team that may have contributed to its remarkable demise in this year’s Ryder Cup.  This week, we flip the coin and interpret the Europeans' response to the moment and see much to emulate in their cognitive approach.  Last week, we mentioned Jim Furyk’s painfully long preparations to hit his match-losing putt, an arduous process that would have incapacitated even the most lion-hearted from drawing back the putter blade.  Compare this psychodrama to that of Martin Kymer’s Cup-winning effort.  He stuck to his regular routine, lined up the putt and drained it.  Now, mind you, there was a great deal that could have thwarted Kymer’s attempt: the entire Cup was riding on this putt, he had been experiencing a season-long slump and just barely made the team, and he had the weight of history squarely on his shoulders.  Much was made of the fact that the last and only other German on the Ryder Cup team, Bernhard Langer, had missed a putt of similar length on the 18th green at Kiawah Island in 1991, the famous ‘War on the Shore’ that transformed the Ryder Cup.  
But rather than letting these potential demons out of the closet and loose on his neurons and sinews, Kymer responded differently.  In this quote, he lets us in on his process leading up to that putt:  “ I thought: I know the putt is for the Ryder Cup.  I know what happened in ‘91.  Just focus on the putt.  It doesn’t matter what happens.  Just knock it in.  Just make a good stroke and it will go in.”  Wait.  What?!  It doesn’t matter what happens?????  Crazy as that sounds, I am going to submit to you that everything he did was excellent sport cognition.  By recognizing the moment, he is not pretending it isn’t happening.  By acknowledging the potential pitfall of ‘91, he is putting the past in the past and bringing his attention to the present.  By focusing on what he can control and staying positive (“make a good stroke and it will go in”), he is doing everything in his power to guarantee that history doesn’t repeat itself.  And finally, by saying that it doesn’t matter, he is squaring himself with the possibility of failure.  Thus, in allowing himself to miss, he thereby gave himself the freedom to make.
Last week, I wrote about the Americans and threat rigidity.  This week,  let’s focus on how the European team ensured good play on a team-wide level.  The media commented often on the fact that the Europeans had the silhouette of Severiano Ballesteros, ramapante, emblazoned on their bags and on the shoulders of their shirts and sweaters.  Ballesteros is the godfather of the modern Ryder Cup, the era in which all of Europe, rather than just England and Ireland, competed against the Americans.  Ballesteros’ contagious enthusiasm and unbridled ferocity catapulted the event to the fevered pitch it currently enjoys.  By reifying their tutelary daimon and literally carrying him on their shoulders, they were not only giving the team its unifying purpose, they were also employing one of the more spiritually effective cognitive devices, the device I have called “participating” in a previous post (“The Jesus Club,” August, 25).  In this device, athletes are immediately in touch with the fact that “they are participating in something larger than themselves, that they are a small feature of a bigger drama that is playing out around them.”  That Ballesteros had died of brain cancer since the last Ryder Cup and that this team was playing for Ballesteros’ own Ryder Cup prodigy and fellow Spaniard provided even greater galvanizing force.  As I have argued elsewhere, it is just this kind of spiritual connection that, rather than constraining one with the weight of history, liberates one to respond to the demands of the here and now.
       In all of this, it is important to note that the Europeans in 2012, like the Americans in 1999, were in the very liberating position of having nothing to lose when they showed up at the course on Sunday.  Most people, not just Davis Love, thought it was over, and it is usually easier to go for broke when the till is largely empty.  In the aftermath of the Cup, there has been speculation about who will take over from Olazabal and Love.  Darren Clarke and Larry Nelson are names that have been bandied about.  But for American fans, the real question remains whether the Europeans will continue their habit of being able to answer brash American individualism with stalwart European unity.  There’s much to suggest that history will repeat itself, because, as we say in the sport cognition business: those ignorant of their cognitive errors are doomed to repeat them.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ryder Cup, part I: The trickle down effect & threat rigidity

On Thursday of last week’s PGA Tour event, Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III commented that he “was still stunned” by the American’s team loss to Europe the previous Sunday.  Leading 10-6 going into the Sunday singles, in which they are traditionally dominant, the Americans must have liked their chances to win the cup.  But, as the Americans themselves should have well known from their historic comeback from the very same deficit in the 1999 Ryder Cup, no lead is safe going into Sunday, particularly given the legendary pressure produced by these biennial matches.  In light of this degree of pressure, we should all take Monday morning quarterbacking with a grain of salt.  Still, some of the comments that emerged from the event give us a good window into some of the less effective cognitive work that went into the American defeat, and the more useful thinking that proved the difference for the Europeans.
We should be clear that, first and foremost, a loss in team competition falls on the shoulders of the coach, or, as he is called in the Ryder Cup, the team captain.  As Davis Love himself said, “If we win, the players take credit, and if we lose, the captain will.”  And this is right.  For example: if the young lad McIlroy had indeed missed his tee time and thus forfeited his match to Keegan Bradley, and that point had proven decisive--as it no doubt would have--a great deal of the blame for that miscue would have fallen on the shoulders of European team captain Jose Maria Olazabal, because it is a coach’s job to get his players where they need to be when they need to be there.  That said, it is all the more surprising to have heard Davis Love comment, in the immediate aftermath of the defeat: “We’re all kind of stunned.  We were playing so well.  We just figured it didn’t matter how we sent them out there.”  Wait. What?!  Rewind that tape and listen again: it didn’t matter how we sent them out there.  That’s quite an admission.  In an earlier posting (“Scott’s Lytham Opportunity,” August 17), I commented that there is almost nothing as corrosive to a potential victory as thinking that it’s in the bag.  In that post, I called this cognitive error the “I’ve-got-this” error.  How many times have you thought, “I’ll just par 18 and post my best score ever,” only to triple it and slink home in a silent, impotent rage?  I certainly remember making that cognitive error in a match, both as player and coach, only to shake my victorious opponent’s hand only an eye-blink later in shame and dismay.  Once you’ve made that error and tasted its sting, you learn to change the self talk from “I’ve got this,” to “let’s bear down and keep the momentum going.”  It’s really shocking to hear such a seasoned Tour and Ryder Cup veteran as Davis Love having fallen prey to it.  In this regard, what have come to be called miraculous comebacks (1999 and 2012) could very well be explained by the “I’ve-got-this” error insinuating itself with the kind of insidiousness and perfidy common to all cognitive errors.
Apart from getting the players to the venue on time, another vital role for the coach is to shape the meaning of the impending contest for the players.  This is why the pre-game speech or the half-time speech carries so much weight.  The coach is shaping the cognitive framework for the players so that, as much as possible, their play reflects and lives up to that frame.  And this work is not only done with words.  The coach’s entire habitus communicates his frame of mind to the players through a sort of osmosis or trickle down effect, and they feed off of his body language and facial expressions, positive or negative, energized or lethargic.  So, my message here is two-fold.  If he actually said that the Cup was in the bag, he went a long way to having his players take victory as a foregone conclusion, and therefore, play without conviction.  And secondly, even if he didn’t say it, he communicated it in these other, metacommunicative ways.  I was not lucky enough to be in the team rooms, but all weekend, I found him eloquent, sportsmanly, and understated.  But, he definitely did not communicate the spirited thirst for victory that we always feel from the Europeans and that could have helped inspire better play from his team on Sunday.  I’m sure there is fire in Davis Love’s belly, but I’m not sure he let the conflagration circumradiate enough for his players to feel its heat.
Finally, I think another error that preyed on Davis Love and the American team is a concept from organizational management called “threat rigidity.”  This concept holds that when an organization encounters a complex series of external threats, it responds by becoming more insular and wooden, more reliant on antiquated answers and ways of being, and less creative and flexible.  This rigidity renders the organization incapable of adapting to the needs of the moment.  Where do we see this in the 2012 Ryder Cup?  The first area is in captain Love’s insistence on continuing to play the team of Woods-Stricker despite their dismal performance in their first two outings together.  Though successful in many Ryder and President’s Cups, the pairing didn’t have it this year, and finding other, younger partners whose more spirited play could have catalyzed something in the lumbering veterans might have been a more adaptive response.  Secondly, threat rigidity appears most clearly in playing not to lose rather than playing to win.  Playing not to lose manifests itself physically with tension and a need to overcontrol.  And we all know that this sort of tension wreaks havoc on a golf swing and putting stroke.  We can only perform the highly controlled and technical physical motions of sport if we have the cognitive freedom to do so.  A classic example of this loss of control through threat rigidity is Greg Norman’s epic collapse in the 1997 Masters, where it actually looked like he had forgotten how to play golf.  This year, we saw Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker play very constrained golf in losing the last two holes of their matches late in the day on Sunday.  Furyk’s seemingly endless stalking of his putt on 18 was good evidence both that he was experiencing threat rigidity and that he was going to miss the putt.
       In the next post, I will discuss some of the vital differences in the European approach that proved the difference in this year’s Ryder Cup.  As so often happens in these matches, we are left again to wonder why the Europeans consistently create more spirited, cohesive teams who are always stronger than the sum of their parts, in stark contrast to the Americans, who usually underperform relative to their potential.  To be fair to captain Love, it is a notoriously difficult job to create a team out of athletes who are most accustomed to playing by themselves for themselves, particularly when those players are super stars.  But it can be done and it has been done.  For now, American fans will have to wait another two years to see if golf’s Phil Jackson will emerge who can effectively galvanize his players to produce steely mettle for all three days of the competition.  We’ve seen Michael Jordan at a number of these events now, including this one, but maybe it’s time to call his old coach for some answers.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why Sport Cognition?

      After shooting a third round 76 to drop out of contention in this year’s Masters tournament, Sergio Garcia made the following statement: “I don’t think I have what it takes to win a major golf tournament.”  And when asked what the missing element was, he responded: “Everything.”  Many in the golf world were shocked by such an announcement from the player who was once chosen to be The One to challenge Tiger, but is now spoken of as someone whose main enemy is himself.  In fact, he is quite open about his turmoils, as in this comment from last year, “It’s not happy days out there on the course.  I’m not going to lie.  It’s difficult.”  Such comments are distressing, because if he’s making statements like that to the press, he’s saying much worse to himself.  And while sport is not ALL about the self-talk, we must acknowledge and marvel at the incredible, self-fulfilling power of self-talk.  Just ask Vijay Singh, who in 2008 claimed that he was the best putter in the world and then went on to have one of his most successful years, sinking putts from everywhere, winning the first two playoff events (the first in a playoff against Sergio) and ultimately, the entire FedEx cup.  But, more than just a quick lesson about self-talk, these statements point to the ultimate value of healthy sport cognition as a crucial element in any athlete’s quiver, no matter what level.  Here are just three reasons why you, too, should be considering talking to a sport cognition specialist.  Just not Sergio’s.

  1. Sport cognition is life cognition.  Perhaps the best reason to know more about your own cognitive patterns in sport is because they are the same cognitive patterns you engage off the course, the court, the track or the pitch.  Indeed, I would argue that the aspect about sport that makes it such an important endeavor is not (just) so that we can taste the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, but so that we can come to know ourselves better.  In that regard, competitive sport involves an intense confrontation with the self.  We don’t do sport for the Roman reason (healthy mind in healthy body) but rather for the Greek (know thyself).  The brutal aspect of sport is how laid bare we are by our defeats and our shortcomings, as Sergio well attests.  But, in them lie the greatest opportunities: for understanding, for improvement, for soul-fashioning and for a heightened awareness and appreciation of our allotted time.  As I have said before in these bytes, getting closer to the difficulties is not only the way through them, but also the way to seize the tremendous opportunities they represent.
  2. Know your cognitive traps.  Closely connected to this idea is the fact that we all have cognitive habits that we fall prey to.  Whether you call them biases, distortions or just patterns, it is important to know your default settings.  Do you engage in rigid perfectionism (a shot, round, match or tournament is either a fantastic success or a brutal failure; “I’m either great, or terrible.”  “There was nothing good about that round.”)?  Do you tend toward the pessimistic or catastrophic (“This’ll probably miss.”  “I’ll probably lose.” “That double bogey ruined the entire round, and with it, my chance for a happy life.”)?  Are you magical or grandiose (“This seven-iron into a 2-club wind can carry that 200 yard water hazard, no problem.” “I’m so far ahead, no one can catch me now.”).  Do you have a tendency toward anxiety (i.e. worrying about the big bunker on the sixth hole when you’re teeing off on the third; “Oh my god, this hole looks so hard.”  “This field is SO strong.”  “Maybe I’ll mess up and look foolish.”)?  Remember that these patterns and biases get reinforced not only by thinking them repeatedly, but by taking an often incomplete data set as proof that you should continue to think this way.  That is the insidious nature of them and working to bring them to light and challenge them as often as necessary is an important step to better performance and a better life.  And again, sport is a great avenue into knowing these traps more intimately because they emerge much more obviously in the kind of high tensile situations offered by sport.  Though tough to spot in any arena, catching our cognitive traps in our daily non-sporting lives can be as hard as catching flies with chopsticks.
  3. Have your cognitive distortions become self concepts?  When we have met with serious challenges and have endured hard failures, a set of thoughts and beliefs spring up which over time become calcified into negative beliefs about the self.  “I struggle with putting,” becomes, “I can’t putt.”  “I can’t putt,” becomes “I can’t win.”  “I can’t win” becomes “I’m a loser.”  As you see, an initial frustration becomes a cognitive distortion which ushers in a cascade of hopelessness regarding the possibility for improvement, doubt regarding our reasons for playing the game and ultimately, diminished faith in ourselves as effective agents in our lives.  Sergio’s comments reveal how undermining it can be to let a belief fester in the dark cavities of shame such that what was initially a blister is now a callus.  Abrade the skin!  Pick the scab!  Air it out!  And don’t stop until you’ve overturned every stone.  Maybe, somewhere lingering in the darkness is a technical flaw you didn’t know about.  (Think here of Nick Watney who received a tip involving a slight weight transfer in his putting stance right before this year’s Barclay’s and then putted the lights out to win the tournament.)  Or maybe, what appears as a technical flaw is really the reflection of some cognitive distortion that is eroding your potential like termites in a load-bearing wall.  Or perhaps what is most likely is that the distinction between a technical and a cognitive challenge is specious, since every technical challenge involves a cognitive skill, and any cognitive lapse will manifest itself technically.

    Cognitive work, like any other striving toward excellence, is not easy.  But, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, ponderous work to be relegated to the semi-lit, confessional sanctum of a therapist’s office.  No.  The work includes three basic elements attainable to anyone possessed of enough desire and willfulness: 1) a steadfast commitment to knowing one’s mind better; 2) a ruthless honesty to admitting to what the mind is saying when the chips are down; and 3) daily practice of more effective thought patterns to offset or soften the ineffective ones.  Of course, number 4 doesn’t hurt either: someone willing to help you do the work.  The potential gains are limitless.  Sergio stands as evidence enough of the pitfalls of letting the demons of faulty cognition tell the final story.  Someone have him call me, immediately!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Jesus Club: Why so many tour players carry 15 clubs


   After Zach Johnson won this year’s John Deere Classic with an absolutely glorious shot from the fairway bunker to win the playoff against Troy Matteson, he said to CBS announcer David Feherty, “I just want to thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ for giving me the patience and perseverance and the talent to play this game.”  While some people may cringe at hearing so public a proclamation of such privately held beliefs, just a quick look at the success of the Jesus club should make us stop and wonder: Bubba Watson (the Masters), Webb Simpson (US Open), Rickie Fowler (Wells Fargo), Hunter Mahan (WGC Match Play, Shell Houston), Jason Dufner (Zurich, Byron Nelson).   Regardless of our feelings, that’s an objectively impressive list and anyone would do well to decipher just what the Jesus club adds to these players’ already powerful armatorium that proves to be the saving grace for them.
   It is important to note that Zach credits the Jesus club with three things: talent, patience and perseverance, with two of them being the kind of cognitive benefits that are the ineffable, though quite tangible, difference between winning and losing in any sport, golf in particular.  When we think about it from a slight remove, we can identify at least three benefits that the Jesus club might impart that anyone would do well to incorporate into their bag regardless of the affiliation of their creed.
  1. Praying.  While we don’t know the details of Zach’s religious observation, we can imagine that it involves some form of prayer.  Regular prayer has been shown effective in helping all kinds of problems, from improving mental and physical health to reducing stress and increasing a sense of happiness through serenity.  Furthermore, most religions have prayers that believers utter in incantatory repetition.  In this vein, we think of praying the rosary, with its repetitions of the “Hail Mary,” and some Christian adherents resort to the “Jesus Prayer:” “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have pity on me, a sinner.”  The Buddhist mantra “Om mane padme hum,” is yet another example. Any prayer or mantra when uttered in repetition will have a distinct, calming effect on one’s neurological functioning, changes which have been proven on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).  It is also important to note that one does not need to resort to religious prayer to achieve this effect.  Regular mindfulness meditation, encouraging mantras repeated with regularity, and especially, a mindful attention to one’s breathing--particularly in competitive situations when the breath gets short--can all produce the same effects on the sympathetic nervous system as any of the prayers mentioned above.
  2. Participating.  Many people of a religious bent feel as though they are participating in something larger than themselves, that they are a small feature in a bigger drama that is playing out around them.  For them, there is a larger plan, a broader canvas and even an entire other realm for which this one is mere preparation.  This belief, when truly incorporated, tends to have a calming effect on the here and now.  Crises seem less urgent, adverse turns of fortune can be tolerated with greater equanimity and the need to understand every last thing becomes less insistent.  Now note: caring less about the here and now doesn’t mean that they become careless about it.  This crucial distinction itself brings about a strange but true paradox: by caring less about the here and now, they can bring a more full attention to it, not forcing an outcome with their mind, but freeing their body to do best what it has been trained to do.  It also means that they can more easily tolerate the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune better than the rest of us.  This kind of toleration is, quite literally, money in the bank when it comes to enduring the famous “rub of the green” of golf, where our perfectly struck ball has a disastrous outcome, but our rival’s shank hits the ball washer of the next tee only to end up as a leaner against the flag.  It is here important to remember that the first playoff hole of the John Deere was halved in sixes, as Zach hit his first fairway bunker shot into the water hazard.  His miraculous shot on the second playoff hole, from the very same bunker,  is testament to his ability not to be undone by events of the first.
  3. Letting go.  Very closely connected to this idea of participating in something larger is the idea that such an attitude brings on a relaxation of need to control absolutely everything, oblivious to the reality that forces larger than us are in play.  It is a sports cognition cliché that we should focus only on the things we can control, not the bad bounces, the bad calls, the rambunctious crowd, the petty irritations of an opponent.  But players of a religious bent have this idea already as part of their deep-seated cognitive and spiritual repertoire.  The bumper sticker: “Let go, let God,” comes to mind here.  So, too, the AA Serenity Prayer.  It is important to note how foreign from our mind set this attitude is.  For much of the history of the human tragicomedy, we have given enormous privilege to the power of rationality, of human cognition, as a way out of our problems and jams.  But, many problems, indeed the biggest problems, such as fate, free will and the meaning of life, are problems of being, not problems of thinking.  In this sense, we are all mini versions of Oedipus, that wonderful thinker who, when the chips were down, couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag.  He was, quite simply, using the wrong club.  Compounding the problem is the fact that we spend the majority of time trapped in the bubble of our minds and believing the thoughts ricocheting around that bubble. Time spent this way leads us to the auteur problem:  a cognitive distortion that would have us believe that we are the author, director and cinematographer of a movie (“My Life”) in which we are also the main protagonist.  This thought must gain incredible strength for a golfer toward the end of a tournament, thronged by fans, televised globally, who is, quite literally, a main character of the unfolding drama.  Imagine how helpful it is to feel that one is only in control of the moment to a certain degree, particularly when those moments are highly pressurized.  “I will play my part, and the universe will play its.”  It is my main point, here, that not only is this a very healthy cognitive attitude, but that those who use the Jesus club come to the game already well practiced with it and are thus more able to reap its rewards.

   So, if you’ve read this far, perhaps I’ve piqued your interest.  Or, maybe you’re just a friend of mine and are being patiently abiding.  Either way, it is important for me to say that I am not proselytizing for any particular deity.  I am evangelizing that you incorporate these three skills into your cognitive repertoire, if you haven’t already.  But, you should also know that the Jesus club is not something that you go down to your local pro shop and pick up like a new hybrid or your 10th new putter in as many years.  No, the directions to achieving the heavenly benefits of the Jesus club are the same as those to that other storied place of perfect performance: practice, practice, practice.  These are skills that require as much cultivation as any other sport skill.  And I highly recommend you start soon, because the stakes are very high, indeed. Until then, you can repeat the Golfer’s Prayer after me: “O Golfing Goddess, daughter of the Universe, have pity on me, a thinker.”

Friday, August 17, 2012

Scott’s Lytham Opportunity: The Only Way Out is Through

Much was made of the way Adam Scott handled himself after his disastrous four-hole demise at this year’s British Open.  In total control of the tournament and his golf game for 68 holes, Scott bogeyed holes 15-18 to lose the tournament by one stroke to Ernie Els.  Commentators all praised him for the Stoic and gentlemanly manner he negotiated himself after a collapse whose scope was compared to Greg Norman’s epic blunder at the Masters in 1996.  We remember that Norman  started the tournament with a course record-tying 63 and took a six stroke lead into Sunday, only to shoot 78 and lose by 5 strokes to Nick Faldo.  Even Scott made the comparison as he told reporters how well his idol had handled himself in defeat.
   Two comments immediately come to mind about the comparison with Greg Norman.  First of all, I have a distinct memory of the bad taste Norman’s comments left in people’s mouths when he said a version of, “hey, in the end, it’s just a game and I have all my business interests and my money, and I’ll be fine.”  Secondly, it would also be useful to remember that Norman never seriously contended in another major tournament, unless you consider the 1999 Masters, when he again turned in a lackluster final round 73 to finish three strokes behind Jose Maria Olazabal.  Norman’s final round might indicate that, regardless of how he handled himself in his 1996 defeat, his post-round retreat into his off-course successes may have been a salve for his ego, but may have hindered him from submitting to the kind of post game analysis necessary to avoid repeating it, as he did in 1999.  Any trauma survivor knows that avoidance is the easiest and most common-sense reaction to the traumatic event, but anyone who has truly overcome their trauma knows that the only way out is back through.  And that means: exposure.
   While Scott definitely did not seek to soothe his ego too quickly (“I can’t justify anything I did out there today.”), he would do well to expose himself very painstakingly  to everything that happened in those last four holes.  Rather than hide behind his now trademark steely gaze, he should submit to a tortuous examination of as much as he can remember of his thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, as well as every little detail of every shot in that last hour of play.  If he does, he might find that he succumbed to any or all of the following cognitive pitfalls:

1) The “I’ve got this” error.  If he reviews the audio reel of his self-talk, he might find that he had some thought that the birdie on 14 that put him four shots clear of the field was the winning stroke.  We all know how dangerous this cognitive distortion is and how much it can undermine the kind of attention needed to execute all the way to the end. And if he had the thought, was he quick enough to answer with a stern version of, “hey, we’ve got lots of golf left, here”?  He said of his play on Thursday that he just kept his foot on the gas, “as if it was Sunday.”  But maybe after his putt on 14 on Sunday, he began to play as if it was Thursday.
2) The strategy error.  Had he prepared himself to have a big lead late on Sunday?  If so, what was the strategy?  If he had not thought of that, then it suggests that his preparation was incomplete.  He should have gone through every margin of leading or following on all of the final holes, so that no situation would have felt unfamiliar.  He may think he prepared to “take it just one shot at a time,” which is generally a good strategy, but it’s equally good strategy to think, “how would I play if I had a four shot lead with four to go?”  It might not have meant doing anything differently, from a strategic point of view, but it would mean that he would have put himself there in his mind and had a plan when it did happen.
3) The “don’t” error.  Every golfer knows the power of saying something like, “don’t hit it into the water,” right before doing just that.  Did he make a version of the “don’t” error on 16 :“don’t miss this putt”?  Or, more likely on 17: “don’t hit it left.”  It is always more cognitively effective, from a performance point of view, to put the goal in the positive: “Hit it pure (and the water’s not an issue).” “Make a good stroke.”  “Let’s hit this a little right.”
4) The Stevie Williams error.  Adam said of Stevie’s contribution to his spectacular opening 64 on Thursday: “ [His] little gee-ups (a ‘gee up’ is Down Under speak for a “pep talk”) are good for me.  It keeps me alert.  I like that, I can feed off of it because I can cruise too much when I’m out on the golf course.”  All of us, particularly after Adam’s win last year at the Bridgestone, thought that Steve Williams would be Scott’s 15th club in the bag when it came down the stretch at a major.  After all, Williams had been a successful closer in 13 majors with his previous boss, the consummate closer.  But where was that 15th club in the last four holes?  Did Stevie continue to give him little “gee ups,” or did both of them go into the sort of cruise control that considers victory a foregone conclusion?  Did Stevie step up or down, and if so, was Stevie’s role clarified if he felt that his man was on cruise control?

There is evidence that his old habit of cruise control did set in, because in his press conference this year at Bridgestone he said of his last four holes at Lytham: “But it's not like I lost by spraying the ball all over. I wasn't that far off. What I was, though, was sloppy coming in. I just got a little sloppy. I'd never really been in that position before, and I just got a little sloppy."  Note how suggestive this comment is of errors 1, 2 & 4.  It’s great that he’s aware of the slop, but the question is the measure and extent of his awareness.  I think his response to his demise has been much better than his childhood idol’s, but if he really wants to tighten up that slop down the stretch on Sunday in a major then he would do well to examine and fully admit if he fell prey to any of these cognitive errors.  Otherwise, Greg Norman will indeed serve as an all-too unfortunate role model. 

(For help with these or any cognitive challenge in sport, don't hesitate to contact Altius Performance Works: MattMunichPhD@gmail.com.)