Monday, December 17, 2018

Getting Lost in Your Own House: The Complete Collapse

If you’ve ever choked in an athletic event, you will know that it is one of the worst experiences an athlete can have.  I often differentiate two kinds of choking: a flub and a complete collapse. This piece will focus on the complete collapse, and the next one on the flub.  For now, let’s let it stand that the difference between them is one of time: the flub takes place in an eyeblink, whereas the collapse unfolds over time, making it all the more awful and harrowing.  Thus, it deserves a bit more attention.

In the collapse, one player or team goes from being in a dominant position in an event only to completely unravel, committing a number of almost inexplicable errors standing in stark contrast to the type of supremely wonderful and confident play that put them in the leading position in the first place.  Examples of this include: Serena Williams’ meltdown at this year’s US Open; her loss to the unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci in the 2015 US Open final, keeping her from the remarkable feat of holding all the Grand Slam titles in one calendar year; Jordan Spieth’s back nine unraveling at the 2016 Masters; Dustin Johnson’s limb-loosening effort in the 2008 US Open at Pebble Beach; Rory McIlroy’s belly flop in the 2011 Masters; Jean Van de Velde’s awful gut wrench on the 18that the 1999 British Open; and perhaps most famously, Greg Norman’s storied collapse in the 1996 Masters.

One thing that unites the flub and the collapse is a breakdown in the player’s ability to regulate their physiological response to the moment.  With the proper monitors, you would be able to detect quickened breathing and elevated heart rate, sweat glands would be more active, and thoughts would race more, indicating the shift from parasympathetic to sympathetic nervous system.  That is, even if it were to take place over an extremely short period of time, the brain of the sufferer would experience itself as under attack.  These kinds of changes, even on the subtlest of levels, are enough to cause corresponding changes in the fine muscle work required for skillful action, no matter how rote, routinized through hours of practice, forged in decades of competitive experience.  But, during a collapse, in addition to the physiological changes mentioned above, there is the additional one of nausea in the gut, owing to the activation of the vagus nerve, running from the brain to the viscera.  This is why so many people in the midst of a collapse experience extreme nausea, and may throw up, or even lose control of their excretory functions.  This is also why we have the expressions of “puking on oneself” or “soiling oneself” to describe this kind of event.  Other physiological changes include an over-narrowing of vision or hearing, disorientation with respect to time, and even a sense of dissociation, that one is leaving one’s body altogether, watching helplessly as this is happening. All of a sudden, you cannot execute skills which have been so well honed they almost feel automatic.  You are lost within your own house.  And worse, you can’t find your way out.  Such a collapse, and the resulting shame, can be extremely difficult to recover from, as you can tell from Jordan Spieth’s not having really made it back from his Masters’ episode, and from Greg Norman’s comments in his press conference after that round, saying that he’d be alright, that it was just a game, and that he had his money and his Maseratis to keep him warm.  The puker doth protest too much.

OK, so what can you do?  1) Well, the first thing is to recognize the physiological signsearly and accept that a collapse is upon you. You have to be consciously attuned to the elevated heart rate, hastened breathing, rapid thoughts [disbelief!], jittery hands, nausea, and then 2) intervene with THE BREATH.  The breath, always crucial, can nip a collapse in the bud, if anything can.  Make sure your breathing practices are solid. Breathing is the bedrock, the salvation, the true hail Mary of sport performance.  Next, 3) plug back into your senses.  As you feel yourself telescope back into the fun-house mirror of your head, plug back into the reality that is happening around you: the sights, the smells, and sounds of your competition.  These are not just cues for you to get back into present reality, but they can be pleasant reminders for you of why you love your sport, and therefore shift you from fear to passion.  If you have gotten to the point of leaving your body, 4) use your “snap out of it” skill.  This skill, developed with your coach, can be a slap to your thigh, a snap of a rubber-band on your wrist, or a gentle slapping of your club or racket on some part of your body.  Finally, 5) believe in yourself. Self-belief, another form of faith, is so powerful in a collapse.  A confident stride is just the thing you need when you think you have forgotten how to walk. During a collapse, self-faith can be expressed in a number of mantras developed with your coach.  “C’mon, Matt, you know how to do this.”  “This feels new, but it’s old hat.”  “You LOVE this.”

That said: the collapse might be such a totalizing experience that there’s not much you can do. Many people think that such collapses are due to inexperience, and that they’re more likely in younger athletes than in older.  But, that’s not so true, as the Greg Norman and Serena Williams examples make clear.  One thing is true: whether you ever recover from your total collapse is based on how you handle it.  Athletes with a growth mentality, a process-oriented approach, can recover and use the experience to make themselves even better competitors.  But, it doesn’t happen automatically: you have to be willing to walk back through it, moment by moment, in exposure format, to help rid yourself of the shame, and to learn as much as possible from what happened.*  Just think about Rory McIlroy: two months after his Masters’ fiasco, he hoisted the US Open trophy, and three more major victories later, cites his collapse as the most important day of his career, and that “ I learned so much about myself” (  And, as I say at Altius, if that’s not winning, then I surely don’t know what is.

*On learning from losing, see my earlier posts: (“Learning from a Loss,” January 1, 2014; “Lessons from a Loss,” January 12, 2014; “Scott’s Lytham Opportunity: The only way out is through,” August 17, 2012.)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Mastering the Moment

People who play games with a clock, which is to say, most team sports, know inherently that the time allotted to periods or quarters or halves is not absolute, but can be manipulated. They know that they can speed up or slow down play based on what is best for them at any given time.  People who play individual sports, or sports where the race against time is not an obvious aspect of the game, need to learn how to use time strategically, because left to its own devices, it will work against you.  For example, at certain crunch times in your event do you speed up, slow down, or become completely disoriented with respect to time?  People who have had the experience of a mental collapse, or choke, or even slight, but costly, mental lapse know that time is one of the dimensions that they lost control of as they slid into their demise.  These people often say things like, “Before I knew it, I was shaking the guy’s hand” (having lost), or “It all seemed like just a blur.” Whereas people who were able to master the moment can tell you with the utmost specificity what happened when and how they reacted, as if they were narrating a movie frame by frame.  The fact that we lose track of time is completely understandable because it is such a deeply entrenched cultural phenomenon, particularly for hard driving athletes embedded in hard driving cultures.  Fast gets rewarded, where as we have the impression that slow gets left in the dust.  But, actually, if we think about it, most of our wisdom comes retrospectively, which means that we were ignorant to the lessons taught in the moment.  Thus, it only makes sense that if we could slow down time, we might, might, have the opportunity to learn important lessons as they are happening, and not need to wait until later to see what was right there in front of our face.  It’s often remarked that the truly great athletes respond to the moment because they can react to inputs as they are coming in, and notice them calmly and with bare attention.  They don’t need to wait for the post-game analysis to see what was happening and how they should have reacted.  Here are some skills to help you become one of those players who reacts in the moment rather than one who regrets after the fact:

Find Time Opportunities: Together with your coach, find the parts of your sport where you can control time: game breaks, intervals between points, even ways within points to hasten or relax the pace.  All of this should be done with the rules of the game in mind, which is to say, though you are being strategic, you are not cheating or resorting to gamesmanship.  Then, practice those skills.  Often.

Review Tape: If you don’t tape your matches, start doing so. It will be valuable, particularly during losses, to see how you react to being under pressure, particularly with respect to time.  If, when you are watching, and you notice yourself speeding up, try to remember the emotion at that moment: excitement, anxiety, anger.  Remember that emotions are OK, but we succeed by lopping off the peaks and valleys of those emotions when we are playing.  (There are skills for that, too.)

Mindfulness to time: In your non-sport life, pay attention to time. Are you impatient when waiting for something?  Do you rush through things you like, and plod through things you dislike?  Notice if you lose track of time.  Say things to yourself like, “I’m rushing,” or “I’m being impatient,” if those things are true.  Or, “I’m dallying,” or “I’m avoiding,” if those are true.  Make these observations and take appropriate curative action without judgment.

Practice patience: Try the “watched pot” drill.  Fill up a teakettle with water, set it on the stove on high, and stand there until it boils.  Notice all of your urges to leave, notice all of the times you are fighting the process and rushing the pot along (“come on, already!”).  When you notice this, bring your attention back to the pot, to your breath, and say to yourself, “it will boil when it boils.”  There are all sorts of variations on this drill of patience in your life: in the car, in store lines, with your children and partner.  Believe me: the world will be better for a more patient you.

Practice bare attention: Find a drill that focuses you just on what’s happening.  For example, I often tell squash players (or tennis players) to try the “bounce-hit” drill, which is to simply say (in your head) “bounce,” or “hit” when the ball is bouncing or being hit.  Banish any other thought, but those two: bounce and hit.  This drill can be tailored to any sport.

Don’t just do something, sit there: Yes, meditation. Many athletes have discovered the performance enhancing power of meditation, and almost all of them praise its ability to slow down time and put the power of controlling it increasingly into our hands.  Being fully present is both completely necessary for athletic success, and a skill that can be practiced.  Some of that presence comes with the joy we experience in playing our sport, but it is greatly amplified when we practice having a widely observant mind, consciously free of distracting, time-hastening clutter.

The Romans knew that time slips through our fingers as we focus absentmindedly on other things, and so they gave us the phrase “tempus fugit.”  Unfortunately, we have mistranslated that to say, “time flies,” as if it were a bird. Whereas they were telling us that time escapes, we lose track of it, it is a fugitive.  With these skills, you can be in a better position to be its warden and master rather than its plaything and chump.

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.