Wednesday, June 14, 2006

See, the key is to be kinda, sorta, a little bit confident, but not too confident, at least not all the time, but then again...

Those of you who've been following SHAMblog for a while know that early in the research phase of the book, I registered as a member of any number of self-help groups and sites. Though this might seem a case of sleeping with the enemy, I figured it was the easiest way to (a) keep tabs on new developments in self-help (since they'll email you every time they think they have something "hot" to promote) and (b) monitor the traffic on the discussion boards. Both have been invaluable as sources of material for this blog (I've gotten great mileage out of in particular) as well as other articles and essays I've written post-SHAM.

The latest communique comes from Patrick Cohn at Peak Performance. Patrick feels it's important for me to know that "there are two bad habits that many athletes today engage in--and they do it without even thinking about it. The habits I'm talking about," he continues, showing off his acute and highly original sense of humor,* "are NOT drinking or smoking. The two bad habits I am talking about, which kill confidence are... 1. Setting unrealistic expectations. 2. Engaging in self-doubt."

Shockingly enough, it turns out that Patrick offers a special program that will get athletes past these confidence killers.

I've spoken to Patrick Cohn, and he seems like a nice enough guy. But this latest email is classic. Since I began my intensive survey of the SHAM-scape back in 2002, I'm not sure I've encountered a more succinct example of how America's so-called motivators just throw catch-phrases and other stuff out there--hoping it resonates based on surface appeal alone--without a thought to whether the stuff they're throwing is even minimally self-consistent. After all, wouldn't a program designed to cure No. 1 necessarily encourage at least some degree of No. 2? And vice versa? Unless an athlete was perfectly harmonically balanced to begin with--in which case he or she wouldn't need our friend Patrick--wouldn't removing someone's "unrealistic expectations" risk stoking "self-doubts"? Let's say a woman's unrealistic expectation is believing she can make it to the Olympics.** If she sincerely believes that--and you disabuse her of the notion--haven't you now saddled her with some degree of self-doubt? On the other hand, if a guy is wracked by self-doubt--"I'll just never be able to compete with the best!"--and you disabuse him of that notion, haven't you, in all likelihood, encouraged a certain unrealism? And 'round and 'round we go.

I suppose it's theoretically possible to construct a system of self-talk wherein a given athlete (or, say, executive, since Cohn and others who come out of a sports background also do a ton of corporate work) learns simultaneously to believe that you shouldn't doubt yourself or set unrealistic goals. Thing is, such a program would have to be so nuanced, and so situation-specific, and so finely tailored to each individual user, that it would be virtually worthless as an all-purpose blueprint for successful thinking. (Let me amend that: Take out the virtually.) The paradox here reminds me of coaching Little League, when we'd go to the mound and tell pitchers, "Make this guy hit the ball. But don't give him anything too good." Huh? As a practical guideline, what does that mean? Especially when you're dealing with kids who don't exactly have Major League-level pitching skills and/or attitudes. On the other hand, if they have the skills and attitudes, what do they need me for?

Though what I'm about to say may itself seem incongruous with the rest of this post, I do happen to believe that Cohn's approach to competition and life is pretty much what's needed to get through the day with a minimum of stress and a maximum of success: a reasonable balance between optimism and pessimism. It's like the dieting philosophy we discussed some time back: expect failure but keep on going. That doesn't mean that such thinking can be fashioned into a program. In fact, I defy anyone to do it, or even seriously make the claim. There are just too many if/then variables, too many complex (and forever-evolving) human algorithms, too many "calls" that would have to be made on a case-by-case basis (and might even go a different way on a different day) and, therefore, could not be reduced to, or expressed in, a one-size-fits-all formula. And in any case, no such formula could ever be designed by an outsider--anyone outside the "self."

So once again, we're left with true self-help as the answer: (somehow) figure out what's right for you, and try to do it. In the end, that may be the most scientific advice that anyone can ever give you.

That'll be $24.95....

* and the syntax is his as well.
** and wait a sec, now. I thought we were supposed to believe that anything is possible. Right? All you gotta do is "want it enough"? Why, how dare you tell me that my goals are unrealistic!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

GREAT post!!!! My college coach tries to do this to us all the time, bombarding us with what you call "sportsthink" cliches which half the time contradict each other-like the way he'll oversell both teamwork and being a take charge player. Its two entirely different things! I'm going to send your blog to my teammates!