Thursday, March 29, 2007

You gotta want it. Just don't try too hard.

Contrary to how it must seem, Tony Robbins' email-distribution list is not the only such list I'm on. I also receive regular missives from, among others, one Patrick Cohn, the entrepreneurial coach behind Peak Performance Sports and an Olympic-quality contributor to the vast self-help sub-niche known as Sportsthink (the subject of SHAM chapter 5). I quote from Patrick's latest email:

After greeting me with a perky "Hi Steve,"* Patrick observes that "NASCAR champions use a popular motto: 'To speed up, slow down.' This may sound contradictory"—gee, now why would he say that?—"but in mental game coaching, I use a similar motto: 'To perform better, try less.' " He continues, "Just like in Auto Racing, it's common for others athletes [sic] to think that 110% effort is the optimal path to peak performance. Many athletes push it to the maximum. Racers try to drive the car to the limit. This mindset causes some drivers to overdrive their car and thus make more mistakes, losing valuable seconds. In my work, this is called trying too hard"—in his work? as if we've never heard the expression?—"which can can [sic] short-circuit your performance."

Patrick then gives us the "no-nonsense truth... Trying too hard to peak perform can actually slow you down because you make more errors. The best athletes have learned how to perform with a feeling of ease—in essence trying less.... Athletes with the fear of failure think they must try hard, force it, and make it happen to win. Why is there's huge difference [sic] in mindsets between champions and athletes who hold themselves back by fear of failure? Under pressure, the mind can plan [sic?] tricks. Your 'trying mind' or analytical mind wants to control the performance. Your mind senses a greater level of importance in competition—'I had better try hard now so I do not embarrass myself.' This mindset sounds correct and legitimate when the game is on the line. But champion athletes know better... If you think a controlled performance helps you perform well, you are wrong. Training is controlled and can be hard. Your performance should flow from your training and feel effortless. This means trying less..."

A few lines later, we have this: "Just like in racing—you must find the perfect balance between maximum speed and effort. I call this effortless speed in racing"—I don't think he wants to hear what I call it—"You want to perform at your peak, but with precision effortlessness—void [sic] of tension that comes with trying too hard. Your goals should be to discover how to push yourself to the edge, but at the same time find effortless performance. However, before you can perform effortlessly...."

Is it me? Or by now have we descended so deep into the muck of confusing, random-buzzword blather that it's hard to even breathe?

Leaving aside the fact that, so far as I can make sense of all this, Patrick is going against the orthodox liturgy of sportsthink (as preached by its foremost gurus), he's also overintellectualizing things that really reduce to instinct, and spur-of-the moment reactions.** Now, can we train ourselves to have different instinctive reactions? Sure. But in the end, can we build a coherent and accessible system that basically teaches you how to "try hard, but not too hard"? That teaches hordes of unique, highly competitive people how to apply that very subtle and slippery distinction to the vast array of life's settings, situations, and challenges? No way, Jose. I defy Patrick or anyone to do it. You end up going 'round and 'round the mulberry bush, qualifying and backtracking on your own logic to the point where it becomes functionally meaningless—as Patrick demonstrates in this email. Consider the lines, "Your trying mind or 'analytical mind' wants to control the performance. Your mind senses a greater level of importance in competition—'I had better try hard now so I do not embarrass myself...." To my read, that sounds exactly like what he's applauding in the rest of the email: slowing down. (Certainly that's the case until you get to the part about "trying harder now.") Whenever your mind is consciously involved in governing your athletic response, you are slowing down, folks, not speeding up. And though, again, I'm not entirely sure I understand what Patrick is saying—I'm not sure Patrick understands what Patrick is saying—I think I agree with the message of those last few quoted lines, anyway (even though they seem to contradict at least half of what he says elsewhere): You cannot stand at home plate as the pitcher finishes his wind-up and be thinking about what you're going to do when the ball arrives a fractional second later. That is one case where your performance damned well better "flow from your training"! You gotta speed up, or you're on your way back to the dugout before your manager can say, "You know what, I think we're gonna let Johnson bat for you, next time around...."

So, Patrick: When are you supposed to engage your mind (say, to consciously slow things down, get your emotions in check, take stock of your mistakes thus far, etc.), and when are you supposed to just let it fly? When are you supposed to "push yourself to the edge," and when are you supposed to "try less"? How do we ever know when to do which?.... Oh I get it. That's what we're supposed to pay him to teach us.

It's like I've said about Tommy Lasorda's simultaneous emphasis on teamwork and leadership. (That's Lasorda, above right, flashing his $1000-a-minute smile.) Granted, the two concepts are not, strictly speaking, incompatible. However, any philosophical system that extols both as equally important headline principles would have to be so nuanced and carefully parsed that it'd be all but impossible to apply with any consistency to complex, real-life situations—let alone in the heat of battle, when split-second decisions are required...or maybe two-second decisions, if we're going to follow Cohn's advice and "slow down."

* You think all the folks on Patrick's distribution list receive emails that begin "Hi Steve"?
** If you read the post linked to the first mention of Cohn's name, you'll see he has a habit of doing this. It may be his schtick, for all I know.


Anonymous said...

This is the last anonymous commenter from yesterday, at least as I'm seeing the blog this morning. So I come back to see your reply, which I do appreciate btw, but now I find that latest post with more negative thinking. Let me ask you Steve, is there anything people draw inspiration from that you have a single nice word to say about? It's just unbelievable to me that this is what you do all day!!

Steve Salerno said...

Look, as I said yesterday, I appreciate your sentiments as well...but I think you basically miss the point of the blog, and I've been churning out far too many (free) words of late to worry, now, about bringing you up to speed. I wrote SHAM for many reasons, but chief among them was the goal of preventing large numbers of consumers from wasting large amounts of time and cash on "remedies" that (a) don't work, and/or (b) may end up doing them far more harm than good. This blog is an extension of that, plain and simple.

RevRon's Rants said...

Even giving anonymous the benefit of the doubt, I think one can safely assume that he/she is not looking for an answer, but rather exercising an opportunity to attack something that challenges his/her worldview. The question has been answered - in depth - from several different perspectives, only to be re-asked.

It's the price you pay for p***ing in someone's cosmic corn flakes. :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

First of all, I think the chapter on "Sportsthink" was one of the best chapters in SHAM, and I say this as a person who is about as far from being a sports fan as someone can be. (I don't dislike sports; I am mainly just indifferent to them.)

In fact it is my very indifference to sports that made "Ya Gotta Want It" such a powerful chapter for me. It has to do with the fact that Sportsthink, with its simplistic "wisdom" and ludicrous contradictions, has pervaded the corporate world and our culture in general. It has worked its way into places where it clearly doesn't belong. I'm sure I've told this story here before, but during my last stint in the "real" corporate world the head of my department was a big sports fanatic who was always plying us with Sportsthink cliches that had little relevance to our everyday work or our lives. And we were all expected to be gung-ho about it.

You hit it on the head, Steve, when you wrote, "As much as any manifestation of SHAM, Sportsthink forms an object lesson in how people desperate for easy answers will impose order on chaos, filling in any inconvenient gaps, much as the human eye finds coherent images in a Rorschach inkblot." Amen.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Connie. As ever.

I wrote that?? I gotta say, that's not bad. Usually when I read what I've written after the fact, I think it flat-out sucks.

Steve Salerno said...

Steve, I agree with Connie, I always thought your sports stuff was the best and most entertaining. I also agree with one of your other posters, more of this now, less Secret!

Anonymous said...

Dude...there's gotta be more to The Secret.

I think we should tear the book and the movement apart, one sentence, one premise at a time.

Dig deeper -- this crap is almost an occult.

Almost -- Hell, it is! And people are falling for it hook, line and sinker.

Cal said...


I think we should all be happy that Sen. George Allen talked his way out of his Senate seat and a potential nomination for the Republicans in '08. I know that you may agreed with is politics, but the guy just used so many football cliches in his speeches and press conferences that it was unbearable! I know his Dad was a great and famous football coach, but jeez! And this was from a guy who loves sports. But like Cosmic Connie, I hate it when I see it used in business and/or politics. I also feel the same about the use of military cliches in other unrelated areas of life.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, did you see my little riff on Allen's appearance on the Bill Maher Show in SHAM (page 103), or is it pure coincidence that you'd make this observation? Nothing implied by that question. I'm just curious.

Cal said...


I think I need to read your book again! I forgot about your discussion of Allen. I remembered an article in the Washington Post (don't remember exactly when) where the reporter did a story about his continuous use of football jargon. That's where the genesis of my comment came from. I apologize if I'm treading over old ground. So, to answer your question it was not coincidence.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I'm a golf pro and I've had the kind of training you'd probably call "sportsthink", and it's been enormously helpful to me. I've read the Amazon reviews of your book, and now that I'm getting into your blog, I agree with the people who say you're too broad in a lot of yoru arguments. Too black and white. You make it sound worthless when in fact some people are helped, and the money is well spent. I can vouch for that. I know others who have had a similar experience.
Scott Nickerson

Cosmic Connie said...

Anon, if you're a golf pro the "Sportsthink" may very well be helpful. But most of us are not sports pros or even amateur athletes, and "Sportsthink" has pervaded our culture to the point of ludicrousness. It just doesn't apply to every endeavor in life.

Anonymous said...

You must have missed this quote my Ray Everham, Hall of Fame crew Cheif. It seems simple to understand - I don't know why you don't get this very basic idea.

FYI. Here is the quote:

“To speed up, slow down. I still have to prove this principle to My
drivers sometimes. I'll say, ‘Go out and bust me a lap.’ He'll drive
the car hard, really work it. He'll mash the pedal on a straightaway, drive down into a corner, jam the brakes, turn the corner, and mash the pedal again. Then I'll say, ‘Now take it easy, and drive a smooth lap.’ And by letting the car do the work, he actually improves his
time.” Ray Evernham

Steve Salerno said...

Sorry, Anon, I'm not buyin' it. That still gives you no practical guidance on when to speed up, when to slow down, and what constitutes fast or slow (i.e. relative to other drivers, or your personal potential best). Besides, it's totally bogus to take an isolated situation from ONE SPORT and imply that it applies with equal validity to all sports (and, indeed, to life itself, which is what most of these coaches argue).

How 'bout this scenario: Two drivers are coming down the final straightaway. One is going to win. One is going to lose. Do you still tell your driver to "slow down" in order to speed up? Or do you tell him to SPEED UP in order to speed up?

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that in trying to win you push too hard or your coach pushes you too hard. Ability to excel in your sport comes from the heart and the head. You know the technique you simply have to see yourself doing it. Trying too hard breeds panic and panic breeds loss.