Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Analytics or…?

A defining moment in the 2020 World Series (Dodgers versus Rays) will be the expression on Blake Snell’s face as he awaited the handoff to Tampa Bay manager, Kevin Cash. After pitching lights out and still under his pitch count, Snell understandably seemed upset at the lost opportunity to continue his gem.

While hindsight is a perspective available now but not in that moment (from which it all fell apart), an old argument calls to mind the blurring of boundaries that ruin so much of human resource, production, and expression: when to be guided by quantitative versus qualitative measures. Simply put, not everything that matters can be measured. Here are a few arguments for ignoring analytics and leaving Snell on the mound:

Management versus Leadership: Management is about systems and things, and leadership is about people. While numbers may inform decisions, the human element will always be beyond measurable. You have a Cy Young winner pitching at the peak of his ability. Unhittable is a feeling. The Dodgers would have attested to this.

Variability of performance: Even at the elite level, athletes need to find out who they are that day. The great Willie Mays said it best: “When I’m not hitting, I don’t hit nobody. But, when I’m hitting, I hit anybody.” (New York Times, April 25, 1976). Interestingly, on that day Snell’s fastball was more electric, and his slider and curve had more bite. All three pitches working at the top of his register. Athletes dream of these days… So who do you want on the mound? Your best pitcher at his best in the moment or someone who hasn’t thrown a pitch yet?

Analytics draws from a larger context: While data is useful and informs decisions, the production of numbers always draws from a larger context and remains an approximation. These probabilities are called “models’ for good reason as they do not represent a complete picture of the territory. Consider all the variables that have to be ignored, and all the assumptions that have to be made in an open-system of human beings. This is not to say, throw out numbers and analytics. They are good tools. But complete dependence upon tools denies some of the greatest gifts of being human: feel, creativity, and intuition.

History: Sports annals are full of stories of athletes going above and beyond. Michael Jordan in the “Flu” game. Willis Reed limping out on to the court in the finals for the New York Knicks during their 1969-70 Championship season. Lebron James running down Andre Igoudala in Game 7, bringing the Cavaliers all the way back from a 3-1 series deficit. And Tom Seaver throwing 150 pitches (yes, 150 pitches!) to lead the Mets in a Game 4 win on the way to the 1969 world championship. All these efforts derive from the intangibles of athletic performance. They are memorable for a reason. We show up as competitors and fans not for the benign and predictable, but for the sublime and unexpected.

So, Snell’s expression was more than the stock “I wanna keep playing” seen from little league to the Bigs. The athlete who knows when he is in the upper register of performance also knows it’s a feeling beyond words and logical explanations. Flow. The Zone. A sublime feeling you can bet on more than algorithms pretending that a Game Six is the same as a weekend series in Baltimore (sorry O’s fans).

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credits: Michael Dziedzic and Ben Hershey (unsplash.com)

Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

What Makes it Tick?

In past posts I have talked about the concepts of process and product, and quantity and quality in relation to performance. I want to look a bit deeper at the reasons why we tend to “think” or focus on one or the other, and many times one more than the other. While process and product are related, they are not a continuum. In terms of attention, they are perspectives, and one (product) has gained far more attention over time—at a cost.

And attention is the key. You can find a lot of information about setting goals (SMART goals, etc.) and most plans point to something specific and measurable in the future. What is concrete and quantifiable, or what you can get a handle on is a product. This is a good start, but a small part of a broader picture. This approach focuses on the “What.” The diet industry offers an example of this approach selling the product of weight loss—a measurable outcome in the future. Billions are spent yet 90+% of individuals regain the weight they lost (and often more). Could there be something to this process?

The focus on product is outside-in, if-then, and is a mindset that has thrived with the advances of science and technology. Reduce something vast to something measurable and find out what makes it tick. Clockwork, predictable. Do this, get this. When in doubt, chunk it smaller and more tangible. Sounds good?

Maybe…

To use a few examples to further explain, consider the technical aspects of producing a swing in baseball, golf or tennis. Ultimately the tool (bat, club, racquet) reaches the target (ball) and produces an outcome. Video analysis allows a look at static points along the swing path and these data are drawn from the whole. But the snapshot says nothing about the how, the embodied feel of the swing. It says nothing of the transition from point to point or momentum—in other words, the process. This is no different than hearing a musical note in isolation and pretending it’s a song.

All these movements have timing in common. And rhythm is the feel of flow in time. When we confuse time with individual ticks, we reduce something that cannot be reduced because it must be felt in motion. And nothing kills motion, rhythm, and fluidity more than trying to feel or control the ticks—the very source of stress. Rather than isolating a point, performance is the art of feeling motion and when change occurs—feeling the angular momentum of the path, the acceleration of the barrel, club head or racquet as it moves along the path. And this is pure process.

Elite athletes feel and sense a good shot in the process—well before they witness the outcome. But sometimes the outcome doesn’t match the process. You make a smooth and rhythmic swing and the product is a fly out, a drive just in the rough or a serve an inch out. High quality in highly dynamic circumstances with little room for error sometimes turn out that way. This is the essence of trusting the process…

But something different happens when you judge the process solely by the outcome. Sometimes the process is not of the highest quality, yet the outcome works–at least for a moment or a short while. Despite flaws in the process, the drive ends up in the fairway; the baseball finds a hole in the defense; the serve hits the line. Feedback in this manner can lead an athlete down a dark alley without a compass. If you do not understand or sense the process—good luck trying to make adjustments based on the outcome. Where would you even start? It’s like trying to accelerate to the speed limit without noticing your car has a flat tire.

We circle back to the understanding that product consumes our attention because we have something to grasp. Something we can see and manipulate. We have a greater sense of control with outcomes because they can be captured. We feel we have something and can hold people accountable. This is much different when we consider that in process what we have is just feel—what we sense. Science and technology are not fans of intangibles for this reason. In process, the control lies in the motion and negotiation of space in time. It can be felt but not captured (and is very hard to describe) which is why when you change attention and catch yourself thinking you are playing in the zone there is a good chance you are about to lose that sense. It does not like to be placed in a box or considered a tick in time. The zone is flow. It is space not a point.

The mental side of performance requires an ever-increasing awareness, and this is an intimate learning process. And high-quality performance on the elite levels requires an ever-increasing desire to become more aware. And that is the point—both the driver and restrainer of the developmental process. A point not mentioned or discussed much in many realms because of the focus on outcomes and quantities. But it matters. We are always paying attention. But to what or how or why? The answers will lead you to back to process or product. Both matter—but performance and execution dwell in the realm of process—an athlete being an athlete in time and space and becoming more aware of the dynamic, more attuned to the flow of performing.

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credits: Eduardo Balderos, Zoe Reeve, David Goldsbury (unspash.com)

Performance psychology, Self-help, Sports Psychology

The Practice-Performance Connection

 

In the next series of posts, we will look deeper into the mental aspect of the practice-performance connection. You may have heard sayings such as “You play how you practice” or “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” and the like, yet the connection and feel between practice and performance has subtle threads beneath the surface that players may not be able to hold in awareness.

For the sake of simplicity, there are two processes occurring during practice and performance. One (1) is very linear, logical, and limited. It comes in parts and is sequential. There is a sense of order and the need for control because B follows A. The second (2) is wider, intuitive and contextual. It’s the whole which the parts are made of—but there is more to it than just the parts. A may follow B and A is related to C and many other interconnected variables. The first (1) makes use of words, the second (2) is wordless and has a global feel to it. For the latter, think of a time when you were in flow (or in the Zone) and then later tried to describe it. The words do not quite capture the experience. There is so much more, and you can tell just by watching the face of the describer as they appear to be elsewhere. And they are.

stefan-cosma-0gO3-b-5m80-unsplash focus

Let’s take a deeper look into this second flow-like process and the practice-performance connection:

Lightness. Even when performance is intense there can be a lightness to the experience. Why? Chance are “outcome” is out of the picture. There is nothing at stake—or so it seems and autonomous abilities flow. If you are truly practicing, what is at stake is improvement. Yet, improvement is possible only with a focus on quality—which is subjective. It is something more sensed than measure. Challenge: Notice the lighter quality of practice and allow it to flow in performance. Focus on quality and sensing the performance.

Awareness. Even team sports have an individual skill-set and this connection is something to try on your own. Whether you are practicing a skill or a pattern or a play, center your awareness on something different. Shifting awareness and focus is a crucial performance skill and often our practices are so scripted we do not get enough practice at shifting. As our attention span is shorter than most would believe, re-focusing is an extremely important capacity. Challenge: Consider the connection you have with the ground (footwork, movement) or the connection with your center of gravity (somewhere around your bellybutton) and notice your sense of balance. Both of these are valuable internal cues and provide important feedback. Widening awareness and shifting awareness are keys to unlocking higher levels of performance.

More to come in the next post…

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credit: Stefan Cosma (unsplash.com)

 

leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

The Pull of Motivation

Most have considered their personal notion of great human achievements. And I am certain there are clusters of agreement around specific events. Depending on interests and culture, groups can sit around the circle and recall with wide-eyed wonder the greatness of an experience or event. Today I would like to offer one for consideration: Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite.

In June of 2017, Honnold made the nearly 3000-foot ascent in just under 4 hours—without a rope. No safety nets, just him and what climbers consider the most daunting face of granite on earth. This feat, captured in the documentary, Free Solo, is something to behold. Just hearing about it is not enough. To see some aspect of the climb makes the jaw drop and the inevitable “Why?” sighs from an open mouth.

But this is the pivot point of motivation. The question of, “Why?” There are only a few deep sources of motivation as it is fundamental to life. To live without some sense of principled motivation is to embrace entropy, a slow death spiral, or to place the digestive system at the pinnacle of effort. The pure moments described as flow or peak experiences are the essence of the feeling of “being alive.”

Honnold’s ascent, to me, represents a string of perfect moments in flow, a linked crescendo of peak experiences. How many and how long? It’s impossible to quantify, for in these experiences time disappears. The climber and the climb become one, as do granite and flesh.

green pine trees in front of a rock mountain
Photo by André Cook on Pexels.com

The documentary, Free Solo, comes at the event from a few angles to dig into Honnold’s persona and create cinematic tension, an arc to an amazing story. This is where we go above the field of play, in this case over a half-mile of steep granite. The backdrop of Honnold’s life, family, friendships, and his significant other makes for a good story, but in no way touches the “why?” Honnold attempts to explain the pull of motivation of such a momentous task, but it remains for the most part indescribable.

It doesn’t matter that on film Honnold comes across a quirky, at times insensitive (even to fear and death), awkward in love and relating, and a host of other adjectives that, also, do not matter. For the true depth of his motivation remains unplumbed by what is recorded on film. Only he knows the “feel”, the emotion that motivates for he is the first and the only. This probing into character will not reveal the essence of Honnold’s motivation or ability. Unfortunately it is a sign of the times that we seek simple formulas for excellence, and attempt to codify a process that is complex and becomes a part of the fabric of one’s being…

***

It’s no secret that one of the stars of the event, the documentary, and the personal quest is Death. And it hovers ever so close, on some level, a feel quite like the curiosity of passing the scene of a gruesome accident. Death is imminent and present in every move along the climb, and in every nub, nook and cranny of El Capitan. And for those (which is over 7+ billion and counting) who do not have Honnold’s sublime gift, Death would be the last acknowledgement before the credits roll…

Motivation’s pull is an agreement with a vision, one that comes from deep within, at first formless just as the infinite from which we come. Over time, the vision takes form, but it is the feel that gives rise to power. Like opposite poles of a magnet the pull is real, and its ample force is felt in trying to deny the connection. Honnold’s ascent seems fueled by such a pull. A thing of art and beauty, wonderfully defying odds and logic—for his logic was a personal one.

But, we all can feel the pull on some level, in some space. And that is the point of aspirations and of being alive. To give birth, to raise a child. To comfort a friend. To bury a loved one with grace when your heart is broken. To love another fully and completely. To do good work. To play. To forgive flaws and trespasses. To get up off the floor one more time. To play a sublime melody and a melody sublimely. To listen with a beginner’s mind…

All of these could make someone somewhere sigh, Why? How? For Honnold, I imagine it was El Capitan whispering in his ear, Why? How? All the while offering subtle clues along the razor’s edge that is being and non-being. For a little under 4 hours he reminded us what it means to be fully committed to a vision, and that being fully alive acknowledges the brackets of time, markers we submit to in moments of clarity, despair, and awe.

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

A Focus on Attention

Attention is complex and there is more to the process than the ability to simply “pay attention.” Focused and integrated attention requires the training and discipline that affords the simplicity of process at the point of performance. At any sporting event, you can hear someone on the sidelines (coach, friend, fan or parent) urge a competitor to “Focus!” The truth is the average attention span is less than 8 seconds and we can process only a small percentage of the sensory (internal and external) information presented each moment. So, where we place our focus and attention becomes more and more important and influential to performance.

spotlight shining down into a grunge interior

Competitive performance requires the self-awareness to focus on the critical elements of execution, and the ability to regulate and shift focus as required. And this is a dynamic process with many factors that test the limits of our abilities. Each event is singular by nature, therefore these abilities must be practiced beforehand.

First, to pay attention requires the clarity of purpose to filter out what doesn’t matter. Basically, three systems have to be in sync to make this happen:

  1. Activation Levels (Energy for the task)
  2. Emotional or Limbic centers (Meaning)
  3. Executive functions managing attention (Focus)

Each of these represents different areas of the brain that must be integrated towards a way of being in the moment, a state that allows one to perform in flow and the Zone of Optimal Performance.

Questions often help us to get to the source of what we can’t sense or feel. Considering the three areas represented above, try these questions to bring each of these centers into awareness.

  1. Do I have a sense of my level of energy (activation or arousal levels) while I am executing? Using a scale from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) decide which number or range of numbers represents a good level for performing during a competition or practice. For example, someone standing over a 5-foot putt will have a different activation level (low arousal, alert) than a middle linebacker in football (high arousal, alert).
  2. Do I have a clear sense of meaning and purpose for practice and competition? Do I have goals that represent the vision I have for myself over time of what matters most?
  3. Do I practice focusing and refocusing both in practice and in isolation as a distinct skill set?

These questions clarify the key aspects of attention and focus. Make this important function of the mental game part of your daily routine.

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Photo Credit: Created by Kjpargeter – Freepik.com