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)

leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

A Different Take on Sideline Leadership

Some media have taken an understanding of Coach Nick Saban’s tantrum during the Alabama-Oklahoma semifinal as a sign of a leader’s high expectations and demanding excellence. Up 28-10 nearing the end of the half, the Tide made errors that led to consecutive penalties and Saban’s vigorous, demolishing spike of his headset. The misunderstood genius is an old and tattered card, and underneath the words and actions, something else lurks that deserves some light.

If you caught the face of the young man (a close-up followed the headset explosion) who drew the flag, he had already paid his penance. No one felt worse and his face showed his disappointment in himself and letting his teammates down. If you have played teams sports, this sits heavy. Like the stages of grief, you wish you could take it back and the road to acceptance and being ready for the next play is difficult enough. Nothing feels better than your teammates saying, “I got you…it’s all good,” especially the ones with “C” on their jerseys. The gesture says we all have been there, this too shall pass, and we are moving on. Forgiven and forgotten—for that is all you can do anyway.

What is missing in the explanations and rationalizations of the action is the poor insight of the moment within the bigger picture. I am sure the coaching staff sat in this young man’s living room, recruiting him with promises of looking after him like a son…

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I’m not arguing Saban’s success or his net worth. I am saying that if you preach “the process” then mistakes are part of this methodology, part of the learning process. Smashing headphones is a choice based on an outcome. It is an ego-centered move that diminishes and shows up individuals who are giving blood and bone to the process. It says I do not have to respect you but you must respect me or I will smash these headphones to get your attention. And I am sure, in this impulsive gesture, not a thought was given to the fact that the headset could possibly cost more than some of the Alabama parents have in a year’s worth of disposable income.

While I respect how other media have approached this situation, and glamorized and made humor for the headset (moment of silence for the headset, haha), it is only part of a story. Underneath the outcomes are the values and assumptions that motivate choice. If a middle-aged man can act impulsively and from the anger of things not going his way, how is this a measure of the leadership we aspire to model for the ones we lead?

Call it what it is. Be honest. It ain’t about the process. It’s the outcome. Just win at all costs. And the few grand of a new headset seems a paltry price when you consider the cost of the meta-message of leadership. Every choice has a consequence whether you wish to address it, name it, forgive it, apologize for it—or not.

There is an old adage that nothing fails like success. And sometimes this speaks to more than just the numbers.

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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