Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Performance: Escaping the River of Expectations (part two)

Let's talk about the river of expectations today.

I'm going to talk about this in the context of sports, but really, it applies to anything.

I'll use myself as an example, in high school tennis. Before I played a match, I had a range of possibilities in my mind, and the opposite banks of those possibilities were a river of expectations.

Inside the banks of the river was a comfort zone. It was what I expected. I played many matches inside the banks, and usually, I played well.

A few times, though, the match was outside the banks.

Usually, it was me being in position to win a match that I didn't expect to win. Or a match that I thought would be tight, but suddenly I was well up in the third set and it looked like an easy win.

It wasn't though, because I hadn't expected it to happen that way.

I struggled as soon as the match went outside the banks of my expectations. Every single time.

Or a variation, one in particular, when I expected an easy win, and instead turned out to be in a dogfight. I hadn't thought that was possible, and so when things got very, very intense, I felt this sick dread.

It was a close, hard-fought match, and if I had been the underdog, I would have been enjoying myself. But because I was a heavy favorite, and I hadn't even considered the possibility of losing, I was unable to deal with what was happening, and I played too poorly to win.

I can give you an example from the Super Bowl.

The Falcons, I promise, never considered the possibility that they would be ahead 28-3 midway through the third quarter. That was far, far outside the river of their expectations. And because of that, they had no idea what to do.

Even the coaches were affected by this. All they had to do was run the ball in the fourth quarter (in particular, after the Julio Jones catch, which would have easily led to a field goal), but instead, they panicked.

They had not prepared for the possibility because it seemed too remote, too unlikely.

I've noticed over the years that the greatest athletes have a much, much more consistent level of performance. They never coast. They are always mentally ready to play, and that's actually much harder than it sounds, even at the professional level.

I think that's because they don't have expectations. They don't envision a range of results. They don't feather their effort (which is inevitably what can happen when you expect to win).

They do not prepare for a limited range of outcomes. They just prepare to compete at their highest level. Their opponent is internal, not external, and that's how they measure their performance.

Sounds easy, right?

I think very, very few professional athletes are able to prepare like that, far fewer than you might expect. It is every bit as elite a skill as their level of conditioning and skill.

It's satisfying to savor a positive outcome before you play--championships won, celebrations earned. It's even more satisfying to savor it when it looks like it's coming true.

All that savoring, though, comes at a cost. The cost is a steep reduction in the chances of all those wonderful things actually happening.

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