Monday, March 4, 2013

Sports Ethics: Don't Try too Hard

It sounds counterintuitive—“don’t try too hard?” When we are struggling, shouldn’t we just try harder? I have been following the comments of Mariner’s players at spring training and all their comments converge on the same set of insights about high performance. A young Mariner’s pitcher Danny Hultzen spoke about adjusting during a game, “A year ago I probably would have even tried harder to just get the pitch there instead of just relaxing and calming down." Hultzen’s work involved a mind set change, and the rest of the game he excelled. Not trying too hard points to the importance of how top professionals work best and how to manage effort and practice in a productive way. 

Top professionals devote immense hours to practice and learning to achieve. Real masters have invested at least 5-7,000 hours at their craft. They constantly practice and more important learn from mistakes. Their lives reflect endless adaptation to changes in environment, changes in their own skill set and studying their successes and mistakes. High performing professionals adjust to people and environments.

I have talked about this before as one of the great strengths and dangers to athletic and professional excellence. Sometimes the problems with performance flow from failure of technique or erosion of skill, sometimes from adaptations of the other side. In the middle of a game and performance—players are tempted to “try harder.” Coaches and teammates exhort them, “just try harder.”

Trying harder is not exactly the same as another phrase “bear down” which demands more focused attention and being present to situational awareness. Trying harder usually means the player or professional has to step back from what they are doing, think about it and then “fix” it through exertion of energy.

Trying harder in the midst of a game erodes the entrenched expertise and pattern recognition of a high performing professional. Trying means a player willfully and self-consciously pushes him or herself. They exert more energy or effort simply for the purpose of exerting more energy.

This exertion can be mental in trying to overthink a technical adaption or in trying to outthink the opposition. Once a player enters this mind space, he or she has essentially lost the emotional mind game. They are no longer present to the situation. He or she no longer relies on the fine-grained pattern recognition and split second perception and skill deployment they have practiced. They tighten up mentally.
They also tighten up physically. Their self-conscious mental effort and internal command to try harder sends urgent messages to the body that launch high levels of cortisol and adrenaline that wrecks havoc on timing and rhythm. These responses narrow the perceptual field.

The mental reaction slows down reaction times with a mental screen interfering. A physiological reaction increases the response with too much strength or speed. Beyond inappropriate energy distribution, players over anticipate and commit too early on an action permitting the opponent to fool them.

Athletes use a large number of terms to identify the same phenomenon—players press or force actions. This pressing grows from trying too hard and ends up with a mismatch between energy/speed of a player’s action with the requirements of a situation.

When the Seattle Seahawks came from 21 points down to win a game, their Coach Pete Carroll addressed the very issue. He mentioned that the team and coaches had actually practices this scenario during preseason practice in order to focus the energy and words of coaches. Carroll then pointed out the danger. When teams are down and start to get anxious and press, execution and forcing it come into play.  "The problem," Carroll explained, " is they overtly and we need patience. Literally you are  going to have to go one play at a time." Cliched wisdom matters here for coaches and players who have to rein in their anxiety and focus. Carroll spoke again of how the coaches had to "direct our language in the right direction." This meant no panic driven emotional speeches, but concise and directive and strong places. As he said, "you can't win it on the first possession." 

Creating a culture where coaches especially have the knowledge and trust to build in patience and convey this is critical. 

Hultzen is a young pitcher and when he fell behind, he had the common tendency to try and “spot” or “overthrow.” This impatience leads  pitchers to miss their slots or lose rhythm. A player loses consistency because he or she tries to reinvent each pitch. Quarterbacks, basketball shooters, tennis serves all suffer form same response.  

Once players try too hard, it permits opponents to dictate the game. Players who are trying to hard become predictable and less quick. They over anticipate while having slippage in reaction times because they grow to mistrust their own skills. This permits opponents to dominate with feints and misdirection or even beat more talented or skilled players who are confused and off their game. Teams dominate another team when other players press and try too hard losing their rhythm and undermining skill. This creates a vicious cycle that undermines confidence, leads to more trying and even greater futility. 

Worse, trying too hard becomes a mental distraction for the players. Trying too hard turns mental energy into a spiral of self-criticism, failed experiments and loss of confidence. The spiral is hard to break. Ex General Manager Bill Polian talks about how critical this is to good coaches “In order to perform well as an athlete you need to be single-minded, focused on the job at hand, right down to the minute details. If that focus is shattered, if you're distracted, you do not perform as well.” The paradox becomes the harder a person tries the worse the distraction becomes.

Brendan Ryan who plays gorgeous short-stop for the Mariners but remains one of the most cringe-worthy hitters in the American league describes the cycle perfectly:

"My thing was, I have got to try harder. Get in the cage and spend more time there.”…"What I think happens most of the time is the harder you try, the harder it gets and things start to snowball. Maybe the biggest thing is confidence, going up there and believing something good was going to happen.

"It just felt all year I would get the count to that pitch, I would get the pitch and just miss it. It might even turn into a walk but you don't even feel good about that because you knew you should have hit that pitch and you should have been standing on second. The frustration just kept building."

Mike Morse a new Mariner teammate gets at a basic point of professional high performance, “Guys are more relaxed, and when you’re relaxed your talent comes out.” 

No one suggests not working or practicing to refine expertise or adapt to changes. "if at first you don't succeed, try try again," still carries real weight, but what matters is how a person tries and the mind set of learning and integrating learning, not just pure effort. It all depends upon the mind-set of the effort. Relaxing means not placing the mental screen in place that slows reaction and induces inappropriate levels of effort. It requires a letting go and being present to permit the well trained and refined expertise to be released.

It reduces to trusting the work you have done prior to the moment in the game. Trusting that skill, trusting to micro-adaptions in the moment and trusting to the trained situational awareness you have developed.

As Danny Hultzen stated so simply, “just relax.”