Month: September 2014

A Mental Trick from the World’s Best Team

keep-calm-and-chillax-72By most measures, the New Zealand All-Blacks are the toughest, smartest, and most successful sports team on the planet. The rugby squad has won 86 percent their games during the modern era against some of the most ferocious competition in the world. Best of all, they begin each match with a crazy, terrifyingly cool haka dance (below).

So it won’t surprise you to learn that the All-Blacks train incredibly hard, or that they have a robust team culture, or that they are tactically brilliant. But it might surprise you to learn that they spend a lot of time and energy working on an area which most of us totally ignore: emotional skills.

Specifically, their ability to regulate mood, to stay positive and resilient, to handle unfair ups and downs, to remain even-keeled, and to deal with unpredictable misfortune without losing your grip.  Basically, their competitive temperament.

It’s funny, we don’t normally think of temperament as a skill. We think of it as a fixed product of someone’s character. We instinctively assume that temperaments are either weak (tend to choke under pressure) or strong (tend to come through). The All-Blacks, however, treat temperament and emotion as muscles to be trained with specific workouts.

Quick background: a few years ago, the team was going through a period of uncharacteristic struggle. Some players were having trouble controlling their emotions in matches. It was the typical stuff we all experience from time to time: they were trying too hard, being overly aggressive, and experiencing the tunnel-vision syndrome Navy pilots dryly refer to as OBE: Overcome By Events.

So, with the help of a former Rhodes Scholar named Ceri Evans, they devised a tool to fix that, built on a simple two-part frame that describes the mental state you want to avoid, and the one you want to be in. They call it Red Head/Blue Head.

Red Head is the negative state, when you are heated, overwhelmed, and tense (H.O.T., in the parlance). Your emotional engine is smoking, your perceptions are slow, the game feels too fast, and your decision making is rushed.

Blue Head, on the other hand, is the precise opposite: the cool, controlled, pattern-seeing state, when you retain your awareness and your decision-making power, when you stay flexible and deliver top performance.

The key is doing three things:

  • 1) seek to stay in Blue Head as your default setting
  • 2) sense cues when you are entering Red-Head mode
  • 3) use a physical or mental trigger to get yourself back into Blue Head.

On the All-Blacks, each player is encouraged to devise personal triggers to make the transition. One player stamps his feet into the grass, to ground himself. Another uses mental imagery, picturing himself from the highest seat in the stadium, to help put the moment in perspective. Whatever  tool you use doesn’t matter — what matters is realizing you’re in the wrong emotional zone, and finding ways to cool yourself off and get back in a high-performing head space.

I think this is an idea that applies to a lot more than just sports. The notion that you can build yourself an emotional thermostat that senses when it’s overheating, and cools itself down when needed, is powerfully useful.

What I like best is how it flips the normal dynamic about emotions — where everyone is left to deal with it on their own — and turns it into a platform for group conversation. Players and coaches can use this language to tell a player that he’s glowing red, or to appreciate a player who stays blue under pressure.  It forms a language of performance that, like all shared languages, connects people and lifts them up.

(Plus, that haka!)

PS: if you want to read more about the All-Blacks, check out Legacy: What the All-Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, by James Kerr

The Best Locker-Room Speech Ever, and Why it Works

People talk all the time about what makes up a great teacher or coach. The vast majority of the conversation focuses on the daily business of the craft: methods, information, and strategies. And this makes perfect sense.

But every once in a while, we get a glimpse of what coaching and teaching really are. Last month, at the Little League World Series, we got one of those glimpses, courtesy of Dave Belisle, coach of the Rhode Island Americans, in the moments after his team suffered a heartbreaking loss that eliminated them from the tournament.

(If you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend it.)

Goosebumps, right?

This speech strikes such a chord because it is a perfect case study of relationship-based coaching. It’s an approach where the coach puts his effort and focus on building relationships — creating identity, trust, and a sense of belonging.

A conventional coach focuses first on skills. A relationship-based coach, on the other hand, focuses first on creating a sense of belonging. A conventional coach asks: what can I do to help them win? A relationship-based coach asks: what can I do to help us nurture connections and create a culture? A conventional coach views his team through the lens of performance. A relationship-based coach views his team through the lens of family — which, not coincidentally, tends to make the teaching all the more effective. People work hard for a team. They work even harder for a team that truly feels like family.

Let’s look more closely at Belisle’s speech, which is like a textbook for relationship-based coaching.

First, he connects:

Everybody, heads up high, heads up high. Let’s talk for a moment here. Look, I’ve gotta see your eyes, guys.”

It would be so easy to overlook this given the emotion of this moment, but it’s massively important. I gotta see your eyes, guys. Be here, right now, together.

Then, he establishes the core message:

There’s no disappointment in your effort — in the whole tournament, the whole season…We came to the last out. We didn’t quit. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!

Notice how he focuses on things the team can control — the effort — and uses it to affirm the strength of the team identity. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!

He keeps building, focusing ruthlessly on their accomplishment and linking it to their identity. The message: they succeeded not just because they played well — they succeeded because of who they are.

You had the whole place jumping, right? You had the whole state jumping. You had New England jumping. You had ESPN jumping. OK? You want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way.

He doesn’t BS them — this is the last game — but he frames their disappointment around their larger, far more meaningful connection:

It’s OK to cry, because we’re not going to play baseball together anymore. But we’re going to be friends forever. Friends forever. Our Little League careers have ended on the most positive note that could ever be. OK? Ever be.”

Then explains what’s about to happen — which, of course, is about more relationships, connecting to those who love and support them:

So, we need to go see our parents, because they’re so proud of you. One more thing. I want a big hug. I want everyone to come in here for one big hug. One big hug, then we’re going to go celebrate. Then we’re going to go back home to a big parade.

This is not conventional coaching. This is a clinic on relationship-building. Fully 90 percent of what he says is about team identity and family. And he proves his words through his actions and the steadiness of his demeanor, especially those long, intense pauses that drive the words home to each kid, one at a time.

You’d call these “soft skills” but as this shows, they are anything but “soft” in their application. They’re a product of a relationship-based approach that has four core principles:

  • 1) Seek to create belonging by establishing a clear, vivid identity.
  • 2) Be vulnerable. Notice how the coach talks openly about emotions, especially his own. This creates safety and trust.
  • 3) Teach the whole kid. Connect in ways beyond the field or classroom.
  • 4) Tell the truth. The strength of the relationship is in its honesty and trust.

So simple, and so powerful. If anybody has any other examples of relationship-based coaching/teaching, or ideas to share, I’d love to hear them.

Five Simple Back-to-School Study Hacks for Kids

kid_brainDear Kids,

Welcome to the start of another school year.  (I know, it’s a huge bummer that summer is over. If it helps, we adults feel exactly the same way. Have a cherry popsicle — you’ll feel better.)

Over the next nine months, you’re going to be using your brain to learn stuff. So it would be a good idea to know how your brain really works.

(And to be clear, the goal of all this is NOT so that you can spend more time at your desk. It’s so that you can get your homework finished quickly and then go do something truly important, like go ride your bike around the neighborhood, or catch a bunch of lightning bugs in a jar, while being careful to screw the jar lid on tightly to keep your bedroom from being filled with tons of lightning bugs in the middle of the night, which is freaky and scary and also cool. See? You’re only in the third paragraph and you’ve already learned something!)

Anyway, the thing about your brain is that it’s a little bit like that jar of lightning bugs. It was built by evolution, so it has all these twitchy, surprising features that helped your ancestors not get stepped on by mastodons and avoid falling into quicksand or getting lost in the woods. It was built for survival, not algebra.

So here are five quick hacks for your brain that will help you study better. They’re drawn from a variety of scientific sources, including a terrifically useful and insightful new book called How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens, by Benedict Carey (which is out next week, which inspired me to write this, and which your parents should definitely buy).

Hack #1: Space out your study time. 

Let’s say that have a Spanish test on Friday, for which you need to spend about an hour preparing. Should you:

A) study Thursday night for one hour; or

B) study 20 minutes a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday?

The answer is: B). And it’s not even close. In fact, studies show you could probably get away with studying only about 10 or 15 minutes a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, because spacing out your study time is nearly twice as effective as cramming. It also helps you retain it a lot longer — which comes in handy for that Spanish test next month, and the one after that.

The reasons for this have to do with your brain’s tendency to get way less interested in stuff that gets repeated a lot over a short amount of time (i.e., cramming) and to get way more interested in stuff that it faintly remembers and can connect in different contexts. So, study the same way you snack: frequently, in small portions.

Hack #2: Switch up your study locations. We’re often told that we should stay in one place to learn, but that’s not true. Your brain likes to use settings like a Hollywood director; it uses them in the movies that make up your memory. So if you study and test yourself lots of places, play different kinds of music, wear different clothes, even chew different-flavored gum, your memory will improve.

Hack #3: Mix it up. School is orderly, so we instinctively think our studying schedule should also be orderly — you know, study math for an hour, then English for an hour. This is called “blocked practice,” and it makes perfect sense, except for one small fact: your brain doesn’t like blocked practice. What your brain likes instead is “interleaved practice,” where you study something for 10 minutes, then switch to something else, then come back.

The reasons for this are complicated, but they’re based on the fact that your brain works better when it’s being surprised. When you mix it up, you’re forcing your brain to work harder, and be more efficient.

(This also works in sports and music, by the way. If you want to get better at volleyball serves, mix up the type of serve you practice. And if you want to get better at playing classical music and rock, you should switch between the two all the time. Which could sound kind of awesome.)

Hack #4: Get outside. Your brain was built in the outdoors, so you need to let it get back there regularly. Nobody knows why being outside and walking around helps you get smarter, but it does. Check out this study of third-graders that shows how a 20-minute walk can light up the areas of the brain that filter out distraction and guide focused attention (talk about lightning bugs!)

walk-before-exam

Hack #5: Throw away your highlighters– instead, make a habit of testing yourself. We all know that school involves some memorization. The usual technique is to read a chapter over and over, highlight important passages, and maybe write notecards — you know the drill. Besides, it’s kind of fun to highlight (and yes, that yellow ink does smell fantastic).

But it turns out that those techniques are not nearly as effective as testing yourself. Here’s how: read a passage once, close the book, and then try to write the main points on a blank piece of paper. Then check yourself and see how many you got right.

In other words, don’t lean back in your chair. Instead, lean forward, and generate ideas. Shake the jar, and make the lightning bugs glow. Make your brain work the way it was designed to work — by reaching, struggling, and reaching again.

Best wishes,

Dan