One of my colleagues did a quick workshop warm-up exercise with a group of managers recently. Working in pairs, group members had to ‘mirror’ a sequence of each other’s movements, which became progressively more complicated. Frequent failure was guaranteed, but when either person made a mistake, they had to shout ‘Yay!’ and throw their arms up in a celebratory victory salute! The point of the early-morning warm-up was simply to wake us up and have some fun, but the exercise reminded me about the golfer Jack Nicklaus’s recommendation, to ‘play badly well’…
The worse you’re performing, the more you must work mentally and emotionally. The greatest and toughest art in golf is playing badly well. All the true greats have been masters at it.”— Jack Nicklaus
We get the same message from different disciplines – motor industry entrepreneur Henry Ford once said that ‘Failure is the opportunity to start again more intelligently’. Yet despite the persistent wisdom that mastery requires us to cultivate an ‘achievement attitude’ even when our performance is going south, most of us give up when we are not doing so wonderfully.
‘Achievement attitude’ is a decision, but it is also a learned behaviour requiring discipline and energy to sustain. In The Champion’s Mind, expert on mental toughness Jim Afremow describes some of the keys to mastery that define elite athletes, from which we can all learn:
- Motivation will always fluctuate, but it is irrelevant at ‘the moment of truth’ when you actually act. Full motivation usually shows up during the process, not beforehand.
- Identify precisely what you do that hurts your own cause the most. Eliminate that action or viewpoint immediately. To perform at a champion’s level, you must break any bad habits.
- You can hate to lose, but don’t be afraid to lose. Confidence without complacency keeps you on target when you are playing well and winning.
- Full presence help you become your performance. Otherwise, you are always one step behind what you are doing because you are judging what is happening and are not fully in the moment. A mind in the moment is not self-conscious or concerned about what opponents or spectators are thinking or doing.
- Just as a single footstep will not make a path through the woods, so a single thought will not make a neural pathway in the mind. To make a forest path, we walk again and again. To make a mental path, we must think repeatedly and positively about how we can excel.
Work on positive psychology conducted at Harvard University reminds us how important it is to play to our strengths although sometimes, this orientation overlooks the importance of sustaining a winning mindset whilst we are losing. Mythologist Joseph Campbell said something similar decades ago, when described the Upanishads’ three entry-points to enlightenment: sat – or beingness; chit – or consciousness; and ananda – or bliss. He confessed to not really knowing what ‘beingness’ was, or what ‘consciousness’ looks like, but declared that he did know how to follow his bliss, and do what excited him, brought him joy and made him feel alive. Some years later, he also remarked that he could just as easily have advised people to ‘follow your blisters’ as much as to ‘follow your bliss’ because sustained focus and application are also required!
How well do you play when you’re playing badly?