Amazing. In game 1 of the 2019 World Series, Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto responded to the force of power that is the Houston Astros’ pitcher Gerrit Cole. In Soto, we’re talking about someone who can’t even legally buy a beer in this country facing a 29 year old 3 time all-star who likely will win the American League Cy Young Award and hitting a home run and a double off the veteran pitcher. He even added a single after Cole left the game. But it started out with a first-at-bat strikeout. Then he settled down. He made adjustments. He changed his approach. Mid-game. The response afterwards was fearlessness and enjoyment. Home Run. That’s the place to be in in order to perform at your best: fearlessness and enjoyment. One key to getting there is what Soto mentioned in an ESPN interview: “most of the times just take a deep breath and just focus on the picture of me. Everybody around I forget about; it’s just you and me. And that’s how everything comes down, try to enjoy it”. Physiologically he has a brain that isn’t fully mature being all of 20 years old, but Juan Soto has worked at optimizing what he has, and the results are prodigious. It is about honing a present moment focus. It is about having a routine. It is about clearly articulating goals to aim for in a particular moment that makes distractions minimal if non-existent. It is experiencing success and feeling the enjoyment of it and wanting more. More challenges. More success. This drives the desire to continue to work to get more success. That’s the promising start of a career. That’s Juan Soto.
It’s been 11 years since Tiger Woods won his last major, the 2008 US Open in which a Tiger with a broken leg gutted out a playoff in dramatic fashion to win. Since that time, Wood’s seeming invincibility had been rocked by scandal and character assassination of his own doing. There have been injuries, multiple surgeries, rehabilitation. Don’t you remember the video of an impaired Tiger Woods swaying unsteadily on his feet as he’s questioned by a cop? And now….redemption. No matter what your opinion of Tiger Woods, no matter how you feel about this man, you cannot deny his incredible composure as he methodically marched to his 15th Major at the place where he won his first, the Masters. How can a person, given what they have gone through, keep their emotions in check knowing what has preceded before and now, facing a life defining victory that is so close? Yet this is what we saw: a calm, collected human being who did not outwardly reveal the white hot burning intensity of desire mixed with possible emotions in such a situation: anxiety, elation, frustration, anger, excitement, anticipation. You did not see the emotion until it was all over. And when it was over: joy. Relief from the monumental restraint he exercised throughout the day. A triumphant roar. Let this be a master lesson of emotional regulation. You can have emotions (there’s nothing wrong with them). And you can display them…up until a point. That point is where the outward expression of emotion adversely affects your performance (eg. anger tightening up muscles leading to mistakes). That point is where your emotional display is seen by your opponent who then regains confidence to beat you. Ask yourself, “what is my breaking point?”. The ability to direct and redirect focus requires training and experience. From two years ago saying “I’m done” to being the 2019 Masters Champion, Tiger Woods is as legendary as can be….and he is as human as can be. Today he demonstrated for us what is possible.
The US Open Women’s Championship won by Naomi Osaka of Japan, her first major title ever, was overshadowed by Serena Williams emotional outburst and argument with Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos. This will not be a discussion of who is right and who is wrong but rather how lack of acceptance likely affected Serena’s focus and thus, her athletic performance. Things seemed to have settled between Ms. Williams and Mr. Ramos after a warning was given to her for possibly receiving coaching from the stands. The accusation that she was “cheating” did not sit well with Serena who stated out loud her career never involved cheating. In the argument with the umpire, she also brings up her relatively new role as a mother which implies that she is very aware of the kind of person and player she commits to be and what values she wishes to impart on her daughter . Although the controversy seemed to have been “let go” mentally by Serena, this does not seem to be the case as seen later on in the match. A point was taken away from Serena by Mr. Ramos when Serena slammed her racket on the ground out of frustration. On finding out a point was taken away, her anger resurfaced and need “to be right”, to challenge the cheating accusation takes center stage again. She becomes “fused” with the identity of how she wants to be perceived: an accomplished tennis player who has never cheated. It is a state of rigidity. Of inflexibility. As a result, she is carried by a tidal wave of emotion, hurling back verbal insults “you’re a thief”, threats “you’ll never [umpire] another one of my games” and accusations of sexism. And the only way she could see how things may be corrected is to demand an apology from Mr. Ramos. Serena could not accept the reality of the situation. She could not accept “what is”. Here is “what is”: she received a warning from the chair umpire who suspected that she was receiving coaching from the stands. “What is” is that she lost a game on serve and the score is 3-2, 2nd set and she destroys her racket. “What is” is that she had a point taken away from her for this violation. “What is” is the feeling of frustration, anger. Granted she could be right in her accusations that Mr. Ramos is sexist or that there is a bias against her as experienced in past US Open tournaments. These interpretations are not facts. They are perceptions that are believed to be facts by Ms. Williams and it leads her down a path of emotional upset. What is clear is that she wanted what she did not have and she did not have what she wanted. She could not accept the”what is” of the moment. In this refusal of “what is”, an athlete’s mind is not present. This is a dangerous state to be in the midst of competition. When you are not playing in the present moment, if you are thinking of “what could have been” or “what needs to be” then the quality of your performance goes down. It goes down to the degree of how badly you want “what could have been” or “what needs to be” and you focus on that instead of what is in front of you. Emotions take over. With sports that require complex motor movements where inches matter (like pretty much all sports) then mistakes get made because your mind is not present–it’s absent, thinking of either what just happened or what consequences are to come. From this mindset, what follows is less joy, less creativity, less relaxed play. The decreased quality of actions affect performance and outcomes. They affect others around you including your teammates and in Serena’s case, Mr. Carlos Ramos, the fans, and unfortunately Ms. Osaka as her once in a lifetime chance to ceremoniously celebrate her first major tennis championship is lost. To her credit, Ms. Williams did address the crowd to place Ms. Osaka rightfully in the spotlight of recognition of superior performance that night. However, we don’t pay attention as much to the positive when there is drama. And Serena created drama. How do you avoid rigid fusion when you don’t have what you want? Know where you heavily invest your emotional “eggs in one basket”. Decide ahead of time if it makes sense to do so. Consider goals of mastery rather than outcome goals. Value sportsmanship and let your playing do your arguing for you. Know that not only do you have a responsibility for yourself, but that your actions affect others. Focus on putting quality out there.
Not to take away from Danny Willet’s win at the 2016 Masters, but who are we kidding? The biggest story is of course Jordan Spieth’s collapse. A score of 7 on the 12th hole was a crowd silencing finality in erasing a 5 stroke lead on the final day of the Masters. This was a tragedy, played out on Amen Corner. I know good intentioned people want to preface it with “well, it’s only a golf tournament…it’s only sports”, but doing so also is in a way a form of denial. It tries to take away the suffering from the sufferer. It undermines the acknowledgement of such a life altering event and the acceptance, not liking, but the acceptance of the situation and the ensuing feelings that understandably will be present: sadness, regret, shame, anger….pain. Such a loss can bring a mortal to his knees, his soul shattered. But acknowledgement and acceptance is the first step in creating a resume of resilience. Acceptance, you see, paves the way for important processes to occur. For growth. And for this to occur, Jordan must believe there is something meaningful to be had from the experience. Not just an understanding, but a pure belief. What is there to learn from what just happened? And finally what is essential (I heard this in spades from Mr. Spieth as he was being interviewed walking off the golf course) is that Jordan has faith in himself. He believes it is up to him to control his destiny. He believes he has the competence to make changes, to improve and shape how he will handle a similar situation in the future.
It would be ideal if this process of acceptance-meaning-learning-competence occurs in the moment when the course of events may still be changed to a favorable outcome, but this process requires teaching. It requires experience for the process to be earned. Hard enough for a mature adult individual, even harder for a 22 year old whose frontal lobe, the seat of executive functioning that reins in emotion, has yet to fully mature despite a preternatural maturity that Jordan has. Young people tend to still think and act according to intense emotions. This hurts, but “Smooth seas does not a master sailor make”. Will this new experience for Jordan Spieth serve an important crossroads milestone on the road to excellence or will it serve as a detour to a winding path of dark uncertainty? What I hear and what I hope for this young man is an assured confidence, at least for now, to get up and keep walking.
15th seed Middle Tennessee was leading 2nd seed Michigan State by a fitting score of 15-2 at the beginning of their game yesterday. We’re all now recuperating from the shock today of tournament favorite Sparty being bested by…I don’t even know the name of Middle Tenn’s mascot. Quick google search, OK… the Blue Raiders. What kind of a mascot is that?! Although 15-2 was a sizeable lead, did any of you really think that Michigan State was going to stay down? It is amazing looking back that Middle Tennessee did not even relinquish the lead once against a team many thought would win the whole thing.
But late in the 2nd half, Michigan State did pull to within 3 with 2 foul shots awaiting. During the preceding time out, I would imagine that most 15th seeded teams would despair. Coach Kermit Davis: “We looked at each other, and said, ‘Let’s enjoy this. Let’s have fun right here’.” I want you to notice these words. “Enjoy this” “Right here”. Very present moment. Under the microscope of the NCAA tournament a lot of athletes in this particular situation would remain in the past: “How did we let a lead like that get away?” “Should have made that shot!” “Why did I make that turnover?!” Or think forward into the future: “We let this one slip away. All that we’ve been through this season…well, it was a good run” or even “We still have a chance to make history”. Nope. The players and coaches looked at each other and as one said “Let’s have fun right here.” Right now. Will this attitude guarantee a win every time? No. Is this attitude difficult to have? Hell, yeah. But with a mindset of being open to a present moment experience that is sitting in front of you, it does make it more likely to play the game, and I mean “play” in every sense of that word, “relaxed and real confident” as witnessed by Coach Davis. No, you may not “win”, but you’ll sure have fun.
I’ve been watching HBO’s Hard Knocks profile on the Atlanta Falcons, and the first two episodes have certainly shown a lot of fighting. Add this to the article written by Jeff Schultz in the Atlanta Journal Constitution Sunday 8/10/14 and you’ve got a team that looks like it’s on edge. According to defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman “Fighting shows how physical you are and hungry you are.” Make no mistake about it, this is a new Falcons team that has not forgotten last season’s humbling 4-12 record. No one’s position is safe. The August Georgia sun, fatigue, and uncertainty–that sets up a tense atmosphere where impulse control goes out the window. In a physically aggressive sport like football, violence is valued….until the whistle blows. I think arguably the most important thing in sport is discipline: discipline with practice, discipline to learn, discipline to train, discipline to remain focused, discipline to fight or to know when to back down. Anger can certainly fuel discipline, but it can also lead to wild, undisciplined physical fighting. There was no discipline or thinking behind some of the fighting seen on Hard Knocks, as evidenced by Hagemen nearly breaking his wrist after hitting his teammate’s helmet–there was no long term thought process in this act which could have ended disastrously for Hagemen and his team.
Anger is different from fighting. Anger is an emotion we all experience, serving an evolutionary adaptive purpose to socially communicate a wrong that needs to be fixed. Which method you use depends on your mental tool-kit. Aggression is a primitive tool, but can serve a purpose to communicate. Like when your quarterback gets a cheap shot. The message: “We as a team will not tolerate that.” And in football which is already physical, it’s no wonder that the communication style needs to be equally on par in order to get the attention of the person/team perceived doing the wrong thing…as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. It’s important to be mindful about what it is you are trying to communicate; is it about pushing (no pun intended) the agenda of the team, and what’s good for the team? Or is is self-serving? I can understand that the nature of training camp for many is to try to “win” a spot on the team, which is a very individualistic goal. When it comes to trying to make a roster spot, the other guy’s failure or lack of performance/enthusiasm assists your success. To relieve the tension, why not stand out and show you are “physical” or “hungry”. It is difficult to think “team” when there is a real possibility you may not be on it. But being injured in fighting and undermining team cohesion….not much of a future in sport in that either.
I know this is the second consecutive blog on Lebron James, and at the risk of appearing sycophantic, I feel compelled, moved even, to write on his return to Cleveland. His return home. I am impressed, and this is why: Here is still a young man in the prime of his career who seems to be mature beyond his 27 years. Who was able to look past the events of his departure from Cleveland to Miami, just 4 years removed from the hatred, the letter and vindictiveness of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, the boos and the burning of his jerseys despite giving all he could to that city. Where most men would have dared not turn around and repair that burned bridge, Lebron James felt a sense of community obligation, of commitment so that he may forgive and be forgiven. And so he reached out to those who lit the flames. He did it for Ohio’s future generations, returning to where his chances of individual immediate success such as rings and MVP trophies are unlikely. The best basketball player in the world could have done whatever he wanted to ensure his individual legacy in basketball. Instead James shunned his ego, choosing to use his talents as he knows them to make a difference to others–isn’t that what we should strive to do in our own lives?
This time around, the main purpose is to serve, to give back what has been given. Sure he’s going to make more money, and he still cares about winning (how will he influence if he doesn’t?) and chasing Michael Jordan’s greatness. But I believe the hard work will be motivated by something more transcendent. Something that will carry him through the waking up at 5am, pushing his own physical limits, losing, questioning media pressure–because the purpose is beyond self-absorbed motives. It involves sacrifice for a greater good. It’s a daunting but noble challenge. One that I can’t wait to see unfold.