Recently, two amateur archers approached me about how they could improve their game. They showed up with stacks of graphs of their performance results, wanting an analysis and diagnosis of what they were doing wrong technically and mentally.
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"We're engineers,” they said. “We're very analytical."
Yet they'd brought me all the wrong data. I asked them to take two weeks and collect the data that mattered—not what they had been doing, but what they hadn’t.
See, the difference being good and being great, or between being stuck and getting better—no matter whether you’re a runner, swimmer, lifter, baller, archer, or any other kind of athlete—isn’t always found in the hard, fast numbers. In fact, sometimes what we know actually gets in the way of what we need to do.
Before I sent the archers away to collect this different kind of data (which you’ll read about below), I asked them a simple, but challenging question—a question I’ve asked 10,000 people over my career: Does how you feel affect how you perform?
Almost everyone says yes, but the archers were skeptical at first. The "touchie-feelies," they called them.
But what they found—what everybody I’ve worked with has found—is that feel is different from feelings. Feel—intangible, yet so powerful—actually holds the key to better performance in any arena. My archers learned it, world-class athletes I’ve worked with have learned it, and many other folks in all kinds of professions have, too.
Here, the five steps to tapping into feel—and thus learning the secrets to better performance.
STEP 1: Focus on Play, Not Performance
Most athletes I’ve worked with come to me because they’ve lost that sense of play and placed too much emphasis on goals and outcomes, thus losing sight of why they perform in the first place. The reason most people stop playing? Because someone told them they were good, told them if they worked harder, they’d be successful. In return, they stopped playing and focused more on performing.
When Jon Lugbill was 14, he won his first of five world canoe championships. He’d had the chance to watch the best C-1 canoe competitors in the world. His first thought? “I can beat these guys,” even though no American had ever done so. His response was to play more, to experiment in his training, to “play” with and redesign his equipment, and to invent new strokes. Rather than bear down on what he already knew, simply doing it more often and harder, he learned and experimented and in his own words, “played and paddled more often.” He did his training, did the work, but he always made time for playing—not being bound by regimented schedules.
In every field I’ve worked in, play is critical, because it allows you to let go of the outside pressures to perform—and find new (and sometimes better) systems that work for you. (Even surgeons constantly practice tying knots, sewing their socks, playing with faster and better ways to “throw a stitch.”)
DO IT YOURSELF: The best way to incorporate more of a sense of play into your training is to let go of some of your tangible goals and suspend any of your traditional measurement of what you’re doing (times, weights, reps). Run or bike without a watch or take a new route, and focus on the feedback from your body. Define intervals by how you feel instead of how long you go, testing yourself instead of pushing yourself. As you get more comfortable with play, add back in the measurements, the watch, the mileage, but only look at them after you’re finished. This allows your body to help guide you to make better training decisions—that eventually will pay off with better tangible results, too.
STEP 2: Learn the Skill of Feel
Unlike feelings (which you really can’t control, but are valuable in terms of connecting with what we do and who we do it with), feel is actually a skill that you can control and develop. Understanding this difference was critical to the success of Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Jeff Rouse. Like most of us, he'd never consciously made the distinction between feel and feelings. Yet, one 24-hour period in the Barcelona Olympics taught him why this difference mattered.
The world-record holder and favorite in the 100-meter backstroke, Jeff listened to the talk that his legacy as a swimmer rested on winning the Olympic medal. He believed it when people told him without the gold medal, he'd be a failure. He worried about losing and, as a result swam not to lose. He tried harder than he usually did, and in his own words, "died" coming into the finish, losing by six one-hundredths of a second.
He couldn't believe it. He beat himself up mentally and was physically beaten up from the race. He was exhausted. Worse yet, he was scared. The next day he'd have to lead the U.S. into the 4 x 100 medley relay, a race they'd never lost in the history of the event.
He didn't sleep well and worried about letting down his teammates, his family and country... again. Five minutes before the race, teammate Pablo Morales grabbed him and told him to "swim the way he swam to get there."
In a single moment, that “feel” took the place of Jeff's “feelings” and he broke his own world record and went on to win two more golds in Atlanta.
DO IT YOURSELF: Feel is the byproduct of play, the testing and touching of those things that capture our attention. Feel is found in shooting, hitting, running, swimming for the feel of it in practice until you know that what you feel matches what you want. It’s quality over quantity. And to get it, you have to play (see Step 1). How do you find it? Feel is found in not leaving the gym until you’ve made 50 shots that felt right and went in, not counting the ones that went in, but felt bad. Feel is running or riding the hills until you find the rhythm of shifting gears that’s just right, attacking the hill without losing the momentum of the slope you’ve just left behind. Feel is finding and holding the glide in each stroke in the water that lessens the drag. Feel isn’t about working harder or trying to hit a certain number in a workout goal; it’s about experimenting to find what works best for you. And then when you find it, you know how to get it next time.
STEP 3: Remember the Why
The performers I’ve interviewed had a pretty simple, though not always easy, formula for success. They chose their sports (or careers) because they liked how doing that thing made them feel when they did it. Most of us assume that by chasing what we want (say, a marathon PR or a win on the tennis court), we'll also get what we like. But we can lose sight of what we like when chasing the actual goal.
Many years after working with Jeff Rouse, I talked with the guy who broke Jeff's records, Aaron Piersol. Aaron told me, "You can't ever forget why you're swimming, why you're doing what you're doing."
“I started swimming before I could walk. My family loved the water. It was like throw-the-kid-in because we were always around water. At a pool, at a spring, at the beach. That was how we spent our days,” he said.
“Competitive swimming is a very narrow definition of swimming. I’ve tried to explain that to other people and there are a lot of other opportunities to be comfortable with the water. If you want to be a good swimmer, you really want to know why you’re doing it. I just developed an appreciation for the water. When I go to the beach it’s beyond words. It’s just a feeling I get. It felt natural.”
Too often, we chase what we want at the expense of doing what makes us feel the way we like. We dress it up as being dedicated and hard working. That can lead to excuses, to replacing what we really like or want with the appreciation of others for how hard we worked. Or it can break us because what we like is no longer aligned with the work to getting what we want.
DO IT YOURSELF: When we were kids, we played and we liked. We played with those things and those people we liked. We had the freedom to like, a freedom fewer of us seem to allow ourselves. Instead of the pressure to “love” that comes with adulthood, as little kids, we were free to “like like” someone. What do you like about what you do? What do you like about running or cycling, playing hoops or golf or even your job regardless of where they lead you? My work consists mostly of reminding people how they like to feel and those activities and people that make that happen. I don’t need to remind people that they love what they do or that they want to achieve. My job is reconnecting them with the “like like” of a little kid that bridges that gap between what we like and what we want and doing the work it takes to get there. How do you get it? Try telling your story to someone or writing a blog post (or journal entry) about you sport—how you got into it, how learned to “like like” it. When you re-visit the roots, you remember how it felt to want to do it day after day. It’s a useful exercise, especially when you reach plateaus, hit a rough training spot, or just need some extra motivation.
STEP 4: Develop Trust, Not Confidence
What’s the difference between the two? Confidence is the belief that will get what you want—the outcome. Trust is knowing that you’ve done the work to allow you to do what you want to do. It’s subtle, but important—because trust actually can help you perform better, even when you’re not feeling confident. The best example of this came out in my interview with Grammy Award-winning musician Bruce Hornsby.
Bruce sat midcourt at his piano at the NBA All-Star Game, waiting with Branford Marsalis to play the National Anthem. As the lights went down, the cue for them to begin playing, a little red light went on over the television camera indicating they were live-- all the way to China. Bruce's hands resting down by his side, started to shake. He couldn't remember this happening before and his usual confidence hesitated.
He did what great performers do, even when their confidence escapes them-- he put his hands on the keys. Why? Because he trusted his hands to know what to do once they felt the keys. His hands could stay in the moment. He'd done the work well enough to allow them to do what they knew, to do what they could control without worrying about the outcome.
DO IT YOURSELF: Developing trust is the result of the relationship to what you do and how you do it. Trust comes as much from playing as it does from training or reps. Knowing your “thing” whether it’s a bike, a ball, or your shoes, play allows you to test them out, to bend them, move them, shape them, control them until they’re your friend. Toss the golf or tennis ball in the air sitting at your desk. Ride your bike instead of driving as often as you can. Wear your shoes until you know them and love them and feel that they fit you, not just your feet. Whatever it is, play with it—and this is key, away from your training—to get that feeling of trust.
STEP 5: Stop Judging
Accountability is literally taking responsibility for your results. How did you do? Judgment is how you feel about yourself based on how you did and is too often informed by your feelings. Great performers first and foremost hold themselves accountable for how they did, but really work on getting away from judgment.
A national team golfer was having problems landing a ball softly without rolling it too far away from the hole. So I had a suggestion: I’d stand in front of her while she shot.
“Hit the ball over my head,” I told her, “and make it land right behind me.”
Her eyes popped out of her head as if to say, “You want me to do WHAT?”
She’d told me about the judgment, the worry, the pressure she felt to perform. She’d shared how golf had gone from the wonder at that first time she got a ball up into the air as a girl, breaking a window of the family farm back home, to the worry of what she’d lose if she didn’t play well-- the scholarship, the education, the opportunities that being good afforded her.
She’d tried the visualization and relaxation techniques, the focus training, and simply hitting more balls, but couldn’t escape the self-judgment. She worried more about what she might do wrong than what she had actually done right or how to get better. She needed to just play golf and stop judging herself.
So I stood ten feet in front of her, between her and the fifth hole, and told her we weren’t leaving until she hit the ball over my head and landed it near the hole. We weren’t leaving until she felt what she needed to feel.
She squirmed over the ball, twitching, moving, uncomfortable and scared of hurting me. I smiled. I knew that if she could do this, she would learn what she needed to learn or at least experience what she needed to.
She sculled the first ball and I ducked as it whizzed by my head and into the creek. She covered her nervous laugh with her hand over her mouth. I laughed, and that made all the difference. She knew I wasn’t judging her.
The next shot was too soft and it landed gently in my hands. We played around with the club, laying it flatter on the ground and something fell into place. She stopped squirming and set herself like all of a sudden she knew what needed doing. And she just did it. She hit the ball high over my head and it landed softly behind me, then rolled within a foot of the cup. A huge smile, almost a giggle.
We stayed and played with the shot, with the ball, experimenting to see what worked. She played with it. She embraced the accountability-- that the ball was doing exactly what she made it do. And when it didn’t do what she wanted it to do, she played with it some more until it did exactly what she wanted it to do. No technical or mechanical thinking. Just playing and feeling. No judgment or pushing, but experimentation, creativity, and results.
I saw her a month or so later. She’d been playing well and I asked her why.
“I figured out what mattered,” she said.
DO IT YOURSELF: Getting rid of self-judgment requires the discipline of play, of creativity and experimentation, testing yourself instead of pushing yourself. You have to create those meaningless moments on purpose with your friends or teammates or people who couldn’t care less about the results, who just like spending time with you, who like playing with you and give you the freedom to be yourself. Really, it’s like being a kid again—running through the woods, swimming laps as you’re pretending to be in the Olympics, biking like you’re saving E. T., or taking the game winning shot and missing, then pretending you got fouled. Doing these things allow you into what seem like effortless moments until you realize, soaked and exhausted, it’s only the self-judgment that’s missing, not your resolve to do what works, to win, or to be better.
Performance coach Doug Newburg, Ph.D., has worked with thousands of elite performers in all fields. You can read more about his work on www.dougnewburg.com.