I got the chance to chat with Judd Hoesktra, a leadership and performance expert. He’s also the coauthor — with famed Major League pitching coach Rick Peterson — of the new book, Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most.
The book is a compelling guide to achieving great performances when the stakes are at their highest. Peterson coached Hall of Fame and Cy Young-award pitchers such as Tom Glavine to cool down their overheated nerves and pitch their best under the worst circumstances. Now he and Hoekstra have taken his strategies out of the stadium — and if it worked for teams like the Oakland A’s, it can work for us.
Winning is a mental game no matter the arena, the authors assert. It’s all in how you choose to handle the pressure. The book also includes terrific anecdotes from Peterson’s long career. But it doesn’t take a sports fan to appreciate Crunch Time for its gems of wisdom.
Can you explain what “reframing” is and how to do it?
Reframing is the skill of overriding our reflexive, reactionary thoughts and feelings and learning to see a situation in a different and better way. By thinking better, we take better actions and get better results. When applied to pressure, reframing is about overriding our reflexive nature to see pressure as a threat and instead see it as opportunity.
Can you draw a parallel between a baseball game and a high-pressure situation at work?
When a pitcher is standing on the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded, his mind instinctively goes to a place of fear, worry and doubt. In order to perform in this high-stakes situation, the pitcher must learn to reframe the threat he feels and see the situation in a new light. For example, he needs to reframe his thoughts from worrying about what could go wrong to focusing on what will go right when he successfully executes his pitches.
In business, there are many analogous situations. For example, if we’re making a big presentation with big dollars on the line, or we’re in a job interview, our natural instinct is also to go to a place of fear, worry and doubt. I refer to these emotions as the deadly trio of demotivators. Just like the pitcher, we must learn to override our default reaction in these pressure situations, and choose a different and better response.
Whether it’s baseball or business, the most clutch performers have learned to think on command in ways that help, rather than harm, their performance. The good news is that learning to think like this is a skill anyone can learn.
You give a fascinating explanation for why we panic when we do — that it goes back to our caveman days. Why, after centuries of evolution, are we still in fight, flight, or freeze mode?
Part of our brain, the brain stem and cerebellum, is dedicated toward helping us survive physical threats. I refer to this part of our brain as our Caveman. It’s constantly on the patrol, looking for danger. Our Caveman is in charge of our fight, flight, or freeze instinct. This is a highly successful survival response. By natural selection, people with the strongest Caveman had the highest survival rate.
After centuries of evolution, our Caveman is not only still alive, but is also stronger and faster in its response than the part of our brain that’s responsible for conscious thinking. Five times each second, the brain non-consciously determines what is dangerous and steers away from it. In addition, many more of the neural pathways in our brain are devoted to detecting dangers and threats than to detecting reward.
Despite being alive, strong and fast, our Caveman often harms us instead of helping us in today’s world. That’s because most modern-day threats are psychological in nature, not physical. That primitive instinct is harmful when dealing with today’s psychological threats.
Can you talk about how to “Try Easy” instead of hard? Doesn’t that mean not really applying oneself?
If you remember your best performances, those times you were “in the zone,” you most likely remember them as almost effortless. It’s not that you weren’t putting forth effort, it’s just that you weren’t grinding through it, full of anxiety.
Our parents and coaches have drilled it into us that, when things aren’t going well, the answer is to try harder. Unfortunately, in high-pressure situations, that’s terrible advice. In these tense moments, trying harder is actually counterproductive. The research shows maximum effort doesn’t lead to maximum performance. Rather, optimal effort leads to optimal performance.
Trying easy is not about being lazy or not applying oneself. It’s about throttling back a little. It’s about taking the tension out of what you’re doing, and replacing it with a level of effort that lets you performed in a relaxed state.
And how can we best incorporate these strategies into our everyday lives and workdays? Do you recommend daily practicing, for instance?
Here are my tips for putting this into practice:
- Stop beating yourself up. Everyone has a Caveman that reacts poorly to modern-day pressures. You can’t stop these thoughts and feelings; just remember that you don’t have to act on them.
- Get your sleep. It’s much easier to tame our Caveman and reframe when we’re operating on a good night’s sleep.
- Engage in quiet time. Give yourself time each day to pause and think about what’s going on, whether your thoughts and feelings are serving you, and how you will choose to think differently when tense moments arise. For me, this is a time of prayer in the morning. For others, it may be another form of meditation.
- Practice in your current pressure situations. Reframing is a muscle of the mind. Give it a workout and the muscle becomes stronger. The stronger the muscle, the easier it becomes for you to look past threats and see opportunities.
- Enlist support. Ask the people you surround yourself with to let you know when they see your Caveman controlling your thinking. The battle for your mind can be a tough one, and it’s great to have help from those who care about you.
Learn more at Judd Hoekstra