When Don Greene was a springboard diver in high school and college, his performances were erratic — sometimes they’d be amazing and sometimes embarrassing. None of his coaches could explain why that happened to him, so Don set out to find the answers himself.
After serving as an Army Ranger and Green Beret, and getting his PhD in sports psychology, Don has spent decades coaching Olympic divers, professional athletes, race car drivers, opera singers, classical musicians, and Wall Street traders in how not to choke under pressure. He shares the principles he uses as a stress coach in Fight Your Fear and Win: Seven Skills for Performing Your Best Under Pressure. Today we talk about those skills, beginning with why people choke in the first place, and what’s going on in your mind when that happens. We then talk about the fundamentals of managing performance anxiety and staying in right brain flow, including making adrenaline work for instead of against you, getting your mind centered, ignoring distractions, and becoming mentally tough. We also discuss how to thwart negative self-talk through a practice Don calls “thought monitoring,” and his 5-step strategy for recovering when you do make a mistake.
- What does adrenaline do to a performer?
- Why do elite performers choke?
- The brain’s role is performing well or choking under pressure
- How thinking gets in the way of our performance
- Why baseball coaches don’t always make good sports psychologists
- Building your mental toughness through practice
- Using overcompensation to train yourself
- Channeling stress and energy into the right pathways
- Breaking the habit of bad self talk
- What is thought monitoring?
- 5 steps for recovering from a mistake
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Be Clutch, Don’t Choke
- Reach Your Peak
- Peak Performance — Elevate Your Game
- The Sioux Guide to Mental and Physical Toughness
- AoM series on Building Your Resiliency
- You May Be Strong . . . But Are You Tough?
- Leadership Lessons From the Gridiron’s Greatest Coaches
- The Challenge Response: How Stress Can Be Good for You
- How to Hack Your Flow (and our podcast with Steven Kotler about flow)
- How to Stress Proof Your Body and Brain
- Managing Stress Arousal for Optimal Performance
Connect With Don
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When Don Greene was a springboard diver in high school and college, his performances were erratic. Sometimes they’d be amazing, and sometimes embarrassing. None of his coaches could explain why that happened to him so Don set out to find the answers himself. After serving as an Army Ranger and Green Beret and getting his PhD in Sport Psychology, Don has spent decades coaching Olympic divers, professional athletes, race car drivers, opera singers, classical musicians and Wall Street traders in how not to choke under pressure. He shares the principles he uses as a stress coach in Fight Your Fear and Win: 7 Skills for Performing Your Best Under Pressure.
Today we talk about those skills, beginning with why people choke in the first place and what’s going on in your mind when that happens. We then talk about the fundamentals of managing performance anxiety and staying in right-brain flow, including making adrenaline work for instead of against you, getting your mind centered, ignoring distraction, and becoming mentally tough. We also discuss how to thwart negative self-talk through a practice Don calls “thought monitoring” and his five-step strategy for recovering when you do make a mistake. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/dontchoke. Don Greene, welcome to the show!
Don Greene: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
Brett McKay: So you’ve spent decades coaching elite performers. We’re talking golfers, tennis players, Olympic divers, race car drivers, opera singers, Julliard musicians, and even financial investors in how to master their mental game. What’s the reason these performers initially come to you for help?
Don Greene: The issue is, they want to do better under pressure because all of them can do it well in a practice room. All of the divers can do well in relaxed circumstances. All the opera singers can nail it in lessons. That’s not the issue. That’s not where they get paid for it. They all have in common the fact that they tend, if they’re not trained in this or experienced in this, they tend not to do as well under pressure as they do in relaxed circumstances, and what I teach them to do is what Olympic athletes learn to do. It’s not just doing as well as you do in a practice room in relaxed circumstances, but learn how to use the adrenaline to perform better under pressure than you do in relaxed circumstances. That’s what Olympic athletes are trained to do by sport psychologists for many years.
If you look at Olympic competition, Olympic athletes compete all the time, continually. National championships, Pan-Am games, university game. It’s continual, nationals. All the time. And they have an opportunity to set records, world records, in any of these sanctioned events. But only once every four years do not only the Olympic records drop, but the world records drop in events that can be measured, like the shot put, like the long jump, like swimming events. They drop dramatically because the athletes have learned how to use the adrenaline.
That’s what sport psychologists teach, and that’s basically what I do teach to musicians and opera singers. I mean, opera is an athletic event. You need a lot of power to create that incredible sound without microphones. That’s like the shot put. And instead of trying to suppress that energy or just relax or take beta blockers or alcohol, what I teach musicians how to do is use that energy and power to blow audition panels away. You don’t want to just do it the way the other 100 candidates are doing it. You’ve got to stand out if you want to win, and that’s the performance approach versus just relax.
Brett McKay: So whenever the stakes are high, then as you said, the adrenaline increases. What does that adrenaline surge do to a performer?
Don Greene: Well, it has dramatic effects if you don’t know how to use it. It comes across in three different areas. The symptoms, physically, are racing heart rate, change in breathing, increased perspiration, wanting to go to the bathroom a lot, increased muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, shakiness, tremors. Those are just the physical ones. Mentally, there’s increased self-consciousness, there’s increased negative thinking, increased doubt, tend to think the worst, imagine the worst, doomsday thinking, fearing the worst, a lot of critical thinking, blaming, opinions, judgements, so it puts the mind into overdrive, which affects performance. And the last is the emotional, because people go into a fear response. They brace for the danger. Their muscles tighten and musicians tend to play defensively because of this, versus playing out or singing out because of the adrenaline that they don’t know how to use it.
Brett McKay: I think that everyone listening has probably experienced that self-consciousness that happens when you feel that adrenaline, and it causes you to overthink what you’re doing and then you end up just screwing up whatever you’re doing, even though you’re thinking really hard about it.
Don Greene: Well, the thinking hard is what causes screwing up.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s the choking part. Don’t choke, don’t choke.
Don Greene: Yeah. Sport psychologists have identified, in detail, the choking mechanism. It’s well-documented. Most musicians are not that familiar with it. Most people are not that familiar with it because they don’t want to think about choking because it’s like thinking about shanking in golf. You don’t want to think about it, but it does happen. But here’s the mechanism: there’s a difference between panicking and choking. Panicking happens to people that are not trained, that all of a sudden are in disastrous situations, they’re not trained, they don’t know what to do, don’t know how to handle it, they’re not experienced so they do stupid things, like people… You know, if you watch your house burning down, people go in and get the stuffed animals, not the financial records, because they’re not trained to use the adrenaline, to think well when the adrenaline hits. But that’s panicking.
Experienced people can choke, and choke is a very different mechanism. This is people are expected to do well because they’re trained. They went to the right schools, they have the proper training, so they’re expected to handle this pressure situation. So they’re in the pressure situation, and then they can make a minor mistake or a lapse in focus or whatever. It’s not good, and they realize that people are watching them or listening to them because they’re expected to be good, and it shifts them from the right brain where they’re in flow, where they’re playing the music or an athlete in flow in a competition with mental quiet and right-brained feeling the movements, seeing them correctly, possibly hearing the right sounds, they shift from their performance right-brained state to the left brain, which is where we think in words and numbers and analysis and criticism and blaming.
Because the spotlight’s on this person, because you’re expected to be good and everybody’s listening, they get super self-conscious and shift from right brain to left brain, and not just left brain, but prefrontal cortex. Prefrontal cortex is the most advanced form of human thinking. It’s responsible for what’s called executive functioning. This is high speed, rapid left brain thinking. This is very helpful in a board meeting, if you’re presenting to the investors and you’re scrambling. They ask you a question you’re not prepared for or challenge you, and all of a sudden your brain goes out into left brain, executive functioning, and a thing called liquid intelligence. This is very, very rapid left brain thinking analysis to try to plan your way out of this dilemma.
It’s very useful in a board meeting, but it’s not useful in the middle of a concerto or a athletic performance or anything where you need to be in right brain flow. It causes people to go from right brain flow to left brain staccato, robotic movements, because you go from implicit memory of knowing how to do it and trust it without the left brain interference to left brain explicit memory where you have to talk yourself way through it the way you learned it when you were 12 years old or 14 years old and it comes out in as staccato and robotic like a biomechanical stick figure going through a golf swing with 100 different positions. It doesn’t work, and it will produce a bad shot or a mistake, a bad note in music, and when the athlete or musician hears that, it drives them further into left brain prefrontal cortex, and that’s what causes a meltdown or choking.
Brett McKay: I think I’ve heard the right brain sort of activity… Isn’t that procedural memory, where it’s like riding a bike? Your body just implicitly knows what to do.
Don Greene: That’s exactly it. Your body knows what to do, but this is when the left brain, prefrontal cortex, overrides that, and that’s what causes a problem. It overrides that implicit system, that procedural memory.
Brett McKay: And also in your book, you noted that you also worked with Wall Street brokers who you think are very analytical using that left brain. What issues do they have with the high pressure? It’s not the procedural stuff, I would imagine, because it’s very analytical. What’s causing their block?
Don Greene: Well, that’s the problem. I don’t see it as a block. I think it’s their procedure. Yes, it’s very left brain, and they need to be left brain. They need to analyze, weigh the options, pros and cons, but to me it shouldn’t stop there, because that’s only using half their brain and that, to me, sets up mistakes. What works, and this works for experienced traders, not new traders or amateur day traders. This is for professionals, like professional musicians or professional athletes. This is not for beginners. You need the explicit memory. You need to learn it in left brain. Athletes and musicians need to learn it in left brain, explicit, and then after years and 10,000 hours shift to right brain and trust that it will work, procedurally, implicitly.
So you need to put in the hours for this system to work, but after you have, you have developed an incredible power beyond the left brain with your right brain, namely intuition. So the idea is that you start in left brain, crunch the numbers, pros and cons, and switch to right brain then. Check in with your gut. How’s it feel? Feel right or wrong? Approach or avoidance? Yes or no? It doesn’t take long. It shouldn’t take long, because if it starts thinking, then you’re back to left brain. But is it up or down? It’s in your gut, not in your head, certainly not in your left brain. That’s step two.
And then step three is, you go back to left brain and make sure you can live with this, that if you go this way, it’s really off the charts and it doesn’t work, you could lose your job.
Brett McKay: Right. Well I think that’s a good point that you brought up. This stuff, the things that you do, some of the tactics we’ll talk about today, this is for people who are high performing, they put in the hours, they have the experience. This probably is not going to work for say someone who has to give a presentation and it’s their first public speech they’ve ever given. Might not work.
Don Greene: Not going to work. Not going to work.
Brett McKay: So you’re talking about people, maybe someone who has maybe just a corporate job where they’re a fantastic public presenter, but then for some reason they just hit this… They go through this, they choke. They start choking. Your job is to help them figure out what’s going on there.
Don Greene: Well, they’re not necessarily a fantastic presenter. If they’re a fantastic presenter, they don’t call me.
Brett McKay: Well, they were. They were. And now they’re not.
Don Greene: Yeah, well that, that’s an easy one. If they were, it’s just to take them back to what they were doing when they were doing it well.
Brett McKay: Yeah. No, I think that’s… I’ve read who it was. There was a baseball player who was this fantastic hitter, and then he had this terrible slump, and he was about to go back to the minor leagues, and what they ended up doing is they said, “Quit thinking about it. Just have fun.” And then I think one game he had three home runs or something like that. It was something crazy.
Don Greene: Well, that’s the problem. Coaches in baseball are trained in baseball, not necessarily in how to focus or quiet the mind. So what they’re telling an athlete to do is focus, but they’re not telling the athlete how to do it or specifically how to quiet the mind. That’s what sport psychology teaches, but it’s as simple as switching from the left brain instructions on how to hit the ball to right brain quieting the mind so you can fully see the trajectory of the ball, because every time you switch to left brain to check the position of your right elbow or your balance, you’re going to be out of right brain and you’re not going to see the ball. And for every time you don’t see the ball for that amount of trajectory, you’re not seeing the ball and the ball is going to jump. And the more it jumps, the less you see it and the less you can hit it.
When I work with professional hitters, I teach them to quiet the mind so they can see the full trajectory of the ball in their right brain, and then it seems to slow down because they’re so used to bouncing between left and right brain and missing parts of the trajectory that when they see the whole trajectory, it slows down and they hit it better. But professional baseball coaches don’t necessarily know how to do that. Yogi Berra, one of my favorite philosophers, said, “You can’t hit the ball and think at the same time.”
Brett McKay: No, that’s true.
Don Greene: That’s it. But most people don’t know how to stop thinking. Their left brain is a machine that’s continually running 24/7 other than when they’re in REM deep sleep, and they don’t have either the stop switch or the slow switch to slow it down somewhat or to shift into right brain. That’s what sport psychology teaches. But cliché is, “Well, just focus.” Well, just focus or just relax is nice, but it doesn’t work.
Brett McKay: You published a book called Fight Your Fear and Win, and you talk about seven skills you teach your clients to help them with the stuff we’ve been talking about, so we can talk about a few of these skills in detail, but overall can you give us a broad view? What are these seven skills that you’ve found help people perform when the pressure’s on?
Don Greene: Yeah. What I’ve found to work across the board is number one, learn how to control this energy, the adrenaline that goes with high-pressure situations, and make it work for you. That’s one of the key things because if that overrides the performance or affects the performance, it will affect it. If people misinterpret these signals, like they think the heart racing means they’re not going to do well or they get too self-conscious, if the energy is out of control, they’re just not going to do well. So one of the main things I do is, I have a strategy called centering, which is a very complicated strategy, seven steps from the marshal art of Aikido and western sport psychology to teach athletes and musicians how to quiet the mind, how to shift to right brain, how to control their energy, how to control their breathing, how to intensify their focus.
At first it takes about a minute and a half and seven steps, and after about a week or two of practicing going from basic, intermediate, advanced, they can get centered in less than 10 seconds before they step in the batter’s box to quiet their mind, before they start their concerto, or before they make a really important trade. So they’re using both parts of their brain, not just their left, to use whole-brain functioning. That’s one of the first things I work on is centering so they can learn how to control the energy and learn how to start focusing under pressure in right brain versus left brain.
The next one has to do with controlling both the left and right brain. In other words, channeling the negative self-talk more into positive. Going from negative, critical to more positive, supportive, from negative to positive, and ultimately to mental quiet. Batters don’t need a lesson on how to hit the ball. Traders don’t need instruction on the market. They need to quiet that and again shift to right brain to either see the baseball or trust their intuition on this trade. That’s another thing.
The next is mental rehearsal, that they’re able to imagine it going well, whether it’s imagine them hitting this pitcher, or playing the concerto well. I’ve found that not all elite athletes, elite musicians can really imagine themselves performing flawlessly. If you ask them to sit down and imagine the toughest concerto they play, they might wind up hearing mistakes in their mind, and mental rehearsal is a skill, a learned skill just like any other skill, where people get the correct information, they practice it for a while, and then they get better at it so they can fully, vividly imagine their performance going flawlessly under pressure. And if they can’t do that, they have reason to doubt how well they’re going to do under pressure.
The next has to do with focus of getting them past distractions and into the zone. Distractions come from either outside, like things moving or sounds or worrying about people and what they’re thinking about you and your performance, or internal distractions besides that, such as left brain distractions like instructions, commentary, blaming, criticism, judgements while they’re trying to perform in right brain.
And the last, I work on resilience. None of the performers or athletes I work with, not easy. It’s very challenging at all those levels. The question is, can they be mentally tough under challenging situations when things are going against them. I have a background in psychology, but I have a background in the military. I went to West Point, which is a four-year instruction on how to compete under terrible situations, conditions. An Airborne Ranger. I was the first in my West Point class to join the Green Berets special forces. I add some of that to my training with people. Not boot camp, but to get them tougher to prepare them for the competition, because it’s not easy and things happen. Things happen at auditions, things happen in competition.
One of our Olympic divers who won a silver medal in ’84 on 10 meter platform came in second to a Chinese lady, and the third girl was Chinese, as well. So Michelle Mitchell got a silver medal in ’84, but she wasn’t happy about it. She wanted a gold medal. So two years later they had the world championship in China. Michelle went their with the intention to win and she started the competition very well. In China, it’s a very popular event, like 10,000 people come to diving events. In the US about 100 people come. But Michelle is diving very well. There’s eight dives in women’s competition 10 meter platform, 33 feet. Very challenging event. Two people have killed themselves hitting the platform. Very dangerous.
Michelle got off to a very good start, hit her first four dives. After the fifth dive, she was winning the competition. She was beating the two Chinese competitors. They have big leader boards in China showing dive by dive where the divers were standing. After the fifth round, she was leading the competition. She hit her sixth dive and the seventh dive. She was leading by 15 points going into the last dive. Her last dive was an inward three and a half. It’s where you turn around backwards on the platform and then spin towards the platform three and a half times. She was one of the only two women in the world doing it and it was her last dive. She went out to the end of the platform and turned around and started setting up, putting her toes on the end, and she started hearing a noise. She thought somebody had dropped a teacup and then two teacups and then it started more. She realized people were stomping their feet, and it got louder and louder. It was really dangerous.
The rules would allow her to step back and ask the rules official to quiet the crowd so she could do the dive. We had prepared for this. Michelle and I had trained for years for this. In practice, we did distraction training. We would drop things on the pool deck, we would play crowd noise, we would put on AM talk stations. The divers did not like it at first. They got used to it. Michelle did not ask to start again. She went through her routine, she said some expletives about the Chinese people, and she nailed the dive for nine and a halves. She got one 10. She won the world championship. The next morning, she got a public apology in the official Chinese newspaper apologizing for the behavior of their citizens. That’s mental toughness.
When I was at Julliard, the final exam was adversity training. I prepared them for weeks ahead of time with mental toughness. This was their final exam. I told them things would happen. One at a time, they came in. The first thing they did after they got set up, we had a four by eight plywood plank we dropped in front of them, made a huge noise. I had an AM radio station playing. I had one of my other musicians play whatever that musician was playing, but slightly out of tune and off tempo. I had a TV monitor in front of them and a camera on them. If they looked up, they saw themselves. We did 22 things to them. They all nailed it, all got an A.
It happened that NPR, National Public Radio, had heard about my class. They were doing a series on the most popular courses in university, and they came to Julliard and they picked my class. It just so happened I was doing this on that day, so we had the extra pressure of we had professional radio there listening, or taping them in the whole thing. It was All Things Considered, and you can still hear it, all the things we did to the students. It was not abusive, it was training them for exactly what happened to Michelle Mitchell in China, because things happen in auditions. Audition panel members talk to each other, cellphone rings, stagehands knock things over and you can complain about it or you can just make the best of it, and that’s what my military training taught me to do. Regardless of the situation you make the best of it, and that’s what I’ve tried to teach performers. You can’t expect it to go perfectly. It’s not going to, and get used to it.
From my Julliard students that had problems playing with external distractions, people making noise while they were playing, their homework assignments for the next week was take their instrument and go on the subway platform and play their concerto. After they came out, things didn’t bother them anymore. That’s mental toughness.
Brett McKay: So that’s a technique right there. We’ll just tell you, if you want to build mental toughness you have to practice it. You have to create the circumstances. It reminds me of Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach. It gets cold in Boston about this time, and sometimes it snows. And sometimes the players are like, “Hey, are we going to practice indoors?” He’s like, “Nope. We’re going to practice outdoors.”
Don Greene: Well that’s exactly it. The golf coach at the Oklahoma State, which wins a lot of national championships, where there’s a lot of wind in Oklahoma. He says, “You know, if it’s a calm day you can stay at the range, but if the wind starts howling or if it starts raining, we’re going out to play.” That’s it. In sport psychology it’s called overcompensation. Whatever the problem is, you don’t ignore it, hope it goes away, but you exaggerate it, and then under safe conditions, you learn how to deal with it. That’s mental toughness training.
Brett McKay: I think, for a lot of athletes or coaches who aren’t familiar with this sort of thing, they would think, “Well, if you need to improve your hitting,” say it’s a hitting coach, “just go to the batting cages and get those medium-fast pitches right down the middle all the time.” That’s probably not going to help. You actually need to get something more real world or exaggerate the type of pitches you get.
Don Greene: No, that’s a false sense of security. That does no good at all. What you want to do is subject yourself to the most extreme. Instead of hitting average speed pitches, get a pitcher just really hurling them at you. Or, a lot of different change-ups. When I work with the Texas Rangers in spring training, I saw that all of the hitters can hit the fast, straight balls. All of them, just throw me another one, let me hit this out of the park. But they get very few of those, and then in competition they have to figure out how to hit everything but a fastball, which again turns on executive functioning and overthinking. So to me, it’s getting used to the extremes, again every kind of wild pitch you can imagine coming at you that you get used to that.
With musicians, it’s the same thing. I wrote an article for a musician’s union paper a couple months ago that auditions are like hitting curve balls. I wrote that there’s sliders, there’s sinkers, change of pace, and that’s how it is in an audition. A number of my people went for big auditions like at the Met and New York Philharmonic, and they were really well-prepared, ready to win. They got their, they checked in, the person said, “Okay, you have two hours to warm up.” So they go into a green room, put their instrument down, and five minutes later the guy says, “Oh, we’re running way ahead. You’re up next.” For an instrument like a violin, it takes maybe an hour or two hours to really get in the groove practicing to warm up. And that’s a curve ball.
Or, they put them in a room and say, “You’ll be up in 20 minutes.” So the person rushes, goes through that and they say, “You know, we’re going to have lunch,” and then they’re running behind lunch. The person who got their checked in at 10:00 at the New York Philharmonic. At 4:00 is finally called in. Their energy went up and then it dropped down, and that’s what they’ve got to get used to and prepared for, not it going according to plan. In an audition, it really does, and in sports it’s chaos. Chance happens. It’s inevitable. It’s not resisting that, it’s getting used to it and learning how to deal with it.
Brett McKay: I want to go back to this skill of managing energy, because you said something interesting that caught my attention was that, oftentimes when people feel that adrenaline, they think, “Oh no, something’s wrong.” But you said that you actually have to teach your clients that no, actually nothing’s wrong. That’s normal. But you have to channel that energy for productive aims. So it sounds like you’re reframing that stress response?
Don Greene: Well, that’s exactly it. It’s reframing. It’s a question of interpretation because, if you’re in a situation where the adrenaline hits, regardless of what it is, whether it’s a safe situation or an unsafe situation, once it hits, it’s going to start this whole cascade of symptoms that I talked about before because of the adrenaline with the racing heart, perspiring and all of that. So at that point you can interpret it correctly or wrong. If it’s a real danger, if it’s somebody standing their pointing a gun at you, you won’t be thinking about it, you’ll be using it. Rightfully so, to run real fast, fight-flight, or stand there and babble the guy.
However, that’s a real threat. What we’re talking about is an imagined, or not real threat. If somebody points a plastic gun at you and you think it’s a real gun, the adrenaline’s going to hit. But it doesn’t need to even be danger. It can be going into a business meeting unprepared and an angry boss who could fire you, and that’s a threat and the adrenaline hits. Or for musicians, that’s just an angry conductor not pleased with your playing and reprimanding you will send the adrenaline in. And at this point, the heart’s going to race, and you can say, “Oh my God. This is dangerous. Oh my God, this is going to be terrible.” Or whatever. “My heart is racing. That’s danger.” Or you can rationally understand it as, “No, it’s not real danger. I’ve got to work on my presentation or work on the concerto, but it’s not real danger,” and interpret it correctly, namely okay.
That switches it, because it’s a very quick reaction from perception to interpretation to action. It happens very fast. In other words, the perception is a threat. The interpretation is real danger or not real danger. The action is run for your life or take a breath and deal with the situation. The symptoms are going to be there. The racing heart is going to be there if the adrenaline hits. It’s how you interpret it as either, “Oh my God, no” or “It’s okay.” Because if you’ve ever been stopped for a speeding ticket, which I have a few times, after the cop writes the ticket and chews you out and goes back to his car and is finishing the paperwork, there’s no more danger. In fact, you’re in a very safe place. There’s a police officer sitting behind you. Nobody’s going to rob you or steal your car, but your heart is still pounding. No danger, heart’s still pounding.
Now you can interpret and say, “Calm down.” But the only time people say calm down is when they’re freaking out. So it’s to realize that this is a normal, instinctual reaction to perceived threat and take action. And one of the actions I ask people to do is relax their muscles, because people tighten up when they go into fight or flight, when they feel a perceived threat. So if a batter steps into the batting box with tight shoulders, his muscles are not going to work well. He’s going to be behind the pitch. It’s going to slow down his muscle movement.
Same thing with a golf swing. If a golf swing is tight, the ball is going to be blocked right. In performing arts, if the muscles are tight or the support is tight, opera singers are not going to sing with that power. Musicians are not going to play out. The trombonist is not going to play out because of the tight muscles. So it’s the correct interpretation and the correct action after the interpretation that’s the key.
Brett McKay: So another skill you mentioned was this self-talk.
Don Greene: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I think everyone, even if you’re not a high-performer, you’ve all experienced when you mess up. You’re like, “You’re such an idiot.” You start talking to yourself like, “Why’d you do something so stupid? You’re terrible.” How do you coach your clients, your athletes, your musicians, on… I can imagine that’s a hard habit to break.
Don Greene: No, it’s not.
Brett McKay: It’s not? Okay. Okay. So there’s hope for me.
Don Greene: Like any habit, it’s having the correct information, having a plan, and then sticking with the plan. This is very straightforward.
Brett McKay: Okay, that’s good to know there’s hope for me, then.
Don Greene: Well, not necessarily you, but for others.
Brett McKay: Oh no, okay. Just kidding.
Don Greene: So, here it is. It’s a relatively straightforward exercise, but people avoid this one. It’s called thought monitoring. Okay? Here’s how it works. Do you have anybody you know that you teach or you mentor or looks up to you?
Brett McKay: Yes, my son.
Don Greene: Okay.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Don Greene: Oh, this is straightforward. What’s his name?
Brett McKay: His name’s Gus.
Don Greene: Gus. How old is he?
Brett McKay: He’s nine.
Don Greene: Okay, this is very easy. You can start him on the right track with this, and yourself. All you have to do is write down during the course of your day or afterwards in reflection, everything that you say to yourself that you wouldn’t say to him.
Brett McKay: Okay, that’s… Yeah.
Don Greene: And then switch it over. That’s column A, and column B, the transformation of what you would say to him or nothing at all.
Brett McKay: No, that makes sense. It’s super easy, because yeah, if someone else is going through a hard time, if I was coaching him or providing, I would be supportive and I’d give affirmation. I wouldn’t say, “You’re an idiot.”
Don Greene: So why do you reserve that treatment for yourself?
Brett McKay: I have no clue.
Don Greene: Well, most people have no clue, but they continue doing it, but this is the exercise. I call this the Julliard Syndrome. When I was at Julliard one of the exercises I would have them do all in the same room in rehearsal room, take out their instrument and play the most challenging thing they could play in the midst of all the chaos, people playing different instruments, different pieces. Have that go on a couple minutes, and I say, “Okay, write down all the things that you’d say to yourself when you’re doing that.” They’d write it out and for these beautiful young bright students who played beautiful music, when they read them aloud it sounded like sailors. Cursing.
It was amazing, and they started laughing. We all started laughing. Then I made three copies of each, I would have one of them sit surrounded by three people reading what they were saying to themselves like, “You idiot, can’t you play? You sound like crap.” Everybody started laughing, and I said, “That’s what you’re doing to yourself. That’s how you get to Julliard, not by being sloppy and ignoring it, but after you reach a certain level of competence, put the stick away and take out the carrot. Positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement. We use it on everybody else, but not ourselves, and this is the major shift I had these students do that, you know if you want to live a happy life, stop with the nonsense and criticism and learn how to be positive reinforcing with yourself like you do everybody else. That’s it. It’s pretty straightforward. After about a week or two of writing it out, the list gets shorter and shorter and you’re just more positive reinforcing with yourself or mentally quiet. You don’t need all of that. You don’t need that noise.
Brett McKay: And this is related to another skill of just handling setbacks. First thing you can do, we talked about in depth is, planning for the setbacks, training for them. But they’re going to occur anyways, so you got to bounce back, and part of that is talking in a positive way towards yourself. But besides that, do you give your clients any other systems to follow whenever they have a mistake or a failure or a setback they can bounce back immediately?
Don Greene: Sure, sure. Not at first immediately, but that’s the goal, because mistakes are inevitable. There is no perfectionism in elite sports or music. You have striving for excellence, which I preach, but not perfectionism. That’s a nasty thing to impose. But not anticipating or predicting that mistakes will happen, but they do happen. So I have people do a five-step recovery strategy.
The first step is acceptance that the mistake happened. In spite of all the training and preparation, mistakes happen. The opposite of that is denial, and for musicians denial sounds like, “I can’t believe I missed that note. I’ve never missed that note. I never miss that.” Well, you missed a note. So first step is accept it immediately. You can work on it later, correct it, analyze what the mistake was, but it’s immediate acceptance.
Number two is, when people make mistakes, they tend to cringe. Their muscles tend to tighten. They brace for impact. They’re fearing the worst, and they brace and the muscles tighten. Especially if it’s under pressure, they’re already probably tight. In fact, their tightness may have caused the mistakes in the first place. So the next thing I ask people to do is to imagine where they tend to tighten up, whether it’s their jaw, their shoulders, their hands, it doesn’t matter, but to immediately go to those areas and drop the tension.
The next is to bring their mind back into the present, because you can only focus in the present moment, and with a mistake they tend to get stuck in the past. That was a mistake, what caused the mistake, how do I fix the mistake? Well, they’re just compounding the mistake because they’re now no longer in the present and you make mistakes if you’re not in the present.
The next is a process cue, if they need it. This is a process cue. This is a way to get the train back on the track. It’s not going well. This is not the time to have a sophisticated analysis and correction. This is a time to be very simple with a fundamental, basic thing that will cue your right brain with one word back into right brain. These are simple words like support for opera singers or flow for athletes, trust, let it go, these things to get you back. With musicians, it’s a little bit easier because the note is moving. Get back on the moving train. Get back on the moving note. It’s moving. Get back out of the past into the present. With some sports, like golf where the ball is just sitting there, that can be a little bit trickier. That’s when you need again to get into flow.
And the last, the fifth step is, for the rest of it, or initially the next parts of it, don’t try to make up with an incredible, spectacular performance or the best performance of your life or this time, now I’m going to hit a home run. No. This is the time to get back to solid playing. In baseball, just make solid contact with the ball. Musicians, just play in tune please, in tempo. Just get back to solid before you try anything extra special to make up for the mistake, because if you do it will just cause another mistake.
So that’s the five-step strategy I teach to not preclude inevitable mistakes, but even in a practice room and batting practice, when it happens practice this strategy so one mistake is an isolated event that is quickly in the past and now back in the present.
Brett McKay: And again, these are skills you have to practice. It’s not like the first time you do it, it’s going to…
Don Greene: Yeah, people sometimes make a mistake thinking in sport psychology, once you get the concept, “Okay, I got it.” That’s like saying once you hit a long putt and it goes in, “Okay, now I know how to putt.”
Brett McKay: Well Don, there’s a lot more we could talk about. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work and what you do?
Don Greene: Oh, thanks. Well, what I do is on a few websites. One is called winning on stage, and this is for performing artists. The one for athletes is winning in sports. They’re both similar, because it’s the same kind of ideas of using the mind to learn how to perform your best under pressure. So on those sites, I have different books, different online courses where I teach like the centering. It’s a self-study course with its own book, audio tapes, video tapes, a whole course where I teach people how to center. It’s a very complicated strategy that I can’t just say, “Here are the seven steps. Go for it.” It’s like learning anything else, you need to learn the correct information and then practice it. But in two weeks, people can learn how to really be centered and go into pressure situations not just trying to squeak by, or worse, in left brain, but how to go in and learn how to use that energy and be centered and perform better because of the pressure.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Don Greene, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Don Greene: My pleasure, well. I certainly appreciate it and start monitoring your self-talk and treating yourself better with your self-talk.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Don Greene. He is the author of the book, Fight Your Fear and Win. It’s available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website winningonstage.com, also check out our show notes at aom.is/dontchoke where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AON podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about things about managing stress. There’s articles about that. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it, and if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so at Stitcher Premium. Head over the stitcherpremium.com, use code MAILINGLIST to get a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness podcast. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but to put what you’ve heard into action.