If you’re an athlete, you know that it can be helpful to get psyched up before a big game. But getting in the right mindset is important in any kind of high-stakes scenario, whether you want to perform your best in a big meeting, presentation, interview, audition, or conversation.
My guest has some tips he gleaned from interviewing athletes, soldiers, entertainers, and executives on how to find that mindset. His name is Daniel McGinn, and he’s the author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. The first step to getting into an optimal mindset is managing negative emotions, so we begin our conversation with what works in mitigating stress and anxiety. From there we talk about how to get others psyched up with an effective pep talk and why the leaders who came out of WWII used the classic rah-rah style more than leaders do today. We then discuss the role of music in getting yourself psyched up and what Daniel learned from the DJ for the Red Sox about crafting the perfect pump-up playlist. Daniel shares how visualization and having a personal highlight reel can put you in a positive headspace, and whether or not anger, competition, and trash talk improve performance.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Podcast #569: How to Perform Your Best Under Pressure
- AoM Podcast #757: How to Achieve Cognitive Dominance With Mark McLaughlin
- AoM Podcast #835: The Power of Ritual
- AoM Article: Competition — The Fuel for Greatness
- AoM Article: 8 Inspirational Football Locker Room Speeches
Connect With Daniel McGinn
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay and welcome to another edition of The art Manliness podcast. If you’re an athlete, you know that it can be helpful to get psyched up before a big game, beginning in the right mindset is important in any kind of high-stake scenario, whether you wanna perform your best in a big meeting, presentation, interview, audition or conversation my guest has some tips, he gleaned from interviewing athletes, soldiers, entertainers and executives on how to find that mindset. His name is Daniel McGinn and he’s the author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. The first step to getting into an optimal mindset is managing negative emotions, so we begin our conversation with what works in mitigating stress and anxiety. From there we talk about how to get others psyched up with an effective pep talk and why the leaders who came out of World War II used the Classic Rah Rah style more than leaders do today. We then discuss the role of music in getting yourself psyched up, and what Daniel learned from the DJ for the Red Sox about crafting the perfect pump-up playlist. Daniel shares how visualization and having a personal highlight reel can put you in a positive head space, and whether or not anger, competition and trash talk improve performance. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/psychedup.
Alright, Daniel McGinn, welcome to the show.
Daniel McGinn: Brett, thanks so much.
Brett McKay: So you got a book that you wrote a couple years ago called Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed, and I’m curious, you are an editor at Harvard Business Review, but this book you wrote about the psychology of getting psyched up, it’s a book that focuses on sports, but also how getting psyched up carries over to other domains of life as well. How did you end up writing a book about the psychology of getting psyched up?
Daniel McGinn: Well, it’s a great question, at Harvard Business Review, we spent a lot of time reading academic journal articles and talking with business school professors, it’s not obvious why somebody like me would get interested in a book that draws partly from sports psychology. Part of it stems from the fact that I was a not very good high school athlete, I played football and basketball, I spent a lot of time on the bench, but I was in that atmosphere where I watched the things that the coaches would try to do to mentally prepare us for the game, to get us in that right mindset, the rituals, the music, the rivalry that they tried to instill in us to get us to perform at higher levels. At Harvard Business Review, when I got here, I started seeing actual research coming across my desk, a lot of it from business schools that looked at how some of these practices do play out in professional environments, and then the third thing was I would occasionally run into people in all walks of professional life, a lot of the former athletes who are using these techniques themselves, trial attorneys who would do certain things before they would go into the courtroom, I remember one old friend who was an accountant of all things, he had been a college football player.
And we think of accounting as sitting at a desk crunching numbers, actually, when you get to a high level and accounting, you spent a lot of time in the board room in front of directors, giving important presentations, and before he went into a board room, he would listen to certain music, he would work out that morning because it would make him feel stronger, he would do visualizations, so he was really using athletic preparation techniques for accounting, so some of the stuff may sound strange, but you actually run into people using it.
Brett McKay: Okay, so attorneys are using it, accountants, I imagine CEOs are using some of the stuff about getting psyched up or psychologically amped up in their work as well.
Daniel McGinn: Yeah, if you think about it, so think back 50 or 100 years to what people’s work life was like, think back to, say, being a farmer or being on an assembly line every day is pretty much the same in those jobs, every day is like the next. Now, think about what many of our professional jobs are like today, every moment is not like the next. If you think about your work life in a month, there’s probably two or three important days where you have a key meeting or a key client phone call or a sales presentation, or maybe just an interview with one of your podcast guests, that’s more important than the others. High stakes moments that are more reliant on high performance than the others, and that’s really where I started to see some of this, the idea that you can sort of isolate your career moments down to these peak performances, and if you can find some tricks or some hacks to really get yourself into the mindset to do even 10% better during those, it’s gonna have a measurable difference.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about how we can get psyched up so we can perform at our best. You talk about the first problem people have to deal with when they’re getting ready for a high-stakes performance is managing negative emotions, jitters, nerves, anxiety, what’s the source of those pre-game jitters, whether it’s pre-game in an actual sports game or pre-game, you’re about to give an important business pitch.
Daniel McGinn: So our bodies know that, our bodies recognize when the stakes are higher and they respond chemically with a fight or flight reaction, our bodies are flooded by adrenaline, which on the one hand, adrenaline can be a really useful substance when you hear stories about somebody lifting a car off of somebody who’s being crushed, that’s what adrenaline can do for you, if you’re in the emergency room and your heart stops, they inject adrenaline into you to get it to start again, so the chemistry of our body when we get into these sort of high-stakes moments, it can be really powerful, but it can also cause you to do things you don’t wanna do, it can cause your mouth to go dry, it can cause you to sweat, it causes some people to blink a lot, it can cause you to shake. Imagine giving a business presentation where your adrenaline kicks in and you’re experiencing some of those things, it’s a natural response, it’s your body’s reaction to the fact that it knows the stakes are high, but it can really work against you. A little bit of anxiety can be useful, especially in the lead up to a high-stakes event, because it can lead you to actually practice more and do things that will prepare yourself a little bit better, but the moment you take the stage, generally, you wanna be able to maintain, manage and minimize that anxiety because it’s only gonna do bad things to you…
Brett McKay: Yeah, there’s a U-shaped curve for anxiety and how useful it is, so you need a little bit sort of a medium amount is good, ’cause you can use it to help you prepare, also that adrenaline and things like that, it can energize you so you can perform well, but if it goes too much, then that’s when things start falling apart.
Daniel McGinn: Yeah, it’s definitely a Goldilocks kind of situation. When you think about whether it’s a sports team that comes out flat, that’s the term we use for a team that seems sort of un-excited, un-energized, that’s obviously gonna lead to a sub-par performance, but on the other hand, if a team comes out and they’re too nervous and they’re too tentative, and you see a basketball team where nobody wants to shoot the ball, that’s a sign that they’re a little bit anxious, so you really do need to find that medium spot, whether you’re doing an athletic performance, whether you’re doing some sort of a professional event, a little bit is good, but generally too much anxiety is gonna be a problem.
Brett McKay: So what does the science say about what works for managing pre-game anxiety?
Daniel McGinn: Well, different people use different techniques, you can reframe the anxiety as excitement, that’s one of the things that research has been shown to help. There’s a professor here at Harvard, actually that did a study where she took people into the lab and she had them performing karaoke or doing high-stress math problems, and she’d have one group of people say, “I’m so nervous,” she’d have another group of people say, “I’m so excited,” and time after time, demonstrably, like in significant numbers, the people who re-framed their anxiety as excitement did better. It’s just sort of looking at the glass half full. It’s sort of an opportunity mindset as opposed to focusing on what might go wrong, they’re focusing on at what might go right.
Brett McKay: So a lot of athletes use an artist, they use pre-performance rituals to repair for a game or a show, what are some examples of pre-game rituals that you came across when writing this book?
Daniel McGinn: In an athletic setting, rituals are great if there’s a pause, so obviously, soccer is a very fast-moving game, not a lot of pauses, but when it comes to penalty kicks, that’s when everything sort of stops and the player has a few moments to do something before the kick, so that’s the kind of thing where you’ll see a ritual in the middle of a game. Basketball, baseball, you’ll see LeBron James, his rituals have changed over time, one of the things that he always does is he goes to this quarter’s table, take some chalk and throws chalk dust in the air in a very sort of a Libra fashion. He sometimes, during his career, has flashed hand signals signifying the area code for Akron, Ohio, where he grew up. He often will have specific handshakes he does with each teammate before the game, in baseball, you’ll see players writing things in the dirt with their bat before they go to the plate, so every player is different, but the idea is they have something that they do every time the same.
Brett McKay: What do these do? Like, why do they work in helping people perform better?
Daniel McGinn: So there’s really two theories why routines or pre-shot routines or rituals work, number one is that you’re kinda cueing your body, your body sort of gets into a routine, think about before a rocket launch, you’re used to having a checklist and go system and a count down that having that kind of process can sort of help your body prepare and sort of get into the groove, that habituation can kick in. So that’s number one, number two, the other theory is that if you don’t have something routine that you’re doing before these high stakes events, you’re probably gonna sit there and be nervous and worry about it, and so some people think that the reason these rituals and routines are useful is they just give you something to do, to occupy your mind and to take your mind a off of whatever negative thoughts might be creeping in.
Brett McKay: Oftentimes, when people think about getting psyched up, we often think about a coach giving a pre-game or half-time pep talk, so we’re moving away from managing negative emotions like anxiety, we can do that through reframing the anxiety or through rituals, now we’re talking about how to get those positive emotions, getting amped up. So the pep talk… And you actually talked to the guy who wrote the pep talks in the famous sports movies, Rudy And Hoosiers. So what do you learn about giving you an effective pep talk from this guy?
Daniel McGinn: The right pep talk varies a little bit by the moment, so it’s hard to come up with a generic one that will work in every instance, but some common themes come through if you listen to lots of these, as I did when I was reporting this book. One of the themes that often comes up is sort of togetherness or the connectedness of the team, if you watch sports these days, you’ll often see the coaches on the sidelines of certain sports miked up, so you’re not just listening to the pre-game talk, but you can actually listen to them in the huddle and they’ll often talk about trusting each other or being part of a team, the idea that it’s not just about you, it’s about this group of people. That’s one of the things that comes through.
The other thing that sometimes comes through, especially when you get into sort of championship or very high stakes sort of scenarios is that, look, this is the environment you’ve been practicing for the whole time, there’s that famous moment in Hoosiers where the coach has the player take out a measuring tape, and he measures that the basket is 10 feet off the ground, and then he says, “How far back is the free throw line?” And they measure, “Oh, it’s 15 feet back.” So even though they’re in the biggest stadium that they’ve ever played in their lives, he’s normalizing the experience, look, this is a normal basketball court, the same kind you’ve been playing on your whole lives, don’t let this crazy environment get the better of you. This is exactly what you’ve been training for, so those are two of the themes that usually come through.
Brett McKay: Alright, so the team togetherness or just focusing on the process, and that’s some of the interesting you found is when your research that with amateur performers whether they’re athletes, particularly athletes, the more rah, rah, let’s win one for the gipper, that seemed to be more effective, but for professionals, that doesn’t really do too much, the better pep talk for professionals are more like instructions. Correct?
Daniel McGinn: Yeah, one of the people I talk to when I was reporting the book was Stanley McChrystal, who was the leader of the Special Forces during a lot of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and he certainly gave pep talks at points when they needed them, but one of the things he said to me was, “Look, when we were in Iraq, we were leading at least one mission and sometimes multiple missions every night, and you can’t try to get people all riled up emotionally for something they’re doing twice a day, every day, it just kind of becomes a job to them.” So in those instances, the talk before the mission was much more tactical, it was instruction-based, it was, “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do, we don’t need to really appeal to your emotion,” it becomes sort of like a job. Whereas, if you go back to World War II, when we had the era of the Citizen Soldier, when people had been drafted into the military, people had very, very little experience in there, that was an environment where the commanding officers were much more likely to give sort of a traditional Rah Rah pep talk because those people were probably scared and they needed it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think it was McRaven was in charge of the Bin-Laden raid, and he pointed out that the speech he gave before that was just, here are the instructions, just going through the process. And those guys weren’t amped up at all, some of them actually fell asleep on the way over before they executed the raid.
Daniel McGinn: Yeah, they did, a couple of them slept on the helicopter, and that speaks to the idea that obviously that was an out of the ordinary assignment for them because of the high-value target they were going for, but yet the mechanics of that, that was their job. They’re used to doing that. If you watch a professional athlete who’s playing in front of 70000 people in an arena, it’s hard for you or I to imagine being calm or treating that like an everyday experience, but when that’s your everyday job, you do get used to some of these things in ways that you wouldn’t anticipate.
Brett McKay: And otherwise NG made the point about how coaches did pep talk or how we think of doing pep talks, they’re very emotionally charged ones. It came out of World War II, so you had all these guys who served, enrolled were two, they were volunteers, as a consequence, the sort pep talks they got there were the more emotional ones, and so when they got home, they just carried that over when they became sports coaches, and so you had a lot of very emotional, “We’re gonna win this for the team,” blah, blah, blah, blah, but then as things got more professionalized, you went away from that and it just got more focus on the process, that’s a more effective pep talk for professionals.
Daniel McGinn: Yeah, one of the fun moments I had when I was reporting the book was realizing… So if you deal with professors in academia, they tend to be very siloed and all they really know about is their own little discipline, so I found that there was this couple of professors that were studying the science of half-time speeches in sporting events, then I found a professor who had written a dissertation on military speeches, and then I found a husband and wife professor who studied the business speak of what they call motivating language theory, which is basically how to give a pep talk in a business setting, and none of these people knew about the others, but when you actually sat down and looked at their work, it was super cohesive and essentially these are all sort of variations of the same thing, there is sort of at least a generic business kind of pep talk, where you’re trying to make some meaning of what people are doing, you’re trying to create some empathy, the idea that I know this is hard, but we’ve done hard things together before, now, let’s go out there and do it. So there is sort of a common language to this, whether you’re in a military setting, a sports setting or a business setting.
Brett McKay: Okay, so say someone’s a manager, based on your research, there’s some commonalities there, but what would be sort of an effective template for a pep talk?
Daniel McGinn: So first, you’re gonna remind them of what you’re asking them to do, so for instance, one of the days that I spent reporting the book, I went and visited Yelp, the tech company that does reviews on websites, lets of people upload reviews of restaurants and what have you. Now, the way that Yelp makes its money is they have thousands of salespeople who are calling businesses, cold calling them for the most part, and trying to get them to buy advertising on the Yelp platform. So I went and visited one of the Yelp sales offices on the last day of the quarter, when there were hundreds of people cold calling pizzerias and car washes, trying to get them to buy ads, to make their number.
They were a publicly traded company, they needed to meet their earnings for that, and I watched the pep talk that the sales manager gave in the morning, and she basically, she tries to put great meaning behind every action they take that day, so… I know it’s hard to pick up the phone and make that call but every call you make gets us closer to closing another sale, and every sale we make, gets us closer to meeting our office goal, to meeting the team goal, and to letting this company be successful. So she’s sort of taking that small task that each person is doing moment by moment and connecting it to the larger mission of the whole organization, and then the next thing she’d do is she’d say, “You’ve all been trained the same way. You all have the ability to do this. Let’s talk about John for a second. John started here three months ago, and last week he closed 18 deals,” she’ll isolate on an individual sales person who’s been trained the same as everybody else, but is having inordinate success.
And so she’ll sort of single and call people out in a positive role model way. So those are some of the things you’ll typically see in situations like that, meaning making empathy, positive success stories.
Brett McKay: And then also maybe go back to the process, remind people, you’ve got the training, here’s what you gotta do, and that can maybe help get rid of some of those nerves, the Hoosiers effect. It just… It’s like any other game.
Daniel McGinn: Yes, you think about certain kinds of sports or certain things you do in sports and sales, especially in business. So the thing that’s hard to do in sales is to make five calls and get hung up on or get a no and get the fortitude to make that sixth and seventh call. That’s a hard thing to do in basketball, if you’ve missed the first seven shots of the game, but you’re a good player and the team wants you to keep shooting, to shoot that eighth and ninth shot knowing you’ve hit the last seven, that’s really hard to do. And the right pep talk can sort of help keep you in the right frame of mind to do that.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors and now back to the show. So one thing that a lot of people do to get pumped up is they got a playlist of music to help them get pumped up. What did you learn from the guy who was the DJ for the Red Sox and the Patriots about crafting the perfect pump up playlist?
Daniel McGinn: I learned a whole lot from him. He really was considered at the time, this was a few years ago. He’s since left that job. But at the time, Fenway Park was considered the best musical ballpark in America. And this was largely because not only would he work with the players to pick the right walk-up music that would play as they were walking up to take their at bats, but he also had sort of improvisational music that he had ready to pull out at a moment’s notice when the right play came along. Probably the biggest thing I learned from him is that the songs that pump you up and the songs that pump me up may be very different songs based on the emotional connection that they bring.
He talked about a baseball player who had sort of a slow moving country ballad that he’d walk up to the plate with. And the first time the player told him he wanted to use that, he said, “Gosh, that doesn’t sound very motivating. Why do you want to use that song?” And he said, “Well, that’s my daughter’s favorite song. And I need to be reminded when I go up to bat that I’m doing this for my family. This is the way I make my living and the more success I have at the plate, the more success my family’s gonna have. So that’s a song that reminds me of my daughter and that’s what I want to play.” So the songs, every song, every person’s different. A lot of this comes from our emotional connection with music from our past and that can be an important part of the way we choose songs that motivate us.
Brett McKay: Okay. So it’s gonna depend on the person you talk about, I thought this was one of my favorite parts of the book you talk about, Eye Of The Tiger. It remains one of the most popular pump up songs of all time. If you look at Spotify, it’s pretty much on all the list for pump up playlist. Tell us about how Eye Of The Tiger came to be and why do you think it remains one of the most popular pump up songs of all time?
Daniel McGinn: Well, so one of the days I spent reporting the book, I flew out to the suburbs of Chicago and I spent the morning with the guy from Survivor, the guitarist who wrote that song. And the song came about, they wrote it, especially for Rocky III, because Sylvester Stallone had heard an early demo of theirs and thought they’d be the right band to write this. And he talked about, so that’s the a great example of how the music and the words of that song come together. So the opening of that song has a very sort of staccato guitar string. It’s not really even a melodic, it’s just sort of a, da da da da da and the quick sounds in that are supposed to illustrate your heartbeat. So it’s supposed to sort of convey the jittery fast beating heart of a boxer and then the more staccato sounds are supposed to represent the punches coming. And you can imagine once they put that to film, how effective that was.
One of the things that that guitarist told me, which was interesting, is that song has been downloaded millions and millions of times from iTunes. And many of the people who downloaded that song never saw Rocky III. So they never saw the images that go along with that song. They’re just responding to the words and the music. So it’s an interesting example of if you’re old enough, like me, I saw that movie in the theater, so of course I remember it. But there’s a whole generation of people that have come after that for whom the music is just a song. But it works really well.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought it was interesting. So when Sylvester Stallone went to Survivor first, they only had like three minutes of the movie completed at that time. And so yeah, it was like a montage, a training montage. And that’s how they developed that intro. But then the rest of the song they couldn’t write ’cause like I gotta see the rest of the movie and the Chorus Eye Of The Tiger, it just came from, there’s that line where Creed, he’s giving Rocky a pump-up speech and he’s like, Eye Of The Tiger Man, Eye Of the Tiger. And like they’re like, yes, that’s the song, that’s the name of the song and the rest is history. And the guy who wrote it, he admitted that I don’t think I could ever write a song like that again. It was a moment in time and I’ll never be able to capture that again. But I’m glad I did. ‘Cause I think they did a follow-up to, wasn’t it in Rocky IV they wrote up follow-up song didn’t go anywhere.
Daniel McGinn: Yeah. So Survivor had other hits beyond Eye of the Tiger, but that was their only Rocky song that did well and I think for people of my generation, that’s absolutely a song that will always be on our playlists.
Brett McKay: So maybe Eye Of The Tiger will do it for you. But again, your big takeaway is find the music that works for you.
Daniel McGinn: If you find the right song for you, it really can have, it can change your mood. I talked to one woman when I was reporting the book. She was a manager in a company where essentially the company was sort of failing and she’d have to go into meetings and try to be super upbeat even though there was just this drumbeat of bad news. And she thought back to a time in her childhood when she was really happy and she remembered going to see the Broadway play Annie, which has a song called The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow. And she used that as her psych up song before she would go into business meetings, she would put her headphones on and she’d listen to The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow, which is a show tune. You don’t think of that as a psych up song, but for her it absolutely worked. So even though we think of certain formats, maybe it’s a rap song, maybe it’s a rock song for different people. If you find a song that’s meaningful and sort of affects your mood in a very positive way, it can be effective.
Brett McKay: Well you highlight former podcast guest of ours, Dr. Mark McLaughlin who’s a neurosurgeon and he has his playlist that he listens to. It’s like country music or he has different kind of music for depending on what he’s doing, I think. And I think that’s interesting.
Daniel McGinn: He does. Yeah. I watched him do a very long spinal surgery. I had to gown up and, so yeah, he’s a brain and spine surgeon down in New Jersey. He’s a former college wrestler and he has all sorts of things he does to try to put himself in this right mindset. He has lucky instruments that he keeps in the operating room that he doesn’t actually use in the surgeries, but they’re kind of a talisman for him. So he keeps those around. He has lucky numbers he uses and he takes a lot of the things that he used to do before wrestling matches and he now does those before he does surgery. And I got to watch him do that for a day.
Brett McKay: All right. So pump up music, define what works for you, it’s gonna be different. And I think you did make that point. I think oftentimes when people pick pump up music, it’s gonna be very generational. A lot of the pump up music that I listen to, it’s like the stuff that I listened to when I played football in high school back in the 90s, early 2000s. And I imagine for someone, I think you’re a little bit older than I am, it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be like Survivor is gonna be your go-to pump up music type stuff.
Daniel McGinn: Yeah, it’s funny, probably about 10 years ago I was at a wedding with some friends from high school and I was not a wrestler, but our high school had a very, very good wrestling team when I was there. And one of the guys at the wedding was a wrestler and they used to run out into the arena to this particular song and the song came on at the wedding we were at and he was sitting there in a dress shirt with his sleeves rolled up and I watched the hair on his arms go straight standing straight up. And this was 25 years after we’d been out of high school, just hearing that song that he’d come out to his wrestling matches too, his body continued to have a visceral physical reaction to it. So yeah, those songs really do have a hold on you.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about positive self-talk. What does the research say about visualization and positive self-talk and getting ready for performance? Does it actually work?
Daniel McGinn: It does. There’s a fair bit of research on it, whether it’s visualizing things that are in the future. So golfers, professional golfers, before they take a shot, they always imagine exactly where they want the ball to go. That’s just a standard practice among elite golfers is that they visualize positive success. Some people will visualize things from their past. I kind of think of that as the greatest hits kind of thing. Imagine if an athlete has like a highlight reel. Some people will actually watch a highlight reel of themselves or listen to sort of an audio highlight reel before they go into a game because they’re reinforcing the idea that they’ve had all these great moments.
Brett McKay: So what do you do based on the research you did? What do you do for self-talk to get pumped up?
Daniel McGinn: So I try to come up with ways that reinforce the idea that in my chosen field, which is writing and editing, that I’ve been successful at it. So sometimes if I’m about to write something that’s either hard or it’s sort of an assignment I’ve been putting off or just seems particularly challenging, I’ll pull out something I wrote years ago that was unusually successful or that I felt was some of my best work and I’ll just take 10 minutes and quietly read it. Sometimes before I come on a podcast like this one, I’ll go back and listen to a prior podcast where I thought I did a really good job and where I just feel like maybe it was a trick of editing, but they just made me sound really good. So I’ll listen to myself, I’ll be like, wow, that sounds really good. You’re not so bad at this when you get in the right spot. So I try to remind myself, gosh, I’ve been really successful in the past, I have a decent skillset, I’m poised for success here. So it’s just sort of finding those reminders. I used to work in an office where we would take pages of our magazine that were very well done and hang them on the wall, sort of like a trophy case. And just having that environment walking around with things that remind us that we’re a successful organization that can be very useful to people.
Brett McKay: And don’t be afraid of the affirmations you might feel silly doing, I’m good enough, I’m smart. Like those, it actually does work.
Daniel McGinn: Yeah, one of the places I visited when I was reporting the book was West Point, the US Military Academy and they have a very large performance psychology department there. And they would actually, they worked mostly with the varsity athletes, but they would also work with some of the cadets that were trying to go into the Rangers or some of the elite fields of the army. And they would work with them to develop these audio tracks where they’d actually hire professional narrators and there’d be, they’d bring in special music. So for instance, if you were the goalie on the lacrosse team, they would ask you about your best games of all time and then they would, it’d almost be like having like a radio announcer come on and be like, John you were an elite goalie. Remember the game against Navy when you stopped three goals. Remember when you were all conference and they’d have special music in the background and they’d actually have the players listen to these things on headsets before practices, before games.
It almost feels like some of that subliminal advertising that people used to talk about in the fifties where like they’d flash popcorn very quickly in the movie screens to try to get people to think about popcorn. Well some of that stuff actually does work. Priming is a psychological technique much the way you prime an old gasoline engine. You can sort of manipulate the mind to put it into certain mindset to perform. And even at West Point, they’re using some of this stuff to try to get their players to perform better.
Brett McKay: Can watching inspiring videos or looking at inspirational pictures or memes, can that help people get psyched up too?
Daniel McGinn: I think it can. I know from the time I spent with the Red Sox that one of the things their video team does is they, if a player wants it, they’ll create special highlight reels just for that player to watch on his phone before games. So the idea there again is you wanna remind people about their best performances, string them together, because it boosts their confidence, it boosts their mood, it reminds them how good they are and how good they can be in today’s game.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about competition. You found research that competition can help us perform better. How so?
Daniel McGinn: So if you’ve ever done any sort of racing, sport, biking or running, anytime you’re going up against another person, the research shows people tend to speed up in that instance, that’s why they have pacers in races. So simply competing against another person in that format just makes people try harder, makes them compete harder. So then if we know that’s a phenomenon, then how do we take it out of an athletic context and use it as a motivation to perform? And that’s something business people think about a lot.
Brett McKay: And what are business people doing to do that?
Daniel McGinn: So sales is one area. So some sales organizations will use leaderboards where you can actually see who’s selling the most and how much they’re selling and who’s in first place and who’s in fifth place. Sales organizations will often, obviously everybody in sales is compensated with commissions and bonuses, but sometimes there’ll be things like President’s Club where the people who are selling more will get a trip to Hawaii with their spouse and they could just give them the money instead of the trip to Hawaii. But part of the reason they do that is it’s creating a little bit of competition and rivalry within the firm, which has proven to help people be a little bit more successful. There’s some research that people have done over the years suggesting that people who have like a frenemy at work, somebody who they’re collegial with but they see as sort of their direct competition, those people might work a little bit harder and try to perform a little bit better. So this idea that even if we’re all on the same team, there might be a little bit of intra team rivalry, that can get us going. That’s something that a lot of businesses are cognizant of.
Brett McKay: And also in that chapter about rivalry, you talked about the role of could be a negative emotion, anger and performance. So oftentimes another thing you’ve heard, if you played sports, you gotta get angry. Like think about how this team did you wrong, you actually talked about it in your book and your experience. And your coaches would be like, look at these guys, they did this to us and there’s the disrespect and like the goal was to get the players all angry so they go out and perform better. Does anger actually help improve performance.
Daniel McGinn: In certain settings it can, especially if it’s sort of a physical and power-based competition. So if you think about like they’ve done studies on weightlifting, power lifting, that anger is a really effective emotion in that standpoint. The story I told in the book was we were playing our high school rivals in football and we had a pep rally the night before and we received a bouquet of dead and sort of disgrace disrespected flowers from a florist that apparently the other team had sent us. And that really got people riled up and angry and we ended up winning the game later on, it turned out, we actually tracked down the florist and it turned out that our coaches had sent them to us in order to manipulate us and make us angry. So in certain kind of physical settings, anger can be effective. There was a study done as well on pep talks that somebody studied halftime basketball pep talks and when the coach got really angry at halftime, that sometimes worked very well. But generally the further you get away from physical and the more you get into sort of like cognitive or mental or professional kinds of stuff, the less effective anger’s gonna be.
Brett McKay: Right. So the cells was that Glengarry Glen Ross?
Daniel McGinn: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Might not as be as effective to get all angry.
Daniel McGinn: Yeah, especially nowadays. I think people’s tolerance for expressions of anger in the workplace are probably lower than they were 20 or 30 years ago. So I’m not sure that being super angry in a work setting was ever gonna be very effective. But I think, it’s hard to think about how we would research this, but as a hypothesis, I would say it’s gonna be less effective and more likely to cause trouble in 2023 than it would’ve been in 1993.
Brett McKay: Well, something that a lot of players athletes do to get a mental edge over their rival or competitor is trash talk. And there’s been research, people have actually researched trash talk. Does trash talk actually help?
Daniel McGinn: So it can help. There has been research on it, it’s something that sort of puts your competitor off balance. It takes them by surprise, it sort of disrupts their equilibrium. So trash talk is a situation where it’s less about pumping you up and it’s more about sort of pushing your opponent, possibly making your opponent angry, making them more emotional. So what you’re trying to do there is instill negative emotions in your opponent in a way that’s going to impede their performance. And in certain contexts it can work. Certainly a ton of it goes on. My children are a little bit older now, but one of the things that surprised me, we’ve all seen trash talk at a professional level, but I’ve seen 10 year old basketball players do some really ferocious trash talking.
So it’s definitely something that’s trickled down over the years. There are people in business that try to do it. There are companies that will talk about competition and try to get, if you’re at Coke, they’ll talk about Pepsi and how they wanna beat Pepsi or Hertz and Avis. You go back through sort of the classic business rivalries over time. So there are, in a business setting, there are people who try to sort of trash talk focus on rivals and why we’re better. Some of that can work in certain settings, but again, you’re sort of playing with fire there.
Brett McKay: Yeah. In the business side of things, you gave the example of John Legere, he was the CEO of T-Mobile and he openly trash talked his competitors and I think he was trying to throw them off, but I think he also did it. And you make this point to sort of galvanize the employees at T-Mobile, like, hey, look at this guy, he’s out there, flinging arrows, we’re gonna stand behind this guy.
Daniel McGinn: It really made a lot of sense in that time and in that industry. If you think about it, he was the CEO of T-mobile in the late 2010s. By that point, everybody in America who needed a cell phone had a cell phone. You’re not, there’s not a huge growth market for more people buying cell phones. So the whole way that a company like T-Mobile is gonna grow, it’s by stealing competitors from AT&T and the other and Verizon, the other competitors there. And he had a, just a very, in your face social media savvy strategy. He would just trash the customer service and the pricing of the competitors day in and day out on social media. He would engage with employees and engage with people who were switching over. Obviously they did television advertisements as well, but he really saw his Twitter account and trashing Verizon and AT&T as part of their marketing strategy and it worked pretty effectively for a while.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it could work for maybe in the short term, but after a while it might not work and it might not work, it probably won’t work in all situations.
Daniel McGinn: Yeah, again, I think it worked there because the competitive dynamics of that company, it was very authentically in keeping with the personality of the CEO. He’d been a competitive runner and sort of a trash talking athlete when he was growing up. And it worked because that was an industry that had a whole lot of retail employees who responded favorably to seeing their CEO engage in this kind of behavior. So I think it worked very specifically to that context, but not every company’s gonna be able to make that work.
Brett McKay: So what tips from your book are you still using today to psych yourself up for whatever you have to do in your work and in life?
Daniel McGinn: That’s an interesting question. I’d say two things about that. Number one, I have become a big believer in doing things that reinforce my confidence and remind me of past good performances. I’ll tell a story that’s not about me. After the book came out, I was giving a talk to a group and afterwards it was a group of salespeople. And afterwards one of the salespeople came up to me and he said, “Hey, I wanna tell you a story about confidence.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “In my home office where I do a lot of my sales calls from, I keep a crown on my bookcase and it’s the crown I won in high school because I was named Homecoming king. And sometimes before I make a call, I put my homecoming king crown on and nobody can see me.”
And he said, “The reason that crown is so meaningful to me is because I moved from one town to another halfway through high school. So I didn’t even show up in the high school I graduated from until I was a junior. And within a year and a half I’d made enough friends in this new high school to be voted the homecoming king. And that crown reminds me of my ability to connect with people. So I don’t personally put a crown on before I make calls, but the idea that there’s something in your life that reminds you of some special ability you have and that if you can touch it or look at it or have it in your office, that can be something that’s useful to you.” That’s certainly one thing I took away from the book. The other thing I took away, and this is again something that after the book came out, something I heard from people that’s changed the way I think a little bit. I’ve worked sometimes with a CEO who runs a big organization and he read the book and we talked about it afterwards and he gives a lot of presentations and a lot of big public talks and I expected those would be like the high stakes moments in his professional life.
And he said, I, yeah, I give a lot of talks and stuff like that, but they really aren’t the high stakes moments in my life. Now when you get to this level, the one-on-one conversations are really important. If I’m, if I have to have a hard conversation with my sales chief or if I have to let someone go or if I have to give a negative performance review or tell somebody we’re not gonna pursue a project, he’s like, those conversations are really important. There’s only two of us in the room. But those are probably the conversations that I need to really bring my A game and get psyched up about. It’s not when I’m in an arena with 5,000 people. So that idea of what constitutes high performance changes over time, that’s something else that I’ve heard a little bit since the book came out that I think about a lot.
Brett McKay: Well Daniel, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Daniel McGinn: So the book’s called Psyched Up and it’s available at Amazon and all bookstores and libraries and I hope people get a lot of out of it.
Brett McKay: All right. Well Daniel McGinn, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Daniel McGinn: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Daniel McGinn. He’s the author of the book, psyched Up. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at aom.is/psychedup where can find links to resources where we can delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure check out our website @artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you haven’t done this already it, I appreciate it if you take one minute to give you review out the podcast or Spotify, 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 would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, is Brett McKay reminding you trying to listen to AOM podcast would put what you’ve heard into action.