Williams’ approach wasn’t about creating a grueling workout regime to achieve a particular goal. It was something simpler: he just enjoyed the ongoing process of mastering the nuances of hitting. And with this mindset, he was able to accomplish, over 19 seasons, what so many players before and since can only dream about.While conventional wisdom would likely argue that Williams’ work ethic was the distinguishing factor, sports guru and author Garret Kramer has a different theory about what separates great performers. Kramer believes that the classic “grind it out” mentality that we’re taught at a young age actually prevents athletes from realizing their potential – and he’s betting it’s impacting your performance at work, too.
As a consultant to athletes ranging from high school amateurs to acclaimed Olympians, Kramer has counseled the best as they struggled and succeeded. Over 20 years, these insights led him to write the book Stillpower: The Inner Source of Athletic Excellence.
We sat down with Garret for a discussion about what athletics can teach us about getting in the zone, letting go of keeping score, and enjoying the journey.
From your experience, what makes for a great competitor?
I truly believe the finest competitors in every sport, or in life, play the game with what I call stillpower not with willpower. This understanding is key to success. What I mean is that despite the desire to win, these competitors remain open to all possible outcomes; win or lose, they know they’ll be perfectly okay. What arises out of this is a level of consciousness that let’s them excel. They see opportunities, follow their passions, and feel an ease in their day-to-day lives. They’re simply following their instincts.
Is this the infamous “in the zone” state that we hear so much about?
Let’s be clear about this. The zone is not about trying hard. You can’t force it. The zone feels effortless because you’re operating at a higher state of consciousness. Although athletes in the zone are incredibly locked in, their focus is never forced.
Same thing goes at work. You’ve never had to push hard to find a great insight. If you think on your best performances or purest experiences in life, were you trying to exert a force on it? Most of the athletes I work with tell me that when they find the zone they simply “let go” and just absorb themselves in the present moment. It’s a selfless experience.
What do you tell them when they fall out of this state?
The answer will always be found in simplicity. The reason athletes (and all of us for that matter) struggle is that the quality of our thinking has declined. When that happens, we revert to the intellect for the answers and the intellect will always overcomplicate things.Now, since we’ve been taught to grind it out, we force it. But, from this low state of mind, we’re not capable of finding answers, so our quality of thought continues to drop down as we struggle. But what if we simply took our foot off the gas pedal? Our thoughts and mood would settle, and we would see the same challenges as opportunities. The insights start to flow again, so answers become obvious.
Once you grasp that fundamental concept you realize that willpower will not help you. You’re not capable in the moment. The more we try to control our effort (or our thoughts about effort), the more we tend to get in our own way – and reduce our odds for success.
So I encourage my clients to step back and use a term I call “stillpower,” which means don’t push ahead but rather be still. The feelings that come will be of ease, clarity, and responsiveness.
It sounds crazy. I mean, do nothing? Yes. Do not make any decisions from a low mindset – just be still.
How do you help athletes handle negativity in their thinking?
Well, the worst thing we can do is try and fix the negative thought. Which, by the way, is a productive thing. It’s just thought. There is no reality to it. Understand what really is happening. A thought produces a feeling which produces a mood. The feeling is a navigational instrument. It’s telling us we’re not seeing it clearly.The worst thing is to wage war on this. It’s normal to think negatively. That sign is there to guide you and if that was the right move to make you wouldn’t be feeling that way. You would feel free. You would feel enthused. You would feel passion. You would feel determination.
So, a negative thought is a great thing. Why would you ever want to mess with your own mind’s ability to direct you?
What about setting goals?
The worst thing an athlete can ever do is be focused. It shrinks the perceptual field and narrows options. Instead, we want awareness. Awareness expands possibilities. So, when someone sets a goal they’ve eliminated all sorts of possibilities for their growth. Their level of self-worth doesn’t rise when they get to the goal either. Now, of course we all want to win but let’s not intentionally limit our own awareness by narrowing in on a goal. It’s totally unproductive for our lives.
That reminds of Steve Jobs’ famous commencement address at Stanford, and how his life only made sense in the rearview mirror.
Yes. Such a great way to look at it. We don’t notice true change until after it happens. True change isn’t willful. It’s so fluent and intuitive that we don’t even realize it happened. That goes back to letting our feelings be our barometer and letting our passions and creativity guide us.
Do you see any parallels with coaching and leadership?
Absolutely. To effectively engage someone, you must be operating from a higher level of consciousness than the other person at that moment. I often advise coaches that this understanding supersedes any other requirement if they are to provide enduring guidance, recommendations, or love.The next time a coach or manager feels the urge to provide guidance or discipline, please understand that what comes out of their mouth is much less significant than the level of mental functioning from which the words are spoken.
The best coaches refuse to operate from ego or insecurity and instead are willing to consider that a player’s perspective might indeed have some added value. Many fail to recognize that the most innovative teams (companies and societies as well) actually encourage individuals to express their views respectfully. Such teams have learned that personal ownership in the greater good will foster the free will that is paramount to success.
What message do you try and leave your athletes with?
No matter the circumstance, when fearful thoughts appear, remember: They are self-created and powerless on their own. Negativity (fear included) is just a sign to slow down; whatever you are thinking and feeling at that moment – whatever you see – it’s not true. Keep your foot off the gas pedal and your state of mind will ascend on its own. Then, answers will become obvious – you will realize there is nothing “out there” to fear.