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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Garret Kramer's Stillpower Provides a Fresh Perspective About Coaching, Competition and Life

Luke Skywalker: "But how am I to know the good side from the bad?"
Yoda: "You will know...when you are calm, at peace, passive."--Dialogue from "The Empire Strikes Back"

"In war, as in life, there is a wrong way and a right way to compete. Avoid danger and greed. Embrace concentration and awareness. And when it becomes inevitable--let go."--Kwai Chang Caine, "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues"

"Colors blind; Sound deafens; Beauty beguiles; the enemy of stillness is desire. Eliminate desire, and the truth will become clear."--Kwai Chang Caine, "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues"

Champions are often praised for their will to win, their ability to overcome mental, psychological and physical challenges through sheer determination. Garret Kramer, the author of Stillpower: Your Inner Source of Excellence in Sports--and Life, argues that willpower is not nearly as important as "stillpower," which he defines as "The clarity of mind to live with freedom and ease; the inner source of excellence; the opposite of willpower."

Kramer--a former high school and collegiate hockey player who also qualified for four USGA golf championships--suggests that, as paradoxical as this might seem, the harder one tries to be successful the more likely it is that a person will fall short of his expectations and goals; Kramer believes that instead of trying to use willpower to overcome any and all obstacles it is better to clear one's mind and strive for a sense of calm. His mentor Sydney Banks said, "Happiness is only one thought away--but you must find, for yourself, that one thought" (emphasis in the original).

Kramer says that while "pop" psychology contends that "an athlete's life experience, or his performance on the field, is the source of his state of mind" the truth is that "just the opposite is the case--an athlete's state of mind is the source of his life experience, and thus his performance." Kramer declares, "Forcing effort, judging behavior, or trying to mold players potentially thwarts creativity and, ultimately, stifles free will. What all children (and adults, too) are looking for is an unbounded environment where they are permitted to follow their passions, express themselves fully, and compete in the absence of the fear of failure." Kramer says that the best coaching is rooted in love: "love for your players, the game or life itself."

Kramer's ideas and philosophy are very similar to the approach taken by Phil Jackson, who has been called the Zen Master of NBA coaches. Jackson encouraged his players to meditate, to be calm and to find their own solutions on the court; Jackson wanted his players to, in Kramer's words, "follow their passions, express themselves fully, and compete in the absence of the fear of failure." If Jackson's teams were not performing well, he usually did not try to will them to victory by calling a timeout and demanding that his players run a specific play or make a particular adjustment; he had already done his teaching and coaching during practice and he believed that, left to their own devices, his players could solve their problems on their own. This instilled confidence in his players and created a bond among teammates as they worked together toward a common goal. Similarly, Red Auerbach did not just dictate to his players but rather he encouraged them to offer suggestions and ideas. This is also reminiscent of the coaching style of Joe Lapchick, as described by Gus Alfieri; Lapchick coached by feel and he inspired tremendous loyalty from his players because they could sense his love for them and his love for basketball.

Shifting gears from coaching to playing/performing, Kramer says that the key to athletic success--and success in general--is to separate life situations from life. One example of a life situation is a shot that you are about to take; the outcome of that shot--make or miss--should not affect your life because "your life is a constant," Kramer writes. "While most of us think that external circumstances actually happen to us, in truth they don't. They're just happening. All life situations are just happening. Granted, we play a role in the outcome of whatever it is we face, but regardless of our role or whether we're happy or disappointed, the nature of all circumstances or results in life is unbiased. This basic understanding is essential to your quest for success." Kramer uses a dramatic analogy to drive this point home. While working with a pro hockey player who was in a slump, Kramer asked what would happen if he put 10 pucks at center ice and asked the player to hit the first nine into an open net. Naturally, the player confidently answered that he would make all nine shots. Then Kramer asked what would happen on the 10th shot if he put a gun to the player's head and said that he would pull the trigger if the player missed. At first the player replied that he would make the shot but then he admitted that he probably would miss. Kramer concludes, "What does this illustration show? Performing any task or activity while believing the outcome will somehow be indicative of your self-worth (not neutral), or believing the activity can somehow regulate your life (a gun to your head), is a surefire way to lower your consciousness and shrink the perceptual field."

LeBron James' transformation during the 2011-12 season, culminating in his tremendous 2012 postseason performance, was breathtaking to watch. The difference between LeBron James' failure in the 2011 NBA Finals and his success in the 2012 NBA Finals was not that James improved physically or from a skill set standpoint; James changed his mindset, improved his focus and calmed himself down: after the 2012 NBA Finals, James publicly admitted that in 2011 he had been "immature" and he explained how he turned things around: "I just looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'You need to be better, both on and off the floor.'" Instead of trying to prove anything to others or even to himself, James rediscovered the joy of the game and he embraced the responsibility of being the best player on the court without allowing himself to feel so crushed by the pressure of being the best player that he literally would run away from the ball (which is what he did in the 2011 NBA Finals and also in the 2010 playoffs versus the Boston Celtics). Instead of playing like he had a metaphorical gun to his head, James relaxed and this enabled his talents to shine.

Stillpower concludes with an appendix containing a 10 point "game plan for the future." Point number eight powerfully summarizes the book's overall message:

"8. The opportunity always exists to move through any situation successfully, no matter how challenging it might appear.

Everything that occurs in your life is meant to show you the way, not get in your way. When you are thinking clearly and your state of mind is high, life's purpose becomes obvious no matter what you face. Embrace the challenges by keeping this understanding in mind. The obstacles will make sense to you in no time."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 PM

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