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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview With Gene Jones, Developer of Triviation

LeBron James possesses breathtaking physical skills but he did not win a championship until he mastered the mental game. This critical element for success has always fascinated me and I have written many articles on the subject, including my review of Garret Kramer's book Stillpower: Your Inner Source of Excellence in Sports--and Life.

Gene Jones, developer of the Triviation method to "activate breakthrough thinking," believes that honing one's mental/psychological game is important in many aspects of life, including sports:

Hall of Fame baseball player and legendary wordsmith Yogi Berra famously said "90% of this game is 50% mental." While the math of this statement doesn't add up, it points to a vital aspect of sports and athletic competition.     

Although the games we play and watch are visibly physical, the key to success in sports is based on mental preparation and approach. Whether you are a sports hobbyist or a top professional athlete, the mental component of sports is what differentiates those who are continually frustrated from those who succeed. It almost always determines the outcome between two opponents who are fundamentally "evenly matched."

This means that breakthrough thinking is an essential element in all sports endeavors. How many times has it been said that an individual athlete or team "just has to get over the hump" to win a championship, or that one athlete or team has the "mental edge" over another?

I recently conducted a brief email interview with Mr. Jones. His unedited answers to my questions are set apart in italics.

Q: In what ways are your ideas about "flow"influenced by and/or complementary with the work done by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi?

Mihály was a pioneer in this field. When I read his work a number of years ago, I had already formulated many of my views on "flow" states. Reading his work was important confirmation of the conclusions I had arrived at.

Q: Which athletes have you worked with and/or observed who best exemplify the kind of "breakthrough thinking" that you recommend to achieve peak performance? What is a good, specific example of how one of those athletes employed such techniques effectively?

I hesitate to single out any athletes in this regard because I do not know what thought processes they have used.

Q: Are you familiar with Tim Grover's work? My interview with him can be found here: Interview with Tim Grover, Author of Relentless. Do you see a downside to the kind of focus and intensity that is necessary to achieve a high level of success in a given field, perhaps in terms of sacrifices one has to make in other areas of one's life?

There is a downside to any endeavor that is pursued with overwhelming intensity, as other aspects of life are often overlooked. The key word here is finding some balance while also being laser focused on a lofty goal.

To me, the truly successful person is one who reaches a high level of success while also maintaining a balanced and full existence. It is important not to let passion for any one aspect of life run wild and trample the rest of your life. This is true for any field of endeavor--not just sports.

Q: What is the biggest mistake that earnest competitors make when trying to maximize their potential?

There is no single biggest mistake. I like to evaluate each circumstance as an individual challenge.

Q: Do you believe in the concept of "choking" as the opposite of "flow"? If so, how would you define choking and how can one best prevent it?

This question opens up a whole world of its own. Saying that an athlete "choked" is one of the most nasty comments a person can make. Deciding as to whether a person choked or not can often be a subjective judgment. Simply put, choking is the opposite of being "clutch," but it is more than that. Someone who chokes is having an emotional crisis that prevents him/her from performing up to his/her capabilities. Simply missing a shot at the buzzer, or not getting a hit in a critical point of a baseball game, is not necessarily a "choke." Even a great athlete in a "flow" state can miss a shot or hit the ball directly at a fielder, etc. In my opinion, the only time that failure reaches the level of choking is when it is clear that the athlete is emotionally gnarled up and therefore not functioning properly. At that point, it becomes a "nervous condition" that needs to be treated. I would also take a serious look at that athlete's preparation process to see if improving the preparation can relieve the insecurity.

Q: Is there a specific, important idea or concept that I have not mentioned that you would like to share with my readers?

You have asked some good questions. I like to be of assistance to others in any way I can by either answering questions and/or analyzing specific situations. There are always more important ideas and concepts to explore. In fact, I am writing a whole book to try and encompass some of them. But it is difficult to answer such a wide open question as this. To use a baseball metaphor, this question makes me feel like a batter who is trying to pitch to himself...I'm trying to be on the mound at the same time I am in the batter's box.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 PM


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fully Evolved LeBron James Returns to Cleveland

When LeBron James left Cleveland four years ago, he was a great player--the best regular season player in the game--but his on-court game still contained flaws (including an inconsistent outside shot, the reluctance to post up and an incomplete understanding of what it takes to lead a team to a championship) and his off-court game betrayed a lack of maturity: he would be the first to admit now that the "Decision" was poorly thought out/executed and that the subsequent preseason victory party in Miami displayed a staggering combination of hubris and naivete; it is not easy to win "Not one, not two, not three, etc." championships nor is it prudent to boast about the inevitability of doing so before playing a single game with a new team and right after quitting in his most recent playoff series.

Spending four years in Miami changed James. He finally added an outside shot and a post up game to his repertoire, he learned that the best player must assert himself as the best player--and not defer to anyone else--and he figured out the paradoxical truth that understanding how difficult it is to win a championship makes it easier to win a championship. The latter point is perhaps the most important one: if you think that it is easy to win a championship then you will take shortcuts in your preparation, you will be overconfident against opponents who you perceive to be inferior and you will be inclined to quit when things become difficult--because you never expected things to become difficult and thus you are not prepared mentally, psychologically and physically to rise to the challenge. Think of George Foreman versus Muhammad Ali; most of the world thought that Foreman was invincible and Foreman bought into the hype, so when Ali took Foreman's best punches for several rounds and then asked Foreman if that was all he had, Foreman realized that he had nothing left. In his worst playoff performances at the highest levels of competition, James looked like Foreman: an imposing figure physically who was outsmarted and defeated by wily, tough opponents.

James' explanation for why he is returning to Cleveland is mature and measured; he hit all of the right notes, said all of the right things and showed that he has shed himself of the hubris and naivete he displayed to the world four years ago.  He wisely declared, "I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver." James set a confident but not brash or defiant tone. He is the best player in the NBA and he can reasonably expect to win at least one more championship if he plays up to his potential while being surrounded by a competent supporting cast--but nothing is guaranteed.

James' closing remarks are touching and, if backed up by sincere actions, will profoundly affect many lives and perhaps be a positive influence on other elite athletes:

I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

One part of James' essay sounds insincere, though: "I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there." Was he lying when he stated his goal to win eight championships (he stopped at "not seven" in his premature Miami "victory speech" four years ago) in Miami or is he lying now when he says that returning to Cleveland was always part of his plan? I am sure that after Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert blasted James and Cleveland fans burned James' jersey the last thought in James' mind was returning to Cleveland. When James went to Miami, he thought that joining forces with two stars in their primes would create an unstoppable team that would win more championships than the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Bulls. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took minor pay cuts--accepting slightly less than the maximum--but the three stars really did not leave too much cash left on the table to build a supporting cast; they collaborated to build the Heat and they figured that they could win multiple titles while playing alongside spare parts and castoffs. Wade was thrilled to be joined by two stars in Miami, Bosh was happy to be the third wheel and James naively believed that all that was missing in Cleveland was the star power that he had helped assemble in Miami. After the debacle in the 2011 NBA Finals, James realized that he cannot escape the fact that the responsibility to win a championship lies firmly on his shoulders: yes, Michael Jordan passed to John Paxson and Steve Kerr when the situation warranted but Jordan also did work in the first 47 minutes of those games to force teams to trap him; Jordan never stood around passively, expecting someone else to do the heavy lifting the way that James did against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals and against Boston in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals. James is a dominant scorer, like Jordan and like Kobe Bryant, but until James arrived in Miami he lacked the inclination/complete skill set necessary to consistently be a dominant scorer against elite teams in championship level competition.

If Wade had not declined so precipitously, I doubt that James would have left Miami. Now that James understands how difficult it is to win a championship, he realizes that it is important to surround himself with young, athletic players to provide a cushion for when his formidable physical gifts begin to fade (though James' game will likely not fall apart the way that Wade's has, because James not only has a more well-rounded skill set than Wade but James is also much bigger than Wade, an important--though underrated at times--factor in NBA greatness/longevity). Vowing to return home not just to reward Cleveland's long-suffering fans with a championship but also to exert a positive influence beyond the basketball court is a pledge that cannot be criticized--but I do not believe for one second that this is part of some master plan hatched in 2010. James left Cleveland for what he presumed to be greener pastures, he experienced great success--though not as much success as he expected--and now he is making a decision (no capital letters, no premature victory parties this time) based on a combination of financial, social and basketball factors. Take note that James signed a two year max deal with Cleveland, with an option to leave after one year; James says that he is fully committed to stay in Cleveland long term and, based on a variety of considerations, it is a shrewd business decision to leave his options open--but James is also giving himself an escape hatch. James has every right to do so, but let's not pretend that his return to Cleveland is primarily motivated by altruistic concerns; he left Cleveland in the lurch four years ago and he just abandoned his "band of brothers" in Miami, so there is every reason to believe that leaving Cleveland after one year is not just a theoretical possibility but also a bargaining tool/threat that James will use to maximum effect. Is James loyal because he is coming back to Cleveland or does he lack loyalty because he is leaving behind two supposedly close friends merely because one friend declined physically and the other friend may not be quite good enough to help James win more championships? If James were truly motivated primarily by hometown concerns, then he never would have left Cleveland--and if his move to Miami was primarily motivated by the powerful bond of friendship (as some writers suggested at the time, speculating that he was trying to recreate his high school experience at St. Vincent-St. Mary) then James would not desert his friends but rather he would finish his career playing alongside them.

LeBron James fully realizes just how much power he wields in the NBA universe and he is not bashful about using that power. That does not make him a bad guy at all, but I am not ready to elevate him to sainthood, either; returning to Cleveland makes sense on many levels for James and I truly hope that he accomplishes all of the off-court goals that he eloquently listed but I do not quite buy his revisionist history about why he left or why he is coming back. I am intrigued, though, by how much he grew as a person and as a player in Miami, and it will be fascinating to watch that process continue in Cleveland--for at least one year.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:37 AM