A-Rod’s Record Lesson

Thank you, Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees. You hit home (excuse the pun) the impact that focusing on results has on one’s performance.

Daniel Gilbert, in an August 4th article in the New York Times, wrote about Rodriguez’ challenge as he tried to hit his 600th homer.

“Rodriguez hit his 599th home run on July 22, bringing himself and his fans to the brink of celebration. And then, for 12 long days, he not only failed to drive the ball out of the park and into the history books, he also went hitless for 17 consecutive at-bats. This wasn’t the first time Rodriguez has stood at the precipice, and then stood there some more: after hitting his 499th home run in 2007, he came to the plate an excruciating 28 times before finally hitting his 500th.

“What made all this so frustrating for New Yorkers… was that everyone felt certain that Rodriguez would have slammed several homers in the past two weeks if only they hadn’t mattered so much. Watching him struggle to break the numerical barrier was like watching a man frozen with fear on the last step of a tall ladder: we knew, and he knew, that the last step was exactly the same as all the steps before it — so why couldn’t he just take it?

“One of the ironies of human psychology is that desperately wanting something can make attaining that thing all the more difficult. When stakes go up, performance often goes down. In one study, subjects practiced sinking a putt and got better as they went along — better, that is, until the experimenter offered them a cash reward for their next shot, at which point their performance took a nosedive.

“Golfers in another study were told either to take their time and think about their stroke or to step up and swing as quickly as possible. Although novice golfers did better when they took their time, expert golfers did worse.”

It seems almost counter-intuitive that the harder we try, the worse we get; the less we try, the better we perform. At least that’s the way it works with things we’ve done many times, things that we’re “good at.” If it’s a brand new task, then intense focus can help. But once the task has become mostly-automatic, the less thought we put in the way, the better.

Gilbert went on: “When Rodriguez stepped to the plate in recent days, he may not have heard the roar of the crowd as much as the sound of a record book opening and a pencil being sharpened. The more important his next homer became, the more he probably thought about how to hit it. The more he thought, the less he hit; the less he hit, the more he thought, and the cycle spun on

“Until Wednesday, that is, when Rodriguez finally hit his 600th home run. Forty-six agonizing at-bats separated that homer from the one before it, but the moment the ball sailed over the center field fence, Yankee fans knew that a great burden had been lifted, a great slugger had been liberated, and that a great bat would once again be free to find the ball — naturally, effortlessly, and in its own sweet time.”

What records are you facing? What record-breaking barriers are you putting in front of others? In what areas of your life can you shut your brain off and just trust your well-seasoned swing to take over again?

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