How Do Champions Think? Ask The Guy Who Trains Them

Dr. Bob Rotella is America's leading sports psychologist, having worked with just about every big name athlete in every sport you can imagine. The author of numerous books on golf, he has just published How Champions Think, In Sports And In Life (Simon & Schuster). This is the book for anyone who wants high performance, from high school students to CEOs.

As a weekend warrior and 57-year-old marathoner and triathlete, I'm a connoisseur of books of this genre. How Champions Think is head and shoulders above every book ever published on the subject of, well, how champions think.

I caught up with Dr. Rotella in a phone interview from his office at the University of Virginia last week.

Michael: What drove you to write a book of a more general nature as opposed to something aimed just at golfers?

Bob: I've always worked a lot with basketball, baseball and football players, and I've worked with the U.S. Equestrian team. I've worked with skiers, I've worked with tennis players, and I've worked in the world of business for years. And my real passion has been the psychology of greatness. I' studying what people who want to be great and are chasing greatness do that makes them different. That was a big part of it, and I think the other thing that spurred me on was hearing too many people talk in the media, and on television about that the American dream is dead, and it's not possible anymore, the opportunity isn't available. And I think the combination of those two things probably got me spurred on to doing something other than golf. I have a lot of nieces, nephews, cousins, and grandkids, and something great was that I'm going to share what I've learned from those experiences with the next generation.

Michael: So the book is as much for family members who have come after you as it is for the general public.

Bob: No question about it.

Michael: That's pretty neat. Are there athletes in the mix?

Bob: I do have a cousin in Vermont who is a sophomore and has broken all of the lacrosse records out there, and wants to play Division 1, so yeah. My dad's 96 and he's still playing golf, and we still have a lot of fun at it. I've had several other people in their 80s call me up after reading the book and say, "Man, I love the book. I wish I had known all of this stuff when I was 18 years old." And my response is, I think that's why people keep getting better.

We keep gaining new information, and we keep getting better at applying that information, and we keep growing, and that's what I want to see happen. But I think you definitely see it in the world of sport, you see it in the world of business. Every generation is better. Bottom line is that people are better today than they were. The performance is incredible.

Michael: If you were to take a Babe Ruth and give him the nutrition and the conditioning and the equipment and the mental training that athletes have today, if you were to take one of the greats from the past, do you think they'd be 10 times greater today?

Bob: Yeah, I don't think there's any doubt about it. Plus, start them at an earlier age, have them spend a lot of their time playing that one sport. In Ruth's case, probably get him a little more rest.

Michael: You would have told the Babe to get more sleep.

Bob: On the other hand, everyone else would be that much better too, and that's' where it gets interesting because the competition would be better as well. He'd be facing more pitchers pitching fewer innings. He'd face more specialists. Today, minimum requirements have gone up.

What you had to do to be a big league great player then versus what it takes now in terms of the amount of time you put into weightlifting, stretching, working out, working your mind out, batting practice, and drills, it's pretty amazing.

Today there's a level of commitment that's way beyond what the minimum requirement was back then to have the chance to be great. If you're not willing to do all of the pieces of the puzzle, you'd better be a lot more talented than everybody to get away with it. And even those people who usually get away with it aren't.

Michael: You wrote that today the competition is global. You've got kids from all over the world coming to play Major League Baseball, or who are in the NBA. So you're not just competing against the people in this country, it's the whole world.

Bob: That means there's going to be kids from other countries who never had the opportunities that at least a couple of generations here have had, and it's like they're our fathers and grandfathers in terms of ambition and excitement over having the opportunity. They're really making a level of commitment, they have a level of discipline and hunger that is making some people wonder, "Gosh, is it worth it? Do I want to make that big of a commitment? Do I want to put that much time and energy into it? Is it that important?"

Well, the bottom line is, competition does that to you, and it's really easy to become a philosopher at the worst time. We start to make up reasons why it's not worth it. Or convince yourself, "I don't really want to do that." A lot of people give up on the dream as the competition gets bigger and better, and other people are going to thrive on it. And I think the great ones all thrive on the competition.

Michael: Tell me the story about Tom Kite.

Bob: I started working with Tom Kite about 30 years ago and he started winning golf tournaments. The next year he asked me to bring three of my young players. So I brought Davis Love, Brad Faxon, and David Frost to south Florida and we spent two or three days talking about attitude.

Davis says, "Tom, you started working with Bob, and you start winning tournaments, why would you tell him to invite us down here and spend 3 days sharing everything you're learning with him?"

Tom looked at him and he said, "Well, I just want to see how great I can get at golf, and the better you guys are going to get, it's going to make me get better, and the better I get, it's going to make you guys get better, and it's going to be fun to have some other guys to share it with, and talk about it with."

And then he looked at them and he said, "You know, there's enough money and enough trophies for all of us. I don't need them all, I just need my share."

And I remember those young guys looking at him like, "Wow."

Tom went on and talked about how he didn't think he would be the player he had become if he hadn't gotten beaten by Ben Crenshaw as a kid. We had a great discussion about healthy competitors and part of being a great competitor is really driving and embracing competition and being glad there's competition. Look at Coke and Pepsi. You look at technology. The more competition there is, it really forces creativity and imagination. It certainly drives the work ethic, that's for sure.

Michael: What you're talking about is a martial arts attitude. It's respect for the competitor, because without the competitor there's no competition. You can't find out how good you are.

Bob: You see it a lot of times in very elite universities like Virginia, when these kids get accepted, literally the only kid in their high school, or the only kid in their region to get accepted to a great university. At that moment they think they're a genius, and they feel very honestly that they can do anything they put their mind to, and they're really feeling great about themselves.

A large percentage, by the end of their second year, have come to the conclusion, "I'm not as smart as I used to think I was after spending 2 years hanging around other brilliant students." And they realize, "Wow, these other kids are unbelievably committed, and do I want it that badly?"
Do you want it badly enough to stay in the game and keep competing? So many people are going after greatness. After the first few years they're putting quality ahead of quantity. They're trying to become efficiency experts, trying to get more done in a shorter time period. Because if all you do is add hours, it'll eventually just wear you out. I think for every year of experience, you ought to be able to be more efficient and more effective, if you're learning the right stuff.

Part of it is not getting beaten up as you realize, "Wow, there are a lot of other people who are talented. There are a lot of other people who are highly committed. There are a lot of other people who are disciplined and have good coaches." At some point, you've got to really persist and you have to really believe in yourself.

Michael: What you're talking about is a combination of external accountability, having a coach or someone who is holding you to certain standards, and then internal accountability, that you're able to hold yourself to those standards despite the competition, despite distraction. Is that accurate?

Bob: Very much so. I think it's huge. Along the way, even the people who go for greatness are going to have some so-called experts who don't believe in them. Who don't see talent when they watch you play. Who don't believe in you. And you've got to be willing to reject those people and say, "Well they don't know what they're talking about."

You've got to see it in yourself before other people see it in you.

If you're trying to do some great stuff, and you see it in your mind, you can't let other people convince you otherwise. That's where self-belief and persistence plays such a huge role. A lot of it is that you really respect your talent. I talk about it a bit in the book, but it comes up all the time in my work: do you respect your talent? Because you have to take your talents and your attitude to work every day. You have to take it to the playing field every day.

Michael: In How Champions Think, you've got a chapter called "Respect Your Talent."

Bob: That's right. The biggest mistake anybody can make is to fall in love with someone else's talent more than they fall in love with theirs. I try to really emphasize in all my books, that real talent is inside of people. I don't know if it's in the mind, or the heart, or the soul, or the human spirit, but it's inside and a camera can't take a picture of it. And yet television tries to make it like you can take a picture and it's on the outside with how tall you are, or how high you jump, or how quick you are, or how strong you are. But it really is inside of people more than anything else.

Michael: Not everyone has role models for success.

Bob: Sometimes it's a matter of looking at yourself differently. Instead of looking at all the reasons why you can't do it, is really making a concerted effort to look for all the reasons you could do it, or finding one example of someone who's like you, who has done it, or sometimes, I was talking to a group recently and the kid says, "Well no one from my town's ever done anything like that." Then you have to say, "Well then you'll have to be the first."

And that's where you get in with creating your own reality and ultimately we all do that. Ultimately we all decide what's realistic for us.

Are you sure that you want to decide that all you can do with your talent is be average? And is that what we love about America? What would your great-grandparents say if they found out that in two or just generations you decided just being middle of the road was good enough for you? My guess is that they wouldn't be very happy.

Their attitude was that they were coming over here so they'd have unlimited opportunity, and they could go anywhere they wanted and become anything they wanted. And that's the opportunity they wanted to give their families. And to give up on that is a huge mistake. And if someone's going to decide that average is good enough with them, it's okay with me. I just want to make sure they have an informed decision that that's a choice that you made.

Michael: I'm wondering if there's a difference between the coaching you provide your clients who are athletes and the coaching your provide your clients who are businesspeople.

Bob: I would say not. I would say it's very similar. Obviously in business, physical talent plays less of a role. But I would say that in school and in work, attitude is a lot closer to everything. In sport, particularly some sports, golf it would be much less so.

You could not have certain physical qualities that are necessary in football or basketball. Even in baseball, the players are getting so much bigger. But in golf you could be almost any size and have any amount of speed and still be really successful at the highest levels.

Attitude becomes even more important in the world of work. And in the world of work, unless you come up with some new business idea where there's no competition for a short time-period, it's really huge. And even if you have no competition for five years, in the world we live in today, where information gets here so fast, somebody else is going to start competing with you pretty soon.

Michael: Have you ever had athletes or businesspeople who are just uncoachable?

Bob: I can think of one person. And when people ask me about it, I don't even say his name, but I say, well the best way I can describe the person, is that he wanted to fail and be miserable more than I had time and energy to convince him of what he could do.

I remember telling the person, "I wish I had met you earlier in my career where you were my only client." If I had all day, every day, I think I would have probably found a way to get it done. But, this guy, it was almost like he was passionate about being miserable and finding ways to screw up his life. And I finally said, "You win. You want what you want more than I want what I want for you. And I just right now don't have the time and energy to convince you of them." And I gave him a lot of time before I came to that conclusion.

One of the things that's fascinating, and I think this where parents play a big role, whether it's parents, or relatives, or friends, or teachers, or coaches is a good question, but it really helps if you have some good influences early in life because, and I talk about this a little bit in the book, we are victims of habit. Habits become really strong and have a big impact. And so it's really helpful if you can get into really good habits early in life.

Michael: Why do some people lower their standards as they get older?

Bob: Most kids, if they had a high school football coach who said, "Our dream is to finish 500 for the season, lose as many games as we win," they'd say, "Get rid of him. We want someone with big ideas." And yet the same people, when they get in their career, they want their boss to just let them be perfectly mediocre. Like that's fine. So it's fascinating that we have different standards when we're playing sport, and then we go into a career and a lot people want their standards lowered.

Michael: In sports the goals are so clear. And in business, obviously how much money you make is a yardstick, but it's a little more murky than winning or losing a specific game. Not everything is as immediately measurable, so maybe that contributes to it.

Bob: I think you're right. I was talking to a hedge fund analyst just yesterday and we were talking about that very issue. He wants to be a great analyst. "I want to be one of the greats and the best in the world."

Okay, but how do you measure that? At some point you have to measure it based on performance, which you could measure if every choice you told the people in your company to invest in they invested in, but they don't always do that. So at some point you just have to say, "I want to have the best attitude, I want to be in a great state of mode every second."

Just compare yourself to yourself and say, "I want to find out how much I can get out of my talent." And I think most people are very happy if they feel like they are performing at their optimal level. And most people have a good sense of that.

Michael: I've got to ask you about Tiger Woods.

Bob: I was talking to the Virginia golf team the other night about it and said, "It's interesting. When Tiger was dominating for 15 years or whatever it was, everyone loved to talk about how talented Tiger Woods was. 'Man, if I had his talent I'd be awesome too.'" And I said, "You know the last two years you don't hear anybody talking about how talented Tiger Woods looks." And I think it's a great testament to the role of attitude.

Right now his mind is not in a good place when he's playing golf, or standing over shots, or putts, or pitches. And he doesn't look so talented. When his mind was in a really clear place, he looked awesome. And at some point, people have to come to grips with it.

My guess is, inside, he's always been bothered that he couldn't hit a high bombing draw that was longer than everybody else. And he had to hit these stinger shots and knockdown shots. And it's always kind of bugged him, but he wanted to win so badly that he'd do whatever he had to do to win.

Then people like Rory came on the scene, who just did it so beautifully. Somewhere in Tiger's head it's, "How come no one has been able to teach me how to do this? I'm Tiger Woods. I ought to be able to do this. And right now, I think hitting a high bombing driver is more important than winning golf tournaments."

That's not a very good place to be.

Michael: I guess it's the one domain he hasn't conquered, but it's not an important domain.

Bob: I keep reminding people, that on one hand, Jack Nicklaus's record was a real stimulant and incentive for Tiger, and I think on another hand it was a limiting factor. If Jack Nicklaus had won 25 majors, I don't think all this would have happed to Tiger until he got to about 21 or 22. I think he would have already had 21 wins by now. So in some ways it really helped him, but it's very possible with his talent, he said his goals and his goals and dreams way too low.

Michael: I'm just sort of awestruck by this idea that Woods set his goals too low. Because his goal was only the biggest goal in the history of golf. And yet for him, for his talent, you're saying that that was too low a goal.

Bob: Well I'm saying that it's very possible. I don't know for sure. I don't even know for sure if it's really his dream, or was it his dad's and mom's? I don't know for sure. But, given what we know, I'm saying it's definitely a possibility. It's fascinating. Everyone say Tiger Woods has had such an influence on golf. And I go, well if he's had such an influence, how come we have never heard one other golfer ever say their goal was to break either Jack or Tiger's record for majors? I think that's probably one of the most important things Tiger had going for him.

Michael: The sense I have is that the burden of being Tiger Woods that was imposed on him by his parents, and not by his own choosing, must have just been unbearable. And that he had to self-destruct. Because just being the image of the corporate spokesperson and family guy, the perfect man, and the messiah almost, how can any human being bear that? It just seems as though it's too exhausting for anybody to cope with, especially someone as capable as he.

Bob: And you certainly hear that from athletes. Some athletes decide they don't want to be the best or they don't want to be great because in today's world of media scrutiny, whether they're kissing your butt or ripping you to shreds, it's so great they don't want to have to deal with it. And I can have a nice life just being pretty darn good. And that's why I talk in my book about "good is the enemy of great," and the minute you're willing to settle for just being pretty good, well, you can give up on being great.