Skip to main content
Triathlete Blog


By December 3, 2008July 7th, 2015No Comments

Don’t you love the off season? Finally time to do things like get dressed in real clothes, eat real foods not in bar form and read books. Here’s some notes from a good one I read.

Overachievement: The Science of Working Less to Accomplish More by John Eliot is written in a sharp, to the point style backed up by well-thought out analogies and intriguing stories.

The author starts by debunking many of the myths surrounding high performance. He argues traditional ways of playing it safe to reach high performance may actually hold us back. Safe strategies include; using your head, relaxing, knowing your limits, setting goals, working hard and minimizing risks. Instead, stop overthinking, use stress to get you amped up, forget about limits, resist setting too many goals, take risks, dream big, let go of evaluating yourself and realize that hard work is not the answer itself.

Interesting, eh?

What turns ordinary people, then, into high performers (or overachievers) is the way they use their minds when they are called upon to perform. It’s a mindset that they have practiced in training and trust in performance (or race day). Great performance is therefore not a mystery, rather a way of thinking. And thinking is a habit that anyone can learn. Any ordinary person can develop the ability to think exceptionally to achieve great performance.

Specifically, great performers know how to separate the Trusting Mindset and Training Mindset.

Great performers focus on what they are doing and nothing else. They engage in a task so completely there is no room left for evaluation or criticism. They perform naturally and instinctively. They let it happen and let go. This is what the author calls the Trusting Mindset. It’s a place where we think like a squirrel. Imagine a squirrel faced with an oncoming car. Squirrels do not stand there weighing the options of should or shouldn’t I move, what if I go left or right – what will it all mean? There is no calculating or overthinking, they simply react, allowing their instincts to lead them towards the right thing – run, and run fast!

Following this, the author explains that to get into the Trusting Mindset you must get in touch with your inner squirrel. It’s an amusing analogy but it makes sense. Qualities of the Trusting Mindset include; empty mind, accepting, instinctive, artistic, patient, reacting, playful, quiet, rhythmic, letting it happen. In contrast, the Training Mindset (or the mindset we have when we are practicing for our great performance) is active, judgmental, analytical, scientific, calculating, effortful, critical, intentional and controlling. He argues that in the moment of great performance, the performer simply lets go and does what comes naturally (Trusting) – that which they have practiced over and over again (Training). They turn off the training mode and go into trusting – trusting the work, the process, and themselves. Success, then, requires emptying the mind rather than filling it. It’s learning to let go and trust yourself.

Letting go, however, is not to be confused with being too loosy goosy and relaxed. You can’t be so relaxed that you are ready to sleep before your key performance. Much of the literature in peak performance talks about relaxing to let something flow. In contrast, the author claims that great performers actually welcome pressure and see it as an opportunity for taking their game to the next level, for breaking through. Getting excited or keyed up before a big event is good! It means you are ready and aroused.

There is an optimal level of energy or arousal before an event. Nerves and stress are good – they signal your body to fight or flight, they get you keyed up and ready to focus on the task at hand. When you start to interpret these butterflies or jitters as something to fear or something wrong, then the arousal becomes anxiety. Anxiety makes us less capable of great performance and fearful of ourselves. It gets in the way of trusting ourselves. Instead, recognizing that feeling jittery is a way of signaling your body is ready and prepared for GAME ON is good for yourself.

The author then describes what it means to be a high performer. Simply put, they are exceptional thinkers. They are different than anyone else. They are immune to what others think of them. They realize they see the world differently and this is what sets them apart. Their sense of self never depends on the feedback (positive or negative) they get from others or their environment. They let nothing get in their way – not others, not the risk of failure nor themselves. They are confident in themselves and their dreams.

Dreams are what drive great performance. What is your dream? Where are you going? If you don’t know where you are going, you will never get there. All great performance is fueled by a passion to achieve something. And this something is likely related to your potential. To tap into your full potential you must have a sense of what your potential is. Where do you want to go? What do you really want to do? Only you can decide this – not a coach, friend or spouse. Your potential, then, is limited by your dreams or your vision. The author encourages the reader to ask key questions in determining your own potential by considering your visions and dreams:

*Do you have an exciting, vivid vision of the world and where you are in it?
*Are you extremely committed to the success of that vision?
*Are you so confident about your potential that other people think you’re a little too cocky?
*Do you create your own reality or let other things control you?

The author notes you will not do incredible things without an incredible dream. An incredible dream is a feeling that sticks, it gives meaning to your life, it propels. Note that dreams are not goals. Goals are steps you take in reaching your dream. Their accomplishment is the small reward for your commitment towards your grand vision. Goals lead you from point A to point B where dreams drive you in the way you live your life. Chasing dreams is, in his words, a wide-open process, it’s about allowing yourself to find adventure and opening new doors. How you get there is with goals.

The best dreams are yours. Not only that but they are often unrealistic. They answer the question – if you could do anything at all, what would it be? At the start of each season, I often ask myself this:

If this was your last year in the sport, what would you want to do?

From there the ideas start flowing about dreams. Maybe you can’t work towards all of them but you can pick one or two and start setting smaller goals and steps to work in that direction. Dreams can be as unrealistic as you want them to do. After all, no one writes your dreams but you. No one has permission to criticize your dreams unless you give it to them. And to go somewhere big you have to start thinking in big terms and to be unafraid. At some point Michael Phelps was unafraid to say he wanted to be the first athletes to win 8 gold medals at the Olympics – could you imagine the criticism?

Who does he think he is? That’s a little arrogant for him to think? No one has done it before, why hiim?

Phelps didn’t care what the critics said or let it stand in the way of his dream. Instead he committed to and pursued his dream full speed ahead.

Once you decide your dream, it’s time to start working in the direction of it. The author discusses misconceptions about “work”. Often we get lost in the difference between hard work and great work. Society rewards those that work hard. How often have you heard the term “give it 110 percent!” Think about it – you know this person. They are at the office before you, they leave after you but never seen to get that much more done. They are working harder but not necessarily getting better. Maybe they’ve been around 20 years in the office and slowly worked their way up – but not because they are great. Because they’ve worked hard.

But what have they really done?

Those that work hard believe that commitment is diligence. Those that produce great work know that commitment is confidence. It’s how you feel about the work you are doing, how you feel about yourself, how passionate you are that counts. It is not keeping up appearances with long hours. It’s about keeping up with your dreams. In fact, the author argues that those working hard with long hours to impress a boss or please others are not genuinely committed, rather they are low in self-confidence and looking for external approval instead.

Giving it 110 percent is not how you produce something truly great. That’s how you get overcommitted. And the overcommitted often underperform. Why? Research has shown that the more time you put into something, the more your brain starts to think that there must be a reason you have given up other important things in your life (ie., eating right, sleeping, exercising, spending time with family). You get overanxious and start to overprepare. The brain thinks there must be a big obstacle you are facing so it goes into high alert mode getting ready for a fight. Muscle is catabolized, fat is stored for energy, you get fatigued, dehydration increases, sleep cycles are thrown off, concentration decreases, hormone levels get out of whack, moodiness occurs all because the brain is stressed and preparing the body for full on emergency mode. What happens then? Performance falls. You are so anxious and overworked your body cannot respond properly. As performance suffers the typical overcommitted person interprets this as a result of not working hard enough so they put their nose to the grindstone even more.

*If you always perform better when practicing (training) than performing (racing) or if you always feel like you know you are better than you are performing (racing) but can’t seem to put it together on race day – this just might be you*

Hard work, then, is not the answer. There is a fine line between working with a healthy and unhealthy commitment. Unhealthy commitment is striving for perfection, sacrificing, forcing the extra mile, always focusing on mistakes, delaying gratification, always working, becoming “OCD”, logging in the hours and being pessimistic. Sure, it’s work but not the right kind of work. It’s hard work that is hurting you. Instead, a healthy commitment is being passionate, striving for excellence, chasing a dream, focusing on success, being optimistic, going for it and playing. It doesn’t feel like work because you are so damn passionate about the process that you forget about the risk of failure or the end result.

The author goes on to say that you should definitely put all of your eggs in one basket – pursue your big dream. Why? To be committed means being passionate and having a focus for your dream. Let’s say you have a dream of starting your own business – but you fear that it will flop so you keep one foot in your other career (even though you do not enjoy it anymore). The author says that you must go after your dream wholeheartedly, let go of the fear of failure and take the leap. Thinking about a fall back or contingency plan before you start chasing your dream only undermines your confidence and shows a lack of real passion for what you want to do. Those that make these back up plans are making excuses for not committing full steam – why? Lack of confidence or striving for perfectionism (both of which will get you nowhere).

Failure is one of the great lessons that truly exceptional thinkers embrace. The road to high performance is full of more failures than wins. About failure, the author asks – so what. So what if you fall on your face. So what if you fail. If you are an exceptional thinker destined for high performance you’ll pick yourself up and try something else. Just keep committing to something else and working in the direction of your dream. There might be a different way to get there. It might take more time. Keep at it.

Why does failure propel high performers forward rather than set them back? Because they are confident. Confidence is a way of thinking about yourself and your abilities. It is a perception of your own potential. It helps you push past problems, over obstacles, and continue towards your dream. Mistakenly, people think to be confident you must have a history of success or a win. Actually, confidence precedes success. You cannot be a success until you believe there is something successful in yourself. It’s not a product of accomplishment – it’s a result of the process that gets you there. Confidence people have a history of confidence – not of winning. It’s a way of thinking that will increase the likelihood of your success (not guarantee it). Confidence is about what is possible – not probable. Too many of us spend time calculating the probability of our success. When you start to calculate the odds that are against you and your success, you lower your confidence. You become the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Confidence is about ignoring external realities in order to believe in yourself and your ability to make great stuff happen. (Eliot)

Confident performers are not obsessed with the outcome because the pursuit of the dream or the challenge it poses it so exciting to them that it becomes its own reward. Obstacles and setbacks become reasons to believe more in yourself, learn from them and push you on towards something more.

The very place where most people lose their confidence – after a failure – is where exceptional thinkers build theirs. (Eliot)

The author then creates a confidence checklist. Confidence is not something we are all born with, it’s a way of thinking and you can train your brain to think this way. Again, thinking is a habit – you can change or train your way of thinking about yourself. Often, unconfident people are busy rehearsing crisis management or damage control rather than programming their head with successful solutions to whatever comes their way. To be clear, the author states:

(1) Confidence is not your track record; first comes confidence, then success.

(2) Confidence is not a button to be pushed; confidence must be practiced, it’s a mindset you must build.

(3) Confidence does not change your physical skills; it doesn’t replace preparation but helps you improve your skills & put in the hard work even while it doesn’t seem to pay.

(4) Confidence is not about building self-esteem; believe in something specific other than yourself – an ability, an action.

(5) Confidence is different from false confidence; it’s not just telling yourself I’m great – it’s acting in accordance with greatness, walking the walk.

(6) Confidence is not to be confused with strategy; being confident is not a part of the game – it’s a part of your game.

(7) Confidence is not arrogance; there is nothing too bold about believing in yourself.

The next part of the book discusses how to become an overachiever. First, the author talks about learning to focus. Most importantly, on how to be in the present, to race in the moment. Often strategies focus on pushing aside distractions when really that is impossible. Instead, focus in the chaos, get absorbed in the task. The author suggests selecting a target to focus on one thing that you can control. Let this thing it occupy your mind and learn to concentrate intensely on it. He recommends deciding on your target before the performance – to go into the performance with a specific, process-oriented, vivid target that you can concentrate on intensely.

Next, the author recommends creating a philosophy of performance. To do this: imagine you have retired from your sport/career/pursuit. When others look back, what do you want them to talk about? That will give you an idea of your philosophy. Use it as a guideline to help keep you thinking exceptionally no matter what happens along the way. A performance philosophy should be, (1) Simple and uambiguous, (2) Personalized to your unique situation, (3) Aimed at maintaining consistently great thinking in the face of obstacles that would normally bring out your ineffective habits or mindset, (4) About the process, not the outcome. An example of a philosophy is “She believed pressure is an opportunity for success.”

How can you create a philosophy for yourself? Honestly look back on your performances this past year. Look for defects in how you performed under pressure. What went wrong and where? That is what needs work. That is what you should embrace in your philosophy because chances are that is what is keeping you from performing truly great.

The last part of the book talks about evaluation. Evaluation is looking at numbers, patterns or outcomes to make a judgment about the performance. The author reminds us that evaluation has a place – outside of performance, not before or during it. The quickest way to inhibit great performance is to start thinking about how it is happening when you are in the middle of it. Instead, great performers evaluate the process itself – not the outcome. You can never change an outcome but you can change the actions and thinking you made along the way. In other words, evaluate only the things you can control because those are the only things you can change.

Evaluation is important because it helps us make sense of and learn from our failures. Failure, disappointment and loss are experiences that lend way to learning more about ourselves. The author points to Michael Jordan as an exceptional athlete that made more mistakes than we think. It only takes watching coverage of a game and consciously looking for the good and the bad in his performance, eventually you will notice that the bad is there. The difference is how he reacts to failure – he simply doesn’t react and moves on with the game. Perhaps he revisits it later during evaluation but during the game he is 100 percent focused on doing what he does best – performing exceptionally.

If you want to be great at what you do, you have to explore your talent, depend on your training and commit to achieving your dreams. You will fall short of your potential if you spend too much time working on your game without devoting time to changing your attitude and how you think. You can do the workouts and have the skills – but if you do not truly believe in your abilities and see yourself as a possibility, you will not succeed. High performance is not about perfection, it’s about facing pressure-packed challenges, giving it your best and enjoying it every good (and bad) step of the way.