Life as Sport

What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life


By Jonathan Fader

Read by Jonathan Fader

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Why do sports captivate people? They allow us to watch human beings achieve peak performance, but, beyond physical strength and skill, what’s really impressive is an athlete’s mental prowess — their will to succeed, engagement with their environment, and self-confidence.

In Life as Sport, sport psychologist Dr. Jonathan Fader shares the skills that he teaches professional athletes–to enhance motivation, set productive goals, sharpen routines, manage stress, and clarify thought processes–and applies them to real-world situations. Dr. Fader’s book is the product of thousands of hours of conversations with athletes from various teams and sports: power forwards, tennis phenoms, power-hitting outfielders, and battle-scarred linebackers, as well as hedge-fund managers, entrepreneurs, A-list actors, and dozens of other elite achievers in sports, business, and performing arts. It offers a compendium of stories, theories, and techniques that have been helpful to players, coaches, and executives in professional sports. What emerges is more than just a set of techniques, but a life philosophy that anyone can live by: an internal code to help translate our talent and drive toward the highest plateaus of performance.

Dr. Fader designs his strategies to be studied, learned, practiced, and improved. He offers his readers the same exercises that he uses in every session with a professional athlete. These exercises help you to get truly engaged, whether you are designing a new business plan, working to inspire a team or individual, or even falling in love. This is what it means to truly live life as sport–to approach it with the same immediacy, wonder, and engagement that athletes feel at their peak during a game. Life as Sport helps you to pursue your own goals with an enriched intensity — not only because it creates new potential, but also because it helps you unlock what was always there to begin with.



The Life as Sport Philosophy

The Life as Sport philosophy has four pillars: enjoyment, present and future orientation, objective optimism, and process focus.


Champion golfer Jack Nicklaus is famous for saying, “I am a firm believer . . . that people only do their best at things they truly enjoy. It’s difficult to excel at something you don’t enjoy.” With rare exceptions, the athletes I have known who have been able to succeed in the spotlight are those who actually find enjoyment in being there. I remember a long talk I had with Dave Winfield, the Hall of Fame baseball player, who opened my eyes when he discussed his enjoyment of the game. “Jonathan, I was a fierce competitor,” he told me. “I remember many moments that stand out as me playing at my best. But the beauty of it is that it’s fun. You are outdoors, you have your teammates, you can make a name for yourself. It’s a beautiful sport, and part of the beauty is that you never know the outcome. If you learn to embrace this challenge, you can succeed and really enjoy the process at the same time. When I look back, the things I really enjoyed were the same things I enjoyed as a kid—doing something I’d never done before. I was excited about learning and seeing some of the things I learned pay off. I’ll always remember the joy of hitting a ball so hard that I knocked the guy’s glove off.” When Dave spoke to me that day, I could hear his enjoyment of his experience as though he were singing.

World class rugby league player Michael Crocker once told me that his teammates would marvel at the positive energy he could create by dragging all players out into the rain prior to practice to kick balls and slide around in the puddles. “I was excited every day at training because I loved the game, loved training, loved competing, and loved being around my mates. So many young players these days are completely overworked and end up viewing practice as a chore—not a very good mindset to have, and one that definitely impacts on performance and their ability to be at their best. One other thing I did use to promote energy and fun was to sing along to songs when we were doing cardio training in the gym. Sometimes I would completely change the lyrics and turn it into a story about something of relevance to our situation or one of my teammates. I did this because I wanted to enhance my ability to talk out on the field when I was tired or under fatigue. Personally, I feel enjoyment is the key to success in a team environment. You want to be able to laugh and have fun while working as hard as you can. The fulfillment at the end of a tough session or game is when you walk off smiling, knowing that you have done your absolute best and enjoyed it no matter the result.”

This does not mean that these people do not get frustrated, occasionally throw their bats, or use mind-blowingly colorful language when they have undesirable results. However, the people who make it and stay in the big leagues of any sport are those who seek out and find satisfaction in some or many aspects of their performance. These men and women are the ones who take great pride in their pre-, during-, and post-performance routines. They are the ones who play the best clubhouse practical jokes, the ones you’re still laughing about months after the prank was revealed. These athletes usually build relationships with teammates, staff, and coaches and lead lives full of activity and friendship outside of their profession in organized sports.

In my years interacting with and observing these champions I have witnessed firsthand how powerful their passion for enjoyment is in allowing them to remain consistent in their performance and ride the waves of injury, inconsistent results, and other challenging life circumstances. (I’ve also gained valuable experience in being the butt of a few practical jokes!) A unifying characteristic of all these players, whether they came from a shack with a dirt floor in Latin America or a twenty-thousand-square-foot mansion in Southern California, was that they were able to look at stressful situations as challenges rather than threats. They were able to find humor in the worst luck and to turn a travel delay into an opportunity to connect with their teammates. As my father always said about any delay on an airplane due to a mechanical issue, “It’s infinitely better than the alternative.” They were also able to see their outlook not as something innate but instead as a skill to be practiced. The more you practiced this attitude, the more it became you, and then the more it became you, the easier it was to practice it.

After a bad result or a loss, if you were to be in my shoes as a sport psychologist, you’ll hear one common reaction by athletes in clubhouses and locker rooms all around the world: “Remember, it’s just a game.” This reaction helps athletes put things in perspective. When reacting this way to a loss, professional athletes are trying to help themselves avoid getting overwhelmed by the sting of defeat. Sometimes they’ll show you a picture of their beautiful girlfriend or insanely cute baby; occasionally they’ll talk to you about money in the bank or material possessions. But what they’re really trying to do is convince themselves that the loss was not important.

Although this can sometimes help temporarily, it’s generally not an effective method of managing their feelings. This is because a negative result in sports or any other arena impacts our self-esteem. We all know that as we are competing for a title, award, or financial success, there are real, life-and-death situations happening out there. But in the context of our lives, the game does matter. It is important. And although it is “just a game” and our work is “just work,” these activities carry with them great personal meaning and have powerful effects on the way we feel about ourselves and, thus, impact the world.

However, these athletes are onto something very powerful. The truly successful athletes look for a way to enjoy their game or sport, win or lose. They find a way to balance the paradox of letting go of the results and returning to the fun of the activity while at the same time mercilessly looking for ways to improve the process that will lead them to their desired outcome.

In the words of the late poker pro Amir Vahedi, “In order to live, you must be willing to die.”1 I have found in working with the most successful athletes that those who can balance their approach to their game by really enjoying the activity while fiercely competing have a higher quality of life, stay in their sport longer, and generally have better results. Paradoxically, if you can give up on the results and just “be,” you usually end up with a more successful performance outcome. Dave Winfield also highlighted this concept of play when he told me his version of the well-known story about himself. While he was a Yankee and throwing during a warm-up in a game in Toronto, Dave accidentally hit a seagull with a ball. The gull died, and this caused a stir in the media. Dave told me, “The next series in Detroit, everyone was taunting me, flapping their arms like wings of a bird. They attempted to humiliate and taunt me. But instead of letting it get me down, I used it to motivate me. Every at-bat I hit the ball harder than I ever had. Like a laser beam. Other people might have got frustrated. But I enjoyed seeing how I was going to show those people.”

It is this balance that this book will help you achieve. If you can look at your life as a sport and yourself as an elite athlete at the center of this all-important game, you will be able to more easily and effectively achieve the results you desire. The techniques in this book are tools to help you navigate life with this outlook. They are designed to assist you in adopting the most adaptive outlook on life’s challenges and developing skills that bring out your best to react to those challenges. You can practice looking at your life as an elite athlete would, determining how to practice these skills in order both to enjoy things more and to achieve greater success.

Many athletes at the end of their careers express regret for having not “enjoyed it more.” The “it” that they are talking about usually means the experience of being at the top of their game or just being at the time or place in their life at which they were really having fun, growing, building skills, and developing relationships. In my work with people from all professions, from sports to the performing arts and business, I have found that many people in the late parts of their careers express similar regrets. Part of living life as a sport is attempting to find, every day, ways to increase your level of presence and practice enjoyment. One of the key elements of this is to work on actively being conscious of your level of enjoyment and trying to refocus yourself during your work in improving your skill on this enjoyment.

I’ve had the privilege of talking with successful veteran athletes as they’ve looked back on impressive careers sometimes spanning two decades. Most of these athletes are in their last year, dividing their playing time with award ceremonies and parties celebrating their successes. However, some of my most powerful lessons have come from these discussions I’ve had with veteran athletes in the minor leagues. As you may know, in baseball the minor leagues, or “farm system” as it’s sometimes referred to, is the training and development wing of any major league baseball team: players aged sixteen (international draftees, many from Latin America) to their early thirties fighting their way through the upside-down funnel to get to the top of the pyramid and break into the big leagues. When most people think of the minor leagues, they think of eager young rookies recently out of high school or college, full of optimism about their ability to become an All-Star. However, there are a few minor league players, mostly at the highest level (Triple-A), who are former big-leaguers who have come to live out their final years as a baseball player just below the cusp of “the show.” They have spent between ten and twenty years playing on a world stage and are now playing in front of forty-seven people in a park that doesn’t hold a candle to their big league experience. I’ve always enjoyed hearing them reflect on their experience, and the primary lesson I’ve learned is that they wish they stopped to enjoy it more.

Consider this comment that a very successful player in likely the last year of his big league career said to me regarding his biggest regret: “Doc, it just goes by so fast, you know? It’s kind of like with your kids, you know? One day they’re born a perfect little boy or girl, you close your eyes, and the next second you turn around and they’re off to college. Toward the last years there, I was always so focused on getting results, on keeping my numbers up so that I could stay in the big leagues, and I feel like that really hurt me, you know? I became so focused on getting hits that I feel like I lost my love of the game. I always wonder: if I’d just had more fun and just enjoyed being there, if I wouldn’t have stayed in a little longer.”

This player’s reflections match the comments and discussions I’ve had with many other stars and successful athletes. They all make reference to their desire to have directed more energy toward really enjoying themselves and have commented on their perception that enjoyment leads to better results. As one player said to me recently, “You know how you always tell me, to focus on the self-statement, ‘Hit the Mitt’ as a way of simplifying my thought process? Well, I feel like that overall about my attitude in being a player. If I’m having fun and focusing on enjoying myself, I tend to stop worrying . . . then I have success and the whole thing kind of fuels itself.”

It is easy to lose track of our enjoyment. The stakes in life are high. Whether it’s a sport we play or our job or money, our relationship or our kid’s well-being on the line, we can easily forget what we love about our activity or our work. We can get carried away in the heat of the moment of a presentation, a work day, a meeting, or a fight with a loved one, only to lose track of our enjoyment of the thing we are working on.

But the best players realize that in order to really be successful and stay that way, you need to practice enjoyment. I think it was said best by Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson, well known for his friendly, playful, but professional nature: “The game’s still got to be the same way as when you played it when you were a little kid. Because if it’s fun, then you’re going to want to work, and once you work, then you start to get the results, and once you get the results, that’s more fun again, and that cycle continues all over again.”2

One technique I share with athletes that has been successful in helping them to refocus on enjoying is the “ME” concept. The M stands for Motivation and the E stands for Enjoyment. Before each important activity, meeting, or event, athletes I work with will go through a routine in which they remind themselves to “put the ME into it.” That is, they clarify their motivation and keep it close to their consciousness and then practice enjoyment.

By the time they are playing or performing, this process is so ingrained that they don’t actively think about it. They have a mental shorthand to double-check that they have paid attention that day to their motivation and enjoyment. For example, they can flash their motivation through their mind or look at their motivation reminder (we will cover these techniques in detail in Chapter 3, Motivation). Enjoyment can also be practiced (see the How-To section at the end of this chapter). Throughout this book we will explore ways that you can use the ME technique to practice the art of enjoyment as a way of improving your process. Each chapter will give you a specific exercise to help you seize each moment in your life, being mindful to really live it fully, the same way an elite athlete would in a championship game. I agree with most of the successful athletes that I have talked to, that working to enjoy your life is a surefire way to achieve the best results and the highest level of satisfaction that you are capable of.

Objective Optimism

I tend to meet two kinds of people. The first believe in the power of positive thinking. They have Facebook and Twitter pages full of inspirational quotes, look at things as a “glass half full,” and can find the upside to nearly any situation. The others are those who think that optimism and positivity are dangerous. They believe that “too positive” an outlook is dangerous in that optimists might overlook important and real negative information about themselves and their environment that is necessary to make essential changes in becoming their optimal selves. These people also seem to have a special type of gene that makes them want to throw up whenever they see a motivational quote.

There is a third way of looking at things, one that I call “objective optimism.” Rather than decide whether you’ll see the glass as half empty or half full, assume it’s half full and work backward from there. In other words, if you’re in the position to look at the situation with unclear information about yourself, your performance, or other important situations, try to have an “innocent until proven guilty” attitude rather than a “guilty until proven innocent” attitude. Optimism and positivity are hugely important and influential forces on our expectations and views of ourselves that lead to optimal performance. However, the optimism that I see in successful athletes almost always comes out of an organic objective analysis of their situation. These athletes work to look for proof of how they are excellent, not how they “suck.” In the end it is your outlook that determines your experience and, thus, your performance. As Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Over the years I’ve been shocked by how many high-level athletes struggle with their outlook. Many who were facing with slumps or suboptimal performances came to me, seeking out my counsel, but with little to no awareness of just how much negative information they’re feeding themselves. Despite their talent and impressive success, world-class athletes are no different from any of us. They tend to be very affected by negative results and lack inherent philosophies to battle back against this self-driven negative feedback.

Now, put this athlete with a pessimistic or negative philosophy on a team with a critical teammate or coach or a stadium with forty thousand hostile fans, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. What I teach athletes is a philosophy that I aim to teach you in this book: to begin to seek out evidence that you’re okay, that the world is okay, and that the results will be okay. Which house will you live a more successful life in—the house overlooking an expansive ocean view or the shack in the middle of junkyard? Clearly the way in which you look at yourself will determine how well you can compete and your overall enjoyment of your experience. With the elite performers I work with, I call this crucial viewpoint your “In-Look,” as you are really examining and messaging yourself internally rather than really looking out at the world.

One crucial caveat: this is not just positive thinking! There is a major distinction between positive thinking (i.e., “I’m going to kick ass in this presentation!”) vs. objective optimism (“I’m going to do well in this presentation because I have done well in the previous three presentations, I am prepared, and I have received favorable feedback on my skills.”). Whenever possible, it is essential to be positive and find a way to focus on objective evidence for this positivity. Your evidence must be based on fact or else your brain will reject it.

As my good friend and fellow sport psychology expert Dr. Derick Anderson says, “You can’t teach a dog to sit by saying, ‘Don’t stand!’” Invariably, human beings focus on what’s going wrong. However, we shouldn’t blame ourselves for this tendency, as it is evolutionarily wired. Studies have shown that the amygdala—a tiny almond-shaped lobe in your brain responsible for memory, emotion, and decision making—reacts more strongly to negative news than positive news, leaping to exaggerate the faintest possibility of negativity, fear, and failure, like a neurological alarm bell that rings out at the slightest provocation.3 Biologically, perhaps out of an age-old instinct for self-preservation, we are primed to linger on the negative. Let’s look at this in more detail.

Our nervous system has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years. In doing so, it has been designed to help us survive. Our nervous system is on constant lookout for danger. Our ancestors needed to know if a hungry lion was around the corner—and fast! We were always looking to hunt ourselves, but we could survive two or three days without a rabbit. However, it takes only one lion to end all your days of hunting. In that way fear is a very powerful agent in our behaviors. We are wired to be fearful and alert.4 This is sometimes called a negative bias—it’s why phobias of survival-related dangers like snakes or heights are so readily learned and why they persist across a wide cultural, historical, and geographical swath of the human race.5 All things being equal, your brain looks for what’s wrong, not what’s right.

Think about it this way: when you’re walking down a dark alley in a foreign city, how much time do you spend concerning yourself with being mugged by an elderly person with a cane? Or do you spend your time looking for the muscular person with a ski mask charging at you with a knife? We are built to look for the thing that’s out of place in our environment and in our life. We tend to notice the strikeout but not the double, the grade of C but not the A.

You might ask, “Why is that a problem? Don’t I need to keep myself on my toes by pointing out what I’m not doing well? Doesn’t that motivate me to do better?”

Well, as it turns out, no, not really. The reality is that when it comes to peak performance—that is, performing at our best—we’re much better off figuring out what’s going well and continuing to foster those positive changes rather than constantly replaying negative results and situations. This much is borne out by a recent study of elite table tennis players: concentrating on the present, not the past, was crucial to their ability to reach the psychological state for peak performance.6

As far as peak performance goes in sports, business, performing arts, and other areas of life, the most effective sport psychology focuses on understanding what is working and building on that. This is the most robust way to build up your confidence. When you learn the techniques of self-talk (Chapter 6) and managing anxiety (Chapter 4), you will have tools to overcome your natural fear and tendency to notice the negative more than the positive. This ability to be positive when appropriate will help you develop the optimal attitude to compete and succeed in all aspects of your life.

Present and Future Orientation

The tradition in psychology has often been focused on what went wrong in the past. We are often trying to find out why something bad happened to us: What was wrong with our upbringing or lack of preparation that might explain why we haven’t met our goals or are in an unfavorable position in life?

In our worst moments we may even tell ourselves that our past decisions and circumstances have led us to “being a person who can’t ________.” I remember a conversation I was having with a basketball player, Ronny, who was extremely anxious in social situations. Whenever he had to do an interview he would feel so nervous that he would sometimes have to make an emergency trip to the bathroom before it began! I remember talking to him about some anxiety he had in dating or being with women: “Doc, I don’t know. I’ve always been like this . . . since I was in junior high. Whenever I’m around people, especially women, and I have to, you know, talk, I feel like my face is going to get so hot that it’s gonna explode.” (Incidentally, what this player was discussing was feeling symptoms of physiological arousal—the body’s feelings of anxiety. We will cover how to manage these sensations in Chapter 4, on managing anxiety, as they come up to some degree for most of us in times of pressure during performance.)

The player went on to tell me this about his past orientation: “I’ve tried to change. Hell, I’ve even taken meds to make it go away. But it’s just who I am, who I grew up to be, who I have always been—an anxious person.”

I responded by telling him that I don’t believe in the existence of “anxious people.”

He was shocked at my reply. Stunned, he looked at me incredulously. I continued to explain: “Ronny, there is no such thing as an anxious person. Only people who experience anxiety.”

When you begin to think of the way you are as stable or permanent, or of your past as the determining factor in your life, you are destined to a life where change is difficult, if not impossible, where your goals are always eclipsed by your fixed, global, and past-based self-concept. What you can do is what Ronny eventually did: work to break free of the past and to change your outlook to be more present and future focused. The Life as Sport philosophy helps you realize that the one part of your life that you have no control over is your past. Many professional athletes make a mistake—give up a run, strike out, miss a foul shot—and become so bothered by what happened in the immediate past that their present and future performance is not anything like what they are capable of. We have all seen it in sports: a world-class athlete falls apart after making one crucial blunder.

Sam Kass played baseball at a high level in college, but his athletic accomplishments were overshadowed by his activities in the culinary arts and as a leader in nutrition in government. Sam served under President Barack Obama as a senior policy adviser for nutrition policy and as executive director for First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign. He and I have had some lively discussions about what he learned from baseball and how some of the Life as Sport–type thinking played a part in his success. “I think focusing on the present is one of the key lessons that baseball taught me that helped me in being a chef,” he told me. “I failed so often in baseball. It’s a game of failure. If you do not learn how to learn from the past and overcome it to focus on the task at hand, you’re not going to stand a chance. If you fail seven out of ten times in your baseball career, you’re going to be a Hall-of-Famer. That sport experience really taught me to focus on the task at hand in my culinary work and not on the past or future. When I first started cooking for the Obamas I stayed focused on excelling in each moment, and those moments led to a life-changing opportunity. I had been interested in food and politics, but if I hadn’t really put in the work and practiced a present orientation, I might have been the White House cook but never would have been able to help shape a massive national health campaign.”

You are no different. In your sporting life, business life, social and romantic lives, you can frequently become fixated on a mistake or loss that, if you are unable to move beyond it, can become very costly with regard to your present or future performance.

Throughout the book you will meet people like Ronny and Sam, and I will show you the ways in which I worked with them to have a present and future orientation. Most research and my experience suggest that having a mindful engagement with the present moment has a host of performance and health benefits.7


On Sale
Sep 20, 2016
Hachette Audio

Jonathan Fader

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Fader is a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist based in New York City. Dr. Fader is the team psychologist for the New York Mets baseball team. he is also an assistant professor of family medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In his role as the team psychologist for the NY Mets, Dr. Fader works comprehensively with professional athletes in the major leagues on maintaining motivation, developing optimal mental routines, and increasing peak performance.

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