Mastering the Art of “Internal Competition”

Coaching Ourselves Out of Frustration So We Can Perform Like Connor McDavid, Kawhi Leonard, Tom Brady, and Tiger Woods

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Read time: 17 minutes (if you read as slow as i do)

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Whatever you’re passionate about, the reality is that the majority of your time is spent practicing. Then there’s a small chunk of time that you LIVE for, when it’s time to perform. If you’re a dancer, it’s the recital. If you’re a musician, the concert. Athletes and gamers have the games themselves. Businessmen have the opening bell of the stock market. Obviously, when it comes time to perform, we’d like to perform at our best. But that doesn’t always happen, does it?

Sometimes our opponent gets the best of us, or we feel off, or we’re cursed with bad luck. During these “shitty” performances, we get frustrated. It makes our heads feel simultaneously red hot and under extreme pressure. Frustration is a very powerful emotion that can spiral out of control and not only affect our current performance, but our future performances as well. And unfortunately for us, it’s not as easy as telling frustration to fuck off.

To some of us, the difference between performing well and performing poorly is the difference between making a living and starving. And it all comes down to how well we perform when the time comes. These performances are what I call “external competition.” We tend to think that winning these external competitions is all it takes to succeed, so we spend hours upon hours practicing our technical skills thinking that it’s all we can do to increase our odds of success. But most of us overlook the other side of competition, the less obvious side, what I call “internal competition.”

Internal competition is the battle we all have with our mindset and emotions during our performances. Whatever your passion is, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have ups and downs. You’re going to have some good days, some bad days, and a lot of average days. The most effective (and legal) performance-enhancing drug that’ll help us win our “external competitions” is understanding how to manage our “internal competitions.” The true masters of sport, the best of the best, Connor McDavid, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Kawhi Leonard, all have one thing in common. They’ve mastered the art of “internal competition.”

This frustration we feel when the bounces just aren’t going our way, or when luck isn’t on our side is the “internal competition” we face DURING our “external competitions.” So the way we handle our frustrations will directly affect our performance. There are a couple of roadblocks that we’ll have to navigate around in order to understand fully, but the first step to dealing with frustration is understanding it.

Our first roadblock is that we tend to deal with frustration the wrong way by default. In a way that’s detrimental to our performance. The second roadblock is that we’re trapped into thinking we’re already dealing with it properly.  This makes it difficult to accept criticism and take advice. We don’t easily accept the truth of our these roadblocks, so the rest of this article is my attempt to convince you that both roadblocks are not only true, but possible to navigate around.

More specifically, our Internal Competition is how we try to motivate ourselves, how we talk to ourselves, and how we try to get the best out of ourselves during our external performances. It’s the battle we all have with our emotions. Think of this “internal competition” as a coach you have living inside of your head. A coach who’s job it is to tell you how you’re performing and how to be better. The difference between a top-level performer and a starving performer is not only based on skill, but how “trained” their internal coach is in the art of motivation. 

Unfortunately, most of us start with an asshole of an internal coach who thinks he’s right all the time. It’d be nice if we could just fire him and hire a professional coach that knows what he’s doing… but, we’re stuck with the internal coach we’re born with. So, we’ll need to slowly teach our “asshole internal coach” what he’s doing wrong.

So what exactly is our internal coach doing wrong? And why does he always think he’s right? These are complicated questions, and the answers will make our thinking brains hurt a bit, but consider this the mental training necessary to win whatever external or internal competition comes your way. Look at it as training that your competition isn’t willing to do, or doesn’t even know he or she should be doing.  

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When we’re not performing at our best, our untrained coach makes three crucial mistakes. First, he needs to feel like he’s useful. He needs to prove that he has this job for a reason. He needs to feel in control, so he tries to force something to happen… RIGHT NOW! He gets impatient and jumps to giving us direction without enough information.

I know it sounds counterproductive, but sometimes the best approach is to accept that you’re shitting the bed, and relax. We’re more likely to perform at our best when we’re relaxed. This is when we’re not “over-thinking,” and when everything feels effortless. Leading psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this a “flow-state” and Ryan Holiday in his newest book calls it “stillness.” But how in the FUCK do we relax when we’re frustrated? 

If we’re having an off day, one of the best things we can do is give meaning to the poor performance. Yes, you may be shitting the bed this time, but the ultimate goal isn’t to win the current game, it’s to win the championship. We must keep the bigger picture in mind. If we accept that we can’t be perfect, and we accept that poor performances are inevitable over the long haul, we won’t define ourselves by our current poor performance. When we realize that our current performance doesn’t define our capabilities as a whole, we can relax. And when we relax, we can perform better.

Our more experienced internal coach immediately recognizes our poor performances as “out of the norm,” and he encourages us to find the meaning in our poor performance. It kind of sounds like he’s giving up, but what he’s really doing is encouraging a mindset that will help us get out of the hole. He’s doing more…by doing less. I’ve written extensively on this leadership technique in my previous three part series on leadership.  But to summarize, what he’s REALLY doing is giving up the need for control that our untrained internal coach has. He’s not going to waste his time stressing and trying to control the uncontrollable.

Maybe the meaning in your poor performance is that you’ve identified some aspects of your skill set that genuinely need improvement. Maybe the meaning is simply a well needed reminder that even the best of the best fail to reach their potential sometimes. We don’t love performing because it’s easy and because success is guaranteed, we actually love those parts of competing that we think we hate. We love that it’s challenging, uncertain, and unpredictable. If you want to win ALL the time, go play a video game on the easiest level and pay attention to how fast you get bored. 

The second mistake our untrained coach makes is this: he doesn’t want this poor performance to be his fault so he blames YOU. This is what we call our “negative self-talk.” Remember that our internal coach is how we talk to ourselves and how we try to motivate ourselves. We crave a reason for WHY we’re not performing very well. So we automatically make up stories like “the reason you’re shitting the bed is because you suck at this, you’re not cut out for it, you should give up, you’re too short, too slow, too skinny, I don’t even know why you’re trying.” Sound familiar?

The first thing we need to do is recognize what these automatic negative thoughts are, or recognize what our internal coach is saying. Once we notice what we’re saying to ourselves, we need to imagine a real coach saying those things to real people. If a real coach were speaking to his players the way we speak to ourselves, he’d be fired faster than the average person gives up on something when it gets difficult. Giving up is basically when we listen to our shitty internal coaches advice and BELIEVE IT.

What our “untrained” internal coach doesn’t yet understand is that frustration is temporary, it’s the feeling we get when we focus our efforts on controlling the uncontrollable.

We aren’t in control of our frustration, our emotions are automatic reactions to what’s happening around us. But we CAN control how we respond to frustration. So, when we face some sort of adversity, a pro internal coach would flip frustration upside down and teach us to control the frustration, and not be controlled by it. He does this by replacing all negative self-talk with constructive self-talk.

Only once we notice what our automatic negative thoughts are, and determine how destructive they are, can we start to change the behavior. We can then easily imagine what a calm professional internal coach would say to motivate us in times we need it most. “You’ve been here before, you recognize this spot we’re in, you’ve gotten out of ruts like this before, you’re actually really good at this part, there’s a huge opportunity here, and if it were easy, you’d be bored, remember that video game set to the easiest level?” He’d keep calm and tell us to control what we can control, and not to waste any energy on the uncontrollable things.

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Last but not least, the third mistake our untrained coach makes is a result of the first two mistakes. It’s clear by now that his intentions are in the right place, but his actions are naive and immature. This childish behavior continues when he tries to motivate us out of our current slump. He tells us to use our frustration as fuel, toswear, to curse, to throw the controller, to hit somebody as hard as we can. We feel a sudden surge of energy when we’re frustrated, which could give us more raw power. But it’s almost like we borrow that energy from our brain and we stop thinking clearly. When we stop thinking clearly, we stop caring about the small details, and when we stop caring about the small details, we make mistakes. When we make mistakes, our competition takes advantage of them, which makes our frustration burn even HOTTER.

Usually when we let our EMOTIONS take over, we regret our ACTIONS. This can spiral downwards until we blow up. We make short-term decisions without much thought that can affect our long-term goals. 

Our newly trained internal coach recognizes this pattern all too well. He’s seen it and felt it thousands of times. He knows how tempting it is. He’d remind us that it might feel like we should harness the sudden surge of frustrated energy and let loose, but those were the ways of our old coach. He’d remind us that we know what we need to do. He’d remind us that it’ll be extremely difficult, but we need to resist the urge to let frustration take control of us. We need to control our emotions so we don’t make any more mistakes than necessary. Sacrificing our short-term urges will increase our long-term odds of success. It’s kind of like stopping ourselves from scratching when we’re itchy. We don’t want to spread the itch or break skin and get an infection.

I’m sure you’ve noticed a pattern that seems backwards. We naturally want to try harder when we’re frustrated, but the best thing we can do is to relax. I know that sounds like bad advice and this article might seem like a waste of time right now (maybe that’s just negative self talk,) but remember at the beginning when I mentioned the two roadblocks we’d run into? “We tend to deal with frustration the wrong way by default, We’re trapped into thinking we’re dealing with it the right way and we’re not easily convinced otherwise?” Well its time to navigate around roadblock 2. After everything we’ve talked about so far, we still need to convince ourselves that it’s true if we want to change. Because frustration is THAT powerful.

And this leads to the biggest problem of all. If you’re still with me, I’m sure you have an argument that sounds something like “sometimes when I beat myself up, or when I lose my cool, I perform better the next time.” THAT’S the trap we naturally fall into. Explaining this trap is going to make our heads hurt a little more, so take a break, listen to a calming song, take another sip of coffee, do 10 pushups and then follow me along this important lesson in statistics and economics.

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As we discussed before, even the best of the best have SOME bad days, and SOME great days. When we perform, we tend to only remember these two opposite sides of the spectrum. But what about all of the normal days? The majority of our “normal” performances are easily forgotten, but they’re the key to teaching our internal coach how to chill out for good. 

Let’s say we have “shitty performances” about 10% of the time, and “Perfect performances” just as often at 10%. This means 80% of our performances are “normal” and easily forgotten. It’s way easier to remember when we have a devastating loss, or when we win the championship, than it is remembering a game in the middle of the season that didn’t have much on the line. These peak and valley performances are easier to recall because of the emotions attached, because of how we FELT. 

The reasons our untrained asshole internal coach makes the mistakes he does are hidden in plain sight. He knows how well we CAN perform, he’s seen us in the top 10% and this leads him to be disappointed when the remaining 90% of our performances aren’t as good. If we’re only satisfied after 10% of our “perfect” performances, we’re destined to be unhappy and continually disappointed in ourselves. And if we’re continually unhappy, then more negative thoughts automatically pop up and there’s no way we perform up to our potential. Our internal coach can increase our odds of success by judging our performances based on our “middle 80% forgettable performances.”  This means recognizing that both the “shitty performances” and the “flow states” are abnormal, and realizing that managing our emotions in BOTH situations is crucial. In short, don’t let yourself get too high, so you don’t get too low.

During the bottom 10% of our performances, we tend to think that our negative self-talk ACTUALLY WORKS. We do this because of a concept in statistics and economics called “Regression to the mean.” 

Remember that the MAJORITY of our performances are the “80% normal, forgettable performances.” So, if we find ourselves having one of the “10% shitting the bed” days, and we beat ourselves up for it, the odds are in favor of our next performance being better, REGARDLESS of the “negative self-talk.” We think that the improvement in our next performance was CAUSED by beating ourselves up, when REALLY, it was just coincidence that you were better, because the odds were in favor of your next performance being back in the “80% normal.”

So with an untrained internal coach, we are basically ALLOWING ourselves to be frustrated because we THINK that “negative self-talk” and “blowing up” was the fuel that got us out of the hole last time. This only causes us unnecessary pain and is detrimental to our performance long-term. 

If we look at today’s best athletes, it’s easy to notice a pattern of behavior. Connor McDavid, Kawhi Leonard, and Tom Brady are great current examples of athletes that are in control of their emotions. So much so, that some fans call them “boring.” They’re never too high, and they’re never too low, they don’t “show any emotion.”

Stoic is a word that is often misunderstood. Some believe it to mean “boring” or “uninterested.” But the word originates from the ancient philosophy of “Stoicism.” Stoicism is a philosophical practice in which one notices when events are IN or OUT of their control, and act accordingly. If done properly, a Stoic will avoid any unnecessary suffering. Unnecessary suffering is when we let events that are out of our control cause us stress. Stoicism says, “If an event is out of our control, the only control we have is how we react to the event.

So if Connor McDavid was “shitting the bed” during a game (highly unlikely,) stoic philosophy would tell him not to waste any energy in the events that are out of his control. The lucky bounces and the bad luck don’t matter. What he CAN control is how he reacts to the bad bounces and the bad luck, so he should focus his energy on that.

A Stoic Connor McDavid would first notice the familiar feeling of frustration, and choose to not let frustration control his performance. Basically, he’ll identify frustration as his old untrained internal coach losing his cool, and replace the advice he gets with what his newly trained internal coach has learned works best.

He would see the bigger picture. Stoic Connor McDavid would remain calm, cool and collected and find meaning in his current poor performance. He would focus on HIS game and what HE can do better, and speak to himself in a constructive way. He’d motivate his team to do the same. He would relax and not try too hard. He’d create an internal environment that wins the “internal competition” so he increases his odds of winning the current “external competition.”

When we’re winning, in a “flow-state,” in “stillness” or performing at our best, we use it as evidence that we’re in control of the game. And when things aren’t going our way, we feel like we’re losing control. When we feel like we’re losing control, we tend to over react, panic and try to control EVERYTHING. But if we try to control everything, then by definition, we’re trying to control things that can’t be controlled. So we’re wasting energy. Panic and frustration THRIVE on that wasted energy and try to steal as much of it as they can. So we need to conserve that wasted energy and reallocate it elsewhere. We need to focus our energy with laser precision on what we CAN control. The “winner” in most external competitions is usually the one who’s most efficient with their energy.

Ultimately, what we need to do is train our “internal coach” to be more like a Stoic Connor McDavid. We can learn to use our frustration as a tool. As an indicator that we’re losing our sense of control. We now know that when this frustration indicator is flashing, it’s time to focus on what we can control. And we can control our meaning and our actions, that’s it.

Good luck on winning your next internal battle!

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