Big Optimism

There is no guarantee that tremendous physical accomplishment brings with it a finely tuned mind.


There is no guarantee that tremendous physical accomplishment brings with it a finely tuned mind. Robert “Bob” Rotella surely knows that. As the nation’s leading sports psychologist, Rotella has shepherded magnificent specimens in the fields of golf, baseball, football, Nascar and skiing out of the shadows of doubt and into the bright lights of the winner’s circle.

The business people who surround these fields of endeavor can’t help but notice his success. When Rotella goes to a corporate office and people hear one of his pep talks, they want to rush right out and win, the same way Rory McIlroy overcame a humiliating collapse in the 2011 Masters. Armed with a good bucking-up from Rotella, Rory went out two months later and won the U.S. Open.

Anyone would love a dose of optimism like that, at least once in a while, and so leaders and managers from companies like Ford, Merrill Lynch and General Electric clamor for some his modus operandi.

“People love me to give them techniques,” Rotella says with a laugh. “But the greatest technique in the world is: It’s your brain.”

“I ask people, ‘What is your dream? Where do you want to be?’  And the big question is: Is the way you’re thinking on a day-to-day basis consistent with where you want to be?”

Many of Rotella’s lessons, which he recently assembled in a book titled “How Champions Think,” involve the notion of getting control of your thoughts. While the subconscious can’t be controlled, you can create a level of positive thoughts and habits to lay over the wild thickets of the subconscious. Even LeBron James has signed on to the  program.

A quarter-century ago, the idea of “learned optimism” was advanced by psychologist Martin Seligman, whose research in cognitive therapy led him to believe that people are capable of changing the way they think. In Britain, psychologist Richard Wiseman interviewed hundreds of people and asked if they felt lucky or unlucky in life, and then categorized the profound differences in the ways the two groups thought. See his book, “The Luck Factor.”

Although an unfailingly optimistic person, Rotella prefers the phrase “learned effectiveness.” Optimism, he says, is only a piece of the puzzle. You must learn to be effective.

When Rotella spoke to us, he was visiting his folks in Vermont and getting ready to play golf with his 92-year-old father. The Rotellas provided the kind of Italian-American family life you never see in the movies — warm, supportive and intellectually rigorous.

“Our families came over here to take part in the dream, and if you’re going to enjoy America you better embrace being in a country where you dream anything you want to dream. Nobody’s going to put any limits on you.”

Although Rotella coached sports such as college lacrosse early on, it was his six years teaching children with disabilities to swim that taught him how joy can affect thinking. “That was the ultimate optimism,” he says, sighing. One great thing in the children’s lives made them “unbelievably happy. It had a big impact on me, that’s for sure.”

Among his closest allies in life are two other Italian-American coaches who have excelled in making dreams come true: John Calipari, the University of Kentucky  basketball coach who specializes in taking squads of freshmen into the N.C.A.A. Final Four; and Geno Auriemma, who, after a job recommendation by Rotella, built the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team into a perennial powerhouse. All create an intense family environment, all are masters at teaching self-control.

Rotella leads off the latest book with an emphasis on learning to be optimistic. Exceptional people, he writes, “either start out in life being optimistic or learn to be optimistic because they realize they can’t get what they want in life without being optimistic.”

For many us, of course, optimism requires training, and nothing is more effective than visualizing the right path. When golf star Seve Ballesteros was a teenager in Spain, he spent so much time “seeing” his success in America that he stepped off the plane confident he’d win. His first victory in the Masters, he told Rotella, was anticlimactic. He’s already seen it happen.

Rotella also appreciates singer Lady Gaga, who brags about the days when she was young and arming herself for the future with the “delusion” of success. “When people like me are talking about ‘visualizing success,’ ” Rotella says admiringly, “we’re actually having you imagine in your mind being somewhere long before you ever get there. But Lady Gaga is such a clever marketer, she uses a word like ‘delusional.’”

When Rotella trains financial consultants, he comes up against various kinds of worried mind-sets. Those from middle-class backgrounds, for instance, might be intimidated by very wealthy people. “They can’t believe some multimillionaire is going to give them money to invest.”

Rotella starts by asking for goals, and then seeing—really seeing—if his clients’ actions are leading there. What if, he wonders, we endured the famous athlete’s fortune of our professional lives televised all day? You’d go home and tell the wife about your hard day, and she’d say, “No, you were reading the sports page all morning, talking B.S. with your buds and cruising the Web.”

“At some point, we have to come to grips with the fact that you’re the one who gets to make these decisions in your life. And you better choose wisely.”

When a pro golfer succumbs to pressure and nervously stabs his putter, it’s called having “the yips.” Rotella warns against business people having “the phone yips. They want to pick up the phone and call certain clients. But they can’t pick it up because they’re thinking how bad they’re gonna feel when the person rejects them.

“But what you hear from the top people is, well, ‘I don’t ever take somebody saying no to me on the phone as a rejection. Why would he reject me? He doesn’t even know me. I’m going to keep calling him till he says yes.’ ”

Thus the optimistic mind tries to affect perceptions. How smart can this other schmo be if he doesn’t see your talent?

“Perceptions start playing a very big role, whether it’s your perception of your talent or someone’s view of you. People make up this thing that they’re not talented. The thing is, people look a lot more talented when they have an optimistic attitude about things.

“Lately I’ve been seeing this with the golfers I work with. If you remember, six years ago people were saying, ‘Oh, that Tiger Woods! If I had his talent I’d be playing great golf.’ But in the last year and a half, now that he’s been so lost and confused, I don’t hear anyone talking about how talented Tiger is. He doesn’t look so talented when he’s not in the right frame of mind and feeling himself.”

It should be noted that Tiger Woods might be the only big gun who has not worked with Rotella. When counting players on the men’s, women’s and senior tours, Rotella has advised the winners of 74 major championships. Note to Tiger: If you don’t see Rotella at the next tournament’s practice green, you can find him at the University of Virginia’s sports department. 

This is not to say that pessimism doesn’t have helpful aspects. “It’s possible to be such a blind optimist that you don’t even look at the pitfalls and bother to prepare an effective solution. You’ve got to know all the things that could go wrong. You use that to arm yourself for anything and everything that could possibly happen. As long as that’s what people mean by ‘pessimism,’ it has a useful place.”

Thus real achievement rides on the proper balance. Optimism creates your new reality. “Your attitude does a lot in determining how far you’ll go. But there’s a lot of work involved, and they’re sustaining a commitment that’s involved. I want people to be optimistic when they do that and take an honest look at things.”

Honest looks are not always in demand in business, of course. To make the sale, the business model might get tweaked for a totally sunny view. A climate of enforced optimism leads to the wrong kind of delusion. And don’t blame Lady Gaga for that. The business fell apart and the war was lost because someone didn’t visualize all of the scenery. Too much confidence led to laziness and arrogance.

“I think optimistic people look at potential problems and pitfalls along the way and then use their optimism to prepare a successful way of dealing with it or overcoming it.”

Still worried? Rotella advises athletes and business clients to set aside a dedicated time every day—15 minutes, at least—for visualization exercises. “I don’t mean a quick, casual daydream,” he says. “I mean focused mental preparation.” Bedtime is often the right time.

And don’t forget to visualize current practices to see if they are leading to greatness.

“We talk about ourselves constantly,” Rotella says. “We visualize ourselves constantly. We have perceptions about ourselves constantly. And if all the thoughts that fit into those categories are consistent with where your dream wants to be, then you’re programming your brain the right way.”

Weaving through Rotella’s commentary are variations of this theme. “Thinking correctly” is what separates the run-of-the-mill person and the exceptional competitor. It’s the subconscious that is the best controller of physical activities like directing golf swings or violin solos, and it’s the subconscious part of the brain that guides us in our workday. If certain cues lead to bad habits, identify them. So the conscious brain must do what it can to create positive conditions for the subconscious to work and lead us into the sunshine of optimism.

So it takes a bit of work. It’s understandable that Rotella doesn’t use the phrase “learned optimism.” All those hardworking immigrant-family aunts and uncles and cousins only coached him to roll up his sleeves and get to it. The Rotella way might better be called earned optimism.

Korn Ferry Sports Practice

Views of Jed Hughes

“The ability to focus is what separates the average athlete or executive from the high performers,” says Jed Hughes, Vice Chairman and Global Sector Leader, Sports. Having worked alongside six Hall of Fame coaches in his career, Hughes brought a concentrated insight to the placement of dozens of general managers and coaches in every major sport. And he knows when he meets someone with focus.

“You can tell it in an interview,” he says. “When we recently talked with a candidate for a position at the Milwaukee Brewers, it was a three-hour, focused interview. Nothing wasted. His answers were precise and thoughtful. He understood the issues, articulated them, gave examples, stayed on track and did not deviate from the topics for over three hours.”

Early in his career, Hughes was exposed to the powers of positive reinforcement from the likes of John Wooden, the just-retired basketball legend at U.C.L.A. who for six years took him to breakfast on Fridays before football games. He also worked alongside Stanford football coach John Ralston, a devotee of the Dale Carnegie system of positive thinking who brought sunshine to a moribund program, not to mention back-to-back Rose Bowl titles.

Later, getting his doctorate at the University of Michigan, he served as linebacker coach under the intense Bo Schembechler. “Bo’s style was one of loyalty, emotion, passion and hard work.” Hughes would see more of this as a defensive coach under Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers teams.

Being in the trenches in these situations let Hughes observe closely as the concept of sports psychology evolved. “At Michigan, we were addressing the preparation necessary for getting your mind fit and ready to play, even if that meant turning off the lights and visualizing yourself making a big play.” They were configuring practices that psychologists like Bob Rotella would later use to currycomb players’ psyches.

When Hughes made his transition to executive search 18 years ago, he knew what worked. “Clearly I’ve had to live on a path of being positive in different situations.

“The team we’ve developed here at Korn Ferry is the No. 1 sports-recruiting group in the world. And that’s a result of recruiting good people, having a vision for them, and caring about them.” Good executive choices are made when the decision makers involved are aligned, he maintains, to a common vision. 

“That goes back to the optimism equation. I don’t think I’ve ever been intimidated in a situation. The way you’ve been trained really impacts your life’s journey. If you’ve been dealing with high-profile athletes and executives, it gives you the level of confidence that allows you to engage any kind of situation. As Rotella says, it’s about mental preparation.” —C.H.

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