Brains, Sports, and Success: An Interview with Rick Peterson

01/23/2017 02:17 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2018

Certain athletes perform remarkably well under pressure while others do not. For instance, the contrast between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf could not be more stark. But what separates the wheat from the chaff? And what lessons can the layperson learn how to succeed in high-pressure situations?

Perhaps major League pitching coach Rick Peterson and leadership expert Judd Hoekstra can shed some light on this. The two recently wrote Crunch Time: How To Be Your Best When It Matters Most. I recently sat down with Peterson to discuss the book.

PS:What was your motivation for writing the book?

RP: Judd and I share an incredible passion for making a positive difference in other people's lives. As we started sharing our personal experiences with each other, we realized we also shared a collective wisdom in how to help people deal with pressure. As a major league pitching coach, one of your number one responsibilities is helping your pitchers deal with crunch time pressures. It's coaching their mental game, teaching them how to keep calm under pressure and realize that your mind is your master.

So many of our friends, family and coworkers were dealing with threatening, high-pressure situations. We realized our experience could help them understand how to deal with pressure in a much more productive way, shifting it from a threat to an opportunity.

PS: Very simply, what is reframing? What are its benefits?

RP: When we're under pressure, our default is to see the situation as a threat. We're filled with fear, worry, and doubt. Our bodies react with butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, dry mouth and throat, and tense muscles. Threat thinking also leads to our bodies' production of chemicals such as cortisol--a.k.a. the stress hormone. This doesn't help us. In fact, it cripples our performance.

Reframing is the skill of consciously overriding our default or typical view of a situation, and thinking about that situation in a different and better way. Doing that shifts the meaning we attach to the situation, the actions we take, and the results we achieve.

There are a variety of ways to reframe -- such as reframing from trying harder to trying easier, from tension to laughter, from anxiety to taking control, from doubt to confidence, and from failure to a learning moment.

Reframing is great for many reasons. It's a skill that can be learned by anyone. It's as quick as coming up with a new thought. Because it relies only on your brain, it can be used anytime, anywhere and it doesn't cost a thing.

PS: How did Martin Luther King, Jr. use reframing to galvanize the civil rights movement?

RP: The civil rights movement had been struggling: many people still thought of civil rights as a Black problem, or a southern problem. But when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the March on Washington in 1963 and gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, he helped reframe it into a larger conversation. The March was designed to appeal to the broader American population. King's speech referenced the Declaration of Independence, and recalled the founding principles of the country. It reframed the issue into a fundamental problem of our national identity. King's approach influenced Robert Kennedy and changed his heart, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

PS: In the book, you write about the need to overcome our inner caveman and to start using our conscious brain. What do you mean?

RP: Our brain is made up of different areas. Having a basic understanding of them helps us learn why we react to pressure the way we do, and what we can do about it. As I mentioned, our reflexive, instinctual reaction is to view pressure situations as threats. I refer to the part of the brain responsible for this reflexive, instinctual reaction as the Caveman.

The Caveman (applicable to both men and women) lives in the brain stem and cerebellum, and is the threat center of your brain. Its goal is simple -- to survive. It is constantly on patrol, looking for danger. When faced with a threat, its instantaneous reaction is to fight, take flight, or freeze.

In prehistoric times, when we faced all sorts of physical threats, that fight, flight or freeze reaction served as a successful survival response. By natural selection, the people with the fastest and strongest Caveman had the highest survival rate.

Tens of thousands of years later, the Caveman part of our brain's operating system is as strong as ever. But with most threats in today's world being psychological in nature and not physical, our Caveman's reaction to today's threats actually hurts our performance. The very strength of the Caveman in prehistoric times turns out to be a huge crippler of performance under modern-day pressure.

The Caveman's emotional and irrational reaction typically results in negative self-talk, along the lines of: Why am I doing this? There's no way I can do this. The people I'm competing against are so much better than me. What if this goes wrong? What if I make a bad decision? I can't handle this. Is there any way for me to get out of it? This is the most important presentation/game/performance I've ever had. I'll never get another opportunity like this again, so if I screw this up, it'll be devastating. I'll never be able to show my face around here again. This is a nightmare. I'm terrible under pressure. There are so many people watching me and they'll think I'm an idiot, and laugh at me. My teammates will be so disappointed in me. 

We talk about ways to conquer the Caveman in our book. Because while your Caveman lives in your brain, it's not really you. By helping you understand that these instinctual, primal pressure reactions are from your Caveman and not from you, you can stop beating yourself up for having these thoughts and emotions, and activate the part of our brain -- our Conscious Thinker -- that enables us to choose our thoughts. While the Caveman's goal is to survive, your goal as the Conscious Thinker is to thrive.

PS: Many, if not most of us, scoff at negative feedback. You argue for doing the opposite. Why?

RP: No matter how it's delivered, when you get negative feedback, you have a choice -- get bitter or get better. As you might guess, the Caveman response is to get bitter. But that's not going to help you perform better in the future. A better approach is to reframe the negative feedback into a learning moment. I'll share an example of my work with Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine.

After leaving Atlanta looking like a sure thing for the Hall of Fame, Tommy's struggled upon joining the Mets. The game had changed because Major League Baseball introduced the QuesTec Umpire Information System. Now that the umpires were being evaluated more objectively, they stopped giving Glavine the strike off the plate, and batters were no longer chasing that pitch. As a result, I had the unenviable task of letting Tommy know that, after years of tremendous success, he needed to reinvent himself if he wanted to win again. Being the pro's pro that he was, Glavine took the feedback. He didn't waste any time getting bitter. He wanted to be better.

We began working together to teach him how to pitch inside, and keep hitters off balance again. When Tommy reinvented himself, it completely revived his career. He won 300 games and got inducted into the Hall of Fame.