As one of the most renowned sports psychologists, Bob Rotella spends most of his time getting athletes to change the way they view themselves, focusing on improving the attitudes and beliefs that stand in their way from achieving their best. While we may never sink a buzzer beater or catch a pass to win a championship, we can all use the kind of attitude adjustments that Bob Rotella recommends. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:
“It’s hard to change anybody at anything unless they really want to change badly. In sports, if you can’t get into the starting lineup, you’re going to work at getting better. If you’re having trouble with your shooting in basketball or your team is not winning, you get very interested in what you need to do beyond the physical training to change the outcome. Winning is very highly valued, so disciplined athletes are also willing to work on their confidence, their concentration and their composure.
My whole approach is ‘let’s make this stuff as simple as possible.’ It doesn’t need to be complicated. I want it to be really understandable so nobody has excuses like ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
It is clear that what makes elite athletes and any person truly successful requires more than talent and good intelligence. Your belief in yourself, your passion, your day-to-day commitment to being in a great state of mind are equally if not more important. Staying positive and optimistic is key. I ask, ‘Have you ever had a day when you’re in that state of mind? Good. So, now we know you are capable of being in that state of mind. Now you have to get really good at anticipating what are all the things that happen that tend to take you out of that attitude. You have to be prepared to not let those things own you.’ A lot of people would rather see themselves as a victim. So, you either decide that you’re in control of your life because you have a free will or you become the victim and decide that it’s everybody else’s fault. Success requires taking a lot of personal responsibility.
I spend very little time dealing in the past. If somebody has had a rough upbringing, I’ll usually let them tell me about it before I stop them. ‘OK, good. Here’s the problem. Half of the most successful people in the world came from messed up families. They developed great attitudes and made it big in life. They did wonderful things and did not let how their parents brought them up ruin their lives. The question is, do you want an excuse for being miserable, negative and a pessimist? Or do you want to be one who says, ‘I had a really rough time but I’m going to make sure I don’t think about the way my parents used to treat me’.’ I tell them, ‘I don’t really care why you used to have a bad attitude. Starting today, you’re going to have a great attitude because you are capable of doing it, and it’s a choice you’re going to make.’
At some point you have to take away the excuses. That’s the difference between the psychology of greatness and other forms of psychology that dwell in abnormal behaviors. In college, most of the classes are in abnormal psychology. Why aren’t we studying the happiest, most successful people in the world, instead of explaining why people are messed up?
The starting point is always this: are you going to go after your dreams or are you going to throw them away? As you grow up, are you going to get bigger ideas and dreams or are you going to lower the bar? At some point, you have to believe in your talent and your ideas and dreams more than anybody else does. You may run into naysayers who tell you ‘people from this town can’t do what you say you want to do.’ You have to be able to tell them, ‘Well, I’m going to be the first.’ It’s your life and you get one shot at it. So are you going to believe and go after some big ideas, or are you going to focus on all the things that people say about you that maybe are not fantastic?
What I tell everyone is basically you’re trying to separate yourself from everyone else in the world who does what you do. You might be just lucky enough to have way more talent—but not many people have just way more talent. Somebody might tell me that ‘so and so is just lucky.’ I say, ‘Sure, luck plays some role but successful people believe that you have to make your own breaks and luck.’ The better your attitude, the more you work, the more you persevere, you start having some lucky things happen to you. And when you get your lucky breaks, you‘ve done all the work and learned all the skills and are ready to take advantage of them. But if you haven’t prepared, the opportunities show up and pass you by.
What I do is very honest, and I’ve got to get the people I work with to be very honest as well. If you thought you were performing right up to your ability level coming in second place, then you could live with it. It’s an easy solution for most of us that we’re really not that good.
‘I’m good, but I’m just pretty good—I’m never going to be great.’ But when you know you’re not giving it your best, are you ready to look inside and be really honest with yourself?
When you do start living your dreams and begin to experience success, you will face other challenges. The fear of failure is always there. The lack of consistency is another. You may have won golf tournaments, but never a major. You’re talking about people who have spent more time and energy devoted to this one thing more than anything else they’ll ever do in life. And they really care about it. And all of a sudden they have to go and trust what they’ve done. A lot of what that trust is about is getting your conscious mind out of it when the stakes are high—when you have to make that 4 foot putt in the last hole or that last free throw when the game is on the line.
Most people in sports have to learn how to compartmentalize. Nobody in the stands cares if you had a fight that afternoon with your wife or girlfriend. Michael Jordan said a long time ago that he decided that every night some kid is at the game, and it’s the only chance in their life they are going to see him play—so he better have a great game.
When great athletes are in a big game, they’re going to feel some nervousness. I think there’s a big difference between being nervous and being anxious. Being anxious is a mental state where you’re worrying about missing the shot or having a bad swim. Nervousness is the natural butterflies we feel when we’re excited being in a good competition. You get into your lane and you know the other swimmers are really good, too. You know you have to swim well today if you will have a chance of winning. You learn to get your mind in an optimistic place and turn it loose. You go out there and swim with freedom rather than spending the whole race worrying about having a bad swim.
The big question is always: are you going to be in that positive state of mind every day or are you going to be a once-in-a-while player, as Vince Lombardi once called it? The people who are the most successful are the everyday players. They’re energized and feeling good everyday. It’s a big part of their purpose to have a great attitude. How do they do it? They have to work very hard at it.”