Q&A with Geoff Miller, author of Intangibles
I recently caught up with the Geoff Miller, author of Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game—in Baseball and in Life, and asked him a few questions about his work and the book. Here’s what he had to say…
As a mental skills coach, what types of athletes do you work with and how do you help them?
The majority of the athletes I have worked with in my career have been professional baseball players, but I have had clients in almost every sport at one time or another. My first job in sport psychology was at a golf resort as part of a cutting-edge golf school with a teaching pro who was way ahead of his time. I’ve worked with a number of tennis, hockey, football, and soccer players and even worked with a backgammon player once! Most of my clients are extremely physically talented, have a strong desire to be the best at what they do, and need help understanding how to get the most out of their abilities without trying too hard or putting too much pressure on themselves. I help them by teaching them to be clear about who they are, what they want, and what to do when they don’t get what they want. That can be a different conversation with each athlete, but the model is always the same. It starts with person him or herself, rather than one specific technique or exercise.
Athletes are often referred to as possessing “intangibles” as if they were born with them. And yet you believe that athletes can develop and improve these intangibles themselves?
Yes and no. I don’t think you can teach any intangible to any person, but I do think you can teach every person to develop and improve on his or her own greatest strengths. For example, leadership. We like to say that some people are “born leaders” and there certainly is an agreed upon set of characteristics that most would use to define a leader. But leadership can take many forms and rather than teaching someone to be a leader, I believe we can develop the intangible of leadership in any person by helping that person understand which of his/her characteristics would allow for genuine leadership. I believe that intangibles can be muted when we don’t see them as the right ones for accomplishing a goal and that can be the source of poor performance or what might be seen by observers as a “lack of intangibles.”
You write that baseball players don’t always have a high “Baseball IQ.” Can you explain this concept and how it impacts a player’s mental game?
Baseball IQ is a term that means the player knows what to do when playing the game. A low baseball IQ simply means that the player doesn’t know enough about his approach to hitting or pitching, which bases to throw to in key situations, how to know how to read a hitter’s swing, etc. Most players develop this knowledge over time through experience. The more games they play, the more they should be learning about how to play the game.
I have developed my philosophy on the mental game around the idea that athletes need to know two things in order to have a strong mental game: they need to know what to do and to be able to do it when it counts. Sport psychology has primarily focused on helping athletes execute their skills in pressure situations, or “do it when it counts.” My chapters on Baseball IQ are a reminder that it’s not easy to be focused, confident, and positive under pressure if you don’t truly know what you’re doing. So learning the finer points of the game are essential if you want to play without doubt or hesitation at the highest level. Think of this as studying for a big test. If you’ve studied, you go into the test feeling confident, ready for anything. If you haven’t studied, you have a horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach and all the other accompanying feelings of doubt. That’s why preparation is so important for athletes…it gives them the confidence to know they are ready for their test.
For aspiring professional baseball players, what are some of the key takeaways from your book?
To me, the biggest takeaway is to embrace who you are as a person and a player. I find that ballplayers get themselves into trouble because they don’t think their strengths are ideal, so they think they need to change who they are if they are going to make it to the big leagues. My book is a collection of moments that demonstrate the importance of getting a clear understanding of who you are so you can put every bit of those character traits, personality factors, and physical talents into getting what you want.
A second takeaway would be that you can want something too much and that’s just as bad as not wanting it enough. Since most athletes are so ambitious, they are willing to do anything to reach their goals. But trying too hard is much more frequent in my experience than not trying hard enough. No ballplayer would ever want to look back on his career and think that he could have worked harder, so they work and work and try and try to leave everything out there on the field. The problem is that players are so concerned with making sure they never make the mistake of not trying hard enough, but they don’t evaluate themselves on whether or not they are trying too hard.
You use clips from movies such as Saving Private Ryan and the Matrix, to teach mental skills to professional baseball players. How did you come up with this practice and how does it helps players?
I feel like I’ve been developing this practice most of my life! I’ve always loved watching movies and I’ve always had a talent for remembering movie lines and scenes. In the book, I’ve written a chapter called “Movies and Poker: The Language of Baseball” to describe how I cultivated this practice. Growing up as a bat boy for a minor league team, I was able to see how players connected with each other through movie quotes and as I started developing my consulting style, I started to see that using a movie analogy helped put complex ideas into simpler terms. That’s the biggest way it helps players, by giving them a friendlier way to deal with what can be serious, sensitive, and important topics. In a group setting, it allows for a shared experience and can become a rallying cry, too, when you come upon a line or a quote that everyone likes to repeat.
Is there an ideal set of personality characteristics for winning players?
This is another question I have to answer with “yes and no.” There are certainly factors that I’d like to see in an athlete as a starting point. In my company, we use a psychological assessment called TAIS (The Attentional and Interpersonal Style) inventory to pinpoint how people concentrate, manage emotions, make decisions, and define pressure. We know that most professional athletes are able to narrow their focus under pressure and tune out everything else going on except for whatever is most important to execute their skills. We look for low levels of distractibility, enough structure to be able to stick to routines and get through the daily grind of a season, a general sense of confidence and belief in one’s self, and a willingness to self-criticize without it turning into self-doubt.
However, it is extremely rare to find all or even most of the “ideal set” of characteristics in any one player. I believe my most important job is to help athletes understand which of their personality characteristics will make them winners, not to help them develop characteristics they don’t possess. To me, the most important characteristic that a winner can possess is the ability to be himself when it matters most.
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