How To Be a Badass On and Off the Court

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S1: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Duhigg. And I’m David Epstein. Oh, hey, David, how are you? Hey, Charles. All right. How are you?

S2: I’m good. I’m good. What’s going on?

S3: Well, you know, I’m one of your listeners, and I had a question. I was wondering how to take over your podcast.

S2: I’m glad you’re asking that question because we have some big news for all of the how to listeners, which is I have loved hosting the show. It has been such an honor and a privilege to learn from so many experts and to get to talk with so many of you. But I have to go write a new book. And so we thought that it was time to hand over the show to a new host with new ideas and a new approach. And I could not be more overjoyed to introduce you to the new host of How to David Epstein. And David, tell us a little bit about yourself.


S3: Well, Charles, you know, I think I’m a lot like you in certain ways. I’ve been a science writer and investigative reporter. At one point, I actually thought I was going to be a scientist. I lived in a tent in the Arctic and on a ship in the Pacific Ocean doing research, but realized that science writing was a better fit for my curiosity. And so then I got into journalism, had a series of odd jobs, including as an overnight crime reporter at the New York Daily News. And I went on to become a science writer at Sports Illustrated and an investigative reporter at ProPublica.


S2: And for those of you who don’t know, David also is a best author. He’s written some of my favorite books. He wrote a book called The Sports Gene, which is about why elite athletes become elite athletes, which is really surprising for reasons you might not expect. And also another fantastic book called Range about why generalists have a leg up in this world, which actually Bill Gates last year said was one of the books that everyone should have to read.


S3: Personally, I think this answers the age old question of whether Bill Gates is a smart man.

S2: And in some ways, the show is going to stay exactly the same. Each week will still have a listener calling in with a problem. We’ll have an expert to give them advice. And hopefully we’ll all get to learn something from that expertise about how to improve our own lives.

S3: And I’m really excited to learn more myself and to dive in to help more listeners address their problems.

S2: And I would encourage anyone who has a problem that maybe we can help with to email David at how to add Slate Dotcom. And with that, David, I can’t wait to hear what comes next. Thanks, Charles. So, everyone, welcome to How to.


S4: I’m David Epstein. Juliette, can you tell us where she just may be better than you or were you an OK match for her? Don’t say she is better than me, David. I’m just asking I’m not saying she’s. Well, I’m just wondering.

S5: The irony is, objectively, I’m better than her and she knows I’m better than her and I know I’m better than her, which is why it was so painful.


S4: So like I just mentioned, I used to cover sports science for Sports Illustrated them. And I had to learn a lot about how athletes get physically fit, but also how they prepare for the mental side of the game. Some athletes, I learned, meditated before a big match to calm down. Others watch violent movies to get psyched up. I actually even learned about athletes who are voluntarily chased by a bear to work on their mental toughness. Now, I know that sounds crazy and actually that is crazy, but it doesn’t mean much if you can’t execute when it really counts. And that’s the problem our listener this week is desperate to solve.


S5: Hi, my name is Juliet and I am a realtor, lawyer and a recreational tennis player, and I’m really looking to take my tennis to the next level.

S3: Juliet played tennis in high school and she was decent, but after she graduated, she put down a racquet, didn’t play again for almost 30 years. Then just a few years ago, she joined a local tennis league and suddenly got serious about the game.

S5: I now like strength training. I work out and now the game I want to play is an athlete’s game, but there’s still something holding her back. When I am on the tennis court, I become very self-conscious and I have a lot of trouble setting aside am I going to look stupid? Am I going to do something stupid? Am I going to do something that is going to alter people’s perception of me in a way I’m not going to like?


S3: There was this one match in particular where Juliet Self-consciousness just destroyed her. She was playing against a fellow realtor, someone who she describes as her frenemy.


S5: I was just so focused on don’t look stupid. And then the more obviously, the more you think don’t look stupid, you start to do things that actually are stupid. And I was just doing kind of the same three or four shots badly over and over again.

S3: That was a doubles match and shots that Juliet usually nailed kept going into the net. It actually got so bad that the other team started hitting the ball directly at her.

S5: By the end, it was almost like taunting me. And my partner finally just said, just try to not even hit it, let me get everything. And it was a really important match. Like if we won that match, my team would have been the winner. Of that entire season, so everybody else had finished and was standing around watching our match, thinking, oh, you know, Juliet and her partner are obviously so much better than these other two people. This should be great.


S1: And that’s exactly why it was so embarrassing.

S5: Everybody heard that this other woman beat you. What happened? So, yes, I received texts.

S6: Do you, like text them back up crying Michael Jordan, give her something and say thanks a lot. But you’re on a cusp of of moving into better competition, is that correct? Like, what are the stakes here?

S5: I am sort of on the bubble between two levels or ratings in tennis, so I need to be able to do the mental piece to get to this next level. And I do think having this competitiveness that I can turn on will help me in business.

S7: If there is going to be somebody who’s going to get the bid or the contract or the promotion, why can’t that be me?


S4: On today’s episode, How to be a Badass on and off the court, can we help Juliette crack the code that allows her to compete when it matters most? We’ll bring in an expert who studied what makes us choke under pressure and how we can move past that, whether you’re trying to serve an ace or a presentation at work.

S8: Stay with us.

S9: Zain, what what personally got you interested in this area of research, so I do me search totally in addition to research like that is just hands down. I was always interested in why I sometimes didn’t perform as well in the pressure situation, and it was whether it was taking the SAT. I always did better on the practice test. I also played soccer at a high level growing up and the Olympic Development Program, and I had the worst game of my life in front of the national coach and I just couldn’t figure out why. When I counterintuitively wanted to do my best, I tended to do my worst.


S3: This is science, BAYLOCK. She’s a cognitive scientist, president of Barnard College and author of the book Choke. But back in high school, she was a talented goalie who dreamed of playing for the U.S. national soccer team. So when the national coach actually showed up to watch her in a big match, that was the moment she’d been training for.

S10: I realized a little bit into the game that it was standing right behind my goal. I was the goalie.

S9: And just like Juliet, I remember being so self-conscious of everything. What cleats? I was wearing the temperature. And I it was like I was playing in slow motion and I, I just played horribly.


S11: I could not make the kinds of saves I normally did and let a ball in through the front post right under my arm, something that I would have saved a thousand times in practice. And he walked away and I knew that was that.

S9: And I remember just going home and being so frustrated and and just for the life of me, couldn’t figure out how all the hard work I’d put into this such this important aspect of my life seemed to have vanished in one second.

S6: And how do you think that influenced the rest of your life?

S10: I mean, I think it had a huge effect. It really pointed me in the direction of wanting to understand human performance, wanting to understand why when we want to perform so well, we counterintuitively don’t put our best foot forward. What it made me realize is that you can’t kind of leave your performance in those pressure situations up to chance that there are ways to practice to get ready for those situations.


S4: When you practice a skill long enough, it moves to the unconscious parts of your brain. Think of riding a bike. You don’t have to pay attention to your feet pedaling anymore. But research by science and other cognitive scientists shows that stress and anxiety can actually undo that. It can cause your prefrontal cortex the conscious control part of your brain, to get involved. And suddenly you’re like a beginner again, thinking about every little move when you should just be performing unconsciously.

S9: I mean, it’s clear that Juliet cares a lot about what other people think about her, which is normal. And when it’s an interesting situation, because it’s not like you play an opponent and never see them again. So it brings this added complexity to what’s going on because there’s a spillover, it sounds like, from what happens on the court into one social life and other aspects. And I guess I would ask you, Juliet, as a first question, like, do you look at the women who are winning is not being nice or not being likeable?


S5: Yes, I know some of the women who I’ve met them first through tennis and then gotten to know them socially. Second, I started out being a little intimidated. And I think it’s because I associate their on court persona with who they are. And then as I’ve gotten to know them, I learn, oh, you know, she’s she’s a nice, normal person.

S9: So I guess I would use that right. So you have been able to come to realize that you can have the game face on the court and be a really relatable, nice person who probably has a lot of humility off the court. And I would remember that, that you’re OK with people that coexist like this.

S5: I think you’re absolutely right. And I think I maybe worry a little too much about the wrong things. You know, I think that if somebody sees that I’m competitive when the situation is appropriate, that’s really good. I’m not being ultra competitive. You know, I’m at the gas station fighting to get to the pump first. You know, I’m doing it at a moment when it’s appropriate to be ultra competitive.

S9: And as you were talking, I just kept on coming back to this psychological phenomenon. We often talk about a spotlighting and it’s this idea that we’re paying way more attention to ourselves than anyone else’s because everyone else is paying attention to themselves. And I think the best examples of this are like when you raise your hand and say something that you think is foolish and a PTA meeting or in a work meeting, and then you turn to your friend later and we’re like, did you hear that comment? Oh, my God, I’m so embarrassed. And your friend is like, I don’t remember that.


S12: Here’s our first rule. Remind yourself of the spotlight effect. We are way harsher and way more focused on ourselves than other people are you might worry about. Doing something stupid, but other people probably won’t even notice, even if they do, they don’t care as much as you think they do. Remember, you’re not the center of everyone else’s universe, and that’s a good thing.

S6: Juliette, can you tell us who are who are your role models in tennis, like who do you try to emulate and why?

S5: I mean, it sounds like such a cliche, but Serena Williams really is the go to Idol. I mean, I picture Serena Williams standing at her sink cooking eggs with just a fierce intensity, like she’s doesn’t turn it off. I don’t picture her ever just taking a moment to just chill and not be Serena.

S6: This is the one part where I’m going to provide some expertise, which is that I’ve talked to Serena before and she’s not she’s sweet, normal. We talked about how she did ballet as a kid. So it is not you. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t have known. Wow.

S9: I think we often think about professional athletes in terms of one’s self. And we know that when people have multiple identities, they’re a mom self and a tennis player herself. They can turn it on sometimes and they’re more relaxed. Other times they often tend to be sort of psychologically buffered from failure. Like if Serena has a horrible day on the court, I bet she’s hugging her daughter and and working on her businesses. And that’s actually can be psychologically beneficial. So I would urge Juliet to be a little bit of a jerk on the court and not worry that people are going to perceive it as spilling over into other things.


S13: Here’s another rule look to role models around you to recognize that everyone has multiple selves, this kind of thinking can release you from your hesitation to sometimes let loose.

S5: It’s funny because if you were to talk to my kids now we’ve had family monopoly games where everybody but me is crying and I’m so competitive, they think that’s just how I am.

S13: Wow, that’s.

S6: So if you would introduce yourself, starting with your Monopoly persona, I think I would have been surprised by you saying you don’t have a game face. Right. Like you’re totally the person I wouldn’t let get all the railroads.

S5: It sounds like. Yeah. You know, my poor kids, they might have in mind. We’re just going to have game night tonight. But when I show up, I want to win.

S6: That’s so funny because I know that Serena Williams, you know, in her in her autobiography, she says that, you know, the card game, UNO might have been her best preparation for being competitive because it’s like a game where you have to announce I’m the winner while there’s still a round left and then everyone gets to take a shot at you. And she liken that to a tennis tournament. So don’t write off your your board game competitiveness, I don’t think. But but why do you think that doesn’t then transfer over to the tennis court?

S5: I think when I am on the tennis court, I am very aware of the other people around and when I’m at home in my comfortable living room with my family, they’re my family.

S9: Personally, I love that that Juliet and the monopoly story that happened in my family constantly like my kids have, they don’t get any leniency. And I will own the Monopoly board by the end. And but I know that they and I think, like Juliet, I know they’ll love me no matter what happens. Right. And this isn’t going to impact their perception of me. And I would call on your monopoly performance as evidence and remind yourself it’s evidence that you can be really fierce and there aren’t really, you know, long lasting negative repercussions. I mean, maybe some temporary crying, but it seems like your family is still talking to you, so you have it within you.


S12: So how can Juliet transfer her competitive fire at home to the tennis court, especially when it’s game point and everyone’s watching? When we come back, Cihan will guide us to her anti choking tool kit. Stick around.

S3: Last spring, ESPN released its long awaited documentary series, The Last Dance. It followed Michael Jordan in the Chicago Bulls in the fall of 1997 as they fought for their sixth NBA title in eight seasons. And specifically, it showed just what kind of a player MJ was.

S14: People were afraid of him. We were his teammates and we were afraid of them. And there was just fear.

S4: And I thought, you want to do it to you.

S14: Yeah, let’s not get it wrong. He was a he was a jerk. He crossed the line numerous times. He was pushing us all to be better because he wanted to win. And guess what?

S1: It worked, but our experts on Beilock says that’s drawing the wrong conclusion.

S9: Yeah, I mean, I think we often equate that behavior with what makes them successful. And it’s a misnomer. I mean, I don’t think there’s any good research that I know of or evidence that the meaner you are, the better leader you are.

S1: CNN actually thinks there’s a different lesson. Michael Jordan can teach us the idea of practicing like you play Juliet.

S9: The first one I would think about is how you practice, right? So you talk a lot about being self-conscious when other people are watching you. And I’m wondering if you can create some of those conditions that are pressure filled in practice, like could you invite some of your friends to watch or even have your kids, your husband there, anything to get you used to the feeling of all eyes on you in the match in the moment? You know, we study this in my lab and it’s I talk about it as the what ifs. And you see this in all sorts of situations. But we can put people in a brain scanner, for example, and peek inside their head. And where we see the most evidence of anxious reactions is not during an actual test or performance. It’s the leading up the worry about what other people will think and what’s going to happen. And so if you can play it out and realize it’s not as bad, the worry might go down.


S7: It sounds like I need to purposely do something that is going to jolt me into being what I fear and then seeing that it’s not as bad as I feared. Practice matches are like a laboratory, so I can practice being being really fierce one day and see what that feels like. Almost like trying that on.

S4: Here’s our next rule. Put yourself in situations where you can be self conscious, exposing yourself to self-consciousness in low stakes situations like doing a practice match will help you learn how to react to and then control those nerves. When the high pressure situations come around, you might even try doing something a little silly in practice to get over that fear of looking silly. When Serena Williams was a kid, she once took a bag of oranges and spontaneously just started smashing them with her racket. She even served some of them over a fence. She did get in trouble for it. But later she said that doing something a little wild without thinking actually honed her competitive instincts.

S9: We know that key words here can be really important, like write it down so that you’re always looking at it and you’re kind of prompting yourself through that practice match to embody that value.

S6: Julia, what do you think? Do you have any thoughts about what your your word or words for your montera might be?

S5: I think my mantra is going to be fierce. Yeah. And write it on your hand.

S9: And, you know, it may be that you write it on your hand during games and in those moments where you have this tendency to turn inward, actually focusing on something outside can be helpful.

S4: That in itself can take you outside of your own head, can prevent you from being too self-conscious. That idea of a helpful mantra really resonates with me personally. I ran the 800 meters in college and I went from being a walk-On to a university record holder, and that meant that I started facing a much higher level of competition kind of overnight before a big meet. I remember pacing around the hotel room saying, you’re here for a reason, you’re here for a reason. You’re here for a reason, for a reason. Science says that writing a mantra on your hand is actually a good idea because it’s a form of cognitive outsourcing. That means instead of having to hold it in your head, you can just look at it when you need to and keep your mind free to focus on the moment. With all that free space, it’s important to then think about not just why you want to win, but why you’re going to win.


S9: In psychological terms. We talk about this as like an approach strategy rather than an avoidance strategy. So when you’re avoiding things, you’re like trying to prevent a negative outcome. But when you’re approaching things, it’s all about looking forward to gaining something. And it turns out that our brain works differently in those situations. And so thinking about why you want to win and actually why you should win and the fact that you can be tough on the court because you’re tough in other aspects of your life, just reminding yourself of those things actually can really matter. Then I will say that, you know, this is something that often tends to affect women and girls were very concerned about what others think of us. And there is this conception or this notion that being competitive and being successful is at odds with being likeable. And it’s really something that we have to fight against.

S1: And Juliet, I think you’ve expressed that you were affected in some of these ways and other aspects of your life.

S6: So can we go backward to the earlier in your professional career and talk about how you see that in the context of the competitive concerns you’re discovering in tennis now?

S7: Pretty much throughout my entire life, I’ve had a front row seat to the experience of somebody is going to win. And I’ve kind of sat back and let it be other people. And I think it’s dawned on me as I’ve grown older, why can’t I raise my hand and put myself front and center for that? And I do think it is decades of that’s how women are rewarded for being collaborative, for working in groups, for being agreeable, for being the one who’s willing to take things on when they’re asked versus reaching out and going for things affirmatively.


S3: There’s one time that really stands out in Juliet’s mind. Before she was a realtor, she worked as a public defender and in her very first job, she was part of a group of new lawyers who were all learning the ropes together.

S15: Things got competitive when it came time for promotions, and it was a very clear cut gender line where all of the women decided to just kind of sit back and let go. We’re all in this group. We’re all kind of at the same level. And unbeknownst to the women, each of the men on their own had gone to management, raised their hand for more rapid promotion, and they just viewed it as that was what you do.

S9: I think that’s a really interesting story because there’s new research coming out, The Wall Street Journal, I know, did a study last year with McKinsey about women in the workplace. And one of the things that they show is it’s at that second rung where women start to fall off. It’s about the promotion from your initial position. And it sounds like, Julia, that’s exactly what you’re describing.

S6: It’s interesting, it sounds so similar to some of what you describe on the court in this theme of agreeableness sort of being the fallback because of concerns about how you might be perceived. And does that also carry over? Can you tell us a little bit about your your real estate work?

S7: I think it is competitive. I guess I never really even thought about me being a competitor. Maybe this goes back to how I view myself. But no, it is a competitive industry. There are investors circling around who want to buy these properties. So, you know, I think you’re right, Zeon. And I think for some reason, sports is like my last frontier, because being a public defender does also require you. I mean, you go in and the judge might be really mean or you’re up against, you know, tough witnesses or cross-examine people. I mean, I think that is a tough, competitive job also.


S9: And so actually drawing upon the fact that you are succeeding in these other areas and reminding yourself of that is really important. And I actually, after hearing Juliet describe everything going on, I’m not worried at all that she’s going to succeed in this area.

S12: Susan, what about you? You described sort of a disastrous scenario for you and we’ve heard a disastrous scenario for Juliette. Like sometimes the worst does occur.

S6: So are there any specific tactics you’d advise when things really do fall apart in the worst possible way to try to recover from it?

S9: Yeah, I mean, I think in the moment you want to stop and pull back to your keyword or your phrase, anything to sort of take your mind off. And if you feel like you’re out of control, start focusing on something easy. Like all you need to do is when the next point, the rest of the match doesn’t matter. And then after there’s some great research showing that you can actually retrain how you think about the situation. So rather than dwelling on how this was like an utter failure, what about your technique went off and then, you know, that’s something you can control in the future?

S7: I like that, too, because then it’s something productive to think about that’s actually helpful when it’s over.

S1: Here’s our final rule. When game time comes around and all the prep is done and you still feel yourself starting to choke, narrow your focus to just the very next move. And even if the worst does happen, it’s OK. When it’s over, get back to practicing like you play and look forward to next time.


S7: Do they can you describe a game that went really well, the games that go well, I can’t describe them. I don’t know what happened, except I know that at the end the final score was I won. It’s like a flow. So I’m not having to think through every single step of what I’m doing.

S9: Yeah, and there’s like a biological basis for this. You know, we know that you have to pay attention to something for you to remember it. You know, I always joke that athletes who’ve played a really good game when they’re being interviewed afterwards, like don’t often say a lot. They always either think they’re mom’s or God. And it’s because they don’t I think they don’t have a memory for what they did.

S6: Do you feel like having this conversation with Cien has has helped you with the question that you brought to us?

S7: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s actually made me realize I’m more of a badass that I give myself credit for already. And I need to just get out of my own way and allow it to come through.

S9: I was actually going to say that this conversation for me has reinforced that. I think Juliette is a more more of a badass than she originally thought. And it’s not that we’re born chokers or thrivers. It’s a skill that you put together. And if Juliette has a favorite song or something that gets her pumped up, you know, we know that listening to music before a match can be great for a lot of athletes and playing a match actually in three days.

S7: And it’s just a practice match. But that’s going to be, you know, my laboratory to try these tactics out. So I can’t wait to do that. I think my pump up song is going to be epic by Faith No more, because that is really that’s the perfect pump up song.


S16: Nice. I love it.

S4: Thank you to Juliette for sharing your story with us and to Sian Beilock for all her amazing advice. Be sure to look for her book, Choke What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about getting it right When You Have To.

S17: And here’s a little update from Juliet about how her practice match when I wrote Fierce on my hand in Sharpie. And that was fantastic. Just that alone. Something about cutting out the process of having to think to myself, what is my mantra? I’m going to think about my mantra looking down and it’s just there. And I found I looked at my hand and the word fierce just about every single point. The craziest thing is I feel more confident in general, overall. And I had an opportunity fall into my lap after 21 years away, I’m back at work as a public defender. So thank you, Simon, for all of your help. It truly has been life altering.

S4: Do you have a problem that needs solving? Send us a note at how to at Slate Dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And if you like what you heard today, please give us a rating and a review and tell a friend that helps us help more people. How TOS executive producers Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produce the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown Remix by Merritt Jacob, who is also our technical director. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of Audio.

S3: And Charles Duhigg is just a washed up, has been can’t believe he was telling anyone how to anything.

S1: Wait, we’re still recording. Charles Duhigg is how TOS host emeritus and a loyal listener. Thanks for everything, Charles. I’m David Epstein. Thanks for listening.