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  • Performance Decoded #1: Understanding Elite Preparation featuring Alex Honnold

Performance Decoded #1: Understanding Elite Preparation featuring Alex Honnold

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  • How to prepare for peak performance

  • The benefits of preparation

How do the best in the world do what they do? 

In the case of Alex Honnold, how does he train himself to scale walls of rock several thousand feet high, with no rope -  meaning he's got exactly one shot to get it right?

In the coming editions of the Perform Newsletter, I am going to break down some publicly available content and displays of greatness to explore what goes into really performing your best when it matters most.

With each post, I'll examine one aspect of performance and translate it into what you can do in your daily life to be at your peak more consistently. (If you have one you'd like me to explore, send it over in an email!)

First up...

Alex Honnold is known as the best free climber in the world. His most famous feat to date is scaling El Capitan, a 3000-foot rock face that is nearly completely vertical - without a rope. He documents his journey in the acclaimed and anxiety-provoking documentary Free Solo.

Interspersed with the story about his budding relationship, the documentary is a masterclass in what it means to prepare for the most important performance of your life. By the time Alex starts climbing, the viewer's anxiety is at an all-time high, yet Alex himself is remarkably calm for someone risking his life. Great preparation leads to unshakeable confidence.

Here are some of the benefits that come as a result of Alex's incredible preparation:

In two previous posts, I detailed the components of effective preparation - psychological training and physical training.

In the non-sport environment, too many people leave their performance up to chance. Because we're so busy, preparation is often the first thing to go (or sleep, which is also problematic). As a result, we're less confident in ourselves and what we can do, and we leave too much of our performance up to chance. This doesn't necessarily we mean we won't perform well, but we may not perform our best.

Here's a closer look at what makes Alex's preparation so special and how he leverages both components of great training to achieve peak performance.

#1: Clear Goal

Alex begins his training plan with a clear goal - to free solo El Cap. This goal works for several reasons.

The first is that it’s a high, hard goal. It extends him beyond his current comfort zone, which means that the training he does is likely to be in the sweet spot for skill acquisition known as "desirable difficulty." This training zone, just on the edge of our current capabilities, is the place where we're likely to fail regularly, learn quickly, and exert enough energy to make that learning sticky.

The second is that this goal is motivating. Motivating goals allow us to stick to the mundane repetition necessary for elite performance and turn the boring into fun. Because he cares about accomplishing his goals, doing the things that are challenging or unappealing are seen as part of the process of becoming the climber he wants to become, rather than an obstacle to overcome.

The third is pragmatic in that it dictates what his training should look like (more on that in a second). If you don't have a goal, the rest of the preparation is unlikely to be maximized.

Finally, having clear goals alone elevates performance. A remarkable number of performers don't set goals at all, and the simple act of writing our goals down has a notable effect on our ability to achieve what we want. Here's a deep dive into all the benefits of setting goals as it pertains to peak performance.

If you want to elevate your own preparation, setting a goal is a simple, effective starting point. You can use a SMART goal framework if you'd like, but it's not necessary. The most important part of setting a goal is that making meaningful progress toward it will be motivating to you and that it aligns with what you value and what you hope to accomplish.

#2: Training Plan

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." - Alan de Saint-Exupery

I'm not sure who Alan is, but he's right. The goal is the framework through which the rest of the strategy (read: plan) can be put into place. It dictates where we're headed, but the plan is how we get there.

You can see Alex's plan come to life throughout the documentary. He is meticulous about what he eats not because he's picky, but because that's part of the plan. He does extra pull-ups after a climb not because he needs to do extra work or punish himself (not usually a good approach), but because it's part of the plan. He climbs the same path every day, mastering each hold at each step because it's part of the plan.

The plan creates a sense of predictability and certainty, which boosts confidence. The farther he gets on the plan, the more he's mastered. The more he's mastered, the better the odds of his success.

It may seem silly, but creating a training plan for your performances can generate greater comfort heading into your biggest moments.

Suppose you've got a big pitch to a VC fund coming up.

If you want to do your best in front of the audience that impacts your business's viability, it'll be helpful to have a plan for your preparation so that you can know you're on the right track. It's kind of like having an outline for your pitch deck. Taking the time to color in the map to the outcome you want gives you greater clarity on what really goes into making it happen.

#3: Repetition

Learning a new skill is challenging, and at the early stages, there's no substitution for just repping it out. In the documentary, we watch Alex climb the same path - over, and over, and over again. Part of this is his strategy for identifying the optimal route for climbing El Cap. Part of it is him rehearsing repeatedly and encoding the skills he needs to execute into his mind so he can perform them more effortlessly.

Repetition builds a model of the baseline execution of the skill in our minds. It's the path toward what psychologists and performance experts call automaticity, or the ability to perform rote skills without thinking. This level of training and automaticity helps minimize the energy he spends in the performance on tasks that don't require a deep level of detail and maximizes his energy availability for the tricky parts. 

There's a fine line to walk here, though. After spending over a decade in elite sports, I'm confident that repetition is the one part of training that's drastically overused in an effort to make things automatic. In the performance itself, the conditions will rarely mimic what they are when we're engaged in repetitive practice. If they were the same, the best shooters in the NBA would make closer to 80% of their shots than 35%. 

The risk is that people spend too much time "repping it out" because it feels good to see yourself succeed and it feels like making progress. Repetition can create the illusion of valuable practice. 

The way around this is to dedicate the early part of your plan to repetitive practice, and then to come up with clear signs that you've mastered the skill and are ready to go to the next phase. Once you've hit that level of mastery, move forward and continue to challenge yourself. You don't need to spend as much time repeating the same task over and over and over once you're doing it right regularly.

For the everyday high-performer, it can be a bit boring to go through repetitive training. If that's the case, find ways to turn the repetition into a game. Consider keeping a count of your streaks and seeing how long you can keep them alive. In the training, focus on the basic skills that make up the heart of your big moment.

#4: Variation

Once you've got the basic skills down, it's time to start introducing some novelty. This is really where you can begin to leverage the power of the desirable difficulty to increase the stickiness of the learning. The first way we do that is by introducing variation.

In the documentary, we watch Alex climb parts of the mountain under varying conditions. At times he brings more weight, at times less. Sometimes he's gone for a short burst, and other times he stays out for hours. Sometimes he tries the same part of the route on consecutive days, which leads to subtle differences in reps because the conditions have changed.

This variation in his training enriches his mental model of the performance task. The richer his model, the more possible permutations he can account for on the day of the climb. And, since the brain is a predictive machine, the deeper the model, the better the predictions. Variation enables the mind to issue the most accurate predictions under the current conditions.

Variation also trains the mind and body to deal with less-than-optimal circumstances. As we get closer to the final climb in the documentary, there are days when Alex is considering whether or not it's worth it to try and summit. Because he's practiced with variation, he has a better sense of what's truly possible and what's off limits, and how he'd deal with it.

Variation also allows him to build in subtle variations of the skills he's developed, so he's not a one-trick pony on the face of the wall.

When I work with high performers outside of the sports world, one of the first things I have them do is introduce some variation into their preparation. Recently, when I was helping a friend prep for a big round of fundraising pitches, we talked about practicing the pitch with greater variation: on an incline on a treadmill, out in nature, in front of friends.

He took it to another level and ended up actually practicing the pitch to his friends in a grocery store (wouldn't have ever thought of that one). But, by the time he got on stage, it was easy - because he'd worked through the pitch under some strange circumstances, his model could account for delivering the pitch under pressure. 

You can apply the same principle to your work. If you're working on maintaining your cool under stress, put yourself under stress in varying conditions and practice keeping your composure. If you want to have a tough conversation with your boss or an employee, try the talk with several friends in different environments. The end result will be a greater ability to deliver when the time is right.

#5: Representativeness

There's no substitution for gameplay in sports. But, since the game only happens so often, we've got to find other ways to make the practice valuable. 

That's where representativeness comes in. Representativeness is the degree to which practice looks like the performance.

For Honnold, he has the perfect setting for representativeness. He's practicing on the actual mountain. Although he breaks it up into bits and pieces, by the time he goes climbing, he'll have scaled different parts of the mountain repeatedly. His training has a high degree of representativeness.

He could've leveraged the other 2 principles by going to a smaller mountain, a rock gym, or finding other ways to execute the movements. But, none of that would've been close to as valuable as getting to practice on the real thing. This is part of the reason that "see one, do one, teach one" has stuck around as a mantra for medical training. Do one is maximally representative, even if it's in a training scenario.

We can all try to make our practice more representative. We often avoid asking for chances to practice to save face, but if you want to get good at having difficult conversations with your boss, there's no better way to practice than to role-play having a difficult conversation, with your boss. These reps are invaluable and best practiced when there's no real performance that's coming up so that you can feel free in the practice.

#6: Performance Journaling

In one part of the documentary, we get a quick snapshot of Alex after a training session. He has a notebook open. In it, he's written EVERY SINGLE MOVE he's tried in training for El Cap. If you've watched Full Swing on Netflix, you'll see the same thing from an elite golfer there. 

I'm not saying you need that level of detail in your performance journal, but it can't hurt. 

This level of specificity enables the self-regulated learning process to take full effect. 

Reflection - in this case, via performance journaling - is what best helps us maximize and consolidate our learning. Journaling is an act of encoding the practice in memory and storing it for when the performance comes. Though it may seem a bit over the top, over the top is what's required if you want to be the best at what you do.

By writing down what's gone on in training, you get a much clearer picture of your current strengths and skill gaps. You get to see, on paper, what's working, what needs to change, and where the learning is taking place. As a result, you can add some fine print and nuance to your plan, and make sure you're filling in the gaps as you go.

With the high performers I coach, I recommend a simple, 3-step performance journaling process that I learned from a talented colleague who works with Seal Team 6:

  • Step 1: What did I do today that I want to keep doing?

  • Step 2: What did I do today that I want to do differently?

  • Step 3: What did I learn?

These 3 steps leverage the power of nonjudgemental language to become a scientist about your own performance.

The power of the performance journal is that it helps you iterate and evolve.

#7: Consistency

The entire documentary is basically composed of Alex practicing. This level of discipline and consistency is remarkable. Importantly, he's also consistent in his rest and recovery. He's not just "grinding it out". He's intelligently consistent.

This ratio of time spent in preparation vs. performing is also telling. For someone to execute such a daring feat with perfect precision, the practice beforehand has to be consistent and significantly outweigh the time spent in performance. 

If you want to work toward high performance, there's no substitute for consistency in your preparation. In spaces outside of sport, it can feel like we're always performing - but one of the things I coach my high performers on is identifying when, within their workday or normal lives, they could engage in "practice." These are situations when the stakes are lower and you can try something new. Almost everyone I work with can find those times and immediately begins figuring out how to test a new skill and iterate.

If you can do this consistently, whatever skill you're working on - public speaking, leadership, self-advocacy - is likely to get better. 

There's no substitute for preparation, and there are ways to prepare that makes it maximally valuable. If you want to be able to do something incredible, there's no way around practice and mental preparation. Our tendency to minimize the focus on preparation and pay more attention to the performance itself misleads us to think that the only thing that matters is when the lights come on. Though the performance itself is how we get measured, much of that is predetermined.

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