How to Become a Better Athlete – A Geek’s Story

I suck at sports. I want to be good at them, but I don’t have any talent, so I’ve avoided sports most of my life. It wasn’t until I was over thirty that I learned a technique I could use to improve my athletic performance.

This poor performance led to a lack of interest in athletics, which made the problem worse because I didn’t practice. While practice is important, I failed to realize a far more important component of improvement.

While playing football as child, I was amazed watching other kids do ‘spin moves’ at precisely the right moment. So I analyzed what they were doing. I tried to understand the exact moment that I needed to execute a ‘spin move’ for maximum effect. I’d watch the good athletes do a ‘deke’ – the move where you fake cutting in one direction and actually move in the other direction. I tried my own ‘dekes’ but it never worked. I imagined that these ‘good athletes’ were consciously thinking about their next move. I figured I was faking too soon or too late, so I tried to plan my timing, making the ‘deke’ earlier or later. But my detailed analysis of distance and timing made no difference. No one fell for my ‘dekes’, and I ended up on my ass.

My entire life I have wanted to play golf well enough to avoid embarrassment. I tried the game several times between the ages of 10 and 30 and it was an infuriating miserable experience. Sometimes I’d completely miss the ball, and when the ball was off the tee and in the grass the result were even worse. Every shot was fat (into the dirt) or thin (hitting the top of the ball or missing entirely). I scored over 10 on every hole, so I avoided the golf course. It’s sad – because today I find golf one of the most enjoyable pastimes in life. If only I would have known a few things earlier. Did people try to teach me the secret earlier in life and I wasn’t listening? They probably did but I wasn’t ready.

The inspiration for this post came when my wife returned from swim school with my 4-year-old son. My son is a lot like me, he isn’t very coordinated. He spends a lot of time inside his head, analyzing things. He obsesses over something until he understands every detail. Lately it’s been numbers – he wants to know exactly how many minutes and seconds are in a day. He wants to know what number comes after an octillion. When I ask him to play catch, he refuses and instead chooses to draw complex maps of imaginary worlds on our driveway in sidewalk chalk. He won’t ride his trike, his bike, play hockey, or swing a bat. I never push him, but I try to encourage him to be active. I play sports with his little brother and the other kids in the neighborhood while he is near by hoping he’ll ask to join us, but he rarely shows interest.

He takes swimming lessons because I insist on some physical activity. While he says that he likes swim school, he’s always tight and tense while swimming. He doesn’t appear to be afraid, but his muscles are always flexed. His elbows and knees are bent and he moves in a rapid thrashing uncontrolled style. Christine took him to his last lesson, and she noticed his tension and his struggle with the basics. Later, she looked up from her book and noticed that he was relaxed and swimming perfectly. What had changed? During his exercises his swim teacher began speaking Spanish to him and he was replying in Spanish (which he is learning in Montessori), and now he was relaxed and performing with ease. He couldn’t perform while he focused on swimming. He could only perform when he wasn’t thinking about swimming. He had to let go and stop trying. The key to improved performance was letting go mentally. He already knew what to do, he just had to get out of the way and let his body perform. I have no idea what goes through a good athlete’s mind while performing, but like my son, to perform better athletically I must stop trying and simply let myself perform the action with little or no thought.

I took up golf again when I was 32. I had two goals – to play well enough to enjoy the game, and to break 100. I visited golf coach Craig Teiken. He isn’t a golf-pro at a fancy country club. He doesn’t have a bunch of cameras and computers to analyze my mechanics. Craig is my age – 37, but approaches instruction like the great golf coaches of the past. Craig is living his dream and it shows. This helped me think differently. He didn’t videotape my swing and give me a bunch technical reasons why I struggled. Craig believes in the traditions of the game and teaches it in a way that made me feel comfortable because he always emphasizes the positive.

He told me to take out an 8 iron and hit 50 balls off the grass. Sometimes I’d slam the club into the grass and dirt would splatter into my face and other times I’d completely miss the ball. Not a single shot felt good. Each shot was painful.

After he watched me hit those balls (if that’s what you want to call it) he brought me back to the clubhouse, handed me a 50-year-old book and asked me to read a story. It was about a professional golfer in the 1920s that had a lot of talent but couldn’t win the big tournament, so he visited Ernest Jones. Ernest Jones taught him one simple thought – swing the clubhead – and it changed his game forever.

The most amazing thing about the game, is the fact that the poorest players are the ones who try to do the most. – Ernest Jones

After reading Ernest Jones’ thoughts, we went back to the range. Craig said, “Now clear your mind and swing the clubhead.” I hit almost every shot 150 yards with a perfect arc. What changed? Only my thoughts! Craig stood behind me laughing as each shot popped into the air.

Today I find golf quite enjoyable. So enjoyable I can even play it sober. And last year I broke 100. Today I approach each shot the same way. I do ALL my thinking before I swing the club. I size my situation, the distance to the hole, any hazards or risks, decide the direction of the shot, and choose a club to use. Then with my club in hand, I stand behind the ball and visualize the exact result that I desire. But once I take my stance and grip the club I try to clear my mind of all thoughts… like I am meditating, and once my mind is empty of thought, I swing the clubhead. More often than not, I hit a decent shot. Using this technique, I was able to break 100, on a regulation 18 holes, with no mulligans carrying only a Putter, Wedge, 8 Iron, and a 5 wood.

A lot of us geeks aren’t born with athletic bodies so we struggle with sports. But a bigger problem is that many of us are constantly thinking about details. This focus on detail serves us well in academics and technology, but it doesn’t serve us well in athletic areas.

This story brought an old book that my boss recommended to mind, The Inner Game of Tennis and I found this review on Amazon.

This book has had a very positive impact on my life. I have suffered with concentration problems for all my life and was recently diagnosed with ADD. I was always told at school that i was intelligent but didnt “try hard enough” and thats why I was failing. But funnily enough trying hard seemed to make things worse for me. My difficulties have led me to being fired from several jobs due to lapses of attention. After reading this book I have been putting the ideas into practice through the medium of chess (I am an expert level player) and have noticed an improved abiltity to focus my mind. I hope now to move forward in life and repair my shatterd self esteem and gain confidence to take on new challenges.

Many ‘gifted and talented’ children and adults are diagnosed with ADD. If you are one of them or suspect you may be one of them, I highly recommend this book. It may change your life.

Remember that much of athletic performance is instinctual and geeks tend to think they are intelligent, reasonable, and logical, but never instinctual – we are above all that. But don’t worry, there is still hope if you want to perform athletically. Just because you know the 300,000 year history of the planet Alderran and can understand Klingons without subtitles doesn’t mean you’ve lost all primal instinct… you still like sex… right?

33 thoughts on “How to Become a Better Athlete – A Geek’s Story”

  1. I’m also a (former?) geek who learned this lesson too slowly. The books that finally made it click for me were The Inner Game of Tennis but also Basketball FundaMENTALS. The latter book, like the former, is not limited to the sport in question.

  2. Interesting quotes I have come across:

    “Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing basketball, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance–for instance being able to keep up with peers or passing a driver’s exam–most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.”

    “Success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen one’s motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better.”

  3. The reason that dekes (or any other acquiered skill) look effortless is because they are practiced over and over again until the “muscle memory ” is set and the technique becomes instinctual. Not because you never focus on details.

    If you don’t care about slow progress, by all means, never focus on details–this isn’t *bad*, it’s just inefficient. The most efficient way to progress is to balance details vs. repetition: “Practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect.”

  4. It’s ok to suck at sports. It’s OK not to be as good as the other guy. You can be the best athlete in the world at one thing (Hi, Michael Jordan) and be rather inept at another (Hi, Michael Jordan).

    Geeks, and plenty of non-geeks, may only be good at one or two things in a given sport. Otherwise, we’d all be professional athletes. For me, I learned that I could do a few things on the basketball court well, and a few things terribly. So, I did my best to stick to those few things – and that worked well. I had fun, I helped my team, and I didn’t look ridiculous trying to do something I couldn’t. And the point of this is that – like discussed in this post – the things I did well, I could do without thinking. I just did them. Didn’t have to think. Overthinking = death in sports. As you commented, do all your thinking beforehand, not during.

  5. Interesting theory, i can see the logic the behind it. i’m interested too on a personal level as my son has been doing Taekwondo for the last 18 months and is wowing his peers and instructors, and is doing extremely well in competitions, so anything that might give him even more of an edge could be useful.

    Now, getting to the last..i wonder how this could be applied to something as fast moving as martial art sparring matches, or any combat sport, as the person has to be thinking quickly all the time and concious of what he’s doing and doesn’t have the luxury to meditate during the activity.

    i’m not dismissing it, btw, more interested in seeing if and how it could be employed in such a situation.

  6. Who cares? Seriously, it is OK to be a bad athlete. It is OK to be bad at sports. Why do you feel you have to improve?

    Trust me, stay the way you are. It’s fine.

  7. John Quays,
    If your son is excelling, he probably is already performing without thinking… but who knows. Whenever I have fought, the moment I start to consciously think, is the moment I get hit. If you want to fight, you’d better have good instinct and well trained muscles. Think before you do, do not think while you do.

    Does that help?

  8. I am usually pretty good with sports and physical activities, but a while back I read this book about the mental aspects of playing billiards and it seems to have helped me.

    Pleasures in Small Motions: Mastering Billiards

    It approaches pool from a cognitive direction and has helped me understand what goes on mentally while shooting pool. Most of the material can easily be applied to any sport where you must try to make precise results happen through repetitive mechanics. It goes over what you are saying above about detaching thoughts, only in a much less random approach.

    Basically, the author states that you can only reasonably concentrate on a few things at a time. So most of the motions you are making need to be left up to your subconscious and it’s during practice sessions that you cognitively concentrate on those bits. When you go to take a non-practice shot, you focus on only the few things that need your immediate attention for that particular shot.

  9. @Quays
    Hey, just make sure your son practices a lot. I’m a wrestler (not very good, but I’ve learned a lot), and it seems that, in contact sports like that, you don’t have time to think about anything but broad actions(okay, I’m going shoot; okay I’m going to try and cradle him), so, like people already said, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE until you only have to think of the broader actions to go through the whole thing automatically. You’re not devoid of thought, but you also don’t have to focus on technique.

  10. This reminds me of an article by Malcolm Gladwell called “The Art of Failure.” I read it a while back, so the details are a bit hazy, but the core point is very similar. What’s interesting here is that Gladwell looks at it from the opposite perspective – why top-level athletes sometimes “choke” – and the conclusion is that it’s for the same reason you mention: thinking too much.

    Here is a link to the article:

  11. I have been doing Judo for more than 15 years. I have taught a lot of people. Some with natural talent, most without. The only thing I try and get into their head is if they are having fun and practice often, they will do well. I have seen a lot of people with athletic gifts quit because they didn’t win regularly (as they are used to) and the people who come out for fun suddenly seem to become excellent players.
    A big contradiction in most fighting sports is you have to be relaxed to perform well. People who have natural talent who don’t start winning often get frustrated and their ability drops, which makes it worse.
    When I fight now I tend to be thinking about how he moves and not thinking about myself at all, I don’t get frustrated and I have a lot of fun.

  12. same thing goes for olympic style archery. its nearly impossible to hit the center of the target if you actually try since the sight you use to aim is always bouncing around. the act of drawing and releasing without ‘trying’ is the simplest model i know for practicing the ‘not trying’ thing. its esp cool because you do really well when you basically ignore the target and the sight window.

    once i figured this out i realized that the part of my brain that handles coordination etc isn’t part of the ‘me’ that does stuff like complex math.


    (the foregoing in no way advocates the targeting of squirrels etc)

  13. I was glad to see Dave Newton mention muscle memory. This is powerful. He’s also right when he says Perfect Practice Makes Perfect. I am a certified pistol instructor. and it is absolutely CRUCIAL that I help my students understand and absorb every detail of proper shooting technique, from stance, to grip, to using the gun sights to trigger control.

    Accurate shooting is mechanical. You WILL hit the bullseye every time IF each element is present and done well. If ONE of the elements is off, the shots will not end up where you want them to go. Slowly drilling each aspect into the shooter’s mind is important so they can create proper muscle memory is key. Otherwise, the repetition only creates bad habits, which prevent the shooter from ever getting better.

  14. Steve, great insight!

    John Quays: from the viewpoint of someone who has been involved in the martial arts at some level for over 20 years, you needn’t worry about your son ‘thinking his way through’. Hours and hours and hours of practicing fundamentals until they become instinctual is where your son will find his reward. In sparring and actual combat, there is no time to think. Everything is done at the level of instinct and reaction, and that is instilled by practice–not only physical practice, but more importantly, mental practice, as Steve has outlined in his post.

  15. Neuroscience backs this idea up. Once you’ve practiced something enough, your body “knows” how to do it, at least in general (muscle memory). Then you practice more and more and your body knows what each muscle is supposed to be doing at a level you can’t consciously mimic. If you start thinking about doing the action and not just doing it, your cerebellum gets involved and tries to consciously move the muscles, which it can’t do as fine-grained. People tend to get into a loop at this point, trying harder and harder to force the muscles to do the right thing, which just takes more control away from the so-called muscle memory. So distracting yourself and getting your conscious mind off the task lets muscle memory take over again.

  16. You always come up with some interesting stuff. As a former professional athlete I know exactly what you’re talking about. My athletic abilities has always been fairly good but not out of this world. It has always been my mental capacity and strength that has brought me success.

    Good athletes know that you perform the best when you’re not thinking about what you’re doing. When you are in the “zone”. To constantly think about what to do, to force things, leads to poor performance. That’s why some people who have extreme talent never succeed. In professional sports it’s so much about psychology and mental strength.

    As you’ve noticed, you don’t have to be a pro athlete to benefit from this kind of thinking. Some have more talent than others but the strategy works across the board.

    Nice weekend


  17. Great comments. I’ll second the gist of the article: You CAN get good at a sport even if you’re older or a geek or whatever. So get out there and find a sport or activity that helps you improve your fitness. The benefits extend to your whole life. Another good book is George Leonard’s _Mastery_.

  18. As a soccer coach, I’ve seen that it can be difficult for children with parents present, because they feel intense pressure to please their peers between the ages of 7-12.

    These are the golden years of learning sport. But the pressure can destroy the enjoyment, which in turn removes the confidence, which then removes the ability to perform well.

    From a golf perspective, what you have done is removed the ball from the swing, which is correct and correctly set your own expectations, which may have been too high previously.

    Most poor golfers try to hit the ball instead of performing the swing. Nick Faldo perfected his swing for over 3 months, without hitting a single ball! Then went on to win the open with a precise consistant swing.

    “Swing it slow and watch it go. Swing to fast, and you’ll come last!”

  19. Apologies,

    “What you have done is removed the ball” should read

    “What you have done is mentally removed the ball” …..

  20. I am also a geed and am really glad you published this. Im 14 years old and each sports season I try a sport, but none ssemed to click. Recently I started analyzing people’s sports technique as I do with many other things.. Your article will change my life because I now relize its not all technique that matters its letting go and changing your mind.

  21. well written article. you should try putting it up on Knols. It is a good lesson. Another lesson or tip is that you should start your sport early. I just finished high school and enjoy playing basketball. I realized i like basketball just like 2yrs ago! I always think that if i was dribbling the ball when i was 4yrs old (like all cinderella-story athletes) i could’ve become something. Should i give up? I don’t know…

  22. Good article. Thanks for posting it! I am currently a Div.I college track athlete but I originally struggled with sports especially track. You have hit the nail on the head with the honest secret to success in athletics. Thinking is good at practice and before competing but once a race starts a clear mind is key. Its hard to clear your mind but necessary. More than meditating, having a one track mind is important. I was taught in high school different tricks for every distance of running. I had a great coach who recognized that I was kind of a head case when it came to athletics so he tried to teach me ways to not over think a race. some techniques: short sprint hold your breath, mid distance concentrate on the girls pony tail in front of you try to keep it at the same distance or get closer till the kick, or if there is no one to pace yourself off of find objects at a distance like a scoreboard and concentrate on getting closer. If you start thinking go faster go faster or marking how far you’ve run so far it doesn’t help. My high school coach said in a pre race talk he use to give, something along the lines of: the mind is weak and the body is strong. If you let the mind decide it will let the feelings of fatigue and pain slow you down but if you can shut out the thoughts for a brief time, the body can take so much more then the mind is willing to give. so shut your thoughts out the best you can and let the body show you how far it can be pushed.
    I think he was right. It worked for me anyway. It goes for all sports that if you over think and tense up there is no way you’re gonna preform well. Glad to see other people agree.

  23. im not a geek, infact im popular, and good with girls, but was never very athletic, thankyou, i will try this, even though im probably not even focusing on the ball in the first place, no wonder i can only pitch and play qb

  24. I’m sorry for you you learned this so late. Good thing you finally learned this though…

    I’ve learned this lesson at around 13 of age, but I do have an athletic body, so I needed both to reach the top

  25. email kind of stupid…
    but this has helped me realize why in sports I’m always getting injured… I see now that I try too hard to impress people and end up hurting myself very badly. Several times i thought of giving up on a sport I enjoy because I lost half my tooth and sprained my ankle but I kept with it because my best friend asked me to and I’m glad I didn’t give up the sports… I’m glad I read this article because I really needed some good advice before my volleyball tryouts I’m very nervous and this helps me… i am going to remember not to try too hard! 🙂

  26. I completely relate. Thanks for writing…

    I’ve always been inept at sports. Thick glasses, small, thin stature. And I overanalyze everything. I can remember just learning how to walk and analyzing the details. Should my toes point in like my mom or straight ahead like my dad?

    Anyway, now at 35 I’ll be competing in my first powerlifting event, and I continue to search for ways to improve my (so called) athleticism.

  27. This has helped me become a better athlete, I am a MEGA nerd in an athletes body, and I always wondered why I sucked at sports. I try my best, get techniques, but no matter what I could never win. So then i would try thinking about songs, or even try speaking French in my head. Now I am an athlete as well as a nerd.

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