The 80% Edge

What do you do when you need to perform and you're not at peak?

Posted May 13, 2017

Taking a Break/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Taking a Break/Wikimedia Commons

Let’s say you’re ill or injured. You’re not going to be able to perform at your best. You can’t give 100%. For sure, you can’t give 110% (see below). But what if you gave 100% of your 80%?

Let me give you an example:

Nora, as I’ll call her, is a professional singer. She’s been plagued by recurring colds, flus, sniffles—anything and everything that’s gone around. Mostly, her vocal cords haven’t been affected—so she’s been able to produce adequate sound.

But she’s definitely been affected in other ways. Exhausted much of the time. Distracted by not feeling well. Her regular exercise routine disrupted. And of course thrown off by thoughts of “What if I never get really well again?” and “I’m the only one who…” and “Does my manager/agent/coach/colleague [you name it] think I’m just faking it by claiming to be sick all the time?”

It can become a vicious cycle.

Nora knows that much of the time, she’s only functioning at about 80% capacity. And she knows enough about her voice—and body—that when she tries to act as if she has 100% to give, it compounds her problem: she over-sings, producing a harsh sound unlike her usual lyrical warmth. Then she feels even more debilitated. It’s like using up the gas in your car when the gas signal clearly says that your “car” is in the red (empty) zone. You can’t borrow what’s not there.

At a conference a few years ago, Dr. Colleen Hacker, sport psychology professor, mental skills coach, and performance enhancement specialist extraordinaire, used a phrase that has really stuck with me: If you can’t perform optimally—if you’re at 80% of your capacity—give 100% of your 80%.

Dr. Hacker in turn came up with this phrase from another phenom: Dr. Ken Ravizza. Known especially for his work in baseball (see for example his newly revised Heads Up Baseball), he brings the issue down to each specific moment: “Give 100% of what you’ve got to win the next pitch.”

Dr. Hacker commented to me recently:

“He [Ken Ravizza] talked about how crazy it is to suggest that sport psychology or mental performance consultants can ‘get people into the zone.’ The important thing is to help them perform ANYWAY, to face their fears and imperfections. We rarely are in the zone (whatever the heck that is). Most of the time we have to manage our “less than best selves.”

Expanding on Ravizza’s realistic assessment of how human beings actually perform, Hacker then described the idea of performing at “100% of your 80%”:

“in my own 30 years of consulting, I have found that maybe 1-3 times in a lifetime are we truly at our best (100%). Champions learn how to mount, manage and maximize ALL (100%) of their available resources. Rather than needing and requiring themselves to have everything 100% great, they have confidence in their ability to maximize 100% of their 80% game.”

Whether ill or injured, if we expect ourselves to perform 100% of our 100% at all times, we’ll be sorely disappointed.

And the catch-phrase of “110%”...Well, it sounds like it means something—that you’re going all out—but really, if it means anything (which I doubt), it means that you’re not staying within what you know about you at this particular moment.

Recently, as director of the Psyching Team for the Toronto Marathon, I chatted with a young man I’ll call Nick who was looking for advice on the next day’s race. He was going to run the 5K race, considerably less than the marathon (which is 42 kilometers, if you’re counting kilometers, or 26.2 miles). It’s pretty unusual for a 5K runner to ask the Psyching Team for advice at this race. But he had deliberately separated himself from his good friends who were gearing up to run the full marathon the next day. He had come over to chat with us at the “Mind over Marathon” booth. He had run many races before, both half marathons and marathons.

This 5K was different, though: right now, he was recovering from a concussion. In fact, just, two days prior, he had been medically cleared to start running again. (Did he happen to mention to his physician that he was interpreting this green light to mean that he could run a full 5 kilometers at this point? I doubt it.) He wasn’t going to be dissuaded from running this race, but he did need help letting go, at least for this race, of his former racing self. He was perhaps at 50% of his best functioning. And so we talked with him about two things:

  • Making an accurate assessment of how much of his best (100% performing) self he currently had available;
  • Then to run, at most, 100% of that current performing self;

And maybe some of the race would involve walking, weird as it might seem to him as an accomplished runner for whom 5K was usually just a warm-up.

I typically invite people to come up with their own affirmations when I give them a piece of finish line ribbon. With Nick, I suggested he touch the ribbon frequently, to remind himself: “Listen to your body.”

As my wonderfully pragmatic colleagues point out, whether talking about singing or baseball or running, our performing selves are often not at peak—no matter what we wish and intend. So how do we acknowledge our current capacity—and then do our very best to perform at 100% of what we have to give?!

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