What Athletes Can Learn from George Costanza
Sometimes doing the opposite works best—the "Constanza Effect."
Posted Feb 05, 2019
For you to become the best athlete you can be, you have to be darned serious about their sport. You must be motivated, intense, focused, and give your best effort every time you train and compete. You have to put in the time in the gym, watch a lot of video, keep your equipment in good shape, eat well, get plenty of rest, and keep up with your schoolwork.
The problem is that this dedicated approach will only get you so far toward being the best athlete you can be. Let me explain. The above describes pretty much every professional, Olympic, and top junior I work with. They have experienced considerable success because of how thoroughly they have committed themselves their sport. Yet, for many that I work with, they get to a point in their sport in which they feel stuck. They aren’t sliding backwards in any way, but they can’t seem to take the next step in their development. So, they come to me looking for ways to break free of their current inertia and continue their upward trajectory.
For some athletes, all they need is a better understanding of what their ideal mental state is on game day. Their mental “muscles,” such as intensity, focus, and mindset, just need to be strengthened to ensure that they are strong and ready to be flexed when they enter the competitive arena.
For other athletes, they just need some fine tuning to their minds with the use of mental tools such as self-talk, imagery, routines, and breathing. In both cases, I help them to figure out what works best for them mentally and how to do what works best for them every competition.
But for still other athletes, “doing” more won’t help them get where they want to go. When these athletes come to me, I don’t do the usual mental training stuff that, assuming you read my articles, you are all quite familiar with. To get these athletes unstuck, I take a very different approach that usually goes against everything that these incredibly dedicated athletes believe. I call it the “Costanza Effect.”
If you were a Seinfeld fan from back in the day, you are familiar with George Costanza, the show’s hapless, irritating, yet endearing, loser who couldn’t get the job, the girl, or anything that he wanted. Until, in one episode, he decided to do the exact opposite of every urge that drove him down the road toward failure and loneliness. And guess what? By being the “anti-George,” he not only got his dream job with the New York Yankees, but also found a woman who loved him.
Now, you’re probably wondering what the heck George Costanza has to do with sports. Well, unlike George, many committed athletes have found substantial success. But, like George, what they’ve been doing has not allowed them to get where they want to go. The fact is that the extreme devotion they have to their sport has begun to act like a 50-pound weight vest that they don before they compete; it weighs them down with:
- Trying to perform with their heads rather than their bodies
- Outcome focus
- Comparison with others
- Concern for past and future results
- Perform cautiously and tentatively
- Competing not to lose.
- No longer finding love, fun, and joy in their sport
Clearly not a list that will bring success or happiness to any athlete. But a list, nonetheless, that is difficult to replace in athletes who are so determined to be their best.
Then, one day, I was talking to one of the Olympians I work with and he said something that I thought was truly revelatory, “I wish I could go back to playing the way I did when I was 10 years old,” and that also fit nicely with the Costanzian Way of Living Inversely.
Consider how vastly different “play like a kid” is to the list above:
- In the moment
- Immersed in the process
- Feeling it
- Clear mind
- Nothing to lose
- Bring it on
- All about love, fun, and joy in their sport
Now that is a feel-good, play-well list if ever I saw one.
I’m not saying that, if you are getting too serious about your sport, to abandon everything that got you to that point. I’m not suggesting that you stay out late, eat junk food, stop working out, or skip practice. That practical level of dedication is necessary for athletic success. But, it is also not sufficient for athletic success. To get you to the next level, you must do something else, something different, something that is absolutely counterintuitive to being a committed athlete. In other words, be George Costanza. Do the opposite of what every cell in your mind and body is telling you to do. Play like a kid!
Once you do everything your dedicated self tells you to do to get ready to perform your best, go back to when you were a kid, when nothing mattered except having fun with your buddies. When there was no doubt, worry, stress, or pressure. When you lived by one simple creed: Go big or go home!
So, when you’re about to begin your next competition, do the opposite of what you might normally do. Close your eyes and reconnect with that younger you. Think what you thought when you were a kid. Feel what you felt before your sport started to “matter”—happy, free, light. Then, open your eyes, take a few deep breaths, smile, and just, well, play like a kid!
And make George (and yourself) proud.