The Professor's Take. Peak Performance Review Two.

This is the second of our user-forum crowdsourced reviews of Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness's new book, Peak Performance. Gail Gottfried, PhD, is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA and an avid age-group triathlete. She recently covered the "Evolution of my Bike Fit" for Slowtwitch.

Peak Performance. As reviewed by Gail Gottfried.

Overall, this is an immensely readable book that incorporates a journalistic eye for storytelling that is characteristic of the sports-performance book genre, established bodies of empirical research, and self-help advice. It's compelling and hard to put down, and together these characteristics make it highly marketable to a broad audience. However, readability sometimes comes at the expense of precision, and so there are a handful of things that the Slowtwitch crowd will gleefully pick apart.

Most of the main ideas will resonate with Slowtwitchers, especially the idea of reducing decision fatigue through routine and minimalism. How many times have Forum users posted that "American Triathlete (insert preferred 'disappointing' example here) will never win at Kona because he spends too much time with family/won't travel to race in Europe/just doesn't want it bad enough/is exploring plant-based diets even though he wins while eating meat/etc."? At the same time, the advice to automate things such as what to wear, what to eat, when to complete daily activities, and whether to attend social gatherings seems pretty unrealistic for most of us, especially people who get fulfillment out of spending time with spouses and children, planning clothing and meals, attending social gatherings, and posting stupid stuff on Internet forums. Nevertheless, most readers can probably figure out which pieces of advice are most applicable to their own lives, without feeling destined to suck at life because they are not completely automatized.

Smart authors write smart books, and this is definitely a smart book, so where the authors fall off the rails a bit, they are going to take some heat from the overeducated segment of their readership. At the most trivial level, the ST "language police" will be quick to point out that "data" and "criteria" are both plural and so take "are" rather than "is," and "biceps" isn't necessarily plural and is typically preferred over "bicep." Recent Lavender Room discussion also suggests that people will pitch a fit about the use of PhD or other higher-ed-degree-related initials after names. One example: "Michael Joyner, MD, a physician and researcher at the prestigious Mayo Clinic... distinguished investigator... Fulbright Scholar... an anesthesiologist... an expert in other leading publications..." The "MD" adds nothing to the reader's assessment of this man's qualifications; it's just annoying.

I would also argue that stress and rest are not really "paradoxes"; they are better described as a response and a behavior that each exist on a continuum. Challenge is good, but "struggle" is an overstatement; motivation is not an emotion; "perfect practice" is typically (mis)understood to mean "you must be perfect WHEN you practice" if you want to be perfect when you perform, when what the authors mean is that you must be "deliberate IN your practice" so that you can learn from your mistakes. And something that truly makes me cringe - the mind is not "a muscle." You do not have "mental muscles," a "mindful muscle," "cognitive and emotional muscles," or any other "muscles" that are not actual physical structures in the body. What's wrong with just saying "you can exercise mindfulness" or "you develop cognitive and emotional skill"?

My guess is that Brad and Steve would respond with "do those tiny issues really take away from the message of the book?" This is largely because after I finished the book and outlined my own thoughts, I read the first few reviews posted on Amazon and found that I wasn't the only one who noticed that the authors' brief mention of the Common Core standards (on p. 44) wasn't quite accurate, or necessary. Steve's response to that review ("I'd have you ask the question whether two paragraphs that were reporting (not research), dampens the impact of the other 239 pages of the book. I appreciate that you have some concerns over Common Core, which is a hot-button argument, but this book does not in any way dive into them.") is totally reasonable, but a good editor should have told the authors to replace this "hot-button" topic that is not the best example, and in fact is not in any way necessary, to illustrate their argument, especially in the early part of the book. It's a whole lot easier to hear the message when you're not distracted by the silly stuff.

Good CONTENT editors, however, are hard to come by (another topic hashed out not that long ago on ST), and as an editor myself in this content area, I spent a lot of time on the research the authors presented, all of which was from well-known and well-cited scholars, many of whom I've met over the years. I loved that they included no footnotes but instead a section of source notes with full references at the end. In some cases I thought the researchers used the wrong research to support their points effectively, most notably right off the bat with the discussion of Baumeister's "elegantly designed experiment" (p. 34) on "ego-depletion" with participants "prohibited" from eating chocolate-chip cookies. I have read the study; I don't think it's "elegantly designed," but that's a topic I leave for my undergraduate research methods class. Although it's absolutely true that the original study is well known (Google Scholar says 3935 citations as of today), Steve and Brad don't acknowledge that the idea of ego-depletion is presently under fire from a vocal component of the psychology research community, and they don't seem to consider alternative explanations related to motivation and attention (even those written by Baumeister and colleagues). Intriguingly, in later chapters of the book they discuss several other studies and theories about motivation and attention that could well explain why people who are told not to eat a great-smelling bowl of cookies would quit at a frustrating task that has no apparent reward, but with no link back to the idea of ego-depletion and nary a mention of cookies. For me, it's disappointing to see simple, highly readable explanations that aren't quite accurate and aren't telling the whole story. For others who aren't so steeped in this research area, it's probably not much of a problem. I get it - this is a trade book, not a scholarly debate. Again, it doesn't really dampen the message, because the overall combination of stories, theories, and basic principles hits on a lot of common sense.

That said, although I thought the overall message was perfect, it wasn't perfectly practiced. In fact, I think the entire book is outlined backwards. Ultimately, according to the authors, if you want to achieve peak performance, you need to a) identify a purpose (section 3), b) organize a schedule (section 2) with the proper balance of stress (from moderately challenging tasks that move you toward that purpose) and rest (section 1), and c) engage in deliberate practice while engaging in those tasks (section 1), stepping up the challenge as you perform better. You also need to believe that effort pays off (i.e., mindset, Chapter 3) - probably before you even identify your purpose; otherwise, why bother?

So, it's been about a week since I finished reading, and I'm still thinking about it. All of it - the ideas, the research base, the instructions for developing a purpose, and how it fits into my own life. That's the sign of a good book. And now that I'm done with this review, I'm going to make chocolate-chip cookies, not because my ego is in any way depleted or because I have run out of willpower, but because it's time for a "smart break."